In my non-academic reading recently, I’ve been enjoying the essays collected in A Narrative Compass: Stories that Guide Women’s Lives. Though it may sound like a self help book, it’s actually nineteen essays written by women academics – professors and students of literature, folklore or history; or librarians – about how some narrative affected them in their lives, shaping both their personal narratives and their academic careers. Best of all, I think, the essays reveal that making one’s personal narrative and academic career out to be separate is a false dichotomy. What we choose to study, particularly at the graduate level, is immensely tied to the personal. Perhaps this is more obvious when one studies literature, but I imagine it’s true for other fields as well. You don’t dedicate this much time and effort to something you find don’t find some kind of meaning in.

One writer discusses Little Women. Another, L. M. Montgomery’s Anne and Emily series. There’s more of the familiar – The Secret Garden, the Little House series, Alice in Wonderland, “Beauty and the Beast,” but then also the unfamiliar – Lacanian theory, personal family oral histories, Native American legends. All these got me thinking – is there something in the history of my long term relationship with literature that shapes my work now?

As a child, I read voraciously. The best part of moving to the US for my first year of high school, which initially had few silver linings, was that I had little to no homework but a well stocked city library a short bike ride from our home. Most nights, I read an entire novel while lounging in the bathtub, a luxury previously reserved for weekends when I was in middle school in Taiwan. So many unread books, after years of rereading the few in my school library and personal collection, was mind-bogglingly delightful. Yet one of my most beloved books that I always went back to, as its water warped pages will attest (let me note that I was kinder to library books than I was to my own), was Catherine, Called Birdy.

Taking advantage of interlibrary loan, I borrowed a copy to reread, rather than simply write about it from memory. Coincidentally, the copy that arrived is the exact same edition that I had growing up, although in significantly better condition. It was like running into an old friend, from the first moment I saw it.


Catherine, Called Birdy is structured as a diary from one year in the life of a thirteen-year-old English girl in 1290-1. No, it is not a realistic representation of her life. Karen Cushman acknowledges in her author’s note that incredible rifts lie between contemporary culture and the mindsets and lifestyles of the medieval English. I’ll come back to this author’s note in a bit.

Birdy is not a realistic medieval teenage girl. Then again, neither were the saints, whose lives she often contemplates in her diary entries, realistic representations of early Christians. Even so, as she wonders what it would be like to choose between marrying a heathen or becoming a martyr, or whether worms have their own bishops (they don’t, she seems to be disappointed to learn, and Worms is a place), she constructs her own identity in relation to these paragons.

The parallels to what I work on are surprising, when you think about them. My research involves getting at the daily lived experience of piety in pre-modern China through morality literature, whereas Catherine, Called Birdy is about the daily life of a pre-modern girl with a plot structured around diary entries that usually begin with information about the saints whose day it is. Birdy has her own life that branches far beyond the often irreverent contemplation of Saints Urith or Willibald or Swithin, but she comes back to them daily, they undergird the practice of her writing and give her ways to reimagine herself. As I was able to then reimagine myself, a nine to sixteen year old girl in urban Taiwan, in my enjoyment of her tale.

Back to Cushman’s author’s note.

“Can we really understand medieval people well enough to write or read books about them?” she writes. It’s a fair question for all of us contemplating the literature, history, religion, and politics of the past. Can we really say anything at all? She goes on, “I think we can identify with those qualities that we share – the yearning for a full belly, the need to be warm and safe, the capacity for fear and joy, love for children, pleasure in a blue sky or a handsome pair of eyes. As for the rest, we’ll have to imagine and pretend and make room in our hearts for all sorts of different people.”

To do what I do, reading perplexing, sometimes boring, morality literature from hundreds of years ago and half a planet away from where I sit now, I have to have room in my heart for these different people, the ones who found these works meaningful. And I need empathy with these people to represent their differences from our modern experience fairly and respectfully, while also bringing out how the common human element of these tales can still resonate with us now. I think what Cushman did in Catherine, Called Birdy, then, truly shaped my life.

What about you? What stories affect you still?

2 thoughts on “Narrative Compass

  1. I’ve found clues to myself in many books FAR FAR away from what I seem to do for a living.
    Keep reading….. especially, keep reading FAR FAR afield from your particular area of research and endeavor. Being in the “Religion Business”, I find the occasional business book to be helpful, and being in the field of human relations, I find education stuff (when not too filled with edubabble) to be instructive. Biography is nice, fiction is best.

    • That’s one of the beautiful things about stories – fictional or otherwise – isn’t it? Not just finding clues to oneself, but being able to get FAR FAR away from what one “seems to do for a living.”

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