Radio Reading! StoryCorps at Greenlight

1. Never seen so many people at a reading that didn’t advertise free wine. Sweet. 2. Isaac Kestenbaum, Mike Dougherty, Kate Brown, Kira Limer, and Sylvie Lubow, all wonderful people from StoryCorps and old regulars from the cafe I worked at next door. Hi!

Last night something happened at Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene: They had a radio program. Sort of. It was the first night of the book tour for All There Is: Love Stories from StoryCorps, the third anthology from the fantastic public radio program founded by Dave Isay, five-time Peabody Award and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient. It was a reading, a listening, a cartoon-watching event rolled up into one uber-intimate media presentation that made a few people tear up, which, for me, was a first at a literary event. I’m embarrassed to tell you when the last time I saw someone cry in public, but I’ll tell you: I was 8. There was a dinosaur.

1. Kudos to that chalk artist. Shit is bomb!

StoryCorps, if you’re unfamiliar, is a nationally broadcast public program that stands shoulder to shoulder with other quality programs like This American Life and Radiolab, though what sets SC apart from the latter two is the variance of narrative. While TAL and Radiolab curate and narrate around a theme, SC sets up booths around the country (and they have a travelling one, which is now in a New Mexican town, pop. 3000) and simply records: two people, one booth, two CDs; one for the tellers and one for the Library of Congress. Isay informed us that since its inception, SC has recorded around 40,000 personal stories (!), with at least 80,000 people. It’s one of the largest oral history projects in the country, and recently began an initiative program focusing on recording specific populations. The Griot Initiative, for example, is now the largest collection of African-American voices in the US.

All There Is is SC’s Top 40 of love stories divided into three sections: Found, Lost, Found Again. Instead of just reading from the book, Isay treated the audience to a group listening of a few of the included stories in their original radio format. Appropriately, the stories we listened to were stories of people from Brooklyn. Andrea was 14 when she first heard 18-year-old Jay McKnight singing with his acapella group on a corner in 1950s Clinton Hill. Jay confided to his friend that he was going to marry that girl who just walked by, to which he replied, “You’re going to jail.” Now they’ve been married 51 years, are in their seventies, and expecting their first great-grandchild. The McKnights were also in the audience, and when they spoke about their marriage more in depth, Jay dropped nuggets of wisdom like, “If you’re married, stay away from single people.” The McKnights are the most bad-ass septuagenarians I’ve ever seen. Both rocked sunglasses all night, and seemed like they were on a life-long honeymoon.

1. Founder Dave Isay with Jay and Andrea McKnight, who begged the married women out there not to complain to their single girlfriends. 2. Yoon Kim, a photographer, with Kristen Scharold, a Brooklyn-based writer and editor.

Next we heard two stories from the book’s “Lost” section. Leroy Jenkins recorded the story of how he met his wife as an elevator operator, their first date over chop suey, and, like the McKnights, a 63 year, 2 month and 5 day honeymoon. Leroy spoke of her as if she were still alive, an easy segue into the final and most affecting story of the Lost section, Beverly Eckert. Collected in SC’s September 11th Initiative, Eckert spoke with her husband as he tried to find a way out from the 105th floor of one of the towers and stayed with him until the end. Eckert herself died in a plane crash in 2009. All heads were down, some wiped their faces. Everyone was moved.

Isay closed the night out by presenting a piece of SC’s newest form of content, Animated Shorts. Similar to our own single-sentence animations, SC regularly selects one of their “best-loved” stories to animate. As lights were dimmed, the combination of adults cross-legged on the floor, actual children and the care-free animation style made me feel like I was at an actual sleepover, replete with the feelings associated with sitting in your jam-jams. It felt special, private, and only for us as we watched To R.P. Salazar With Love. Just wished there were gummy bears and hot chocolate.

1. Poets Shira Erlichman and Angel Nafis, taking the bear to its first play date with Greenlight’s resident mouse, Maisy.

The first question during the Q&A was the one everybody wondered: Why a book? Radio is ephemeral, Isay said, and All There Is, along with two previous collections of SC stories, complement the radio interviews by making them permanent. Isay clarified that the stories in the book are not transcriptions. The stories in the new book are edited to render them closer to a written story, letting SC-radio maintain the “power and poetry of everyday language.” Isay encouraged us to listen to help expand SC’s listenership and “weave it into the fabric of American life.”

Besides being the kick-off night for the new book, I wondered why have it at a book store at all, and why did The Dish decide to cover it?

Well, when I think about some of my favorite readings, I think about one thing: intimacy. Readers want to experience the intensity of the page/reader relationship in the flesh, but often the characters simply do not have the space to come alive through a vocal reading, especially for listeners who haven’t read the author’s work. There was no artifice in any of the stories last night’s audience heard. Just characters and their stories, voices that didn’t need craft, rhythm or linguistic acrobatics from an authorial hand. In other words, no convincing. These narratives got straight to the heart, immediately grabbed the audience and compelled them to listen. This is what we want from literature. Voices from nowhere suddenly grabbing us and making us want to listen, making us feel real. StoryCorps is radio, literature, and history in one.

All There Is: Love Stories from Storycorps

by Dave Isay

— Ryan Chang is a writer and student living in Brooklyn. His work has previously appeared on Thought Catalog. He is in the internet here and here.

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