You may recall from a few weeks back that I’d volunteered to be a facilitator for Cape Town’s Writing My City project.
I should at this point mention that the local library where I was found a place, Suider-Strand Library, had entered into a joint initiative with the Social Development Department, which is broadly involved in upliftment programmes. Hence my little group of 10 ladies were parolees. So, some good stories here! And, I was assured, they had volunteered for the workshops and were keen to write. I was further assured that they were English speakers (to my shame, I have not learned more than the basics of Afrikaans, even after 9 years here).
Well, to cut to the chase, as they say.
The tables are arranged, we have pens and paper, we have coffee and biscuits, and the six ladies and I have introduced ourselves. One of their number is their parole supervisor. Head Librarian, Bongi, is at my side.
I spend a few moments outlining the project. How we want to hear people’s stories. How it is that the story is important, not the actual writing, but I’m here to help with that.
“Are we getting lunch?”
“But we’re here all day.”
“Er, sorry, no. Just 10 til 12.”
I continue to talk about the project. I talk about how powerful their stories will be. How they might be included in a book, which will be launched at an important book festival. Bongi nods encouragement.
They chat amongst themselves (in Afrikaans), then one says: “Are we getting paid for this?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, we’re not going to write anything unless we get paid for it. People are going to make money out of this book and we want a share of it.”
I turn to Bongi for support. A short discussion ensues in which we learn about a whole range of issues which concern these women. Creative writing is not really what they need at this point! Some of these women haven’t even adjusted to being outside prison. They have been incarcerated for between 5 and 10 years in the same facility. One has only been out for a few months. They are having problems settling back into their communities and relating to their children again.
I close my folder. I should be a social worker, or a counsellor, or someone teaching basic literacy skills. But I’m not any of these things.
A different tack is required if I’m going to make anything of this opportunity. We continue the discussion for a little while longer. I explain they don’t have to write anything unless they want to. I say I hope they will though, because it might help them make sense of things. I go on about how it is to lose yourself in writing stories. Even if I can’t make a living from it. Etc. I’m sure you get my drift.
I mention a local author whom I met recently. She does make a living from her novels. A good one. She’d told me that it was just by chance that her first self-published book got noticed, how she’d got a publisher and how she’s sold 100,000 books. I likened her to a singer/wrapper who suddenly gets discovered.
We have another break. When we all sit down again, they are more positive. They ask me if I’d known where they were from. They seem relieved that I did. Another woman from their group has arrived, and two officers from Correctional Services have joined us too. They will be observing.
We do a little exercise introducing ourselves. Apart from the new-comer, they all write in Afrikaans and their supervisor reads their words out. Some are funny, some are poignant. But they’ve all started writing.
We talk more about ourselves.
I give them a silly story to read which I’d brought along as an icebreaker. It’s one of Ellie Scott’s which she recently posted on her website. It’s called ‘The Ultimate Anti-Aging Secret‘. They love it! Ellie helpfully explains at the end of the story how she gets her inspiration to write. We talk about that too. (Thanks Ellie, that helped!).
Then I ask them what story they might like to tell. It can be about anything. I mention the project again and our late-comer is totally engaged. She’s always written and she’s up for this. Her enthusiasm is infectious. The group is coming around.
We have about 30 minutes left. I ask them to spend about ten minutes writing about something, anything. It doesn’t have to be for the project. They don’t have to share it with anyone. They can write it in their home language. ‘Make it for you,’ I say.
A minute later they are all busy. Ten minutes later they are all still writing. I stop them with ten minutes to go and ask them if they’d like to tell the group what they’ve been writing about. Most say they’ve started writing about what went wrong with their lives, but one says she’s been writing about meeting her boyfriend. ‘Mills and Boon’. We all laugh.
Time will tell how we progress, but I know we already have one very powerful story which will be told beautifully and painfully. I have another four sessions to find out if there will be more.