Ox-Tales at the Southbank

16 July, 2009

I have never been much of a fan of the spoken word. In fact, I confess I don’t really know much about it. I see plays intermittently, and every time I come away in a daze because of the brilliance and energy. I get swept away by the explosion of emotions coming from the stage and I don’t quite know what to do with it. The same with poetry. Maybe they frighten me a little.

With books, I am in control of how I read, when to stop, when to pick it up again once I have dealt with the emotions. Sometimes I cannot stop until I am at the end.

Yesterday, however, everything I have ever felt about the spoken word changed. I was feeling exhausted and was thinking of skipping the London Literature Festival session at the Southbank and going home to chill out. It was a session where authors read from their work, and not an interview or talk. But Jeannette Winterson was going to be there, and Kamila Shamsie, DBC Pierre and Diran Adebayo standing in for Hanif Kureishi. I had been looking forward to seeing Jeannette Winterson whose novels I have yet to read, but whose articles and short stories in the much missed Saturday Times Books section was a twice monthly highlight for me.

Diran Adebayo began with an excerpt from his forthcoming novel ‘The Ballad of Dizzy and Miss P’, a love story between a young artist and a science student in 1980s/1990s London. Adebayo was smooth, used the language of university students, and I felt myself pulled back in time to when I also frequented the infamous SOAS bar where the two protagonists first meet.

This was followed by Kamila Shamsie’s short story following a Pakistani man transporting a stone reliquary across the desert into India. Her story was weighty, her voice low and and almost breathless. You could feel the grains of sand as the protagonist sank one foot after the other as he crossed the desert, avoiding poisonous snakes, unable to hire help because of the decrease in business and increased debts, just to get paid for delivering a stone relic of another religion.

Jeannette Winterson followed her onstage but chose to stand in the middle of the stage rather than at the podium to her right. Her voice resonated and her story about a dog was not just a story, but a poem, a play, the universe. There was so much force and emotion in her performance which shocked and mesmerised me.

The session ended with DBC Pierre’s short story about a pseudo-colleague in Trinidad. Pierre’s voice was flat and measured, so different from Winterson’s delivery. But slowly, he pulls you into his tale, his voice changing, his accent changing. There is laughter, sadness and then back to the beginning which is also the ending.

Four different tales, four different styles. I had never appreciated an author’s reading of his work. What a difference it makes. They are reading their stories in the way they were meant to be read and heard. It was a revelation. The discussion that followed touched upon this and Adebayo said sometimes his readers do not hear the same thing he does when he writes. Winterson said that everyone should stand in the middle of their room and read out loud. I totally agree.

Ox-Tales is a collection of four lovely books of short stories and poems by 38 of the world’s best writers for Oxfam. You get to read some great writing and ease some of the suffering in this world.

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