An Interview with Nazneen Ahmed, Writer in Residence at Southampton City Libraries, by Sophie Jones

Nazneen Ahmed was this year’s Writer in Residence at the Central Library, and the only one of the three writers to be a Southampton native. Ahmed uses Southampton’s Central Library often, and being a local resident and writer has meant that she knew the library’s “benefits and its challenges,” and could adapt her residency to them. I was lucky enough to be able to talk to her about her experience, and what she has achieved, during her year as the Southampton Library Writer in Residence.

“A writing group that used the archives as writing prompts, and an embroidery group that would stitch pieces that would celebrate lines from their favourite books.”

Nazneen’s proposal for the residency was to “add more to the life of library in terms of community groups.” This initial idea developed into the So:Write Stories and So:Write:Sew programmes. So: Write Stories used the library archives as prompts for creative writing, something she describes as a dialogue, full of “unpredictability, the notion of dialogue and interactivity [was] really important. I wanted it to be about engaging people and about giving the community the opportunity to learn about the city’s archives themselves.” As a historian of migration in the University College London’s geography department, Nazneen naturally brought “a strong migration focus” to the project, and she had hoped that this would help to “engage quite a diverse audience.” Although the attendees were “predominantly white English, middle-class, retired” locals, this served only to confirm her belief that “the stories of migrants are really all our stories,” and the “stories of our city.”

Nazneen’s work with the So:Write:Sew embroidery group was celebrated with an exhibition earlier this year, and there will be an anthology launch for the So:Write Stories group at our So:To Speak 2018 Festival on 3rd November. “That’s going to be brilliant,” Ahmed adds. “It’s going to be incredibly rewarding for them to see their wonderful and incredibly moving work in print,” especially as many of them, “like me”, says Ahmed, “had never called themselves writers before this year.” But the So:Write Stories project will not be stopping there. “I was fortunate enough to gain council funding from their Family Learning unit to continue my writing project for another year,and that’s brilliant because they’re really passionate and really keen to do a lot more and discover a lot more.”

In addition to these two main groups, Nazneen “ended up doing quite a few other things,” including animal tea party-themed story and craft sessions for children across Southampton’s libraries. As she explains on her blog, she launched these sessions to ensure that the libraries are “a positive, safe space for children,” so that reading becomes “fun and positive […] by extension.” One of the books used in the storytime sessions was Judith Kerr’s beloved The Tiger Who Came to Tea, a childhood favourite of Ahmed’s due to her Bengali heritage, which she shares with the Tiger. In her blog, she explains that putting this book into a public setting highlighted the “gendering” of the story, and the “out of place-ness” of the tiger, as he “doesn’t exactly follow British codes of hospitality” by eating “EVERYTHING” in the house. This inspired Ahmed’s response, The Tigress’ Invitation to Tea, an updated story where the mother of Kerr’s Tiger invites Sophie and her mother over for tea as an apology for her son’s behaviour. The tea served by the Tigress is inspired by the South Asian ‘nasta’, “where guests are almost force-fed everything until they can barely move.” The story is charming, with an important message of cultural acceptance, and is available in full on her blog.

The sessions also highlighted the “fluid and flexible space” provided by libraries. “Some people just come into the library as a warm place to be, because a cafe would cost you money and in an art space you’re kind of expected to move along. I’ve done workshops for children, crafting workshops, where the parents hadn’t even anticipated that their child would be doing a creative activity that day, and they might also get involved. I think it’s a really great place to do community projects from because there’s always that extra opportunity to get people involved that hadn’t always come with that in mind.”

 

“It is wonderful what happens when you simply provide a safe, intimate space in which to talk and to share stories.”

 

“I learned a lot, and gained a lot of confidence, through my residency,” Ahmed continues. “I think the ability to say that you’re the write in residence at the library […] was a real privilege, and it made people know who I was in the city. There are lots of things that have come out of that that I’m working on that I’m really excited about.” For example, Ahmed reveals that she has been working with “a few groups and organisations” for the Mayflower 400 project, which will be held in 2020 in honour of the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower voyage. “The interest in it for me, personally, is it’s just another symbol of what our city is and has been for a very, very, very long time, which is the gateway to the world. We have layers and layers of migrant history here,” which she has been exploring through the Hampshire archives, discovering histories of Southampton such as “the history of three Jewish business women in the medieval period,” or “stories of West Indian seafarers settling in Southampton, and marrying, and having families in the Victorian period.”

“It’s such a rich part of our city’s heritage and identity, but perhaps it hasn’t always been recognised. It’s really important to be constantly uncovering those stories and celebrating them and sharing them and recognizing them as our stories, of our city.”

To celebrate Southampton’s history with Ahmed and her So:Write Stories writing group, come along to the anthology launch – tickets are available here for the event on Sunday 4th November! You can also read Ahmed’s blog of her year as the libraries’ Writer in Residence here, and our profiles of the two other Southampton Writers in Residence here, and here.