Teri Sloat: Leaving Things Unsaid

A big welcome to our February featured author, Teri Sloat.

First let me introduce myself as a writer and illustrator of picture books because that is what I am most often known as. My husband and I lived in Alaskan villages and Bethel from 1970 to 1982, and I was part of the Bethel Bi-lingual Center from its inception as a writer, illustrator, etc. I re-wrote and illustrated THE EYE OF THE NEEDLE (now back in print), THE HUNGRY GIANT OF THE TUNDRA, wrote BERRY MAGIC with Betty Huffmon, and illustrated Barb Winslow’s DANCE ON A SEALSKIN. I have many other books out now, but from those stories, as well as continued work in the villages, I am always facing how differently stories are told in the villages compared to how they are presented in the Western commercial market of the printed book. You can learn more at http://www.terisloat.com/ and more about my fine art and thoughts at www.terisloat.blogspot.com.

I have been reading Stephen Sondheim’s latest book, LOOK I MADE A HAT! Years ago, while writing my one and only jazz and blues musical, I fell in love with Stephen Sondheim’s work. So when his second book, LOOK I MADE A HAT! came out, I grabbed it off the shelf. While talking about his plays and lyric writing, he states, “Some things should remain mysterious…just beyond our understanding- a secret.” His words immediately took me to both the frustration and the enchantment of Alaska’s Native dances and folklore…..a grandmother who sees through the eye of her needle, children riding home on the back of a crane, a woman turning into stone.

Stories told out loud, in a song or dance often leave things unsaid or dropped at the end, making space for the listener fill in with their own half of the story …to become a participant in the story. Much like playwrights, our job as writers and artists is to create a world where the reader or viewer can suspend their disbeliefs and enter the story with our own experiences.

When I first started listening to Yup’ik stories, I felt like something was missing…an ending, a form, a predictable pattern like we find in Western stories, but I soon realized the stories stayed in my memory because there was room for me to add my own thoughts. I live in California now, but years of living on the YK Delta, working with bilingual programs, and oral storytellers has given me an ever- changing idea of what makes a good story. Alaska continues to be a place to return to for great journeys of the imagination.

Lately I have been working off and on in villages with people who are collecting oral stories to put into written form for the first time. It is amazing how flat a story can fall when put into print. It is like someone sucked the air out of it. There are no hand gestures, no live audience, no eye contact to tell you whether to stretch the story or shrink it a little. And often those who are putting the story into writing are not the storytellers themselves, but those who are the most fluent in English. But most of all, there is a fear that the printed word is more permanent than the spoken word, and that, unlike the oral story, it cannot be written again by a different author in a different way. There is always criticism for areas upriver or downriver that the world is not hearing it the way they would tell it in their village. All of this criticism keeps people from playing with stories in print the way they would play with them in front of an audience.

This has been on my mind in the last few years as I have been creating my own folklore, which often has a background of Northern imagery and reflects my memories of life on the tundra. I wrote many of these stories 30 years ago in the form of poetry, but felt that since I’m not Native, I should not be telling them or turning them into stories. I finally realized with encouragement from the villages, that all folklore starts somewhere.

Like many of the village writers and translators, I share a fear of putting my stories into a publication of any kind, so I began putting them into images for galleries, and let the public either make up their own thoughts about the images or telling them the story and watching their reaction. Even now, a new audience will cause me to tell the story a slightly different way. Most often I am not adding to the story as I change it, but shortening it, leaving things unsaid so I don’t interrupt the dreamlike suspension of disbeliefs as an old woman weaves young cranes into a basket to save them for spring, or a seal falls in love with the beautiful ivory face of the moon, or a reindeer herder who has outlived his time sits out on a rock for the winter, and, with Raven’s help, becomes Snowy Owl.

Leaving things unsaid often allows the universal part of the story to shine through, without becoming clouded with trivia.

4 thoughts on “Teri Sloat: Leaving Things Unsaid”

  1. A lovely post, and what fun to read it while I'm here in the YK Delta, completing a two-week writer residency that includes inspiring (I hope!) young writers to join the 49 Writers/Write Young Alaska effort. Thanks, Teri!

  2. This is fascinating stuff to think about, what the gaps in stories allow for, how oral traditions are often not well served by print. It's good to mull over for all stories, whether Native or oral or otherwise. Thanks.

  3. I'd been looking forward to February's guest blogger! Great introductory post, Teri, and lovely to get to know you and your work. I love your seal image.

  4. Thoughtful post, gave me a lot to reflect on. I sometimes hear that one should not tell too much but let the reader fill in the blanks, and oral traditions are a good example of that.

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