Writing Across Lines: History, Memory and the Imagination


Held in Dragon Hall, home of the Norwich Writers Centre on Saturday, June 18, this workshop was lead by Elleke Boehmer, Professor of World Literature in English at  Oxford University. Elleke began by asking us to consider how fiction allows us to explore big ideas – specifically notions of home.

  • what constitutes home?
  • is it something concrete, or in our imagination?
  • what happens when we leave our homes? when we are forced to leave for political or economic reasons?
  • do we re-assemble home from items and memories?
IMG_7985 Dragon Hall, King Street, Norwich

Elleke briefly introduced her novel Shouting in the Dark and outlined the four main ideas or themes:

  1. father-daughter struggle, to the death
  2. bildungsroman
  3. war story; an invisible war wound
  4. shuttling between languages and worlds

before reading an extract from Chapter 12 – Flights: set in Amsterdam airport and began “Holding hands, they emerge …” The young protagonist witnessed her mother’s mid flight anxiety attack and began writing words with the pencils and paper given by an air hostess – one word after another, becoming steady within herself, this writing was a calming practice, everything was falling under her control “… as she puts down the letters H-A-T-E she finds relief”.

Can writing itself become a kind of home? Is writing a way of retrieving home – a way of putting back together that which we have lost? When considered, we are all migrants from our first home. Elleke asked us to consider a page a a location, and the filling of a page can be like re-locating or re-constituting homes we have left behind.

The second extract was from a poem titled Home by British-Somali poet Warsan Shire:

no one leaves home unless

home is the mouth of a shark

you only run for the border

when you see the whole city running as well


your neighbours running faster than you

breath bloody in their throats

the boy you went to school with

who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory

is holding a gun bigger than his body

you only leave home

when home won’t let you stay


no one leaves home unless home chases you

fire under feet

hot blood in your belly

it’s not something you ever thought of doing

until the blade burnt threats into

your neck

and even then you carried the anthem under

your breath

only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets

sobbing as each mouthful of paper

made it clear that you won’t be going back.

The Music Lesson Vermeer 1665

We contemplated Vermeer’s The Music Lesson as a way of examining possessions and their importance in representing notions of home. We were asked to think on whether we ourselves travel light or travel heavy, carrying our past homes in physical objects such as furniture – a poetic link to heavy suitcases and personal baggage and memories.

There was a second reading from Elleke’s novel, a descriptive moment of their home in South Africa that was so full of Holland that there was no room for Africa, yet there are conflicting ideas through phrases such as ‘in the African living room’. These contradictions of place and a yearning for a past home can be seen in immigrants who often invest much in their new home, sometimes refusing to visit or return to their previous homeland.

the writing exercises occurred in the main hall

After a short coffee break, we moved into a space furnished with tables for writing. Begin by thinking of the page as a space of four sides, four boundaries where a series of relationships could be plotted. Think of an object that represents an idea of ‘home’ for you. Discuss this with a partner or in a trio. Then write three declarative sentences:

  1. describe the home bearing object
  2. explore its relationship now, in the present
  3. whatever you choose, but still about the object.

The trio I was part of decided we all travelled light, but with a little more discussion, two chose pieces of furniture. I eventually wrote:

The medal was small, silver and warm in my hands. Although no longer with me, I recall the sheer delight when it was lost for some years, but refound – chink! – one afternoon when dad was mowing. Lost again, taken really, its possession is not physically needed to remind me of love, luck and sharing.

Our group also discussed place names and how they can link to a homeland and represent a yearning for a place that will never be seen again, such as colonists in Australia naming the land they squatted on after their homes in the ‘old country’.

Read an article between Meg Samuelson and Elleke Boehmer – ‘Writing Migrant Lives in the South: A Conversation‘ in sydney Review of Books

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