“Stories may well be lies, but they are good lies that say true things, and which can sometimes pay the rent” Neil Gaiman
Working with refugees means that writers are faced with some provocative challenges about their practice. Are they there to interpret the history of the young refugee who who’s standing in front of them, bewildered and angry? Tell their truth for them? Help them write English? Help them find some accommodation? Or just get out of the way?
Or, given that we live in post-truth times of fake news, is the best that writers can do, to paraphrase Gaiman, is to entertain us with stories that are good lies which pay the rent?
At this year’s Writers Conference, produced by Writing East Midlands at The University of Nottingham, we were delighted to introduce the The Mighty Creatives’ Risk:Change programme to conference delegates; over 150 writers and storytellers from a diverse set of backgrounds and interests. Risk:Change is a four year programme, funded by Creative Europe, which aims to improve understanding of how cultural practice affects social change across 10 European partners; from the Balkans and South East Europe up to France, Holland and into the East Midlands of the UK.
Now an annual landmark in the region’s literary landscape, The Writers Conference provides workshops, panel discussions and debates designed to assist writers’ professional practices. This year’s conference interrogated the idea of ‘migration’, not by debating ‘rights and wrongs’ but by taking an inquisitive look at how ideas might move, as people do, and what this might mean for writers of all backgrounds.
Never mind the Alice in Wonderland world of Brexit promises, delusions and fear. The work that is being undertaken by partners, artists and migrants in the Risk:Change programme is all about engaging in the real world of the complex relationships between culture and migration in ways which aim to understand and give voice to the migrant and the new communities they find themselves within. Being able to introduce this work to writers, who are increasingly finding themselves invited to work with refugees, is a vital element of the Risk:Change programme.
By investigating the opportunities for sharing literary cultures, sparking creative processes, and embracing new ideas, stories and truths, we asked, through the lens of Joseph Campbell’s “Heroic Journey” why certain stories continued to appeal, what the commonalities were and whether the use of archetypes – hero, mentor, villain – were useful in creating narratives which helped the refugee voice to be created, platformed and heard.
Helping to challenge the theory and practice was Jacob Ross, Associate Editor for Fiction at Peepal Tree Press and author of The Bone Readers: Shonaleigh, a Drut’syla (storyteller) from the Yiddish oral tradition and the UK Deputy National Storytelling Laureate and Andrew Walsh, an award-winning writer/director with credits for more than 70 video games including Prince of Persia and Harry Potter.
The question of who is ultimately responsible for creating the refugee narratives – whether it’s the writer, the refugee and or a combination of the two – was also challenged many times. There were no simple answers to this question – but the fact that they are being asked and discussed by writers and refugees is a promising way forward.