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
Stars, the Snow, the Fir
e, 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

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:
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.

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 thought on “Brendan Jones: Storytelling in Southeast Alaska”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    "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.

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