Remembering Nelson Mandela

It has been a very interesting week for me. It started with some excitement, when the notice that exam registration is now open arrived in my inbox, and ended with several inches of new snow and an ice storm while I was traveling home from Florida.  On the days in between, I worked with a dance troop to develop an entertaining conservation program, helped host a gala for the organization I work for, and decided to spend an extra day touring the first, and just recently opened elephant sanctuary in the United States. The sanctuary is also in Florida, not too far from our endangered species reserve, which explains how a very big ice storm got between me and my home in Southwestern Pennsylvania, leaving me stranded at an airport in North Carolina for a few days.

From Friday to Sunday I had a lot of time to listen to the news, read the book I packed for the road, and think about how to manage exams. As it turns out I am rather glad I ended up stranded for 36 hours or so, because otherwise, I would not have had a chance to read Wilkie Collins The Woman in White cover to cover in one day, listen to a very interesting TED talk about narrative and memory, or paid such close attention to the moving tributes to Nelson Mandela.  Strangely enough this odd combination of events really helped me make some sense of narrative strategy and exactly why novels are so captivating, and stories are such a powerful part of our lives, and more fully appreciate the kind of powerful impact a life like Mr. Mandela’s can truly have on us, whether or not we have a personal connection.

Nelson Mandela wavingThe story of Nelson Mandela has filled the media this week, quite rightly. The remarkable scenes of so many South African people celebrating his life were astonishingly beautiful and affecting images. All of the people interviewed in the media, or those who delivered more ‘official’ comments, resorted to anecdotes and stories about Mr Mandela to make their points.  The news coverage here always showed people dancing and  chanting his name as a very emotional backdrop to these stories.  In my airport refuge from the storm there was plenty of time to contemplate this amazing process; song, dance, and narrative coming together to help make sense of a complex, emotional experience, and to create a powerful memory of a historical moment. Over the weekend I often wished that I was in South Africa to directly experience this moment, to have my own memory and story of it.

Sometime in the midst of the weekend I heard bits of Dr Daniel Kahneman’s TED Talk about memory on National Public Radio (NPR). During the NPR interview I heard a striking comment; memories are really narratives we construct to, well, remember or recall an experience. We create memories by creating stories. To me, studying English Literature, that is an almost overwhelming idea.  Perhaps that is why stories are so riveting and provocative; and why a text like The Woman in White, among the first mystery stories, is so effectively told through a combination of characters’ narratives, their memories of an experience.

It occurred to me that the very same thing was happening regarding the complicated and sometimes confusing process of memorializing Mr. Mandela.  It seemed quite right and necessary for so many memories and stories to rush in to fill the void left by the passing of such a remarkable man.  There are all kinds of stories and narratives, some fiction, some memories, some journalism and some law or history. When they surround something so public, like Mr Mandela’s role in history, and something so intimate as a narrative we construct to create a personal memory, is it any wonder narratives, or texts, are so endlessly debated, fascinate us so, and are so central to our lives. It was lovely to see how many people, all around the world, were so moved by his life and example that we all seem to want to claim him in some way, myself included.  Our alumni group noted that Mr Mandela studied at the University of London. I learned since that he studied Law while imprisoned on Robben Island, though he was prevented from finishing his exams and so never graduated. Somehow it feels very comforting to have that connection to such an inspiring man as Mr Mandela.

On Sunday night, after I finally arrived home to snuggle Jelly Bean and get some rest, the last images I saw on television was coverage of Mr Mandela’s funeral in Qunu. It was a remarkable ending to a powerful story. According to Dr Kahneman the ending of a story can determine how we remember and interpret it. Today, instead of Mr Mandela’s presence, we are left with so many stories, all rushing in to fill his place and illustrate his example.

Without studying literature I don’t think I would fully appreciate the significance of the incredible ten-day process of mourning and celebrating Mr Mandela’s life. For me, it was high art and a profound experience, even from 8,510 miles away. Now it’s time to remember it, and write a story about it.

Caowrites is studying the BA English by distance learning with the University of London International Programmes. She lives in Pittsburgh in the United States.

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