Part of the PEN Atlas #RefugeesWelcome series.
I come in, see this young guy sitting there, looking down at the desk. He speaks quietly in clumsy English, looks down again. A bit of my brain can’t help itself and instantly decides this will be difficult, he will not want to write, will not be able to take part. Will any of them?
Our start point that first session is clothes. We build a vibe with some games, looking for tiny important details in our outfits. Each person picks an item of clothing they can picture clearly and want to write/think about more. Some trainers they have seen and want, a favourite hat they have with them, or a coat that belonged to their father. But crucially the choice around how deep to go, how much to explore, is theirs. I give them a series of simple prompts gathering sensory details and initial ideas in note form. We read our notes aloud and some are already poems that surprise the mouths that speak them. Even by this point we have found a shared language as a group, a form of English that exists very much in the present; simple, direct, stripped of all except the bare essential elements of action. This actually works brilliantly for poetry – transporting every image, thought or moment very vividly to right now.
The first guy I saw has kept pretty quiet throughout this. He hasn’t written much at all but, with a shy smile, insists that he is finished. When his turn comes in the circle, he looks maybe once or twice at his page and then tells us this great story about a pair of very nice shoes he had to fix as a 14 year old working in Iran. How he put a huge needle through his finger in the process, leaking so much blood he spoiled the shoes, but then somehow got given the shoes and cleaned them up and still has them now, today, in England. How both shoes will fit both your feet / And make a tap tap tap when you walk /And because he cleaned them so well / You cannot see the blood.
The story is told well, but there are words or sections he is struggling with. I ask him if he wants to, or if he can, for me, because I would like to hear it, write the parts he struggles with in a different language, his language. Ten minutes later when we come to share again he reads back the same story in a mix of four different languages moving from his mother tongue to English to his father’s tongue to English to Urdu, having picked the bits he felt would sound best in each. Perhaps because he has put the thought in to translate back and forth, the sections still in English have been honed too; the very nice shoes are now the stylish black shoes. This technique used in part by necessity becomes something creatively powerful and exciting, which can be rightly celebrated for the skill, intelligence and courage needed to bring his story into the room.
In another poem written in the same session, a young man tells of a time when he was living rough ‘out of a plastic bag’, and was one day given a jacket by a stranger. The poem explains that as well as being something he desperately needed on a practical level, the jacket had a deeper and longer lasting impact on him: ‘it keeps me warm, but it also teaches me kindness, it scratches my mind, you are human’.
I hope that poetry by refugees about their own stories, ideas and opinions can have a similar effect, scratching beneath the surface of a reader’s consciousness to remind them of that shared humanity. At a time when public perception of refugees and migrants is so skewed by negative media coverage, this seems even more vital. A poem is something that you feel the meaning of, and to understand something that you cannot quite put into words is a compelling experience.
Brave New Voices has been a very important project for me, and as well as giving me the chance to work with two fantastic groups of young writers, it has pushed me to think more deeply about my own ideas and beliefs. The face to face interactions I have had with refugees have strengthened my conviction that we should be doing more to help them rebuild their lives and settle happily within our communities. I know now that poetry can play a part in that process; putting your truth into the world, even when you fear that world may be hostile to it, is a courageous and important thing to do.
Read more about the Brave New Voices project.
#RefugeesWelcome: this piece is part five of five in a PEN Atlas series responding to the refugee crisis. Read other pieces in the series.
Good Chance, a theatre dome established in the Calais ‘Jungle’ from October 2015 to March 2016, has erected a solidarity dome at London’s Southbank Centre, with events and workshops running throughout this week. Find out more here.
Illustration © Roberto Sitta/CreativeConnection, 2016.