Learning in Womanist Ways: Narratives of First Generation African Caribbean women

This post has been contributed by Dr Jan Etienne, Associate Lecturer in the Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies, about her new book, Learning in Womanist Ways: Narratives of First Generation African Caribbean Women

Background and influences for writing this book:
I was a member of Birkbeck’s Centre for Extramural Studies and taught on access programmes delivered at community education centres in such diverse multicultural areas as Hackney, Brent, and Haringey.Womanist ways 2

In my role as access tutor I came across first generation Black African Caribbean women on access courses pursuing learning in their third age (50-75). Whilst delivering courses such as ‘Group Work Skills for the Social Sciences’ I became acutely aware of the unusual rhythmic ways in which older black women in my classes were learning.

Such rhythmic learning styles were steeped in banter, joviality and constant reflections on stories of ‘back home’. I became curious to explore the nature of such learning. How might it play out in the confines of an often rigid higher education establishment?

Things that were happening in the wider environment (community; politics; academia) shaped my understanding and stance towards the issues I discuss in the book.

Their early enthusiasm for lifelong learning and widening participation in the higher education helped to promote second chance learning for older women learning in the community. However, the more recent dismantling of the lifelong learning/continuing education agenda in higher education made me concerned about the future learning opportunities for older black women.

The reduction in funding for adult and community education centres was also a concern as well as the demise of community and voluntary sector services. The closure of these centres/informal learning spaces, frequented by older women made me re-consider the role of higher education in a diverse, ageing society.

The book introduces Matriarchal Learning hubs and acknowledges that in our increasingly ageing society, learning in later years improves lives and has important benefits for all communities – not least to help tackle isolation and loneliness in the community.

However, for older black woman, reduced social capital means fewer social networks and fewer opportunities to access learning. Learning in womanist (black feminist) ways can help improve local communities.

The book reveals that black African Caribbean mothers and grandmothers have a particular interest in learning for the betterment of their communities. In Matriarchal Learning Hubs older black women are able to concern themselves with ways to tackle such issues as support to other black women experiencing the impact of such issues as rising crime on social housing estates; youth violence and school exclusions among Black Caribbean boys. Such issues are key motivations for learning in local community settings. Opportunities to widen learning in community spaces for older people must be a priority.

This book is written for all students who are inspired to make a difference in their local communities. It is also written for those teaching in educational settings with older learners who want to explore alternative teaching strategies. Finally, it is written for policy makers who believe that voluntary and community sector spaces are important necessities in an ageing society.

As a result of my research I am inspired by my ability to enrich my teaching. I have greater understanding of the motivations of my learners particularly those working in the community who are helping to empower and improve he lives of others. I also have a particular new engagement with contemporary narrative study.

Capturing the totality of the nuanced ways in which my research participants shared their experiences challenged me.

Using the variety of flexible approaches to contemporary narrative study provided me with the creative ability to present the women’s narratives in an accessible, appropriate manner.

This book introduces a much needed Black British Womanist perspective to lifelong learning. In an ageing multi-cultural society, learning seeks a Black Womanist (feminist) perspective. This book provides that platform.

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Birkbeck’s Published Alumni Series: David Savill

This post was contributed by Melanie Jones of The Mechanics’ Institute Review. This month the Birkbeck Creative Writing department launched its new website The Mechanics’ Institute Review Online. This year marks a huge success for the Creative Writing MA as ten alumni have novels coming out this year.

To celebrate these achievements we are profiling a selection of the authors and extracts from their upcoming novels will appear on MIROnline. Here, Melanie Jones speaks with alumnus David Savill, about his novel, They Are Trying to Break Your Heart (Bloomsbury, April 2016)

Read an extract of the book at MIROnline

They Are Trying to Break Your Heart

They Are Trying to Break Your Heart

MJ: They Are Trying To Break Your Heart comes out this month, congratulations! Can you tell us a little bit about the novel?

DS: I’ve been telling people it’s about the connections between the Bosnian conflict of the 1990’s, and the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami – of which there were none until I made them up. It sounds bleak, but the story is focused around people putting each other back together again after catastrophe. In writing the novel I was interested in the tangential connections between people, and the power of the slightest encounters. But there’s a compelling mystery in there too – the story of a human rights researcher who discovers a war criminal believed dead may be alive and living a second life in Thailand. If you want a straight thriller or war story, you’ll probably be disappointed – I hope what the reader gets instead is a really novel drama about displacement, loss and love.

The novel tackles the political landscape of the early 21st What was it about this time period that inspired you to write?

In one sense, I’ve done what so many debut novelists do, and drawn upon formative experiences. I was 19 when I spent two summers volunteering in Bosnia, and the lessons the war taught me needed to be worked through. But as the writing moved from therapy to story, and as I began to inhabit a Bosnian protagonist, I began to realise a whole generation was growing up with no knowledge of the conflict, or what it meant for the politics of human rights and interventionism in Europe, (let alone the basic history!) This became a purpose for the book. I’m also really interested in the challenge of writing about very recent history, where the historical narrative isn’t settled, and a novel has a chance to work something out about how we came to be where we are.

There are very different voices in the novel. How did you approach this and did you enjoy writing any character more than the others?

Stepping into the head of a Bosnian protagonist was a big moment in my development as a writer. Until then, I’d been far too compelled by autobiography. I began to test this voice out in Birkbeck workshops, and the reactions gave me confidence. I work on the principle that all humans across all cultures, whatever gender, share the same basic drives and ambitions, and face the same struggles in life. There are differences, of course, but the more time I spend inhabiting different protagonists, the less important those differences seem to be. I liked writing Anya the most. Although the drama joins her in a moment of uncharacteristic doubt, she’s the kind of committed, focused and ambitious woman who fascinates me. One of the main springs of my inspiration is people I admire.

David Savill

David Savill

You left a career in journalism to become a writer and teacher, can you tell us what made you decide to switch to writing fiction?

I was working in Sri Lanka on the tsunami aftermath when I came very close to a fatal car accident. A bus in front of us hit a truck head-on. The bus driver died, and one of the passengers was thrown into the backseat of our car so that we could take her to hospital. It’s terrible to say, but with the shock I had a feeling of elation. I’d spent so much time around the grieving, and seen a lot of death in those months. On top of the natural disaster, this random accident seemed absurd, and for a moment, it helped me shed the fear of death. And in that moment I thought, ‘so I could die tomorrow, what really makes me happy?’ The act of writing, actually sitting down and doing it, was all I could think of. I loved a lot about journalism and documentary film-making, but it didn’t allow me to tell the kind of stories I felt improved life on the deepest level – the stories found in literature. It’s about form of course, and what it’s fit for. I needed to be working in a different form. Another answer is, I wasn’t the world’s best journalist.

How did completing a Creative Writing MA at Birkbeck affect your writing process?

In many ways. But the key thing it gave me was the belief I had a story to tell. Not that I was a writer – I knew I was a writer, because I think writing is a personality type. The tragedy is some people never discover the thing they’re best at doing. But before Birkbeck, I wasn’t sure I had anything interesting enough to relate to people. Being good with prose is a job – a matter of hard, stubborn work for me. But what if you have nothing to say? Julia Bell uses this word ‘territory’, and I began to see I had a territory to explore, and I needed to mine it for something of value to the reader.

Do you have any advice for new writers, perhaps those just starting a creative writing course?

Listen. Be receptive. Throw your ego out of the window and experiment with new things. Don’t expect your drafts to be complete, or for people to like them. Why should they? You can only hope your cohort and tutors spot the potential and help you develop it. Authors are asking readers to invest the most precious thing they have — time, and a creative writing course is probably the only place people will give it freely, even when your writing doesn’t deserve it. Be persistent, practice a lot, and your prose will improve. Then you need to focus on what it is you have to say that is worth a few hours and £16.99 of someone’s hard earned money. I’m convinced we all have something worth writing about, but finding it is hard. Dig deep. After doing the hard work, whether you publish or not is pretty much down to luck. I’m enormously grateful I had a little.

Can you tell us about your current writing? What’s next?

I am so happy not to be writing They Are Trying To Break Your Heart! My next book is provisionally titled, Disinformation: Finding Grace Bailey-Payne. It’s the biography of a brilliant, but little known journalist who disappeared in Georgia in 1999. I hope it’s also about how Russia became the place it is today, and the power games played between Europe and Russia in the beautiful Caucasus mountains.

Find out more

David Savill worked as a freelance journalist in the Caucasus and then with BBC Current Affairs television before founding the St Mary’s University MA in Creative Writing. They Are Trying to Break Your Heart is his first novel. It was published by Bloomsbury in April, 2016.

Melanie Jones

Melanie Jones

Melanie Jones graduated from the Birkbeck Creative Writing MA in 2015. She is the Managing Editor of MIROnline and a member of the MIRLive Team. She was a member of the editorial team for The Mechanics’ Institute Review, Issue 12.

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Birkbeck’s Published Alumni Series: Sarah Alexander

This post was contributed by Melanie Jones, of The Mechanics’ Institute Review. This month the Birkbeck Creative Writing department launched its new website The Mechanics’ Institute Review Online. This year marks a huge success for the Creative Writing MA as ten alumni have novels coming out this year.

To celebrate these achievements we will be profiling a selection of the authors and extracts from their upcoming novels will appear on MIROnline. Here, Melanie Jones speaks with alumna Sarah Alexander, about her novel, ‘The Art of Not Breathing’. (HMH Books for Young Readers, April 2016)

Read an extract of the book at MIROnline

TAONBMJ: First of all I want to say congratulations on the upcoming release of The Art of Not Breathing. Can you tell us a little bit about where the idea for this story first came from?

SA: Thank you! Hmm, I’ve been thinking about this question a lot recently, and I still haven’t nailed the answer. It’s hard to describe where the idea came from because the process was so organic. Some of the original ideas are no longer part of the story, and others have grown into something I couldn’t have imagined at the beginning.

The novel is a patchwork of many ideas and themes that I’ve previously tried to put into novels, but the actual story idea came from my main character, Elsie. She popped into my head one day. I knew she and her family had been through tough times and that they didn’t talk much about the past. I wanted to write about a family who’d had a complete communication breakdown, and whether they could recover.

What was it that drew you to Young Adult Fiction? Did you always know that this was the genre that you wanted to write in?

Books were my security blanket when I was at school but somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, I lost my zest for reading. As a grown-up who wanted to write but didn’t know what to read, I thought back to the books I read as a child and teenager, the ones that inspired me to write in the first place, and I chose the Young Adult module on the MA as a way of reconnecting with my teenage love of literature. As soon as I started writing from a teen perspective it all clicked into place.

There are lots of different approaches to the process of writing. Do you have a particular routine?

I don’t really have a routine; I do whatever I can around my day job, so it varies. It helps to mix it up a bit – sometimes I’ll write every day in 45-minute sprints before I start work and other times I’ll do marathon weekend sessions. The only constant is that I always write on a computer. I do make notes on my phone and Post-it notes but when it comes to putting it all together I need a keyboard because my handwriting is atrocious. I’m sure I’ve let go of ingenious ideas because my notes are illegible.

Sarah Alexander

Sarah Alexander

You completed your MA at Birkbeck in 2013, do you have any advice for other students of Creative Writing?

With any course, the more you put into it, the more you get out of it. I don’t just mean working hard on assignments, I mean immersing yourself in everything related to the course – go to spoken word nights, socialise with other writers (this is probably the most important one!), challenge yourself and your writing – do something out of your comfort zone, go to author talks and events, ask for book recommendations from people who have different reading interests, have fun.

Some writers work with writing groups and have groups of first readers, others prefer to put the work together before sharing it. How have other writers played a part in your writing life?

I started writing The Art of Not Breathing during my MA so I workshopped the first few thousand words with other writers on the course and this was hugely valuable. I don’t know if I’d have had the courage to finish it without the constructive feedback I got from those workshops. Plus, I learned a lot from reading other writers’ work. Once the course had finished, though, I retreated into my personal writing bubble, afraid of what people would think of my story, never quite ready to share. With Book 2, it’s different. I want people to read it – even the early raw drafts, because readers are the reason books get written.

What has been the most exciting part of the journey to publication?

Getting to know the publishing and book community. Once I’d got my book deal, I emerged from my solitary writing bubble and discovered a whole online (and real life) community of writing folks who just wanted to talk about books and writing. I wasn’t a big a big social media user before, so I had missed out on all of this – I really wish I’d embraced it earlier. It’s great to have such a supportive network of other writers and book people. Bad for my bank balance, though – so many brilliant recommendations.

Your bio tells us that you’ve worked as a “tomato picker, travel consultant, mental-health support worker and suitcase administrator”. Do you think it’s important for writers to have a varied history to draw upon?

I was about to say that I don’t think tomato picking has helped much with my writing but then I remembered I wrote a short story about it – it was pretty dark. I might share it one day. It’s important to understand people, places and things outside your day-to-day environment but perhaps the way you draw from your experiences is more important than the actual experience.

A wise professor once said to me, ‘Whatever you write, it has to be interesting.’ This is, of course, subjective, but it got me thinking about how narrow my personal interests were. New experiences help to broaden my knowledge and provide different perspectives on the world. Other people’s books are also an excellent source of interesting things!

Can you tell us about your current writing? What’s next?

I’m working on another standalone YA novel. I can’t say too much, but I am very excited about it. I’m also sketching out two other novels so watch this space! I’m desperately trying to find time to write more short stories too – I miss this part of the MA.

Find out more

Sarah Alexander grew up in London with dreams of exploring the world and writing stories. After spending several years wandering the globe and getting into all sorts of scrapes, she returned to London to complete a Master’s degree in Creative Writing at Birkbeck College in 2013. She works in publishing and lives with her husband and two chickens. THE ART OF NOT BREATHING is her first novel. You can find her on her website www.sarahalexanderwrites.com or on Twitter @SarahRAlexander.

Melanie Jones

Melanie Jones

Melanie Jones graduated from the Birkbeck Creative Writing MA in 2015. She is the Managing Editor of MIROnline and a member of the MIRLive Team. She was a member of the editorial team for The Mechanics’ Institute Review, Issue 12.

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Why hate Human Rights? Understanding the case against the Human Rights Act

This post was contributed by Dr Frederick Cowell, lecturer in Law at Birkbeck. Dr Cowell’s forthcoming book, ‘Critically Understanding the case against the 1998 Human Rights Act’ is due to be published by Routledge in February 2017. Here, Dr Cowell offers an insight into his current research project behind the book.

The 1998 Human Rights Act is one of the most controversial and misunderstood pieces of legislation in recent history. The Act brought rights contained in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), into UK law, allowing them to be used in UK courts. Britain had been a party to the ECHR since the 1950s – Winston Churchill helped shape the Convention and was one of its early supporters – but until the Human Rights Act came into force the EHCR had no force in UK courts.

The Act has come in for a wide variety of criticism on legal, constitutional, political and cultural grounds. In the late 2000s this escalated significantly when politicians seriously considered proposals for its abolition. Media stories about the Human Rights Act have assumed near mythological proportions claiming that the Act gives criminals a right to demand fried chicken from the police and prevents foreign nationals from being deported if they have a cat.

Human rights in the headlines (Images cc Huffington Post)

Human rights in the headlines (Images cc Huffington Post)

Reviewing the recent history of the Act

There was a Commission on a Bill of Rights set up in 2012 which delivered a mixed report with some members of the Commission arguing for a Bill of Rights to compliment the HRA and others arguing that there was no need. The Conservative Party’s proposals for a British Bill of Rights published in 2014 is predicated on repealing the Human Rights Act and replacing it with an instrument that would give more power to the government and limit the number and type of individuals who would be able to make human rights claims.

The Conservative Party had a commitment to repeal the Human Rights Act in their 2015 General Election Manifesto and after they won a majority committed to swiftly publishing proposals for a British Bill of Rights. This has since been pushed back and there is little certainty on when these proposals will be published.

During the debate about the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union various government ministers have expressed contradictory positions on whether the UK should remain part of Council of Europe – the ECHR’s supervisory body, which is a separate institution from the EU. On Monday the House of Lords EU Justice Committee issued a report criticising the limited aims of the bill of rights project recommending that it in its current form it should be abandoned.

About the research project ­ – What’s wrong with the Human rights Act?

This led me to launch a research project last year that asks just what is wrong with the Human Rights Act that necessitates its replacement. This is important as so much of the debate about a British Bill of Rights, and indeed a major reason why this debate is taking place in the first place, is due to the supposed inadequacies and unpopularity of the Human Rights Act. In spite of a range of hostile media coverage, which has cemented certain myths about the Human Rights Act, polling shows that the public remain broadly supportive of the Act and strongly support the universal applicability of certain rights, such as the right to a fair trial. However, in connection to certain issues, such as whether serving prisoners should have the right to vote, the public are a lot more hostile towards the Human Rights Act and human rights in general.

Dr Frederick Cowell

Dr Frederick Cowell

This project is an edited volume with contributors from academia and practice, critically analysing the arguments levelled against the Human Rights Act. There are several main strands of argument in the case against the Human Rights Act. The constitutional argument, which has been made principally by legal and constitutional experts, contends that the Act is dangerously distorting crucial elements of the UK’s constitution. Others have argued that UK’s tradition of common law rights and civil liberties make the need for rights protection by the ECHR superfluous.

Equally there has been scholarship from the other direction suggesting that the Human Rights Act has enhanced the UK’s constitution or is part of its gradual evolution. These arguments are evaluated alongside high profile issues, such as immigration and terrorism, where the Human Rights Act is widely criticised. Some of these arguments are predicated upon pervasive media misrepresentations about human rights and organisations such as Rights Info have endeavoured to unpick some of these myths. What this work aims to do is examine these arguments in depth and see how a Bill of Rights would be any different in these cases.

Whilst the plans for a British Bill of Rights remain uncertain understanding why hostility to the Human Rights Act occurs and the social and legal structures that are behind it, helps better understand the role that human rights play in society and the challenges that different mechanisms for rights protection might face.

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