Revelation!

Open Book Cape Town

This morning’s #Writing My City workshop (re-arranged from last Friday when most people arrived too late to do anything, but never mind) took us to a whole new level.

Rather than prepare anything for group participation, I’d decided that we should just write, and then write some more. We had finished our previous workshop in writing mode and sure enough, stories had been written, at least partly.

I was so pleased to find that most of the group had written their stories in English (contrary to what they had told me they would do). I read each of them in turn in a quiet area, with their authors. And I had someone to help translate the two pieces which were written in Afrikaans.

The #WritingMyCity project is about the stories, not about how they are written, but reading stories phrased in the local vernacular is very pleasing.

The stories I read this morning are thought-provoking. They are disturbing and they have got under my skin. These stories have been told from the heart, and they are heart-wrenching. Most important of all, they are real. Powerful stories, written by women who lack power. All but one are from what we so tastefully call the ‘formerly disadvantaged communities’ as if they’re not still disadvantaged. All of these women have lived through very tough experiences.

For some, this writing journey has opened barely-healed wounds which are hard to deal with. But there will be support. For many of them it may offer a way to that special writing space which means so much to me. At least I hope so.

I’m saddened and humbled by their stories. I feel privileged that they have trusted me to read them. I am gratified that now they have the will and confidence to share them further by submitting them to the project. 

When we let our stories out into the world next week we will celebrate… with cake!

I hope at least one eventually appears in print.

 

 

 

 

An Uphill Struggle

Open Book Cape Town

Session Two of the #Writing My City workshop at Suiderstrand Library.

I was excited and quite optimistic about how it would go, particularly since after the initial struggle of the first session, we had finished up with heads down, writing.

I’d done lots of preparation, including finding what I thought was accessible material for my little group of (principally) Afrikaans-speaking ladies. I had a photo-prompt, some poems to read and a ‘kick-off’ worksheet.

Oh, and I’d brought cake.

Everything was prepared; my laptop was poised ready to play the You Tube clips. Slowly-slowly the group members dragged themselves in. We greeted each other, then they crawled around on the floor finding sockets where they could charge their phones. We assembled around the table with our coffee and biscuits.

We had a little recap. Had anyone continued writing? Just the one willing woman. The one who’s really keen. Okay, that was expected.

So, I explained, I’ve found some Afrikaans poetry, written by a guy from the Cape back in the Days of the Struggle. He’s called Adam Small. It’s good stuff!

O oppas, oppas performed by Veronique Jephtas.
[Now I’d thought it was engaging, even though I understood about one word in ten].

Blank looks all round. I handed out the copies of the poem and tried to get them to translate. A few words were squeezed out. Maybe it was a bit before their time… maybe it wasn’t my place… I don’t know.

So I picked up another of his poems: ‘The Poet, Who is he?‘ Here’s the rough translation:

The poet
Who’s he?
You all have so much to say about the poet
But who’s he?
Is he really what you think?

The guy with the pen and the ink
who sits in his study and thinks out poems?

No
You’re all mistaken
Not him

But you’re the poets
You, guys who walk in the street
And gossip
And see things
And point them out and let God know

The point being… you are the poets!
Refer back to the success of the rapper. You can do it!

For my final flourish, I played one of Veronique Jephtas’ own pieces of performance poetry. Warning: strong language.

Break through! They enjoyed this. We talked about the role of women, their place in society etc. It was really interesting, but their supervisor from Social Development urged against pursuing their vulnerable feelings. Fair enough. I’d thought of that for Part Two. 

Cake Break

For the second half I used a photo prompt. A recent one from the lovely Hélène Vaillant’s Willow Poetry: ‘What do you see?

000000 helen valliant photo prompt for 13 Many

The little boy hiding behind a tree. I explained that the poems we were about to read were inspired by the photo. You can use anything to get yourself writing.

I gave them copies of the following and we read them together.
Thanks for your poetry!

Hide and Seek by Von Smith

Childhood Problems by Susan Zutautas 

Lost by Christine Bolton

The one ‘willing woman’ and Bongi, the Head Librarian, took up the discussion about the poems with me. Some of the others also participated. We had engagement. 

For this last part of the morning I wanted to take them back to an earlier, happy memory. I shared one of mine. Of being in my grandma’s kitchen…

Think about an early memory, something happy.

Now perhaps you’d like to write something? You don’t have to read it out. Think about that memory: Where are you? Who’s with you? What can you see? What does it look like? What can you hear? What does it sound like? Smells are very important to memories. What can you smell? Describe it. What can you feel when you put out your hand? What do you feel inside? What can you taste? What happened? What were you thinking? What did you do? (I gave them each a worksheet with the headings).

And then they all put away their phones and started writing. And continued writing. 

Continue for homework if you would like to.

We’ll see.

 

 

 

 

Not quite what I expected

Open Book Cape Town

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?”

“Er, no.”

“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.

 

 

 

 

 

Tell the Story Challenge #2

Tell the Story - Chris Hall - lunasonline

Teresa, The Haunted Wordsmith, nominated me earlier this week to participate in the Tell The Story Challenge. This is the photo she gave me.

The rules:
Write a story about the picture you’re given.

Select 3 nominees.
Give them a new picture.


Uncle Foss’s Library

Catherine loved books which was just as well as she had very few friends other than the characters in the stories she read. Fortunately she wasn’t short of these, as there were so very many books in her uncle’s library. Uncle Foss had been her guardian ever since she could remember. He had engaged various tutors over the years, as had been stipulated in her wardship agreement, but none had lasted long. Catherine had therefore educated herself, partly under her uncle’s guidance, through the perusal of the wealth of knowledge which was contained between the covers of his extensive library.

No books in Uncle Foss’s library were forbidden or out of bounds, although there were certain high shelves that he’d steered her away from, saying she’d enjoy those books better when she was older. But now, a few days away from her fifteenth birthday, while her uncle had been occupied in Town, she’d climbed the library ladder and removed three interesting-looking volumes which she’d been considering for some weeks now. At almost fifteen she was certain she was ready for the high shelves.

Back in her room after supper and a game of backgammon with her uncle, she chose the smallest book. It was old, bound in finely tooled black leather with silver embossed letters on the front which read: ‘Faerie Folk and Mischievous Creatures – A Guide’. Catherine had loved magic and fantasy stories since she was a little girl. She started to read.

They are as old as the oldest hills and their presence is clings on even in the most rational minds, deep within our collective memory. Ancient and modern, of both sexes, and neither good nor ill, they live long, long lives, then disappear as ash on the wind.” Catherine started as the window behind her rattled. She looked round, but it was just the oak trees branches brushing against the glass. Storm clouds were gathering, covering the bright face of the new moon.

Although of the earth, they are otherworldly, living between our world and theirs. Rarely noticed, they appear at the periphery of our vision, hidden in plain sight…”

Out of the corner of her eye, Catherine suddenly noticed a movement behind the nightstand next to her bed; a mouse? But no, it hadn’t moved like a mouse, and she was sure she’d seen a flash of scarlet.

There was a knock at the door. Her uncle entered, smiling. He crossed the room and gently took the little book from her hands. “It’s time, Catherine,” he said. His face lit up with excitement, “time to introduce you to the other members of our household.”


So, my nominees are:

Amartya, Jumbled Letters

Dr Tanya, Salted Caramel

One Life, Tap My Toes

A story, a verse, a vision? See where this takes you.

00 Image for Tell the Story - Your dog. Your style by @dogmade.artwork
 Your dog. Your style by @dogmade.artwork

With these words…

Duke_Humfrey's_Library_Interior_5,_Bodleian_Library,_Oxford,_UK_-_Diliff
Duke Humfrey’s Library, the oldest reading room of the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford   Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

She hadn’t realised the consequences of taking down that old book and reading from it aloud. Nobody had warned her.

She’d always loved books; especially old books. Battered and bruised, but still adorable. Like a comfortable old armchair. The feel of the paper, pages yellowed at the edges, curled like parchment, worn down by the gaze of its readers. The smell: a little musty; a little dusty. And words which have been read and re-read; taken in, digested.

She’d been permitted to browse this ancient library. To scale the heights of the upper shelves and plumb the depths of the bottom-most archives. To swim in an ocean of promised words.

Finally, she made her choice, a heavy tome and rather old. The pages were discoloured, their edges torn, and the leather binding scuffed and stained. But the drawings of flowers and birds it contained were still colourful. There were passages of script held within the pages, although the language and spelling were archaic and hard to follow.

She took her prize to a remote desk and opened it carefully. She pored over it; savouring it. The illustrations were remarkable; tinted drawings so precise that they could have been photographs: two young girls dressed in pinafores, chanting a hand clapping game. Over the next page, a robust woman in a heavy woollen dress shouting straight out of the page at her, brows knitted with concern, arms open in appeal. A little further on, a poem was it? To be read aloud; of course.

And as she whispered the words, the world grew very bright for a moment, and then the lights went out.

Come, gentle reader, open the book! Look, she’s waving at you; page 229.

©2018 Chris Hall

The Clapping Song