Guest Post by Farz Edraki
The woman next to me on the bus didn’t apologise after a small, green piece of gum shot from her mouth and landed neatly in my lap.
“Oh,” was all she said, adjusting her neck pillow and unwrapping another packet of Extras.
It was an overnight bus ride from Canberra to Mildura. I was twenty, and using a long weekend as an excuse to escape a particularly bad break-up and misspent university semester, to visit my parents.
When Gum Lady proceeded to rather loudly blow her nose into a handkerchief and showed no sign of saying sorry, I thought: that’s it; it’s war. When she asked me to turn off the overhead light, I refused, pointing to my book. If she was paying any attention, instead of muttering aloud about “inconsiderate young ‘uns”, she might have noticed that I wasn’t really reading at all.
In fact, my bookmark stayed on page three for hours as I listened to five consecutive podcasts.
That’s when I first heard The Moth. It featured the story of a man trying to fight his inner fears of being a loser by joining a fencing team. Two minutes in, and I was chuckling aloud at the man’s misadventures and run-ins with a quirky French fencing teacher – much to my neighbour’s chagrin. This was followed by three other stories from three different storytellers, all recorded at a live story-telling evening in New York.
I was hooked. I listened to two more The Moth podcasts that night, and countless more since. Without trying to invite direct comparisons, you could say that The Moth is a bare-bones version of This American Life or Radiolab. Instead of using sound effects or multiple narrative voices to tell stories, The Moth sticks to a simple formula: a microphone, an audience, a theme.
Three years after that overnight bus ride, I’m sitting in Melbourne Town Hall, as comedian and host Ophira Eisenberg walks across the stage to introduce The Moth Mainstage at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival.
“Many of you may be here to see Boris Johnson, our supporting act,” she jokes, referring to the London mayor who delivered the opening keynote address on the same night.
The theme tonight is ‘guts’: stories of courage (or “moxie and might”, as Eisenberg announces). Each speaker has ten minutes to tell his or her story of courage. Eisenberg intersperses the night with her own wry stories of accidentally accepting a performing job as a human statue, and coming to terms with a bad haircut and break-up.
For me, the highlight of the night was writer Melissa Lucashenko, who was first on the set-list. She starts by telling us about moving with her husband and daughter to Bundjalung country (“I wrote novels and bred Arabian horses and made connections with my grandmother’s people”).
But soon the story turns sour: a divorce, a daughter with ailing mental health, and being forced to move as a single parent out of her dream house and back to the city.
Lucashenko’s voice is raw and honest. She stands resolute, her gaze firmly fixed on the audience as she talks about the aftermath of her daughter’s suicide attempt.
“And I just kept putting one foot in front of the other – saying, ‘your job is to keep your daughter alive,’” she says.
Lucashenko tells us she put one foot in front of the other until one day she secured a spot in the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire hotseat opposite Eddie McGuire. A question about the scientific measurement of light secured a $50,000 win and a hopeful note to end Lucashenko’s rather dark story. The audience cheers as she speaks about dancing with her daughter that night in their hotel room next to an oversized cheque.
It’s one thing to listen to a storyteller on a podcast on a crowded bus at 1 am; it’s another thing to see the speaker in flesh-and-blood in front of you.
There’s something more confronting, maybe, about seeing somebody as they speak about their suicidal daughter. You can’t help but notice their hands, waving around in time with their thoughts. Or, if you’re close enough to the front row, their raised eyebrows as they recount an incredulous turn to the story.
The evening’s two other speakers, Tony Wheeler and Magda Szubanski, had different takes on the theme of courage.
Tony Wheeler, entrepreneur and founder of Lonely Planet, takes to the stage after Lucashenko. English-born Wheeler arrived in Australia on a boat from Indonesia (“I guess in a way we were boat people before the term was even invented”), and hasn’t stopped travelling since.
As he talks about his travels – hitching rides; getting arrested in Congo; sneaking into Iraq without a visa – it’s not difficult to see Wheeler as someone with moxie and might. Yet, it soon becomes clear that Wheeler’s story is of his daughter’s courage, too. His voice catches as he talks about his daughter contracting a serious bout of diarrhoea on a childhood trip. “She still travels for Lonely Planet,” Wheeler proudly says.
For Magda Szubanski, courage is fighting the urge to die of embarrassment when paparazzi snap unflattering photos of you at the beach.
“I said, ‘f-ck ‘em’, I’m going to be fat, middle-aged lady, and go to Bondi with wet, clingy bathers and there’s not a thing you can do,” she says.
Szubanski’s story becomes about more than just her nerve in the face of an unforgiving media, but turns into a heart-felt account of her father, who was a Polish-counter intelligence assassin in WWII.
It was a total surprise to see this serious side to Szubanski, who’s typically associated with her comedic role in Kath and Kim. As she walks offstage after tearing up, Eisenberg and Szubanski share a quiet hug.
The Moth’s founder, George Dawes Green, named the storytelling event – and later, podcast – after the insects that were drawn to the porch light on summer nights where he and his friends would recount stories.
While Melbourne’s Town Hall isn’t as private as a household porch, the sentiment is still the same: celebrating old-fashioned storytelling. Whether you’re at a friend’s house, or listening to a podcast on a crowded bus, or sitting in an auditorium, there’s an intimacy to hearing somebody’s story first-hand.
— Farz Edraki is a freelance writer, radio producer, and small press publisher. You can find her at @FarzEdraki.