Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Brendan Jones: Storytelling in Southeast Alaska

One of my first memories of arriving in Sitka, Alaska, was walking by the water down to the Totem Park Visitor’s Center and reading an exhibit label describing the arts culture of the Tlingits, the indigenous people of the Alexander Archipelago. The label pointed out that the arts and storytelling tradition was so strong among the Tlingits, in part, because hunting and gathering was so easy. Unlike what folks on the tundra had to deal with, Southeast had abundant deer, salmon, halibut, not to mention chocolate lily, lovage, sea cucumbers, and so forth. As the Tlingit saying goes, “When the tide is out, the table is set.”

I was 19 when I read that exhibit label. After a few months working at a fish hatchery for room and board, bonking female pink salmon on the head and robbing them of their eggs, I moved into the woods, about twenty minutes from town. I had written to a number of poets, explaining that I was dropping out of school and going to Alaska, with the goal of learning to write a poem. Astonishingly enough, couple wrote back – Robert Pinsky, Diane Ackerman, Denise Levertov among them. One, Robert Bly, was particularly encouraging. If I remained a year in Alaska, he said, he would gladly read a poem a month, and give me comments. And so began a correspondence that has continued to this day.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. I’m interested in the role of storytelling over the years in Southeast Alaska, and what responsibilities one has when entering into this tradition. Of course - as the story goes - the decline of storytelling can be traced to the colonization of the Great Land. Elders ceased to be able to communicate with the younger generation in their native language, and a chasm began to grow. 

Nevertheless we still have the hypnotic Tlingit myths of the Bear Mother and Raven, and Star Shooter. One in particular found me, at a young age, a story about “Property Woman,” a curly-haired female who brings happiness and prosperity upon those that she visits. This myth played a role in leading me to Tara Marconi, the main character in my story. Granted, Tara is a hard-bitten Italian-American from South Philadelphia – but she has curly hair, and spreads a curious kind of happiness over those she meets.

In any case, it has been on my mind, now that I have turned in a manuscript, and this story I am trying to tell about Southeast Alaska takes one more step toward the wider world. Of course there’s a difference – the story I’m telling is a new one, about a girl leaving home to go west, spending eight years in Alaska, and coming back changed, a woman. Then again, that’s such a familiar structure, since the prodigal son in the bible, and surely before. The myth of leaving home, the torture of nostos, the longing to return, followed by the eventual return.

Although that correspondence with Bly was hugely influential, it was my time in Southeast Alaska that put stories in my blood. In John Haines’ book The Stars, the Snow, the Fire, he speaks of sitting around a table, and just listening. He had no stories. And so he just opened his ears. Thinking back on it now, I did my best to do just that. Hanging out at Totem Park, or using a fake ID to get into the P-Bar and hanging out with fishermen. Becoming a newspaper reporter in Sitka. And maintaining a correspondence with Bly, along with other poets. One of these poets, Denise Levertov, counseled me to steer away from writing about feelings, instead just focusing on sounds, and smells, and stories.

In truth though, it was an earlier correspondence that really slammed me sideways, and sent me to Alaska. One book. Nuclear. I read it when I was age 13. Parents, hide this book from your children unless you want to send them into an artistic tailspin that I, at the age of 35, am just beginning to come out of. That book: Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainier Maria Rilke.

Rilke wrote these letters to Franz Kappus, some kid in the military whose greatest function in life, it turned out, was to be a target for Rilke’s brilliance. Above all, Rilke exhorts the young man, “Trust in what is difficult.”

That is the root of why I ended up in Alaska. That was the book that truly did me in. And Alaska seemed to be a difficult place, this remote fishing community in the temperate rainforest. Despite what the exhibit label in Totem Park said, it was difficult enough for me. So it is as well for my main character. She thrashes against the island, against her work at the hatchery – go figure – until she finally begins to find peace.

I feel honored to take a small part in the tradition of storytelling in the Alaskan Rainforest. It is a deep, interrupted, problematic tradition, one that bears reflection. But finally, a beautiful one. One that surely changed my life in ways I’m just beginning now, through the process of trying to put Tara’s story into the world, beginning to understand.

Brendan Jones is from Sitka, Alaska, where he commercial fishes, and works on restoring his home, a World War II tugboat. He graduated from Oxford University, and has published pieces in Ploughshares, Fine Woodworking, Narrative Magazine, The Huffington Post, and recorded commentaries with NPR. He is currently a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University. His novel, The Alaskan Laundry, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Spring 2015.

1 comment:

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

"Trust in what is difficult." A great line.

In addition to enjoying reading about your Southeast AK trajectory and inspirations, I'm astonished to hear how generous such famous poets were to you as a young poet. We've had other bloggers here mention having good fortune getting responses from well-known writers they've contacted. It's a good lesson for all of us, as lifelong students AND teachers.