Back in 2010, I would never have predicted that when my friend Brian Greenley was diagnosed with bowel cancer, the letters that I offered to write to him would change both our lives.
In 2009 Brian and I had met on a yoga holiday in India. We got on well, both equally inflexible and neither of us able to do a headstand, but we had little else in common. I was a City career-girl, and Brian had recently taken voluntary redundancy and was thinking of setting up his own gardening business. We met up a couple of times back in the UK, but neither of us would have described ourselves as anything other than acquaintances. In 2010 Brian shared that he had been diagnosed with cancer. Perhaps because I didn’t know what to say, I offered to write letters to cheer him up. Looking back, I’m not sure what possessed me – I was no writer, unless you count that 2nd place prize in a school competition when I was 8. But a promise was a promise!
The letters began and over the next 2 years, as Brian’s cancer developed to stage 4, I kept on writing.
I surprised myself, finding that I cherished the time I sat alone and wrote. It felt good to be doing something for someone else and it removed the feeling of helplessness that friends so often feel when a loved one becomes ill.
My enthusiasm for writing was bolstered by Brian’s response to receiving the letters. He once said: ‘Knowing that someone is caring enough to write, buy a stamp and put the letter in the postbox means so much. Your letters help me to feel reconnected with the real world.’
Brian had plenty of friends and family but still felt isolated during his cancer treatment. I have come to learn that this is common when someone receives a cancer diagnosis; even the most well-meaning friends distance themselves, fearful of what to say and how to say it.
Enthused by my newly discovered passion for writing, I attended an Arvon Starting To Write course and began to understand what it means to want to write. From then on, as for so many who attend Arvon, everything changed. I wanted to write more and learn more. Five years later I had completed a Creative Writing MA, had short stories published, written a novel and become involved with wonderful literary organisations such as Word Factory. Brian’s cancer and the letters had given me not just the gift of writing, but a whole new life.
At the end of 2016 Brian and I were recorded for Radio 4’s The Listening Project. Such was the response to our story, we set up From Me to You, a charity which inspires people to write letters to friends with cancer; keeping them connected at a time when they feel most disconnected. We run letter writing workshops, speak at events and our website www.frommetoyouletters.co.uk hosts writing tips on what to say and how to say it, and shares many inspirational stories from those who have received and sent letters. Recently we have expanded the initiative so that people can also write letters to cancer patients they have never met. The communications range from postcards and notes that say something as simple as ‘keep strong’ to longer letters recounting tales of everyday life; someone wrote recently about the colour yellow at Easter, another about swimming in her local lido as the sun came up and another a poem about the joys of having a back-seat-driver for a wife!
These letters are acts of pure kindness. There is no obligation on the recipient to write back. Brian never responded to any one of my 100 letters and I never expected him to. One of our writers, Melissa Fu, said of her experience, ‘One of the things that appeals to me about writing to someone I don’t know is that I feel like the letter and message goes to the receiver unconditionally. They don’t have to write back, they don’t have to say nice things if they don’t feel like it, they don’t have to worry about my feelings at all. There is something wonderful about an exchange of good will with no strings attached.’
While cancer continues to be an illness which scares not only the person suffering but also those around them, it is wonderful to know that something as simple as a letter can have such a profound effect, both on writer and recipient.
class="post-8855 post type-post status-publish format-standard has-post-thumbnail hentry category-news"Farewell to Saturn:
Spread the Word is pleased to be a supporting partner with poet Ella Frears’s unique writing residency. Over the course of the year-long residency at Royal Holloway University, Ella will create an ambitious series of poems and visual works documenting and responding to the Cassini Mission.
Cassini is the first and only spacecraft to orbit Saturn and has been in space for nearly twenty years. The mission ends September 2017 when Cassini is scheduled to crash into the atmosphere of the planet. The planned destruction of the spacecraft will form a climactic point in the project.
There will be a ‘funeral’ event on the 15 September which will showcase poetic works in progress as well as new collaborations with composers, architects, filmmakers and designers. The funeral will be a farewell to our source of information on Saturn, to Cassini and will form a celebration of exploration both scientific and artistic.
The project is funded by Arts Council England and is partnered with Spread the Word.
Ella Frears has had work published or forthcoming in Poetry London, The Rialto, Poem, The Moth, The Emma Press, Brittle Star, Poems in Which and The Stockholm Review of Literature among others. She was a Jerwood/Arvon Mentee 2016/17 (mentored by Mona Arshi) and was shortlisted for Young Poet Laureate for London 2014. She is a trustee and editor of Magma Poetry and has completed residencies and commissions for Tate Britain, Tate St.Ives, The National Trust, St. Michaels Mount and The Olympic Park. Most recently she was Poet in Residence in Buckler’s Hard, New Forest with SPUD. Her debut pamphlet Passivity, Electricity, Acclivity is forthcoming with Goldsmiths Press (November 2017).
class="post-8809 post type-post status-publish format-standard has-post-thumbnail hentry category-interview category-network-knowledge"Remi-Lyn Browne
Our interview started with JJ’s favourite, carrot cake. He told me about his “3 tier assessment criteria” which he uses to assess all the cakes he eats. There’s more to every writer than books, right? Quite.
So the first criteria was aesthetic, he said. “Because we eat with our eyes?” I agreed. He wasn’t asking me, but I agreed. He was a man that was serious about cake and I, as a woman that is serious about food generally, respect that. He gave my cake an 8 for aesthetics, not bad. The second assessment criterion was texture, “some carrot cakes can be quite dry,” he said, picking up the fork. I wanted the one that I bought to do well by his standards because I buy from this particular shop all the time. I didn’t make it, but I am competitive in an irrational kind of way. He tasted it and said “Remi you might have done something here, where is this from?” I told him Sponges and Cream in Brixton Village. He jokes about moving into the area and gentrifying it some more – which I appreciated in an odd way.
At this point, a woman came into the room to give us a flyer. She said to JJ, “you look like an artist” and she was right, he always does, in the best possible way. Then she said, “I’ve seen your face on Twitter I think.” It’s not hard to miss JJ on Twitter; he galvanises and provokes great conversations and with around 19,000 followers, I’m sure many of us know a couple of people that follow @JJ_Bola. The lady helped me out with my interview, asking him why he’s so humble. JJ replied, as most African children would, “Because my mum would slap me if I behaved in any other way.” Makes sense.
Shouts to the lady for the great conversation. When she left we got back to cake. The last assessment criterion was aftertaste, as in: the taste that said cake leaves in your mouth after you have long swallowed it. He said he had had better than my cake and so gave it a 7; the lack of nuts brought it down. So we got 23 out of 30 and he said he’d pay the shop a visit when he was next in Brixton. Not bad coming from such a seasoned cake man.
When the cake was done, we returned to writing. “Writers aren’t the same as sports stars and don’t get the same validation from society,” he said, “so how can we have the same ego?” JJ thinks it’s better like this, as writers need to be observers; “how can we observe if everyone is always watching and clapping?”
I asked him how he got into writing and he said what I hoped he would, “completely by accident.” He wanted to be a basketball player when he was a kid, so he could be what most working class children hope to be, a millionaire. Though he was an avid reader in primary school, the amount he read dipped in secondary school due to a mixture of reading “no longer being cool”, and there simply not being enough engaging material around him. Then, he found writers like Chinua Achebe and George Orwell and things changed. He loved Animal Farm so much that he put it in his novel.
So, we talk about his newly published novel, No Place To Call Home (NPTCH), published by OWN IT! in June 2017. My burning question was whether the protagonist Jean and his parents were characters that were heavily influenced by JJ’s own family life. That wasn’t the case, he laughs as he tells me that that the only similarity was that his parents are both Congolese and still together. As for Jean, he makes much better decisions than a young JJ did.
For those that haven’t yet started on their copy of NPTCH, JJ writes some of it completely in Lingala without translation. It’s written cleverly so you don’t feel like you’re missing out on anything if, like me, you are aren’t a Lingala speaker. I wondered why JJ had made that choice, “Each writer to their own but I think that you have to give your readers some credit and trust them a little bit to get it. If Jean is walking down the stairs into a room, followed by some Lingala speech, he is probably saying hello.”
The love story between Jean’s parents struck me in the book. Why did you focus in on them much, I asked, “Congolese are romantic people, love is important in Congo for men and women,” he said.
JJ started to write NPTCH in 2015 and he didn’t know whether he would finish it, having written would-be novels before. Literary and film agency Pontas approached him, asking whether he had considered a novel as a project. They asked him whether he could finish by June that year; the rest is history, and the outcome now lives on my bookshelf. “Editing is hard,” he said, and I smiled and nodded because I’m editing my own novel at the moment and learning just how hard it is.
This book is exactly the right thing at exactly the right time. I, like so many people in the Diaspora, needed to read it. I don’t think we have had a story like it for a long time; there’s something so warming about hearing a story that you needed to hear.
It was getting late, so I squeezed one more question in as we packed up: “Does it make you feel sad that your book has to be more than a book? That it has to represent so much more than just being a story, it has to fly the flag for a whole community?” He says, “I wish it could be just a book. For there to be a need for a book that’s classed as representative, there needs to be an underrepresentation in the community that it talks about, and I don’t want that. So it’s a mixed feeling. I’m split. I’m so split.”
Remi-Lyn Browne is a Flight 1000 Associate at Spread the Word. Remi-Lyn is part of the London based creative collective SXWKS and her first poetic work these are the most terrifying thoughts is published under SXWKS publishing. In 2015 she co-founded AZ-MAG, an online publication centring around the experiences of British LGBT BMEs.class="post-8648 post type-post status-publish format-standard has-post-thumbnail hentry category-blogs category-network-knowledge"How I created short story collection
‘Sugar, Sugar – Bitter-sweet Tales of Indian Migrant Workers’ is a composition of ten short stories about the lives of indentured Indians spanning five continents. The stories were based on historical documents from the British Library and the memories of the descendants of Indian sugar workers living in London. They were recruited to work on sugar plantation in a number of British colonies after the emancipation of African slaves led to a shortage of labour.
As a descendent of indentured Indians who went to work in British Guiana, sometime between 1838 and the turn of the century I was already aware of the history of my ancestors. In fact, I had already told my story in a two-part Radio 4 documentary series called ‘Sugar, Saris and Green Bananas’. Its success inspired me to write this collection and extend it to Fiji, Trinidad, South Africa and Mauritius where the Indian diaspora also share this incredible history. As a broadcast journalist I was used to telling stories on the radio. But there is nothing quite like having your words in print.
As I had never written fiction before I decided to apply for funding from Arts Council England to help me build a team of people who could help me with the writing process. I first contacted Eva Lewin, Writer Development Manager at Spread the Word who was the first to support my application. I also enlisted the help of author Jamie Rhodes, who became my writing mentor. Mireille Fauchon, an illustrator came on board and I budgeted for actors who would perform readings at book signings and community events. Meeting publisher, Rosemarie Hudson, of HopeRoad Publishing was the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle.
I submitted my application in July last year and by the end of August received news that I had been successful. My project plan was thorough. Over a six month period I scheduled my writing plan: two weeks to research and write the first draft and a further week to review and rewrite each story followed by a week with the copy-editor and proof-reader. I converted the spare room into an office and stuck photographs, posters, postcards and quotes from key research articles and records on the wall. I was in regular contact with Jamie who helped me with the creative process. He read through my drafts and offered critical advice on how to improve my writing. His input and encouragement helped me through many moments of insecurity about my ability to write creatively. It is true to say that I had several moments where my confidence as a writer was shaken. Jamie helped to restore my faith in myself with practical tips on how to work through those darker moments and push on to the finishing line.
The plan was to release the book to coincide with two major events in 2017: the 70th anniversary of Partition which saw India’s independence and the birth of two new nations, Pakistan and Bangladesh and the 100th anniversary of the end of the indenture programme which saw more than 1.5 million Indians migrate to British colonies around the world. The book was launched on 25 May 2017. Seeing my book in print for the first time, holding it in my hand and flicking through the pages was the moment that it really dawned on me that I had become a writer.
To my delight ‘Sugar, Sugar Bitter-sweet Tales of Indian Migrant Workers’, is proving to be a success. The London Book Fair, the Royal College of Art and the University of London are just some of the events where I have shared my story. On 10 August I will be hosting an event at the British Library which will bring together over two hundred people to share their own stories of indenture. In the coming months I will be holding workshops with other communities hoping to write creative fiction around their own ancestral history. Looking ahead to next year, I have already begun planning my next book. I think it will be another collection of short stories but who knows?’
Lainy will be sharing her writing experience with a series of weekly podcasts beginning on 5 July. You can listen to her story here.
Her workshop dates are:
12 August, 2-4pm at A Tribe Called Doris, Stanford Hall (Lutterworth), Leicestershire, LE17 6DH
16 August, 6:30-9pm at The Chocolate Factory on at 5 Clarendon Rd, Wood Green, London N22 6XJ
22 August, 6:30-9:30pm at The Chocolate Factory on at 5 Clarendon Rd, Wood Green, London N22 6XJ
Further workshop dates will be announced in due course – check out the Sugar, Sugar Facebook page for more details and how to book.
class="post-8343 post type-post status-publish format-standard has-post-thumbnail hentry category-opportunities"TLC Free Reads Scheme 2017-2018
The Literary Consultancy Free Reads Scheme offers talented, low-income writers the opportunity to apply for bursaried (non-fee paying) access to their manuscript assessment service, available for extracts or full manuscripts across fiction, creative non-fiction, short stories, poetry, scripts and screenplays. These are matched to a suitable reader from TLC’s list of 80+ professional editors and writers can expect to receive feedback in the form of a written critique, sent within 4-6 weeks of the application being processed.
The Free Reads scheme particularly welcomes applications from writers belonging to groups currently under-represented in publishing including women writers, disabled writers, BAME writers, and members of the LGBQTA community. TLC are supported by a number of regional partners across the UK and Spread the Word will be processing entries from writers living in London.
You are eligible to enter (via Spread the Word) if you live in London and are on a low-income, meeting one of the following criteria:
If you are a low-income writer but do not meet one of the criteria listed above then please get in touch as we are able to evaluate applicants’ eligibility on a case-by-case basis.
We open for applications on Monday 3 July and the deadline is 5pm on Monday 4 December 2017. Applicants need to submit four documents to enter the scheme:
You can either enter online via Submittable or send your entry via post. The postal address to send your submission to is: Spread the Word (Free Reads), The Albany, Douglas Way, London, SE8 4AG. All postal entries will receive an e-mail receipt.
We will notify all writers of the outcome on the week commencing 15 January 2018.
We have provided a list of FAQs with details on how to submit your entry. Before submitting please check that you:
If you have any additional queries please email Aliya at firstname.lastname@example.org. We look forward to receiving your submission!
class="post-8538 post type-post status-publish format-standard has-post-thumbnail hentry category-news"Spread the Word –
Spread the Word is pleased to once again be a National Portfolio Organisation of Arts Council England for 2018 – 2022. We have received an increase in funding of 18% for the four year period, which will support us to deliver more work and opportunities for writers in London, including the new London Writers Awards which will form a new celebratory and development part of our programme.
Rishi Dastidar, Spread the Word’s Chair of Trustees, says:
“I’m delighted that Arts Council England has chosen to support Spread the Word’s ambitious programme for the next four years. It means we’ll be able to provide more opportunities for London’s writers to develop their careers – and to reach those people who might not have yet dreamt that writing could be a career for them. I’m particularly pleased that we’ll now be able to develop new ways of recognising the talent and success of London’s writers as well.”
Information about Spread the Word’s London Writers Award programme will be announced in early 2018.