Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Your story, your life


What do storytellers have in common with migrants and refugees? I’ve never thought about this question before. Now, after a bit of pondering, I could hazard a few answers. Storytellers, migrants and refugees travel. Sometimes in the case of the storyteller, the travelling is in the mind:  to go the distance of the story to be told, it’s often necessary to imagine other eras, landscapes and people. Often, however, the travelling is for real. Bookings can call storytellers to all kinds of places and, to maintain their livelihoods, they have to make the journeys.  But for migrants and refugees – and it was only last weekend that I clearly recognised that they’re not necessarily the same thing – the travel is essential to keep hold of their own lives. They may have to do it from fear of being killed, sometimes from fear of enforced conscription into fighting wars they do not believe in, often it’s in desperate hope for a better life.

The need for story:

Another strong thing storytellers and migrants have in common is that they’ve got to have a story. Not all storytellers tell personal stories but if they did, we’d see that their own personal story may have unusual features. How they first heard stories themselves, how they developed the idea of earning their living from storytelling, people who’ve told them stories along the way: all such themes might emerge. But for migrants and refugees, it’s almost always going to be true that their personal stories are extraordinary. Probably for most – and almost certainly for refugees – their story is going to be not just unusual but harrowing. What never occurred to me till the end of last week is quite how essential their particular story is to their being able to make a new life.

The occasion:

The occasion was a deeply thought-provoking Symposium at the George Ewart Evans Centre for Storytelling in Cardiff. For me personally, as one of the attendees, the occasion had a very special personal dimension. It felt a bit like coming back to myself, reuniting with a place I haven’t felt able to revisit for a long time due to ill health and the aftermath of it and, in the group of people gathered there, finding any number of old friends whom I haven’t seen for ages.  Central to the pleasure was once again becoming deeply involved with the nature of story among people for whom story is a central part of their lives.

The theme of the Symposium was two sided: Storytelling for Refuge/Storytelling as Refuge. Several workshops on the second side of this theme were given by people talking about how finding a way to tell their personal story became of central concern to them in consequence of severe illness and its after effects. Several workshops on the first side of the theme, storytelling as refuge, dealt with the ways in which refugees have to carefully manage their stories so as to see them into places of safety where they can find a new home.

One crucial aspect of what the refugee has to do – and this, for me, was something new to think about – is to ensure that they get their story in order and keep the details of it the same. Refugees are challenged at every step of their way. At border crossings, in camps and detention centres, they will be quizzed. What country are they from? What are their family circumstances? How and where have they travelled? Where are they aiming to go? One word came up again and again in regard to how refugees need to manage their answers. That word was ‘hone’. Refugees need to hone their story, clarifying and guarding its details and ensuring that what comes across is the honest truth of their situation. On the success of their story depends the crucial question of whether they will be able to gain the necessary permissions and papers that will grant them the right to continue their journey and resettle.

One refugee’s story:

One very likeable young Afghani was part of a workshop I attended that was about the work of Phosphorus Theatre, a theatre group formed of refugees. He arrived in the UK as an unaccompanied minor (in other words aged under 18) after an eight-month-long journey from his home country of Afghanistan. The journey included the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean in a small boat. Because he is able to speak Urdu as well as his own Afghan language, this young man’s assertion that he was from Afghanistan was several times disbelieved by officials. Here in this country it was only finally believed when he was strip-searched and some small Afghani coins were found nestled in a corner of his clothing. He has been in this country now for more than five years. His application to remain here is still not settled. Until it is, he faces the possibility of being thrown out.

Telling, hearing:

What I heard during the Symposium last Friday and Saturday made me realise more than ever the profound importance of personal stories and the need for people to be able to hear them as well as to be able to tell them. We may be roused to anger, to tears or to action when we really hear what someone has been through. Whatever the result, it changes us. By the end of last Saturday, I felt a considerably deepened awareness of an issue that, as was pointed out on several occasions, is not going to go away. The world is changing. People are on the move. The implications can’t simply be ignored. ‘Stop immigration’ is not an answer. There’s more to the issue than that.

PS: Thinking about photos to put in this blog today made me realise how lucky I am to be able frequently to return to my own land. Down in Pembrokeshire for a few days, my camera accompanied me on a short walk in the countryside yesterday afternoon.

2 Responses to “Storytelling Starters ~ Your story, your life”

  1. Karen Says:

    Thanks for this week’s post, Mary. I liked the photos of flowers growing in the countryside because it reminded me that whereas some flowers are planted as bulbs in situ, others arise from seeds carried to that place on the wind. All growing side by side and beautifully enriching the landscape.

  2. Mary Medlicott Says:

    Karen, right now the flowers in my garden are lovely too. Spring is always this garden’s best time. Maybe you’ll come and see it?

Leave a Reply