The Body is not an Apology – Sonya Renee Taylor: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

Poet and playwright Tusiata Avia, introduced Sonya Renee Taylor, the founder of The Body Is Not An Apology, and informed us that they had fourteen years of friendship.

The Body Is Not An Apology is an ideal and now also a global business committed to radical self-love and global transformation.

Sonya Renee Taylor. Image supplied.
Sonya Renee Taylor. Image supplied.

If I could only write two words about this session they would be: Inspiring and Illuminating. Taylor is, as the saying goes, a force of nature. She describes herself as a performance poet and an activist.

Tusiata and Sonya spoke about an incident when they first met at a festival where someone body shamed Taylor, but Avia took it on board as well and it has lasted with her these past fourteen years. Taylor said that “body shame is contagious” as it is often overheard by others.

The day before, Taylor had done an interview with Kim Hill who seemed sceptical that radical self-love could transform the world, but Taylor affirmed that transforming our need to be superior to others transforms the world. Taylor said “we can’t build outside if we haven’t built inside.” The message of love is a transformative tool and Avia posited that this was a message given by all the major spiritual teachers. Taylor explained that self-love should not be confused with self-confidence or self-esteem which were fleeting and externally influenced. Self-love is divine love because it acknowledges the divine within us all. Radical self-love is enduring because it affirms our inherent “enoughness”, our worthiness.

CoverTaylor explained that we never see a two-year-old who hates themselves because we all came here with love, but as we grow that essence gets buried somehow. “Love must be the foundation of the world.”

Taylor said her entire journey in writing the book, The Body Is Not An Apology, was about her learning to navigate her own self-love journey. The book was seven years of examination of the self.

The genesis of her journey began at a Poetry Slam in Knoxville, Tennessee. A female participant with cerebral palsy had excused having unprotected sex by saying that she didn’t feel she could ask the man to use protection because of the way she felt about her body. From somewhere in her subconscious, Taylor told her “your body is not an apology”. This then evolved into a poem and then a Facebook page and eventually a global organisation. It was what Taylor described as a “transformational portal” which occurs when three facets are present: honesty, vulnerability and empathy.

But while performing the poem, The Body Is Not An Apology, Taylor realised that she was transforming some of the contradictions raging inside her. This was further developed with the liberating sight of a plus-size model. Taylor asked herself “why was she hiding?”

Avia explained how through illness she had lost 40 kilos and she noticed a change in social perception of her. Taylor asserted that the concept that healthy bodies are better bodies marginalises so many body types and runs contrary to the irrefutable fact that all bodies are finite because we all die. She called the hierarchy of bodies that was promoted in Western society by media and others “body terrorism”. An example that highlighted body terrorism was the ability for TSA personnel in US airports to body scan body types that sat outside their perfect frame. Taylor said that during one such scan a TSA agent touched her genitals in an act of state-sanctioned sexual assault. New Zealand was not immune since immigrants to our country can be refused if they have a BMI over 35.

Avia posed the question: “How do we achieve radical self-love?” Taylor responded by saying that we all have to interrogate “Body oppression” and change it. We must be willing to change our negative internal messages. Every person has their own sphere of influence in which to practise this. Avia pointed out that there were many tools in the book to help readers with this process.

Gleefully introducing science into her book (Taylor said she was not good at science in school), she compared body shame to pathogens. In order for body shame to thrive there needed to be a triad: host, environment and pathogen. We were the hosts, society was the environment, and body shame was the pathogen. Taylor claimed that when we interrupt that triad, it stops the process of disease.

Starry, starry night: WORD Christchurch Festival 2018

It certainly was a rather star-studded affair on Friday night at the Isaac Theatre Royal for WORD Christchurch’s gala event. Everywhere a person turned there were famous faces about; Helen Clark striding past on the footpath out front, Michele A’Court queuing at the bar in the foyer, Georgina Beyer chatting in the row in front of me metres away from Ted Chiang in one direction and Juno Dawson in another. What fine company to be in of an evening.

Festival director Rachael King opened proceedings with a valiantly lengthy introduction in te reo Māori (with help, it turned out from Ngāi Tahu Māori language advocate and educator Hana O’Regan). She admitted that the programme she and her team and brought together was “unashamedly feminist” and challenging, exhorting the audience to “see one session a day that scares you”*.

From there MC John Campbell took the reins, confessing that he can be a difficult man to pin down, refusing as he does to reply to any kind of communications (phone calls, emails and the like), but that King is “as tenacious and unbowed as the city itself” and hence his appearance at this event.

I don’t know what John Campbell is like as a gift-giver (if his Christmas presents are rushed affairs or precisely wrapped and carefully considered) but his compliments… his compliments are like finely crafted jewels – cut and polished, thoroughly researched, and presented in a bespoke arrangement you’ll never have the like of again. Each writer, in their turn, was the recipient of John Campbell Compliments™ and I can’t imagine I’m the only one who felt jealous.

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John Campbell compliments the heck out of everybody, Starry, starry night. WORD Christchurch Festival 2018.Friday 31 August 2018. File reference: 2018-08-31-IMG_0168

The usual pattern for these events is for each of seven writers to take seven minutes to read something or tell a story with the MC making introductions in between. But rather than disturb the flow like a “judderbar” in the evening, Campbell preferred to bring all the writers out in a line-up (like a literary beauty pageant), and introduce (and compliment) them in the beginning, making links and connections between them as he went on.

The overriding them between, he thought, was the shared struggle to be human. What I am and what I am not. The question we all ask.

First up was Ngāi Tahu storyteller Joseph Hullen who reflected on what it had been like growing up in Christchurch, and how his mother’s Ngāi Tahu whakapapa was barely visible in the city, with only a few places like Te Hepara Pai (Church of the Good Shepherd) on Ferry Road or Rehua Marae on Springfield Road that reflected any sense of a Māori presence or identity in the city. But things have changed and his hapu, Ngai Tuahūriri now have Matapopore, a organisation that is adding touches of his people’s identity into the fabric of Christchurch. The name of the new central library, Tūranga being a prime example of this, referencing as it does, the arrival place of Paikea the father of Ngāi Tahu’s eponymous ancestor, Tahu Pōtiki, and the knowledge he brought with him.

Scot, Robin Robertson took the stage next and brought a voice filled with menace and foreboding telling several dark tales in poem form, including one about a cat dying of cancer. His last piece, an invented Scots narrative about selkies, he dedicated to King, the author of Red Rocks, and children’s novel about the self-same mythic seal-creatures.

Robertson was followed by Yaba Badoe reading the opening chapter of her book A jigsaw of fire and stars. In it a baby is set adrift to escape a devastating event, bringing to mind mythic versions of the “floating foundling baby” like that of Moses, Maui, or even Superman.

Hollie McNish read some of her poetry and I found my eyes moistening as she spoke of her daughter in poems like “Wow”. The power of seeing a new, young person figuring out the world and their place in it conjures up powerful emotions for McNish, and secondhand, for me.

Wellingtonian novellist Rajorshi Chakraborti talked about the genesis of his book The man who would not see. It started out as what became “the book that could not be” – a nonfiction tale about the disappearance of his father’s sister. After hours and hours of research that led to a re-connection of estranged segments of his family it became apparent that publishing the book would damage that family connection. in the end, he says “the family member in me trumped the writer”. And so he repurposed and reshaped his research into a novel instead.

Whale-lover Philip Hoare read a couple of extracts from RisingTideFallingStar, stepping out from behind the podium and reading in a most kinetic way, gets his whole body into the reading, acting out certain actions and movements of the protagonist as he went. The language is sensuous and descriptive and you can nearly smell the salt air.

Finally Sonya Renee Taylor explains that there are two kinds of fear, fear of the unknown and fear of the dangerous. We should try not “the fog of the unknown” because there may well be nothing there to harm us. As the free-diver she met in the Bahamas, who dives down into the depths of the unknown, says “every metre is a tiny freedom”. Her poem about her mother’s belly made me cry again, but her “The body is not an apology” ends the night on a triumphant and defiant note.

Starry, starry night - Sonya Renee Taylor
Sonia Renee Taylor, WORD Christchurch Festival 2018. Friday 31 August 2018. File reference: 2018-08-31-IMG_0164

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*So that’ll be Robin Robertson in most cases. Terrifying.