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Stories Of Migration

Telling stories and creating connections through textile art

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

My family history is criss-crossed with journeys of migration — to and from Nigeria, America, Armenia, Mexico, Iraq, Lebanon and England. And that’s only going back two generations. As a child I was uprooted by war and moved with my immediate family to England, so you could say that I have a personal interest in migration and displacement.

It was purely serendipitous, however, that last year I was asked to become involved in a project that centred around exactly such experiences. Traces: Stories of Migration was set up by the artist Lucy Orta to look at migration in the context of textiles and the East End’s rag-trade history. During several series of workshops over many months, participants with a personal or family history of migration would learn textile skills, then go on to produce their own ‘story cloth’ — a crafted piece that tells the story of their particular journey. This experience might be set out as a visual narrative, or as a more abstract or symbolic representation of memories and feelings.

Let me be blunt. My own needlework skills stretch as far as sewing on a button. Any lengthier encounter with needle and thread and I emerge embittered, bleeding and muttering darkly. Thus, my role in the project was not under any circumstance to teach textile craft. Rather, as a storyteller, I was there to question, listen, encourage, and help shape each individual’s experience of migration into a narrative form. What did the participant want to include or exclude? What was important? How could their experiences be best presented? Some stories were joyful and others upsetting, but what I witnessed loud and clear was the power of story to make sense of things, and even further, to heal.

The project attracted great interest, and there were seventy-seven participants, each of whom had a unique background and story. Yet many of these migration tales rang a bell with my own memories of leaving Lebanon and arriving in the UK, and reminded me what an important role stories played in my ability to adapt to a new life. I’ve always been a keen reader, but when I arrived in England aged ten, books were a key means of familiarising myself with a new language and understanding a new culture. They were a way of integrating; of establishing roots and identity.

Writing achieves much the same thing. Thinking about an experience and giving it shape and meaning are the bread and butter of being a novelist, but during the Traces project I also began to consider how the act of creating itself, whether through textile or words, can give us a clearer idea of our own ‘myth’ or story. Who are we? Where do we come from? Is our identity – including our cultural identity – a fixed thing, or is it fluid and subject to change?

‘Can it be that we’re all exiles?’ Roberto Bolaño asks in his essay ‘Exiles’ in the New York Review of Books (2011). ‘Is it possible that all of us are wandering strange lands?’ Perhaps there’s something in the act of creating art that is aligned to such feelings. The writer must inhabit different identities, different countries, different spaces. They must understand what it is to walk in someone else’s shoes, do what they do, feel what they feel. It is making a connection with people who lead different lives to your own. By telling stories, we begin to understand who we are in relation to others.

I witnessed such connections between participants in the Traces workshops. The act of thinking through their stories and giving them narrative shape created new threads of communication. One person would say something that reminded someone else of a parallel experience. ‘Something similar happened to me.’ The crafting that took place in the workshops – sewing, embroidery, crochet, beadwork, appliqué and so on – became a language that united people. ‘This reminds me of a stitch my grandmother used to do.’ ‘Yes, we have the same technique back home, but we call it something different.’

The act of crafting in textile resonates down the generations. Some of the participants worked using stitches taught to them by their mothers and grandmothers, and recreated regional patterns that had been embroidered by their great-grandmothers. Stitching was a way of passing on information about culture and tradition to a new generation, as well as to a wider circle of people. In this context, it felt appropriate to take the slow road and stitch by hand while talking and sharing knowledge in a friendly environment.

What was going on here echoed the process of writing a novel: the way that thinking through a story yields new ideas; how, in creating a narrative, you realise that certain events are linked to other events; that this scene is more important than you thought it was, and that one less so. You gather information, make discoveries, have insights, join the dots. And then – hopefully – you share the thing you’ve made.

Being exposed to so many unique but interconnected narratives was inspiring, and watching participants find new ways of expressing themselves through textile art made me want to try out something new too. I’ve written poetry in fits and starts over the last few years, but not seriously or with any intent, yet there was something about the nature of this particular project that lent itself to the poetic form. Perhaps it was to do with the act of stitching — making purposeful, concise marks, slowly and deliberately, by hand. Or the fact that stitching is used to repair; to close a distance and draw separate fragments together.

As soon as I made the decision, it felt right, and with the participants’ permission, I set to work. Some poems I wrote were based on an event that I’d been told about, while others grew out of a single word, a feeling or an image. The resulting collection grew as a single thing made up of separate parts, like a quilted blanket.

It was lots of fun to produce art alongside other creatives too; to work independently but in tandem with others and be inspired by the same root ideas. The artist leading the project made textile portraits of the participants that, like my poems, captured something unique about each individual. The ‘story cloths’ that the participants themselves produced are equally astonishing. There are depictions of flowers and foods, festivals and landscapes from other countries, but there are also symbolic images of yearning, and shapes and patterns that hark back to childhood memories. Each cloth is personal but also speaks to a more universal experience.

Because belonging isn’t clear-cut, that much is clear. But telling your story, as I saw in this project, is linked in a very fundamental way to a sense of self-esteem and self-worth. It can create community, a place where people feel accepted, and such spaces are becoming ever more important.

I’ve come away from the Traces project with renewed faith in what the written word can do, as well as a new enthusiasm for co-creating — for being inspired along with others, and pushing the boundaries of my skills to shine a light on stories that need to be told.

Nathalie Abi-Ezzi is the author of the novels A Girl Made of Dust and Paper Sparrows. Her poetry collection, Needle Around Her Neck, was inspired by the Traces project. The exhibition Traces: Stories of Migration is on at the Nunnery Gallery, London, until 27 August 2023.

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