Sunday, March 15, 2015

Kristin Gleeson - a 21st century selkie

In the honor of St. Patrick's, I am pleased to welcome an exceptional multitalented woman who embodies the Celtic spirit - Kristin Gleeson.  Born in Philadelphia, she lives in Ireland, in the West Cork Gaeltacht, teaching art classes, playing harp, singing in an Irish choir and running two book clubs for the village library. Combining her love of myths with her harp playing, she has performed as a professional harper/storyteller in Britain, America and Ireland.  She holds an MA in Library Science and a PhD in history.  Today she tells us about her novel Along Far Shores.   
I suppose it might have been the fact that my siblings and I grew up in culturally and racially diverse neighborhood of Philadelphia that we developed a real appreciation of diverse cultures.  I ended up marrying a Cornishman, my one brother married a Thai and the other a half Jewish half Native American and my sister a Cuban. 

I spent the first years of my married life in rural Cornwall and parts of the UK, until circumstances brought us back to the US, where my love of history led me to a Masters in Library Science and a PhD in Women’s History and I found a job at the Presbyterian Historical Society. It was a dream come true to handle artifacts, letters, diaries, journals, reports, photographs and other records of missionaries, church officials and prominent people that revealed the lives of so many different people all over the world.   I remember when I stumbled across a letter long tucked away and forgotten, written in the 1850s by a young Prince Chulalongkorn, the Thai royal who was made famous in the book Anna and the King of Siam and The King and I. His tutor had been a Presbyterian missionary.

            The archives also contained records of the missionaries’ work among Native Americans, including the Native Alaskans.  Because of my family connections I also worked with Native Americans to repatriate some of their sacred objects contained in the museum.  That led me to help a Tlingit Native Alaskan group to establish evidence of their settlement in certain areas in Alaska in order to reclaim land.  Government records had recorded vast land tracts as uninhabited, when in fact missionaries had filed records, taken photos and written letters back to their supporters when working with these people in the very territory that had been declared uninhabited.   During this work I began to realize there was so little that documented the actual voice of the Native American in the collections.  There were no reports, letters, or diaries written by them.  No oral interviews even.   The Tlingit elder I was helping at the time told me many stories that his people had passed down to him and I became more and more interested in their culture and the whole story of their experience with the missionaries. 

            Stories were so important to me and I was delighted to hear this elder’s stories.  His belief of their importance fit into my growing determination to share stories in different ways, particular through the Irish harp.  In the years since I had moved back to the US I had started playing the harp, supported by the years of piano and organ lessons I’d had growing up.  I soon began to play gigs, and eventually developed my own blend of storytelling while playing the harp.  I played schools, libraries and festivals as well as the bread and butter of playing weddings and other celebrations. 

            I left the historical society, drawn to a desire to play my music and spin my tales, and took a job as a part-time children’s librarian.  It was a wonderful time to discover the fun and joy of telling stories to children through picture books and through the harp. Once, when I was doing some much needed weeding in the collections I came across a book that told about the legend of Prince Madog of Wales’ voyage to America in 1170.  It wasn’t a picture book, laid out in a beautifully illustrated manner; it was a nonfiction text that investigated the legend in order to substantiate its truth.

I was so intrigued I took it home and read it in a night.  I have to confess I’d never heard of the legend before this.  I’d heard of Leif Ericson’s 11th century voyage along Labrador and that area and of course I heard of the 6th century voyage of St. Brendan which again was most likely up in the northern areas of the Americas.

Madog’s voyage, as the legend goes, ended up in Mobile Bay, in what is now Alabama and he sailed up what is now called the Mad Dog River.  All very intriguing.

At the same time, I was writing a novel that looked at the blond-haired plaid clothed mummies that were discovered in the Xinxiang Province in western China.  They dated back to about 1500 B.C., long before any archaeological evidence of “Celts” or what we group as Celts, though they seemed to share many of the same characteristics in their burial patterns, clothing composition and other items. I loved the idea of it and my novel evolved as two parallel narratives, one in the ancient past that brought a small proto Tlingit group and a proto Irish/Celtic group together and the present that brought an Irish woman and a Tlingit man together. The novel is called Raven Brought the Light and it will be out soon.    

In the many centuries in-between those periods I thought I would write other novels that told the story of similar encounters between the two groups where I could show the two cultures in different periods and the aspects of prejudices and assumptions that each time period might have. Linking all this there would be a medallion passed down through the centuries and back and forth between people and appearing in each novel as a connection that means something strongly to one of the characters.

The first novel I published as part of that linked series was Selkie Dreams. One of the songs I had sung and played on the harp after telling the tale of the selkie (seals that take on human form at the summer solstice) was the ‘Selkie of Sule Skerrie.’ It’s a haunting song and seemed a perfect structure for the first tale I wanted to tell that could show the Tlingit side of the story in Alaska while also keeping the mission viewpoint by telling it through the eyes of an Irish missionary. 

The other novel to link in was structured around the Madog tale. It seemed like a wonderful event to use as part of this novel chain and became the novel, Along the Far Shores, published last fall.  It tells the story of Aisling, an Irish noblewoman who escapes the turmoil in her country only to find a similar situation in Wales where her brother is serving one of the many princes but is determined to be part of Madog’s voyage.  Aisling stows away on Madog’s ship in order to be with her brother and is tossed overboard during a storm.  She is rescued by a Tlingit trader, Caxna, who reluctantly takes her along his trading journey first to the declining Mayan city of Xicallanca and then later to Etowah, the powerful city of the Mississippian empire.  For Caxna a successful journey means his clan’s freedom.  But Aisling changes everything. 

I didn’t write Along the Far Shores until I came to Ireland. My passion for Celtic music, particularly Irish music had been part of the draw to the harp and I had picked up the fiddle and bodhran as well in the ensuing years.  So when it became possible to move to the West Cork Gaeltacht, to one of the vibrant hearts of traditional Irish music, I seized the opportunity.  Here, I’ve been fortunate to be living in a wonderful community full of so much music, beautiful landscape and good people while I pursue my writing, music and also teaching art to adults.  And when time permits I get to do a little painting of my own.  I couldn’t ask for more.

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