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.

the power and the story

This picture is one of my favourite from the Storying Sheffield exhibition that I wrote about here. It turns out it’s also an apt illustration for the book I finished just a day later – The Long Song by Andrea Levy.

The Long Song  is a powerful novel about a black woman living through slavery in Jamaica. No obvious link with Storying Sheffield there, but in fact both have similar issues at their heart: how do we tell stories and what happens when we do?

In particular – how can people who lack power tell stories? In The Long Song, the people with power can paint over the bits of a story that they don’t like. So the white painter refuses to include ‘the disgusting negro hovels’ in his depiction of the plantation. And the plantation owner’s sister retells a suicide event as a story of murder, framing an innocent black man in the process. But even when the black, female narrator is in court and being harangued about the importance of telling the truth, she is not given a proper chance to speak.

In an interview at the end of the book, Levy describes how her research into the history of slavery revealed very few surviving documents where black slaves speak of and for themselves. ‘Little writing or testimony has emerged that was not filtered at the time through a white understanding or serving a white narrative – whether it be the apologists for slavery and the West Indian planter classes, or their opponents, the abolitionists,’ she writes.

For Levy, fiction can provide an answer. ‘Writing fiction is a way of putting back the voices that were left out,’ she says. ‘I wanted to put back in the voices of everyday life for black Jamaicans that are so silent in the record.’

This is an interesting angle on the historical novel, that strange and fascinating blend of the recorded and the imagined. For Levy, the combination of historical research and her own imagination meant she could ‘breathe back the life of ordinary people into the skeleton of recorded events’. Her central character, a black house slave called July, leaps from the pages as a passionate, charming and often cunning woman. Dramatic events like the Baptist War happen around her, but they are not as prominent as her strong and captivating telling of the details of her life.

By giving a voice to one, fictional woman and the people she has contact with, the novel explodes the conventional narrative, summarised by Levy as ‘almost … a morality play with the planters as the villains, Wilberforce as the white knight and the slaves as simply a mass of wretched voiceless victims’. Instead the reader enters a complex, unique society full of strong and vibrant characters getting on with their individual lives, even in circumstances where their very humanity is denied.

For Levy this creative act gave her a new perspective on her ancestors. Her determination to trawl through mountains of racist documents for her research is frankly amazing, but at the end of her afterword she describes how the experience of writing the book left her with a sense not of horror but of awe.

‘Our slave ancestors were much more than a mute and wretched mass of victims and we do them a great disservice if we think of them as such,’ she writes. ‘If history has kept them silent then we must conjure their voices ourselves and listen to their stories. Stories through which we can rememember them, marvel at what they endured, what they achieved, and what they have bequeathed to us all.’

Levy’s tone is upbeat. Nevertheless, there is something heartbreaking about people having to have their stories imagined for them because they were never allowed to tell them when they were alive.

That’s one of the reasons why Storying Sheffield is so important. People who have previously been unheard get a voice, and because the university is supporting them, the whole profile of storytelling is raised. There’s an enormously positive vibe around the project. For me, this is at least partly because it connects with something deep within the psyche, something that recognises that to tell our own stories is both a right and a necessity. The best stories are the ones that belong to you.

Storying Sheffield

Stories and Sheffield are two of the things I love most in life, so when the two come together I get very excited.

It happened this week when Sheffield University held their second, amazing Storying Sheffield exhibition. Storying Sheffield is a groundbreaking project which brings university students together with the people of Sheffield to create a living portrait of life in the city.

Half the participants in the project are second-year undergraduates studying English Literature at the University of Sheffield. Storying Sheffield is an optional module which they can take as part of their degree. The other participants are people from the city who generally have no background in higher education and who come from groups which tend to be socially excluded – mainly long-term users of the mental health services, and people with physical disabilities.

The course is a mix of academic sessions and workshops in which participants work together on creating representations of contemporary life in Sheffield.

At its heart, Storying Sheffield is about giving a platform to stories that are rarely heard. In the process, it challenges all kinds of boundaries to create a unique and multi-faceted portrait of the city. As undergraduate Josephine wrote in the catalogue for the project’s exhibition last week: ‘Storying Sheffield allows you to break the rigid boundaries that society imposes upon you – when else would I work with an actual adult (as opposed to a fake one) in a real (not student) house representing stories that are so often ignored?’

The blend of techniques used by the participants challenges more boundaries by promoting the telling of stories through a huge range of media. Film, textiles, photography, maps, drama and cardboard boxes all formed part of the final exhibition, alongside written material.

The result, to quote course director Dr Brendan Stone, is ‘a web of fragments, stories, and representations, or, to use a phrase from the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, “a cloth woven of stories told”’.

What is evident from the exhibition is that this phenomenal explosion of creativity is the result of a genuine two-way exchange between the university and people from other parts of the city. Undergraduate Charlie wrote that the best thing about the project was ‘being given the opportunity to work with Peter who has showed me so many wonderful things and taught me so much’. Peter himself wrote: ‘I’ve learnt more about myself through this course than with any doctors or shrinks.’

It’s an exchange that also inspires participants with a fresh perspective on Sheffield and deepens their sense of belonging. Kate worked with two undergraduates to explore her Christian faith and her role as a mother. Afterwards she wrote: ‘For years I have wanted to run away from Sheffield. Watching the students make short films of different places in the city has inspired me to make friends with my home town and in a matter of months, I have grown to love Sheffield, warts an’all!!! It’s made me realise that how I view Sheffield is not necessarily a matter of reality, but of perception.’

When people are given space to tell their stories, there seems no end to what can change.