Set up in 2000, Exiled Writers Ink provides a space for exiled writers to be heard, develops and promotes their writing, and advocates human rights through literature and literary activism. The Friday Poem talks to founding director Jennifer Langer about Exiled Lit Café nights, her own refugee roots, and how it feels to have been shortlisted for the Michael Marks Publishers Award 2021
TFP: Can you tell me a bit about how and why EWI got started?
JL: In the late nineties I became set on defying the stereotype of refugees exploiting Britain’s welfare and being bogus. I felt that it was imperative for refugee writers’ voices to be heard so that insights could be gained not only into the pain of the refugee experience but also into the complexity and diversity of the experiences and concerns of writers from diverse regions. Also, while government and voluntary sector provision met practical needs, there was little opportunity for the creative expression and externalisation of the refugees’ inner, emotional and spiritual lives and for sharing experiences.
It all began in earnest when I researched and edited The Bend in the Road (1997) an anthology of quality writing by refugees, many of whom were established writers in their countries of origin. It was accompanied by a teaching pack and received press coverage given that it was an innovative anthology. Suddenly I was being contacted by a range of organisations requesting sessions featuring the refugee writers. When a large, enthusiastic group of exiled writers clamoured for their own organisation, Exiled Writers Ink was born.
Exiled Writers Ink brings together established and developing writers from repressive regimes and war-torn situations and it equally embraces migrants and exiles. Providing a safe, welcoming space for writers to be heard, Exiled Writers Ink develops and promotes the creative literary expression of refugees, migrants and exiles, increases their representation in the mainstream literary world and advocates human rights through literature and literary activism.
Our work comprises creative writing workshops, training, live literature performance events, theatre, mentoring, translation, publications, symposia, poetry competitions, and roadshows. Our theatre projects have included productions in partnership, performed in the UK and in Poland, Italy, and Bosnia.
TFP: EWI was founded in 2000 but your work feels particularly topical now, with 82.4 million individuals forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations, according to the UN refugee agency. How have you seen things change over the past 20 years?
JL: My subjective impression is that there has been an increase in the number of refugees here because of persecution and new conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. In comparison to the past, enormous risks are taken by desperate refugees fleeing to safety by hiding in lorries and sailing in flimsy boats across the Mediterranean and Channel. These experiences are eventually represented in their poetry and prose. I believe that more women and children used to arrive without male family members who may have been fighting, imprisoned, missing or killed. Women writers used to be tentative about reading their work, particularly because of the presence of male members of their community, namely, the power of patriarchy, but now there are numerous exiled women who are confident in their literary achievements.
In comparison to the past, enormous risks are taken by desperate refugees fleeing to safety by hiding in lorries and sailing in flimsy boats across the Mediterranean and Channel. These experiences are eventually represented in their poetry and prose
TFP: Exiled Lit Café has run since 2000, now the first Monday of every month, with headlining poets and open mic. What is an evening at the café like?
Café nights at the Poetry Café, Covent Garden, were packed with refugees, students, writers, travellers and interested Londoners. Since Covid we have moved onto Zoom, but the format is similar. Each Exiled Lit Café is organised and hosted by one of our committee members or the director according to their interests, connections or what is felt to be timely or particularly important. An integral part of our Exiled Lit Café nights are Agit Lit events which challenge the abuse of human rights through literary activism. We begin with an introduction about the theme of the evening and we then hear from the invited exiled writers and engage in discussion with them. Pre-Zoom, the coffee break in the café upstairs provided the opportunity for everyone to interact and chat so that the exiled writers feel part of a community of writers providing them with a haven out of their isolation. Everyone then descended to the basement again to listen and discuss more and to enjoy the open mic session.
TFP: Which readings do you remember best?
JL: ’From Absence to Presence’ was held in partnership with the Syrian storytelling organisation Hikayetna and the writers were of Syrian origin. Our first guest was poet Amir Darwish, who nostalgically described his hometown of Aleppo before its destruction. Farrah Akbik, told of her travels in Syria and of her love for the country, its people and its culture. We were stunned to hear that her beloved brother had been killed in Idlib a few months before, and she read a poem in his memory. The lights were switched off and we watched two short feature films by Iraqi film-maker Koutaiba Al-Janabi after which audience members were eager to interpret the narratives.
In ‘Words of the Silenced’ Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s plight became the inspiration for an ‘Agit Lit’ evening of poetry, activism and soul-searching. For the event, EWI joined forces with human rights blogger Simone Theiss, Amnesty International, and Howell Productions, a theatre group. The first half of the evening centred on a play telling the story of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s imprisonment and its impact on her family. At the Poetry Café her husband Richard was in the audience and spoke to the packed room afterwards. Movingly, he reminded the audience that Nazanin and the other women imprisoned with her were aware of the event taking place and that they knew their words and stories were being heard. During the break, audience members joined the letter-writing campaign. The second part of the event was devoted to readings by Iranian women writers. Nasrin Parvaz read from her memoir about her own eight-year imprisonment in Tehran. Poet Ziba Karbassi gave an electrifying performance of her work. Finally, Simone Theiss read poems gathered by Richard Ratcliffe by Nazanin and other imprisoned writers.
TFP: EWI runs creative writing workshops for refugees, immigrants and asylum-seeking writers. Can you tell me a bit about them? What sort of poetry and prose come out of them? Do they function as support groups as well as poetry groups? Has moving the workshops online changed their nature?
JL: Tutors’ approaches vary. One tutor’s ethos is for the workshops to function as sharing and support groups so that the participants collaborate and encourage each other. A key objective is to develop autonomy in the learning and editing process and for the sessions to be learner led. Each participant selects a poem from a different part of the world enabling the group not only to learn about diverse poets but also to analyse the craft of the poem. Another tutor devotes each session to a particular aspect of the craft of poetry and is a strong believer in getting participants to write during the session. The participants are also given the tools and knowledge to enable them to submit their work to literary magazines and to enter competitions. Moving on-line has enabled more people to attend with some living outside London.
The first half of the evening centred on a play telling the story of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s imprisonment and its impact on her family. At the Poetry Café, her husband Richard was in the audience and spoke to the packed room afterwards. Movingly, he reminded the audience that Nazanin and the other women imprisoned with her were aware of the event taking place and that they knew their words and stories were being heard
Reading Like a Poet is a weekly cooperative poetry class. Each week we read a poem from a notable poet around the world. We dig into the craft, ethos, theme, context and insight the poem offers. Each person in the class is asked to share, taking turns in presenting one poet. Poets are encouraged to write a weekly poem in response, and there is a chance to share one new poem a month for group feedback.
The Craft of Poetry is a monthly class designed for a deeper dive into the craft of poetry. The class focuses on different aspects of poetic form and meaning. Poets practise techniques to draw the reader into the space of the poem. Themes include: the art of the line, stanzas, voice, imagery, poetic forms and ‘how to title’ a poem. The focus on specific aspects of craft is intended to lead to deeper engagement with one’s own poems, and poets are expected to actively engage in writing and revision.
Sharing Your Work is a monthly cooperative support group designed to support writers who are ready to share their work with the outside world. Each month we meet to share and set goals and offer each other insights into publishing opportunities, prizes, awards and other public forums. The goal is to take a professional approach to getting your voice out into the world, but to do that as part of a team. Our ethos is to cheer each other on, help each other out: comrades – not competitors – in the art of “shipping” your work.
Our monthly prose writing group is designed for writers who are currently working on a novel /novella, memoir or other long-form prose projects. Each month writers are selected in advance to present an excerpt from their current project for a critique and constructive feedback on their work. Depending on the readings, we hope to be able to explore different aspects and techniques as they arise and to offer continued and more in-depth support throughout the evolution of longer-term writing projects.
TFP: Tell me a bit about the Exiled Writers Ink Mentoring and Translation Project. Who have mentored for the project? Have your writers gone on to achieve things of note?
JL: The writers of refugee and migrant background comprised seven selected poets: Hasan Kahya, Nada Menzalji, Lester Gómez Medina, Agata Palmer, Mehrangiz Rassapour, Jan-An Saab, Suhrab Sirat, and five selected prose writers: Natalia Casali, Navid Hamzavi, Anba Jawi, Sana Nassari and Taffi Nyawanza, who were mentored by highly-regarded writer-mentors: Catherine Davidson, Dr Aviva Dautch, Jane Duran, Graham Fawcett, Dr Ariel Kahn and Nick Makoha, Our translators were Dr Alireza Abiz (Farsi), Dr Atef Alshaer (Arabic), Isabel del Rio (Spanish) and Hamid Kabir (Dari).
We are beginning to see some individual achievements. Two chapbooks were favourably reviewed in the Morning Star; two prose writers were featured in the ‘Storyfest Literary Festival’ at Middlesex University; some participants had their work published in literary magazines and in anthologies such as Can You Hear the People Sing (Palewell, 2020) and the Exiled Writers Ink anthology Resistance: Voices of Exiled Writers (Palewell, 2020). A poet was the guest of honour at a Nicaraguan embassy event and one mentor assisted her mentee in creating a collection of poems which will be published. We now submit the poetry chapbooks for the Michael Marks Awards; this year Hasan Kahya’s The Pale Map was featured in a Times Literary Supplement article about the Awards.
TFP: As part of the project you organised ‘Access to the UK Literature World’ with Briony Bax, Clare Pollard, Michael Schmidt and Emily Berry. How have these (and / or other) members of the poetry world shown their support for the project?
JL: They have all welcomed submissions to their publications.
Mir Mahfuz Ali, the exiled Bangladeshi writer, had lost his voice in more ways than one. Riot police in Bangladesh had shot him in the throat during a protest, leaving him unable to speak
TFP: Where do your exiled writers originate from? Can you give details of one writer’s personal story?
JL: If you look at the Writers’ Page on our website, you can see that they originate from many countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.
Mir Mahfuz Ali, the exiled Bangladeshi writer, had lost his voice in more ways than one. Riot police in Bangladesh had shot him in the throat during a protest, leaving him unable to speak. When he arrived in England seeking both medical treatment and political freedom, he felt deprived of an identity because he had lost his mother tongue and felt invisible. Yet in 2013, Mahfuz won the prestigious Geoffrey Dearmer Prize and in 2014 Seren brought out his first poetry collection Midnight, Dhaka.
TFP: EWI publishes chapbooks from the Mentoring and Translation Project and also the magazine Exiled Ink. To what extent have your experiences as the child of refugees who escaped from Nazi Germany informed your work with refugee and immigrant writers?
JL: Fundamentally, my refugee roots permeate my being. The memory of loss is my history and, arguably, I developed a politicised identity and the desire to right wrongs through growing up hearing about injustice and loss. It was my visceral feelings of outsiderness and difference as the daughter of refugees that drew me to establish the organisation and to empathise with the refugees of today. Broad similarities can be drawn between some of the experiences and sensibilities of refugees from the Nazis and those of contemporary refugees.
TFP: You have edited five anthologies of exile literature yourself – tell me a bit about them. What’s your connection with Five Leaves?
JL: I have no particular connection with Five Leaves but literature by exiled writers was one of the publisher’s specialist interest areas. I was extremely fortunate that Five Leaves was enthused about the first anthology and then the subsequent ones. The Bend in the Road: Refugees Writing (1997) was the first anthology published by Five Leaves. In it, recent refugees describe their lives in fiction, poetry and memories. Most of the contributors are well-known in their countries of origin. The book also includes an outline of the political history and literary tradition of the countries covered.
Next came Crossing the Border: Exiled Women’s Writing (Five Leaves, 2002). Women and children make up 80% of the world’s refugee population, yet their voices are seldom heard. In the anthology women writers tell their stories. All the women are refugees or are living in exile. In addition, the book includes articles on women’s lives and on women’s writing in each of the countries covered.
The Silver Throat of the Moon: Writing in Exile (Five Leaves, 2005) includes poetry and prose from writers originating in countries as diverse as Algeria and Zimbabwe, Somalia and Iran, Kurdistan and Afghanistan. Some authors are now well known internationally for their writing in English while others are appreciated internationally but fairly new to readers of English.
If Salt has Memory: Contemporary Jewish Exiled Writing (Five Leaves, 2008) explores exile in the modern Jewish world. The book is not directly connected to the Holocaust, but reflects another layer of Jewish exile among those who had to leave their home for political or literary reasons. In many cases, however, the book gives voices to those who had to leave in the face of ethnic cleansing.
Fundamentally, my refugee roots permeate my being. The memory of loss is my history and, arguably, I developed a politicised identity and the desire to right wrongs through growing up hearing about injustice and loss
Finally, Resistance: Voices of Exiled Writers (Palewell, 2020) celebrated 20 years of Exiled Writers Ink. The book brings together the literary work of refugee writers and political activists with diverse backgrounds ranging from the Syrian war to the Black Lives Matter movement. It comprises one chapter for each of the twenty years and each chapter represents an aspect of our literary activism work in the context of individual and collective resistance against the abuse of human rights. At the centre of resistance is an over-arching commitment to social justice, equality and political freedom. This work embraces an individual and collective experience of literary activism in our contemporary world. To be an exiled writer is to use writing as a tool to speak out against continuing injustice and abuse in the country of origin. With this courage comes risk, even in exile.
TFP: Tell me a bit about your own debut poetry collection ‘The Search’.
JL: It’s called The Search because I try to make sense of the past and to discover my true self and, in fact, the opening poem of the collection is called ‘Where do you Really Come From’. My parents were German Jewish refugees who fled Nazi Germany for Britain where they met. My father had been imprisoned in Buchenwald concentration camp. Eventually my parents learned that they were the only survivors of their respective family but did not speak to me of their trauma, although there were photographs of their murdered relatives in our living room. However, I chose not to ask questions and, as an adult broaching the subject with my mother, it was clear that it was a no-go zone.
Clutching at pasts I never knew, over many years I have conducted research, discovering more about my parents lives pre-war and under the Nazis, as well as searching for mythical family places and in the process writing poetry to express my feelings and experiences in search of lost relatives, my roots in another land and myself. As a child born in Britain I felt a strange mix of identities – German, Jewish, English – with the German one predominating as I was growing up. Awareness of being Jewish was something that came late to me in my consciousness. As I am aware that my poetry book may well be read by those with little information about Jewish identity, I include explanations of terms such as Wailing Wall, Shavuot, etc.
My visceral feelings of outsiderness and difference have caused me to empathise with the marginalised of society, particularly asylum seekers and refugees and my poetry reveals a concern with outsiders and victims such as the Herero tribe, Calais migrants, the Uyghurs and others. Yet I am also compelled to confront current tensions arising from the diverse facets of my identity particularly the association of Jews with Israel which can result in anti-Semitism. Engaged in the attempt to resist negative representations projected onto myself, I struggle to define herself and some of the poems speak to to each other almost in a contradiction in attitude representing the complexity of identity.
TFP: How does it feel to be shortlisted for the Michael Marks Publishers Award?
JL: It was a welcome surprise and represented recognition by the mainstream literary world of exiled writers and of the work we do.
Photograph of Kabul Street Art by Kabir Mokamel