Our high-flying poet, TJ Dema, recently returned from Estonia. One thing that impresses me about TJ besides her amazing talent—did you hear her set at The People are Talking at Maitisong in April? Eish man! Gorgeous X10!—is her humble way she just gets on with conquering the world. She recently attended the Tallinn HeadRead Literary Festival in Estonia, a festival that has in the past invited folks like Margaret Atwood, Ben Okri and AS Byatt, in other words, a big deal.
I interviewed her about her trip, the festival, and her upcoming plans.
How were you invited to the HeadRead Literary Festival in Estonia?
I was invited directly by the festival organisers in Tallin, Estonia. I met the director of the festival, Krista Kaer, in Cambridge in 2010 and as she tells it she has been looking for ways to facilitate my attendance ever since. I was there for a week.
Can you tell me about your two events at the festival? Were they well attended?
Early in the week I shared a reading with a number of poets, which roughly amounts to a fifteen minute set per poet. Writers (for this festival has a strong literary focus beyond just poetry) who write in languages other than Estonian and English were translated into Estonian. I then had an hour allocated to myself on the Saturday which I chose to use both for a lengthy performance as well as an on stage conversation with British novelist Jason Goodwin. I’m told the sessions were a resounding success.
Did you do any other community activities when you were in Estonia?
There is a lovely writer’s retreat by the seaside, which houses writers who apply for residencies. There is also a museum nearby which has a small but exciting collection and a curator who makes the meanest smoked salmon you’ll ever eat. The city of Tallinn is itself historically and architecturally fascinating and so I endeavoured to walk around as much as I could. The festival serves as a temporary community and the authors stay for the week in the same hotel and meet up for meals in town. All in all I had two television interviews which I was glad to accept given that Estonia is not a diverse country and the presence of a black person in living rooms across the country is likely highly unusual. The British Council as well as the British and Irish ambassadors were all wonderful hosts who added to my experience of this country.
What other sessions did you attend?
I attended many sessions during the course of the festival, in part because living (primarily) in Botswana means I do not get to attend many formal literary activities unless I have a hand in chasing up funding for them and hosting them or I travel elsewhere. A N Wilson has a mind of note and I could’ve listened to him speak all day, Jason Goodwin had a great chat with detective novelist Donna Leon, Margot Henderson is a beautiful storyteller and in general it was great to hear so many writers speaking in their own languages from Irish to Russian to Finnish and Faroese.
How is the poetry scene in Estonia? Did you learn anything to further your own poetry or to share with poets in Botswana?
I brought back with me a book of collected verse by Estonian poets to read. Estonia is in many ways not unlike Botswana it has a population of just over a million, we share our flag colours, they are primarily made up of woodland as we are by desert but I’m tempted to say there the comparisons end. Their cultural endowment fund places its weight in support of festivals such as HeadRead (which looks like the words ‘head’ and ‘read’ I know but is also a play on an Estonian word meaning ‘good lines’). It is this kind of local support that allows writers such as myself to be able to participate in this lovely festival. Despite their small population, Estonians and this includes their president, read widely. They also translate an impressive body of work from other languages to their own and vice versa which enriches their literary world-view to no end. I am a huge champion of writers, and citizens, who read else they’ll inevitably fall for the nearest silver-tongue.
You’ve been travelling a lot lately. Can you tell me about some of your upcoming events?
I have been traveling quite a bit for the last few years and I now look forward as much to the periods of rest as I do the enriching experiences proffered by travel. My next trips are to Uganda and South Korea and much later in the year to Chicago at the invitation of Northwestern
( This first appeared in my column, It's All Write, in Mmegi on 24 June 2016)