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Beth Shouler talks to Marilyn Ricci

I’ve met Marilyn once before at a workshop of an early draft of the play she is writing for Crossovers. It’s quite an intense morning due to the nature of the story. Marilyn wants to see bits of it ‘on its feet’ so she can explore the structure and work out where she wants to go next. It’s fascinating watching the 5 actors respond to the poetic language, the complexity of the story and the characters. There is much discussion about structure and what can be shown on stage. Whether violence is better left in the imagination or part of the reality of the story? What is the nature of people who have had to flee their home and find their place in a new culture? What kind of hangover do the previous experiences leave on those people? It’s not really a surprise that Marilyn is a published poet. However I’m interested to know how a woman originally from a Leicestershire council estate ended up choosing to write about the experiences of Somali refugees and how her life and ideas affect her work. So I meet with Marilyn for a cup of tea and a chat about her life, why and how she writes.

Where did you grow up?
Outside Leicester, on a council estate in Wigston. But my parents weren’t from that area. My father came from Wales and my mother from the North East. They were from mining families. They moved to Leicester on a government scheme in 1937. The scheme provided an opportunity to move people from a depressed region to get a house and half an acre in a new area. I think I was always aware of being ‘not of this place’ in that my mother was Catholic and both parents from outside. I went to a C of E school and used to wander around the classroom while everyone else was in assembly.

Where did you study?
Leicestershire was used to experiment with education. I was educated under the ‘Leicestershire Plan’. We didn’t have to take the 11+.  Instead we were sent to one of two schools depending entirely on where your surname came in the alphabet. It was the radical 60s! I moved to London at 17, got married at 19 (that’s where the Italian name comes from), had a daughter at 22 and then went to university at 25 to do Combined Studies which was a mixture of Sociology, English, American Studies and History. I later did a Masters degree in Film and TV Studies. I had no idea of the importance of uni with my background. I had a job as a secretary after leaving school. In fact most of my friends left school at 15 to work. However I got bored and needed to use my mind which is why I went to university in the end.

How did you become a writer and why?
I had always written stories, poetry and drama as a child. I started taking it more seriously after my first degree. I wrote two chapters of a novel and sent it to Faber and Faber. They wrote back to say they enjoyed it and please could I send the rest. Problem was I hadn’t written it and so never sent the rest! I didn’t understand who they were!  Then I went to work at the Open University and life got in the way. My marriage split up and I was a single parent. I began writing in the evenings and at weekends. I won a poetry competition and began reading a lot of poetry – you can’t write poetry unless you read it – and I began getting published in small press poetry magazines.  I was also writing drama and had my first play produced by a local Theatre Workshop in Milton Keynes – I wouldn’t want that particular play staged again though!

How did you get involved with the Crossovers project?
I entered the TWP ‘Young Britain’ competition in 2009. The challenge was to dramatise an experience of being young in Britain today. I’m a Quaker and I have an interest in social justice. Through the Quakers I began hearing stories about young Somalis living in the area. I became really interested in this and met and talked with Somali women. Their experience was quite different from what I imagined. Most had grown up in Holland. There are so many things you don’t know about communities. So I began to research the culture and history of Somalia and I discovered it is called ‘The Nation of Poets’. It’s largely an oral culture. In fact it had no written language until 1972. The whole culture is imbued with poetry. News and politics are conveyed through poetry. When women are cooking, for instance, they have poetry to accompany the task. I found this really fascinating because in Britain poetry is a niche interest, except perhaps in times of crisis probably because of its intensity of expression. Often it’s written to express something almost inexpressible. The way kids have to study it at school doesn’t always help – some analysis is good but too much can be deadening – and probably puts a lot of people off. So I wrote a play about 2 young Somali sisters in the UK trying to deal with the aftermath of the Somali civil war which has been going on for twenty years. Through my research I met a young woman whose mother had collected stories about people’s experiences of the war.  This had been published as a book in Holland. She was translating it into English. Through my work at the Open University I have some experience of editing and publishing, so I asked if I could help with that and we began to get together. I couldn’t have written that short play without their help. Reading the book and listening to their stories was a crash course in Somali history and culture. There were so many amazing stories and I began to have an idea for this play.

What have been the challenges of writing this play? How do you deal with writer’s block?
Mostly dealing with the anxiety that I am going to get it horribly wrong because it’s an area I don’t know much about. It’s been such a steep learning curve. In terms of writer’s block I put the work down when I get stuck and try not to panic. If you bang your head against a brick wall you just get a headache. I let it all ‘slosh’ around in my head, get on with something else, and then when you come back to it you can usually see a way through. Actually one of the great things about TWP is having deadlines and being able to talk to people who really know what they’re talking about. It focuses the mind. Sometimes it’s very basic questions like ‘where’s the drama, the conflict?’ I have a tendency to be too gentle, I need to crank things up a bit. I can spend too long setting something up. In theatre you have to be bold! Go in there and believe in the audience. They don’t need a lesson, they’ll pick it up. As long as the characters and story are good enough they’ll be interested in the narrative.

How did the experience of the workshop help?
It was invaluable. There is a long monologue and one of the discussions was whether to break it up and change the structure or keep it in its entirety. Seeing the actor try different methods helps you know what works. Seeing what actors can do with what you write – their insights were really helpful. That and the ensuing discussion round the table afterwards.

Where do you get your ideas from?
It’s pretty much to do with the extraordinary in the ordinary that fascinates me and how your own experience feels unique but always connects and resonates outwards. I’ve come to believe that there are universal human experiences. They might get filtered through cultural practices but are essentially human and connect us across cultures and time. I tend to visualise what I’m writing about. They’re not just voices in my head. It’s similar to writing poetry in that sense which is very visual.

What advice would you give to young or aspiring writers?
Try to be brave. Take risks and don’t be afraid of getting it wrong. You don’t need to worry about where you come from, whatever your background, just be honest about it. In terms of the writing, with poetry there are no redundant words so you cut out the flak and try and be on the mark. Ask yourself questions like, do I need that “and”? Every word has to earn its place. I’ve had one or two mentors along the way. I’ve come across them and then asked them if they would mentor me. Patrick Collins who works on the Masters at Oxford, he’s just so encouraging. I stumbled across him and he said to send him anything. It’s interesting that creative writing courses are quite new. There are silly ideas that some people are gifted writers and others are not. You can stimulate the imagination but I’m not sure you teach imagination, but you can teach skills.

What excites you about writing for theatre?
There’s something about the interaction between the work and an audience. There’s excitement in that interaction. You might think you’re doing one thing but it might be interpreted differently. It’s risky, scary. You do craft the piece to get a certain kind of response but the audience thinks for itself and that’s always a huge risk!

So what’s next?
A play about Joe Orton who was a Leicester man. He was bought up on the estate next to me. He was murdered by his lover. He was an anarchic individual who wrote controversial plays including farces. I’m writing a farce around his murder. I think he would have liked that.

One Comment

  1. joolsayodeji
    Posted December 1, 2010 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    I saw Young Britain piece at Momentum Northampton and enjoyed. like what you have to say here M


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