Novelist and international affairs specialist Derek B Miller muses on which of his two jobs is the more important – and the role storytelling plays in both.
I was tired and staring listlessly out of the airplane window as I flew back from Somalia to Kenya. I’d been to Hargeisa – Somalia’s second largest city – for work. I’m an international affairs specialist and had been looking at how the UN can learn from local communities, and apply that learning to the design of security and development projects. But I wasn’t thinking about work, I was thinking about the interesting people I’d met, and the stories they’d told me.
In fact, one personal observation I made while undertaking the policy design project was how dependent we all are – across cultures and through time – on telling stories. We certainly do not tell the same stories, or make sense of the world in the same way: The form is universal but the practice and meaning are not. Nevertheless, we all tell them, and this felt consequential.
I am also a novelist. While I was in Somalia, Faber & Faber was gearing up to publish my first novel, Norwegian by Night, in the UK. It is partly a chase-through-the-woods thriller, and partly the story of an old man coming to terms with the tragedies of his life while trying to save a young boy. I’d been asked in interviews whether my writing was taking me away from my seemingly more important “day job”. I’d been wondering that myself. Is being a novelist – however exciting or romantic – still somewhat frivolous? This observation about the universality of storytelling seemed to hold some promise of an answer.
If my novelist career is “fiction” and my day job is “non-fiction,” and storytelling is essential to both, what is the difference – if any – between them? After all, if writing in one area is “important” and the other “frivolous” than surely the differences must be stark.
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