The Belonging Project is a creative writing project that has been running throughout Scotland over the past year. Set up by two women, Marjorie Lotfi Gill, a writer, Poet in Residence at Jupiter Artland and Wigtown Festival, and Heshani Sothiraj Eddleston, a photographer, both of whom are Edinburgh-based but had experience of fleeing from war in Iran and Sri Lanka as children. The project, funded by Creative Scotland, began with just a small remit of workshops that exploded by demand into 130 hours, as the StAnza Poetry Festival commissioned work in schools across St.Andrews.
Workshops for the public were in a range of beautiful, inspiring and accessible venues, art galleries like the National Portrait Gallery, libraries like the National Library, the Scottish Poetry Library, and Glasgow Women’s Library. Also, most interestingly, in a huge variety of community spaces and with groups like Shakti Women’s Aid and the Maryhill Integration Network.
Each two hour workshop, led by the warm and welcoming Marjorie, coaxed the participants into sharing personal stories and feelings through poetry and short pieces of prose. There was no pressure to share, but in a safe and welcoming environment, everyone did. Amazingly touching and beautiful work was read around the table, over countless cups of tea and Marjorie’s trademark tin of delicious home-made flapjacks. Word prompts, responses to poems, objects and photographs triggered creative writing on themes of belonging, family, assimilation, journeys..sharing stories of Scottish childhoods in remote places and moving to the city, and others, leaving husbands, and parents and homelands.
It’s the diversity of participants that marks this project out as innovative, thoughtful and far reaching. Diversity is a word often bandied about without actually effecting full inclusion and equal opportunity, but this project is the real deal. We have such a wonderful opportunity at this time in Scotland to build a multi-cultural society in a pro-active way, developing and promoting the benefits of multiculturalism as part of the school curriculm and beyond. The Belonging Project helped to integrate many newcomers into Scottish society, giving a voice and a feeling of belonging to recent migrants and refugees.
Two performance poets from Australia, Luka Lesson and Omar Musa took us into new territory in the serene environment of Jupiter Artland. Standing in front of modern sculptures against a backdrop of yellow rape fields and blue skies, they inspired us with their electric and powerful oratory, and gave us the opportunity to directly respond to some of their poems. Being of Greek and Malaysian heritage themselves, they were able to share with us their ideas of best practice working in the arts in communities in multi-cultural Australia.
It’s vital that art and culture organisations establish links with all sectors of society; health, care, education and media, and this project did this extremely effectively. Sessions were held directly in prison communities, and links made to reach people with mental health issues, domestic violence survivors, migrants, refugees and LGBTI groups. It was very important to Marjorie that someone who had had the experience of being a refugee lead the workshops, even though it was difficult for her to have to keep retelling her personal and traumatic story many times over.
Many of the participants wrote poems based on distinct Scottish traditions and language, and there was a palpable pride in reclaiming expressions of identity that were suppressed for many years. As the project grows it will expand to include more rural and traditional communities. This project has great scope to preserve and reimagine what is culturally distinct about Scotland and gives it its strong identity. Many of the workshops included the relationship with the landscape and our deeper emotional connection with the area. Scottish Book Trust are going to fund a larger project in schools in St.Andrew’s with wrap around material for children to instigate positive conversations about journeying and belonging with their families and discover more about their ancestors and local communities.
StAnza is also keen to continue the project because none of the children in the classes in St.Andrew’s had ever been exposed to anyone with the experience of being a refugee or ever had a discussion about it before. Discussions that are so important to have in this current climate of instability and change due to Brexit, independence, and the migrant crisis. A project such as this has huge potential to expand country wide and year round, with art that can grow out of the connection to land and local communities and traditions, helping to cut the flow of brain drain to London and beyond.
The project was fortunate to use prestigious and elegant venues, all part of allowing people to feel like they belong to established power centres of art and culture in Scotland and have a link to the past. Using spaces like the National Portrait Gallery has attracted completely new visitors to the building. Part of decolonising these spaces of power and elitism came through debates over which parts of society are reflected in the choices of displays within the gallery. Each venue stimulated different ideas and changed the quality of the work and it was fascinating to be able to listen to and respond to work from other types of groups.
There was a public reading at Glasgow Women’s Library that also shared work of refugee women from the Maryhill Integration Network. Marjorie read work at the Wigtown Book Festival and a group of us from various backgrounds and cities read a selection of work at the Callender Poetry Weekend in early September.
Successful community arts projects like this one combat isolation and create relationships of cooperation and voluntarism, bringing the power back to communities and taking pressure off public sector services like mental health, schools etc. At its simplest and most powerful, one of the single greatest results of good art should be to stimulate our human sense of empathy as we explore our similarities, leading to many benefits to society as a whole.
In the words of a poem by Tommy Olofsson, used as a prompt in the workshops:
Let’s be the same wound if we must bleed
Let’s fight side by side, even if
The enemy is ourselves: I am yours
you are mine.
Reviewer : Lisa Michel Williams