When I read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 my mind immediately begins to break it apart. Having completed an Undergraduate degree in English Literature my first thoughts are of the sonnets historical context: What edition of the sonnet is this? Who is this sonnet addressed to according to the latest scholarly thought? How can I read Sonnet 18 in context of its surrounding sonnets? How does the iambic pentameter stress certain syllables, and what does that mean? Why did he use the word ‘temperate’? I am academically programmed to ask these questions. However, it wasn’t until meeting with Shirin that I realised I’d forgotten the most important question of all – how does Sonnet 18 make me feel; as a stand-alone work of art how does it communicate with me?
Shirin’s project ‘Listening Voices, Telling Stories in St Mary’s Community Centre’ had this principle at its heart. Through literature and poetry Shirin’s workshops aimed to give voiceless women a platform to tell their own stories. Shirin believes stories create communities. They create vision. Poetry as one of the oldest forms of storytelling in the world provides a literary ‘space’ for communication and connection. The ambiguity of poetry also helps to develop critical thinking to see the world from different perspectives. Shirin explained to me that she wanted to explore the way poetry could create an imaginative ‘engagement’ with ‘communities’ which could lead to mutual transformative relationship and dialogue across differences. What came about from this investigation was truly special.
Shirin started the workshops looking at relevant female poets from the women’s own countries of origin such as Syria, Pakistan, Iran, China, Kurdistan and Romania. The women read the poems and were then left to discuss the poetry with no formal structure to interpret it. This had an emergent effect in which stories of all kinds were triggered. Some were every day, some deeply profound. These meetings allowed the women to tell their own stories in their own voices. The project helped create a real community of women, from drastically different backgrounds and religious beliefs. However, Shirin also stressed how important a symbolic ‘imagined’ community with literature as its focal point is. This symbolic community is as important and powerful as the physical one; as literature and poetry in particular act as another ‘I’ that allows the women to connect, experience different ways of seeing, engage their own narrative voices and become their own storytellers. Poetry presented missing tools – concepts, emotions, images, metaphors and vocabularies – which are not usually provided in ESOL-based texts and pedagogies. It helped connect the group and generated trust and friendship.
Why is this so important I asked Shirin:
Shirin described the need of the ‘Listening Voices, Telling Stories’ project by highlighting that in many of the women’s life’s there has been a dramatic interruption and displacement in their stories that has been appropriated by another force: war, marriage, violence, religion, mental illness, patriarchy and an unequal system of education to name a few. Through literature, Shirin’s project aimed to ‘interrupt the interruptions’ and create a space in which the woman is able to retell her own story and break the cycle of seeing herself and her place as a collection of deficits. Storying their own lives, the women are able to acknowledge their individual power to vocalise, oppose logocentric ideologies and creatively reconstruct the narratives of their lives. Shirin when I ask her to define what the project meant to her says that abstract words ( empowerment, liberation, transformation, etc.) she has to describe the project inevitably become clichéd the moment they are spoken. Shirin rather speaks of how profound it is to tell a new concrete story that gives voice to displaced identities (with no affiliation to any ‘community’) in their invisible daily struggle to belong and challenge imposed images and stigmas. Shirin interestingly uses the word ‘truth’. She highlights that many of the woman struggle against a ‘naturalised truth’ and she seeks to understand what truths will be revealed when a woman is able to denaturalise that ‘truth’ and understand what is her own unique truth and what truths are imposed or layered upon them.
(Above is a display made by Chris, one of the volunteers at the Rotherham Project)
Shirin then goes on to say that the project’s meaning to her isn’t purely academic. Not only is Shirin an observer and a researcher that is critically involved in an academic sense, she is also vitally a participant. She described the St. Mary’s course as some of the most precious moments of her life. Crucially, Shirin is engaged with breaching the gap between the academic thinker and the unheard storyteller. Part of her ‘engagement’ with the project is seeing herself as equal to the participants.
Shirin believes that literature when allowed to be breath without reducing it to certain theoretical frameworks can create a genuine human experience that ‘goes to the bones of a person’. Shirin in the project in St Mary’s didn’t shy away from introducing not only culturally relevant poets to be discussed but also canonical heavyweights such as Shakespeare. In this way Shirin was demonstrating that even Shakespeare (one of the most institutionalised writers ever to live) should and can be appreciated for his inherent art. Shirin told me that: ‘While critical theory helped me to engender the articulation of suppressed voices and the formation of concepts such as Otherness, my aim was not to impose or explicate theories (Postcolonialism, for example). My critical stance went beyond confronting the Western canon as a mechanism of imperial power. It sounds simplistic and perhaps clichéd to apply postcolonial theory on texts which are categorized as the canonical tradition of the ‘dead, white, European male authors.’ Such reductive modes of reading increase the risk of relying, yet again, on another form of a colonizing model. In the project, the women were not bombarded with contextual and critical theory to supplement the text. Instead, they were encouraged to develop critical thinking by listening to other voices and connecting with the text which remained open to different interpretations. The result was wonderful and unexpected; the women spoke of cultural taboos in their love stories, wrote their own sophisticated poems in English for the first time, and enjoyed the artistic beauty of a Shakespearean sonnet
When asked about the challenges of the project one of the main things Shirin highlighted was the methodology of a ‘safe place’. When first bringing together a group of women from very different backgrounds and conflicting belief systems, how can we define safety and how can we reassure and balance freedom of speech with a fundamental respect for difference? Shirin highlighted that such a ‘safe place’ could not be a comfort zone. Each individual should be equally heard and have the equal opportunity to speak. She then went on to describe that a safe space does not necessarily mean ‘safe-thinking’. The St Mary’s project was not only about creating a safe place for women to meet in, but a space to ask questions about ourselves and the world that surrounds us.
Looking towards the future Shirin is currently contributing towards a book named ‘Re-imagining Rotherham’ that will be a collaborative hybrid work including different voices to capture the spirit of the project in Rotherham. So what did Sonnet 18 make me feel when I read it for the first time without tearing it to bits and piecing it back together again? It made me feel safe; it reminded me that although time keeps shifting past me, it is a fair passing in which people still love the same way and fear about the same things. It made me feel part of a universal community, which oddly, is exactly what Shirin has been working towards in her projects.
‘Listening Voices and Telling Stories’ (a part of the AHRC/ESRC Connected Communities programme) started as a collaborative research project between academic staff from the University of Sheffield (professor Kate Pahl and Dr Shirin Teifouri) and a group of women from different ethnic backgrounds in Rotherham. The initial phase of this project won funding from Engaged Curriculum (University of Sheffield) to run a new project, led by Shirin, in collaboration with St Mary’s Community Centre in Sheffield, and a group of immigrant women from different countries. If you would like to learn more about Shirin and the projects mentioned in this feature, here are some useful links: