HOMECOMING

When I was five years old, I had a dream so vivid, I can still recall the details. It begins with me in my Sunday church dress, getting into a taxi. I cannot see the driver’s face, even as he opens the door for me. As I sit on the shiny black seats, the other door is beyond my vision, somewhere at the end of this never-ending back seat. The driver gets in and asks me where I want to go. I reply, “take me back home,” and he drives. The view outside becomes blurred like an Impressionist painting as he speeds on, and I realise that I am waking up. I just want to get to my aunt’s house or the beach. I just want a piece of home to hold in my hands. Then suddenly I am awake, tucked in between my mum and dad, in the cold room we were renting in a North London house full of other recently arrived families like us. What I now know to be intense homesickness coursed through my little body, and I quietly sobbed myself back to sleep.

 

Revisiting this memory made me think about nostalgia, that word coined in the 17th century by an English doctor trying to name the melancholia afflicting the Swiss soldiers in his care. A compound of the Greek words “nóstos,” meaning homecoming, and “álgos,” meaning pain or ache. It is both, the reliving of the past and often a yearning for a home that simply does not exist anymore. Nostalgia is a symptom of displacement – the feeling of not belonging where you are.

 

As a migrant, I thought such feelings were unique to people like me, who had been forced to leave their “home country” without the chance to say the ritualistic goodbye which tells your psyche to let go and rebuild (the taking of mementos, the touching of the walls, the giving of thanks). But I’ve known people who live in the same village in which their parents grew up, surrounded by extended family, with a surname which is the name of the nearby village (meaning their family hasn’t travelled far in many generations), who still harbour feelings of being out of place. A yearning to be somewhere that feels like home. It is a powerful emotion for all of us. 

 

For those with nefarious ambitions, nostalgia and the feelings of unidentifiable loss which birth it can be used for gain. Think of the far right groups currently haunting Europe and America, who promise disgruntled people frightened by change that things can get back to the way they were – the good old days. I wondered if nostalgia could be used instead for good? So one night when I couldn’t sleep, I turned to the hive mind of Google and asked, “how do you cure nostalgia?” I read articles, some from mental health specialists, featuring anecdotal advice. The general consensus seems to be that nostalgia itself is the cure for nostalgia. That doesn’t make sense, you say. I thought so, too, at first, but consider this: Many experts who work in the field of mental health believe that rather than trying to get rid of it or squash it down, we can encourage people to sit with their memories or yearning for a “home.” These memories can then be used to create positive changes in the present, both domestically and politically. It can help us to create community, to take the time to find people whose company makes us feel safe and at peace. Because although the feelings of nostalgia are seemingly tied to a specific place or people, this isn’t true. We are tied to the feeling of home, and while this may not seem as romantic as unfulfilled yearning, we can work towards creating feelings of home wherever we find ourselves. My therapist calls it being “rooted in the present.” 

 

One way to achieve this is by creating a therapeutic artistic practice, which can help us channel our feelings into a healing discipline. Storytelling is one such practice. The art of using words to create scenes and images in a way that lets people experience your memory with you has been shown to ease the hold of traumatic memories. What is poetry if not a form of storytelling, a form of inviting others into our hearts and thoughts and peeling away the skin of these treasures we lock away?

 

During my last few months on the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln, I saw an event advertised at Mansions of the Future – an interdisciplinary, free art space in the centre of Lincoln funded by the Arts Council. The event was called “There’s No Place Like Home” and was hosted by the Justice, Arts and Migration Network (JAM). Through research and community arts events, JAM aims to reframe the narrative around migration and global citizenship. These art-based interventions arise out of the careful and thorough research methodologies spearheaded by Stephi Hemelryk Donald, Kaya Davies Hayon and their teams at Hong Kong Baptist University and the University of Lincoln. The event brought together visual artists, actors and aspiring poets to create space to facilitate constructive discussion and ultimately to allow the sharing of stories. The event made me think of the fable of stone soup. In my version, Anansi, the shape-shifting trickster god of the Akan people, hungry in his human form, tries to get the grumpy people of a village to give him food. They refuse. But Anansi, taking a small stone from the banks of the nearby river, washes it and puts it into a pot, covers it with water and waits. One by one, people come with the little they can part with: some scraps of meat, a few old vegetables, some herbs, some spices. Eventually, as the sun sets, a delicious and nourishing soup is bubbling in the pan, and there is enough for everyone. The meal is satisfying and brings the people together. That is what was happening during that spring week in 2019 at Mansions of the Future; stone soup was being made. 

 

In between workshops, people sat in the sun and digested the music we had heard, the film we had watched, the poems produced in Daniele Pantano’s workshop and the pictures they had taken in Hoda Afshar’s session. Behrouz Boochani’s powerful testament No Friend but the Mountains [1], which details his refugee journey and subsequent imprisonment on Manus Island, served as an anchor to the event. At one point, two actors performed excerpts from the book, one in English and the other in Kurdish. As we crowded into the performance space, some of us on the floor, others standing around the edge, the infant son of one of the actors began to cry. As his mother performed beautifully, those of us who were mothers took it in turns to coddle and entertain the little one. His crying and our melodic cooing, mixed with the words, began to create a feeling of familial understanding. At mealtimes, we sat and ate in animated conversations, plates of salad and rice dangling dangerously on our laps as our hands gesticulated to explain our excitement. During a video call with Behrouz in which he described his then everyday life as an illegally detained refugee on Manus Island, along with hundreds of refugees, I yearned to know if there was still ever a chance to have small beautiful human interactions. He told us about the marriages, about the love that can still find its home even in prison. He told us how they celebrate birthdays and new births, and how in tiny ways like this, the migrants were finding a way to call Manus Island "home" – by rooting themselves in their present, while still hoping for freedom.

 

I left the event with a clear vision of the role my poetry and storytelling could have in the world. The message as spoken by JAM's UK lead Stephi Hemelryk Donald was clear: “Become a voice, then give a voice to others.” 

 

I sent some of my work to JAM and thanked them for the experience. I offered my ears and eyes, my heart and love of telling tales. I offered to be of service. Some time later, I received an e-mail from Stephi Hemelryk Donald inviting me to a meeting in which she and Jussi Holopainen explained their idea for a VR game based on lived migrant experience. The main playable character was to be a six-year-old girl. In order to give the narrative direction, I went back to who I was at six: new to this country, afraid, but still as daring and brave as most six-year-olds are. I wrote a poem called “Be a Good Girl,” which describes the wild and irresistible energy of six-year-old Amelia, as I named her (my grandmother’s name), who, like a bird, is free and full of song. The poem ends with Amelia, now no longer a bird, but part of a mountain of numbers and names lost to clerical efficiency. I wrote a pre-play collective experience, a short piece of theatre to counteract the loneliness of life inside the VR headset. From this, Jussi and I commissioned a musician and the project started to take shape. I was appointed as an associate artist with JAM and my storytelling skills became part of a constellation of artistic practises informed by research, all with the goal of changing things for the better and redefining what it means to belong.

 

While I was immersed in Amelia and bringing her to life, JAM was putting together an event which would again bring together performance and poetry, adding it to stories of lived experience, all in the hope of shining a spotlight on how close we physically are to detained refugees. “The Big Walk: It Takes a Decade” collaboration focused on Morton Hall Immigration Removal Centre in Lincolnshire, not far from Lincoln. The central focus of the walk was a homage to pilgrimage, the physical act of incorporating landscape into ritual. Like the creation of song lines by Indigenous Australians, this walk aimed to line the route from Lincoln Cathedral to Morton Hall, with poetry and contemplation, with music and truth. Ultimately, using these forms to create an “artivists” response of how to honour the lives affected by migration and detention and find our own space in the midst of someone else’s journey, so that we all become interwoven strands in each other's stories. The walk was due to end back at Mansions of the Future, where Jussi would explain the games he and his team were making, and I was to put on a performance of the pre-play experience. In this way, we were to be the welcoming crew. The home team, welcoming the walkers back from their pilgrimage with open arms, soothing voices and lots and lots of tea. At least this was the plan . . . COVID had other ideas. A week before Boris Johnson put the UK into full lockdown, I was at Mansions of the Future with Jussi, scoping out the space and making plans with the manager, Colette, on the best ways to use the space, when and how refreshments were being served and when my actors could come in and familiarise themselves with the rooms. It was to be an event with the same kind of paradigm-shifting empathy as the event in April the year before. With much ingenuity and quick and calculated action, Stephi Hemelryk Donald, Kaya Hayon Davies and the entire Big Walk team of Natasha Davis, Jane Olson, Colette Griffin and the team at Mansions turned The Big Walk into a hybrid online and physical event. Natasha, Jane and some of the JAM team walked the route, made a multi-textured film and the book, The Big Walk: It Takes A Decade [2] was produced. I spoke at the launch event on the power of storytelling to change minds and hearts and together we all translated the planned events into a Zoom screening and reading. Hosted by Femi Oriogun-Williams, who shared his mother’s journey from Nigeria and spoke tenderly about how her stories, too painful to share with her children, are lost. Femi described how this has left parts of his own identity in fragments. As he engages with refugee stories on behalf of JAM, as he travels and meets displaced people, he is hoping to find pieces of his own heritage and of his mother’s story to help him make sense of his own. This made me think that even where there is healing and settlement of some sort, the wounds of loss and unhealed nostalgia, even for the things which hurt us, leave their scars for many generations. As part of The Big Walk project, The Zimbabwean writer Victor Mujakachi wrote a book about his experience of asylum and detention at Morton Hall, Destitution, Detention and Deliberations: One Man's Story of the Asylum System [3], excerpts of which were featured in The Big Walk. Both book publications were launched on the 11 September 2020 alongside the screening of Natasha Davis' film It Takes a Decade and formed the central stories of the event. Both books were designed to be used as ongoing resources and are free publications which can be downloaded via the Resources section on the JAM website.

 

At the same time, in another part of the JAM “universe,” Daniele Pantano and Andrea Grieder were creating the International Refugee Poetry Network as an umbrella space to house the projects Transpoesis (with the Goethe Institut) and the Refugee Poetry Project at the University of Lincoln. Daniele, Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader for the MA Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln, worked with Andrea to create a dialogue between poets in East Africa and students on the Creative Writing course. Transpoesis created “I Am a Refugee, But . . .”, a selection of poems written by refugees and brought to life in performance, and in “Poetic Conversations” Daniele’s students responded to the themes and stories raised by the poets. What emerged was a sensitive and carefully curated discourse on the ideas of belonging and nationality. It showed that none of us belong to a fixed place. Those of us who write poetry know what it means to live in the liminal space of a non-linear time or intangible locations, be it a home fondly remembered or a somewhere we hope to be in the future where we feel safe and at peace. All we are is this tapestry of locations, these bits of times that own parts of us. As fragmented as we all are, there is a universality in this kind of displacement. The conversation was an attempt to unify these voices and show that in spite of our privilege, we can all identify with the sense of loss that immediately arises when we discuss “home.”

 

In autumn 2020, Transpoesis designed an online festival to bring people around the world together with the refugee poets they worked with, in a showcase of vitality and community. The “On the Wings of Technology Poetry Festival” honoured how in this year of Zoom, we are closer to each other than ever before. I was asked to be on the judging panel. On the first night, a selection of film poems entitled “5 Voices,” featuring the work of poets on the Creative Writing course taught by Daniele, was shown. The installation comprised five video poems responding to the general themes of displacement and identity – showing that these are questions we all have to keep answering in our lives and not just questions confined to refugees and other displaced people. The festival itself turned into a life-affirming and enjoyable celebration of hope and honesty. From the poems, I learned that while I am legally a refugee, my story is one of privilege: I stayed with my family, even if we were crammed together. I hadn’t seen anyone die, even though we had friends we just didn’t see again and ultimately, I have been able to naturalise and become a British citizen, work, marry and raise a family in my adopted country. 

 

My fellow judge Richard Ali invited me to be profiled on his website, and I answered questions about my poetic process, which invited me to look within. I offered to curate a version of this process for the winners of the contest from the festival, so that they would have the chance to really see themselves as poets and take some quiet time to consider how they create and what it is they would most like to say through their poems. The reality of this has been the difficulty of connecting, of language barriers and all the things of life which get in the way. We are now in a friendship, in which I share poetry contests with them, and they ask for my advice on things they are writing – a kind of mentorship. David Ndagijimana, who was one of the contest winners with his poem “My Country,” in which he speaks about the truth of everyday life in a refugee camp in Rwanda, introduced himself in the WhatsApp group with the words, “I represent Mahama camp. And I am not ashamed.” These words summed up the emotional heart of what poetry does for all of us, especially those of us who feel otherwise voiceless; it gives us the confidence in our own stories and the power to represent those who are on our journeys with us.

 

I realised that in our own way, we are all trying to get into a taxi to go back home, back to a safe, familiar place and that I am not alone in this. But if the home we imagine can never really exist again, what we are left with is nostalgia. Is this an affliction? An illness? A mental health condition? What are your thoughts? 

 

Nostalgia doesn’t have to mean being stuck. As Andrea Grieder says in the film “I Am a Refugee, But . . . ,” we can choose which memories we want to relive and which ones don’t serve us and must be thrown away. Because even in our nostalgic states, no matter how much it may seem so, we are not really yearning for a specific place, but rather for a feeling of home, of safety, of community, and those feelings of nostalgia are exactly what we need to build communities where we feel heard, seen and safe, in the present, so that we can finally be free of our old ghosts. Poetry has been more effective than a taxi for getting me home again. It has made me a citizen of a global community and helped me translate the memories which once hurt so much into the ingredients for stone soup. The international poetry community is a world without borders, where we can all finally find home, wherever we are.

 

[1Behrouz Boochani, No Friend but the Mountains: The True Story of an Illegally Imprisoned Refugee, trans by Omid Tofighian (London: Picador, 2019).

[2] Alison Smith ed.: The Big Walk: It Takes a Decade (Lincoln: University of Lincoln, Justice Arts and Migration Network, Lincoln Institute for Advanced Studies, 2020).

[3Victor Mujakachi: Destitution, Detention and Deliberation: One Man's Story of the Asylum System (Lincoln: University of Lincoln, Justice Arts and Migration Network, Lincoln Institute for Advanced Studies, 2020).

Tanya Akrofi is a writer and oral storyteller. Originally from Ghana, she now lives in Lincoln where she is a director of the art-based social enterprise, Creative Rebel. Her aim is to reconnect people with the healing power of oral traditions.

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