In the Presence of Story -
Interview With Storyteller Jaya Penelope
I always loved stories. My mum was a great storyteller who had us four siblings spellbound with stories from her childhood. Those stories connected us with her, her childhood and our roots and we never tired of them. We knew the stories by heart and even though we did, we always sat wide eyed in shock or awe at certain points in the story. And as it often happens with stories, they were passed down to the next generation. My own children heard those same stories and it connected them with their past and with their roots.
I have always been drawn to story and myth and was overjoyed to find a living storyteller in my own town, Jaya Penelope. I attended a few storytelling evenings in her lush garden and got deeply inspired by both the stories and by Jaya’s delivery of the tales. As a performing artist, Jaya set the scene with masses of candles, an open fire, and a sense of alluring mystique. I also got deeply inspired and nurtured by the connectedness I felt with everyone attending, a deep intimate sense of being human and of belonging.
I am very happy to introduce you here to the lovely Jaya Penelope, a community-based storyteller and poet and also a unique and colourful local in Fremantle, Western Australia. Jaya is trained in the art of bringing stories to life. She offers sacred storytelling and old folktales to spellbound groups around the fire in her garden. Jaya also tells stories and performs poetry at festivals, schools, retreat centers and libraries throughout Western Australia. She facilitates workshops and circles in sacred story, poetry, and Creative Writing. Jaya is an advocate ‘for the capacity of story and poetry to rewild, heal and connect us to both human and other-worlds’.
Here is my interview with Jaya. May it inspire you to read and listen more to stories and to begin to see your own life as an adventurous tale! And if you live near Fremantle, give yourself the gift of attending one of Jaya’s magical story telling nights!
Jaya, what inspired you to become a Storyteller? Did you love stories as a child and/or was it something that developed over time? Was there a particular story that called or spoke to you? Who were your teachers and inspirations?
I was marinated in a soup of stories from an early age. Both my mother and grandmother told me stories from their childhood, my grandfather spun a rollicking series of tales about the adventures of a boy hero called Toot-Toot. My father read to me almost every night: sci-fi and fantasy and poetry and ghost stories that used to scare my socks off and give me screaming nightmares. One of my earliest memories is of his melodious voice reading me to sleep…
I was also an omnivorous reader; we had a library in our house, and I was allowed to range freely…. Grimm’s Fairytales were a perennial favourite, for their wild magic and savage poetry. A love of and fascination with fairytales has been a constant thread in my life. My first experience of being a storyteller was of telling ghost stories by torchlight to a bunch of girls in pyjamas on a primary school camp. As a young woman I explored telling stories through Creative Writing and Poetry. Two books I encountered at this time planted powerful seeds, the first was Eva Luna by Isabel Allende, where the main character is a storyteller, the second was Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. Reading this book was probably the first time I said to myself, “I could be a storyteller”, it offered a powerful permission. (Photo by Mandi Nelson)
My journey towards becoming a storyteller wasn’t straightforward, like all stories, it had many twists and turns. I was 34 the first time I saw someone at an open mic poetry reading stand up tell a fairytale to adults, and my hair stood on end. At 37 I had the opportunity to begin to learn the craft of storytelling through Waldorf Education, and met some wonderful mentors: Horst Kornberger, Jenny Hill and Ashley Ramsden.
Now, I am inspired and nourished ongoingly by the work of UK based storyteller and mythologist Martin Shaw, New York based teller Laura Simms and Canadian story-carrier and ritualist Randy Jones.
What ingredients must a story have to make it irresistible to you? Is there a particular story and maybe a character that has impacted you deeply? How?
I would say that the stories choose me, but they do often have common ingredients: wildness, magic, grief, beauty, transformation, and some aspect of my own lived experience that speaks back to me. I sometimes think that stories are like nested Russian dolls, in that I can foolishly think that I know a story in my repertoire well and then one day, while telling it, a whole new image or world can open up that I had not been aware of before….I love this, and will never get to the end of my wonder and delight at this mystery!
The story that has impacted me deeply and feels closest to my own (at this point in my life), is The Handless Maiden, a Grimm’s tale, that is to me a profound initiation story. I relate strongly to the central character who undergoes a betrayal, a period of exile and grows her own hands back after they have been severed, for me this is a potent image to carry and work with. I also love to tell stories of wild, unconventional women, such as Tatterhood and Dame Ragnell, women who know what they want and are not afraid to ask for it……I like to think that by telling these stories I become a little more like these women myself, and that my listeners, whatever their gender, also find the courage to be themselves a little more fully. I also love stories in which the other-than human speaks, where birds, trees and rivers have voices….
What do you love the most about being a Storyteller? On your path as a storyteller, what have been your most challenging obstacles and your most significant growth?
I love that the stories are not mine…that they have passed through the mouths and pens of storytellers for millennia, that they have crossed mountains and continents and oceans and changed shape, that I get to participate in this great lineage and pass the stories on to someone whose life might be changed by hearing this particular story on this particular day…..
There is an electric magic, a presence, that hums in the spaces between storyteller and listener sometimes that is incredibly alive and responsive. I live for these moments, when I know that the audience and I are absolutely present in the story. In our technologically dominated world, these experiences can be rare, but our bones remember them, and we are hungry for such nourishment.
Telling stories to children is also a delight, (it can also be terrifying), it always astounds me how deeply children listen, even if they are fidgety or distracted, like they too remember that once we were storytelling animals.
There have been some significant obstacles on my path, I am quite a shy person, so preparing myself to tell stories always requires me to cross thresholds of self-consciousness, self-criticism, and my desire to be in control. Learning to trust myself, and above that to trust the stories is an ongoing journey.
I am the mother of an eleven-year old boy, a single-parent, who juggles work obligations and family relationships. In traditional cultures where oral storytelling was valued there was an intensive training and apprenticeship that was supported and valued by the larger culture. It takes time and will to learn, carry and be ready to tell a story, and this is not always seen as valid or necessary work in the current world. Carving out this time can be difficult and sometimes causes tension in my life.
How can stories benefit our lives?
Well, I could write a very long essay on this topic, and many people have, but I think the most potent thing I could say is come and experience the potency of live oral storytelling for yourself! In my understanding, in many indigenous cultures, stories were told as medicine for troubles that arose within community. The premise of the way I have been taught to work with story is that in these times, we have so much trouble, that traditional stories are like elders, they have been around for long enough to gather some wisdom, so any story when told with reverence and listened to with heart can offer some hints as to the next best step forward for the listener….
If you had a story to offer the world that could make a difference now at this time on the planet – which one would you offer?
One story that has been with me lately is The Buried Moon, a folk tale from the Fenlands in East Anglia. In this tale The Moon is a woman who is captured when she visits the swamplands by her ancient enemies, the bogles and other shadowy creatures. They bury her in the swampland and terrorise the village nearby while her light is absent from the sky.
What strikes me about this story is that everyone in the village has to go together into the swampland to find and liberate their moon from the shadows that have swallowed her. There is a lot more to the story, but the fact that the village must face their fear and enter into the darkness together as a community in order to bring back the Moon strikes me as being resonant for the times we are living through.
If you were a character in a story, who would you be? What would your message be?
I would be the storyteller, the woman with 3 strands of silver in her hair (actually more than 3 strands now) who tells stories all night as the moon sets and the sun rises again over the rim of the world…..I would quote one of my favourite contemporary storytellers Neil Gaiman in his wonderful poem Instructions: “Trust ghosts, trust dreams, and trust your story….”
How would you like the future of storytelling to look like?
I would like more people to come together in community to experience the magic and medicine of oral storytelling (I suspect that this will happen over time). I would like there to be more storytellers in our communities, and I would love to see more storytelling happening in the vulnerable groups of our communities; in aged care facilities, in jails, in high schools as well as primary schools.
What piece of soulful advice would you offer a woman who yearns to express herself but finds it challenging to follow her heart, to step up and be seen?
My advice would be to begin first with little steps, and to be infinitely kind to yourself. Tell a story to a tree in your back garden, whisper a poem to the midnight air when everyone else is asleep, take your grief to the ocean, praise the extravagant delicate beauty of a wildflower, even if you speak just one word. Take little steps. As women, we have so many demands and expectations on our time and energy, and there are many internal thresholds to be crossed in order to allow ourselves to be seen and our voices heard in the world. Be honest with yourself, first and foremost about what it is you most want in your life and begin moving towards that with tiny steps. I believe there is a grace that rises to meet us when we begin such an undertaking, when we make such a prayer.
Apart from Jaya’s monthly storytelling evenings, she also runs weekly Creative Writing Circles on Thursday mornings from her home and is available for performances and events as a poet and storyteller.
Connect with Jaya