Familiar Strangers: Being Human Festival, November 2016

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This day of creative exchanges at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery explored how in multicultural communities we translate and transact between languages when we express our experiences and emotions and listen to the stories others tell. Addressing the ‘Hope and Fear‘ theme of the Being Human Festival of the Humanities, the idea of ‘Familiar Strangers’ reminded us of how we might feel uncertain, even fearful, about encounters with different people, languages, places and practices, but might also feel the excitement and the hope of making new connections and recognizing our own experience in that of others. 

In the morning, we heard performances and readings from a multilingual group of Birmingham-based writers: ‘Femi Abidogun, Kristina Gavran, Pascale Presumey, Shirin Ramzanali Fazel, Farideh Valigholizadeh and Ahmed Magare. Listen again below to some of the readings in full from the day:



An afternoon drop-in workshop invited the audience to bring the words they each associate with feelings of hope and fear. We saw different approaches to collaborative writing emerge as groups shared their words and ideas to produce together short pieces of writing. Watch clips from the morning performance and afternoon workshop in the video below (produced by Linde Luijnenburg):


Thanks so much to the Ikon Gallery, the writers and the participants who took part in this exciting and inspiring day of creative exchanges.

Organised by Dr Jenny Burns and Dr Naomi Wells, from the Transnationalizing Modern Languages project





We are really grateful to ‘Femi and Pascale, who have allowed us to share here their initial ideas related to the theme of ‘Home’ from the last workshop. In the few minutes of writing time we had at the end of the workshop, ‘Femi and Pascale responded to the objects that participants had brought; objects that represented to them an idea of home. It was fascinating and rewarding to see the start of these writing processes which are captured in these notes. 

The notes also inspired us to start thinking about how we write, who we write for and our experiences of writing in different languages. On that subject, we’ll be thinking and talking more about the following questions as we go into our final workshop next Wednesday:

When is writing intimate and private and when is it for sharing?

What happens to the feelings or experiences we write about when we hear others respond to them?

How do we choose our words and forms of expression and from which languages and traditions?

How does writing in different languages change how we write and the subjects we write about?

Wings by Shirin Ramzanali Fazel

Thanks to Shirin for allowing us to share her piece, ‘Wings’, in relation to the theme of ‘Home’. Do let us know what you think by leaving a comment below.


I lost the memory of my birthplace

Irreplaceable taste of honey

From her loving hand

Whispers of tales and lullabies


I watch an old flag hanging on the wall

Faded photos in cheap wooden frames

I carry my rainbow feathers

Like an exotic bird


I fly over monotonous cities

Polluted lakes

Melting icebergs

Burning forest


I hear loud voices

Of hatred


And racist



I pray for love


And peace for

All the other

Birds with broken wings

Workshop 5: Homes, Wednesday 18th May

Our sense of home may be attached to a house, village, city, landscape, region, nation, or culture. Home might also be embodied by a specific person or network of the relationships, by a language, accent or sound, by smells or flavours, by habits and values, by emotions, or by an object. Is home always the place of our birth or do we each create new homes for ourselves? Does home move? When and why do we run away from home? When and why do we go back?


For this workshop, participants were asked to select an object that represents in some way a link with the idea of ‘home’: perhaps a very personal object, related to our own home, and taken to different ‘homes’, or a domestic or practical item that is more generally associated with the idea of ‘home’.

We spent time talking about our choices, and it seemed that all the objects selected for the workshop had their own intriguing and captivating stories! We’ll publish some of the written responses online shortly, but for now we’ve included some photos below of the objects people brought along.

If you would like to do this exercise in your own time, you could also send on a photo or short description of the object you choose. Alternatively, you might like to select one of the objects photographed as inspiration for your own writing. We’d love to read any additional responses so please share any writing you develop in relation to the theme, whether it’s a description of an object, a short story, poetry, or something else…

Workshop 4: Relations, Wednesday 27th April

Through our relations with others we play different roles, sometimes the rebellious son or daughter and at other times the worried parent or friend. Life in a new place becomes more familiar as we form friendships. Parents brought up in other languages and places may share these experiences with their children, bringing familiarity to their new homes. How do we build connections across differences in age, culture, or language? And how do these relationships change our feelings of belonging to new and old places?

Our discussion of relations centred around how the relationships we form are linked to our own sense of identity. We began by sharing some writing in response to the previous session, and then tried to condense a personal relationship into just one word: ‘control’ for example, ‘communication’, ‘growing’, or ‘nose’ (curious? We are too!). Using Kristina’s creative re-invention of the familiar fairytale of Hansel and Gretel (published online here) as inspiration, we then got down to some writing and invented or inverted familiar stories and fairytales. From re-sewing lost shadows to ‘blind’ love, the responses were really inspiring – poetic, poignant, humorous, and covering a range of thought-provoking themes from finding a partner to ageing. We can’t wait to publish them! Even if you weren’t able to make it, we’ve included details of the exercise below, so if you’d like to have a go in your own time, please do send on any responses you have.

20 – 30 min Writing Exercise

  • Choose one word to represent a relationship that is important to you.
  • Think of a fairytale or story that you know well, from any language or culture.
  • Re-invent the story to portray the person/people and relationships you have chosen. You might want to use the word you have identified as a starting point. You could either rewrite the whole story, or focus on a specific element, and it could be poetry, prose – or anything you like!

We look forward to reading your ideas!

In the meantime, as always, please feel free to share any thoughts on the theme below, and thanks again to those who were able to make it to the evening!

Workshop 3: Beginnings and Endings, Wednesday 23rd March

A journey often means the beginning of new experiences but can also mean a change or even end to old ties. As people and places enter our lives and others leave we are often transformed, beginning new stories yet rarely forgetting those which came before. Do we always realise when these changes in our lives take place or do we only see them when looking back? And do beginnings bring excitement for what is to come or perhaps fear for what might be lost?

We approached the theme of our third workshop by sharing three ideas of beginnings and/or endings from our individual perspectives. The birth of a child, the death of a parent, separation from a partner, a move to a different place, not being asked for I.D.; the rich variety of examples of personal interpretations of this title – some making us laugh, others more moving – highlighted the ways in which beginnings and endings come tangled up together. Whether we define something as a ‘beginning’ or an ‘ending’ is often a question of perspective that changes over time.

It was pointed out that the beginnings and endings of the lives of others impact our own sense of identity. The process of grief, for example, involves not only the emotional upset of losing someone, but can shake our own understanding of who we are: ‘am I still a daughter, if my mother is not here?’ Loss emerged as an important idea, but we also discussed the different people deal with loss, and what it can bring – new insights, even wisdom; friends; strength.

Thank you again to those who were able to make it, and please do share any further thoughts or writing you may have on this theme.

Short Story: Grandma

Excited to share the first story on the blog from Kristina G. Do share any comments, responses or reflections below!


Before I tell you this story, you must promise me you will never ever tell my – grandma.

You see, I am a writer, and my uncle is a writer too. And my grandma, or my uncle’s mum, is such an interesting person that you can’t resist using her as a character in your writing. That’s what we writers do. But my grandma was very angry after my uncle published a novel in which she recognised herself and accused him of inventing childhood traumas. So, when many years later I started writing, and used her as a character in my play, she said “No more!“ and both my uncle and me had to promise not to do it again.

But now I am in England and I am writing this story in a language that my grandma can’t understand. She lives in a small village in Croatia, far away. Nevertheless, I want you to promise me you won’t call her or send her a translated version of this story and that this is our little secret.

Promise? Good.

And the story goes…

Once upon a time there was a little village close to the forest. And in that little village there was a house that everybody knew about and that was because, from that particular house, magnificent smells were spreading every day; chocolate cakes, apple pies, vanilla biscuits, almonds and coconut desserts. And in that house, there lived a – witch! A real witch, just like from that story about Hansel and Gretel, but this witch was – my grandma!

Her witchcraft was cooking and her kitchen was a place of magic. Everybody used to call her a witch and I was the one to blame! Now, I don’t even remember the time that I called her one, but my whole family do and they assure me that yes, it really did happen.

Family is a tricky thing. They remember you from the time you were a kid and then, at family gatherings, they tell these once-upon-a-time stories just to make you embarrassed. So, we all know the story of the time my mum was chased by an invisible bear, or that story of when my uncle didn’t want to take icecream because he thought the man in the white coat was a doctor, or that story of when my sister was hiding a hamster in our apartment for weeks.

In the same way, everybody knew the story of how this sweet little granddaughter told her grandma she was a witch.

As I said, I don’t remember the event myself, but I will tell you the way they told me.

But to understand the story, you have to know that my grandma loves cooking. And for her, feeding her family is the purpose of life. Accordingly, she measures how much we love her by the amount of food we put in ourselves. I know, you will say it is a cliche, the loving grandma preparing food for her grandchildren, but very soon you will realise that she is not like other grandmas at all.

So, when I was around four years old and I went to visit her, she prepared me pancakes. But she didn’t prepare just a couple of them like any other grandma – oh no – she woke up early in the morning to bake at least a dozen. When I sat by the table she had put in front of me a plate full of hot pancakes, as well as melted chocolate, strawberry jam, walnuts, orange marmalade…anything she could find in her kitchen.

I really, really wanted to make her happy and proud. So I ate, and I ate and I ate. Until I finished the whole plate. I felt sick, but I felt proud. I only had enough strength to smile at her, my mouth covered with chocolate. But at that moment, she went away and came with another plate full of pancakes. My face changed and through tears I screamed, “You are a witch! You are a witch!”

Every time somebody tells this story, I feel embarrassed.

Grandma’s obsession with food grew and grew as the years passed by.

She had a special notebook in which she would write not just recipes, but also a list of our favourite dishes. So, if you once said you like her meat balls with gnocchi, then that’s exactly what you would get every time you visited. For lunch, she would prepare not just one meal, but at least a dozen. Big plates full of dry meat and cheese, olives, baked papers and pickled cucumbers. Then at least two soups – vegetable cream and chicken with noodles. After that, sarma, which is an especially heavy dish with minced meat in cabbage and tomato sauce. The main course would include at least four varieties of meat and two varieties of fish. And after all that you would think she’d stop, but no, she would bring a plate with fifteen different cakes and biscuits that she had prepared days ahead of our visit.

For my grandma, food was everything, the best thing you can give to people you love.

I will never forget when I had my first play in a professional theatre – my grandma came for the opening night with her little hat and red lipstick. After the performance, everybody was applauding, the whole creative team came to the stage, I was receiving a lot of flower bouquets. And then my grandma came to the stage and gave me a pack wrapped in white paper, but still everybody could recognise the shape – it was a massive, half metre-long sausage!

If you called her, her first question would not be “How are you?”, but “What did you eat?” If you came to visit her, she would not say “Nice to see you,” she would say “Again you lost some weight.“ She would not talk about politics or weather, but always food, food, food.

So, the last time I went to visit her, and we hadn’t seen each other for a really long time, I wanted to tell her all about England and my writing and all the news. But she was constantly in the kitchen, bringing me one dish after another, telling me constantly “Eat, eat more. You lost a lot of weight in England.” I wanted to make her happy but I was stuffed! Finally, when she came with a plate full of pancakes, I got really tired and angry. I shouted at her “Stop! Just stop! Why are you so obsessed with food!?”

She stood there in silence, I could just sense her back in that moment when I told her she was a witch. But back then I was four and it was a cute little story for family gatherings. Now I am an adult and I am shouting at my grandma.

She sat next to me and said “I am too old to be changed. I will tell you something, life is not a fairy tale. Once upon a time, I lived in a village even smaller than this one. And my family was so poor that we only had one real meal per day which was always potatoes and cabbage. There is one dish I never served you, there is one special taste I never want you try. And that is hunger.“

She stood up and went to wash the dishes.

I was sitting there quietly.

I finished my pancake and went to the kitchen to give my grandma a kiss.

Kristina G.

Workshop 2: Heritage, Wednesday 17th February

The idea of heritage creates a connection with a past, a history, a culture or a set of traditions which we might feel that we own or are part of. Heritage is often described as ‘rich’, is seen as something to display and be proud of, and something to pass on to future generations. But are the stories it tells always happy ones? Heritage in a particular time or place might tell a story of suffering, oppression, or pain. What does heritage mean to an individual as well as to a culture or community? What feelings does it provoke?

At our second workshop ‘heritage’ offered a thought-provoking subject for the group to reflect on, with the theme also bringing new members to the group excited to join the conversation.

We began with the idea of universal heritage, thinking first of the buildings or heritage sites across the world but also of the so-called ‘intangible’ heritage, the different stories or songs, for example, which are not physically present but passed on in speech and minds. We shared individual heritage too, thinking of the buildings, people, objects and traditions from our own family histories.

We also recognised the ‘burden’ of heritage, when it becomes something we feel unable to change or question, or something which others force upon us against our will. We talked about the role of writing, with literature’s ability to transform and change how we think about heritage, but also to stereotype and fix our or other’s ideas of heritage.

It was suggested we think about how we might ‘wear heritage lightly’, passing on and maintaining certain aspects or traditions but also allowing them to be transformed and questioned.

Do share any other ideas, questions, comments or creative writing below for the group to read and carry on the great discussion started at the workshop.

Workshop 1: Words and Voices, Wednesday 3rd February

Encounters with different languages and voices are part of our daily lives. Some of us speak different languages at home and work, others hear new and unfamiliar words in the overheard conversations on the bus. A change in feeling, sudden excitement or anger, might change our own voice, perhaps returning us to the words or accents of our childhood home. How and why do we change our language and voices? And how do we feel when we hear new and unfamiliar voices or words?

Our first workshop in the series gave the group the chance to share words which held a special meaning for us or which we enjoyed saying or hearing, as well as words which we disliked or would like to change. The group exchanged words from different languages or regions, and even invented words used at home or with children, explaining the meanings and feelings we attached to those words, as well as the experiences linked to them.

We’ve created this blog to keep a record of these words, to add them to our newly shared experience and perhaps to introduce in our own writing. So please do add your words in the comments to carry on our conversation.

Writing Across Languages and Cultures: Creative Writing Workshops

This series of creative writing workshops will explore how we bridge gaps and move across languages and cultures in our daily lives. Discussing themes such as heritage, relationships and voices, we hope to build up a group of enthusiastic writers keen to explore with us how we respond creatively to living in a multilingual and multicultural environment. Led by Somali-born writer Shirin Ramzanali Fazel and a team of researchers from the University of Warwick, there will also be opportunities to share your work on our project website and in future public events and publications.

Email naomi.wells@warwick.ac.uk to register for the workshops or if you have any questions. As places are limited to 9-10 people at each workshop, we ask you to confirm attendance at each workshop by the Monday before and encourage you to attend at least 3 of the workshops in the series.

Ikon Gallery, 1 Oozells Square, Brindleyplace, Birmingham, B1 2HS

Dates and Times
6.30-8.30pm, Wednesday 3rd February
6.30-8.30pm, Wednesday 17th February
6.30-8.30pm, Wednesday 23rd March
6.30-8.30pm, Wednesday 27th April
6.30-8.30pm, Wednesday 18th May
6.30-8.30pm, Wednesday 22nd June