“Projects like this open doors for people like me,” says Victoria Mponda, of her experience with Riding on Solomon’s Carpet, an anthology of poetry from refugees and asylum seekers living in the East Midlands...
Published in 2017, the collection was the result of ten months’ work and 45 creative writing sessions across Nottingham, Derby and Leicester. The project brought together more than 140 refugees and asylum seekers, who in their home countries had been doctors, scientists, teachers, human rights activists and PhD students, and are now able to call themselves published poets.
Aimee Wilkinson, of Writing East Midlands, recalls meeting a Libyan aeronautical engineer through the project, reflecting that “the people we met and worked with didn’t fit the stereotypes associated with a refugee background in mainstream media.” The varied experience and expertise of those involved in the Writing East Midlands writing residency project made for a truly multi-faceted collection of striking poetry and storytelling, funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the Rayne Foundation.
Known for its artistic character and scene, the city of Nottingham perfectly lends itself to such a collaborative and creative movement. Victoria, coordinator at the Women’s Culture Exchange and the Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum, found herself as a participant on the project and writing poetry for the first time.
Reflecting on the city’s energy and renowned arts scene, Victoria expressed how “the creative scene in Nottingham allows people to access ways for them to be themselves, and be open.” The workshop sessions that operated in Nottingham cultivated accessibility and inclusivity, with the thirteen drop-in sessions providing crèche services so women could take part without worrying about childcare. Creating and maintaining a safe space – both literally and creatively – was at the heart of the project.
The anthology is a compact, well-designed and thought-provoking assembly of odes and poignant poems from which readers can gain vital insights into both the unimaginably extraordinary and recognisably mundane aspects of life as a refugee or asylum seeker. When speaking to those involved in the venture however, the book’s most valuable aspect is revealed; the magic of Riding on Solomon’s Carpet lay in its function as a tangible testament to the courage and openness of the writers. The physical outcome of the creative journey allowed those involved to retain evidence of their own ability and experience.
Victoria, who had three poems published in this collection, expressed the importance of retaining physical evidence of such a fruitful creative journey: “People are always coming in to ask ‘What’s your story?’ Then they go away, and they never come back. From the beginning, I knew this project was something we could keep, something we could own, and we could have our personal copy to show our families and say ‘This is what I did!’”
Conventional journalism and narratives tend to focus solely on the trauma of refugees, bringing much-needed attention to the plight of people who’ve had to flee from their home countries. With projects like Riding on Solomon’s Carpet, autonomy is returned to the individual and the result is both illuminating and multi-dimensional. Subject matter in the collection ranges from experiences with travel, bureaucracy, family, love, protest, injustice, food and fashion, to the happiest and darkest days of people’s lives.
Performance poet and writer, Jess Green, acted as a workshop facilitator, a lead writer for the project and editor to the collection. She was pleased to see creativity and storytelling cultivated in such a way, noting that the arts are “undervalued in mainstream society and, in the lives of people like refugees and asylum seekers, often non-existent. When there is such strong evidence, however, that creative writing and poetry can be beneficial for mental health, confidence and community – to name just three things – it’s vital that projects like this continue.” The outcomes of projects like these certainly raise awareness of the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers – who make up roughly 0.24% of the UK population – but their benefits exceed the purely educational.
Creative outputs serve as a conduit of therapeutic catharsis to people who have experienced inconceivable trauma, as evidenced by research conducted by the University of Nottingham. The research portion of the Riding on Solomon’s Carpet project saw Writing East Midlands partner with Dr Theo Stickley, Associate Professor of Mental Health, to study how creative writing might bring refugees and asylum seekers together and help them feel comfortable, confident and settled in their host communities.
The research was made up of narrative enquiry, analysis of diary entries from the various lead writers, and evaluations and interviews with the participants during and after the project. The results were clear, with the success of the project and satisfaction of the writers speaking for itself. The research found that the most valuable outputs were the enjoyment of sessions by the group, as well as the collaborative efforts and discussion that developed. The groups benefited from having a dedicated space to create something new, and having a safe space to explore their own creative abilities and interests. When asked whether she would recommend writing as an outlet for other people who have been through trauma and displacement, Victoria resolutely responded, “I would recommend writing, period.”
The findings from the research project, and some guidance on workshop structure, have been transformed into a toolkit, aimed at organisations and institutions that may be interested in orchestrating a project similar to that of Riding on Solomon’s Carpet. The toolkit is available free of charge at the Writing East Midlands website, and print copies are available at their events.
With this book, the Writing East Midlands residency programme, Write Here: Sanctuary, set out to empower participants to cultivate their own voices and tell their own stories, rather than speaking on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers in the area. Sanctuary, the residency project, arranged for six professional lead writers to cultivate and advance the perspectives and outlets of people situated in the East Midlands, and the result is perfect in its simplicity; it’s essential reading. Though echoes of trauma and upheaval permeate the pages of the succinct collection, warmth, strength and joy radiate from the voices.
Solomon’s legendary magic carpet was said to have been made of verdant green silk, and adorned with gold, spanning sixty miles long and sixty miles wide. The carpet flew so swiftly, Solomon was able to have breakfast in Damascus and be in Iran by supper; under his command, all those who rode on the carpet reached their destination. Readers of the collection will be similarly transported between places and cultures, and should appreciate the necessity of making it to a safe destination.
For Jess Green, the experience affirmed that everyone has a story in them and they most likely already possesses the ability to tell it in some way, and that all we need do is listen.
Copies of Riding on Solomon’s Carpet are available at Five Leaves Bookshop, Nottingham, and copies can be requested by contacting [email protected]