Writing workshop with the Women’s Integration Group, Southampton

Image – Talha Khan

By nazneen ahmed

Susmita and I ran two sessions with the wonderful Women’s Integration Group, an arts group for women that meets every Thursday at West Itchen Community Trust in St Marys to make together and develop a range of creative skills. It’s a really warm, energetic group of women and they’ve done a range of different creative activities in the past, hiring tutors to teach them henna, embroidery but also working in collaboration with both John Hansard Gallery and Solent Showcase Gallery (the latter, on an embroidery project in association with me for Showcase’s Afrofuturism exhibition).

One of the few areas they haven’t yet explored has been creative writing. In my previous sessions with the group, there were expressions of hesitation and reluctance when I raised it as a possible activity amongst some members, but other women were keen to try it out, if a little nervous.

As a result we took care to design the writing session for WiG so that it would be very accessible, with lots of support and exercises designed to get words and the imagination flowing. We knew the participants in this group had amazing stories to tell (which often got shared around the table as we embroidered) so we needed to enable them to have the confidence and the structures to be able to tell their journey stories.

The first activity I designed was a memory and sensed based one: I asked everyone to close their eyes and visualise all stages of a particular journey that had been meaningful for them. I led them through this visualisation with prompts regarding their senses and emotions, things that were eaten, smells of places, the feeling of arrival.

We then went onto a mind mapping exercise where we wrote down all the words for things we need to take on journeys on post-its. Again, these varied from emotionally significant “Courage” to the everyday “Money.” I always like post it note exercises because it is actually writing – but almost imperceptibly so, and the words produced then remain as a prompt for following writing exercises.

Then we began with the writing. I asked participants to write three lines on different parts of a piece of paper. The first at the top: “We/I left at ?” Then halfway down the page: “But.” And at the bottom: “When I/we got home, I felt”. A basic story structure! But I took pains to emphasise it was only there as a guide, and that it could be ignored if the story was going in a different direction.

We took a break for a few minutes, continued to write the stories and ended by sharing some of them. It was wonderful to hear them: they were all rich, moving, relatable, funny, evocative and poignant. One story was written from the perspective of the writer’s 8 year old self on her first visit to Uganda to see her family: the piece was filled with sensorial descriptions that took us all right to that place and time: the clickety-clack of the train wheels on the tracks, the pungent smells of her family’s farm. Another funny but also moving story traced the writer’s journey to see her in laws in India for the first time, a place she’d never visited before. Accompanied only by her young daughter, she got blisters, she had to wrangle two luggage trollies and a toddler on her own (something many of us could empathise with) and finally, her shoe broke. When she finally met her mother in law, she hugged her and burst into tears. It was a lovely story which really represented the physicial and emotional toll that journeys can take, and the sense of relief at the end was palpable.

Even though there had been hesitation and nervousness at the beginning of the session, many participants wanted to continue writing at home. We were all looking forward to the following week’s session, when these written stories would be transformed into paintings using the Warli techniques!

Image – Susmita Bhattacharya

The Journey Begins

Mayflower FOLK is a community arts project which seeks to retell and re-imagine the story of the Mayflower with communities and groups around Southampton using folk forms: folk stories, folk art and folk embroidery forms.

Mayflower is itself a folk story – not just in the fact that it is a story of folk on a journey, but also because it is a story which has produced its own variations and interpretations all around the world, just like the most well-loved folk stories. In versions of the Mayflower as folk story, elements are left out, favoured, or reworked, depending on who is telling the story. One element that’s often left out of these Mayflower tellings is Southampton.

Mayflower 400 will focus on three themes to organise commemorations in Southampton in 2020. These are: journeys, festivals of light, and the water. We will focus on the idea of the “journey” as a way to collect migrant stories, folk stories and responses to the Mayflower story, which will be blended through folk art forms and folk story forms to produce celebrations of the unique connection Southampton has to the Mayflower.

The project will be run by local writer-artists Nazneen Ahmed and Susmita Bhattacharya, both of whom have extensive community and arts organisation contacts in the city of Southampton and throughout Hampshire. The project will work with community groups in Southampton and will be supported by local art galleries, libraries, cafes, bookshops, schools and universities. The project is funded by the Arts Council England, Seedbed and the Mayflower 400 grant.

The project will culminate in an anthology of the writing and artwork, including photography of the workshops themselves, an exhibition and a launch event which will include readings and performances by participants from across the groups and schools.


Image – Talha Khan