Sunday, March 23, 2008

Fragments from the Dark, edited by Jeni Williams and Latefa Guemar

So I went to Swansea for the launch of Fragments from the Dark, to which I feel privileged to have contributed with one of the stories in my collection and a piece from a novel in progress. It's an anthology of writings about home and exile, edited by Jeni Williams and Latefa Guemar and produced by Hafan (Haven), the Swansea Bay Asylum Seekers support group. The book includes work from professional women writers either born or settled in Wales, such as Carol Rumens, Trezza Azzopardi and Tessa Hadley, and many moving testimonies from women expelled from many different parts of the world and finding themselves in Wales.

A vast crowd crammed into the Dylan Thomas Centre to hear speakers from refugee support groups, readings and music.
In the week when we learn that in our complacent, supposedly 'post-feminist' society Women's Studies are being dropped from some universities and in which, out of a narrow, middle-class perspective, people have called for an end to the Orange Prize as outdated positive discrimination, the point was strongly made here - most clearly by Lynn Hughes from Oxford Cymru - that asylum issues at any rate are women's issues. 'Women do two-thirds of the world's work and make half the world's food and are more likely than men to be involved in community groups', she pointed out, 'yet are less likely to be decision makers... Domestic violence is still the biggest cause of death in women... The asylum system still does not recognise the differing needs of men and women.' Editor Latefa Guemar asked the gathered crowd to take a moment to think of one of their female members who was being held in detention.

Yet if there were solemn and urgent issues running through the evening, there was also a sense of celebration - celebration that people could come together like this and support each other. And then, unbelievably, we were treated to a banquet such as I have never seen before: food prepared by 20 different cooks from 20 different countries.

The large audience:

The woman in blue at the front, who was sitting next to me (and is avidly reading the book), turned out to be Beth Thomas from the Welsh history museum at St Fagans, and who was there on behalf of contributor Elin Ap Hywel (who edited the Honno anthology Power which includes my story 'Power').

Editors Jeni Williams and Latefa Guemar:

Amani Omer Bakhiet Elawad reads the Arabic version of her poem 'I Journey towards You', and Jeni Williams reads the English version (a translation they made together):

The amazing food:

I was very moved (and very full!) by the time John and I left for our hotel which, though slap-bang in the centre of town, was like one of those old-fashioned country hotels with proper wooden wardrobes and antique lamps and breakfast served in the old-fashioned way, and - fittingly, I guess, for the home town of Dylan Thomas - literary novels on the shelves in the lounge.

Next day we nipped off the M4 and called unannounced on my one remaining relative in the village I come from, my Aunt Peggy, who failed to answer the door right away because she thought we were Jehovah's Witnesses.

So, you could say I went home for the launch of a book about home. But so much has changed. When I was little and lived in that village, there was no motorway and Swansea was a very long way away: we were nestled among the trees and cut off from the world, and I'm ashamed to say we sometimes felt invaded when incomers came down for the day from Cardiff to the beach.

Some things change for the worse, but that evening in Swansea, that sense of connection across borders - so beautifully symbolized in the book's cover image of footprints criss-crossing the sand - showed that some things do change for the better.

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