Malika Booker, image copyright Naomi Woodis
This is Malika Booker. Amongst many other things, she is a London-based writer and spoken word artist. She is also Poet in Residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company. You can find out more about her here. I’ve admired Malika’s work for a while now so I was thrilled when she agreed to lead a workshop in the Continue Creating programme. She chose the subject of sugar, inspired by the London, Sugar and Slavery gallery and worked with us to each create a piece of writing about sugar. The finished articles are at the bottom of this post.
A good old bag of Taste and Smile
For most people, writing creatively is a little bit scary. We think we won’t be very good at it. We think we’ll expose ourselves. We think others will be better. When we did it at school it wasn’t very good and we haven’t done it since, thank you very much. Although she didn’t tell us, I have a sneaky feeling that Malika knew all of this, so she started us off we three exercises to ease us in. Firstly, we all introduced ourselves and told a little anecdote about our relationship to sugar, accompanied by an action. Stavroulla told us that she took sugar in her coffee, so did an action of someone stirring a cup. A cup, never a mug.
The freewrite rules, being demonstrated by our glamorous assistant Halima
Then we did a freewrite, which is a bit like a stream of consciousness. You have 2 minutes and you just have to write. And keep writing. Anything. Anything at all. Not necessarily clever, or poetic, or even coherent. But you have to write. And you must not worry about things like spelling and punctuation. After two minutes furious writing, we came back together to think about the many ways sugar plays a part in our lives.
Our mind map of sugar
Then, to help the flow of ideas, we had 10 minutes to go a bit mad, making collage with sugar products. We were NOT supposed to eat the sweets…
Brigette making her sweet collage
Once we were all thoroughly sugared up, we went up to the gallery.
The sugar cane panel in London, Sugar and Slavery
Malika asked us to explore the gallery, making notes of things that struck us, before returning downstairs to get more ideas flowing.
Panel in the gallery that lists the number of enslaved Africans on ships
Downstairs, we paired up to tell each other a personal story involving sugar. Richard told Gilly about the time he’d had 8 teeth removed in one go because of his sugar addiction… partially brought on by eating Frosties with tango! Gilly told Richard how she thought unnatural sugar was poisonous. Halima told me a lovely story about her dad, who would cut an apple into four equal parts every night before bed and give each child a piece to demonstrate that everyone was loved equally. This lovely ritual continued right into Halima’s teenage years. Brigitte told Stavroulla about making the annual Christmas cake, where every member of the family had to take it in turns to stir the mix and then prick the cake with sherry and Stav told Brigitte about eating hot apple fritters on market mornings as a child.
London, Sugar and Slavery comment card
The last thing we did was listen to Malika read some beautiful poems by other writers about sugar, taken from the Poetry foundation. One of the poems she read was Sugar Cane, by Alfred Corn. Please take a couple of minutes to read it, it’s not only beautifully written but also unlocks the themes of the gallery in a very relevant way. As Malika read, we sucked on fresh sugar cane, bought from a market in Brixton that morning and chopped into chunks for us by a very nice man.
Fresh sugar cane pre and post chopping
And then we wrote. We had 10 minutes, we had the tools that we had learnt earlier in the afternoon and we had inspiration. The pieces are below. I wanted you to see them in their authors’ own hands (those who were happy for them to go on the blog) so I have pasted the pictures and typed the words below them. They are all great pieces and well worth a read. Why don’t you have a go at writing one? Grab something sweet, chat to some friends, have bit of a freewrite and see where it takes you.
Richard's story of the banana and chocolate pizza
I recall, as I am sat ensconced in biscuit crumbs around my table. A trip far away beyond the fields of Sevenoaks – where no light pollution prevails and no signal found for my mobile. A remote residential setting for my singing group: streetwise opera a couple of days or more away from society surrounded by folk songs and organic food! What a punishment, not even brown sugar can lift my spirits amongst the withdrawal of my junk food diet. But brief salvation in the form of a pizza making master class. A chance to create a savoury and “SWEET” one. Banana and chocolate is layered all over my pizza, a whole slab of a bar is used – so thick; the chunks don’t even melt fully. At last a chance to drown in my own sweet gorgeous gluttony! (Hand made!!!)
Halima's music teacher who saw melodies as chocolate bars
I remember my primary school music teacher, Mr. Mills, who described different sections in a musical melody as a bar of chocolate. He said, ‘think of it as a giant bar, which is easy to separate, as opposed to a great big slab of chocolate.’ I remember the class understanding straight away. It was a metaphor we can all relate to. We definitely performed better in that class, hitting the highs, the lows and the in-betweens.
Brigitte's ballad to the unknown numbers
It was 1788 but no English ship’s captain knew how many African human cargo it carried across the Great water to England
But to the islands still being fought over by French & Dutch and & English monarchies
It was 1789 but no record of the number of the ship’s human cargo from Africa, which sailed from Africa to the islands
It was 1790 and still the numbers remained unknown – the destination, mainly Jamaica
It was 1791, more rules, fewer rules but now a ship has memory and as it sets sail to Jamaica with 283 or were these 1000 and 283?
It was 1791 and as islands are captured not just Jamaica but other islands come into focus 131 but at once 394 (or maybe 2394) and in St. Vincent
Even St Eustatius with 216 or was that 21,600 received – the makings of the labour to create a sugar loaf, nipped at the head or hot chocolate
My synopsis of the afternoon
I can tell you about poisons
I can tell you about conversazione
And stabbing at a swamp
Of shards and nippers
And equally divided apples.
I can tell you about figs and dates
Fresh or dried
I can tell you’ve had your hair tied
I can tell you about Frosties and tango
And the sweetness of Pineapple
I can tell you about whips
About sweets that are not for eating
And of the people who eat them anyway
I can tell you of seven souls, in one
room, on one day, sharing their sweetness.
And finally... Malika's masterpiece
There is a sweet agony in claiming you
blocks of white crystal, grown of brown
like God’s soil. There is a sweetness
about you that shape pure china. So
fragile, (so white), so delicate to be
sipped, little finger extended & what
about when auntie caught you, ‘a
little bit of sugar,’ they said. I searched
her skin every morning to see if her brown
skin became grains of you, not seeing
the price of you, how you break the organs
in the body like china, ceramic crashing
on to the wooden floor, you shatter the kidney
& bloat stomachs, you paint big toes
a purple splash of gangrene.
Did we not heed how your parents ‘cane’ danced
green to the breezes wind, a field of
swaying care free bodies, but their
leaves would leave vicious cuts on
How you cut us so deep sugar
darling yet we crave your
syrup taste like innocents walking
into a knife’s blade.