I was lucky to get the chance to attend the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee from Friday, October 7th to Sunday, October 9th. Jonesborough is a quaint town that belongs on a postcard with the sun setting and a couple walking hand in hand towards their happy ending. The town’s population hovers around five thousand and it is known as Tennessee’s oldest town. The immediate area that the storytelling festival was held--Historic Jonesborough-- wasn’t sullied by a McDonalds or a Subway or even a Starbucks. The arguably biggest building in the area was a United Methodist Church, which seemed to be a bit bigger than the school. A walk along the main road would take you to a few locally owned coffee shops, a bunch of boutiques and a lot of antique shops. You passed a ginormous town hall (quite possibly bigger than the church!) and many shops that sold “I <3 Jonesborough” T-shirts or cookies that showed with a little heart where in Tennessee Jonesborough was. In total, walking through this town I got the feeling that everyone knew everyone and town gossip spread faster than the plague.
When I walked into Jonesborough, the second thing I noticed, after than the absolute quaintness of the town, was the sheer number of people who were packed into the streets, on the steps of the town hall and in the tiny antique shops and candy stores. International Storytelling Center President Kiran Singh Sirah said that by October 2nd over eleven thousand people had registered. That’s more than twice the number of people that live in the entire town! So as I walked down the streets, finding it impossible to not bump into people and be bumped into, I marveled at the number of people who still find the first form of history, the first form of entertainment, the first form of communication, important and enjoyable in this day and age.
The way that the storytelling festival works is that there are sessions--time slots-- throughout the day. There are five tents and a theater and you choose which storyteller you want to hear and you go to the tent that they are in during the session that they are there. At the end of the day, you have gone to six or seven different storytellers. The tents that the sessions are held in are huge, white tents fit for a carnival, and they are packed. Some of the tents where the more popular storytellers perform are so packed that people are standing in the back and sitting on the cool ground where the aisles are supposed to be.
The first session that I went to was to see Antonio Sacre share a piece called “High Five Daddy!” This session turned out to be my favorite session of the weekend! Antonio relayed the story of how he met his wife, how she took him out swing dancing, but he was only used to salsa since he was Cuban, so he was bad at that. Then he took secret dancing lessons for three weeks to impress her. He then merged into a story about how his then girlfriend (future wife) loved camping and so he took what he called “secret camping lessons” and spent a fortune on camping supplies and took her not only camping but backpacking. Of course, many mishaps ensued and laughter filled the audience as we related to his mishaps and swooned over his love for his wife. Then he spoke about having their first kid, first family camping trip when the boy was only two years old. He spoke about the second kid and her first camping trip. He spoke about the many camping trips that followed, some rugged, some luxury, some with just the immediate family, some with the entire second grade class. He spoke about the burritos they had for dinner and, of course, the leaking gas that followed. He spoke about the sweet moments like singing their children to sleep and the catastrophic moments like when the clumsy girl tried walking with the last s’more.
What I enjoyed most about Antonio’s stories was not that he could relay in perfect detail the journey to the top of the mountain where the campsite was located, but that he somehow made me wonder, even as I was sitting, listening to his excited voice swing up and then fall gracefully down as if it was traveling the mountains itself, watching his animated body carrying the invisible two-ton backpack and dance a swing-salsa fusion, I still wondered if he was going to make it to the top of the mountain, and if he did, would it kill him to get back down. The way that Antonio told his stories created surprises in the little moments. He uncovered layers of his life and his family so that you felt joy in each detail he revealed.
Going to the storytelling festival changed my perspective not just on storytelling but on writing and living and, mostly, listening. Listening is such a powerful thing in the modern world. Today, many people listen just to add or reply, but at the storytelling festival, you listen to hear. The only interruption was the train rumbling by. There was not one-upping or comparing of scars. You hear the words of the storytellers and accept them. You hear the words and feel them. You hear the words and are grateful that you got the opportunity to be there when they poured or streamed or shot or oozed out of the storyteller’s mouth.