Glasgow Women’s Library offered a full, fun schedule of events for Book Week Scotland 2013. I had a great time at several of the sessions on offer, where I got the chance to indulge my love of reading and writing as well as taking part in some lively, inventive and therapeutic activities that I haven’t enjoyed since I was at school! Here’s a little about Book Week Scotland 2013 at GWL:
Making it Home
The project, started in September 2012, brought together the Maryhill Integration Network (a group of asylum-seeking and migrant women from Glasgow) and Pilton Community Health Project (a group of local women from Edinburgh) to create poetry and short films on the topic of ‘home’. The results were wonderfully informative and incredibly revealing. The groups, with support from the Refugee Survival Trust, Creative Scotland, Media Co-op, the University of Edinburgh and the Scottish Poetry Library, produced poetry and short films which highlighted the marked universality of the importance of ‘home’ as both a socio-economic, measurable standard of life and as a matter of welcomeness, identity and self. They really asked us to consider how secure our material concept of ‘home’ really is (I found a short film which highlighted how quickly a person can find themselves homeless particularly powerful), and how we define ‘home’ on a less physical level. Is it the people who make ‘home’? The place?
As well as getting the chance to hear some of their poetry and to view their short films, we also saw footage which recorded how the women worked together to share their experiences and ideas, to verbalise these and, ultimately, to create short films which reflected their own perspectives. The participants made these films themselves with training and support from Media Co-op, and the footage communicated a palpable sense of achievement, empowerment and team work.
This was a brilliantly apt way to kick off Book Week Scotland. It really reminded us of the power of words – both the strengthening, uniting power and the destructive, divisive power – and how the most incisive creative work so often starts with open dialogue and cross-group integration.
Illuminated Letters: Literary Heroines
I’m a dreadful artist, so it was with considerable apprehension that I went along to this workshop on Tuesday to try my hand at creating my very own illuminated letter. The GWL Illuminated Letters project is inspired by artist Niki de Saint Phalle, whose work (including beautiful letters to friends, family and acquaintances) is distinctive by its bright colours. Donna Moore (Adult Literacy and Numeracy Development Worker at GWL) led the workshop, which invited participants to create illuminated letters to their literary heroines. Donna had set up a great display of books which showcased some of her own literary heroines, and we all had a chance to chat about our own fictional idols – characters mentioned included Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice and Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind. We also discussed what we think makes a literary heroine, and it was interesting to discover that we all agreed that moral perfection is far less effective than blemishes and blunders in making characters sympathetic and relatable.
I ‘wrote’ my own illuminated letter to my favourite female fictional character, Aliena from Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. Aliena starts her journey as an earl’s daughter – intelligent, yes, but comfortable and untried too. Her father’s fall from regal favour sets her on a course which leads to her becoming a powerful, entrepreneurial woman who champions her family, and particularly her younger brother, to regain what has been lost. Aliena has to win out against several male antagonists who are weaker than her, or parasitical upon her achievements as an independent woman. She also falls foul of some chillingly corrupt churchmen. All this against the backdrop of the English twelfth century, where civil wars between King Stephen and Empress Matilda already tested loyalties and decimated the population. Not a world which cared much for wronged women.
It was lovely to get my hands covered in ink writing to Aliena and, despite remaining convinced that I’ll never make an artist, the workshop really helped me to relax. We also tried our hands at ‘spine poetry’, using the words from the spines of books in the library to make our own poems. This produced some really interesting results – give it a try the next time you’re in the library!
In October 2013, entries opened for GWL’s ‘Dragon’s Pen’ competition. Entrants were invited to submit poems and/or short stories, on the topic of ‘illuminate’, for shortlisting by a panel of ‘dragons’. On Wednesday, the handful of talented women who had been shortlisted came to the library to read their work to an audience and to receive feedback from the panel.
Any writer will know that it takes an enormous amount of courage to read work to others, but that it’s a habit which is really worth getting into. Seeking out support and feedback is an excellent way to work through problems in your writing, and helps you to see your work from a fresher and more detached point of view. The women who were shortlisted for Dragon’s Pen 2013 had all produced excellent, engaging work, and were able to receive really constructive feedback from the panel – GWL staff members Rachel Thain-Gray and Wendy Kirk, and visiting authors Elizabeth Reeder and Valerie Thornton.
The panel had the unenviable task of choosing a winning poem and short story from the shortlist, and the winners were announced as Lynn Valentine for her poem The Magician and Lucy Lloyd for her short story Walking Out. The winning poem and short story will be recorded as podcasts and made available on the GWL website in due course.
This was a positive and affirming evening, not only because it showcased skilful and evocative writing by women at various stages of their writing careers, but because it offered some helpful demonstrations of how to provide feedback to our fellow writers in a constructive and encouraging way, which is such an important skill for a collegial writer to possess.
Drama Queens: Play Reading for Pleasure
On Thursday, I joined the GWL Drama Queens group for a play reading. We read three plays; A Pageant of Great Women by Cicely Hamilton, Before Sunrise by Bessie Hatton and A Nice Rest by Peggy Hallifax. Play reading aloud really isn’t something I’ve done since I studied theatre at school, and I was reminded how the technique really brings the play to life – a play is, after all, intended to be spoken and acted. The women in the group all come armed with enthusiasm, but it was reassuring to find that, despite not being particularly skilled at acting, I was welcome and encouraged to join in.
Our three plays explored a variety of themes. A Pageant of Great Women, performed from 1909, was of particular interest to me as it makes the case for women’s franchise by presenting a pantheon of women from history (including Hypatia, Jane Austen, Rosa Bonheur, Queen Victoria and Joan of Arc) to ‘Justice’, in the face of the opposition of ‘Prejudice’ – the conservative male voice embodying something of the anti-suffrage appeals of Lord Curzon and his ilk. It is a wonderfully succinct, powerful play which sets out the case for votes for women with great art – the text is available to read in the library as part of the Sketches from the Actresses’ Franchise League volume, and is highly recommended.
The GWL Drama Queens group meets regularly. Check here for details of the next meeting.
My Book Week Scotland Choice
I’ve also made some progress with my own Book Week Scotland book of choice, Elizabeth’s Women by Tracy Borman. I read quite a lot of historical non-fiction, and I always find the wide variety of authorial voices and tones really striking – the idea that writing history is just a matter of getting your facts straight (or not!) and popping them down onto the page couldn’t be further from the truth. Readers seem to be hungrier for good biography and history than ever before, and most good historians seem to be responding to this appetite with verve by offering historical non-fiction which is engaging, informative and accessible without being patronising or over-simplified. Into such a category of author must surely fall Tracy Borman. Her ‘voice’ is enthusiastic and her writing welcomes specialists and history ‘newbies’ alike. I’m really enjoying Elizabeth’s Women so far!