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When I first arrived in San Antonio seven months ago to assume directorship of Gemini Ink, this beloved literary arts center, I was asked a question over and over again that surprised me a little, because I didn’t entirely know how to answer it—or how to answer it in a way that made everyone happy. Apparently a few months before I hit town, a Facebook debate had erupted over whether Gemini Ink was moving away from its mission by focusing on literacy rather than literature.
Wherever I went I was asked, “Do you see Gemini Ink as a literature or literacy organization?” Now, I am well aware of the apparent difference between literature and literacy. In simple terms, I had to answer every time, “Gemini Ink is a literary arts organization.”
That is, we focus on literary events. We present readings by poets, memoirists and novelists. We provide creative writing education. We offer opportunities to engage with literature and literary artists. In non-simple terms — the terms in which we live — I believe deeply that Gemini Ink is materially engaged in promoting and sustaining literacy.
We are not teaching people to read and write as defined in the most narrow technical sense. We don’t teach phonics, how to form letters, how letters form words. We are not even teaching the rules of grammar, what makes a sentence or how to avoid the “dreaded comma splice.”
And yet how can anyone be said to truly read or write without engaging first and foremost with the practice of literature — that is to say with the practice of storytelling?
The critic-philosopher Walter Benjamin in his essay “The Storyteller” attempts to track the evolution from oral story to written literature. He praises the oral tradition for producing stories that almost always have some practical use or function. He divides oral storytellers into two categories: a) those who have travelled in space – the person who has left “home” and returns to share what has been seen and discovered from elsewhere and, b) those who have travelled in time or lived a life and are able to share their wisdom or learned experience.
In “The Storyteller,” Benjamin laments that our modern forms of story—the novel, the short story—often seem to have less essential purpose, depending more on sometimes baroque notions of “value” or “style,” but what he describes as the “roots” of story, for me still hold true.
We read stories to learn how to be human or how to better be in the world, from how to accurately read the people around us to how to bear our burdens with grace or how to deal with conflict. Stories tell us about ways of living and what people have learned by living.
To be literate in literature is to have some access to the wisdom of the past and also some sense of one’s surroundings—the world both here and elsewhere, the larger context of culture, society, the ideas and ideals we live by and how and why they are formed and might change.
To engage with stories and storytelling is to enter a discourse that involves questions of agency and power, questions of self and other, questions that often have no easy answers or many answers. In other words, literature is an essential handmaiden of literacy.
When we speak of being a literate, educated population we are talking about more than the simple capacity to read and write; we are talking about the facility to weigh, judge, criticize, praise, deplore, celebrate, expose, examine, reflect upon and capture all the things of this world—and the ways in which literature engages us with the stuff of the world, all the reasons stories are so essential to us.
We are proud at Gemini Ink to help bring stories and storytellers out into the San Antonio community and to praise and support the storytellers among us—readers and writers of all ages and backgrounds.
For example, the La Voz de San Antonio Spoken Word Contest starts April 4th to honor National Poetry Month. In the belief that poetry comes most alive when spoken out loud, San Antonio’s Poet Laureate Carmen Tafolla invites poets of all ages to participate at one of four community contests. The contests will be held at various cultural centers in town through April 14, with a grand finale on May 3 at Our Lady of the Lake University.
I am often asked what kind of person – writer or reader – Gemini Ink is thinking of when we offer Writers in Communities programs or three semesters of university level master classes in creative writing through our University Without Walls program.
They ask: “Are you an organization that exists only for professional writers?”
One other point Walter Benjamin makes in “The Storyteller,” is that the division of a society into “artists” and “everyone else” is a comparatively recent one.
Benjamin points out that through most human history, the world of the village and township everyone was an artist, everyone did something creative whether it was decorate the cooking pot, embroider the shawl, make a stone wall or build a clay chimney.
While I do believe that writing well is hard work—the work of a lifetime, I also have a strong belief that everyone should write.
Not to become famous or published or make money (which in fact remarkably few writers—even professional writers do all that well) but simply to have the task and privilege of reflection, of exerting their individual voices to capture the texture of lived experience. The poet Basho said once that to write a poem was like “living twice.”
I believe that—and I believe it is better to live twice if you can—once in the moment and once in the act of writing about it.
Sheila Black is executive and artistic director at Gemini Ink, 513 S. Presa. Sheila is a published poet and award-winning author as well as an accomplished leader in non-profit management and development.