When I applied for the Bridport Prize Black Writer Residency, I was excited about the prospect of spending an entire week in the countryside, with a focus on nothing but my writing.
At the time it seemed audacious for me to consider myself a writer much less be titled a Writer-in-Residence. When I received the email informing me that I had been selected, it felt surreal.
On my first day, I find myself meandering through the Natural Dorset Gallery. I listen to some of Louisa Adjoa Parker’s beautiful poem about Dorset which captures the dichotomy of being British from the South and having black Ghanian heritage. It is something that resonates; this tug and pull between heritage, identity and belonging that exists within many black British individuals like myself. Later that morning, I attend a talk about Elizabeth Frink and her fascinating work. Through her sculptures, Frink was able to profoundly capture varied elements of the human experience: our vulnerability, our failures, our triumphs, our interdependence on other species, our grief, our pain, our deceit, our violence; our strength. This first encounter with her work makes me think about the inevitable connection between visual artwork and writing- that they both come from the same place but are very different forms of expressing the same ideas and that just like sculpting, I need to find a way to plug into my ideas and find a unique way of communicating them, using the tools available to me.
On my second day, I spend a portion of the morning perusing through the People’s Dorset gallery. There is a small portion of Dorset’s connection to the slave trade and a replica of a man of African descent’s skull. I do not know how I feel about it yet. I am glad that there is some acknowledgement of this part of Dorset’s history. It also helps to know that there are ways in which are our histories are linked- that in finding myself here, I have found a way in which our histories are linked. I grew up in a place called Dorsetshire Hill on the Caribbean Island of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. It overlooks the sea and the capital’s harbour. It is a place that was named after the hills of Dorset, a remnant of the island’s colonial past and one of the reasons I am attracted to Dorset. I can see so many parallels between the landscapes in my homeland and the landscapes here, and the ways in which the people are connected to the land, unlike the city of Birmingham where I currently reside. I feel at home in landscapes like these although outwardly it may not always appear so.
That day, I meet Dr.Anjana Khatwa a brilliant Earth Scientist also venturing on her own writing journey, merging her life experiences with her passion for rocks. We marvel at how our lives are very much interconnected with the earth—that we often lose touch of this interconnectedness, but our stories are very much a part of the geological strata of the earth.
Later that day, I meet PJ Harvey, whose book Orlam was released on Thursday, 28th April. We speak briefly about her process- how she writes her poetry and sticks to form- how she is able to find the right form for her ideas. She tells me she takes her notebook and does some walking to the places that inspire her. She does not say, but I envision brambles and streams, pathways lined with heather and fern and her walking along the with metre and form in her head. I love writing poetry but rely too heavily on free form. I take note to spend more time focusing on rhyme, using more traditional forms of poetry to structure my writing. I think of Derek Walcott and the remarkable way he was able to marry the classical structures with his own ideas based on West Indian subject matter and folklore.
On my third day, I make my way to Brewery Square, a recent modern development with the usual restaurant chains- Nando’s, Wagamama, Pizza Express. It sticks out amongst the other buildings in this small town. I catch the X51 and make my way to Bridport. I do not regret the bus journey. It offers stunning views of the Dorset landscape, plains of green, punctuated by the sheep and cows dotted around the verdure. As the bus makes its way on the undulating roads, my heart leaps at the first glimpse of the sea in the distance, Mama Ocean outstretched cloaked in a hazy navy below overcast skies. I meet Kate at the bus-stop who takes me to Kim Squirrel, who has lived in Bridport for many years and owns a quirky, quaint little shop that sells locally made craft and stationery.
When I visit West Bay, I cannot stop taking photos of the beach: Mama Ocean shimmering in the shy sun, tufts of grass and heather and bramble, surrounded by cool hilly breeze; the smell of the sea flirting with my nose. I want to pour it all into me like a large glass of water, sip on the languid marine hues lapping on chalky sand. Here I belong I think, amidst the cry of sea gulls and the zipping of the cold ocean breeze past my ears.
I spend day four with Hardy: visiting his childhood cottage followed by Max Gate not too far away. I remember studying Tess of the D’Urbervilles for A-Level Literature and even though Hardy’s England was far removed from my own teenage years in the Caribbean it is still fascinating to see where he grew up and the things that shaped him as a writer. It is intriguing to sit where he would have sat once, to look out of his very own window, walk down the same paths he would have walked, to reimagine his life through my own eyes as a black woman. I spend the evening in Hardy’s Dorset Gallery, revisiting his poetry. I read ‘Darkling Thrush’ and think back to the thrush we had spotted in the woods earlier. The time spent in Hardy’s country makes me think again about the connection between human experience and nature and how it often gets lost in the day to day.
On my final day, I have a great time talking to a class of bubbly Primary school students who ask me about my writing and were keen to start telling their own stories. It’s always a pleasure to see the world through their eyes. To culminate my week, I get the chance to meet with novelist, Tracy Chevalier who shares her writing journey with me. It was both inspiring and reassuring to talk about navigating motherhood and a writing career. We talked about the importance of being ready and that often it just comes down to applying yourself and getting the writing done. It was a lovely and fitting way to end the week.
I learnt so much from my week in Dorset. The change of space, opportunities to meet with amazing people, from volunteers and curators to artists and writers. Since then, it is fair to say that I have slowly eased into embracing this part of myself that has been with me since I was a child. The weeklong residency in Dorset gave me the time and space to think deeply about my writing aspirations; to soak in and observe as much as I could in a completely different environment. I have always enjoyed visiting museums but have never spent a great deal of time in one. It was a gift to bear witness to the endearing way in which a place and it’s people can be archived. The residency really helped to reinforce the importance of preserving the stories of ourselves as well as deepen my determination to tell them authentically.
Thoughts on Elisabeth Frink
A sculpture is never just that.
What you see is a head,
a dog, a man, a man on a horse,
shapes of things known and unknown;
bronze oxidised into verdigris or mahogany tones.
Textured surfaces chiselled to an angle, lines and crevices smoothing or
deepening with the passage of time.
But right among the twig and twine plastered in this shape
Lies the sculptor’s soul incarnate.
A story is never just that.
What you read are words,
Black ink on white paper,
Every period line and paragraph forming before your eyes
Weaving up people and places in your mind.
But between the lines, right among the commas and question marks
Lies the writer’s soul incarnate.
Friday 22 September 2023, The Victorian Hall will also be closed all day for a private function. The Fine Foundation Dorset Story Space, next the the Thomas Hardy's Dorset Gallery will also be closed for an hour around Midday.