I was recently invited by my friend and former colleague Christine Chettle, a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds, to lead a guest workshop for STAR (Student Action for Refugees) in Little London, a suburb of Leeds.
Please visit their national website on the following link: http://www.star-network.org.uk/
When Christine originally asked me to contribute to their programme, I was delighted by the idea, having recently had the experience of leading a workshop at the Ellen Wilkinson School for Girls in North London. I feel strongly about the need for academics to step out of our so-called ‘ivory tower’ (in the case of the University of Leicester, Attenborough Tower is hardly made of ivory, though it’s tall enough) in order to engage with the people out there, especially with those who are interested in sharing our knowledge but who may not have easy access to Higher Education, or who need a bit of encouragement to participate fully in academic dialogue. I find that this type of engagement activity can provide some of the most rewarding experiences in our profession: it makes us better communicators by forcing us to talk to a different audience and to make our research interests appealing to a variety of people with different cultural and educational backgrounds; most of all, it is highly satisfying to witness the enthusiastic, thought-provoking and intellectually rigorous responses that the literary texts we study elicit from people outside academia. This is a bit of a reality check for all of us involved, and a brilliant one.
As we prepared for the session with asylum seekers and refugees, Christine alerted me to the sensitive situation of some of the people seeking asylum in the UK: contrary to the distorted picture painted by the tabloids and by right-wing politicians, people who come to the UK looking for refuge are not benefit-scrounging, lazy, under-qualified individuals. Contrary to popular misconception, they are often intellectual leaders in their native communities: strong, vocal people who pose too much of a threat to the integrity of conservative and repressive governments, and who either are forced to leave or can no longer feasibly tolerate their way of life under dictatorial regimes.
Take a look at the following website to dispel some untrue facts about refugees and to learn some startling new ones: http://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/tellitlikeitis
Christine pointed out to me that our study of literary texts would be twofold: it would help refine the English language skills and understanding of the workshop attendees, whilst also being a useful means of enabling them to work through some of their own personal issues. This is not the classical set-up on an academic seminar, and it’s easy to recognise that this mode of literary study, called ‘bibliotherapy’, can have a crucial impact on a person’s ability to share and reflect on the personal hardships posed by a history of migration and settlement in the UK. In this sense, we don’t look for reified literary techniques, but mine the texts for details of characters’ lives and situations that can allow refugees to pause, think, and reflect on their own experience of displacement.
The text we chose for our session was Zadie Smith’s short story ‘Martha, Martha’, which Christine had already started reading with her group the weekend before. For our workshop, I devised a short iPad prezi about Zadie Smith including a picture of her, another of North West London, where she grew up, a photo of King’s College, Cambridge, where she was an undergraduate (just like two of her idols, Salman Rushdie and E. M. Forster). This is where she studied English Literature and became a published writer. The final slide offered some facts about the story: published in 2003 in Granta, the text is set in post-9/11 Massachusetts and deals with themes of migration and alienation in America. The story’s main character is Martha, a quiet, troubled black British citizen of Nigerian descent who has recently moved to America, and whose financial situation isn’t desperate but remains unclear: she has inherited some money from a dead uncle, and she carries with her a picture of a man and a child that we assume to be her husband and daughter. The whole story is fraught with uncertainty about Martha’s case, something one of the women in the group alluded to. This reader, a refugee from Syria, felt frustrated by Martha’s opaqueness and by the story’s teasing ambiguity. I explained that Smith is a great craftswoman when it comes to teasing her readers out of their complacency. Martha is, in a way, the perfect example of the unreadable immigrant: she refuses to be fixed and finally cuts through the real-estate agent Pam’s histrionic speeches by running out onto the street in the middle of a house viewing, leaving us in the dark about her past and her future.
The venue for the workshop was the main hall at the Little London Community Centre, where lively conversation classes (that look almost like speed-dating) take place alongside the advanced reading group for people wanting to take their English to a higher level. The atmosphere was busy and vibrant. The workshop attendees were a middle-aged man from Iraq, two women in their forties from Iran and Syria and the young daughter of the refugee from Syria, possibly in her mid-to-late teens. Their other two children were playing around the hall, and often claimed the attention of their mothers. (This was an eye-opening reminder about our privileged study spaces.) We started by discussing the picture of Zadie Smith in my presentation. I asked them what they thought about her based solely on her appearance. The man from Iraq came up with a prescient description: her eyes show pain and knowledge, an ability to deal with the situation of people in trouble; she is a sad, intelligent woman. (This from just looking at her face, and nothing had been mentioned yet about her being of mixed Jamaican and English descent.) We observed her trajectory from Willesden to Cambridge, precipitated by her love of literature, and her particular position as a writer at the crossroads of several cultural traditions, which her work merges and illuminates.
Christine and I then took turns with the workshop attendees in reading out a section of the story. I was at once impressed by the fluency of their reading and by their fine pronunciation and intonation, although it varied from individual to individual, one of the members being more focused on getting each word right than on reading comprehension. From the description of the sad, mouldy houses that Martha is made to view with the talkative Pam, we went on to discuss the damp chilliness of British homes. The man from Iraq mentioned missing the climate of his native country. We also discussed how a house holds clues to the character of its present or departed inhabitant. Later, I shared details about how I met Christine at Leeds, and my being a Teaching Fellow at the University of Leicester. The lady from Syria turned out to be a Sociology PhD student at a prestigious Northern university; she was light-hearted about it and dwelled on the fact she came to England to study for her doctorate and ended up becoming a refugee because of the difficult political situation in Syria. This brought home to me Christine’s statement about the status of refugees and made me think about how critical thinkers are often endangered by political systems that quench dissent and freedom of speech. We live in a society that takes the ability to disagree and to think independently for granted, too used to our liberties and unaware of their fragile state elsewhere.
The workshop was followed by lunch for everybody, served from the kitchen adjacent to the hall: invariably a vegetarian meal (rice, potatoes and salad, followed by fruit) to account for all dietary requirements and everyone’s faiths. Faith was another matter brought up during our discussions: the two women, both mothers, were culturally Muslim, but schooling their children in the UK meant they had to consider sending them to Christian institutions; they mentioned attending Church of England meetings, dispelling, along with many other deep-seated stereotypes about immigrants, the image that Muslim immigrants are necessarily swayed by extremisms, that they hold on too fervently to their religious beliefs and fail to engage with British society and culture. The ease with which these women talked about accommodating to a different faith spoke volumes about their willingness to engage with the country that gave them refuge and about their ability to cross faith and cultural barriers.
We never got to discuss as many aspects of the text as I’d originally planned, and we soon got carried away by anecdote and gossip, but, as Christine had warned me, this is not the most important aspect of the event. Within the context of this workshop for STAR, it became apparent that literature isn’t the privilege of the affluent middle class and the object of scrutiny of a few learned individuals: it can actually help people learn more about others and about themselves; it brings down man-made barriers and helps us create new bonds. Above all, my experience proved to me that that academic learning can definitely have a direct impact on people outside academic circles, that it goes beyond entertainment and can offer a liberating space in which ideas and stories help us foster mutual understanding.