EIBF 2014: The Moth

This is one of a number of pieces covering events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, which runs from 9th–25th August 2014 at Charlotte Square Gardens, Edinburgh.
The Moth performed on 23rd August 2014

by Defne Çizakça

The beginnings of The Moth go back to 1997, and southwards to Georgia where writer George Dawes Green and his friends told each other stories on a quintessentially American porch, surrounded by old live oaks. Moths encircled their long summers, so they named themselves after these light seeking insects. Fast forward 17 years and The Moth have developed into a nationwide storytelling initiative with books, radio programmes and weekly podcasts to their name.

Famous they may be in America, but this is the first time The Moth are gracing the Edinburgh Book Festival. This year’s theme has been “Conversations with Ourselves,” and fittingly tonight’s performance will be on “Hearing Voices.” Lynn Ferguson takes the microphone and shares the two rules of the cooperative: each story told on stage must be true, and at most 12 minutes long. Admittedly, truth is a murky concept, difficult to judge in daily interaction, let alone in a story. But it will be easy to tell when performances run over time tonight; Ferguson announces music will start once the designated minutes are over. A shy violinist smiles at us from the corner of the stage.

The first to present his story is Andrew Solomon, a professor of psychiatry at Cornell University. His field of expertise is depression. It is both an academic interest and a personal pitfall, he tells us, and it has taken him all the way to Senegal to participate in a healing ceremony called the ndeup.

In the village of Rufisque, five women rubbed my body with millet. Five men began to play the tama drums. I was told my demons would depart as soon as we sacrificed a chicken, one red cockerel, and a ram.

What follows is a mesmerizing, funny and thoughtful account of recovery. The Senegalese don’t think illness hides in your unconscious, your family history or genes. It has very little to do with you, in fact. Sadness is a demon that tries to draw near. They also don’t buy into the idea that you can heal yourself; Solomon and the Lepu villagers go through each intricate step of the ndeup as a community. They dance, chant and sacrifice together. Demons can be detached from you, Solomon finds out, and they can also be laid to rest. At the end of the ceremony, a hole is dug. “Let me be; give me peace, and let me do the work of my life. I will never forget you,” Solomon tells his demons as he buries them, not without a hint of new-found love.

Dr Rufus May takes the stage next. He is a clinical psychologist and a schizophrenic who decides to out his illness during a medical conference. Some of his colleagues applaud his courage while others reject his legitimacy; in either case, May’s confession is an invitation for others to reach out. Soon, May begins to help an NHS doctor who hears voices that tell her to commit suicide. We learn about the conversations May, the NHS doctor and the voices begin to have, but we are not granted the end of this story. Dr May wraps up his observations in a sentence or two and exits the stage without a finale. Nevertheless, the applause in the room is thunderous.

This in-between and incomplete tale highlights what I love most about The Moth: the rawness of their storytellers. It is a quality that is sometimes lost in the medium of podcasts and recordings. But here on stage, without the shield of technology, it is palpable and heart-warming. Most professional storytellers earn a living performing on demand, in schools and libraries. An unintentional consequence of their usual surroundings is that some of them have a tendency to lecture, or worse patronize, their audiences. In contrast, Moth performers are amateurs. They take the stage because they are overcome by a story, and storytelling is at its best when the tale can outshine the teller. In this field, amateurism reigns supreme over professionalism because a perfect performance does not resonate. Moth’s focus on non-specialists ensures the much craved intimacy between storyteller and listener.

The last speaker, Omid Djalali, is a name I am more familiar with. “So I have lived with a dilemma all my life,” he begins, “you look at me and assume I am your friendly next-door kebab shop owner. But in my mind, I am a handsome, lean, blonde mysterious prince.”  Djalali is a British stand-up comedian of Iranian origin, he is also a small time actor. He may have the power to make 200 of us laugh, but his story is about invisibility, too. “No one knows who I really am,” he continues, “You may remember me from such iconic lines as ‘Walla!’ or ‘Habibati!’” He has a place in the entertainment industry precisely because he is generic. “In the credits my name runs as ‘Arab,’ ‘Desert warrior,’ ‘Terrorist,’ ‘Turkish man,’ ‘Cashier number two,’” and yet, of course, Djalali has a life beyond the stereotypes. And now that he has the microphone, we get to hear all about it. Unsurprisingly, this is the only occasion in which the shy violinist gets to show us talents of his own.

Rain begins to pound down on our tent in Charlotte Square. Fireworks go off somewhere close to us. Yet the focus in the room hardly wanes. Each story raises questions: Why is it that psychologists make us talk about bad things, in stuffy, dark rooms, and all alone, for weeks on end? Aren’t a bit of music and dancing, and the support of a community more logical solutions? And why is it that we assume a sick person cannot heal another? Surely, illness must bring along an empathy no healthy person can possess. And who are the people behind the names that appear on film credits? Most of us would prefer them to Hollywood stars if they were all as funny as Djalali.

One hour of The Moth comes to a close too quickly. As I get off my seat I notice a dazed look in everyone’s eyes. We have managed to completely forget about ourselves, the way George Dawes Green and his friends must have forgotten on that Southern patio. On my way to the train station all I can think of is a Leonard Cohen line, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” And I realize The Moth is indeed the perfect name for this group of tellers that relate the truth for 12 minutes. The cracks resonate.

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