Quite a few of the free Melbourne Writers Festival (hereafter known only as #mwf) events are at Feddish, awkwardly located in part of that awkward part of the city, Federation Square. Plonked, I found myself this afternoon, on an unfortunately shaped, and disconcertingly high, wicker chair by the bar. Soda water with a hint of ginger ale carefully laid to my left, pen handy, knowing not what to expect from Mohezin Tejani, in conversation with Angela Meyer (@LiteraryMinded).
I try to avoid preconceptions. They have rarely been my friend. And if you expect nothing you cannot be disappointed. So it was as Mo and Angela settled down. What wandering journey would I and the pale ginger ale be taken on as the door opened and shut repeatedly and I wished to reach down from my awkward perch for my scarf? Well, it turned out to be a rather happy discussion of military coups, global citizenship, language, identity and Pink Floyd.
I say happy, Mo was quite engaging and light as he read from his book A Chameleon’s Tale. Which, in India, apparently has the title Thankyou Idi Amin. Mo was among many thousands booted out of Uganda after the 1971 coup, and like many of the Asian-Africans who faced the same fate moved to the United Kingdom. Chameleon change number one. From there he went to the US, to South America, and has since travelled and live in each of the continents that are not Antarctica.
Global refugee, global citizen, aid worker, feature writer, author, speaker of eight languages, Pink Floyd fan. There are many boxes he could fit into, although, like the rest of us, Mo is not so simple.
So, some quotes from Mo, and some thoughts of my own follow.
“Life in Uganda before the coup was actually quite good. We didn’t have television so we made up our own games.”
The weather was nice and the food was good, he said. He later wondered what karmic injustice Uganda had committed to be visited with decade after decade of violence. (What is happening in northern Uganda now is worse than Idi Amin’s day, he says, and see here for Refugees International‘s take from last year.)
“Sleep didn’t come easy that night.” After the tanks rolled into Kampala.
“Identity’s an ongoing process.” Even almost forty years later.
“I’ve learned a hell of a lot more from travelling than what I did in school.”
One of the extracts he read spoke of overhearing a conversation where the crocodiles were said to be getting fat from eating the corpses Idi Amin and his regime were supplying. Chilling.
Thoughts from the bar …
It seems inevitable that events at festivals such as #mwf occasionally get bogged down into issues and discussions of politics and that kind of nonsense. You know you might be heading into such territory when a question comes from the crowd that goes a little something like, “Do we have any hope of having a global society?” Last year, poor Bernhard Schlink stood on stage as a supposed questioner went on something of an anti-Israeli rant. Okay, fair enough, all governments and armed forces should face questioning and scrutiny and Israel has both. Whatever. But a rant that verges on anti-Semitism and expecting a German to answer – at the risk of quoting Lleyton Hewitt – c’mon!
And sure enough, groan, it came this afternoon. The question was, “Do we have any hope of having a global society?”
The obvious answer is no. Mohezin Tejani lives in hope that we are moving closer, because people are moving around more, marrying each other and the internet makes communication possible. We in Australia could connect to a farmer in Zaire and discuss Pink Floyd, was the example he gave.
Okay, yes, fair enough, all well and good. Me, being cynical, think that humans are just as mean and nasty to each other as ever. Have we really evolved so much? At least Mo sees hope, which is encouragement.
Then he was asked about Australia and political attitudes to refugees. Always a fun topic. He’s speaking tomorrow with Peter Mares and James Jupp AM at an event called Humanity in Transit. A paid event, no doubt such weighty issues will be discussed in more detail there.
I was happier hearing him asked about his writing process – which for me is what #mwf should be all about, rather than anything too political since we can get that elsewhere. He thanked Truman Capote for creative non-fiction – it was clear from his reading and the answers Angela gleaned from him that Mo has a colourful and engaging approach to memoir. Particularly given English is only one of is languages.
In all, a pleasant surprise.