Reading Rooms Beyond the Walls is a Spirit of Achievement 2012 funded project that began in November 2016. The programme works with young ex-offenders who live with mental health problems compounded by loneliness and social isolation and have become disconnected from their communities and social support structures. In Reading Rooms these young people can have their voices heard in a safe non-judgemental space, develop confidence to share their ideas and opinions and reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness in amongst groups of their peers.
Below are two perspectives of the programme from Aoife Logue (Project Officer) and Susanne Stich (Literary Guide) on the responses to the materials from the young participants and the process of literature selection.
Aoife Logue, Beyond the Walls, Reading Rooms
One group of young men, referred on by Probation Board Northern Ireland, visit the centre on a Wednesday evening and partake in the Reading Rooms. From the outset these participants got involved and invested their time and energy into the sessions. After a number of weeks one particular participant gave notice that he would be moving back to Belfast (where he was originally from) and would no longer be able to attend Reading Rooms. I suggested that we could continue our Reading Rooms in Belfast as I deliver groups on a Monday in the centre of town. A month passed before I was contacted by the Probation Board, Belfast and asked would I reengage with this particular client again. I said yes immediately and organised a time for us to meet to start our Reading Rooms sessions again.
I met him the next Monday and brought a story I was to use with the participants from his old group in Derry – ‘Bullet in the Brain’ by Tobias Wolff (pictured right), and a poem, ‘Conversation with a Survivor’ by Erich Fried. This material was chosen (by our Literary Guide Susanne Stich, compare her comments below) as it worked well with our prison groups due to its immediate entry into the action within the story and it’s hard hitting concepts brought up in both the story and poem.
So far all groups where this material has been used have had a positive response. By positive I mean extremely well received. There is no gradual build up to the storyline and the main protagonist is a bit of a Marmite character. The action starts almost immediately although this is only the catalyst to the main part of the story. The poem has gotten mixed responses, who is the conversation with? Where is this taking place? What has this person ‘survived’? The conversations have been rich and enlightening. The experiences and stories shared by these young people are quite profound.
So how did this particular participant receive the story and poem? Well, not much different from all the rest in truth. However, I feel that what we talked about deserves a particular mention.
This young person began Reading Rooms with a very low opinion of himself and expressed feelings of anxiety in social situations, when meeting new people and anything that would guarantee he had to participate in a group. This time around he made the suggestion to myself and his Probation Officer that he would prefer being in a group now. When asked why he felt this way now, he replied that “it is so much better for me to be involved in something like this, being with others is just better…Like the guy in the story, he chose to push people away and look where it got him. I don’t like all the choices I made but I have come out the other side and want to move on with my life now, find a job and be happy”.
Another story that deserves a mention is ‘Little Sister’ by Anne Enright (pictured below). The poem read with this story was ‘One Sister I have in our House’ by Emily Dickinson, delivered at Simon Community’s Bonds Hill residential unit. A resident’s response to the story stayed with me afterwards, “…oh…this story is just me, it’s all about me, my life. I am this person, especially the bad stuff”. This young person related to the little sister, her own experiences growing up and the choices (both right and wrong) she made. It was incredibly powerful to listen to and have her share this information especially in a group of her peers. We discussed eating disorders, family relationships and breakdown. There was so much there in that one session, a room where people feel safe to share and have their voices heard.
Susanne Stich, Literary Guide, Reading Rooms
The Beyond the Walls project is an exciting new strand to our programme. Regarding the literature we use, it is our aim to give participants the opportunity not only to access and enjoy quality literature in a pressure-free environment, but also to use stories and poems that speak to them personally in a myriad of ways. It is important, though, that the literature doesn’t necessarily refer to the criminal justice system as such, but resonates at another level, raising questions around ethics, emotion, self-worth, decision-making, relationships and communication. With these criteria in mind we select a wide variety of classic and contemporary, international, national and local texts.
Alabama-born Tobias Wolff’s classic short story Bullet in the Brain is a wonderful example of what has worked well in these Reading Rooms so far. The storyline is simple but within the space of less than seven pages one human life is seen in completely new light: An embittered literary critic queues up in a bank mocking everything he sees around him. The man is then shot in the head by bank robbers, and the tone in the story shifts as the reader follows the bullet through his brain, presenting key moments from the life that is about to end in stream of consciousness style. In the process, the reader finds out what the character does and does not remember in his final moments. The writing is powerful and punchy, with great dialogue. Most importantly, though, the story presents a flawed character. Wolff cleverly invites the reader to judge the character right at the start, only to extend another invitation down the line to recalibrate and empathise with the man: “The bullet is already in the brain; it won’t be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet’s tail of memory and hope and talent and love…”
The story was read alongside the poem Conversation with a Survivor by Erich Fried, which also looks into the theme of judgment. Poet, essayist and literary translator Fried was born to Jewish parents in Vienna in 1921. When his father was shot by the Nazis in 1938 he emigrated to England. He didn’t return to his home city until 1962. His easily accessible poetry presents a milestone when it comes to German language responses to fascism. It is read widely to this day and appreciated for its universal appeal, which is anything but simplistic and engages with core issues of history, society and lived democracy. And that’s precisely where it fits with our ‘Beyond the Walls’ strand. Here is the last verse:
‘I do not know
and cannot sit in judgment on you.
Only one thing I know:
Tomorrow none of us will stay alive
We again do nothing.’
Irish writer Anne Enright, who was appointed the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction in 2015 is mostly known for her novels The Gathering and The Green Road, but is equally prolific when it comes to short stories. Her hard-hitting story ‘Little Sister’, which was anthologized in Are We Related? –The New Granta Book of the Family (2010), is told from the perspective of a young woman who lost her younger sister to an eating disorder in the most harrowing fashion. The story talks in graphic detail about the effects of the condition on the sister’s body, mind and behaviour, but also on the family unit. In parallel, the sibling narrator tries to come to some kind of understanding as to why things unfolded the way they did while being conscious at the same time of the futility of her efforts.
Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘One Sister Have I in Our House’, the poem that was read alongside the Enright story, presents another, more lyrical take on sister relationships:
‘She did not sing as we did —
It was a different tune —
Herself to her a music
As Bumble bee of June,’
Like Enright, Dickinson explores the closeness and intimacy of sibling bonds while not shying away from their difficulties and dilemmas either. Considering the uncompromising tone of ‘Little Sister’ (‘So, she died. There is no getting away from something like that. You can’t recover. I didn’t even try.’), the poem offers a softer access point into similar territory.