Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland
by Sibyl Adam
Following the hugely successful SGSAH bibliotherapy training session ‘Getting the Word Out’ on 10th June at University of Edinburgh, interested participants held a networking event in association with GRAMNet on 22nd June. As part of Scottish Refugee Week 2016, the aim of this event was to provide taster exercises of bibliotherapy and provide a space for networking for future collaborative projects. The event was open to anyone with an interest in setting up future projects with bibliotherapy working with refugees and asylum seekers.
Bibliotherapy is a well-known and widely used form of creative reading and writing for positive therapeutic outcomes, useful for anyone interested but often used with groups to support mental health. The GRAMNet event had a good turnout of people from different academic, cultural, and organisational backgrounds. We structured it around different reading and writing exercises with time allocated for reflection. Participants were forewarned that at the end of the event we would have an open, honest discussion about the usefulness of each exercise.
Sarah Stewart started off by explaining the aims of establishing a bibliotherapy network between interested parties in Scotland (particularly Glasgow and Edinburgh). Quoting Larry Butler and Ted Bowman, Sarah defined bibliotherapy as ‘stories and poems [that] invite readers to explore their inner and outer worlds’. She also directed the group to an online bibliotherapy ‘toolkit’ hub.
The group then stood up and got into a circle for a simple introduction exercise, led by Jess Orr. With the help of super-Grover, she led an icebreaker game which saw Grover flying between participants in order to learn each other’s names. We then did individual continuous free writing with the premise ‘I need’. For instance, I wrote ‘I need running’ and then spent the time writing what I needed to be able to run. After this, we went around the group each offering two ‘I needs’, which Sarah quickly assembled into a group poem. This latter exercise was a happy surprise for the group, who commented that it helped give a sense of togetherness. Overall, these exercises gave a deliberately neutral opening into the event, avoiding ‘triggers’ and not asking too much of participants, keeping in mind the way asylum seekers/refugees are habitually demanded to pour out information about their personal experiences.
The next exercise was a discussion led by Ekin Deniz Horzum who summarised a legal essay, ‘We are all Refugees’ by Daniel Warner and then a discussion with the group over the meaning of this premise. Alongside this, Ekin read Warsan Shire’s poem ‘Home’. This exercise was an experiment to see how we could incorporate academic work into bibliotherapy. The article was a source of (respectful) controversy amongst the group. It was agreed that the title could be used alone for fruitful discussion about labelling as it implies, on the one hand, a sense that ‘we are all human’ that can tackle characterisations of refugees as Other, yet on the other hand, has the danger of ignoring the exceptional trauma that comes from the experience of forced displacement.
The group discussed that Warsan Shire’s poem was perhaps too raw (e.g. ‘you only leave home when the sea is safer than the land’) and perhaps providing spaces whereby participants have the agency to approach topics in their own time is a better approach. In order to give a sense of closure to this discussion, Shirley Gillan led a stretching exercise that, as was later noted, really shifted how the group felt and woke people up.
The next exercise was devised by Katy Hastie, and involved us filling in gaps within a poem about a personal object. The logic behind this exercise was that it gives a sense of control to the writer without the pressure of having to write a full poem. A high level of English is not required and a participant could write it with the help of a scribe. The exercise was based on Charles Bukowski’s poem ‘Bluebird’. After filling in the blanks in our own versions, we were welcomed to share it with the group or discuss how we found it. Different objects were chosen including a Tunnock’s teacake, love and a Selkie (a mythical Scottish seal-human). Feedback from this exercise was complex. Someone noted that whilst the poem created a sense of sadness and vulnerability, sharing afterwards dissipated this tension. This poses an issue about how we can devise exercises that are not triggering, but which give a great amount of freedom inline with the therapeutic aims of bibliotherapy. Shirely noted that people tend to self-select and protect themselves anyway.
The final exercise of the event was devised and led by Shirely, where participants suggested some random words (e.g. artichoke, yellow, freedom) and then were given some time to write a story based on one or more of these words. This was an effective finishing exercise as it gave a high level of creative freedom and left participants with a personal piece of writing that they were not required to share with the group. Some people read their stories and the group enjoyed hearing them.
Overall, it was remarked upon that the activities had differing levels of seriousness, and as such when planning bibliotherapy sessions it would be important to have brief physical movement exercises in between each activity. The final group reflection at the end of the event helped us to evaluate what worked and what needed to be re-thought. I felt that participants understood the aims of the event and were inspired and stimulated by the discussions.
What future projects are in the pipeline? There is an initial idea to start up bibliotherapy groups in Glasgow and Edinburgh, possibly through local libraries. This will be developed in time and more information will be circulated. There is also a poetry workshop project planned for Spring 2017 working alongside Scottish refugee/asylum seeker organisations, the planning for which is currently underway by humanities PhD students. If you want to be on the email list for this information, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.