Survey by Qualaroo

When The Handbag Spoke

In August 2017 Jenny Davis ran a series of creative writing workshops at Borderlands, a charity supporting refugees and asylum seekers. Here she reflects on her experience.

Borderlands, border crossings, transient, ephemeral, we come, we go and like a whisper disappear.  I wished I had done many things. You come prepared, work shop ideas, newly minted, divine creativity. You imagine always. You imagine that people will sit with you, and together like stone masons, we will chip away and discover words, like crumbling stones. Stone masons, alchemists, somehow around that table there would be a process of transformation. You imagine that.

And there is the workshop plan with these carefully plotted exercises, mind maps, spider charts, a box of objects, and poems. Derek Walcott, Midsummer Tobago. I wanted to evoke place. Cross a small border in the imagination. But place is a worrisome troublesome word. Place holds memories. Always it is about not treading too far.

Always stay in the present. That I know now.  The present may be tricky, may hold sadness, but it is now. Here. We're alive. We breathe.  So a poem about 'broad sun- stoned beaches. White heat. Scorched yellow palms' and ends 'Days I have held, days I have lost, days that outgrow, like my daughters, my harbouring arms. ' I forgot about the ache in that. The yearning, the time, and collapsed memory.

The first session. Poems. Noise. People bustling, playing chess. A room awash with visitors. And at my table volunteers and some members. You imagine there would be more. You also don't realise the extent, or the shrinking possibilities of language. Of finding that space, that hinterland, where all our words, can meet. A sign language. So the first exercise became a ritual. Each time, each session. Sometimes the map. The sticker. Where is my place. Where was I  born. Where did I belong. The sticker marks the place. It saves waving hands. It saves explanation. It saves frowns of confusion, when they can't place you. Figure you.  But here's the thing. What was going to be a simple exercise about names. Became Expansive. Symbolic even. Our names on the long strip of paper, and its meaning. And you break down the meaning. And you figure whether you claim it or not. But here's the thing the beauty of that, are the Arabic words, the Amharic, the Kurdish, the Eritrean, the Iranian words. A multi lingual tapestry.  Each session the ritual with our names, and meaning and maybe a poem. But it felt like something intuitive was needed. Something which is about creating your indelible presence, your mark. Your linguistic thumb print.  So out of the tapestry, someone wrote... about each person round that table, so

 we had...

the bringer of good,

the bringer of home,

someone who brings the wellness of sun light,

the light of the moon,

the wisdom of knowing,

the calmness of steady water

the magic of a fairy tale.'


The tapestry of words revealed itself and differing meanings of light also shone through. Someone else carved a poem

'What's in a name? A sheath of light. A revelation? An endless repetition vibrating through a lifetime..' 

And then there was the woman whose name meant a fiery moon. And unlocked a fierce beautiful poem about the moon.

For that short moment of time, we became the Table of Light. And we went to the she moon and back, and we felt the 'wisdom of sun light' and our light vibrating within.

We tried to capture a person on a piece of paper. Images of Frida Kahlo, Amelia Earhart, Grayson Perry's vases, and some.

And so the tapestry unfolded....


An Arabic written poem about the 'she pilot'.

Fly to the high sky

beautiful pilot

don't stop 'flaying'

maybe we will meet same day.'


Frida -

'my eyebrows express my feelings of defiance'


and then...

I can't remember freedom

but deep in my heart

my child remembers

and I yearn

for the days of my childhood

my world was open

all was possible

now come walls.


And I found a meaning for my name. Something I had misconstrued, all these years. My name means 'fair of face'. Always a joke when you have one that is brown. But someone pointed out fair means fare..means My lady is fair. Your Shakespearean, your Petrachan sonnets...of course she was beauty.  And in that room, round that table of light, something shone for me too. I could reclaim my name again....with 'harbouring arms'.

And there was the handbag. The morning  the handbag spoke.  Ruth Fainlight's utterly beautiful poignant, layered poem about her mother's handbag.

What's in an object? Memory, desire, yearning. Her mother's handbag carries her father's letters, which she carried through the war. Much thumbed and read, worn at the edges, read, folded and refolded, and the odour of it. leather and coty powder, which ever since has meant womanliness, and love, anguish and war.'

And a volunteer kindly gives up her handbag so we can try and describe what it is. And everything written in the script, and then phonetically. The poetry of phonetics.

A handbag - 'shanda'

(Somalian/ Arabic) 'janta' ; mother 'oom mee'. old 'kon'. We stumbled, we staggered, and we created a tapestry, again.

Our volunteer gave up the contents of her bag, and people connected, with memory, we treaded gently through the past.

So that in the end...

shanda, janta, the handbag, had a musky smell,


shanda, janta,

my mother, oom mee, smelled of coty powder,

I remember her handkerchief, daik

I remember the biscuits and drink coming home from school,

I remember the keys jingling, the keys jingling,

and mum coming home,

putting her handbag on the table,

keys in coat pocket.

Shanda, janta, oom mee,

recipes, receipts,

a diary,

the smell of pencil shavings,

the feeling of happiness,


she was bringing something nice.

Shanda, janta, oom mee


And then as the tapestry is folded away, and tables are cleared for lunch. I chat to the woman who means Ocean.

And she reads the poem aloud in its entirety, fluently, and she says ...that was my handbag. That was my story.


So I imagined more. The wrong things. I imagined numbers. I dwelt on numbers. Although we've created tapestries, there weren't many people. I was in the Ladies, washing and wringing my hands. I had been moved, bowled over. But was that enough. When the majority of members are happy to chat, drink coffee, mill around us. The great Should was bothering me. And then I got chatting to a Sister, one of the church members, project founder. A beautiful the mention of numbers, she said if we judged everything by that, where would we be. You can't measure worth in numbers. You may be making a difference to that one or two people.  And then I realised I'd been using the wrong measuring stick. It was enough to feel a heart connection. It was enough for people to sit and listen, to take part if they wanted, to wander off, to cast a cursive eye, to shrug, to drink tea, to chatter easily, to have that time to call one's own.

The sister took me around the church. Thank you. She showed me the Lampedusa cross on the wall. A rough, tiny hewn wooden cross, made  by an Italian carpenter from the Island, shorn from the ship wrecked life boats . These crosses have been sent round the world, to other churches, a symbol of loss, and memory.  There were no words.

And then she showed me a wooden carving of a Black African Jesus. And she chattered away. It always seems a little arrogant to create Jesus in a westernized, white blue eyes way, when we want and need to see the divine in our own eyes,  in our own image. Some thing like that.

After that I went home, heart swelling with the stories I heard.

But I can't end without speaking of the poet. he knows who he is. And he is utterly wonderful. At first, we sat at the lunch table and he'd spoken about wanting to do Shakespeare in Arabic. I wondered whether to bring him a speech from Julius Caesar. And as we chatted and ate, suddenly out came the pen, and on a serviette, he wrote.  A poem about the Shakespearean stage, about the tragedy and the comedy, all in one orbit. It is life.

And after he read it, I asked ' could I have it?' and he replied 'why?'

I didn't really know the answer. It's such a knee jerk public funding evaluation feedback response. Someone might want to see what we've done? Justify it in some way. When it shouldn't be about outcome and numbers.

And when he later explained the dangerousness of speaking words, your own words, then you recognise...words can be a matter of life and death. Not to be treated lightly. And not to be given away carelessly. 

So.  I learnt with each week to have a little less expectation, and when that happened, I received far more than I  imagined.


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Wednesday 27 November 2019, 19:00 to 21:00

£15/13 + BF Book

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