By Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner
This week I wrapped up a Storytelling Workshop in Saipan alongside my friend, photographer Daniel Lin. Sponsored by the Humanities Council, the workshop was an opportunity for us to work with young people from different ages to shape their experiences into both poetry and photography and then sharing that work through the online storytellers platform.
This is technically me and Dan’s third workshop together. The past two weeks was spent in Palau, doing a similar workshop with a group of students who were studying the rhinoceros beetles and collecting data on food security. Before that, we facilitated a one day workshop, again in Saipan, during the Festival of Pacific Arts.
The workshop that we facilitated in Saipan was different, as it allowed us the time and space to connect with the participants on a deeper level. While Dan focused on the intricacies of the perfect shot, I focused on pushing participants’ writing and shaping their experiences into poetry.
I use the word “shapes” mindfully. Teaching is an art in and of itself – I am a more experienced writer then I am a teacher. But through these three weeks, and through workshops that I conducted in the Marshall Islands as well, I’ve come to realize that the most rewarding part of the workshop for me is the one-on-one editing process. When I can read the short paragraphs of the students’ work and have the time to ask them questions, understand where they are and what they’re processing. What I’m looking at in a sense, is a partially carved block of wood. All I do is point out different parts to sharpen.
The one-on-one session always starts out the same. They apologize for their writing. They say they wrote nothing. They say it’s all over the place – no direction. They are generally embarrassed, and sometimes very shy.
What always amazes me is how wrong they are. There is always something there – a little nugget. A sentence. A memory. Just enough.
Another part of the workshop that I also enjoyed – in both Saipan and Palau – was the time spent in the water. I love swimming. I love swimming because it is an uncomplicated joy to feel the water against my back – to dive and float and feel weightless, breathless. Because every time I swim I am six years old again, clambering onto my cousins’ back, cracking jokes and splashing water.
In both Saipan and Palau we had opportunities to swim with the students. In Palau I workshopped their poetry in between swimming in the Rock Islands, diving off the boat and into the Milky Way. In Saipan we swam after a beautiful presentation from Pete Perez from 500 Sails, detailing the rich history of Chamorro sailing and the ways in which they’ve revived the tradition in recent years. Afterwards, we received a crash course in swimming instruction, before riding in one of their beautiful Sakman-design canoes, modeled after their ancestors’ threatened canoe traditions.
It was when the students and I were swimming, when we cracked jokes, splashed each other, threatened one another with sea cucumbers (I admitted a fear of them, which basically made me an easy target) and challenged each other to diving competitions, that the walls came down.
And after swimming, after we rose up out of the water, after we toweled ourselves dry – we sat down, again, to write. And we envisioned the future that Pete envisioned.
During his presentation he showed us a colonial era drawing, etched in simple brown lines, almost like a wood block. It was of a European ship surrounded by hundreds of Chamorro canoes. “This is what the horizon will look like,” he’d said. I could feel the promise in his words, willing it to become true. “This is what the horizon will look – hundreds of canoes against the sky.”
I imagine that maybe this is what we’re envisioning with these stories. What we hope to instill in our students – the ability to not only confront their present. But to also envision what our horizons will one day look like.