TThe day after our interview, Salena Godden e-mails me first thing in the morning. She’s staring at the dreamy snow, she says, and eating a huge Jamaican banana pie with rum, but she’s also kicking herself for forgetting to say something important. “I woke up thinking that I would hate the idea of being in The Guardian and not marking the names of these good people,” he writes, over a list of books that excite him, by authors such as Courttia Newland, Nikita Gill, Kathryn Williams. and Irenosen Okojie. It is typical that, just when you publish your first novel, you want to share the love with other authors. Godden has been mentoring writers for many years (including Nikesh Shukla, whose book Brown Baby came out a week after hers) and, having worked so hard for her part of the limelight, she really cares about paying for it.
The first novel in question is Mrs. Death Strange Death, a witty, angry, warm and elemental combination of poetry and prose in which Death is portrayed as an elderly black woman who shares her stories through a young poet named Wolf. It was published just as the UK Covid death toll reached 100,000 and, seemingly at the perfect time, the book testifies to preventable deaths, inadvertent deaths and lives stolen without thinking. But it was written long before closing, with its genesis as early as 2011. “I started this book because I was in a place of anxiety and mourning and mourning and there were a series of funerals,” says Godden, noting that many people are in that place. , now. The first time he “met” Ms Death was in 2015: while walking through East London, he suddenly heard a voice saying, “Now I know a lot of dead people.” She walked miles, through Whitechapel and Bow, feeling the rhythm of Mrs. Death’s words and frantically typing them on her phone.
The novel that emerged is an exhilarating combination of allegory, poetry, and very real fury. A recurring motive is a fire in a block of flats that killed Wolf’s mother. There is a poem titled Mrs. Death in Holloway Prison, with a dedication that reads: “Say her name: For Sarah Reed, Black Lives Matter.” Even Mrs. Death is tired of all the senseless deaths. This, however, is essentially an uplifting read. “It’s very much a book about life,” Godden says, “and about love and time, and the way we spend our time and tell people we love them before it’s too late.” It could hardly be more timely.
Godden herself is very familiar with death. Just before Christmas 1981, when she was nine years old, her father committed suicide, a period described in crisp, loving detail in her 2014 memoir, Springfield Road. “I think there will always be parts of my dad in my work because it was a great trauma that I had to go through as a child,” she says. While writing Mrs Death, she was strangely drawn to the Forest tavern at Forest Gate in East London, where he put Wolf in the attic above the pub; later, he found out that his father used to drink there. “Throughout the writing of this book, there have been a lot of very strange coincidences and serendipities,” she says. Two of the stories it contains, The Red Tower and Tilly Tuppence, were recurring dreams she had that were so disturbing she had to write them down.
Several recent books, including With the End in Mind by palliative care doctor Kathryn Mannix and This party is dead by Erica Buist – have argued that we need to talk about death. So why are the British still so dumb? “That’s the big question, isn’t it?” Godden whispers. She hypothesizes that attitudes are even more localized. “I was reading an excerpt in Edinburgh and the idea of Mrs. Death was greeted with cheers and a ‘yay!’ And exactly the same excerpt in Bloomsbury [would have] everyone crying, me crying, big hugs at the end … What made me think is that I wonder if there is a geography of mourning, a geography of pain ”. However, all feedbacks are welcome. She still thinks that one of the scariest things about death is that it is often surrounded by silence.
Godden’s readings on stage are glorious occasions and he misses them while the country is on lockdown. “I miss a little after the concert when you have a big glass of wine and laugh in the pub with all your friends. I miss the sound of my boot heels against the wooden stage, then that silence and then saying ‘Hi, my name is Salena Godden and I have something new to share with you today …’ I miss the connection.
Those boots have hit stages in theaters and pubs, poetry nights and literary festivals, in front of huge crowds at women’s marches and rallies in Trafalgar Square, using poetry to inspire and unite in a way that no other medium does. “When you are in mourning and pain, who do you turn to but poets to tell you what is happening?” she says. “Amanda Gorman in America, standing there in yellow, now was a fantastic time. It was incredibly powerful. I wonder if in England we could have a moment like that, where instead of having an actor reading something from a dead old white poet, we could have one of our young, hopeful, bright sparks talking. Since it is your future. It is their world that we are ruining. “
If publishing a book about dying in the middle of a pandemic seems brave, it’s all part of a day’s work for Godden, who tackles 10 taboos every day for breakfast. “Not that I give a damn,” says the woman whose most famous work is on smear tests and menstruation (if you haven’t seen her perform ”Red“You should), the N word, one night stands and sitting on the bus with a rabid hangover imagining if you had to lick things …” I really do care. I am a very angry and emotional woman, and when things come up I have to talk about them, vocalize them, write about them, purge them. I have written work that is cute, beautiful, and smooth, you know. I have also written about morning birdsong and nature. “
Godden has always been a multi-disciplinary artist, ever since she moved to London at age 19 to read poetry behind the scenes of pubs, working backstage at the Theater Royal, Drury Lane at night, and as an A&R assistant at Acid Jazz. Day records. All this while applying for acting jobs and getting rejected for looking “too exotic”, doing a little choir and wanting to be Neneh Cherry. “I’ve always been a Salena shaped like a Salena and I’ve always done what the heck I like,” she says. “I think I’m very restless and I don’t like boxes, whether we’re talking about race, age, class, or my work as an artist. I never really felt like I fit in anywhere, and the best job you can do when you don’t feel like you’re invited is to just throw your own party and do your own thing. “
After a decade of “collecting deaths”, walking and writing and finally releasing the book, Godden’s favorite part of Mrs. Death is the last six pages, which he has left blank. She encourages readers to fill in their own dead, and “maybe add a date, a memory, or a prayer.” Godden has written on her own copy, since it went to print, there has been more to add, and the readers’ photographs moved her to tears. “I’m not prepared for how beautiful these messages are,” she tweeted.
Mrs Death has been cast by Idris Elba’s production company and is excited that she will have another life on screen with a powerful black female lead. He dreams of Viola Davis or Sophie Okonedo as Mrs. Death, perhaps with a revolutionary role for some new young actor like Wolf. The hardest thing about writing a novel is letting someone else read it, she says, but now that she’s out there she can’t help but “show hope” in the responses on social media. “I can go miles with a little bit of someone who believes in me,” he laughs. “Honestly, I’m like a Labrador: all I need is a cookie and I’m off.”
She will continue to do whatever she loves, she says, be it poetry, novels, music, or whatever else. But what exactly follows will not be clear. “It’s a huge, huge secret, and even though you are adorable, I’m not going to tell you,” he says. “I’m just going to move on. As everyone. Keep writing, stay home, stay safe, read books [and] keep eating amazing cake. Yeah, books and cake, basically that’s what’s happening next. ”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism