For several weeks, I’ve been facilitating creative writing workshops in Leicester. The project, commissioned by Writing East Midlands with the local NHS Trust, is for elders, here meaning people aged over 55, a category that includes me. We don’t have very long—five ‘taster sessions’ with community groups, and ten two-hour workshops. At the beginning of a project, I really don’t know where I’m going. So much depends on who else comes along, what they contribute and where they want to go. The uncertainty is more exciting than frightening, but there is always an edge; I would worry if I didn’t feel it. I remember sitting in the car for a long time, one dove-grey January morning, feeling the edge and trying to marshal my resources before meeting the first group. I can’t now remember what exercise I’d planned for us to do because we never got that far.
In the church hall, there were about 20 people sitting at a long table, chatting over mid-morning tea. I was told that what I said would be translated, as some of the group did not speak English. I introduced myself, which often requires explaining my name and a little of my origins. Since the question of language had come up, I said that French is my mother tongue, though I’m now more skilled in English. Then I turned to the person on my right and asked him to introduce himself. He answered in French, saying that he’d grown up in Madagascar and felt more comfortable in that language. In a moment of chance and delight, a connection was made; I interpreted for him. And so we went round the table, introducing ourselves and sharing something of our languages and roots. There were stories of Kenya, Tanzania, India and Aden, of marriage and children, the pain of separation, illness, hard work and long hours. People had two, three, four even five languages: Gujarati, Swahili, Hindi, Arabic, Punjabi and others. For over an hour, we did nothing and yet we did so much. We told stories round the circle, even without a fire to watch. We told ourselves and listened to one another. We recognised and were recognised.
The other taster sessions followed the same pattern, each different according to who was in the room. And now we are already halfway through the main programme of workshops, with people from those first meetings and others drawn in through local networks. We have become a group—one with great breadth of culture, age, ability, experience and background and with porous boundaries. Half a dozen people have made every session, some have been able to come only once, and others are writing elsewhere supported by group members. What unites us, in all our diversity, is memory. We’re using Joe Brainard‘s book I Remember as a model for writing. First published in 1970, this is a deceptively simple series of about 1500 sentences and short paragraphs, each beginning with the words ‘I remember’. Brainard, an artist more than a writer, creates a vivid picture of post-war America whose attraction lies in his character and his clear-sighted honesty. Like many simple things, I Remember seems an obvious idea. Like many simple things, it is all about execution.
Already, our open-edged group has written enough work for a book, which we’ll call I Remember Leicester. The pieces vary from a few words to a few sentences; they are moving, funny, intriguing, sad, but always evocative, glimpses of different worlds with parallels and connections. Our book will not be an anthology but a single text, in which each person’s words stand equal and distinct within the group. A portrait of a diverse European city in uneasy times, I Remember Leicester will be an expression of community, in which we recognise one another and are recognised. Of course, we still have a lot to do – selecting and editing, author portraits and biographies, designing and printing. There is time though: the book will be presented at an event in the beginning of June. I feel a quiet delight at having been part of something that promises to be so valuable.
Two other writers, Sabrina Smith and Lydia Towsey, have worked with me on this project which would not have been possible without their contribution.