Great writers are not necessarily great storytellers. They are, after all, people who spend a great deal of time alone. But some of them are, and The Moth exists to showcase this rare breed. The Moth’s events bring together famous and the not-so-famous authors in combinations you won’t likely see otherwise.
In good PEN Festival fashion, these combinations are subject to change. Last night’s event featured Petina Gappah, Laszlo Garaczi, and Salman Rushdie, as advertised, but Salwa Al Neimi and Jonathan Ames were replaced by Boris Timanovsky and Bokara Legendre, the violinist was replaced by an accordionist, and writer and comedian Tom Shillue was added as host. (Shillue began with his own rather touching story, about growing up in Norwood, Massachusetts, with a teddy bear named John Michael and a father he was afraid to talk to until he was twelve.)
Boris Timanovsky, though his bio admits to no published work, made a strong start to the evening with a tale about pen pals and deception. Posing as a young friend so as not to disappoint the boy’s female pen pal, Timanovsky reflected on how much easier it was not to have to answer the tough questions of women his own age: questions like What happened to your previous relationships? What are your true intentions? and Are you really divorced or only separated? So much easier to say that your favorite color is blue, you have a pet parrot that sits on your shoulder, and you want to grow up to be a sea captain.
Petina Gappah and Bokara Legendre told stories set in Zimbabwe and Nepal. Since these are the only two countries in the world where I have spent a month or more, I felt strangely worldly listening to them.
Gappah, whose story collection An Elegy for Easterly has just appeared in England and will soon be published here, spoke of growing up in the years when Salisbury, Rhodesia, was transformed into Harare, Zimbabwe. African girls like her, newly ensconced in formerly all-white schools, were discovering Marmite and singing songs (without grasping the significance) about the Pioneer Column that took their people’s land a hundred years before.
Legendre recalled a long-ago visit to Kathmandu when, dressed in two-inch gold heels and a caftan of chiffon, she made her way over fence rails and through fields strewn with cow patties in order to crash the coronation of the king of Nepal. She then headed for the mountains, where she met Sir Edmund Hillary and drank gin with him (from an empty hand-lotion bottle).
Though each story was meant to last only ten minutes or so, the event began an hour and a half later than advertised, and proceeded at a leisurely pace. I was a little too drowsy to grasp all of Laszlo Garaczi’s story, especially as it unwound one sentence at a time through his translator. But I enjoyed his description of the Trabant, an East German car unique in being made of papier-mâché, and how a friend of a friend who parked one in the countryside returned to find it half-eaten by pigs.
Finally Salman Rushdie invited us to cast our minds back twenty-three years to a time when he had more hair and his body was lean and taut (“something like Brad Pitt”). Rushdie was struggling with a novel when he accepted an invitation to attend a revolution. The invitation came at the Met’s Temple of Dendur, from the compañera of Daniel Ortega, a woman whom Nicaraguans “loathed preemptively” for an unforgivable thing she hadn’t even done yet.
Rushdie described (as he did in The Jaguar Smile) a country ravaged by poverty, earthquakes, and the paranoid hostility of the United States, “a larger country to the north.” Nearly everyone in Nicaragua was a poet, nearly everyone Rushdie met seemed to have slept with everyone else, and the Ministry of the Interior was housed in an ex-supermarket. Determined to act like a serious journalist, Rushdie insisted on visiting a remote road where a busload of children had been blown up by a landmine. Once there, common sense set in.
“Do you have any way of telling whether there is a landmine in the road?” he asked a guide.
“Oh yes,” the man replied. “There is a very big bang.”
Rushdie returned to London and found his writer’s block was overcome. He knew how to finish his novel. And so he completed and published The Satanic Verses, and his troubles were over.
Geoff Wisner is the author of A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books That Capture the Spirit of Africa, which discusses books from every African country. He also blogs at www.geoffwisner.com.