The power of stories at the Commonwealth People’s Forum 2018

Posted on 27/03/2018
By Will Forrester

Gaiutra Bahadur’s essay in We Mark Your Memory, a forthcoming anthology of writing by descendants of indenture, segues from Britain’s exit from the European Union into an exploration of her Guyanese great-uncle’s identity: a grandchild of indentured labour and an economist at the Commonwealth Secretariat.

This connection comes as Bahadur considers an increasingly pressing question: ‘How are we, actually, joined? And what kind of joining matters?’. Bahadur’s query is timely; it is a timeliness mirrored in the heading of the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in London: ‘Towards a Common Future’.

In the run-up to CHOGM, the Commonwealth People’s Forum 2018 (CPF 2018) brings together civic voices from around the world to debate such queries facing a contemporary Commonwealth. Echoing the focus of CHOGM, CPF 2018 asks three questions: what would an inclusive Commonwealth look like? how can we ensure justice? and what are the imperatives for an accountable Commonwealth? These questions share similarities with the crux of Bahadur’s essay: ‘What kind of joining matters?’.

‘How are we, actually, joined? And what kind of joining matters?’

During CPF 2018 events curated by Commonwealth Writers, artists and writers will use varied forms of creative expression to ask these questions. Thirteen writers will read from two Commonwealth Writers publications which, while not directly envisaged in relation to the Forum’s themes, are underpinned by notions of inclusion, justice and accountability. The first is We Mark Your Memory, which features poetry, fiction and essays based on indentured legacies in the Chagos Islands, Fiji, Guyana, Liberia, Malaysia, Samoa, Sri Lanka, St Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad and Tobago . The second is So Many Islands, an anthology of stories from the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Indian and Pacific Oceans. Both collections, at their heart, look at the ways in which we are joined.

In his foreword to So Many Islands, editor Nicholas Laughlin comments that the sea, which ‘insulates and isolates’ islands, is at once the force which ‘connects’. Indeed, by the start of CPF 2018, So Many Islands will have traversed these connections for its launches in Barbados, Bermuda, Fiji, Jamaica,  New Zealand, Samoa, St Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, and the UK. So too in We Mark Your Memory writers from diverse and broad spaces are connected by joint legacies and common futures; as the collection moves between geographies, histories and genres, transoceanic links are revealed in unexpected ways. Both anthologies urgently demonstrate how creative expression and civic voices have a fundamental role to play in ensuring that our common future is inclusive, fair and accountable. The events at CPF 2018 hosted by Commonwealth Writers reflect this capacity, integrating rather than supplementing panel discussions and policy dialogues.

‘Amidst global uncertainty, creative endeavours hold the agency to both attest to the histories of diverse global identities and to ensure a renewed Commonwealth in which we are joined in equitable, just and vociferous ways.’

The format of the readings at CPF 2018 embody the connected spaces of the collections. Tracy Assing (Trinidad and Tobago), Angela Barry (Bermuda), Cecil Browne (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), Kendel Hippolyte (Saint Lucia), Erato Ioannou (Cyprus) and Karlo Mila (Tonga) will read from their contributions to So Many Islands, and David Dabydeen (Guyana), Prithiraj Dullay (South Africa), Gabrielle Jamela Hosein (Trinidad), Fawzia Muradali Kane (UK), Gitanjali Pyndiah (Mauritius/UK), Mary Rokonadravu (Fiji) and Anita Sethi (UK) from their pieces in We Mark Your Memory.

These sessions comprise ‘intimate readings’, conducted in promenade, in which delegates walk from author to author, and in doing so experience and map the connections which join them. Commonwealth Writers will also open the CPF 2018 with a short film featuring definitions of ‘inclusivity’, ‘justice’ and ‘accountability’ by individuals across the Commonwealth. In a very literal sense, this film acts to amplify civic voices on a global stage. Finally, a session titled ‘Persistent Resistance’ will bring into dialogue music from members of the Nigerian floating radio station Chicoco Radio with discussion from global activists to ask what roles creative expression and myriad other forms of advocacy have in challenging injustice in a renewed Commonwealth.

Just as the CPF 2018 brings together creative voices and Commonwealth leaders to discuss global development, I consider my own ‘joining’, having recently become a part of the Commonwealth Writers team. This joining feels equally timely; as the varied projects coordinated by Commonwealth Writers cohere around CPF 2018, I have been able to contribute to and experience the capacity creative expression has to effect societal change. Bahadur closes her essay ‘left wading and wondering about the encounters the seas enable’. Amidst global uncertainty, creative endeavours hold the agency to both attest to the histories of diverse global identities and to ensure a renewed Commonwealth in which we are joined in equitable, just and vociferous ways.

Will Forrester is an intern for Commonwealth Writers.


Commonwealth People’s Forum