Layers of Storytelling

by Dr Janine Natalya Clark

A picture of a cakeIn an article published in 1996, the Chilean writer Isabel Allende notes: ‘We are all called Latin Americans, but we are not a homogeneous society. Our continent is a cake of many layers’.[1] Colombia, similarly, is a cake of many layers – geographically, ecologically, culturally, politically.  The country’s armed conflict, likewise, is multi-layered, as were the stories of the women who took part in the piloting of the CSRS questionnaire. Some of them accordingly found the research instrument too restrictive. It required them to compress the complexity of their experiences into simple ‘yes’/‘no’ answers; to identify their current problems without elaborating on them. When asked to give feedback on the questionnaire, J explained that she had wanted to tell us that she has been receiving death threats since 2007; that she is in a security protection scheme; that she will be evicted from her house because she cannot afford to pay the rent. Offering her own critique, M underlined that women have found diverse ways to deal with their pain and suffering (she had done so by training to become a kindergarten teacher). In her view, therefore, the questionnaire needed to ask about these layered coping strategies.

Reflecting on the writing process, Allende muses: ‘I like the patient craft of a long and complicated novel as much as the challenge of a short story. Two very different genres. In a novel, you create a universe by adding details. It’s like embroidering a tapestry with threads of many colors. A short story is like an arrow. You have only one shot. It needs the right direction and speed’.[2] Questionnaires can be likened to a short story; they offer a snapshot rather than a tapestry of colour. Qualitative interviews are more like a novel; they add richness and texture. If the piloting process underscored some of the limitations of using questionnaires, it also highlighted the importance of mixed methodologies as a way of exploring ‘layeredness’. The CSRS questionnaire, in short, will indicate whether an individual is displaying high, medium or low levels or resilience, but it will not tell us why. The interview process will thus provide a space for the articulation of narratives that enable a deeper understanding of individual lives – and of the factors that foster or hinder resilience.

The use of a mixed methodology thereby ensures that one does not only have ‘one shot’. This left me reflecting on Colombia’s Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition, which will commence its work in a few months. Established as part of the peace process between the government and the FARC, the Commission will face huge challenges during its three-year mandate. In a country where there are 8 million registered victims, it will need to decide which cases it is going to focus on and prioritize. Victims will formally be at the centre of the process. However, resource constraints, ongoing security issues and the wide range of topics that the Commission seeks to address – including the differential impact of the armed conflict, the relationship between the conflict and narcotrafficking and the causes and consequences of paramilitarism – raise major questions about the extent to which victims (and how many) will have the opportunity to narrate the different layers of their stories.

A story, according to Allende, ‘is always about change. Something happens, and as a result, somebody changes’.[3] Story-telling is an important part of truth commissions and of transitional justice processes more broadly. Story-telling, however, is not just about facts; what happened, when and how. Story-telling is also about change. It is about how adversity and trauma affect human lives – and about how people find ways of dealing with adversity and trauma. Many of the women whom we worked with in Colombia had positive layers within their stories. One was studying Law; one was helping young women to leave a life of prostitution; one held a high position in a trade union movement. As Colombia moves into a new transitional phase, one of the aims of CSRS is to develop a new model of transitional justice that allows victims/survivors of sexual violence to engage in more nuanced forms of story-telling that capture different experiences/layers of victimization as well as positive changes in their lives.


[1]  Isabel Allende, ‘The Short Story’, Journal of Modern Literature 20/1 (1996): 21-28, at 23.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., at 24.