Families torn apart, friendships damaged irrevocably and shattered hopes for the future proved common themes at a Brexit life-writing workshop I arranged at work this week.
The workshop was part of our annual Inclusion Week. Inclusion is one of our corporate values and the week is intended to help staff find out more about themselves and each other. Lunchtime sessions included introductions to Islam, how to read body language and working with people of different generations.
For me, the Brexit life-writing class was a highlight of the week. It explored what leaving the EU means in terms of how we Britons see ourselves.
I invited acclaimed writer and researcher Katy Massey to lead the workshop. It offered an opportunity for colleagues to get down on paper how they feel about the implications of the vote for them and their families.
However, as Katy explained, life-writing involving sharing a specific experience, rather than writing in a more general way.
Participants paired up and talked through the incident that had prompted us to come to the workshop. Then, after finding a variety of words to use to describe the experience, we set about putting down our stories in writing. At the end, we all shared what we had written with the rest of the group.
There were tears as people read out their prose. Our very identities have been called into question by the outcome of last year’s referendum, we agreed.
The UK joined the then European Economic Community in 1973. People in the workshop said they had grown up seeing themselves as both British and European. I know I do.
I could feel the anger in the room.
One woman described her disappointment with her mother, who had voted Leave despite being an immigrant herself. Her daughter’s plans to work for the EU are now in tatters. Another was unsure whether she could stay living in the UK.
I wrote about my night at the count in Brighton. The result there – a 69% vote to remain – was in stark contrast to what I saw happening nationally on the TV screens.
“People in the workshop said they had grown up seeing themselves as both British and European. I know I do”
Katy, who led the session, has Arts Council backing for her project, entitled Who Are We Now?, looking at our identity in the wake of the Brexit vote. She is about to publish a collection of stories resulting from workshops she has run in London and the South East.
I will offer my piece of writing to her for potential inclusion.
For me, the only positive of the Brexit vote is that it has given me and Damon the push we needed to move to France. Already, though, strangers here and in the UK are asking us how we think we will manage to stay in the longer term.
The answer is that we may have to give up our identities as they stand. Damon is seeking Irish citizenship, while I may have little option but to become French.
Who are we now indeed?