Author and poet Salena Godden on the politics of death, the power of shared grief and the pleasure of live performance
To say this year has been an emotional rollercoaster is an understatement. In January my debut novel Mrs Death Misses Death was published by Canongate, a novel that dives into death and trauma, mental health and survival, empathy and compassion. During the pandemic I have found myself on stage and screen talking about death and loss and our united mourning, knowing many in the audience and listeners are in pain and trauma with me.
Nothing could have prepared me for how the book would affect and touch others, and how this would bounce back and affect me and inform what I want to write next. The story depicts death as a female shape-shifter, black and working class. Through it I explore and examine how we grieve, how we do and do not talk about death.
Mrs Death Misses Death is centred on those who are undervalued, unheard and unseen. Death can be political, mourning can also be political. I could not have written this book for a pandemic I didn’t see coming, I wrote it for the pandemic that was already here. And I wrote it for these injustices and the names that vibrate among us all right now: Sarah Everard. Bibaa Henry. Nicole Smallman. Sabina Nessa. There have been so many disappearances, so many unsolved murders, so many names I could list here. So many we haven’t even heard of, because their disappearance or death has gone unnoticed, unclaimed. Say her name.
Like many I felt a huge pressure and urgency to get back to normal after lockdown ended – although I am not sure what “normal” is anymore. I am feeling busy but to be honest I am also quite anxious and panicky, wondering if I’ll ever feel safe or be able to catch up or go as fast as I used to.
While lockdown forced many of us to slow down and work differently, I was lucky because decades of working at home and being indie and DIY served me well. I am used to making do, making radio, recording poetry and doing voiceover jobs here at home.
Roaring 20’s Radio is broadcast every month for Soho Radio. I co-present it with my friends, arts journalist Amah-Rose Abrams and Leeds-based poet Matt Abbott. The show is a platform for art and culture, books and poetry, music and activism. It was a lifeline for us three throughout lockdown; we recorded the show once a month and curated powerful and inspirational things to watch, listen, read and share, boosting lockdown creativity and projects by brilliant artists, poets and activists.
But like many, I missed the buzz of performing to a live audience. We made a performance space we called “the theatre” at home, in a corner of the lounge, with a black backdrop, lights and bunting. Another lockdown innovation was calling the kitchen table “the pub”, and my partner and I texting each other to “meet in the pub” after work. It was strange to pour my heart into performing just to a screen, and then to click the laptop shut and sit alone in my dress at the table having a rum after online gigs. But the upside is this – I promised myself never to take that part of my life for granted again. I really missed my mates, the camaraderie and laughs, the joy and mischief of being backstage. I love writing, books and poetry, but a huge part of this life is the performing, and our friends and family and shared backstage fun after the live shows.
So as summer arrived it was wonderful to go back on the road, doing what I know and love. After all those online lockdown gigs, it felt new, exciting and even a bit scary to be sharing my book at real live events. Looking back to the summer there were many magical, memorable moments. Some of my favourite live shows included Brighton Festival with Evie Wyld, a solo show at Charleston House, taking Mrs Death to Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Social in Soho for Deadly Women with Heidi James and Octavia Bright, and also an interview with Baxter Dury. Last but not least I returned to read onstage at Rough Trade East with Nikita Gill and Amah-Rose Abrams.
I leapt at the chance to see William Blake’s notebook in real life, when performing at the British Library and filming a William Blake vs the World event with John Higgs, Robin Ince, Kae Tempest and Neil Gaiman. And I got to enjoy a sunny day in Battersea Park filming an episode of Life & Rhymes for Sky Arts TV, alongside Lemn Sissay and host Benjamin Zephaniah. The programme is available to view on Sky Arts.
I have carried on doing international zoom events, including with the California-based Queer Death Sessions, in which I chatted with death ambassadors, death doulas, alternative funeral and ritual makers, grief counsellors and a coffin weaver, who told me how she handwove wicker coffins while listening to the audiobook of Mrs Death Misses Death. (You can find our conversation on YouTube.) Another illuminating zoom conversation was with The Death Positive Library, a nationwide UK initiative offering a safe space to talk about death, dying and bereavement.
As I said, nothing could prepare me for how it would be to publish a book focusing on death culture during a global pandemic – and I have been humbled and moved to find that some readers want to continue the journey of the book with me. No spoilers, but at the end of Mrs Death Misses Death readers are invited to write the names of lost loved ones in the back of the book, and the last six pages are left blank for this purpose. Some have made a shrine in this space by adding photos and poems of their own. From book to book this is a connection, a ritual, a way of rejoining or expanding on the conversation the book started. I’ve been sent beautiful messages of heartache and loss and it makes me feel very privileged, like we are all in trenches together.
We’ve been living in a time of universal mourning. Don’t get me wrong – we are starting to see glimpses of normality and I feel excited about that. I have missed friends, gigs, parties, eating and drinking out and about. But I also need to go slower and continue to make space for this unbelievable weight we have been carrying together. There is a great vibration of sadness: it is a long and low note resonating underneath everything. Even elephants share mourning and monkeys share in ritualistic loss, and so shall we, so do we. I have been observing this call to witness for a long time now. I see the ongoing funeral march online, on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. I feel the thousands of unsaid, unsung, unrecognised, unheard, unseen, unfinished and unmarked goodbyes.
As I finish writing this the sun has risen. It is a beautiful autumn morning, blue skies and a soft and yellow light on the houses opposite. I’ve just unpacked my suitcase from another adventure up north. Mrs Death Misses Death was shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize and I was invited to read at the ceremony at Durham Book Festival alongside the other five shortlisted authors: Hanif Abdurraqib (who was announced the winner), Tabitha Lasley, Sam Byers, Jenni Fagan and Doireann Ní Ghríofa. It was so lovely to raise a glass with everyone and meet these courageous, miraculous writers in real life. I went on up to Edinburgh the next morning with a sore head, to read poetry at the Push the Boat Out festival. The whole weekend was a-fizz and a-buzz with a gathering of ninety poets, beers in Edinburgh’s lovely Summer Hall courtyard and all of that pure joy and mischief that I’ve been missing so much.
Salena Godden is a poet, performer, activist, broadcaster, memoirist and essayist. She has published several volumes of poetry, including “Pessimism is for Lightweights”; a literary childhood memoir, “Springfield Road”, and a novel, “Mrs Death Misses Death” (Canongate), which was shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize in 2021. In November 2020 she was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature