By CHRISTA MORLETTI McINTYRE
Portland is one of the most well-read cities in the United States. Our beloved county library has one of the nation’s highest circulation rates, and Powell’s, by many measures, is the largest independent new and used bookstore in the world. It’s far from unbelievable that many Portlanders are not just readers, but also writers and storytellers in their own right.
The Moth is a New York-based multi-platform for true-life storytellers, and the meeting between it and like-minded Portland has been a mutual triumph. The Moth, much like Portland, is always finding new ways to catch stories and share them: It has a Peabody Award-winning podcast, a book, and even a hotline to call in your story. The Moth and Portland have a similar passion for hearing a good tale and creating an ingenious way to tell it.
The Moth fluttered into Portland’s Schnitzer Hall on Monday night, and the Schnitz, with all its Art Deco glory, added to the excitement. It’s an exciting venue for a show like this: just passing by the old Broadway lightbulbs on a dark night can fill a passer-by with joy. Monday’s house was sold out, and filled to the rafters with an audience that seemed to contain most every kind of literary appreciation: conservative-suited Ernest Hemingway types, flamboyant eccentrics with colorful vintage slacks and sarcastic T-shirts, young Gloria-Steinems-in-training with long wistful hair and leather jackets. People in the audience had their manners, but were highly irreverent. They stood in their seats, and talked loudly. It was obvious that The Moth wasn’t so much an event to be heard on stage, but a gathering of 2,700 peers come to celebrate five authors and their stories. It was, organizers said, the largest attendance across the world in Moth history.
Collaborating with Literary Arts, a sampling of Oregon authors workshopped true-life tales around the theme Twist of Fate. Poet and Portland Renaissance man Andrew Dickson hosted the evening, and started off with his own twist-of-fate observation on Portland’s culinary achievement of introducing artisanal junk food to the world, such as the pan-seared Twinkie. Onstage were two accomplished sax players and nationally known time keepers from the Blue Cranes, Reed Wallsmith and Joe Cunningham. Each storyteller had 10-12 minutes to give us their best, without a script or notes. There are many impressive ways to reinvent the narrative, but hearing a story live is one of the most basic it’s wired into our DNA. The only thing missing was a campfire; and maybe some animal on a spit; otherwise, we were at home with our ancestors.
Monday’s appearance of The Moth in Portland was just part of a renaissance of storytelling in the city that includes the likes of Portland Story Theater’s Urban Tellers, Back Fence PDX, Portland Storytellers’ Guild, The Moth Story Slam, and others. Danielle Klenak wrote a good brief guide for Portland Monthly last year.
At the Schnitz, Danusia Trevino took the stage with the tale of her late adolescent rebellion, which was still going strong at age 30, when she became a citizen of the United States, divorced her husband, got a large bat tattoo on her right forearm, and joined a punk band in New York. Making her living by former illegal sales of the green stuff, she lived going from gig to party to gig to party. One day she got a jury summons in the mail, and her punk friends told her to avoid this boring punishment at all costs and not support a corrupt system. She’d learned from watching the ant-like masses of workers going in and out of offices during the week and taking leisurely strolls through parks with their families on weekends to observe vegetation, that conforming was not her strong suit. And so she took some ill-advised tactics to avoid being on a jury, spiking her hair and wearing torn jeans, a leather jacket, and a shirt that read, “I want to be your dog,” Still, she was picked. The other 11 members didn’t share her lifestyle: they were, she said, droll paper-shuffling types. She hoped that she’d be the one liberal voice of reason to get the young black defendant off from a robbery conviction. Trevino’s story was punctuated with emotion and drawn down by the gravity of a good Jewish-comedian delivery. By the end of the deliberations she had found herself to be the conservative juror of the lot, moved by careful consideration to embrace the outwardly different peers she’d been thrown together with.
The Moth carefully orchestrated the lineup of stories, counterpointing the humorous against the more serious tellers. Theo Wilhelm has travelled and taught around the world with his family. After an introduction to teaching in Bangladesh, he and his wife went on a vacation to the Sri Lanka coast. Toward the end of their stay, a massive earthquake hit Sumatra and vast stretches of Southeast Asia were affected in the tidal wave of destruction. The glass dining room of his hotel exploded under the weight of the incoming ocean, and he and his wife fought for their lives, struggling against the debris of glass shards and the waves that threatened to them out to sea and death. Clinging to their devotion and intellect, they made it out to safety by the kindness of strangers. Wilhelm and his wife have never lost the sense of wetness that came from being caught in the middle of a catastrophe. Once home, they discovered it wasn’t just two in their family to survive, but three: later, they named their son Noah for surviving the flood in his mother’s ark.
Cybele Abbett, a kind and open native San Franciscan, has lived in Southern Oregon for almost two decades. There, she raised a family and ran a nonprofit while crafting her writing. Six years ago, her youngest teenage child came to her and wanted to have a “conversation.” That’s not always the happiest of expressions to hear. Whatever ensues will be serious, and take some delicate emotional choreography to navigate. Over the next years, Abbett is on a journey with her child as he transitions gender. As the saying goes, make a plan and God laughs. Abbett has to face the fear of the unnavigated and give up the future she took for granted of having two daughters and a son. Thick into the process, her son has a mastectomy, one of many procedures that carries risk, and Abbett has to give permission for it .Once home from the hospital, her son is well enough and walks through the house strong and tall, without a T-shirt, as men can do. As she tells the tale, Abbett realizes how natural and beautiful making the truth a reality can become.
David Montgomery is a petit self-described gay fancy man: “Anyone who grows up gay in a backwoods town, deserves the Purple Heart.” Unaccepted by his family and classmates, he lived his youth in a self-imposed exile of self-hatred, which made it easy for others to hate him, too. One day his life was changed forever when he witnessed the Spice Girls on late ’90s television. If you don’t know who the Spice Girls are, Montgomery explains, 1. He feels really sad for you. 2. They were a British Pop band corporately formed to appeal to little girls. 3. They had distinct personalities to resonate with their fans, such as Sporty Spice for the closet lesbian. Montgomery’s adolescent obsession grew, he says, and he could have been in the ranks with Jeff Turner of I Think We’re Alone Now fan fame. Montgomery wasn’t just looking for an in to buddy up with the laziest of Spices, Posh, and win the bed of her famous international football star husband, David Beckham. Montgomery was out to be as spicy as a Spice Girl and live in their world. After years of disbandment, the girls reunited for the first time in 2007. Jokingly, Montgomery referred to his small savings as a Spice Girls Reunion Tour Fund. Not taking careful stock of his economic situation, he bought tickets to see all 22 shows, left his job, and started a YouTube diary of his tour. His unwavering love of the band made him a celebrity fan, eventually reaching the heights of meeting Posh Spice and actually getting her to move and laugh.
Renée Watson grew up in Northeast Portland and is now a writer living in New York. With this final tale, she reminded us of the great Unamuno quote: “Sometimes to be silent, is to lie.” Martin Luther King, Jr. was a de facto hero of the community in Northeast Portland when Watson was in middle school in the late 1980s. Nearby Jefferson High School had an annual celebration to honor him. Church ladies cooled themselves with fans carrying his image. Grandparents hung framed photographs of him in their living rooms, just as if he were their family member. Watson’s fifth-grade teacher carried King’s torch, motivating the students in her class to use their voices by learning how to compose essays and poems. At the beginning of the 1988 school year, a young Ethiopian immigrant in Portland named Mulugeta Seraw was beaten to death with a bat by a group of Skinheads. In the face of all the hope that King brought to North and Northeast Portland’s black community, Watson recalled, this was a heavy-hearted defeat. Watson’s teacher had the kids in her class write notes in support of Seraw’s family, and delivered them in a basket of condolences. Young, frustrated, sad and shocked, Watson was given a chance to explain how hatred and violence were “just answering hurt with hurt,” but she couldn’t use her voice. Years later, in her Moth tale, she explained tearfully that her own silence was just as loud as the truth she didn’t speak.