WORD Christchurch: Sonya Renee Taylor – The Body Is Not An Apology

The Body is not an Apology is available in bookshops nationwide. 

Seeing a fat woman on stage talking about how beautiful she is feels drastic – decadent – almost illegal. Experiencing Sonya Renee Taylor being genuinely not just okay with her fat body but loving it was a shock and an enlightenment. There’s another way. Body shame is neither natural nor compulsory. There’s another way. HOLY COW. At one point she joked ‘I’m not Jesus’, but I have to tell you, I’m not sure that’s true.
Sonya-Renee-Taylor
Taylor is a queer fat black American performance poet and businesswoman who’s residing in Aotearoa for a few years as part of the Edmund Hillary Fellowship. She is the creator and leader of The Body Is Not An Apology movement, which preaches radical self love. This session was programmed and chaired by Tusiata Avia, who opened by inviting us to feel the mana whenua under our beautiful bodies. Soon we were also feeling the aroha as we basked in Taylor’s and Avia’s combined presences.

Radical self love is related to body positivity and fat acceptance but has a wider remit and greater ambition. Taylor says that her goal is nothing less than to entirely dismantle the oppressive systems that tell us that some bodies are better than others: racism, ableism, transphobia, fatphobia, and so on. Radical self love starts by looking inwards – ‘We cannot create externally what we have not created internally’ – but is expansive and contagious. Unlike self-confidence, which is fleeting and individualistic, radical self love means that ‘I never doubt my inherent enoughness even when I’m not feeling pretty’. Radical self love is solid even when everything on top of it is shaking.

cv_my_body_is_not_an_apology.jpgTaylor said that there is no such thing as a toddler with body shame: we are born ‘magnificent and full of wonder’. (Later on, British poet Hollie McNish would make the same point.) The shame we seem to all end up feeling is learned and comes from what Taylor calls the ‘body terrorism’ of the global body shame profit complex: everything from the diet and beauty industries to pat-downs in airports.

One of the hierarchical systems Taylor wants to destroy is the widespread belief that ‘healthy’ bodies are better than ‘unhealthy’ ones: ‘Health is not a state we owe the world.’ And in the meantime, while most medical institutions are operating on the mistaken assumption that being fat is inherently unhealthy, ‘fatphobia is killing people’.

Taylor is an extraordinary stage presence. She is loud in the very best sense of the word: confident, generous, and captivating. As with Comfortable In Your Skin (which Taylor was also a part of), it felt like one of those magical festival events where exactly the right people had found themselves at exactly the right event. We were a responsive audience, often clapping, clicking, murmuring agreement – even crying a little. We ran over time because Taylor and Avia both shared with us their poems: Taylor’s ‘The Body Is Not An Apology’ and Avia’s ‘Apology’, both on the same theme. We clapped and clapped and clapped, and then all rushed out to buy Taylor’s book and get her to sign it for us. Taylor has given us the gift of an alternative path, and I could feel her words go right to the heart of me. Ngā mihi nui e te rangatira.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage

WORD Christchurch: The Body is not an Apology

The Body is not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love
by Sonya Renee Taylor
Published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers
ISBN 9781626569768

WORD Christchurch: Starry, Starry Night

WORD Christchurch: Starry, Starry Night

‘What a nice guy!’ Poet Hollie McNish exclaimed of host John Campbell as she took the stage. Campbell was in his usual fine form, gushing over each of the gala night’s participants, generating excitement for who and what we were about to see. He picked up the festival’s theme of adventure, and wove together his introduction, equally generous in his praise of each of the seven storytellers, poets, writers, activists, and filmmakers.

Starry-Night

First to take the stage was Joseph Hullen, a Ngāi Tahu storyteller. Hullen was a perfect choice to ground the proceedings, a local who talked of the increased visibility of his iwi and their story in post-quake Ōtautahi.

Next up was Scottish poet Robin Robertson, who read grim poems that captivated the audience. Robertson has been blessed with the kind of voice you could easily listen to for hours, slow and deep, with just the right amount of gravel. He dedicated his final poem to programme director Rachael King, who has brought all of these seemingly discordant writers to her city and bound them together in the epic event that is WORD.

Documentary filmmaker and author Yaba Badoe (Ghana/UK) read the first chapter of her book A Jigssaw of Fire and Stars. The story told of haunting dreams, of a perilous sea journey that ended in destruction, of hope lost, and histories that replay over and over, demanding to be heard.

Hollie McNish announced she was going to read two poems about the most adventurous person she knows – her daughter. They were poems full of love, fear, anger and hope. She then read her poem ‘Polite’ as mentioned by Campbell in his introduction, a hilarious yet poignant tale about a teenager giving her boyfriend a blow job.

Wellington novelist by way of India via Canada, Rajorshi Chakraborti, talked of his latest book, The Man Who Would Not See. He told the tale of researching the personal family story that was the basis for the book. Intended as a work of non-fiction, Chakraborti’s investigations changed the course of his family’s story, meaning he had to switch forms and instead write a novel.

Following Chakraborti, UK author Philip Hoare read two short sections from RisingTideFallingStar. The first told a tale of rotting deer carcass, brutal in its descriptions of the natural world, but switching into fantasy at the end. Then came a piece about a performance of breeching whales, and the audience felt we were right there on the boat, marvelling at the sight.

Sonya Renee Taylor (USA) was a powerful end to the evening’s proceedings. She read a section from her book The Body is Not an Apology, then performed two poems. The first, about her mother, was heartfelt and emotional, leaving more than a few audience members teary eyed. The second, a rousing, powerful, and unapologetic rendition of the piece her book is named for, filled the Isaac Theatre Royal with her presence. It demanded attention, and lifted everyone’s spirits.

John Campbell then retook the stage to remind the audience that what we had seen that night was uniquely special. ‘We go to so many events,’ led Campbell, ‘where we watch the same thing. I’ve watched so many rugby games and seen the Crusaders beat the Hurricanes over and over again.’ Appealing to hometown hearts is always a winner. ‘But what we’ve seen tonight,’ he continued, ‘will never happen again. These seven artists will never again share a stage. They will never again be in a room together. And that’s special.’ And indeed, it was.

Reviewed by Gem Wilder

Other times you can see some of these folks:
Mortification (Robin Robertson – Saturday, 5.30pm)
Hollie McNish and Hera Lindsay Bird: Poetry Stars
Te Ao Hou: Weaving indigenous identity back into Ōtautahi (Joseph Hullen, 2pm Sunday)
The Politics of Fiction (today, 4pm – Rajorshi Chakraborti)
Soundtrack, or, dancing about Architecture (Sunday, 11.30am with Philip Hoare)
Robin Robertson: The Long Take (Sunday, 2.45pm)
The Freedom Papers ( Yaba Badoe – Sunday, 2pm)

WORD Christchurch: Comfortable in your Skin

WORD Christchurch: Comfortable in your Skin

In this session put together by guest programmer Tusiata Avia, Victor Roger led a panel of queer people of colour, each with different stories to tell about how they have come to be comfortable in their skin. As Roger invited each panelist to tell the audience about their journey to self-acceptance, we saw the similarities between stories that spanned continents and generations.

Comfortable-in-your-own-skin

Manu Vaeatangitau
Georgina Beyer was up first, and she led us through her fascinating tale, from leaving home at 16 with dreams of studying at the New Zealand Drama School, a stint as ‘the boyfriend’ on soap opera Close to Home, time as a stripper and sex worker, to becoming the first transsexual Mayor and then Member of Parliament. Add in renal failure and a kidney transplant, and you have what would make a seriously fantastical biopic. And who would play her in the movie of her life? Beyer is adamant: ‘First things first, it has to be a transgender person.’

Beyer is unapologetically herself. There was never a question of her being anyone else, and her ‘Fuck off’ to the haters attitude is refreshing. She says of her teenage years: ‘When I was being Georgina I was free, I was liberated, I was comfortable in my own skin.’

Sonya-Renee-Taylor

Sonya Renee Taylor

Radical Self Love activist and poet Sonya Renee Taylor is also unapologetically herself, and has made it her life mission to guide other people towards accepting themselves, exactly as they are. Roger asked Taylor how she came to this level of what she terms Radical Self Love, a movement that has it’s roots in a conversation Taylor had with a friend, which led to a poem, which led to activism and a book, The Body Is Not An Apology. Taylor answered: ‘Language creates things, so as you’re saying shit you’re making shit.’ Meaning that the more she performed her poem, the more she began living its message.

Artist and founding member of FAFSWAG, Pati Solomona Tyrell, also wants to help others become comfortable in their skin. He sees his work and the events and creations of FAFSWAG as a way to return power and knowledge to Pacific people. ‘A lot of [traditional Pacific] power and knowledge is held by the church, so it’s not accessible to queer kids.’ Tyrell talked of the close bond he has with his family, and how that bond forced his coming out to them in his first year at University, as ‘having to hold something back that was a very important part of my identity kind of wrecked me.’ Though Tyrell’s family are accepting and supportive, they can’t understand the experience of being queer. This is where the community that is FAFSWAG comes in. ‘We built, like, a little family.’

Manu Vaeatangitau is a part of that FAFSWAG family. He describes his own coming out at 15 as violent. The violence that was a constant throughout his High School years ‘made me very resilient.’ The youngest on the panel, and the last to share their story, Roger asked Vaeatangitau to reflect on whether he thought his generation have it easier than the more experienced panel members. ‘It’s a waste of energy to compare,’ responded Vaeatangitau. Drowning is drowning, no matter how deep the water. This nicely drew the panel together in a united front to wrap things up.

A last question from the audience saw Beyer respond with her same take no prisoners, give no fucks attitude, and Roger signed off ‘We end with fire from the whaea.’

 

Reviewed most excellently by Gem Wilder

Other events featuring these speakers:
Sonya Renee Taylor: The Body is not an Apology (Sunday 2 September, 1.15pm)
FAFSWAG: Vogue!  (Pati Solomona Tyrell, Manu Vaeatangitau) Workshop, 2.30pm, Saturday 1 September
The Neu! Otatahi Incident (Pati Solomona Tyrell, Manu Vaeatangitau) 7.00pm, Saturday 1 September
The Sex and Death Salon (Victor Rodger) 10pm, Saturday 1 September