by Diana Rusu
“Once you can tell a story - you can find people with similar stories and you can build a community. I guess writing is a tool for me to find people.”
A poet, playwright and performer whose work has appeared in print at Words Dance, The Delinquent and in other anthologies and publications, as well as on stage at the Vault, Brighton Fringe, Clear Lines and UNHEARD Festivals – Tanaka Mhishi is a busy, creative Londoner doing various writing workshops, collaborations with the BBC and touring an inspiring show for kids, called “Boys don’t”. His current on-going project is called “Icepick” and it is a Literary podcast that brings new works to an audio platform by creating a nice fusion between writers and voice actors. We met up with Tanaka and discussed all about writing!
Diana: Now, you probably know more about the London writing and performing scene than I do, so can you tell us what does this scene look like today? And in today, where are you, with all this content that you create?
Tanaka Mhishi: There’s lots of literary tiny worlds in London; there isn’t one overall scene, but I feel like where I am is really interesting. There’s this movement of spoken word and performance poets into traditional theatre spaces and they are shaking up the form, and that is about what performance poetry is, as well. There are some amazing spoken word shows, poetry publishers who are now publishing scripts of these spoken word shows, so all of that is really fun and I’m really enjoying it. The scenes are converging and I get to introduce poetry friends to theatre friends.
D: When did it all start? I mean, what was the first piece that you have ever written?
T.M.: I always think that’s a really hard question to answer because, if you go back far enough, we’re all just children who played. I feel like at 12, 13, 14 – you start to get serious and then all of the creative stuff emerges, so I think that’s when I thought “Oh, I don’t want to lose that stuff”. But I did write some really bad poetry as a teenager!
D: Me too! I think we all did. It’s just something that you must to go through; you have to start from somewhere.
“I had no idea about confessional poetry or feminism or any of these things, but I was just like “Oh, ok, there is this dead American woman who has put into a poem so much of what I’m feeling and she’s speaking to me from another era, from a completely different life”
T.M.: Yeah, it has to be bad before it gets any better. I do remember that moment, it was in English class, it was Sylvia Plath and like a lot of people I had a moment of rough time with my parents at that time, so I was reading “Daddy”. With no context whatsoever, I was 14 – 15 and I had no idea about confessional poetry or feminism or any of these things, but I was just like “Oh, ok, there is this dead American woman who has put into a poem so much of what I’m feeling and she’s speaking to me from another era, from a completely different life, and she gets me more than people around me – that’s kind of magic! It’s like time travelling! I thought that I could do this as well.
D: A lot of young kids find their inspiration first inside their family, or close community. I know I had peaked at my dad’s journals where he’d written poems in his troubled youth, and so I wanted to copy that. Did you have creative people in your family growing up? Did they support you in the process?
T.M.: Yes and no. Both of my parents were incredibly talented creative people. My mother was a visual artist and my father a musician. But all of this was ancient history by the time I was growing up. They would be creative in very quiet ways and neither of them viewed it as a viable career. I remember thinking that I’m not going out like that: they sacrificed their creativity for me, but I’m definitely not doing that. I want to make this work as hard as I can.
“I think the idea of creativity and art is a gift”
My mom was an incredible artist. I had story books as a child, but she would paint the story books and put me into the stories, and she would make them for me. It was wonderful, but I was the only one who experienced them. I think the idea of creativity and art is a gift and as a contribution it was really there in my family.
D: Research – creative – social issues – body trauma – gender – race. Writing and performing about all of this can be extremely hard, yet I know it offers not only you but also to anyone who will listen, a deeper understanding. What are you writing about at the moment?
T.M.: When I started out it was the performance poetry that led me into theatre, as theatre is more versatile. Now I’m doing a kids’ show called “Boys don’t” which is about masculinity for ages 8+ and it’s teaching boys a little bit more about emotional intelligence. I also have this other end of my work, where I talk about sexual violence in a very adult research context. And then, there are all sorts of stuff in between. I also work with the media every now and again, with the BBC and The Observer.
D: I guess if you want to tell your story no matter through what outlet, you have to use all of them.
T.M.: Yes, and also it keeps me from getting complacent. I know that if I just do one thing over and over again, I’ll stop pushing and I’ll stop learning. And I guess it always comes down to language, that’s the thread that runs through everything. One of the questions you sent me was would I rather be a writer or a performer? And I had a whole identity crisis! I really don’t know! They’re both so entwined. The thing with the writing and performing is that I get a chance to be a hermit and then once I’m prepared, I get to share my work. So, I think the two are really connected. But I wouldn’t perform without writing, I’m not an actor.
“I write a lot for other people”
D: Tell me more about what inspires you to write, from literature to real life.
T.M.: It comes from many places; a lot of it is autobiography. I do have that thing where I’m always watching my experiences and think “oh, this is good material”, which is a weird way to live your life and sometimes it’s not the healthiest. Everything is sort of autobiography in some point.
I write a lot for other people. There’s a show that will be going on in February, which came out after a long conversation that I had with a friend of mine who was saying that she never sees full lives of queer, lesbian or bisexual women represented – you always see cut-ups; you never have the sense of longevity or the sense of a person aging – in terms of the representation that we get. You don’t see relationships that have been there for twenty years. Very often. And I can see how it might be difficult, in the sense that you don’t have a picture of what your life will look like in 40 years from now. But I’m a writer, so this is something that I can do. A lot of the times I’m responding to a lack of stories and weird gaps, or things we don’t talk about. Of course, everything is in one way or another, meant to fill a gap that you have in yourself.
D: Speaking of real life, I think traumas have a big role when it comes to writing.
T.M.: There’s this really interesting theory in trauma studies about language, for example, one definition of trauma is “an event or a series of events that you cannot process through the language senses of your brain”. The actual pain is described such a thing that happened, but you cannot tell a story about it. So, for me, being able to tell a story, being able to put it in words is very important because words are what we use to connect to each other. Once you can tell a story you can find people with similar stories and you can build a community. I guess writing is a tool for me to find people.
D: It takes a huge amount of courage to write about yourself. You can go above and beyond of finding yourself, belonging to yourself and then not belonging to yourself anymore, but to your audience. And that’s scary and beautiful. What is your creative process?
“I helped someone; that was worthwhile. I could do that for the next 60 years of my life and that would be fulfilling for me”
T.M.: I had a moment when all of that crystalized for me. I was 20. I had a really good friend who went through a dark period. I ended up doing a lot of care there, I was happy to do it but I wasn’t the priority, so all of my feelings went into poetry. Later I performed one of those poems and afterwards, this woman came up to me and she said “I’m really glad you did that poem, because I went through almost the same thing as you and hearing it, has helped me.” And I remember I was really glad. I helped someone; that was worthwhile. I could do that for the next 60 years of my life and that would be fulfilling for me. And that’s such a blessing to have. I knew then that this is not just about me.
D: My last question is what is your favourite poem? And if you could have written any poem from anywhere in the world, at anytime in history, what would that be?
T.M.: Wild geese by Mary Oliver.