By setting down in words
My thoughts, idea, reflection and memories
I can make sense of things and let go,
Through a song, letter, prose or a poem like this
(from “Food for Thought,” by Annalise)
Readings are a fairly commonplace occurrence in a city like Toronto. But the crowd gathered at a downtown Toronto public library has not come together for any ordinary reading. About 60 people mill around, preparing to celebrate the launch of a new magazine and a reading by several of its contributors. The excitement in the room – coming from both the writers and the audience – is palpable.
Called Roots to Branches, the magazine is the product of a 10-week pilot project – a writing group for women at Sistering, an agency that supports homeless, marginalized and low-income women. The creative writing workshop, called Sister Writes, was the brainchild of Toronto author and arts educator Lauren Kirshner, who wanted to find a way to help people in her community develop the tools to tell their own stories.
“The mainstream media says very little about the lived experiences of women facing poverty and mental health issues, and this near silence creates the illusion that these experiences do not exist,” Kirshner says. Roots to Branches “is one small step in filling in the many silenced, unexplored and unrecorded voices in our city.”
Supported by Sistering, the Toronto Arts Council, the Toronto Public Library and the Lawrence Foundation, the pilot was deemed to be such a success that two more groups have been added. Most of the women in the pilot say they will join in the second group. “It’s like a family,” says Emily, a woman in her 50s who came to Canada from an island in the Caribbean and who was the first reader of the evening. “You learn from the people, from their experiences. Taking from that helps you to write more, and more positive.”
“More positive” is a necessity for most, if not all, of the women who pass through Sistering. “The majority of women who come here have suffered some kind of trauma – sexual trauma, violence –or have been marginalized because of their sexuality, their race, a disability, their age,” explains Carol Allain, Sistering’s drop-in services manager. Some of the 2,000 or so women who come through the doors every year have mental health issues or addiction or both. “Writing is very healing for women,” says Allain. “When Lauren approached me, I thought it was something the women would really like, and I knew that Lauren would be able to work with women at different levels and make them feel comfortable.”
At a workshop two weeks before the reading, however, the core group of women – Emily, Mary, BJ, Cerima, Wanda and, later, Maggie – are anything but comfortable. Today, Kirshner is leading them through a dry run, getting them to choose stories from the newspaper and then stand up and read them to the group – slowly, audibly, with emphasis on certain words or pausing to keep the audience hanging on. The women are self-conscious and joke around with one another nervously, but once they actually start taking turns, their critiques are helpful and very supportive.