Anis Mojgani – Slam Rhythms, with Marty Smith

Word_ThugAnis Mojgani was born in New Orleans and this is what his first poem settles on: his childhood. Alongside Mojgani, Marty Smith joins him in reading his opening poem by echoing certain phrases, giving the impression of multiple voices shifting and coming together to shape a certain rhythm. When Mojgani completes his poem and lets these final sounds dissipate, a single speck of silence permeates in the air before the sound of applause fills it again.

The first question Smith asks of Mojgani is one about culture, and the two exchange ideas linking this to poetry; certain cultures sound different and therefore have different musicalities. Mojgani talks about how often his “work returns to the city rhythms”; New Orleans is the musicality that he has grown up with and that he finds himself frequently writing about.

Mojgani’s response to Smith’s question about writing with intent and purpose was perfect – Smith suggested that his performance poems are like “sound recordings of his life”; Mojgani agreed with this but also proposes that they are more like “capsules of time” that float both close by and away. Therefore, others can respond to his poetry but his writing doesn’t have to be as conscious and deliberate as recordings. I found myself agreeing with his ideas, and how he believes that poetry is both a “plotted and unplotted endeavour”.

Mojgani therefore gave a sense that poetry doesn’t need to be inherently purposeful. He simply has a human need to create art, to process himself and the world; poetry is simply figuring out “emotion into language you know”. He employed a digression on how we wear our vulnerabilities and emotions like coats. We shed or put on more coats depending on the situation we’re in; we want to protect the one thing—our actual selves—that is truly ours, but we are also terrified of sharing it.

This talk of vulnerability lead to a discussion of his life as a slam poet, a life that includes speaking about personal things to audiences filled with strangers. Mojgani’s advice is simple: we think so much about the things we fear but “the things we fear don’t happen” or if they do, they are simply done and in the past. When his final poem of the evening, ‘Shake The Dust’, fills the room, I’m left with an extreme need to write something. For me, good poetry is poetry that inspires you to write, and this was definitely the case for Mojgani.

cv_the_pocket_knife_bibleI was so enthused by his view of poetry as a purely human and emotive art that I had to go have a talk with him after the event was finished. His latest book, The Pocket Knife Bible, is a beautiful hardcover filled with colourful illustrations and sections of both prose poetry and writing in verse; this is the book Mojgani signed for me. Since his idea of poetry as simply figuring out emotions resonated with me, I asked him what his favourite thing to write about was. After rewording my question to what he wrote most about, he settled on childhood, a topic that he often found himself coming back to and was still sticky in his mind, as is the case with many moments in life.

The note that Mojgani wrote for me alongside his signature simply reads: “Keep your words close and far”. After hearing Anis Mojgani speak, I feel this means keeping words and emotions close to my own heart but also not being afraid to share them with the world.

Attended and reviewed by Emma Shi

Anis Mojgani: Slam Rhythms
5pm, Friday 11 March
NZ Festival Writer’s Week

Anis Mojgani will perform solo at a NZ Festival event in Paekakariki on Sunday, 13 March at 2.30pm in the St Peter’s Village Hall. It will be wonderful, I hope you are going.

Anis Mojgani is doing two events next week in Christchurch, in association with WORD Christchurch, on 15 and 17 March.

Nnedi Okorafor: Magic Futurist, with Tina Makereti

pp_nnedi_okoraforTina Makereti introduced Nnedi Okorafor beautifully, as somebody who brings “a kete overflowing with stories.” Nnedi has written works for adults, youth and children – a tweeter reviewed her work as “like swallowing the sun.”

Nnedi wasn’t always going to be a writer, unlike several of the writers I have seen this writer’s week. The likes of Simon Winchester, Patrick Gale – they always went towards that as a journey , from an assumed privileged background – even Mallory Ortberg. For Nnedi, her first love was athletics. She and her sister toured the USA playing Tennis as kids and teens, and their parents were both Olympic-level athletes. She became a writer after an operation she had for scoliosis led to her being paralysed aged 19 – there was a 1% chance this would happen.

As she learned to walk again, she stopped herself from going insane by writing stories. She went back to university, dropped Sciences and took a Creative Writing course – it was that which started her journey. She feels that her early life as an athlete was accidentally good training for her particular style of magical realism. As an athlete, you come close to having supernatural senses about physical things – as a writer she could use this to create realistic superpowers.

Her Nigerian upbringing was very much a part of her life experience – her parents would take her back frequently throughout her childhood. She said, “When I sat down and wrote these stories, I see the world through my unique perspective, as a NigeAmerican” The barriers between life and afterlife are a lot more fluid for the Igbo people.

“One of the things that pushed me to start writing (I read books like I eat candy) was my life as reader. Once I could read, I would at any time I wasn’t on the tennis court or on the track.” She couldn’t see herself in a story – she thinks every reader deserves to have stories where they are the main character, and also where they aren’t. Writing, for her, was a way to fill in the blanks she had found in literature. These blanks were mainly in the area of writing about strong, complex, feminine characters. She says, “I wanted to see them making mistakes – doing wonderful, and also terrible things.” Like so many writers, she was telling stories she wanted to read.

I read one of her books to prepare for this – Lagoon – which has the fantastic character of Adaora, a marine biologist that becomes one of the first humans to meet the aliens that have landed in the Atlanti, going underwater from Bar Beach in Lagos. She and her luck-met companions all have superpowers of a type, that they must use as a group to change the world to allow these aliens to live peacefully.

She was surprised but grateful for the response: “Finally, I am reading this type of character.” Nnedi says that she is grateful to connect with so many people, through this character.

Nnedi read a hugely powerful piece from Who Fears Death – it took her six years to write, because she had to overcome the death of her father, which had initially prompted the prologue. The book she wrote first was too long, and it was quite a long journey to get it published.

As I mentioned earlier, Nnedi refers to herself as NigeAmerican – she likes to put this together and make a new word, because it is a metaphor for how she sees herself. She has always been on a lot of borders, through being bookish and athletic. She is an insider and an outsider, and an ‘other’. She has a different history from African-Americans (those descended from the stolen people), and was always not quite accepted by them as equal in experience. Meanwhile, in Nigeria she was called oyibo, which means ‘white’. She thinks this may have led to her to write science fiction: trying to go outside the roles, and outside the demarcations.

She was incredibly frustrated that Nigerians were portrayed as outlaws in District 9 – the first science-fiction blockbuster to be set in Africa. Lagoon was written in response to this portrayal, to write the wrongs. When writing Lagoon, about aliens coming to Lagos – she wanted to see everybody’s reactions. She wrote from fragments of perspective, rather than deep inside one voice, which is usual for her. “I see all of Earth’s creatures are people.” The tale was from the voice of spiders, spirits, very enlightened bats, and so much more. She had noticed that first contact narratives always begin with aliens interacting with human beings – Lagoon begins with contact with a (soon to be giant) swordfish.

Sitting in this session was fascinating. It made me think more deeply about race, identity and gender. Nnedi is a powerful speaker, and a fantastic presence. She will appear again tomorrow at at 9.30am in Bats, at ‘Three Soul Writers’, with Janie Chang and Tina Makereti. Go along and hear from three magical writers.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Nnedi Okorafor: Magic Futurist
2pm, Bats as part of the NZ Festival Writer’s Week
Writer’s Week goes all weekend – get your tickets here!

by Nnedi Okorafor
Published by Hodder
ISBN 9781444762761


Neurosurgeon Henry Marsh: Do No Harm, Tuesday 8 March


pp_henry_marshHappy International Women’s Day, everybody! I began Writers Week 2016 with Kim Hill interviewing Henry Marsh at the Michael Fowler Centre.

Marsh is a neurosurgeon whose memoir Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery has been very successful. I was looking forward to this session because fellow surgeon/author Atul Gawande was one of my highlights of the Auckland Writers Festival last year. But whereas Gawande was full of energy, charm and passion, Marsh seemed shy and tired. He does have a beautiful voice, though: one of those lovely posh British voices that make the speaker seem automatically authoritative and trustworthy.

cv_do_no_harmOne of the issues with writers festival sessions focussed on a non-fiction author is that the content of the talk is often exactly the same material that makes up the book: a discussion of the facts that have already been related. Although I haven’t read Do No Harm, I prepared for this session by reading Joshua Rotham’s piece in The New Yorker, and Hill’s questions followed almost exactly the same ground. This had the unfortunate effect of making the whole interview feel a bit like a retread.

Nonetheless, Marsh is an interesting person with a lot to say. He related how he has kept a diary since the age of 12 – full of “morbid adolescent self-interest” – which he then destroyed at age 22, and how his book is a “refashioning” of this diary, written to himself. He spoke of the importance of remembering mistakes, since we learn so much more from them than from successes. He thinks that brain surgery is best performed with colleagues – “the age of great Beethoven-like figures working alone is past” – partly because others are better at seeing our mistakes than we are. He spoke of the importance of openness and honesty, “even though neurosurgeons aren’t shary sort of people”.

On the topic of brain surgery, Marsh said that the operating is the easy bit: the difficulty is in all the decision making, where it’s a question of judgement, not of fact or technical skill. You have to come to terms with the fact that you’re going to have to harm a small number of patients for the greater good of most people. He quoted French doctor René Leriche: “Every surgeon carries within himself a small cemetery, where from time to time he goes to pray.” Marsh describes his own ‘internal cemetery’ as “huge”. His memoir is an examination of this. As Rotham says, “Marsh isn’t interested in the usefulness of error. He is the Knausgaard of neurosurgery: he writes about his errors because he wants to confess them, and because he’s interested in his inner life and how it’s been changed, over time, by the making of mistakes.”

Marsh has spent a lot of time in the Ukraine, helping build neurosurgery capacity in their medical system. There’s even been a documentary made about him: The English Surgeon Although it seems that his relationship with Igor Kurilets has now broken down, he also does pro-bono work in Nepal and Albania (despite having ‘retired’ from medicine last year). His parents helped set up Amnesty International, and Marsh says he’s always had a strong sense of social duty.

The term ‘brain surgery’ always reminds me of That Mitchell and Webb Look sketch:

Near the end of the session Marsh said that the idea that brain surgery is technically more difficult than other forms of surgery is no longer true. Quick as a whip, Hill jumped in with “well it’s not exactly rocket science, is it”. Best line of Writers Week so far.

Attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

Henry Marsh: Do No Harm
Michael Fowler Centre, NZ Writer’s Week, Tuesday 8 March 2016

Book: Do No Harm
Published by Weidenfield & Nicolson
ISBN 9781780225920