During winter 2013/14, I taught two series of poetry workshops to young Muslim women in association with Outburst! I also edited Storytellers 1, a collection of the participants’ writings.
The participants and their poetry were brilliant. Here is my preface to the edited collection:
Two series, four sessions each.
Two related thoughts guided this Storytellers series. The first was our relationship to the names that we carried – their meanings and sounds, in languages that contained home. Our names reflect our histories. They shape both our present and our presence, and they hold futures wished-for in love and anticipation of our arrival into the world.
The second guide in the workshop was a quote by Audre Lorde: “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought”. We witness so much on an everyday basis – our poetry narrates our experiences, responses and desires.
Over the course of the sessions, through our own work and the work of other poets, we explored the languages, stories, relationships and geographies that were communicated in our names. We played with the sounds of our names, and met our selves and each other over and over again in the poems shared together.
In Islam, the statement of faith is the shahada, a statement that begins with the clause “ash-hadu” – “I bear witness”. To convert to Islam, the recitation of the shahada has to take place in the presence of witnesses. Witnessing is a fundamental part of our religion, and the import of the act of witnessing is reflected through the responsibilities associated with it.
This Storytellers series asked of the participants: As young Muslim women, what does it mean for a poet to witness? What does it mean to testify? How does a poet find strength in their work and the work of others? How do we take care of ourselves and each other as we take on the responsibilities of bearing witness? The poetry shared was poignant and powerful, the words themselves a testament to the beauty and ferocity of the participants.
These poems are our testimony.”
A very, very special shoutout goes to Charlene Bernasko and Henna Khawja for holding space and for supporting the participants and myself through the workshops.