The initial phase of ‘Listening Voices and Telling Stories’, detailed in Storying Sheffield, won funding from Engaged Curriculum to run a new project in collaboration with St Mary’s Community Centre in Sheffield and a group of women from different ethnic backgrounds (Syria, Iraq, Hong Kong, Kurdistan, Iran, Pakistan, Romania and Ireland).
The project had three aims:
- to explore an epistemological space between English as a discipline and the narratives of displaced and interrupted identities. By inhabiting such a space, the project tried to offer a creative/poetic engagement with such narratives that fall into a grey area between settled communities and the main culture
- to investigate a pedagogy of ‘safe space’ that takes into consideration the individual’s self-perception of ‘vulnerability’ and ‘safety’, and see if such perceptions are in conflict with dominant conceptualizations of ‘vulnerable participants’ implied by ethical regulations
- to shift the gaze of the ‘engagement’ towards the university and English literature curriculum by suggesting a teaching pack for the school of English which could defy borders between English as a ‘white middle-class subject’ and the knowledge produced by unacknowledged ‘communities’ in the city. Such an inclusive curriculum could enable students to rethink the transformative role of literature and critical theories through dialogical encounters with concrete ‘others’ in non-academic everyday settings.
The project was designed to run every Wednesday for ten weeks in St Mary’s Church. It was near the end of the course that I decided to add five more weeks, and worked with the group as a volunteer because the participants had just started to articulate their stories and write their own poems. The group agreed that the course could not stop at that stage. The project did not completely follow a pre-constructed methodology because of its aim to explore the unknown and the unexpected nuances in the process of working with such a particular group. However, the course intended to have a flexible structure to read different forms of poetry from the women’s countries of origin (as well as English and Irish literature) to value their cultural heritage and present a meaningful space for cross-cultural understanding and dialogue. Poetry as one of the oldest forms of storytelling was used to articulate profound feelings and offer fictional tools –concepts, emotions, symbols, images, metaphors and vocabularies–which might not be provided in ESOL-based texts and pedagogies. At the same time, the ambiguity and playfulness of poetic language was highlighted to develop critical thinking and engagement with the concept of ‘otherness’ in cross-cultural encounters. The participants were introduced to multiple readings of texts which resisted fixed interpretations. They were encouraged to listen to ‘other’ voices and see the world from different perspectives. The discussions about the poems helped the women to start writing their own poems for the first time in English. The process started from literary texts to everyday life stories and back again.
What emerged from the project was quite unique and surprising. My initial expectation was to encounter questions about the relevance of poetry to the reality of the lives of the participants. I also expected that reading and writing poetry in English would be the biggest challenge for the newly arrived immigrants and asylum seekers in the group. It came as a surprise that the creative women found poetry meaningful and even helpful to express profound emotions. As an empowering form of communication, poetry allowed them to present their authentic voices and share genuine lived experiences without the confinement of standard grammar. In writing ‘non-standard’ sentences, the women enjoyed a kind of linguistic freedom and confidence essential to regain the identity that had been ‘interrupted’ during their journeys. Such freedom led to writing powerful and sophisticated poems about unexpected subjects including cultural taboos and jihadi brides!
As a conscious pedagogical ‘gatekeeper’ I experienced the dilemma of staying within the defined codes of ‘safety’ or going beyond the boundaries of a comfort zone and welcome a microcosmic practice of democratic thinking. I realized that individual’s self-perception of ‘vulnerability’ and ‘safety’ was an important discourse which resisted the current infantilizing definitions implied by strict ethical regulations. It requires courage , strength and resilience to be creative and give shape to an ungraspable phase of life. The group’s thought-provoking discussions and writing during the course showed resilience and resistance to reductive representations, categorization, and imposed images.
We realized that creating a kind of symbolic ‘community’ was as important and powerful as accrual communities. One of the poems which created such a sense of ‘community’ and touched all the members of the group was written by Mihaela from Romania. She used to be a history teacher before coming to the UK a year ago:
I was a seed of a dandelion with a fluffy star on the top
I stood with many other like me in a crush on dandelions
So many identical faces crushed in so less space, tried to shine,
one day a strange wind blew for a second,
it told us a beautiful story about a large place
where each person is different and happy– not crushed like us,
‘What a nice place’, I thought that day,
‘Please Wind take me away!’
But the moment was lost
‘Maybe another time’, I said to myself every day.
One day, finally, the Wind took me away in a shallow fly,
I broke my fluffy star, it has been hurting me so far.
Now I am in a dreamland and around me are different faces
and I am having foreign music,
What am I in the dreamy place?
…just a seed that is waiting for a drop of rain!
We celebrated the last day of the project by an amazing ceremony in a public event arranged by the wonderful staff in St Mary’s church. In this event the members of the group presented their poetry both in English and in their own native languages and received certificates (also prepared by the St Mary’s staff). The group has decided to meet monthly and continue writing poetry.
One of the highlights of my journey with this group was to find out that I had been the subject of ‘engagement’ too during the course! A week after the project ended I received an email with an attached poem with the title of ‘You’.
This project has also featured on SWAN website.