This week The Age published an article* by Melbourne author Alice Pung. She wrote about a creative writing and publishing program for children called the 100 Story Building, and wove in observations of the place of cultivated creativity in the lives of young migrant and refugee children.
She was writing from experience – Pung and her immediate family are survivors of Pol Pot’s genocidal regime in Cambodia. She grew up in Braybrook, one of the most culturally-diverse and disadvantaged suburbs in the whole of Australia, where many children must assume adult duties and responsibilities, translating for parents, and helping them navigate an unfamiliar world.
One section of her article jumped out at me, when she wrote of the priorities of parents who have suffered and risked everything in order to bring their family to safety. For them, the ultimate goal for their children is that they have comfortable lives, safe and predictable employment, a home that is calm, secure, and ordered, and where there is space to grow.
Engaging in creativity – acts of engagement and production that are risky, open-ended, unpredictable, and that could fail just as easily as they could succeed – is a frightening option for the risk-averse.
Reading Pung’s words (she is a luminous writer, her prose is such a joy!) made me think of the children I have worked with in the English Language Schools in Melbourne, and their often complex relationships with creating and making their own work.
Some arrive at school in Melbourne with very little, or extremely interrupted, prior schooling. They feel behind the eight-ball in many things in school. For some, this creates a sense of anxiety to learn the right way to do things. Some may have had access to regular schooling, but in a harsh, punitive, and strongly authoritarian environment. Getting things right and not making mistakes in school is very important to these children too. Making up their own stuff can therefore feel like a threatening thing to do, because it is not clear what the “right” or required response will be.
Some children are alarmed or puzzled by the playfulness that is often part of cultivating creativity and freeing the imagination. Why is the teacher being silly? Will I get in trouble if I laugh? Will people laugh at me, and shame me or humiliate me?
Some children struggle deeply with how to reconcile and integrate their school experiences with their home lives. This used to generate a lot of anxiety for some children, particularly those who came from very strict Muslim families. I remember one family of three sisters. In their first couple of music lessons, they joined in everything. They were new in school, new to English, and followed all the class activities by observing and copying what they saw other children doing. But then, they began to remove themselves. Each week they would announce a new thing that they were not allowed to do. They were not allowed to hold their hands in a certain way in the warm-up. They were not allowed to dance. They were not allowed to clap or stamp. They were not allowed to sing. In the end, they were not allowed to take part in the end-of-term performance with their classmates either. They became more and more withdrawn and tense, living in worlds that were contracting while those of their classmates were expanding with new experiences.
Once the children become comfortable with the risks of creativity, they are often bursting to express themselves in these different ways. We see these children in the City Beats workshops too (which I led last week for the MSO and ArtPlay) – once they feel clear on the parameters and possibilities, they are filled with so many ambitions and ideas to share that it seems a shame to contain them in a 2-hour workshop.
In many ways, as Pung describes it, these children can be voiceless in our societies. They often speak for their parents, but their own voices are silenced in the striving to find the comfortable place that is their parents’ dream. And yet the stories they have to share have importance beyond the voice and platform provided to them. These are children that know many of the harsh realities of life, across many different generations.
This was poignantly and memorably demonstrated in the 2013 publication Donkeys Can’t Fly on Planes, (you can read my review of this beautiful book here) with its stories of war, survival, family, and place written by young refugees from South Sudan, now living in country Victoria. Donkeys was published by Kids Own Publishing, a publishing house that, like 100 Story Building, supports children and diverse communities to write their own stories and publish them in books. Child-centred and community-centred publishing creates access for the young writers – by providing a platform for their stories and ideas, and cultivating their creativity – but also access for the potential audience for their stories, by illuminating worlds (real and imaginary) that might otherwise remain in the shadows.
*I couldn’t find an online version of the article. Look for The Age, 6 May 2014, Alice Pung ‘A book in every child’. Section: Focus. Page: 12-13.