I used to be a performance poet. Wearing an eyeliner moustache I’d throw myself around the stage like a deranged Russian count, or adopting an ersatz German accent I’d impersonate a formidable Frau on the warpath. I never got nervous before these appearances: it wasn’t me up there, what was there to worry about? When I began writing SFF novels it came as rather a shock, therefore, to realise that only very rarely would I get invites to read my work, or even to discuss it. Instead, I was expected to come to conferences and festivals and talk about all sorts of other things, sometimes only tangentially related to my fiction, to audiences who – given I’m an SFF late starter – generally knew far more about those things than I did.
It took a good couple of years to adjust to this blow to my theatrical ego. Initially I would over-prepare and feel hugely anxious beforehand and afterwards. Not entirely without reason: I recall once sitting on a dais in a massive hotel conference hall, being asked what war in history should have turned out differently, and having to speak over a wave of muttered disagreement at my reply.* Not funny at the time! Gradually though, as I developed a keen interest in SFF and Islam, disability studies and gender, I’ve started to relax and enjoy myself at these kind of events. Though perhaps I have just developed yet another persona, Naomi the Diverse SFF novelist . . .
But that’s another blog post altogether. This point of this one is to share the captured versions of some recent live events. Yes, I’ve got so comfortable blathering away I’m even fine now for events to be recorded. Mind you, I can’t watch or listen to myself: I’m not bothered about what I look like or the sound of my voice – it’s just too painful not to be able to edit what I’ve said! Still, it’s nice that other people think these events are worth recording (and, in the case of poetry readings, watching it back does enable me to edit the written text). So in the interest of archiving the ephemeral and vanquishing the spirit of the staircase, I present here some recent poems and conversations, with the odd note on what I should have also said . . .
Poetry reading at the Underground Cafe, Eastbourne.
Filmed by Mister John. [The videos are all too long for WordPress, so I’ve included links to YouTube.]
This event coincided with the start of the 24 hour vigil to mark the anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire (Jun 14 2018). In the first half I read my long poem ‘Going on Crutches to Grenfell Tower’ (12 minutes). If that’s a bit long for you, you can also read the poem in London Grip.
I also read my epic ode to football, ‘The World Cup’ (4’30”) which after this year’s magnificent tournament, I might have to rewrite – certainly to include Pussy Riot’s pitch invasion of the final match!
As Mister John said, these two videos are a little dark. The lighting was better in the second act, during which I read some shorter poems including ‘Bernadette’ – a sisterhood poem in honour of the effin’ ineffable Bernadette Cremin.
Interview by Dan Jones for the British Science Fiction Association (The Artillery Arms, London)
Audio and video of the event (53 minutes) are available on the BSFA website, courtesy of the impeccable Chad Dixon. [Contains spoilers]
Dan Jones, possessor of an enviable day job at the UK Space Agency (yes, we have one!), is the author of Man O’ War (Snow Books), the story of an AI ‘pleasure model’ called, er, Naomi . . . it therefore seemed inevitable that he would one day interview me about Seoul Survivors. It was fascinating to get his reaction to my creepy cyberchiller – and collect another genre tag for the book, which Dan has decided is ‘tech-noir’. It was a great chat, ranging from the nature of villainy to the prospects of peace in the Korean peninsula, and my only real regret is not talking more about Korean SF and horror. I was gripped by Han Kang’s Vegetarian, and am thrilled that Lee Bul is exhibiting in London right now – her headless Cyborgs were a big inspiration for Seoul Survivors, so why I forgot to mention her I do not know! I did enthuse incoherently over Korean football though – they had just humiliated Germany, so I think being gobsmacked was allowed – and also talked about Korean peace campaigners Nodutdol, so I hope I didn’t do too badly by my host nation. I’ve since visited the Lee Bul show, a glamorous futuristic dreamworld which gave me a huge longing to return to Seoul. Meantime, though, I will be returning to the Artillery Arms in September to interview Dan about his novel, which I’m now extremely curious to read!
Islam and the Imagination: A talk with Samir Mahmoud, chaired by Remona Aly, at the Bradford Literature Festival.
It’s a shame this video hasn’t been published yet by the organisers, because at this event I said nearly everything I wanted to say! I do wish I’d managed to praise the marvellous short story collection The Djinn Falls in Love, though, which I’d brought along especially and placed on a chair beside me, and then completely forgot to talk about. Editor Jared Shurin came up to me afterwards though, to say he’d tweeted a photo of it to his co-editor Mahvesh Murad, who’d replied ‘I like the fourth speaker!’.
A Blade of Grass: New Palestinian Poetry on WBAI Radio 99.5FM, NYC
A celebration of the book I edited last year for Smokestack Books, featuring Palestinian-American poet Farid Bitar and members of Jewish Voice for Peace, NYC. Click through and search for Arts Express, July 12.
I’m not on this programme – but my introduction to A Blade of Grass is quoted, which was touching to hear at midnight across the ocean, especially on the 24th anniversary of my mother’s death. My mother, Brenda Riches, was also a writer and editor, and listening to a old CBC radio interview with her at Christmas I realised how much she inspired my own philosophy of writing, in which editing plays a significant role. I was also simply moved to hear the poems I’d chosen voiced, the context clear, the community united and a Palestinian poet singing for his fallen sister.
So it’s been a fulsome start to the summer. Next stop Jerusalem and Ramallah, for the Palestinian launches of A Blade of Grass. Watch this space!
*Boudica’s last battle was the wrong answer, I guess, as the Romans left Britain eventually anyway. Still, perhaps if they’d left earlier England would be more like Britain’s ‘Celtic fringe’, with less of an identity crisis and imperial complex? [Wave of muttered disagreement rises to a crescendo . . .]
Photo of me in the Lee Bul exhibition by Karlien van den Beukel.