Tag Archives: Write to Life

6 Things I learned from my Freedom from Torture Challenge

So that’s it! The challenge is over, the last walk walked, the last post posted and you can still donate.

  • I have walked 129km (about 75 miles)
  • I written 9 posts on this blog for the challenge
  • I have raised a total of £1779.58
  • I have learned six things.

All this was in aid of Freedom from Torture a British charity that works to support people who have been tortured. And in particular it was to support Freedom from Torture’s writing group, the Write to Life group.

What I learned from the Challenge

Another purpose of the challenge was to raise awareness of the plight of refugees, people who have been subjected to torture, and of the work of Freedom from Torture to support these refugees.

  1. People care about refugees and their treatment

People walked with me, sponsored the cause, retweeted the links to the posts, liked and shared the facebook announcements, and asked me how it was going. Some people went out of their way to give support, like Paul, who led the Dartmoor Walk in the New Year; and Marianne who organised a walk in Hertfordshire. The donations came from friends, family, colleagues, other supporters, and two writers I know from Canada and America (I think they and currency exchanges are responsible for the 58p.)

Thank you for your support, one and all.

Refugees from Kabul

Refugees from Kabul receiving winter clothes from ISAF Photo credit: ResoluteSupportMedia via Visualhunt.com / CC BY

  1. People are horrified by torture

I have seen members of the Write to Life group perform two plays Souvenirs and Lost and Found. The souvenirs of torture are physical and mental. Recovery is slow and perhaps incomplete. Writing can help. Exile is like being cut in half. At both performances the audience was moved.

  1. Narrative is a good way to enable insights about the lives of refugees

Many of the posts for the challenge featured fiction. All narratives were rooted in the authenticity of people’s lived experiences. Many posts featured short stories, an appropriate way to retell the varieties of experiences. These nuggets, even those relating to experiences over 30 years ago, such as the Vietnamese experiences, are still powerful.

  1. People migrate

It seems baffling to me that migration has been as fundamental to human history and as pervasive as language, agriculture, and relationships. Yet in our current world, the policies enacted appear to be based on the idea that political boundaries can stop people migrating. The stark truth is that birth is all. In this world where you are born decides whether you will need to risk the crossing of the Mediterranean or not.

And with their policies of exclusion in place, governments do not respond to the reality of migration, the movement of people, to the fact of migration and the causes behind it: war, realpolitik, climate change, exploitation, religious and ethnic hatred, sexual exploitation …

Having exposed the exclusionary and neglectful policies of the EU, Wolfgang Bauer’s final words in Crossing the Sea resonate: Have mercy!

  1. Writing can open people’s eyes

Writing by the Write to Life Group, telling the story of their lives, before, during and after has opened people’s eyes as well as helped the writers.

All the works referred to in the posts, fictional, semi-fictional, journalistic, historic, these draw attention to what needs attention. And provide insights into experiences we would rather ignore.

  1. There is more I could tell you

When I planned the challenge and what I would post on the blog, I intended to explore more non-bookish topics.

I wanted to tell readers about my experiences with a young lad, unaccompanied, whom I befriended through Freedom from Torture.

I wanted to post a short story I wrote called Seeking Asylum.

I wanted to inform readers of the schools I worked in that helped youngsters to understand what had happened in their lives and how to move onwards. We pioneered exemplary practice, sometimes very challenging, to help youngster take up education as quickly as possible, and to help them integrate their own stories.

I wanted to shock readers with a post on the statistics of migration, refugees and torture. 71,000 people have entered Europe from the sea in 2017. An estimated 1778 are missing. (Figures at 2nd June from UNHCR data portal.)

And I still can do all these things, of course.

What I achieved

My target was £1600 and I raised a total of £1779.58: £1458.33 plus Gift Aid £321.25.

My walk target was 10km (about 6.2 miles) per month, 80km, and I achieved 129km. Sometimes I walked alone, often with a friend or brother and sometimes in a group, with about 40 different people. You can see where I walked on the Page about the challenge.

I posted every month, on a refugee-related topic, mostly bookish, and included a brief description of the nominated walk, nine posts in all (two in December).

And finally …

You can still donate, through my Just Giving Page.

Here are the texts I referred to in these posts

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes. Commissioned and published by Peirene in 2016. 155 pp.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby. Published in 2016 by Allen Lane (Penguin) 116pp

A Country of Refuge Edited by Lucy Popescu. Published by Unbound in 2016. 231pp

Refugee Tales, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus. Published by Comma Press in 2016. 150pp

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, published in hardback in 2017, by Corsair 209pp

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Published in 2017 by Hamish Hamilton 228pp

Crossing the Sea with Syrians on the Exodus to Europe by Wolfgang Bauer, first published in German in 2014. English translation with update published by And Other Stories in 2016. 122pp Translated from the German by Sarah Pybus. Photographs by Stanislav Krupar.

Souvenirs, the play written and performed by members of the Write to Life group, is available to buy from Freedom from Torture.

And here are links to the posts and related websites

The Challenge page on this website

Crossing the Sea with Syrians by Wolfgang Bauer, 9th walk along the shore.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, 8th walk in Italy.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, walk 7 in Hertfordshire in March

Refugee Tales Ed David Herd and Anita Pincus, walk 6 in February

A Country of Refuge Ed by Lucy Popescu, walk number 5 in January 2017.

Dartmoor, Hay Tor and Freedom from Torture, an extra walk in December, supported by about 20 walkers.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby. My fourth walk in December

Do Refugees need holidays? My third walk in November

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes, the second walk in October

Lost and Found, the first walk in September 2016

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

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Photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/isafmedia/8440318774/”>ResoluteSupportMedia</a> via <a href=”https://visualhunt.com/re/1bed96″>Visualhunt.com</a> / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”> CC BY</a>

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A Country of Refuge Edited by Lucy Popescu

How easy it is to feel defeated in these difficult times. Recently friends and I have been asking, what is to be done? What is to be done in response to the increase in anti-immigrant hatred and discrimination in this country? How do we address the issues raised by people who want to keep non-British people out of this country? And how are we to approach the loss of sympathy for those who are seeking refuge? And more such questions. There are things to be done.

What writers and readers can do:

  • Tell the stories
  • Tell the stories of individuals
  • Tell the stories of individuals to prevent referring to migrants as a ‘swarm’ (David Cameron’s word) or becoming ‘the other’
  • Keeping imagination alive to help people understand the stories
  • Keeping imagination alive to tell stories of different futures

In a series of posts I have highlighted ways in which writers and readers are taking action:

Today’s post looks at the contribution of another collection: A Country of Refuge. It is the 5th in a monthly series of blogs, part of my challenge to raise money for Freedom from Torture.

A Country of Refuge edited by Lucy Popescu

This book has a clear purpose as the editor Lucy Popescu says:

I wanted the writers to focus on the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers in an attempt to directly challenge the negative press and to cast a more positive light on a situation that, for many, is a living hell. (2)

In her introduction she draws attention to our long history of welcoming people seeking refuge: the Protestant Huguenots fleeing Catholic France in the C17th, the Irish escaping the famine in the C19th, some of the 14m displaced people in Europe after the Second World War, Hungarians in 1956. She could have mentioned the Jewish people escaping the pogroms of Europe in the C19th and Nazi policies in the 1930s, the Basque families in the 1930s …

Refugees, it seems, are always with us. The challenges of migration and movement of people around the world needs to be dealt with in a coordinated way. At the moment we in the UK are getting in the way of solving the problems raised by displacing peoples. The dominant discourse is that migration is a risk for our country.

In A Country of Refuge we can read short fiction, poems, memoir, essays, and a lecture to help us consider the experiences of refugees, of leaving one country to try and make a home and a new life in another.

Two examples from A Country of Refuge

The Dog-Shaped Hole in the Garden is a short story (or memoir, or perhaps a mixture) by Hassan Abdulrazzak. Hassan and his family had lived well in Baghdad, but found Saddam Hussein’s regime increasingly threatening because of their family connections. He was a young lad when they left to begin a period of travelling, eventually settling in New Malden in Surrey, where Hassan ached to own a dog. The story of the family’s assessment by the RSPCA lady is humorous but tells of the separation of cultures, the misunderstandings, the crossed wires, and the adaptations and one or two unexpected sacrifices the family had to make. He twice uses the striking phrase ‘falling out of Eden’ about their losses. Hassan Abdulrazzak writes plays.

One of AL Kennedy’s two contributions is a lecture from the European Literature Days Festival in Spitz, Austria in October 2015. She asks again this question, what is to be done and she gives us an answer.

[But it is also true that] failure of the arts, of artists, helps the cruel among us triumph and begin to oppress us all, even in relatively free societies, including – and perhaps initially – those who are communicators. (205)

She makes the argument for a more careful use of vocabulary, challenging David Cameron’s ‘swarm of people’, and suggesting that noticing the individual people, identifying them, describing them and the people close to them, telling their stories makes it less likely to see them as a swarm. When we are confronted with photographs and the name of Aylan Kurdi, the little boy photographed on the beach, drowned, he and his family become hard to fit into a faceless swarm.

AL Kennedy reminds us of the lack of depth in our public media even when it pays attention to stories, such as Aylan Kurdi’s:

The massive displacement of human beings from their homes all across Europe and the Middle East was rarely examined in anything like depth, or presented as being perhaps of more importance than a variety of celebrity talent competitions and soap operas. (208)

She suggests that artists, writers, must show how important imagination is; imagining different lives, imagining different priorities and solutions, better futures for us all. And above all, imagination can help us escape from ‘othering’ and blaming victims for their situation. She reminds us that:

history teaches us that our greatest wrongs, crimes against humanity and genocide, arise from cultures where hatred has become part of the air the citizens breathe. (211)

By drawing attention to the activities of those who do not accept the culture of hatred, who provide aid, who march against unjust wars, through the best of the arts, she reminds us that we have the capacity to dream a better future.

Three notes

A Staffordshire activist, Michaela Fyson, organised, through crowdfunding, for every MP to receive a copy of A Country of Refuge as a Christmas present in December 2016. Lord Dubs supported the event. Michaela said she was moved to this action because:

there are too many politicians referring to these groups of people as if they are animals – talking about them ‘swarming’, or needing their teeth checked like horses to see how old they are. That is what we need to change.

Lucy Popescu has a track record of exposing mistreatment of writers through her column in The Literary Review and her work with PEN. She is also a mentor with the Freedom from Torture Write to Life Group. (See Lost and Found and Souvenirs).

Lucy Popescu had found it impossible to attract a mainstream publisher to A Country of Refuge. It was published through crowdfunding, by Unbound. Writers describe the books they want to publish and readers are invited to support their publication.

A Country of Refuge Edited by Lucy Popescu. Published by Unbound in 2016. 231pp

My walk and challenge.

I am raising money for Freedom from Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is the fifth post in the series. You can read more about it on the page called My Challenge (just click on the page title below the masthead).

Please help me reach my target by making a donation.

January walk

My companion was my brother Mont, and we walked in early January on a sparkling day on a circular walk that started inland, took in Noss Mayo and part of the SW Coast Path. The fifth walk was about 13km (8+ miles).

Mont and me, January 2017

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

Dartmoor, Hay Tor and Freedom from Torture, an extra walk in December, supported by about 20 walkers.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby. My fourth walk in December

Do Refugees need holidays? My third walk in November

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes, the second walk in October

Lost and Found, the first walk in September

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

The sixth post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in mid-February

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My Writing Heroes

I reckon that the 300th post on the Bookword blog merits a celebration. That’s why I decided to write about my writerly heroes, an unashamed self-indulgence. Regular readers of the blog will not be at all surprised to find that I have chosen nearly all women as my writing heroes.

Why are these writers heroes?

After I had chosen my short list of heroes, I reflected on what they had in common.

  • They have all lived some of their lives in adversity.
  • They have all used writing to communicate important values.
  • They are all writers who share their understanding of the world, through fiction, but also through polemic, performance or other writerly activities.

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)

John Opie's portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft

John Opie’s portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft lived at a time when women were not expected to have a view on matters outside the home, and nor were they equipped to have a life in the public sphere. She had to support her family from an early age. She set up a school for girls in Newington Green in north London, was employed as a governess to a wealthy family in Ireland, and then decided to earn a living through her writing.

She held radical views, not just about women but about how society should be run and the French Revolution. She was intrepid, travelling to Lisbon alone to support a friend who died, and then going to live in revolutionary Paris. To support her lover Imlay, who had lost some merchandise in a shady deal, she travelled to several Scandinavian countries with their baby daughter, on his behalf.

American edition of Vindication

American edition of Vindication

She was a woman of principle, and passions. She gave birth to Fanny Imlay (later Godwin) in France. Back in England she met up again with the foremost political philosopher of the day, William Godwin. She died in childbirth. Their child was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Shelley).

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote and wrote; reviews for journals, reports of what she saw in France, letters, novels, and polemic writing including her most famous book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).

She has been called the original suffragette, but this description is not appropriate. She was a feminist, she did believe that women should have political power, but she was not especially focused on the right to vote. Hers was a more encompassing vision.

George Eliot (1819 – 1880)

Portrait of Mary Ann Evans at 30 by Francoise D’Albert Durade via WikiCommons

Portrait of Mary Ann Evans at 30 by Francoise D’Albert Durade via WikiCommons

Mary Ann Evans used the pen name George Eliot. She wrote novels, poems and was a journalist and translator. She was also, notoriously, a common law wife, that is she lived with George Henry Lewis without being married to him for 20 years.

She too was a prolific writer and today is best known for her novels, including Middlemarch (one of my desert island books), The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner. Just typing the titles makes me want to reread another of her novels.

There are a few other personal connections that mean very little, but are pleasing to note. Middlemarch was reputedly based on Coventry, where I was born and where I worked for 15 years. In London, my daughter happily attended George Eliot Infants School. I remember writing a history essay for my first degree about Middlemarch and feminism.

Write to Life Writers

My third writerly heroes are the writers at Freedom from Torture: the Write to Life group.

254 FFTlogo

These are people who have suffered torture in their own country, and as part of their recovery attend the Write to Life group. Some readers will know I am currently raising money for Freedom from Torture, and if you want to know more check out the The Challenge page on this website.

Jade in Lost and Found

Jade in Lost and Found

Recently some of these guys performed at the Roundhouse in London in their play with music called Lost and Found. You can read my account of this event here.

Sheila Hayman, who runs the group says:

It’s a lyrical, funny, surprising narrative about six survivors’ journeys to London; not the gloomy and overdone tales of crowded dinghies and miserable hostels you’ve heard before, but the violin buried when the Ayatollahs banned music, or the African song unwittingly sung to the occupants of a British Library reading room; the piano at St Pancras bringing a Cuban moment to a grey London, and the stranger who stopped to chat, and saved a life.

All these stories are linked by music; music remembered, and the original music they inspired. And the whole thing has been binaurally recorded so you can put on your headphones and travel with the stories.

On the site are videos and the individual numbers to browse, and the whole album to download for your journey to work, or wherever.

You can find the download of Lost and Found on the Freedom from Torture site here.

And …

I hope you enjoyed my selection of heroes. I would love to know who you would pick for your 300th post.

Related posts

Dear Jade, Sept 2013

Souvenirs, May 2016

Mary Wollestonecraft, a Romantic Outlaw, March 2016

Desert Island Books, February 2013

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Lost and Found in Exile

What is the experience of life in exile, as a refugee, as a survivor of torture? Six writers and three musicians took to the stage to tell us at the Roundhouse, in London, for a performance of Lost and Found. Tickets were sold out. When they came to the end of their show applause was prolonged, the audience rose to its feet: we had all been moved by the stories.

285-roundhouse

Lost

The cast, Uganda, Jade, Alex, Prossy, Neda and Faryad, are members of the Write to Life creative writing group at Freedom from Torture. Their stories reflect the deep losses experienced when they were forced to flee to another country. Music is lost: a violin buried stands for the destruction of beauty in Iran; a Ugandan song recovered in and unintentionally sung to the occupants of the British Library Reading Room; the ubiquity of dance music in Cuba; the sadness of Kurdish songs.

I was cut in half in exile, always trying to find my other half.

The search for what is lost may not be successful. Life in a new country may not be good. It takes years to recover from torture and it is more difficult in this disbelieving climate.

285-jade

Music can express the loss of dignity, self-respect, physical integrity through flight, exile and torture. Waiting for my Number was an amusing song. But it is not a good experience for those who must queue to report to the authorities at Lunar House, Croydon. It is mostly about waiting for their number. A stateless person, seeking asylum, reduced to a number by the system. No one is only a number!

Found

Some things are found, sometimes through the kindness of strangers. With nothing to live for, it seemed, Jade was ready to step in front of a car in Greenwich and end it all. She was saved by a passer-by and made a permanent friend.

After three and a half years of imprisonment in an unknown place, another member of the cast escaped hoping to reach London. She found she was already there.

A family, alive and well, was rediscovered in his Ugandan homeland, his mother able to speak on the phone, everyone changed after 20 years.

The Writers Group, Write to Life, at Freedom From Torture, has a therapeutic purpose. Writers rediscover their voices, their sense of self, their dignity and can tell us, who are more fortunate, about what torture and exile means.

The six writers had told their stories to Christine Bacon who brought these stories together in a script. Music and lyrics were added by Ana Silvera and performed by her and Alice Zawadka and Will Roberts.

freedomlogoredone

My walk and challenge.

I am raising money for Freedom From Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and a blogpost. This is the first post in the monthly series. You can read more about it on the page called My Challenge (just click on the page title below the masthead).

285-walkSeptember walk had a literary connection. Agatha Christie lived at Greenway, Devon. She too was lost and found at one point in her life. I walked on Thursday 15th September, a circular route, from Broadsands to Greenway on the River Dart, and then back along The John Musgrave Trail and SW Coast Path. 13kms (8 miles).

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page. Please be generous.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

Souvenirs and Writing Home April 2013

Dear Jade September 2013

Souvenirs May 2016

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

 

The next post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in mid-October

 

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Souvenirs

Who doesn’t have one or two things that they keep to remind themselves of something in the past: a photograph, a pebble, an item of clothing? Those of us fortunate enough not to have a disrupted life are able to hold onto our souvenirs. For those, forced through fear of violence to flee their country, the souvenirs may be lost or less easy to understand. Tracy, a refugee and a victim of torture, said

What happened to me, the marks on my body, the memories, they are going to be my souvenirs.

FFT On My WayTracy had contributed these lines to the play Souvenirs. Living with one’s past can be unbearable, and that’s where the work of Freedom from Torture is so valuable. A group within that charity assists refugees through writing: The Write to Life group. I had a small connection with them before I left London. This is a revision of the post I wrote after I had been to see a production of their play: Souvenirs.

Souvenirs

Writing takes one to some surprising places and to meet some amazing people. Writing as therapy may sound dry and self-indulgent, but the Freedom From Torture’s Write to Life Group are lively, thoughtful and funny. They were also very welcoming when I joined them at one of their meetings. The group was established in 1997 and is co-ordinated by Sheila Hayman, assisted by a team of mentors. It supports torture survivors through writing, a therapeutic process.

254 souvenirs-frontcover

Souvenirs was based on the words of five of the group’s participants whoworked with two theatre companies: iceandfire and Tamasha Theatre Company. The writers played themselves.

Tracy said: What happened to me, the marks on my body, the memories, they are going to be my souvenirs. …I want to show people how I feel. In my struggle I did not have a voice and I want the world to know the truth. Talking, acting, writing about it, it’s another way to free myself.

‘The woman sitting in front of you…’ Jade, sitting centre stage, inescapable, speaks the first line. We, the audience, cannot escape. Her words, perhaps first spoken to Christine Bacon, the scriptwriter, are repeated several times in the short production. Jade sitting on the stage, is speaking to me, to you, to the other members of the cast.

The writer-actors tell us what we would rather not hear:

  • This country, my country, refuses asylum to some victims of torture
  • My country does not allow asylum seekers to work
  • My country treats people as if their needs for food, shelter, comfort, transport, communication with home, are irrelevant
  • Children in other countries are forced to become soldiers
  • Children can and do kill people
  • Parents leave behind their children and partners
  • Parents don’t know when or if they will see their children again
  • Refugees fear memories of torture but they are made to repeat details when they claim asylum
  • Individual acts of small kindnesses are treasured
  • Suffering does not stop when they reach the UK, and can be made worse by experiences here
  • Suffering and healing are all around us
  • Witnesses are sitting in front of us, on the stage.

Tracy says to the audience that she tells other sufferers of torture to speak out. This is part of the healing process. Another participant in the Write to Life group said, ‘talking, acting, writing about it, it’s another way to free myself.’ An audience is like a mirror in front of her, after all the horror and degradation, she is still powerfully and triumphantly alive. This is the mending power of words.

After a previous performance of Souvenirs at the Bath Literature Festival, Mohamed said:

When I saw the audience, I found myself saying it to them with my whole heart. Saying that script – it took me right back. … I want to change people’s perspective of asylum seekers – this is a kind of advocacy for people who are voiceless, which is invaluable. (from the Freedom From Torture blog)

Performing the play was an emotional experience for the participants. And also for the audience. The applause was prolonged.

Words bear witness to these things we don’t want to know. But we cannot now unknow them. We are the people in front of whom stood Jade, Mohammed, Tracy, ‘Uganda’, Hasani, and, in the revised script of the play, Conteh. Words allow us to know and to share, to change. Words lead to action. Now we know, what will we do?

‘Uganda’ said: This is the only way to speak out. It is a way to let the world know what is happening – we are alerting people to get things done.

Postscript

Rescue off the Canaries, November 15th 2006. Noborder Network via WikiCommons.

Rescue off the Canaries, November 15th 2006. Noborder Network via WikiCommons.

We tend to think that the crossing of the Mediterranean is the worst of the refugees’ journey to freedom. But what happens when they land, when they apply for asylum, these things can be as damaging as anything experienced up to that point. I am still ashamed now, more ashamed even, of how my country treats refugees. I continue to support Freedom from Torture.

The text of Souvenirs is available to buy from Freedom from Torture at £5.

254 FFTlogoThe original post, Souvenirs and Writing Home, was published in April 2013.

 

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Writing as therapy, despite Zadie Smith

… most writers groups moonlight as support groups for the kind of people who think that writing is therapeutic. Writing is the exact opposite of therapy. [Zadie Smith, from  interview on Random House site*].

Really!!? It’s a poor arguments that uses the phrase ‘the kind of people who …’. And that suggests underhandness by the choice of the word ‘moonlight’. I wonder if Zadie Smith has reconsidered this rather sneery comment. She is an excellent writer herself, of course, and one who knows about the craft and skill of writing as art. But she should know that for some people writing is therapeutic.

145 old handsLet us make a distinction between writing for publication (art) and writing as therapy and probably not for publication.

Therapeutic Writing

For people who are hurt, traumatised and perhaps depressed, writing is often part of their recovery. Therapeutic writing has a pioneer: James W Pennebaker. It has 30 years of established research and guide books, such as Gillie Bolton et al’s Writing Works. And it has many, many practitioners, who use writing as part of a therapeutic process, in groups and in individual support. We should not be surprised that writing is beneficial – both art and music therapy are well established.

In addition to individual therapeutic writing we can note that it has also been used to help people in groups.

For survivors of torture

At Freedom From Torture there is a writers’ group called Write to Life. The members are refugees and their mentors. The refugees have experienced violence and torture and writing is part of their healing process. FFT also has a bread-baking group, art therapy and a gardening group. Therapeutic activities are not limited to writing and talking. Some of the benefits come from the social aspects of the group’s activities.

239 The Land Hasani

For people with dementia

In Reading Writing and Dementia I described how people with dementia have benefited from writing therapies. You can listen to a podcast of an event held by English Pen at Free Word Centre in March 2014: Dementia and the Power of Words.

Gemma Seltzer’s article (in 69 Mslexia March/April/May 2016) describes co-writing with older people in a project funded through Age UK. In the project called ‘This is How I see You’, Gemma talked to many of the people in a day centre and returned with a poetry portrait of each of them. She comments that it raised issues about her right to write about someone else’s experience of dementia.

For prisoners

In prisons, reading and writing can make a huge difference to prisoners’ lives. Many prisoners have very limited literacy skills. There are many projects helping prisoners to learn to read and to read more. The Writers in Prison Network uses reading and writing workshops and mentors to achieve their aims. Their strap line is ‘helping you change for the better’. Here’s a link to a Day in the life of a writer in residence.

How does therapeutic writing work?

It is the process of writing that helps in the therapeutic process. Sometimes it the expression of feelings, too dangerous or painful to say out loud, but needing some articulation. Sometimes it is the act of choosing words, metaphors, analogies that opens up thinking and reactions in the writer. Metaphors and imagery are ways into understanding depression, for example. And the metaphors and images we use, unconsciously, to make sense of our lives, can be revealed and new ones tried out through writing.

Sometimes the act of choosing words, in writing clarifies a thought. A writer can then reflect and learn from their insights, rather than being locked in a maddening repetitive cycle of emotions. How do I know what I think until I write it down?

Creative Writing Class, Southtown USA by Leesa February 2009 via wikicommons.

Creative Writing Class, Southtown USA by Leesa February 2009 via wikicommons.

Sometimes the significance is in being heard – by a group, a therapist or a friend. And sometimes the responses of a group to a writer’s efforts has a therapeutic effect. Having a voice is to have agency and presence in the world.

Publishing therapeutic writing

The projects I’ve described are about the process of writing. This process does not necessarily produce art or even text for sharing. Sometimes writing that began with therapeutic intent emerges to have something to say to others and is worth publiccation.

Related

Not long ago, in January, I wrote a related post called Reading is good for you. Today’s post was conceived as a companion piece, but quickly turned into a post about therapeutic writing.

* I tried to check the source of Zadie Smith’s quotation, but although it is repeated many times on the internet I couldn’t find it.

Over to you

Where do you stand on this issue? Do you have experience of therapeutic writing?

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Dear Jade

To Jade Amoli-Jackson, author of Moving a Country.

Dear Jade,

Congratulations on the publication of your collection of poems called Moving a Country. I want to encourage lots of people to buy it (click on the link to go to Amazon!)

51 Moving Country

Your poetry (and your involvement in your play Souvenirs) demonstrate the power of words. The power of words to help heal and the power of words to tell other people about other lives. I looked at video clips of you and other members of the Freedom from Torture Write to Life group here speaking about the value of writing – ‘I would have run mad,’ you say, without the writing.

No one leaves her home unless she is running away from something or someone has driven her away. I am telling you. I have first hand experience of that. (pxi)

With these words you begin your introduction, My Painful Journey, to your collection, Moving a Country. You write about your childhood, family and life in Uganda. Your good life, with your husband and three children changed with a new government in 1985. First he was taken and killed, then your father and twin sister both died, your children were abducted and finally you too were taken.

It is wise to be good to people even if they are not related to you; that’s why I am still alive. (pxiii)

Your were helped to escape and came to London, were given leave to remain and have since become a UK citizen. You were assisted by the Medical Foundation, and now in turn you volunteer at the Refugee Council.

In the first section in Moving a Country you look back affectionately to lives connected to your past in Uganda. The second section looks at your flight and troubled times in Uganda. I found this section very dark, hard to read. I can’t imagine the pain associated with the poem Gone within a Second, a cry in darkness for your missing children. Others refer to the everyday losses: food, drink, clothes, transport, language. The title poem is eloquent about the loss that you experienced on moving country and about the memories that persist. The first verse is …

Moving a Country

Move the evergreen trees
Meandering rivers
Lakes and seas
Wild and domestic animals
Birds of all sizes
Pack them all up
Place in the suitcase of my brain

In this poem I like the way you present some of the things that go to make a country, the impossibility of transporting them, and then you shift suddenly to tell us you have them in your head. The following verses become more powerful and more moving as they refer to your life and people you loved in your country. In the remaining sections your poems reveal how fragile a person’s survival can be and how torture undermines self-respect as well as inflicting physical damage. Yet you are generous, even when you had so little, and readily acknowledge the assistance you received from organisations and individuals, such as your writing mentor and editor Lucy Popescu.

You have written that story-telling helps heal and rebuild lives. For readers, your writing helps us understand a life that has been very different to our own. I have been moved by your poems. And amused by some. I laughed out loud at the poem English Ladies, and the one you read in the Tate – Marriage proposal with a shaky start.

I said in my last post that I don’t blog about poetry and then in the very next posting the subject is poetry. But it is important that people write poetry. And important that they read and know the things of which you write, to understand that people are being treated in despicable ways. And this knowing brings an obligation to do something. In my case, I support Freedom from Torture and I write about your writing to encourage others to read it. Your voice should be heard.

Whenever I have met you, Jade, you have greeted me with friendliness and warmth and I have seen you laughing and smiling with your friends. This post is a tribute to your spirit and is written with very best wishes for your future in writing, and in your life.

Caroline.

This post is about a collection called Moving a Country by Jade Amoli-Jackson. She is a member of Freedom from Torture’s Write to Life Group and performed in the group’s play, Souvenirs. Catriona Troth blogged about the launch in June of Moving a Country here.

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Souvenirs and Writing Home

Writing takes one to some surprising places and to meet some amazing people. Writing as therapy may sound dry and self-indulgent, but the Freedom From Torture’s Write to Life Group are lively, thoughtful and funny. They were also very welcoming when I joined them at one of their meetings. The group was established in 1997 and is currently co-ordinated by Sheila Hayman, assisted by a team of mentors. It supports twenty torture survivors through writing, a therapeutic process.

The evening I was present, one of the mentors led a workshop on place and home, starting with a discussion that explored English words for home (abode, mansion, accommodation) and then moved on to consider the concept of home in different countries and languages. We wrote for 20 minutes about home and listened as some were read aloud. We heard nostalgia, memories, homesickness, connections with the people of childhood and of the people still at home. And some poignant details about people and places left behind.

FFT On My Way

This was not my first meeting with members of the group. During Refugee Week last summer I went to their performance at Tate Britain, Where are you from? The Tate was showing the exhibition Migrations and writers from the group had chosen artworks from the exhibition or the permanent collection that resonated with them in some way, and responded in writing. Two in particular stood out: Hasani reading his poem The Land, in front of Turner’s etching: Hedging and Ditching. And Yamikani reading I’d never seen the sea in front of Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shallot. And the group as a whole supported, encouraged and applauded each other and welcomed strangers to hear and talk about their writing.

Souvenirs, based on the words of five of the group’s participants and on which they worked with two theatre companies: iceandfire and Tamasha Theatre Company is being performed at Jackson’s Lane this week. The writers played themselves.

Tracy said: What happened to me, the marks on my body, the memories, they are going to be my souvenirs. …I want to show people how I feel. In my struggle I did not have a voice and I want the world to know the truth. Talking, acting, writing about it, it’s another way to free myself.

‘The woman sitting in front of you…’ Jade, sitting centre stage, inescapable, speaks the first line. We, the audience, cannot escape. Her words, perhaps first spoken to Christine Bacon, the scriptwriter, are repeated several times in the short production. Jade sitting on the stage, is speaking to me, to you, to the other members of the cast.

The writer-actors tell us what we would rather not hear:

  • This country, my country, refuses asylum to some victims of torture
  • My country does not allow asylum seekers to work
  • My country treats people as if their needs for food, shelter, comfort, transport, communication with home, are irrelevant
  • Children in other countries are forced to become soldiers
  • Children can and do kill people
  • Parents leave behind their children and partners
  • Parents don’t know when they will see their children again
  • Refugees fear memories of torture and are made to repeat details in claiming asylum
  • Individual acts of small kindnesses are treasured
  • Suffering does not stop when they reach the UK, and can be made worse by treatment here
  • Suffering and healing are all around us
  • Witnesses are sitting in front of us, on the stage.

Tracy says to a member of the audience that she tells other sufferers of torture to speak out. This is part of the healing process. Another participant in the Write to Life group said, ‘talking, acting, writing about it, it’s another way to free myself.’ An audience is like a mirror in front of her, after all the horror and degradation, she is still powerfully and triumphantly alive. This is the mending power of words.

After a previous performance of Souvenirs at the Bath Literature Festival, Mohamed said:

When I saw the audience, I found myself saying it to them with my whole heart. Saying that script – it took me right back. … I want to change people’s perspective of asylum seekers – this is a kind of advocacy for people who are voiceless, which is invaluable. (from the Freedom From Torture blog)

I knew from the participants that this was an emotional experience for them. And so it was for the audience. The applause was emotional and prolonged.

Words bear witness to these things we don’t want to know. But we cannot now unknow them. We are the people in front of whom stood Jade, Mohammed, Tracy, ‘Uganda’ and Hasani. Words allow us to know and share, to change. Words lead to action. Now we know, what will we do?

‘Uganda’ said: This is the only way to speak out. It is a way to let the world know what is happening – we are alerting people to get things done.

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