Alicia J. Rouverol was born and raised in California. Her first co-authored book, “I Was Content and Not Content”: The Story of Linda Lord and the Closing of Penobscot Poultry (2000), was called “a compassionate and sorely needed book” by The New York Times. It was also nominated for the Oral History Book Award. In 2008, she received a grant for emerging writers from the Elizabeth George Foundation for her prison project, Trying To Be Good: Lessons From a Penitentiary, also nominated for the Helen and Martin Schwartz Humanities Prize. Her documentary work has been funded by grants from the James Irvine Foundation, California Council for the Humanities, Marin Community Foundation, Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, various arts and humanities councils, and housed in archives across the country, most recently in the Library of Congress and UC-Berkeley. She has taught oral history at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies and UNC’s Southern Oral History Program, where she was also Assistant Director, and was previously Associate Director at the Northeast Archives of Folklore and Oral History. Her academic articles have been published nationally, internationally, translated, taught and anthologised. Recent fiction and poetry have appeared in Cicatrice, The Manchester Review, Route 57, and Wandering Bard, among other publications, with nonfiction appearing in The Independent and Island Journal. She has been a contributing writer for ParentsDigest.com and a contributing reviewer for The Monitor. She has also served as a reader and worked for Narrative Magazine. She received her MA (2013) and PhD (2017) in Creative Writing, funded by the the NAFUM Award and the Presidential Doctoral Scholar's Award, respectively, from the University of Manchester's Centre for New Writing. Her fiction focuses on many of the issues she explored previously through folklore, oral history and nonfiction: worker culture, time and the effects of economic decline. She has recently completed two novels, Dry River and The Other Side of Darwin. She is now working on a collection of short stories themed on migration, mobility and place, which she launched in 2019 whilst an inaugural Artist in Residence at the John Rylands Library. She has taught creative writing/literature at Manchester, Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam, and currently Salford universities. Her nonfiction is represented by Bonnie Nadell of Hill Nadell Literary Agency, Los Angeles, California.
When I first arrived at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre (AIU)—located in Manchester's Central Library, where my Rylands' Residency would be based—I was a relative stranger. I suppose, in a way, this was fitting. I was here to develop a series of short stories about migration, using the AIU's collection. And migrants are, after all, strangers, in the first instance.
I found at the AIU not only rich print and archival resources on race, ethnicity and migration, but also a vital centre and staff engaged in exhibitions (launching one on Manchester's Armenian migrant community) and willing to host my proposed workshop on 'writing migration', the subject of my residency.
I split my residency days between my alcove in the cavernous hall of the John Rylands Library and the AIU. It was early February and I had six months to tackle my project: previous stories to explore and consider in light of this new research; new stories to craft. How would this collection 'speak' to me?
I also had two neoliberal novels (completed whilst at Manchester) to re-examine, revise and submit to agents and small presses, here and in the US. The task(s)—so often when we look at the whole mountain—were daunting.
Where to begin, as Roland Barthes once asked?
Only I wasn't analysing texts but rather making up new ones. I was analysing transcripts—finding snippets that held meaning and that might resonate for me as part of my growing story collection.
So I did what writers do: establish a schedule (Wednesdays: Central Library; Tuesdays: Rylands), plant bottom in chair, get to work. You begin by scratching the surface to determine what might be mined: read, scribble notes, write—but later, much later, after things have begun to percolate…
I read volume after volume of transcripts—Roots Family History Project, Voices of Kosovo in Manchester, Exploring Our Roots—watching DVD of interviews where they were available. These were community oral histories by Manchester organisations and local high school students. I knew such projects, having worked at oral history programmes (currently on NHS at 70 at Manchester). But I didn't know yet how the material might come to life in my own work.
And it has—in unexpected ways.
It wasn't just the material working on me; it was also the place. And migration is all about place.
I drew on the Library itself, with its broad stripes of Manchester: young people, students, older men, busy bedraggled parents, of all races and ethnicities. Daily, recent immigrants to the UK would come to 'our' desks, asking for direction to the Home Office, located not far from us in the Lower Level. One feels the changing tides of Britain here—in a good way.
I'm exploring in these stories of migration in various forms, in a variety of settings across the globe, and featuring the inevitable exchanges and sometimes collisions of culture.
On 15 July, we hosted 'Stories of Migration: A Writing Workshop', sponsored by the John Rylands Research Institute and the AIU, for interested writers from South America, Europe, South Asia, and Manchester, sometimes offspring or partners of those who'd moved from other regions. Veronica Barnsley (University of Sheffield) and AIU's own poet Angela Smith joined me. To stimulate the writing session, we drew on writers from Bharati Mukherjee to Langston Hughes to Ali Smith, and the anthology, Wretched Strangers (edited by Ágnes Lehóczky and J T Welsch, Boiler House Press, 2018). Dr Safina Islam—the AIU's new director—welcomed our group, launching the event.
The enthusiasm that night filled us all; our writer-participants urged us for more! It fuelled me too. That weekend, I wrote a story knocking around in my head, embellishing on an incident in Corsica from my own childhood. And there are more I'm developing still, inspired by the narratives I've read here: stories of migration and change, fear and courage in the face of (so often) such terrible odds.
'You can't go back', writes Roberto Bolaño in Antwerp. No, we can't. But we can write about 'back there', and we can write too about what it feels like—and means—to have come 'here'.
I would like to thank the AIU staff for their gracious reception and support during the residency: Ruth Tait, Angela Smith, Laura Briggs, Hannah Niblett, Hattie Charnley-Shaw, Jo Robson, Waqar Younis, Drew Ellery, Laila Benhaida, Jennie Vickers and Dr Safina Islam. I would also like to thank Sarah May, Manager of the John Rylands Research Institute.
Everything we want to think we are we usually aren't.
I grew up in a family of writers and activists. Too reclusive for the latter, I was drawn to the former. At age eight—while living in Corsica—I read voraciously and wrote plays and later poetry and short stories.
We read Shakespeare aloud in my family as a child. Entire plays, with everyone taking a role. I never realized that was unusual until I reviewed David Lipsky's Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace and learned that in the Wallace household, everyone read—together in the same room.
Do those of us who do so become writers?
Growing up in the Bay Area in the '60s and '70s, I swiftly plotted my departure—I took flight to Canada first, where I studied everything but writing for a year, and then discovered sailing, and then fell in love and went to the other side of the country, equally swiftly, and then from there, I went sailing in the West Indies, where for two years I buried myself in boats.
While circumnavigating North America by plane, boat, and Greyhound Bus, I wrote. Landlocked in Maine, I studied writing with poet and publisher Constance Hunting. Then I met folklorist Sandy Ives, who catalyzed in me this love of story.
Folklore was to be my day job; it ended up a twenty-year career track.
All the while, I drafted novel after novel, none of them right.
And then in 2000, I wrote a book called "I Was Content and Not Content": The Story of Linda Lord and the Closing of Penobscot Poultry, with Cedric Chatterley and Stephen Cole, about one woman's experience of plant closure in coastal Maine.
Linda Lord was a poultry worker at the local plant in Belfast, ten miles from where I lived. Cedric had begun photodocumenting Linda, who was to be featured in our exhibition and later the book. I'd seen his images, but I'd not yet met Linda.
"You know Linda lives next door," Cedric announced one day, when he stopped by to work.
"You're joking, right?"
"No, I'm not," he said.
Look at page 43. (This necessitates buying the book, of course!) Notice the square boxes depicting windows on the other side of Linda's plasticized porch. Little known fact: for a time I lived in one of those boxes, the windows of my room facing Linda's home.
Maybe it was the confluence of events, but the book landed in The New York Times Book Review and was nominated for an Oral History Association Book Award.
Second book syndrome set in. I left my job at the Southern Oral History Program to write. I moved West. I wrote tens of thousands of words this time, got an agent (a fabulous one). Won an Elizabeth George Foundation grant for emerging writers. I got my first paid writing gig for ParentsDigest.com that lasted precisely one year.
And then everything changed—completely—once it looked as if it might actually be headed in a positive writing direction.
I was told my prison project, Trying To Be Good: Lessons in a Penitentiary, couldn’t “go the distance.” I dropped the article I’d been invited to write on the project for Narrative Magazine.
Nothing worked. I couldn’t seem to go the distance.
And then something strange happened.
On a dare from a friend, I signed onto National Novel Writing Month and drafted Dry River. For the past year and a half, I have worked steadily on the book. It might not yet sing, but it is the beginning of a song.
Things are better now. I write book reviews for The Christian Science Monitor. I am a reader at Narrative Magazine. I write daily. I am starting an MFA program. I am developing another nonfiction proposal. I have landed a day job. I am spending time with my girls.
Life continues, it gets richer, and when the book I’m writing is right, you'll get to read it too.