One Friday morning, as I exited my anatomy class, a tall brunette with a black backpack nudged me and asked, “Wait, you listen to The Moth?” I was taken aback because I was in fact listening to an episode of “The Moth Radio Hour” podcast. “The Moth” was founded in 1997 by novelist George Dawes Green, “who wanted to recreate in New York the feeling of sultry summer evenings in his native Georgia, when moths were attracted to the light on the porch where he and his friends would gather to spin spellbinding tales.” “The Moth” holds a variety of events from “StorySLAMs,” an open-mic setting where any attendees can tell a story in front of a small audience, to the “Mainstage,” where tellers spend time with producers from “The Moth” to develop their stories and curate them for a large audience. The podcast features selected stories recorded at those events with commentary from the hosts as well as behind-the-scenes details.
That day, The Moth’s logo was visible on my phone — sparking a conversation between us about “The Moth,” our love for stories and why storytelling is so important to us. We spoke about our favorite episodes and shared more podcast recommendations with each other. She loved the Ed Gavagan episodes, where he speaks about a horrific stabbing accident he went through and its aftermath. I recommended to her my favorites: Moran Cerf’s story in “The Call” and Janna Levin’s “Life on a Möbius Strip.” After that, I would go on to attend different StorySLAMs, become a Hall Of Flame member, even pitch my own story to “The Moth” and continue listening till this day.
I have always been interested in people’s stories and lived experiences. To deal with my culture shock after moving here from Syria, my first steps of acclimating consisted of observing people’s behavior around me and writing about things that seemed different, new and strange to me. I remember one of the first things that puzzled me is how students behaved in the classroom. Nobody stood up when teachers entered the room or when answering a question; instead, my classmates could sit with their legs on the table and talk casually to teachers. That all seemed blatantly disrespectful to me since, just a year before my arrival, I had been yelled at for sitting cross-legged in class back in Syria. Noting these cultural differences, I became intrigued by how people live their lives, express themselves and interact with each other.
That interest has only grown with me throughout the past nine years. During high school, I took part in the Flexible Scheduling Program at Seaholm High School in Birmingham, Michigan. Instead of learning history from textbooks, we read novels and excerpts, watched documentaries and attended guest lectures by experts in their fields. We often hosted guest speakers who had lived through or were affected by the time periods we were studying. We heard the stories of Native Americans when learning about U.S. history, the stories of author Erna Gorman when learning about the Holocaust, the stories of Polish-Americans about life under communism and completed an exchange program with students in Dearborn, Mich., when learning about the Arab diaspora. Through all these experiences, we learned about the nuances of historical time periods and how they impacted diverse groups of people. The more stories I read and listened to, the more I understood the importance of sharing our personal narratives and listening to those of others. My history education would have been incomplete if I studied from one textbook that told history from a single point of view. Every story I read or listen to allows me to see the world from a different perspective. Instead of perceiving the world solely through my own lived experiences, listening to stories allows me to see even a glimpse of what our world might be like through different eyes, improving my empathy and understanding for others. Knowing how others might be affected by careless actions, these words and events motivate me to carry myself with kindness and show only love to my fellow human beings.
Since our migration, storytelling has been a powerful vehicle that helps my family hold on to our heritage. I try to make sure that I spend time with my grandparents each week, listening to the stories of their upbringing, youth, faith, families, etc. Learning about my family history, where my ancestors came from and how they led their lives is extremely important to me. The more I learn about our history, the more appreciative I am for the strength and sacrifices it took for my siblings and me to be where we are today. One of the people I admire the most is my grandmother, who was the first of her family to attend college. I was inspired by my great grandmother’s fight for her daughter’s education and my grandmother’s persistence through nursing school while being a breadwinner for her family. They encouraged me to challenge societal norms, break away from the boundaries that limit me and pursue greater goals. I have been working on documenting as many of these stories as possible because otherwise, there are no records about my family and their lives.
Most recently, I have discovered podcast as a medium for people to share and listen to stories. One of the most impactful podcast episodes for me is the two–part “Pass the MiC” episode, titled “Immigration.” The episode featured a group of students who each told their own immigrant stories. I was so incredibly touched by what they shared and how much I identified with them. Listening to fellow students speak about their journeys and how they are surviving their hardships gave me so much hope and inspiration for my family and for me. Learning about and appreciating the ways that they have answered those questions themselves helps guide the way that I attempt to answer mine and has enriched my life beyond expression.
Storytelling has played a major role in my life, from helping me acclimate to a new country while learning about my family, enriching my education and reminding me that I am not alone to answer life’s questions. As I settle into my roles as a Michigan in Color columnist and a Pass the MiC producer, I take it upon myself to hold a place for stories. I hope to bring light to their power and touch even one listener or reader. Most recently, I am working on an episode to document the #WeExistcampaign on campus that advocated for a “Middle Eastern and North African” identity box. During the production of the episode, we made sure to interview those who were the most heavily involved in the movement to share their experience. As an Arab on campus, this was a very important piece of history for me to tell, not only to ensure representation of MENA voices but to serve as a piece of archival document for generations to come. I have yet to be able to call the U.S., Michigan and even the University of Michigan home, but one of the first steps to establish that is to make my stories heard and seen.
MiC Columnist Leen Sharba can be contacted at email@example.com