Creative Writing in Prison

Tilda Bowden is a friend from my Nairobi days who was in my writing group over there, The Turaco Tree Writers. In recent years, Tilda has been going into a women’s prison to run creative writing and poetry workshops. I invited her onto the blog to find out more about this important work she has been involved with. A play she has recently written, inspired by the stories from prison, has also just been Highly Commended in the BBC International Radio Play competition.

How did it come about that you began working in a women’s prison?

About five years ago, I was invited to Langata Women’s Prison in Nairobi to celebrate World Peace Day. 

Part of the motivation for my writing is to understand and explore unexpected things, reactions or events. The invitation seemed to fit that category, and I accepted not knowing what I would find.

As the day in prison unfolded the surprises continued, and in summary, where I expected to feel compassion and sorrow, I found connection and laughter. The day ended when a football match between the ‘traditionally-built’ wardens and the lithe prisoners was stopped after 11 goals in the back of the wardens’ net. There were no dark looks or ominously slapped truncheons, but widespread smiles, hugs and laughter all around. I saw something at Langata Prison that day which made me want to come back. I started to volunteer for a charity to help women to transition from prison to life outside and visited the prison regularly. When I was studying for my MSt in Creative Writing in Cambridge, I often thought of the prisoners in Langata, and strangely missed my visits. After I graduated, I wanted to see if I could put some of my newly minted skills into use and joined a colleague, Peter, who was running a twice-weekly prison visit scheme called ‘Book Group.’ The women had been doing some creative writing with Peter and wanted more. So, two and half years later, we have a blog (www.beyondthesentencekenya.blogspot.com), no best-sellers yet, but lots of creative expressions and we still laugh a lot too.

What has surprised you most about the work there?

Good question. While all my students write in English, the level of education is relatively low. I am fascinated by the untrammelled intelligence of the women. Their listening and observing skills are truly astounding. They sometimes look at me pityingly as they patiently explain to me what they were able to communicate with each other with a flick of an eyebrow. Surprises are expected. I never know what I will find when I go through the small door within the massive iron gates.

What has informed your planning of the workshops? Did you use any books or websites or other resources?

Ah-ha! Well, I love a good lesson plan; however, all my attempts to structure our 4-hours together twice a week have been, and are continually thwarted by all sorts of factors outside of my control. For example, sometimes, without warning, we are not allowed in the classroom and have to have the lesson on a netball court or under a tree somewhere. Or other times, the class of twenty is only three or the other way around. I respond to the mood or needs of the class in some way but in a prepared form. Sounds like a contradiction, but for example, I sometimes bring in writing prompts which they can use if they want to. Last Christmas, I took the banana-leaf angel from the top of our tree at home. It was so pretty and fragile and yet made from garden detritus and somehow this opened up a rich seam of expression from the class. They wanted to riff on the theme of angels in the form of poetry, short stories, spoken word and even a song. So minimal teaching and more cheerleading as they dove deep into the theme. I do use the UAE Creative Writing handbook, however, for ideas when the well is running dry.

Have you ever been involved in any other kind of therapeutic writing?

Isn’t all writing therapeutic? But, to answer the question, no, not formally. For me the joy of writing is to take a thread, an unknown but unexpected, and follow it to see where it leads; crumb trail may be a better analogy, but the point is the same, following a glimpse of something that leads somewhere unknown, and unchartered. In short-form writing, I let the story wander where it wants to. In long-form fiction (I’m currently finishing the first draft of a novel) I am not so laid back about meandering. The exploration of the unknown path can be therapeutic for the writer, as connections and associations rise through the unconscious. It doesn’t always make good reading, however!

Please can you tell us a little more about your own writing? What is your favourite genre to write in? What are you working on at the moment?

I love short-form writing, but I can’t always access the necessary intense focus to ‘go there.’ I have a few pieces on my blog, (www.tildabowden.blogspot.com) which have given me real pleasure to write. It doesn’t happen often, but in my short-form writing I find I don’t look for outside approval and just enjoy letting my mind ride.

The book I am writing at the moment is a tricky beast, a story built from the facts and gaps of my great-great-aunt, Kathleen Scott’s life. Not easy at all. I find the many different skills of writing a long-form novel very challenging. Knowing people, like you Beck, who have managed to finish a novel – or four – is incredibly important and inspiring, especially on the dark days when it feels impossible.

What is your proudest moment?

I was very proud to graduate from Cambridge University. However, my prison work is very gratifying too. It may sound slightly off-track, but one of my prison students told me her story not long after she had been convicted. She had killed her husband and had been given the death sentence. She told me the details with calm and detachment that made me think she had disassociated from the horror. She explained her husband was always drunk and had been violent for over 20 years. That night, she told me, he had walked through the door, roaring drunk, saying ‘This is the night we end this.’ In the ensuing fight, she doesn’t know how he didn’t get back up. ‘There, you see, Tilda, I am a murderer.’ The label did not fit the mature and graceful woman of intelligence sitting before me. I told her with my scanty legal knowledge that it sounded like self-defence or manslaughter at the worst. I did say, however, that I believed in her. Ripple-dissolve two years later. Just before lockdown in March 2020, she asked if we could have a private chat. She told me that she had decided to launch an appeal. ‘Our work here has shown me I am not a bad person – maybe I didn’t deserve this after all.’ I feel proud of the space our class gives these women so that they can re-see themselves in a new way. In this case, her writing released a deep burden of guilt, if only in her mind.

A bit of a ramble through my prison world, but I hope it expresses why I love teaching there so much. I never feel afraid or threatened, but rather, I feel valued and safe. Not at all what I expected when I first walked through the gates at Langata Women’s Prison.

What do we all need to read? 

Anything by Vladimir Nabokov but ‘Speak Memory’ is a masterclass in not only writing, but also why we write.

Thank you so much Tilda for coming on to the blog. It’s been fascinating to discover more about your work in Langata Women’s Prison and has inspired me hugely to think more deeply about how I can use my love of the written word to be of service to others.

Rebecca Stonehill

Compliment this blog post with a look at how two book charities are helping those behind bars; how to create a new narrative of hope through books & literature & a fabulous initiative to get us writing letters to people who really need to hear from us.

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