- 5 December 2023
- 5 minutes
After a history undergraduate degree at SOAS, Chloe went straight into frontline immigration legal work, working in law firms and small grassroots organisations. However, she began to miss writing and, due to the demanding nature of her work, needed space for reflection in order to continue working in this sector.
The Writing MA programme at the RCA appealed, due to its openness to diverse experiences, backgrounds and approaches to writing. Here she shares her experiences of the programme.
You’ve been awarded an Arts Council England (ACE) grant to complete the writing project you started on the MA Writing programme. Could you give an overview of this project?
My final project on the Writing programme was about the bureaucratisation of storytelling in the asylum process and its relationship to autofiction and memory. It was a narrative non-fiction piece that was made up of multiple vignettes and stories. A lot of it was based on my professional experience representing young people claiming asylum in the UK but I turned to artists, writers and filmmakers to think about aspects of it outside of a legal context.
This funding will allow me to build on what I started at the RCA. The project continues to draw on much of my first-hand experience interacting with the UK’s fortress-like bureaucratic asylum system. It thinks about the journey of stories, the translation of people’s memory into witness statements and the state’s often slippery attempt to pin down human experience in writing.
What motivated you to write about this topic?
I’ve always been interested in storytelling and particularly how people tell stories about themselves.
I am intrigued by the idea that a fictionalised storytelling begins as soon as we speak or translate an experience into a common language, as well as what happens to a memory when stories are repeated, and how repetition can mean that stories get stuck or paralysed.
I am thinking of my own family stories, and the way in which they can take on a life of their own and often get exaggerated, twisted, or changed, until they sort of fossilise into a single state, a single retelling. Although they are technically part-fictionalised by this point, another kind of truth is revealed within the retelling in the points of exaggeration, the details that stuck, or indeed, what is omitted.
Within the asylum process, individuals have to repeat their story over and over again, and it mustn’t vary at all from the first writing or else they could be found to ‘not be credible’. I’m interested in these areas, where life and bureaucracy don’t fit.
“Writing is so fundamental to the way in which the state holds power, so it feels appropriate to use those very tools to question and respond to it.”Writing MA alumni
Why is writing an appropriate medium through which to address this topic?
So much of the power of law is held in the way it is written and communicated, in a very specific type of impenetrable and coded language. What happens when you turn it on itself or rub it up against other voices? Writing is so fundamental to the way in which the state holds power, so it feels appropriate to use those very tools to question and respond to it.
The asylum system in particular relies so heavily on writing, and so much weight is placed on the way people tell their past experience. A person’s voice takes on a different weight compared to, say, the witness statement in a criminal case, where this narrative is likely to sit alongside other types of evidence, such as CCTV reels or fingerprints, which can help corroborate or disprove a person’s account.
Early black and white ID photo by Senegalese photographer Oumar Ly, circa 1960
You previously studied history at SOAS and worked for several years as a legal aid immigration lawyer. Why did you choose to study Writing at the RCA?
I wanted to interrogate legal text and bureaucracy, and it felt really interesting to do this within an art school, instead of a more classic academic institution. I’m interested in interdisciplinary approaches and what you can see when you move ideas into different spaces. I think there is always a risk of getting too comfortable in professional contexts, or any single discipline, and I wanted to try to see my blind spots. It ended up revealing and throwing up questions about my professional work that I couldn’t really have predicted!
“I’m interested in interdisciplinary approaches and what you can see when you move ideas into different spaces.”Writing MA alumni
Was it always your intention to write about your experiences as an immigration lawyer?
No, not really, at the start of the course I definitely needed space from it and actually wrote more about photography and strange family stories. But I guess I am not surprised that it is what I ended up coming back to – as it is what I have spent all of my twenties doing.
It helped me to think about broader themes in the experience, and exposed me to so many new writers and artists that challenged the way I thought about what I had been doing. It allowed me to experiment with form and undo more restrictive ways of writing and thinking that I had learnt both in academia and law. It was both rigorous and playful. So much of law and academia is written for a particular audience, an echo-chamber, so playing with form can change and disrupt that.
“It allowed me to experiment with form and undo more restrictive ways of writing and thinking that I had learnt both in academia and law.”Writing MA alumni
How has studying Writing at the RCA helped you to develop this project into a book length project, and secure funding to make it happen?
I was encouraged to be ambitious. Head of Programme Jeremy Millar, suggested a way to work towards writing a book, and said I should think about submitting to the Fitzcarraldo Essay Prize. It made me realise that I could imagine working on something bigger and gave me a path to keep me tapped in.
Post RCA, I did end up revising my final project and submitted it to the Fitzcarraldo Essay Prize. I was shortlisted for it, and was contacted by various literary agents wanting to work with me. All of this helped me secure the ACE funding.
Are there any skills, advice or methods that you acquired on the programme that you now use day to day?
So much of it really. The live format of crits and quick turnaround of work have made me far braver at sharing work. The amount that you have to produce means that you quickly learn to be less precious and if, like me, you have a tendency to sit on writing for a long time, it recreates the energy that is needed in the outside world to get things moving!
“Your writing is read on a weekly basis by tutors and peers and you receive live feedback, which not only makes you a better writer but also develops your editorial and feedback skills towards others' writing.”Writing MA alumni
Your writing is read on a weekly basis by tutors and peers and you receive live feedback, which not only makes you a better writer but also develops your editorial and feedback skills towards others' writing. I remember guest lecturer, Orit Gat saying to us ‘read each other’s work, edit each other’s work, edit your friends’ work, it will make you a better writer!’ This is some of the best advice – I hope to always do this!