Let’s Talk Rochdale workshops on Embassy of Utopia

3 July 2024 - News

Manchester City of Literature hosted The Embassy of Utopia, on 14-15 June where people from across Greater Manchester speak on their idea of utopia as part of Festival of Libraries 2024. Urussa Malik and Amina Beg took this concept and hosted a workshop with participants from Rochdale’s community group, Let’s Talk, to introduce them to the event and support them to perform their pieces during the festival.

The only time I do hear Urdu and Punjabi bubble into conversation is when I speak to my own aunties, the blood-related ones at least. The conservation is peppered with Urdu, Punjabi, English: we talk about what I’m doing, what they’re doing what their families are doing, what my family is doing. I (Urussa) was helping to co-facilitate and co-translate these creative workshops alongside Amina Beg, having a creative writing practice and having grown up in bilingual countries, homes and literatures. At Let’s Talk, there’s an additional tone to our conservations. Amina and I prepped an icebreaker which followed the idea of utopia, of dreams, of the best of the best: What is your  favourite breakfast and who with?

I found it hard to translate that directly into Urdu. I realised afterwards that it was better to have phrased with the English word ‘best’ in there too, so it was phrased, ‘Sab say best nashta kya hai aur kis kay saath khatay ho’. This means ‘what is the best breakfast to eat and who would you eat it with’. Intriguingly, the aunties and South Asian women in our group answered differently, much differently. They spoke of the realistic breakfast they ate, some mentioned they liked X dish more but on the daily eat Y dish instead. It seemed hard to answer in blue-sky thinking terms and I didn’t push it too hard as the goal of activity was more to break the ice and to introduce the concept of utopia. We got answers of porridge, of bread and egg, though in Pakistan it would have been paratha and egg. One participant said they loved halwa puri and channay but they have egg bread also. They also spoke largely of how they had breakfast on their own; partners gone to work, children at school, different schedules meant breakfast was a solo meal.

Amina relayed information in Urdu and English, and I often only just repeated and elaborated the task at hand, repeating thoughts back to the group. There were really high energy levels which were punctuated by asking if we wanted to eat, whether we wanted to eat now and Amina negotiating a post-workshop takeout wrap during the workshop!

From the first discussion, we established what utopia meant and I translated the concept into a religious parallel: heaven is often thought as the ultimate utopia, where goodness reigns, no one is in pain, and you are rewarded. ‘What does heaven on earth look like?’ to convey the idea of utopia. There were fruitful discussions on what was missing on earth, and hence was created the sense of utopia in the room.

“I would like to see the world I would love to travel and go places I have never been to places like Maldives or Mauritius which look so beautiful. I want there to be peace in the world. I would like to go to a place with no sickness, no phones and family to communicate with each other like in the 1980s and 1990s” – Let’s Talk participant on Utopia

Utopia brought up ideas of sukoon, an Urdu word meaning peace and harmony. A funny half-rhymed quip of ‘goray [white] or Asian, all nations want peace’. There was a lamenting how unconnected you could feel from your family, exacerbated by phone usage. They reflected well on how their own dependence on phones and gadgets as such also made them understand that it was hard for their children’s generation to be reliant on phones for connection elaborated by the sentence ‘Majburriya ham nay khud create kiye hai’, meaning we have created this dependency, on the gadgets or internet for connection, out of our own will.

We had 10-minute free-writing time, which had a lot of narrative and philosophical tones, wondering whether the things and concepts that stop us reaching utopia do bring us closer to God and therefore, still, closer to a sense of utopia, nevertheless. We had another conversation about what utopia looks like in Greater Manchester and the context of the area provided more concrete ideas in our participants. A large conversation was how there should be another Let’s Talk type community organisation which enables its communities to hang out, eat, chat and connect for free. How the organiser Humera Haqqani MBE is real strength and builder of character and the community of Let’s Talk are hugely inspired by. And how funding, money helps to continue these spaces.

Nearly all participants were excited to sign up, and to perform at the event and to speak about a concept which they brought a lot of social and philosophical ideas to. It was really lovely to feel familiar in the space and languages in which we spoke about these ideas and how energising all the participants are.

Using that symbolic reference we integrated that into a workshop prompt proposing for the main free writing exercise – What does the best world look like to you? Aap kai khyal mein ideal dunya kia hai? I used a visual stimulus using a painting by Morven MacKinnon who uses her art to depict natural landscapes which we found calming and serene this tied in beautifully with the theme of utopia. Visual references can be more accessible than language, stemming as a stimulus for the participants.

Painting by Morven MacKinnon

The group really enjoyed the workshop overall, and discussing their ideal world. One expressed ‘I think should be peace in the world, happy families, help each other, talk to each other, if we can have all the above world will be a peace’. These conversations kept growing and Urussa and I did not want to leave the Let’s Talk centre – we were gifted a kebab wrap made by the women to eat on our train back to Manchester feeling excited, nourished and full for their performance at The Embassy of Utopia on the 14th of June!

This is the first of two blog posts written by Urussa and Amina about community engagement work that took place during Festival of Libraries 2024. Please find the second one below to find out about the performances from the Let’s Talk group.