Blackened Word

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.

blackened word cropped

(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.


bw from side

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.

a letter to my daughter as she returns from Madagascar

I am so excited to think that you will be here in just a few hours. It was lovely to hear your voice on the phone from Heathrow – every word distinct, unlike those couple of Skype calls we tried when you were deep in the bush. I can’t wait to hold you and hug you, to see your face-splitting smile that I have missed so much, to admire your tan and perhaps your exotic insect bites too and to listen to the words that I know will come tumbling out of your mouth all afternoon.

For now, though, the house is quiet, your sister still asleep upstairs, your brother getting ready for school and your dad, you will be pleased to hear, out training for that marathon you hope to run together. I want to savour this moment of anticipation, this sense of everything suspended in stillness before we burst into a weekend of chatter and laughter, before we do the bittersweet work of rearranging ourselves as family when your sister leaves for university tomorrow and you settle back in your own bedroom. A real bed! After all those weeks of a tent floor!

Here in the quiet, I am thinking about another young woman, the same age as you, who moved fleetingly and unseen across my path yesterday. I was in a community centre not far from here, doing some of that work I get sometimes to assess students in their spoken English. As usual the simplest questions elicited the most heart rending answers. ‘How are you today?’ I asked a woman a little older than me, smiling brightly in the hope of putting her at her ease for the test. ‘Not too good,’ she replied. ‘Yesterday my brother died in Syria.’

I asked another woman where she came from, thinking I might see whether she could spell the name of her country. ‘The refugee camp in Ethiopia,’ she replied. I forgot about the spelling question. Later I asked her about her family and she told me of her four children. She lives with them in a small flat near here; one of them is a young woman aged twenty-one, like you.

I keep wondering about the differences between our experiences as mothers. I have worried about how many sweets you might eat but never about whether you would have enough food. I have been anxious about your safety when you have been out late at night and breathed in deep relief when I heard you come in; to my shame I have never even imagined what it would be like to decide that our own home was too dangerous a place to be.

I do not know what that refugee woman’s hopes for her daughter are and I wouldn’t presume to guess them. I would love to know, though, what makes her heart swell with pride as a mother – because we do all have those moments, you know!

Let me tell you about one of my proudest moments as your mum. It was when I read the email you sent me from Antananarivo and poured out the many ways that your heart had been changed through meeting development workers and joining them in the work of repairing schools and planting trees. It was when you told me that the vision of justice that is set out in Isaiah 61had taken root deep within you; that the words about binding up the broken-hearted, setting captives free and restoring devastated places had become the words that would shape the rest of your life.

I salute you, Miriam, for your courage and your fierce sense of justice. I pray that as you settle back into this privileged life we have here, you will discover the next steps on your journey. I know you will remember all the young women round the world who are your contemporaries and lead such different lives, whether they are refugees down the road from us or maybe young mothers in Madagascar whose babies stand a forty percent chance of dying before they are five.

I pray that you won’t be overwhelmed by the extent of the evil that you see around you but that you will be able to take up your place in the fight for justice with joy and humility. I delight in the knowledge that you will not be alone: from what I can gather reading the blogs that I do, it seems that all across the world young people are joining together to say ‘enough’ and to give their lives to building a more equal world.

There’s a photo one of your friends put on Facebook that made us laugh because it looks as though you are flying.

Fly into your future, Miriam – be bold and be you!

But first sit down long enough to eat the raspberry pavlova I made you.