Writing back – local women writers take inspiration from the archive

A guest post by Emma Filtness.

I have spent many happy hours over the past three years absorbed in the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, amused, moved, shocked and entertained by the life stories of a select few of the women contained within. Dr Claire Lynch introduced me to the archive, which has since come to form an integral part of my Creative Writing PhD, so when Claire emailed me about a project that involved a combination of rooting around in yet another special collection and creative writing, I was more than a little intrigued.

Brunel University Library’s Special Collections is currently the home of SALIDAA, the South Asian Diaspora Literature and Arts Archive. SALIDAA was awarded lottery funding to run a heritage project, ‘Mummyji’, which would consist of a range of local activities including workshops in schools, author talks, readings and events in libraries in and around Slough, plus a series of women’s community creative writing workshops. These writing workshops were to be run by Brunel in collaboration with SALIDAA, and they were looking for volunteers to run the sessions.

The idea was to recreate and update the original Asian Women Writers Collective (AWWC) – sorry about all the acronyms – by providing local women of South Asian heritage, or women with a link to or interest in South Asian culture, with a place to meet and write and share their work-in-progress, with the aim of producing work of publishable standard for an edited collection.

Myself and two other women writers ran eight workshops in total, beginning with an introductory session early February and ending with a reading party at the end of March, where each woman shared her “best” piece of work aloud to the group. The six sessions in between we split between us. Shaheen Hashmat ran two lovely sessions in which the women took trips down memory lane and explored their childhoods and family homes, among other things, in their writing. The final two sessions before the reading party were led by Anujit Kaur, who did some crucial work on editing and polishing work for submission for possible publication.

Emma teaching the group

The middle two sessions were mine. For the first of these, I led the women up to the Research Commons and Special Collections where SALIDAA resides, where we met with Katie Flanagan, Special Collections Librarian, who gave the women a crash course in handling and working with archive materials. I showed the women some examples of the creative writing myself and other colleagues had produced in response to the Burnett Archive, to give them an idea of what was possible. I had developed a lesson plan of sorts, with some tips and advice on how to find inspiration in the archive and how to translate your observations and responses to the archive materials into written creative outputs.

The women were given time to explore the archive, with the focus on the materials of the original AWWC deposited with SALIDAA. They were encouraged to take notes (with pencils, of course), write down words and phrases that jumped out at them or resonated somehow, to take photos of anything particularly visually stimulating, to make a note of any feelings, memories or ideas conjured up by interacting with the materials. We each then took turns sharing what we had found and what had interested us with the group.

For homework, and in preparation for the session the following week, I asked the women to think about what they would like to write about in response to their tactile session with SALIDAA. We began the following session back in our workshop circle, with each woman announcing what she was going to write (poem, short story, autobiography about/inspired by…). The women were then given the majority of the session to draft their written responses to the archive material. This included poetry inspired by words in spider diagrams found in Maya Chowdhry’s beautiful notebooks, stories inspired by photographic stills of a play production, self-reflective pieces of non-fiction exploring a theme or idea and much more.

Maya Chowdhry’s notebook

For those who were a little stuck, I recommended that they write a story, poem or personal response inspired by a list of interesting words and phrases I ‘borrowed’ from Maya’s notebooks:

  • Grieving
  • Secret – lie – tell – reveal
  • Good hurt
  • I think I’d like to live in the past
  • To seal the heart is to be a man
  • Impulse, innocence, uninhibited
  • Desire beyond identity
  • Dancing/movement
  • Tell stories

Towards the close of the session, some of the women shared snippets of their newly-created poetry and prose, and some gave constructive feedback: “I really like your use of repetition of…”, “perhaps if you make it clearer at the beginning that…” but most just offered smiles and encouragement. The women are now preparing to submit their work at the end of the month, when it will be considered for inclusion in an anthology (watch this space).

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5 thoughts on “Writing back – local women writers take inspiration from the archive

  1. Pingback: Maya Chowdhry Collection | Brunel Special Collections

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