I once had a student – I’ll call her Amina – and she hated everything she wrote. Everyone in that women’s literacy class struggled to write, but none of them showed as much anger about their work as Amina did.
Like the others, she worked with pencil, pressing down on the lead until it almost tore the paper. Every time she made a mistake, she would scour it with an eraser and a fine dust of disintegrating rubber would scatter all over the page, making it even harder for her to move the pencil where she wanted it to go.
As I moved around the classroom I would praise her and it is excruciating now to think how patronising I must have sounded. ‘That’s lovely, Amina,’ I would say when she achieved some milestone like writing her name and address. She would look me straight in the eye and reply: ‘It’s horrible, horrible.’
The world-renowned sculptor Ursula von Rydingsvard once found some writing by a woman who, like Amina, struggled with literacy. Von Rydingsvard, who carves monumental objects out of blocks of cedar wood, was intrigued to see writing that looked ‘laboured and concrete’. She lifted it from a letter, had it magnified over and over and transcribed the words onto the floor of her studio. Then she built on it, bit by bit, and the result was ‘Blackened Word’, which currently forms part of an exhibition of von Rydingsvard’s work at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
(Excuse the poor quality mobile phone picture; there’s a better image here)
As a former literacy teacher I found this work troubling. I understand how von Rydingsvard could see the writing as ‘laboured’. That word ‘labour’, with its connotations of hard work, even the prolonged effort of childbirth, is a good description for the way Amina and her classmates struggled to produce words on paper.
The sculpture sparked many memories of watching these women learn to write. Part of von Rydingsvard’s method is to score the wood with knives. This can result in deep cross-hatching that reminded me of the intensity with which Amina would dig her pencil into the paper.
The work has a fragility that is at odds with its size and the durability of the wood. If you stand at the edge of the gallery, you can imagine a giant hand scrunching the concertina-like structure in the way someone might scrumple paper out of frustration with what was written or drawn there.
In a video that forms part of the exhibition, von Rydingsvard talks about her ‘struggle’ with the cedar. She uses words like ‘agony’ and talks about ‘agitated surfaces’. There are shots of her planing the wood, her face protected by a huge, solid mask from the shower of splinters that fly up from the cedar block.
I think of Amina with her eraser, flurries of rubber and paper flying up as she agitated the page, and I wish she could have had some protection from the shame of not being able to write in a society that values literacy so highly.
I wonder about the woman who produced the writing that inspired von Rydingsvard. Did she, like the sculptor, also experience agony in trying to express what was in her mind?
I wanted to like ‘Blackened Word’ but I found myself getting increasingly disturbed by it. Why do we not know the name of the woman? Why is she described in the exhibition notes as ‘almost illiterate’: you don’t have to describe beginner writers with an adjective that is so often used pejoratively.
And why do we not know what the woman wrote? Her words were magnified onto the studio floor and then concealed. Von Rydingsvard has made some kind of monumental statement with her sculpture and in doing so has erased the original work that inspired it.
Perhaps von Rydingsvard did ask the woman for permission to use her name and reproduce her words alongside the sculpture and maybe the woman said no. But in that case we should have been told about her decision.
The exhibition notes for Blackened Word conclude: ‘A personal story is used as a whisper, a quiet suggestion, or shadow that remains only as an echo in the title.’
That doesn’t sit comfortably with me. I can’t deny the impact of von Rydingsvard’s stunning sculpture, but I’m also troubled by how often powerful, successful people reduce the stories of others to shadows and whispers.
I wonder if I am doing the same now, using Amina as a stepping stone for me to articulate my own thoughts, even though I am no longer in touch with her and cannot even ask permission to use her real name.
I’m mulling over a new writing project, one that involves engaging with how we behave towards the most marginalised people in our society. And I’m wondering how you do that without making your own work the focus of attention, concealing the stories that made it possible in the first place.