That awk­ward age

Twelve teens trade per­sonal sto­ries

The Guardian - Weekend - - Contents - Por­traits by Cliona O’Fla­herty

In 2012, the Ir­ish au­thor Colum McCann and a group of fel­low writ­ers hit on an idea. They were at a fes­ti­val in the US, and it started with a chal­lenge they set them­selves: “What is the high­est aim of sto­ry­telling, and how can we har­ness that en­ergy to trans­form our so­ci­ety?” They be­lieved the sto­ries they told had power – writ­ers are not short of con­fi­dence – but could they change the world? McCann be­lieved they could. Art for so­ci­ety’s sake.

What emerged from that was an or­gan­i­sa­tion called Nar­ra­tive 4, which puts a story ex­change be­tween dis­parate, some­times an­tag­o­nis­tic groups at its heart. You pair up, swap sto­ries from one an­other’s lives and then tell each other’s story back to the group in the first per­son. The the­ory is that telling some­one else’s story will give you what McCann, who heads the or­gan­i­sa­tion with co-founder Lisa Con­siglio, calls “rad­i­cal em­pa­thy”. For that mo­ment, you be­come the other, pos­si­bly an “other” to whom you had pre­vi­ously been hos­tile.

Nar­ra­tive 4 is based in New York, where it has bro­kered meet­ings be­tween schools with very dif­fer­ent so­cial mixes, and be­tween pro- and anti-gun groups. In 2016 it moved into Ire­land, set­ting up of­fice in a dis­used li­brary in Lim­er­ick. This is where, on a dry, bright week­end in the mid­dle of Novem­ber, 15 stu­dents from the Gael­choláiste Luimnigh, a school in the town that teaches all sub­jects in Ir­ish, were in­tro­duced to 15 stu­dents from three schools in or near Birm­ing­ham: Holy­head in Handsworth; Joseph Cham­ber­lain sixth form col­lege just south of the cen­tre; and Earls high school in Hale­sowen, a town to the west of the city.

The week­end is co­or­di­nated by Ruth Gilligan, a nov­el­ist who was born in Dublin, lives in Lon­don and teaches cre­ative writ­ing at the Univer­sity of Birm­ing­ham; Bri­tish au­thor David Sav­ill; and Nar­ra­tive 4’s re­gional di­rec­tor, James Lawlor, who keeps a gen­tly watch­ful eye over pro­ceed­ings. The theme is loosely “iden­tity”, with Brexit as the in­evitable back­ground, but it quickly be­comes ap­par­ent that teenagers live such in­tense, angsty lives that the tales they tell could go any­where.

That un­pre­dictabil­ity is clear when the stu­dents are asked to write what they are cu­ri­ous about on a sheet of pa­per pinned to the wall. The or­gan­is­ers per­haps ex­pect An­glo-Ir­ish re­la­tions, Trump, na­tion­al­ism – mono­chrome adult sub­jects. But the themes raised are truly tech­ni­colour: “Are there aliens?” “Is there a God?” “What hap­pens af­ter death?” “What lan­guage do peo­ple who are deaf since birth think in?” “Why doesn’t the ho­tel I’m stay­ing in have Cad­bury’s cho­co­late?” How can Brexit com­pete with these great ex­is­ten­tial ques­tions?

Gilligan and Sav­ill ex­plain to the group how to shape a story, and give them a quick guide to Ir­ish and English his­tory, and to some of the hos­til­i­ties aroused by Brexit. But in the story-swap ses­sion, there are far deeper is­sues in play: loss, grief, the pres­sures put on teenagers, their urge to con­form, the masks they have to wear to sur­vive, their strug­gle to find them­selves.

They take the story ex­change very se­ri­ously and re­spect each other com­pletely, feel­ing the re­spon­si­bil­ity of telling their partner’s story. They then sit in a cir­cle and tell their tales, one af­ter an­other, with no ap­plause or dis­cus­sion un­til the end. It takes more than an hour, in which a lot of tears are shed, de­spite the com­pe­ti­tion from jolly sea­sonal mu­sic out­side (it’s turn­ing-on-the-Christ­mas-lights day in Lim­er­ick). Gilligan had sup­plied a small packet of tis­sues for the group I ob­serve, but this turns into a packet-and-a-half ses­sion, sur­pris­ing even her.

It turns out that teenagers, on both sides of the Ir­ish Sea, face many problems: there are sto­ries of bul­ly­ing, self-harm, eat­ing dis­or­ders. The dif­fi­cul­ties faced by the girls of Asian her­itage in Birm­ing­ham, torn be­tween a con­ser­va­tive com­mu­nity and a wider sec­u­lar so­ci­ety, are the most se­vere. While the boys can lose them­selves in sport, the girls ex­pe­ri­ence the full force of cul­tural col­li­sion. The Lim­er­ick stu­dents, who are be­ing taught in Ir­ish and given a deep un­der­stand­ing of the coun­try’s cul­ture, seem more rooted, less chal­lenged by con­flict­ing iden­ti­ties, though still in some cases strug­gling with loss and ques­tions of iden­tity in the broad­est sense. Who are they, why are they here, where does their In­sta­gram self meet their real self?

“It’s great to find you are not alone,” says one of the stu­dents, sum­ming up the mood per­fectly. “Life is un­pre­dictable,” he adds – and at that mo­ment, a drum roll sud­denly booms out from the Christ­mas sound sys­tem in the street. Here are their con­ver­sa­tions. Emer Ryan, 15, Gael­choláiste Luimnigh, and Iso­bel Cooper, 15, Earls high school, Hale­sowen (pre­vi­ous pages, left)

Iso­bel chose the only ex­plic­itly Brexit-re­lated story of the week­end. “I’ve al­ways been proud of be­ing a cit­i­zen of Europe,” she says, “and I feel some peo­ple who are re­ally small-minded have taken that away from me. I had no say in the mat­ter, and my fu­ture is be­ing de­cided by some­one else.”

Hale­sowen, the old in­dus­trial town in which she lives, voted to leave the EU. “There are a lot of older peo­ple there,” she says. “Not many young peo­ple. It’s quite a for­got­ten place in a way.” She says the sense of be­ing ig­nored and left be­hind led to peo­ple scape­goat­ing Europe. Her plan is to study Ger­man at univer­sity, and move to Ger­many if she can. One day she may even get her EU cit­i­zen­ship back. In­spired by her fa­ther’s in­ter­est, she says she loves Ger­manic cul­ture and has en­joyed trav­el­ling there.

Emer, whose own story was a more per­sonal one about the fam­ily home be­ing bur­gled and feel­ing in­se­cure as a re­sult, says she hadn’t given the im­pact of Brexit much thought un­til she re­lated Iso­bel’s story. “Read­ing it out made it feel as if it [Brexit] did af­fect me. It was lit­er­ally step­ping into her shoes, and I felt all the emo­tions she felt. It was so pow­er­ful.”

Emer and Iso­bel clearly get on well – Emer al­ready calls her new friend Izzy. “We found we could re­late to each other,” Emer says of the story-swap group. “Peo­ple go through things like loss and grief, and they all poured out.”

“Go­ing to school,” adds Iso­bel, “it’s easy to lose faith in your con­tem­po­raries and just think, ‘We have noth­ing link­ing us’, be­cause some peo­ple aren’t very nice. There is so much divi­sion be­tween teenagers, be­tween the dif­fer­ent so­cial groups. It was so nice to be in a room with peo­ple who didn’t care about all that, who were go­ing to tell their story any­way.”

Emily Calton O’Ke­effe, 16, Gael­choláiste Luimnigh, and Kis­han Umesh Pa­tel, 16, Holy­head school, Birm­ing­ham (pre­vi­ous pages)

Emily is a su­per­con­fi­dent teenager who can’t stop laugh­ing. She wants to be a pilot, and you can tell she’ll make it. Her story – about hav­ing an English mother and an Ir­ish fa­ther, and be­ing bul­lied at school be­cause of it – touched on the key theme of the week­end: iden­tity and the way you nav­i­gate it. “I strug­gle to fit in,” she tells me, “to find a place where I be­long.”

That gives her an im­me­di­ate bond with Kis­han, who was born in the

UK to par­ents of In­dian her­itage. Both speak two lan­guages: English and Ir­ish in Emily’s case; English and Gu­jarati in Kis­han’s. Kis­han opted for a jokey, sporty story about feel­ing cheated out of a tro­phy he thought his team de­served to win, but now says he wishes he’d been braver and told a more per­sonal one. Per­haps about his re­li­gion and cul­ture, which he fears are be­ing chipped away. “I feel I’m Bri­tish,” he says. “But I don’t want to for­get that I’m In­dian.”

He says the week­end will leave its mark: “I thought it would just be like an­other school trip, but there was a lot more emo­tional depth.” In Emily, he has found an ideal match. “We talked for ages,” he says. “I think we talk fast.” “You find things in com­mon,” Emily says. “But also things that were dif­fer­ent,” Kis­han adds. He means that grow­ing up and go­ing to school in Handsworth, a pre­dom­i­nantly black and Asian area in north-west Birm­ing­ham, he didn’t have much trou­ble fit­ting in. As he talks, though, it emerges that he works at McDon­ald’s and cus­tomers reg­u­larly make racist re­marks to him, which he never re­ports. “They’re usu­ally drunk and I ig­nore them,” he ex­plains, “or just don’t serve them.” Or spit in the burger, I sug­gest. Emily laughs again, pleased by the idea of re­venge served with added rel­ish. Mercy Oweyo, 16, Gael­choláiste Luimnigh, and Clemen­tine Reed, 15, Earls high school, Hale­sowen (far left)

Just be­fore the story-swap ses­sion, the par­tic­i­pants were asked to write down some­thing they were ner­vous about. Clem re­fused to write any­thing. “I’m not ner­vous,” she in­sisted. So it came as a sur­prise that her ren­di­tion of Mercy’s story was one of the weepi­est of them all.

At some point in the telling, the con­trast be­tween their sto­ries struck Clem. Her tale, as told un­flinch­ingly by Mercy, was of lov­ing cricket from a very young age and ex­celling at it. Mercy’s story, as re­counted by Clem, in­volved be­ing born with brit­tle bone dis­ease, feel­ing re­stricted and pa­tro­n­ised all her life, hav­ing to use a wheel­chair much of the time and then finding a voice, in ev­ery sense, when she started singing in a choir. Lit­tle won­der Clem found it so over­whelm­ing.

Born to a Nige­rian mother who came to Ire­land three years be­fore she was born, Mercy speaks Yoruba to her mother, but has cho­sen to be ed­u­cated in Ir­ish. I ask whether she feels Ir­ish or Nige­rian. “Both,” she says, ex­plain­ing that Ire­land has been gen­er­ally wel­com­ing. She plans to go to univer­sity in Ire­land and be­come a hu­man rights lawyer.

Clem says she’s en­joyed the week­end, but has never ex­pe­ri­enced any­thing quite as chal­leng­ing. “Ev­ery­one else had been through a lot,” she says, “and I felt that I hadn’t re­ally.” I as­sure her that’s a good thing – suf­fer­ing is not a com­pe­ti­tion. But “When you meet peo­ple, you’re not aware of what they’ve been through,” she says. The amount of pain came as a shock to her; the depth of her re­sponse to it, too.

Danielle Had­nett, 15, Gael­choláiste Luimnigh, and Sameer Khan, 17, Holy­head school, Birm­ing­ham (left)

Sameer’s story, as re­lated by Danielle, was one of the most mov­ing of all, and con­cerned the death of his el­der brother in a road ac­ci­dent. “This is the story that de­fined my life,” Sameer said in the ac­count he gave Danielle. Danielle’s was also a sad tale – about her grand­fa­ther’s death and the anx­i­ety at­tacks that fol­lowed. But she had fought back. “I’m a sol­dier,” she said – or, rather, Sameer said for her – “and I will not give up.”

“We’ve gone through sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences, even though we are so dif­fer­ent,” Sameer says. “[When my brother died,] it was like, whoa, my world has changed and I’ll have to de­velop on my own. I didn’t have that role model any more.” He has rarely spo­ken about it be­fore. “I’m not the type to open up,” he says. Sameer is an ath­lete and a wannabe foot­baller on the books of the As­ton Villa acad­emy, part of a world in which it doesn’t pay to show weak­ness. Danielle says she found it hard to tell his story. “It was a big re­spon­si­bil­ity,” she says. “I choked up half­way through, but I said, no, don’t, just come back, and I kept go­ing.’”

Danielle and her sis­ter are both at Lim­er­ick’s Ir­ish school, even though her par­ents are non-Ir­ish speak­ers. It makes for an in­trigu­ing home life – the sis­ters speak­ing to each other in Ir­ish (some­times use­ful, she says) and to their par­ents in English. Sameer’s par­ents are of Pak­istani her­itage, but his grand­par­ents live in Rus­sia and he was born in Holland. He grew up in Low­est­oft and says he was the only “brown kid” in the class, picked on for his colour and be­cause he couldn’t speak English. His fam­ily have lived in Birm­ing­ham since 2013. He seems re­laxed and con­fi­dent, and is per­haps a lit­tle over­whelm­ing for Danielle, who has a nat­u­ral quiet­ness and re­serve. But their bat­tles unite them. “We are very dif­fer­ent,” she says, “but also very alike.”

Muire­ann Ní Shé, 15, Gael­choláiste Luimnigh, and Farzana Promi Ali, 18, Joseph Cham­ber­lain sixth form col­lege, Birm­ing­ham (over­leaf)

Farzana told the group, through her sto­ry­teller Muire­ann, that she had a tough time as an ado­les­cent. She wanted to please her par­ents, her school, her friends. “I now know I’m never go­ing to be per­fect,” she says. “It’s been a strug­gle, but I’m get­ting through it. You have to find a bal­ance. Over the years, I feel like I have found my­self. I know what I like, I know what I don’t like, I know who I am.” →

‘When my brother died, my world changed. I didn’t have that role model any more’

She speaks Ben­gali at home. “Parts of me feel more Bri­tish than Ben­gali,” she says, “but when I’m around my fam­ily, I feel more Ben­gali.” She was born in Bangladesh, but came to the UK when she was six months old and has spent all her life here.

Muire­ann’s story was about be­ing a fash­ion vic­tim. She loves clothes, but dis­liked the way peo­ple were mak­ing her choose be­tween fash­ion and study, as if a young woman couldn’t pos­si­bly be both fash­ion­con­scious and aca­demic. “There was pres­sure on me to be one or the other,” she says. “I wanted to be what­ever I wanted to be, as many things as I wanted to be.”

Her Ir­ish­ness and the Ir­ish lan­guage are at the heart of her iden­tity. Un­like many at her school, hers is an Ir­ish-speak­ing house­hold. “I speak Ir­ish to my fa­ther all the time,” she says. Her mother can speak Ir­ish but less flu­ently, and Muire­ann usu­ally speaks to her in English. And when they are all to­gether? “It de­pends,” she says. “If we are in school mode, we will speak Ir­ish.”

Muire­ann’s grand­fa­ther passed Ir­ish on to her fa­ther as his first lan­guage – hence his flu­ency – and she will con­tinue the line. “By speak­ing it, we are keep­ing the lan­guage alive,” she says. “If we don’t speak it, it’s go­ing to die. I’m a proud Ir­ish per­son and it’s cru­cial to my iden­tity. I will speak Ir­ish to my own kids. I’m de­ter­mined to do that. I’m go­ing to keep it alive, even if it’s just for them.”

Aaron O’Sul­li­van Rior­dan, 16, Gael­choláiste Luimnigh, and Kadeja Tasnim, 17, Holy­head school, Birm­ing­ham (above right)

Aaron and Kadeja both con­jured up pow­er­ful sto­ries: his about be­ing phys­i­cally at­tacked by a boy who had once been his friend; hers about hav­ing a sis­ter who she dis­cov­ered, at the age of eight, was re­ally her cousin.

“Be­ing at­tacked was an im­por­tant part of my life,” Aaron says. “Com­ing out of it made me a stronger per­son.” It was never clear why his friend at­tacked him – it may have been some sort of gang ini­ti­a­tion, a demon­stra­tion of new­found tough­ness. “I was very con­fused about why he did it.”

Kadeja says she found telling Aaron’s story very af­fect­ing. “I don’t even re­mem­ber read­ing it or say­ing the words,” she says. “I just be­came him and I felt re­ally emo­tional.” Her own story was equally strong. “I chose it be­cause it’s about think­ing you are some­one, then los­ing your iden­tity and try­ing to re­cover from it. You start ques­tion­ing a lot of things and get con­fused.”

Con­fu­sion is the lot of the teenager. “You are try­ing to find your­self, you put pres­sure on your­self, but then there is pres­sure in ex­ter­nal places,” Kadeja says. She wants to be a writer; her am­bi­tious, Bangladeshi-born par­ents want her to be a doc­tor. Her fa­ther is a taxi driver and is de­ter­mined to see his daugh­ter rise in the world. I ask her who will win the oc­cu­pa­tional bat­tle. “I will,” she says.

Aaron and Kadeja have an easy rap­port. Kadeja says she has come to em­brace her Bangladeshi her­itage as she’s got older, while Aaron is proud of his Ir­ish iden­tity. “Peo­ple from other coun­tries tend to see the Ir­ish stereo­type,” he com­plains. “We’re all al­co­holics, ginger hair, lep­rechauns – and that’s ir­ri­tat­ing at times. It’s how Amer­i­cans view us.” There is some truth to ev­ery stereo­type, he says, but there are more in­ter­est­ing sto­ries about mod­ern Ire­land lurk­ing un­der the Blarney Stone

‘I’m a proud Ir­ish per­son and I will speak Ir­ish to my own kids. I’ll keep it alive, even if it’s just for them’

Emer (left) and Iso­bel

Clemen­tine (left) and Mercy

Danielle and Sameer

Farzana (left) and Muire­ann

Aaron and Kadeja

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