We are sharing our blog and broadcasting writers’ stories of those who experience indefinite immigration detention in the UK and those who work with them. Many organisations, including the Royal Society of Literature and Literature Cambridge, are doing the same. Over 28 days, you will find tales here, showing the fundamental power of literature to bring about change.
The UK is the only country in Europe that detains people indefinitely for administrative purposes and without judicial oversight under immigration rules. Rooted in the work of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, and supported by the University of Kent, Refugee Tales shares the tales of those who have been indefinitely detained in immigration detention. To highlight the call for a 28 day time limit for immigration detention, Refugee Tales is releasing 28 tales online – one each day over 28 days on the website www.28for28.org. Writers and actors lend their words and voices to asylum seekers, refugees and people in indefinite detention. CLUGG supports the Refugee Tales call for an end to indefinite detention. Over the next month we will be sharing 3 of the 28 tales that centre around the child’s experience. In the meantime, watch the Refugee Tales statement:
About Refugee Tales
Through Refugee Tales, writers collaborate with asylum seekers, refugees and people in indefinite detention who share their stories. Taking Chaucer’s great poem of journeying – Canterbury Tales – as a model, writers tell a series of tales as they walk in solidarity with detainees. As they walk, they create a space in which the language of welcome is the prevailing discourse.
I was delighted to chair this event. For me, Brian and Sarah are two of the most important contemporary YA authors, and I love the fearlessness of their writing, both in its form and content. They tackle urgent and complex subjects, while telling stories in unusual and innovative ways.
Sarah and Brian’s working relationship began at the award ceremony for the Carnegie Medal 2015, when Sarah was shortlisted for Apple and Rain, and Brian for When Mr Dog Bites. At that time, Brian was thinking of writing a novel in verse and he asked Sarah about the form. They began corresponding via WhatsApp, sending messages and chunks of text back and forth in what became a swiftly unfolding digital conversation. The whole novel was written this way, its authors working in different countries, not meeting in person until afterwards.
We Come Apart is a love story that doesn’t shy away from darkness and difficulty, beautifully told in verse, with two narrative voices. At the early draft stage, the authors each wrote a section and sent it to the other, in a kind of creative tennis match. At first, Brian wrote the character of Nicu and Sarah created Jess’s voice. Both authors spoke about how different this was from their usual creative process in having to relinquish control of planning and respond to what they received. They found the quality of their writing improved because they were working collaboratively. They also learned about their own process by seeing the differences in the other’s working style (it definitely sounded as if Sarah was more of a planner than Brian!). However, in the later editorial stages, the process slowed down, and both writers worked on each character’s sections. A love story seems perfect for this dual narrative approach, with its layered perspectives, so that each character is shown to be struggling via their own interiority, but is also seen with compassion and understanding through the eyes of the other.
The authors described their careful approach to the depiction of difficult topics such as the domestic violence of Jess’s home life. Sarah wanted to write the scenes just explicitly enough, so that any young person who had experienced similar abuse would recognise what was happening; but so that it wouldn’t be traumatic for those readers who weren’t yet ready to understand the violence of the situation.
I asked Brian and Sarah about the issue of writing in the voice of someone from an under-represented group: in this case, that of Nicu, who is Romanian, of Roma ancestry. Brian talked about his experience of working with Roma teenagers, and how that fed into the creation of Nicu’s speech patterns, and both authors cited the extensive research they’d undertaken. They discussed the importance of privileging and amplifying ‘own voices’ narratives, while also resisting the idea that, as writers, we can only create from our own lived experience.
The conclusion to We Come Apart feels nuanced and in keeping with the subtle balance of light and shade within the novel as a whole. Sarah spoke about one particular tantalising WhatsApp exchange as they approached the end. She could see the little dots told her ‘Brian is writing’, but it took long minutes for the response to appear. They finally wrote three versions of the ending. I had an odd experience on first reading the novel: I think the ghost of the ending not chosen was haunting my perceptions, and I was braced for a more brutal denouement that didn’t come. However, on second reading, I could more fully appreciate the satisfying end to Jess and Nicu’s story.
Inspired by speaking to Brian and Sarah, I now want to experiment with collaborative writing in my own practice. I’ve started a conversation with a writer I admire, intrigued by the potential for surprises and innovation that these authors describe, and I’ve also devised a workshop for collaborative writing that I’ve begun using in my teaching. I’m very grateful to Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan for sharing their experience of working together, and to Dr Lucy Pearson for inviting me to chair their conversation.
The event was organised as part of the Newcastle University Postgraduate Open Day, and presented in association with Seven Stories. Photographs by Rachel Pattinson.
At the end of the academic year, the University of Gloucestershire – at which I work – kindly agreed to fund a short writing retreat. At first I thought of taking myself off to an isolated cottage, but then I quickly realised that what I needed after a year working in Initial Teacher Education was to immerse myself in a stimulating and inspiring environment where I was not ‘the lecturer’.
As part of an earlier project I had started exploring the field of children’s theatre. Therefore, I was aware of Dr Helen Freshwater’s work on theatrical representations of children and childhood. I was also aware that Seven Stories housed the playwright David Wood’s extensive archive of original plays and adaptations. The coexistence of archive and individual in a place – Newcastle – that just happened to house a thriving community of children’s literature scholars was simply too good to miss. Dr Lucy Pearson and Professor Kim Reynolds have been incredibly kind – putting me in contact with the archivist Kris McKie at Seven Stories and Dr Helen Freshwater. They also organised for me to attend the talk that Brian Alderson gave at the Philip Robinson Library and to give a talk myself at CLUGG.
The staff at Seven Stories were wonderful and Kris McKie was brilliant at introducing me to the David Wood collection. On learning that I planned to look at material related to six productions, he subtly hinted that I might not quite get through all thirteen archive boxes in the time available. On his suggestion, I started with the boxes related to David Wood’s adaptation of Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958), which kept me busily occupied. I have written more extensively about the work I did there for the Seven Stories Collection Blog (coming soon!). The material related to this adaptation and to many others is incredibly rich and it has provided me with a range of questions and perspectives to consider. Just as a tantalising nugget – I am sure that you are aware of the controversy over casting choices for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child but were you aware of the colour-blind casting for the premier of Tom’s Midnight Garden (Unicorn, 2000)?
As well as working within the archives I had a number of opportunities to catch up with friends over the course of the week. When I first arrived at Cambridge to take an MPhil in Children’s Literature, someone told me that the people I met and studied with would become friends for life and I feel incredibly fortunate to still be in touch with so many of them. As Roberta Seelinger Trites once said, “We do not eat our children” and the children’s literature community is an incredibly friendly and stimulating one of which to be a part.
As an author, reviewer, collector and translator of children’s literature, Brian Alderson is perhaps one of the founding figures of the children’s literature community. Therefore, it was lovely to be able to sit back and listen to him speak about a handful of children’s authors and illustrators that I was either unaware of or who I want to know better. The talk was given in honour of the exhibition that he curated for the Philip Robinson Library and that is open over the summer. I particularly enjoyed being reminded of the incredible work that Brian Wildsmith and Charles Keeping have done because I vividly remember pouring over their illustrations as a child. Needless to say, several of the picturebooks that Brain Alderson shared with us are currently winging their way towards me through the post!
My own talk that I gave to the assembled members of CLUGG was tightly focused on a reading event in which a Year 7/8 class read and responded to David Almond and Dave McKean’s The Savage (2008). It was a real luxury to have an hour to present and then discuss the children’s responses to the book and I felt that it provided me with a unique opportunity to ‘dig deeper’ and bring together ideas that had – until then – grown independently. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who came to the talk – the questions you asked have given me so much to think about and I am very much enjoying revisiting my work in the light of them.
I had a wonderful time in Newcastle and it has been such a pleasure to reconnect with children’s literature friends and make new ones. The resources available at the University and at Seven Stories for researchers interested in children’s literature are outstanding and I have come away buzzing, so thank you – yet again – to all those who made my stay to enjoyable.
In a week where issues around immigration and borders are so high up the news agenda, our guest speaker’s talk on Paddington Bear could scarcely have been more timely.
CLUGG is the acronym for the Children’s Literature Unit Graduate Group, and meets around once a fortnight during term-time. It’s a space where postgraduates and staff can discuss and get feedback on work-in-progress or share interesting research or ideas; it’s also an opportunity for exchanging knowledge and learning from other disciplines and organisations.
On 26 January, Dr Kyle Grayson, a senior lecturer in international politics at the University of Newcastle, who specialises in popular culture and world politics, visited CLUGG to present some of his research on liberalism and the foreign subject in Michael Bond’s A Bear Called Paddington.
It was fascinating from a children’s literature perspective to hear how a scholar from another discipline – politics – approached and analysed this classic British children’s book which tells the story of a marmalade-loving bear from ‘Darkest Peru’ who settles in London.
Kyle explained that he’d first become drawn to the text when he was reading it to his daughter, and its relevance to world politics leapt out at him. He shared a little of his thinking around how Paddington, as an immigrant in a supposedly liberal society, illustrates the tensions and ambivalence in such a society, as well as the precarious position the ‘different’ or ‘other’ character finds himself in. As Kyle said, you don’t get much more ‘other’ than a bear.
He spoke about how Paddington got his name – from the railway station where he met the Browns, who took him home to live with them – because his Peruvian name would be too difficult to understand (an experience that will be familiar to many from non-Anglophone cultures) and explored the challenges faced by Paddington in settling in to a strange land.
In the discussion that followed the interesting presentation, topics ranged from the recent Paddington film – which most of us felt heavily underlined the political messages that were perhaps more subtly dealt with in the book – to the importance of remembering that Paddington, as a child and a refugee, should have had rights rather than having to rely on the Brown family’s good will.
Inevitably, however, the discussion turned to the relevance of Paddington to the current geopolitical situation and West’s response to the refugee crisis caused by conflict in Syria and elsewhere. This led to people sharing ideas about how children’s literature can and does reflect and potentially influence attitudes and values around such issues.
We also discussed other books written for children that involve borders, whether they be between countries or, indeed, between ‘real’ and other worlds.
Thanks to Kyle for coming along to CLUGG and sharing his thoughts – and listening to patiently to ours – and we hope to see him again.