Friday, 27 May 2011

The Mythtellers of Haida Gwaii

The Raven Steals the Light:  Bill Reid

This book tells the story of the people who lived off the Pacific coast of what is now British Columbia and Alaska, on the distant islands known as the Haida Gwaii - now inappropriately re-named ‘Queen Charlotte Islands’. The Haida Indians had a very specific culture and a unique language - a click language not related to other Nth American first nation languages, hinting at different origins. The Haida lived in wooden ‘clan’ houses around the bays and inlets of the islands. Each house had an elaborately carved pole outside that told the story of the clan.  It was both an address and a family history.

They were hunter gatherers, living off fish and berries, whales, birds, bears and anything they could catch. They valued art and story-telling (in poetry form) very highly. Every family had two sides - Raven side and Eagle side - and these two birds played a big part in their mythology, particularly the Raven - a trickster and shape shifter - who is at the heart of their creation myths.

With the arrival of western missionaries, in the late 19th century, the Haida culture was almost completely wiped out. In some villages more than 80% of the population died from imported diseases such as small pox, and their lifestyle was no longer viable. They went to work in factories and sawmills, and were given European names. More than a thousand years of art and literature was lost.

In 1901 an anthropologist went to stay there, learned their language and set out to record, word by word, some of their most important poetry from the elderly story-tellers who had survived. He transcribed hundreds and hundreds of pages - only about 1% of which was published at the time. And the original language texts of the poets and storytellers of the Haida Gwaii have lain unread ever since - perhaps because of their difficulty. Transcripts look like this (I’ve taken out all the glottal stops!):

Nang Kilstlas nagha ghahaw Tadl tsigha’awaaghan.
Sing qqalghada ll qaaxuhls
gyaan ll kindagaangas
sta lla xitkkudahldattsasi

This translates:
‘Loon was living in Voicehandler’s house.
She left the house at daybreak
and repeatedly she called.
Then she flew back in’

The poetry reflects the Haida beliefs that certain beings were able to shape shift between the three elements of water, earth and sky. Loon is a bird, but she’s living like a human being in a house - and in some stories Voicehandler’s house is at the bottom of the sea.

Scholar and poet Robert Bringhurst discovered the texts and has spent a large part of his life translating them into English, trying to keep their poetic form. This book offers some of them, with an account of the lives of the story-tellers and their lost culture. It’s a mixture of anthropology, poetry, history and biography. But at the heart of the book is a discussion about story-telling itself. ‘A story is not a solid object or a solitary entity but a transformative relationship.’

Very little in these tales is familiar to us - and not just what is in them, but also the way they are told. Why, Bringhurst asks, should we set the standards of what poetry is by using a system that originated in the east (originally Greek) - rhythm and rhyme. Why not a system just as ancient, but from a different part of the world - the patterning of ideas, thoughts, and events? The Haida had a system of 10 - objects, occurrences, themes, were grouped to add up to 10. Some of their stories are structured like two five-fingered hands.

Robert Bringhurst 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 civilisation, 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.’

I was interested to hear Haida spoken - there are only a handful of elderly Haida still alive who spoke the language as children. There's a video on YouTube 'The Surviving Sounds of Haida Gwaii'

The book filled me with sadness for the rapaciousness of our culture, which has wiped so many ancient cultures off the face of the earth, leaving only fragments. Language, which seems the least durable, has in the end proved more lasting than some of the solid objects the Haida made.

Bringhurst sums up:
‘language is a vehicle of knowledge and a key to the interlocking prisons of society and time. When it’s written down, it can let me hear from people who knew things I don’t know and saw things I can’t see because they lived in another time, in another world. Nothing language does seems more wonderful to me than that.’

Artwork by Bill Reid 1920-1998 from ‘The Raven Steals the Light’
© the Bill Reid Foundation
For more images visit

Monday, 23 May 2011

Tuesday Poem: Raven Roosting

IV - Raven Roosting

Crow’s cousin
black in the blue alphabet
hung in the thorn hedge
by the neck - jet
claws still clutching
tail feathers a dark rainbow
in the spectrum of mourning
one eye open
the long beak parted -

‘I am everything I see and
I am this too.’

He has left his sky-skin
for the flies.

Kathleen Jones

Some readers will remember that I posted a week ago about finding a newly killed carrion crow hung in a hedge while out on a walk.  Somehow this co-incided with my thoughts about Ravens in mythology, which has been triggered by the reading of a remarkable book -  'A Story as Sharp as a Knife:  The Haida Mythtellers and Their World'.    It's all about the demise of oral story-telling and the traditions we've lost as a result.   Once, poets were the keepers of a tribe's history and identity.  They worked and re-worked the same fabric, but never in the same way, and embroidered and embellished it according to conventions that have also been lost.  Stories were handed down like heirlooms, as gifts, to be shaped and re-told by those who inherited them. (and isn't this what we did with the Tuesday Birthday Poem?)  I've always been fascinated by the way that old-english poets were known as 'schopes' - from the verb 'to shape'.  In some of the old european languages the verb for making a story was the same as that for a potter making a pot.
So I started writing a poem that was a re-shaping of a part of the Raven myth and then ended up writing more - I think probably it will become a series - a re-telling of an old myth with  (hopefully!) a modern twist.  I often think that these old mythologies remain relevant because they are telling fundamental truths about the human condition.
I'll be posting on the Haida Mythtellers later in the week.

For more poems please visit the Tuesday Poem website at

Saturday, 21 May 2011

New Developments in Digital Publishing

There's a very interesting post on the Writers Beware blog at the moment about the sudden cut-throat competition that's arisen between agents and publishers about putting backlists out again either as Print On Demand or as E-books.  Most publishers have given up keeping any but their most famous authors in traditional print, and they've been very slow to realise the potential of POD and E-books.     Catherine Cookson's agent has set up her own publishing imprint to publish CC's backlist, by-passing Random House (who are of course furious!).
And, of course, there's nothing to stop an author doing the same once their book is out of print and they've got their rights back.  A lot of writers that I know are doing just that.  POD is very cheap and putting out an E-book either as a PDF or on Kindle is free.  Neil has already re-published one of my Virago paperbacks 'A Passionate Sisterhood' and is planning to publish my Christina Rossetti biography next year.
There is also a new digital publisher - Shortfire Press - who are E-publishing short stories,  submission guidelines here, and Amazon have started  Kindle Singles - where you can sell your own short stories individually for a small sum of money (99p seems usual).   I'm certainly going to be doing that. 
Writers need Readers and the Internet makes it possible to find them without the traditional gate-keepers of publisher and agent.  It's unsettling for authors, but makes for an exciting future.   Where is it all heading?  Listen to this radio interview with Seth Godin - it's both frightening and optimistic.  Things are changing and writers need to be prepared.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

A Tale of Two Kathleens

I blogged a while ago about all the other Kathleen Jones’s out there on the internet and it was with great pleasure that I had an email - out of the blue! - from one of them,  whose life and work seem to echo mine uncannily, even to the point where she’s also known to friends as Kathy. I’ve been aware of Kathleen B. Jones’ work for a long time - she’s a respected American academic (Professor Emerita at the University of San Diego) with a long list of publishing credits, who also writes short fiction. Some of her titles are both fascinating and important eg ‘Women Transforming Politics’, and I really want to read her memoir ‘Living Between Danger and Love’ after reading the enticing blurb.

‘In a book that is part memoir, part personal essay, Kathleen B. Jones recounts riveting episodes in her own life that parallel Andrea O'Donnell's, a student of hers brutally murdered by her boyfriend. What emerges is a complex, hybrid tale of what Jones calls "unreasonable choices"—the kinds of choices that most of us feel we are expected to make between love and power, between care for another and care for ourselves. She provokes readers to consider the irony that our ideas and choices might prevent us from imagining and discovering social relationships of intimacy where love and power are not in conflict.’

Kathleen contacted me because she’s just started getting a website together and has a really good blog called ‘Writing Revolutions’. I’m hoping that she’s going to do a guest blog on mine one day soon - it’s really fun to have a double, especially one who writes so well!

Here’s the link to her website - - though it’s not completely finished yet,

Also heard from Erin Lender - another blogger who visits my site sometimes - who has an interesting post on ‘15 writers with lives more interesting than fiction’ - I can think of at least half a dozen others to add to it, and I’m sure others can too - some writers, eg Catherine Cookson and D.H. Lawrence, had lives much more interesting (and sensational!) than the books they wrote.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

The Tale of the Lizard

It’s been an eventful (and exhausting!) week, spent cleaning and decorating the small granny flat we rent out at the mill. The idea is that the occupants keep half an eye on the place for us when we aren’t there and the rent keeps Neil in marble blocks. But recently we’ve had a bit of a blip (being a landlord isn’t all buttercups and daisies!) and found ourselves with only a three foot monitor lizard in occupation, staring balefully from the bottom of a tank. Apparently there had also been a Burmese python, but fortunately that had already left.

I haven’t a clue how to care for a large reptile. It didn’t look in great shape. The water bowl was empty - did they drink water? And if so how often? One of the heat lamps wasn’t working either; was the lizard likely to die from hypothermia? And what on earth do they eat? A friend called a friend who worked in a reptile house and I got the answers I needed.

We managed to keep the lizard alive anyway, and last night someone came and took it away. Very relieved. They have disgusting eating habits and they smell terrible! But it was an experience (might appear in a story someday). And yes, I did pick it up!

Why don’t we have normal tenants with normal pets?  There's no answer to that one!

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Tuesday Poem: Learning to Swim by Catherine Bateson

Learning to Swim

Every time we touched each other, we left a fingerprint of sweat,
the grass died back, the hens stopped laying,
and on the fig tree outside my bedroom the figs ripened.
That summer we read girlie magazines spilling beer
on my white sheets and over the pages of Penthouse.
His big body was as pale as parsnip, black hairs sprouted
in unlikely places but his hands were like talc and
I loved his unhappiness, his migraines.

I’d always had boys before, stumbling through their paces
lights off and everything, even their knees, strange in the dark.
This was so different, like learning to swim
after years of walking your hands in the shallows
fooling nobody.
Look, now I can backstroke and butterfly,
I can dive from the high tower.

He opened me like an oyster,
like an artichoke. I was brine and undertow when he broke
over me, his hands full of music, each finger
singing a note purer than sainthood.

I swaggered into the year wearing that song
never again so unknowing,
never again so electric.

Catherine Bateson

From 'Marriage for Beginners'
Published by John Leonard Press

As the title suggests - the theme of this collection is relationships, and the ongoing process of learning how to make them - not just marriage, but all human relationships. Catherine tracks their narratives with considerable generosity and insight.
There are several sequences of poems, including Six Degrees in Separation, which charts the end of a relationship:

‘They move from the centre of the bed,
the couch, the conversation,
to the raw, cold edges.....’

The poem identifies ‘These collisions./These absences.’ that are at the heart of every human coupling.

Love and the Cloned Girl is a particularly important sequence. The poems stand up on their own as individual poems, but they are also a dialogue between the girl and the man. I particularly liked this one:

Blind and Burning

She loses weight, shadows
around this house, thinner
than the door frames.
She shaves off her hair.
She’s just eyes and hollows
and now my fingers yearn
to touch her, all her fine beauty extinguished
save for those eyes
I have to shut my own against
as though, like the sun,
they’d sear mine to charred blanks.

I know that this is a collection I will be going back to again and again.  For anyone who wants more information, there's a very good and thorough review of the collection here.

Catherine Bateson is a member of the Tuesday Poem Group. She lives in Australia - just outside Melbourne - and writes for children and young adults (a winner of the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s top award for Younger Readers). This is her 3rd collection. She also teaches Professional Writing and Editing.
Thanks for letting me post these poems Catherine!

For more Tuesday Poems please go to

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Weekend Walks

We're having unseasonable weather in northern England - blue skies and warm sunshine.  The hedgerows and the roadsides are all green and blooming.  Too  beautiful to stay indoors and do all the chores (or even write!), so I put my boots on and we went walking.

These poppies have escaped from someone's garden I think.

This is a mystery.  In the middle of the path, no-one else in sight, someone had carefully placed an X Box game with thirty pence in new coins on top of it.   Any ideas for a good thriller plot?

Then we found a newly dead crow hung up in the hedge so that it looked totally alive, though the foliage has crept through its glossy feathers.  It was bizarre, but also very beautiful, in a way I can't get the camera to record.  You can just pick out his long beak at the top of the frame.

And then we found these bracket fungus in a section of fence that was a sculpture all by itself!

Now I've got to go back to work.  We rent out two small sections of the mill and both are currently vacant, so there is a lot of scrubbing and re-painting going on while we look for new tenants.  Meanwhile my own part of the house is going to rack and ruin.  There is only so much housework a girl can do!

Thursday, 5 May 2011

In Praise of Reading and Fiction

Mario Vargas Llosa
Route, the small northern publisher which has published some of my short stories and pioneered e-books in Britain, has just brought out the text of south american author Mario Vargas Llosa’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s free as a pdf download (and costs only pence for the kindle version) and includes a telephone interview with Vargas Llosa as well.

Besides the author being something of a literary pin-up, Vargas Llosa’s novel ‘Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter’ has always been one of my all-time favourite books. I laughed and laughed while I read it and cried when I finished it. It’s a masterpiece of story-telling. So I was delighted when he was honoured with the Nobel Prize.

His acceptance speech is called In Praise of Reading and Fiction and he talks about how reading changed his life as a child:

Reading changed dreams into life and life into dreams and placed the universe of literature within reach of the boy I once was. My mother told me the first things I wrote were continuations of the stories I read because it made me sad when they concluded or because I wanted to change their endings. And perhaps this is what I have spent my life doing without realizing it: prolonging in time, as I grew, matured, and aged, the stories that filled my childhood with exaltation and adventures.
 He makes a good case for Literature making the world a better place:-

... thanks to literature, to the consciousness it shapes, the desires and longings it inspires, and our disenchantment with reality when we return from the journey to a beautiful fantasy, civilization is now less cruel than when storytellers began to humanize life with their fables. We would be worse than we are without the good books we have read, more conformist, not as restless, more submissive, and the critical spirit, the engine of progress, would not even exist. Like writing, reading is a protest against the insufficiencies of life. When we look in fiction for what is missing in life, we are saying, with no need to say it or even to know it, that life as it is does not satisfy our thirst for the absolute – the foundation of the human condition – and should be better. We invent fictions in order to live somehow the many lives we would like to lead when we barely have one at our disposal.
 He also believes that fiction creates a medium for people to understand each other:

Good literature erects bridges between different peoples, and by having us enjoy, suffer, or feel surprise, unites us beneath the languages, beliefs, habits, customs, and prejudices that separate us.

He  talks about his own passion for writing.

“Writing is a way of living,” said Flaubert. Yes, absolutely, a way of living with illusion and joy and a fire throwing out sparks in your head, struggling with intractable words until you master them, exploring the broad world like a hunter tracking down desirable prey to feed an embryonic fiction and appease the voracious appetite of every story that, as it grows, would like to devour every other story.

Above all he’s alert to the political aspects of writing.

The lies of literature become truths through us, the readers transformed, infected with longings and, through the fault of fiction, permanently questioning a mediocre reality. Sorcery, when literature offers us the hope of having what we do not have, being what we are not, acceding to that impossible existence where like pagan gods we feel mortal and eternal at the same time, that introduces into our spirits non-conformity and rebellion, which are behind all the heroic deeds that have contributed to the reduction of violence in human relationships. Reducing violence, not ending it. Because ours will always be, fortunately, an unfinished story. That is why we have to continue dreaming, reading, and writing, the most effective way we have found to alleviate our mortal condition, to defeat the corrosion of time, and to transform the impossible into possibility.

It's an inspirational read at a time when writers, particularly of fiction, are feeling discouraged by diminishing returns and publishing cut-backs.