'If you develop an eating disorder when you are already thin to begin with, you go to the hospital // If you develop an eating disorder when you are not thin to begin with, you are a success story // So when I evaporated, of course everyone congratulated me on getting healthy // Girls at school who never spoke to me before stopped me in the hallway to ask how I did it // I say "I am sick" // They say "No, you're an inspiration".'
These powerful lines about dealing with an eating disorder are from Blythe Baird's spoken word poem, When the Fat Girl Gets Skinny. The 22-year-old Minneapolis-based writer's searingly honest and evocative words about mental illness, sexual assault and recovering from an eating disorder have turned her into a viral sensation. This weekend, Blythe will perform in Mumbai, at Spoken 2.0, a storytelling and music festival, in Mumbai — her first-ever international show.
Blythe's poems are firmly rooted in personal experience. For her, writing is a way to understand the complexities of her feelings, memories, observations, and revelations. "I write to heal. When I turn the things I’ve lived through into poems, it feels like they can no longer hurt me... but sometimes they can still manage to haunt me. However, when I’m on stage, I’m entirely in control. It’s empowering to let my experiences live outside of myself," she says. "Poetry is the way I know how to interpret my life."
Blythe's second book, If My Body Could Speak (Button Poetry), debuting February 5, is an exploration of sexuality, gender, healing, and mental health. "The poems allow me to process myself and to evoke a sense of purpose in my readers. My book aims to remind you that your stories are of inherent significance simply because you were there, and they happened, and they made you feel something, and you survived," she says. The collection is a mix of old and new poems, written by Blythe from age 17 to 21.
Given her body of work, Blythe is regarded as an activist — a label that sits comfortably with her. To her, it's an honour that people recognise her poetry as a call to action. "I believe in the power of words to elicit meaningful social change. It’s humbling, too — when I first started writing, it was because I was angry. Back then, I didn’t think that people would actually listen. Now, it is beautiful and terrifying to know people carry my words in their hearts like song lyrics. That is special and definitely not something I take for granted," she says.
Before her Mumbai gig, Blythe has been researching issues relevant to India right now, such as the Sabarimala temple protest and the Trans Bill 2018. "I deeply support and applaud the brave women who are standing up for their constitutional right. No woman should have to wait until menopause to be able to worship where she desires to worship. As for the Trans Bill, the blatant disregard for the well-being and safety of trans people in India saddens me. This Bill appears to violate and harm the very group it is pretending to protect. I sincerely hope the future holds sustainable support, resources, and respect for the valuable LGBTQIA community of India," she says.
Ask her if there any local performers she follows and she says, "To be honest, the only spoken word poet from India whose work I’m very familiar with is Nandini Varma. I admire the fearless and clear way she connects the personal to the political.," she says. She is also all praises for the viral piece, A Brown Girls Guide to Gender by Aranya Johar, and hopes they’ll become friends at Spoken, where Aranya will also perform.
Blythe is currently planning an international poetry tour, working on her next book, and applying for graduate school. This spring and summer, she will teach spoken word to high school students in Minneapolis, and has several other creative endeavours in the works, including short films and a podcast. "My goal is to gently take the world by storm," she says.
What: Spoken 2.0 by Kommune
Where: JioGarden, BKC, Mumbai
When: 12 and 13 January, 2019