On Wednesday April 4, noted black British poet, novelist, playwright and non-fiction writer Valerie Mason-John delivered a stunning mix of book-reading, performance art and personal commentary to a standing room-only audience in Sturges Auditorium.
Mason-John is sometimes referred to as "Queenie" because of the way some of her performance art takes aim at the concept of royalty. Born in 1962 in Cambridge, U.K. Mason-John is today regarded as a prolific performance artist and writer in both the United Kingdom and United States.
Mason-John was introduced by associate professor of English Maria Lima, who is hosting Mason-John for the entirety of her stay in the western New York area.
To begin her visit, Mason-John gave a quick overview of her life and work, joking about her English accent and talking about her job. She currently works as a trainer in anger management and conflict resolution. She attributes much of her creativity to her day job, and expressed a great interest in how dysfunction affects the minds of children.
Mason-John then read two excerpts from her first novel, Borrowed Body. The work is a surreal coming of age tale which seamlessly juxtaposes brutal societal inequities like rape, abandonment and foster care with fanciful dream images and creatures, and even manages to incorporate Buddhist cosmology. Mason-John herself calls the work "a fictional memoir."
From the sample that Mason-John read it is clear that her strength does not lie in inventive vocabulary or flowery description. Instead, she utilizes simple language in short but pummeling strokes. She uses few literary tools, but through her wonderful imagination is able to constantly throw the reader off-guard. What follows is a cascade of crushing emotional blows.
Following her excerpts, Mason-John also treated the audience to an exhibition of performance art. Her performance, titled "The Perfect Road," was a disturbing blend of classical music, costume, symbolic bodily motions and sound effects, all overlaid with the classical poetry forms like sonnets and haiku, written about sexual abuse. The effect of this set-up was unsettling, even terrifying. The audience seemed almost repulsed at what they saw, but they were also drawn to the mystery and emotional current running through its entirety.
In short, anyone who thinks they could ever go to a performance by Mason-John, or for that matter see one of her play's or read one of her books, and just sit complacently by, should think again. Mason-John's work requests then demands the audience's attention, and on a fundamental level uneasiness. If one is willing to supply this oh so important fuel, her enormous creativity will rocket themto as yet unseen heights of pain and catharsis.
This event was in funded in part by Poets & Writers with public funds from the NY State Council on the Arts, a state agency, and by the English Department and by the Geneseo Foundation. It was also sponsored by Pride Alliance and ACE.