Born and brought up on a hill farm in the north of England, Kathleen Jones read law and then English Literature at university before specializing in early women writers - work that culminated in A Glorious Fame, the life of the 17th century Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. Kathleen spent several years in Africa and the Middle East, where she worked in English broadcasting, before returning to England. She is the author of 11 books. Her biographies include A Passionate Sisterhood, a life of Christina Rossetti and Catherine Cookson: The Biography. Her latest, The Story-Teller, is an account of the life of Katherine Mansfield. Kathleen's latest collection of poetry, Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21, winner of the Straid Collection award, was published by Templar Poetry in November 2011. Her home is in Cumbria, but as her partner is a sculptor working in Italy she spends a lot of time flying between the two on budget airlines. Below she discusses Robert Bringhurst's A Story as Sharp as a Knife.
Kathleen Jones on A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Myth-tellers and Their World by Robert Bringhurst
Over the years, quite a number of books have influenced me as a writer. At 16 I read Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea and realized that there were different ways of writing a story, then James Gleick's Chaos Theory taught me the creative power of chaos (an excuse I use frequently) and Joseph Campbell showed me the deep structures of narrative rooted in all of us.
I first saw a short review of Robert Bringhurst's A Story as Sharp as a Knife on an American book blog and knew straight away that it was something I wanted to read, although I had to wait a while before the book was available in the UK. I didn't know what I expected, but when it arrived the book took me by surprise. It's a mixture of history, literature and anthropology, as well as a chilling account of the consequences of cultural colonialism. Wherever European emigrants have settled, they've taken their culture and their values with them and quickly blotted out indigenous systems they believed to be inferior and 'barbaric', even though some of those traditions had existed longer than their own.
The Haida Gwaii tribes inhabited a series of islands the original name of which (Xhaaydla Gwaayaay) meant 'Islands on the Boundary between Worlds'; they stretched along the northwest coast of Canada and Alaska. The culture of these tribes was unique and they had very different origins from those of the Plains Indians of the mainland. No one knows where the Haida came from thousands of years ago - across the ocean from Mongolia or Russia perhaps, or from Pacific Island cultures further south.
The Haida lived a sustainable life, fishing and hunting and cultivating small crops as well as gathering seasonal wild harvests. They spoke a click language of a type often used by hunter gatherers - very complex, full of glottal gymnastics and difficult for an outsider to learn. Their religion was shamanic and they lived in four dimensions - earth, sea, sky, and myth time - moving easily from one to the other. A bird could fly to the bottom of the sea, a fish could live on land and a human being swim up into the sky. Everything had a spirit and every single being could shape-shift by donning the skin of another. They shared various elements of creation mythology - particularly the importance of the Raven - with other Indian cultures, but the stories their myth-tellers told were all their own.
In 1900 a young linguistic anthropologist called John Swanton went to the Haida Gwaii to collect stories. By the late 19th century there weren't enough people left for a sustainable community - decimated by small pox and other European diseases, more than 80 per cent of the population had died. Only a few of their story-tellers remained alive.
John Swanton became fascinated by what he heard, and extended his six-month stay to three and a half years. He learned Haida and set about transcribing the stories in their original language, as well as making translations. Whereas most anthropologists had simply relied on interpreters and then written brief synopses of the stories they were told, John Swanton wrote them down verbatim in all their confusing complexity. He believed he had discovered a new and vitally important literary tradition - what Robert Bringhurst calls 'one of the world's richer classical literatures, embodying one of the world's great mythologies'. Bringhurst makes the point that, in Europe and the West generally, we have adopted the traditions and literary values of the Greeks and Romans with very few add-ons from our own oral Celtic culture.
But what the Haida had was something else entirely: new ways of patterning a poem, or a narrative, based not on syllable counts, rhythm or rhyme, but on ideas and repetitions, 'thought patterns' - often arranging things in groups of five like the fingers of a hand. And at each repetition some element of the story would subtly change. Bringhurst argues that it is closer to European narrative traditions of painting and music. Originality was not necessary either. The Haida word for their oral literature meant something 'old and full, going on'; old stories being perpetually renewed, by re-telling and re-shaping. The dialogue between the listener and the teller was also important. A story, Bringhurst says, 'is not a solid object or a solitary entity but a transformative relationship'.
A Story as Sharp as a Knife also offers some thoughts on the progression from oral story-telling to the written word. We think of reading as a modern thing - a product of civilization, without ever thinking of the nature of reading itself; that words are simply another kind of human paw print to be read and interpreted by the tribe.
Reading, like speech, is an ancient, preliterate craft. We read the tracks and scat of animals, the depth and lustre of their coats... We read the horns of sheep, the teeth of horses. We read the weights and measures of the wind, the flight of birds, the surface of the sea, snow, fossils, broken rocks... We also read, of course, the voices that we hear. We read the speech of jays, ravens, hawks, frogs, wolves, and, in infinite detail, the voices, faces, gestures, coughs and postures of other human beings. This is a serious kind of reading, and it antedates all but the earliest, most involuntary form of writing, which is the leaving of prints and traces, the making of tracks.
For decades Swanton's transcriptions lay neglected in a university archive in the USA, but as the politics of First Nation culture shifted, so interest was revived and they were taken out and translated and published. Robert Bringhurst, himself a poet, has done a substantial amount of work to make them public.
What emerges from his book is how complex and powerful oral story-telling used to be. And how impoverished a culture is when it narrows its literary traditions down - like a contracting gene pool that weakens with inbreeding. A Story as Sharp as a Knife has made me think not only about the way I tell stories but about the way I read them too.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]