The art of storytelling with The Moth

28 Feb 2024

The Moth comes to Joburg after seven years for a night of authentic storytelling at UJ hosted by the inimitable Lebo Mashile on Sat, Mar 16Book your tickets here

It's too reductive to call the wildly popular The Moth a podcast, though this is its most wide-reaching claim to fame. Since it was founded in 1997 by poet and novelist George Dawes Green in his New York living room, The Moth has shared more than 60,000 stories with audiences around the world, with a podcast that's downloaded a not-insignificant 100 million times each year.

Today, the organisation also hosts a Peabody Award-winning radio show as well as live storytelling and open mic nights around the world, has published four critically acclaimed books, and runs custom workshops. Green himself describes The Moth as "a raconteurs' club". More ethereally speaking, we could call it a movement. Not away from, but that which we, as humans, have always gravitated towards and congregated around, and conceivably always will.

A movement of stories. 
Storytelling at The Moth's inaugural Joburg Mainstage event in 2016. Photo: Supplied.
Storytelling at The Moth's inaugural Joburg Mainstage event in 2016. Photo: Supplied.

"Humanity's legacy of stories and storytelling is the most precious we have. All wisdom is in our stories and songs," says beloved Nobel Prize-winning writer Doris Lessing, who certainly knew a thing or two about the art. We tell stories around the campfire and the kitchen table to connect and make sense of our existence. In the words of the late, great Ursula Le Guin, a legendary storyteller: "What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel... is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become."

This is the spirit in which The Moth began, inspired by casual but no less profound summer evenings on the porch in Green's native Georgia. As stories flowed between friends, getting better the more bourbon they drank, so the moths were attracted by the porch lights  Green and his original group of storytellers called themselves 'The Moths' in fond remembrance, and the name stuck. Of course, bourbon isn't a prerequisite for excellent and engaging storytelling, as The Moth's wonderful archive of recorded episodes and live events attest to.

It's not a stretch to say they've hosted people from all walks of life, all around the globe. In 
25 Years of Stories: All The Way Back, Green shares his time spent working for a crisis hotline in Georgia, with an unexpected twist. From astronauts to pickpockets and virtually everyone in between, The Moth's growing chorus of human experience is a gift in a world of increasing division and separation; a treasure trove of the many things that bind us, and one well worth diving into.

Our team has been hooked this past week on listening to The Moth and these are some of our favourite stories. To hear more go to The Moth on YouTube, @mothstories and @themothafrica on Instagram, or follow and download The Moth as a podcast

In the episode 25 Years of Stories: Love and Art, writer Joyce Maynard reflects on her upbringing in the state of New Hampshire. "In the family where I grew up, no blood was ever shed," she says. "In all the years of living under my parents' roof, I never broke a bone, my family never had to take me to the emergency room, and I strongly suspect we never had to buy a second box of bandaids." Her parents were spectacularly protective, yet Maynard wasn't spared the emotional scarring of her father's heavy drinking and her mother's frequent absence. As a result, Maynard says "the goal that I found most elusive and wonderful was to be part of a happy family, and I believed that my best shot of having happy relatives was to give birth to them". Maynard shares her journey into motherhood and, with bracing honesty, how her best intentions were nonetheless misguided.

In The Moth Radio Hour: Forever and EverTalaya Moore shares a moving story of belonging and hope amidst homelessness. As a young girl, she found solace in her Brat dolls while she lived in a shelter with her mom and sister. When her family is finally allocated a semi-permanent home placement after two long years, a neighbouring girl takes her dolls from her dresser one day and her world comes crashing down to the point that she phones 911. Luckily, she’s reunited with her prized possessions after a whole night and day of tears and her heart can start to heal. As she explains: "I realised that when they were gone, that was the first time that I really felt homeless and having them back I felt whole again. That’s when I realised that Sasha was there for me, these dolls were there for me. Everyone has someone or something that may get them through the day or even a year and, for me, for nine-year-old me, it was Sasha. It was this black, plastic, professional businesswoman who doubled as a superstar in my eyes. And she was a constant reminder that in a world filled with uncertainty, there could be a happily ever after."

Emily Richmond recalls being prompted to select her race on a grade school survey and her initial difficulty with this as a mixed-race individual in The Big Easy: Emilie Bahr and Emily Richmond. Her teacher's advice of "just choose whatever feels best" proved unhelpful as Richmond, feeling sick to her stomach, didn't know if that was all, none or any. "I feel like if I can't answer black, because that feels like a lie, and I can't choose white, because that feels like a lie, it kind of doesn't matter what I choose," she explained. She expected somebody to come in and scold her for lying but nothing happened, and so the next time a survey rolled around, Richmond picked another race. As the years went by, she grew bolder, having realised that "it doesn't fucking matter". Richmond says: "As much as I hate checking those little boxes, having to face that box over and over and over again really helped me to think outside of it." 

The Moth chronicles an astonishingly broad spectrum of human existence, and it wouldn't be a sincere effort if this wasn't the case. Once again from Lessing, "It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative."

The Moth's upcoming Mainstage event in Joburg is themed Power and Possibility. With Joburg's own actress, writer and performance poet Lebo Mashile as host, five storytellers, including Nsovo MayimeleMohammad Jasem, and Webster Makombe take to the stage to share a 10 to 12- minute personal story, crafted with the help of The Moth producers, delivered candidly and completely note-free. The Moth's inaugural Joburg appearance was a sold-out show in 2016, and their return is not to be missed.

The Moth's Mainstage event in Joburg takes place at UJ ARTS Keorapetse William Kgositsile Theatre on Sat, Mar 16 from 18:15. Early bird tickets are on sale until Fri, Mar 1; book yours now

University of Johannesburg

​Cnr Kingsway and University Rd, Auckland Park​


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