Write to Life and A Country to Call Home
Blog by Lucy Popescu
In my twenty years working for the English Centre of PEN, the international association of writers, I campaigned on behalf of persecuted writers worldwide and enlisted the help of high profile authors, the media and human rights organisations to highlight their plight. As Programme Director of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, the power of words was brought home to me on a daily basis. It was at PEN that I first encountered writers from refugee backgrounds.
One writer who made a particular impact was Cheikh Kone, a journalist forced to flee from his home in Ivory Coast. His horrifying account of his three years in an Australian refugee detention centre demonstrates the dehumanising impact of being reduced from a person to a number. His description of fellow inmates mutilating themselves, some sewing up their lips in despair, and attempting suicide, of children living behind razor wire and their constant crying, has stayed with me. Kone survived by writing about his experiences.
So when I left PEN, to concentrate on my own writing, it seemed a natural progression to volunteer with Write to Life. I was struck immediately by the warmth of the group and how supportive members are of one another.
We meet fortnightly and share a simple meal. Each mentor takes it in turn to run a two-hour creative writing workshop, exploring a specific subject or writing technique. I also mentor two members of the group, meeting them privately every fortnight to help them polish their writing, work on any grammatical issues, and craft their creative thoughts into poems, stories and reportage.
The cathartic effects of writing are well known and the group bond through sharing their stories. We hear about the pain of leaving behind loved ones and the struggles of building a new life. Many refugees are dealing with unimaginable loneliness. Some have been forced to leave their children behind, some are coping with bereavement, some have lost their entire family.
Some have forged new lives for themselves but the relentless struggle to assimilate takes its toll. Few are able to practise their original occupations – teachers, academics, writers, lawyers, journalists, accountants. Writing about their lives helps them process past trauma, but also offers them hope for the future.
Many members of the group go on to become ambassadors for Freedom from Torture, reading their work at various events, including the Edinburgh Festival. For me one of the most heart-warming moments is to see a member of the group regain their voice and the confidence to read from their work in public in a language not their own.
I also aim to reach new audiences through anthologies of writing about refugees and asylum seekers. A Country of Refuge, featuring the work of writers such as Sebastian Barry, William Boyd, A.L. Kennedy, Hanif Kureishi and Marina Lewycka, was published in Refugee Week 2016. We have had a great response. One reader, Michaela Fyson, bought 650 copies to give to MPs and the University of Hertfordshire offered free copies to their first year students.
I am now working on another anthology on the experiences of children and young people. A Country to Call Home will include newly commissioned stories, flash fiction, poetry and original artwork and features some of our finest children’s writers, including David Almond, Moniza Alvi, Brian Conaghan, Judith Kerr, Patrice Lawrence, Chris Riddell, S.F. Said and Alex Wheatle.
My dream is that the book widely will be read in schools, maybe even put on the national curriculum, in the hope that younger generations will have a kinder response to refugees and asylum seekers and better understand why people are forced to flee their native countries. The fate and vulnerability of refugee children and young adults continue to be vital issues and the book is intended as a positive reminder of our shared humanity.
Like A Country of Refugee, A Country to Call Home will be crowd funded. We are off to a promising start but still have a long way to go. If you pledge, you are effectively buying the book in advance; you get a limited edition copy with your name listed, and there is even a special level for schools.
Please consider pledging at: https://unbound.com/books/a-country-to-call-home