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.
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.