Last Saturday, I attended a talk about the book entitled “This Hostel Life” by Melatu Uche Okorie. The book is about her experience as an asylum seeker in the Irish asylum system. When the time for questions from the audience came, a middle-aged woman asked: “I would like to know why you had to become an asylum seeker and leave your country?”
Calmly, the writer told this woman that this was a private matter and that she was tired of being asked this question; thus, she would not answer. In return, the writer asked: why are you interested in knowing the reasons that led me to request asylum in Ireland?
To which the surprised woman responded hastily: “Because we take many things for granted here, we do not value them, and we believe that they exist in the same way all over the world.” But that was not what the author had asked.
What was asked of the refugee and writer was to tell her “true story” and explain why she sought refuge in Ireland. Then, having heard her story, listeners would give themselves the right to judge it.
This situation made me reflect on the right we believe we have to ask another person personal questions, the relationship imbalance between the person who asks and who is asked, and the ambivalent power of stories.
When are you going to have children? Where do you come from, originally? Why did you come to this country? How long do you plan to stay in this country? These are all innocent questions and, sometimes, they can stimulate or facilitate a conversation with anyone in a waiting room or at the bus stop. But the innocence behind these questions is only apparent. Why? Because at the centre of these questions, there is an element that is not innocent: the social asymmetry between the person who asks and the one who is asked. Who would dare to ask a powerful woman in their 40s: When are you going to have children? Who would ask a tall and elegant executive with a hard-to-place accent, where do you come from?
We often ask personal questions to strange and known others simply because we feel entitled to do so. This right stems from the security that this person has no power to refuse to answer, to be silent in front of us. They have to tell their story because we want to hear it. And many times, we want to listen to it for the wrong reasons.
Beyond this asymmetry, what worries me is that, as we saw in the case of the writer, wanting to know a story is underpinned by the need to confirm our unconscious bias. In other words, the question seems to be a way of corroborating the prejudices that the questioner already had before asking this question. But why do we need to affirm our prejudices? Because we feel safe surrounded by them. But that security is born of fear, and it is fragile. Because only weak security can lead to seeking it outside, validating prejudices judging the stories of others.
Beyond the effect that the stories produce on the ears and prejudices of others, there seems to be a beautiful mystery in them. If we receive them and love them, stories can change us.