Dr Nick Owen MBE PLUS

Working in and on the Business of Cultural Education


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The good lies of stories: writers working with refugees

“Stories may well be lies, but they are good lies that say true things, and which can sometimes pay the rent” Neil Gaiman[1]

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.


[1] http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2004/11/politics-portugal-and-no-gumbo-limbo.asp


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Risk Change: culture, migration and 3 days in Maribor.

Day 1

I’ve never been a refugee or a migrant. Sure, I’ve travelled from city to city in the UK sometimes to find work, sometimes to relocate in order to work – but never with a gun to my head, my entire family trudging through mud beside me or as a result of persecution in a place I once considered my home.

But I’m here at Kibla in Maribor, Slovenia this week representing The Mighty Creatives along with partners from 9 other EU countries to examine the refugee experience, research how cultural activity can inform that experience and who knows in the long run, perhaps inform future international policy on how cultural practice can enhance meaningful relationships between the migrant and their host community.

We’re doing this through a programme called Risk Change: a 4 year programme supported by Creative Europe Co-operation funding.   Organisations from 10 partner countries in the EU aim to  interact with different audiences, using a range of cultural methodologies to build connectivity  between new coming migrants and settled inhabitants of multicultural communities across Europe.

It’s a tall order at the moment given what’s happening across the continent and the U.K. especially given our recent Brexit ‘decision’.

We’ve no idea what to expect this week. Of course, we have the paperwork and the schedules and all the requisites to ensure a constructive collaboration. But until we look at each other in the eyes and hear how we breathe and talk together, the documentation is just text.  It’s the subtext that’s going to count this week: the verbal, nonverbal and physical communications which are going to tell us whether or not we’re on a long productive road with our colleagues at our sides or on our backs.

Day 2

We kicked off our kick off meeting yesterday with an introduction to the research that all 10 partners need to do as the first stage of the project. There’s quite a bit of it too: a shed load of desk based research covering national policy and initiatives on migration; 60 participant interviews per partner and countless reports, ‘call-outs’ and actions. The list goes on and on and on and on….

It occurred to me mid-session that we could really add some value to the process by introducing colleagues to the methodologies involved in arts based educational research (ABER), a form of ethnographic research which involves using arts based processes as the means of undertaking research (not just communicating its results).

I was involved in a lot of ABER practice some years ago when I ran the Special Interest Group for the British Educational Research Association (or the ABER SIG for BERA as it was called in those acronym crazed days): so I drew on some of that work and presented it to colleagues.  If you’re interested in the field, the following practitioners are as a good a place to start as any:

ABBS, P. (2003). Against the Flow. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

BAGLEY, C. (2008). ‘Educational ethnography as performance art: towards a sensuous

feeling and knowing’, Qualitative Research, 8, 1, 53–72.

EISNER, E. (1993). ‘Forms of understanding and the future of educational research’,

Educational Researcher, 22, 7, 5–11.

LEITCH, R. (2006). ‘Limitations of language: developing arts-based creative narrative in stories of teachers’ identities’, Teachers and Teaching: theory and practice, 12, 5, 549–69.

SAUNDERS, L. (2003). ‘On flying, writing poetry and doing educational research.’ British Educational Research Journal, 29, 2, 175–187.

Day 3

“I’ve never been a refugee or a migrant…” or so I thought at the start of this week. Yesterday we covered a lot of ground about the concept of who ‘counts’ as a migrant and why they ‘count’.

Fortunately, we were spared conversations about definitions of migrants which much like definitions of ‘creativity’ are interminable, exhausting and inconclusive. This is because someone at UNESCO had the good sense to conjure up some definitions of what counted as international migration which all the partners were happy enough to go along with. In summary, these were:

a) Temporary labour migrants: also known as guest workers or overseas contract workers: people who migrate for a limited period of time in order to take up employment and send money home;

b) Highly skilled and business migrants: people with qualifications as managers, executives, professionals, technicians or similar, who move within the internal labour markets of trans-national corporations and international organisations, or who seek employment through international labour markets for scarce skills;

c) Irregular migrants or undocumented / illegal migrants: people who enter a country, usually in search of employment, without the necessary documents and permits;

d) Forced migration: in a broader sense, this includes not only refugees and asylum seekers but also people forced to move due to external factors, such as environmental catastrophes or development projects. This form of migration has similar characteristics to displacement;

e) Family members: or family reunion / family reunification migrants: people sharing family ties joining people who have already entered an immigration country under one of the above mentioned categories;

f) Return migrants: people who return to their countries of origin after a period in another country.

The guys at UNESCO also make the useful point that:

“Migration is not a single act of crossing a border, but rather a lifelong process that affects all aspects of the lives of those involved.”

So in hindsight (always my best friend, Mr Hindsight), perhaps I am a migrant after all… perhaps we all are, one way or another… Something to consider over the weekend as I migrate from Maribor to Ljubljana and take on the role of being another form of transient: the tourist.