The recent use of fake news and “alternative facts” has proven that fiction remains a powerful force. The problem, of course, is when writers and readers passively accept fiction as their reality, as Trump, his supporters and Madame Bovary have done. That’s why, for the last 15 years I’ve been teaching freshman composition, I start off the semester with Spencer Holst’s “The Zebra Storyteller.”
In this 365-word fable Holst details how a Siamese cat is able to deceive a herd of zebras by speaking their language and pretending to be a lion. The zebras are so surprised by the cat’s behavior that he is able to kill them, eat them, and make clothes from their hides.
The cat is able to get away with this until he comes upon the zebra storyteller, who was thinking about a story of a cat who pretended to be a lion and spoke “zebraic.” Therefore, when he meets the cat he is not surprised that the cat can speak zebraic, and he can see that the cat is just a cat, not a lion. So he kills it.
“That is the function of the storyteller,” writes Holst.
It may not be the best story ever written (as the students are quick to point out), and they often don’t get the meaning after the first reading. But after reading it a second time, annotating it, and discussing it, we often come up with an acceptable interpretation of the story.
They often discover that a storyteller uses imagination to discover the truth and, in doing so, is able to save the herd of zebras who are easily duped into a dangerous reality.
As I reread the story in preparation for class this semester I realized that the story is more important now than any other time I’ve taught it. It doesn’t take a literary theorist to see how this story reflects the recent presidential campaign and administration. President Trump and his team, a well-documented flurry of fake news sites across the globe, and a social media maelstrom that circulates lies and falsehoods as if they were facts have created an environment in which the truth remains elusive — hidden by the kind of rhetoric and cunning that would turn Holt’s cruel cat green with envy.
What I love about teaching freshman composition and this story in particular is that it is hopefully the beginning of a lifelong quest for the truth. I want students to understand that this quest is an ongoing process and that the truths we think we understand through the passive consumption of information can be dangerous distractions, obscuring both the beauty and devastation of what is real.
I hope they understand that the truth is a combination of facts and imagination, blending with our own unique backgrounds and experiences. We discover truth in conversation, in which we listen to the truths of others. And in this constant quest for the truth, which becomes protean, constantly shifting, forming and reforming, we can shape our own realities.
The day after Trump’s inauguration, I went to the women’s march in Philadelphia and saw firsthand the power of Holt’s message. Thousands of women, men, and children marched down the Ben Franklin Parkway, wearing pink hats, holding homemade signs, combating one story by creating another.
This is what gives me hope — that in this time of darkness and fear, of hatred and division, new truths and realities will be formed that demonstrate the extent of our intelligence, kindness, and compassion. And if, as storytellers, we have to kill a few cats in order to create this better reality, so be it.
Nate House is a writer and teaches English at the Community College of Philadelphia.