We often pick up our pens to make sense of our worlds, but when you have fled your home country and survived torture- can writing be therapeutic, and if so, should it be classed as therapy?
Following on from our articles in the August and December issues of Words with Jam, LAILA SUMPTON looks at the different ways that English PEN, Freedom From Torture and The Baobab Centre use the power of writing for the rehabilitation of conflict and torture survivors.
English PEN campaign for the freedom to write and read, and their creative writing workshops provide a safe space for survivors of conflict to learn the craft of writing and tell their own stories when they are ready . PEN’s writers have run over 200 creative writing ‘workshops in the last year in prisons, detention centres, refugee centres and schools.
There is a balance being struck between creative writing being used as an art form and as a tool for rehabilitation. Philip Cowell the project manager of the program said that “creative writing is therapeutic, but creative writing is not delivered as therapy. The workshops help refugees define themselves and manage their trauma by defining it”. Joelle Taylor, the writer who led PEN’s creative writing course for twenty young refugees and helped them produce an anthology called “Brave New Words,” said they “turned every wound they had received into a poem.”
PEN has worked with numerous poets and each brings their own style and content to the workshops, which vary in levels of participation. Some writers will have their sessions completely planned out- but others like Nii Parkes encourage participants to guide the content. Writers are central to PEN, Phillip said “it is a charity run for and by writers, and writers are PEN’s greatest resource.”
But are writers qualified to help participants express such volatile emotions? With safeguards in place like ensuring writers have counselling or equivalent qualifications, are trained by PEN, and are supported by staff working at the refugee centres; writers are made aware of the boundaries of their role.
Marion Baraitser who runs biblio-therapy sessions for young people at The Baobab Centre for Young Survivors in Exile, has a different take on this, she was “shocked at how few qualifications practitioners have” saying that “writers have to try and fill in the gaps of their experience.” Marion felt that psychology and social work training were necessary for understanding participants and “learning how to control yourself as a facilitator- so that you know your limits.”
The Babobab Centre is a unique non-residential community centre for young people and children who are separated from their parents and are struggling with trauma. In Marion’s biblio-therapy sessions young people discuss a chosen piece of literature that relates to their own experience of conflict, abuse or torture. They think about themselves through a character, and re-narrate their own life story in a way that can gradually help them go from being a victim, to a survivor.
Marion makes sure that no upsetting literature is used, the emphasis is on identifying with the positive aspects of characters’ survival in stories so that young people can build up their sense of self-worth and confidence. Using printed literature is sometimes challenging for the young people, especially those who have English as their second language and come from an oral storytelling tradition. However, discovering that people from other cultures and times can experience similar feelings of loss and fear is something that the young people really value, and they often share literature from their home countries too.
Unlike in PEN’s workshops, written responses to the literature are not structured or edited- as it is the process of them relating to the literature that is key. Marion felt that using creative writing as form of therapy for child survivors of conflict and torture should not be encouraged; as they needed to slowly understand and deal with their experiences, before trying to be creative.
Freedom from Torture assist, protect and promote the rights of torture survivors in the UK and Sheila Hayman runs “Write to Life,” a creative writing project which helps adult participants explore their experiences of torture and the difficulties of living in exile. In the group sessions survivors share a meal and learn about creative writing through general and positive topics, they also share lyrics and stories from their home countries and present their written work when they are ready.
In the individual creative writing sessions Sheila and the workshop volunteers help the survivors shape their own stories, and when a part of their story is avoided or written without emotion, they help them revisit these emotions and complete the story. For Sheila the sessions are as much about creativity as they are about rehabilitation, and half of the participants are also supported by clinicians alongside these workshops.
Sheila told me about a former child soldier who was subjected to horrendous treatment including being forced to kill others and eat human flesh. He felt that the “Write to Life” sessions were particularly beneficial because he was able to move at a pace he felt comfortable with.
Some rehabilitation projects shield survivors from public events, but “Write to Life” members have used their work to raise awareness, and this is a major motivator for the group. The groups’ eighth anthology is called “Body Maps” and can be ordered from their website. The group will be working on a monthly basis with the Tate Britain to explore the new exhibition on “Migrations”, and an exhibition of “Write to Life’s” work will form part of Refugee Week in June.
The writers who facilitate these groups all work with great sensitivity and care, and one of the greatest challenges that their groups face is the uncertainty of their asylum statuses, with survivors sometimes being deported before the writing course had ended. Currently expressive and creative writing is not widely used for the rehabilitation of trauma sufferers, and according to Marion, “writers are viewed with suspicion by therapists, because their work has a therapeutic impact but the writers are not therapists.” However, when managed in a participatory way it can empower and inspire survivors and create a community of solidarity.
If you would like to read more, Words with Jam's original article on Write to Life can be found here and our article on Therapeutic Writing, here.