Held in Dragon Hall, home of the Norwich Writers Centre on Saturday, June 18, this workshop was lead by Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literature in English at Oxford University. Elleke began by asking us to consider how fiction allows us to explore big ideas – specifically notions of home.
- what constitutes home?
- is it something concrete, or in our imagination?
- what happens when we leave our homes? when we are forced to leave for political or economic reasons?
- do we re-assemble home from items and memories?
Elleke briefly introduced her novel Shouting in the Dark and outlined the four main ideas or themes:
- father-daughter struggle, to the death
- war story; an invisible war wound
- shuttling between languages and worlds
before reading an extract from Chapter 12 – Flights: set in Amsterdam airport and began “Holding hands, they emerge …” The young protagonist witnessed her mother’s mid flight anxiety attack and began writing words with the pencils and paper given by an air hostess – one word after another, becoming steady within herself, this writing was a calming practice, everything was falling under her control “… as she puts down the letters H-A-T-E she finds relief”.
Can writing itself become a kind of home? Is writing a way of retrieving home – a way of putting back together that which we have lost? When considered, we are all migrants from our first home. Elleke asked us to consider a page a a location, and the filling of a page can be like re-locating or re-constituting homes we have left behind.
The second extract was from a poem titled Home by British-Somali poet Warsan Shire:
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbours running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay
no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
and even then you carried the anthem under
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you won’t be going back.
We contemplated Vermeer’s The Music Lesson as a way of examining possessions and their importance in representing notions of home. We were asked to think on whether we ourselves travel light or travel heavy, carrying our past homes in physical objects such as furniture – a poetic link to heavy suitcases and personal baggage and memories.
There was a second reading from Elleke’s novel, a descriptive moment of their home in South Africa that was so full of Holland that there was no room for Africa, yet there are conflicting ideas through phrases such as ‘in the African living room’. These contradictions of place and a yearning for a past home can be seen in immigrants who often invest much in their new home, sometimes refusing to visit or return to their previous homeland.
After a short coffee break, we moved into a space furnished with tables for writing. Begin by thinking of the page as a space of four sides, four boundaries where a series of relationships could be plotted. Think of an object that represents an idea of ‘home’ for you. Discuss this with a partner or in a trio. Then write three declarative sentences:
- describe the home bearing object
- explore its relationship now, in the present
- whatever you choose, but still about the object.
The trio I was part of decided we all travelled light, but with a little more discussion, two chose pieces of furniture. I eventually wrote:
The medal was small, silver and warm in my hands. Although no longer with me, I recall the sheer delight when it was lost for some years, but refound – chink! – one afternoon when dad was mowing. Lost again, taken really, its possession is not physically needed to remind me of love, luck and sharing.
Our group also discussed place names and how they can link to a homeland and represent a yearning for a place that will never be seen again, such as colonists in Australia naming the land they squatted on after their homes in the ‘old country’.