Earlier this year, postgraduate students from Brunel University London’s Creative Writing and Creative Writing: The Novel masters courses did some work in the Special Collections section of Brunel Library. This was part of a module called ‘Writers at Work’ (EN5540) which explores creative writing projects in education and in the community, giving students the skills needed to design, run and evaluate writing workshops and other activities, as well as exploring the opportunities that exist for writers in educational and other contexts, such as archival research and residencies. The module is taught by Tony White, author of novels including Foxy-T (Faber and Faber) and visiting lecturer at Brunel. White has also been writer in residence at the Science Museum and Leverhulme Trust writer in residence at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies.
Brunel Library’s Special Collections is located on the top floor of the library, and is home to a varied range of collections, used by undergraduate and postgraduate students and to support teaching. They cover a wide range of subject areas, including transport history, the Channel Tunnel, poetry and dialect, equality and advocacy and South Asian literature, art, theatre and music. You can read descriptions of them on the Collections page.
For ‘Writers at Work’, the creative writing postgraduates focused on the Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies, which contains,
over 230 autobiographies. […] The criteria for inclusion were: the writers were working class for at least part of their lives; they wrote in English; and they lived for some time in England, Scotland or Wales between 1790 and 1945.
The Burnett Archive is a fascinating resource, and the autobiographies that it contains are rich in day-to-day detail of family lives and relationships, expressive language and dialects, and the gritty realities of poverty and working class lives in the UK during the 19th and 20th centuries. Here you might find a tale of running away to join the circus, or a grim account of institutional life and injustice that might have made Dickens blanch. The Burnett Archive provides unique source material for Brunel researchers like Claire Lynch from the Department of Arts and Humanities who has written about the lives revealed in these manuscripts. For Lynch, “the Burnett Archive is one of Brunel’s treasures, I’m impressed each year by the innovative approaches our students take to the letters, diaries and memoirs held here.” Sociologists and historians from across the UK and beyond have also drawn on the archive. One excellent example of this is the Writing Lives project by students at Liverpool John Moores University. For Tony White, the opportunity to introduce creative writing postgraduates to the Burnett Archive is also a reminder that working class and other marginalised voices are often excluded from literature and mainstream culture.
By using creative writing as their research method for the ‘Writers at Work’ module, Brunel postgraduates have been able to respond to the literary qualities of these historical texts, but also to use them as the inspiration for new pieces of creative writing, which in turn might offer opportunities to create new kinds of insights and focus, as well as finding new ways to relate the historical accounts to contemporary life. In the selection of stories offered here, Samreen Shah’s powerful ‘Madam Button Queen’ connects experiences of the 19th century textile industries to garment factory workers in contemporary Bangladesh, while in ‘Home for Friendless Girls’ and ‘Market Night’, Lucy Jane Gonzalez and Suzanne Bavington-Drew respectively offer dark tales of orphanage life, and of domestic violence in the shadows of the old Smithfield Market. Laura Brown uses the epistolary form—letters—to allow a young female character called Maggie to tell her own story of the harsh consequences of a brief love affair. Reflecting on the process, Laura writes:
Working with the archives was really interesting. Throughout my degree we’ve read fictional pieces and responded to them in creative ways, but this is the first time we’d had the chance to engage with real people’s stories, and it meant that the work we created somehow felt more personal and more meaningful. It was a great experience and I’d like to try it again in the future.
Students’ engagements with the Burnett Archive can also be irreverent and playful, as in this excerpt of a longer prose poem by Chukwunonso Ibe, a ‘joy full roasting’ inspired by Edward Baker’s untitled account of his life in the 1920s (Vol. No. 2:865):
He is here with us now
With me now,
In spirit and kind
Words that chose to grow on me.
Words I have to grow on me.
Words I want to grow on me.
Words I kinda need to grow on me.
Ed-word, I wish I could tell you this in person,
But you are dead
And all I have,
All we have, the public, are your words,
Parts of your memories you chose to share.
My thoughts of you I chose to bare,
My silent contempt disguised as care,
But not really.
I think you are a cool dead guy
and I would probably have bought you a glass of beer.
© Chukwunonso Ibe, 2015
You can read a selection of the Creative Writing postgraduate students’ stories here (all works are copyright the authors, and all rights reserved):
Lucy Jane Gonzalez, ‘Home for Friendless Girls’
The ones I love aren’t here anymore. I’d like to say they passed at the end of long, fulfilled lives, but that is not so. They were taken unjustly. As for me… [VIEW/DOWNLOAD PDF]
Laura Brown, ‘Letters from Maggie’
Joe, I miss the mornings we used to spend together. Mother says you left for a job in the city and I’m so very happy that you found employment, even if it is… [VIEW/DOWNLOAD PDF]
Samreen Shah, ‘Madam Button Queen’
My name is Nabila and I am 10 years old. I used to live in Khulna, my village, but four years ago we came to Dhaka. We came to make money. My baba says that one day… [VIEW/DOWNLOAD PDF]
Suzanne Bavington-Drew, ‘Market Night’
It was Sunday night. Johnny wouldn’t sleep. He never did, not with the racket going on outside. It was so loud he couldn’t even hear the… [VIEW/DOWNLOAD PDF]