Mara Menzies

Inkuru Series Interview: The African Story- with Mara Menzies

Mara Menzies, old enough to have experienced many things but young enough to have many more years of discovery. I am a performance storyteller drawing on my dual African and Celtic heritage for inspiration. My latest show ‘Blood and Gold’ explored the legacy of colonialism and slavery through myth and fantasy.

Victoria: Tea or Coffee?

Mara Menzies: Black coffee .

Victoria: A peek into your journey? (how did you discover you wanted to be a storyteller)

Mara Menzies: I grew up with storytelling, however, I didn’t realize storytelling was a ‘thing’ for a long time. When I was expecting my first child I wrote a book based on a Kenyan folktale so that she could identify with her Kenyan heritage. I published 1000 copies of the book and needed to sell it, so I hired halls and centres and invited people to hear the story in the hope they would buy a book. A storyteller happened to come to an event and invited me to the Scottish Storytelling Centre full of these incredible people who draw on their cultural heritage for inspiration and who loved to tell stories. I listened to them for months and just fell in love with this incredibly beautiful, devastating, overwhelming, magical world!

Victoria: What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?

Mara Menzies: People are always surprised when I tell them I don’t memorise my stories. I wait for the audience and then the energy I receive from them influences how I deliver my story.

Victoria: What is worth telling a story about?

Mara Menzies: I believe that every story finds its teller. What speaks to us is likely to speak to others. We must tell whichever story is in us to tell. It may not make sense, or be relevant at this particular moment, but it chooses us for a reason. Sometimes to capture a truth, present an idea, challenge the status quo. They can be light-hearted, dangerous or frightening. Sometimes the simplest story is the one that can touch the hardest to reach parts of us, the parts that we have hidden away for fear of shame, pain or grief.

Victoria: Where & how did you get information & ideas for your works?

Mara Menzies: I am inspired by the world around me, by stories that I hear in the news, by conversations between my children, by observing moments that may otherwise seem insignificant. Other times, I am commissioned to create a story and then I research online, by reading books of similar experiences, historical pieces, anything that will bring that story to life.I try to present it in as honest a way as I can. I believe truth and integrity are vital in any story and I would never tell a story where I did not feel comfortable in its telling.

Victoria: Describe your writing space.

Mara Menzies: I have recently acquired a writing and recording studio. I have a huge mirror to reflect light on one wall and the opposing wall is emerald green. There are plants inside and a huge bookshelf. I have a large cork board where I pin my work plan, mind maps and storyboards. This keeps me sane and I can see what I am working on at a glance.
I have one plain wall that I use for filming stories for online use or for zoom calls using a variety of backgrounds. The floor is deep red and I am currently looking for 2 art pieces for the walls. It is generally quite tidy but sometimes when I am creating something new I spread myself out with papers and pens everywhere on the floor.

Victoria: What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating Mbegani rising?

Mara Menzies: Mbegani Rising is project in progress with twists and turns along the way. It is a way of using arts and culture to empower an entire community in Kenya. We are creating artworks rooted in Kenyan history and folklore to attract visitors to a rural community.. It takes a lot to shock me, however, I am always surprised at how humans have this incredible ability to be loyal to an untruth even when it hurts us. We have been told so often that our culture, history and heritage is worthless and despite the undeniable beauty of our craftsmanship, our performance and musical skills, we believe it to be less than others. In Mbegani, I took a walk with some members of the community and we were able to look at this beautiful rural landscape, the coconut trees, the light shimmering across the valley, the plumes of smoke rising from the homesteads, through different eyes. By shining a light on beauty, by inspiring hope, by reimagining a future we can do so much. It’s a bit like a woman who believes that she is ‘just a woman’. Perhaps she has forgotten that she once saw herself as invincible. Once you remind her, that she is smart, strong, kind, courageous, a healer, a mediator, etc then perhaps she may see herself in a different light. That is powerful. That is necessary.

Mara Menzies
Mara Menzies via Independent Arts Projects

Victoria: How many times did you fail before achieving your dreams?

Mara Menzies: I am not sure we ever stop failing. If I am always successful then perhaps I am not challenging myself enough.
Share a peculiar experience in your quest to find stories.
One of my favourite stories is rooted in Ifa but is largely forgotten in Nigeria. I found the story in Cuba of a hunter Ochosi who wished to become an orisha and the journey cost him far more than he was prepared to pay, but he was forced to pay the ultimate price and his loss and suffering made him the Orisha of Justice. It is a powerful story, but I found the journey of the story fascinating. A story of a deity that was carried across oceans during the transatlantic slave trade and survived through its retelling. A deity who no longer served his purpose in the land of his origin and yet took on an important role due to the requirements of society at the time. A story that resonates with everyone who hears it because of the sentiment at its core. Power, desire, loss, a mothers love, grief. I loved being able to take the story home. I was fearful of its reception, being a sacred story told to Nigerians who may have connections to Ifa and myself having no connection other than the story chose me, however, it was an honour to share it.

Victoria: What was your favorite part, and your least favorite part, of your Storytelling journey?

Mara Menzies: My least favorite part was trying to convince people of the worth and value of storytelling! Generally, people misunderstand it and believe it to be a passive activity where old people tell stories to children, however, nothing is further from the truth. A storyteller worth their salt hones their craft. Take time to develop it, to build their repertoire of stories, to learn how to listen, to read an audience, to adapt to the situation and tell the story in a way that fits. That can involve changing the story at the last minute. Because of the old fashioned perception, it has taken time to carve it into a career and to make it pay. Now though, people are changing how they view storytelling and how they value it. My favourite part of my profession is the actual telling. Being in front of an audience is a spiritual activity. There is a relationship between the teller and the audience and it is a connection that can become addictive. The story flows through you and hits people where they need to hear it and that is magical.

Victoria: What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?

Mara Menzies: I have attended so many book festivals and literary events, however, I think the Ake Book Festival in Abeokuta was one of the stand-out events for me. Utterly inspiring and the chance to meet some incredible thinkers and minds.

Victoria: What is your favorite under-appreciated novel?

Mara Menzies: I am currently reading Ancestor Stones by Aminatta Forna. Her stories of womanhood resonate with me so much and her descriptions are rich and vivid.

Victoria: Do you have suggestions to help us become better storytellers? If so, what are they?

Mara Menzies: Listen to other storytellers and find the stories that speak to you. It doesn’t matter if they are personal stories or from an external source. Practice telling them out loud. Each telling will be different. The words will take on new meanings and nuances. They will tap into existing stories inside you and begin to forge themselves into a new creation. Don’t overthink. Let the words swirl around your head until they begin to make sense and you can start to unravel the cloud. What you feel and how you think will shape the way the story emerges and that is what makes it so powerful. It is a part of you.

Victoria: Share a quote.

Mara Menzies: You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead, pursue the things you love doing, and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off you – Maya Angelou
Tiger does not announce his tigritude. He merely pounces – Wole Soyinka.

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