York often smelt of hot chocolate and burnt biscuits. As a student living in the city in the early noughties, this smell was a sensual and essential part of the city’s personality. It lingered on the cobbled lanes and in the marketplace, and at first it felt imagined and universal – by which I mean I thought it was all in my head. I experienced the odour like an apparition; the spirit of a universal truth, filtered through my senses and retrieved as a scent.
I’d had this experience once before, in Wales, as a six year old. For some reason – that doesn’t make complete sense but has lodged itself in my memory and won’t let Reason shake it free, I remember being followed around by an opaque outline of mountains. I’m half blind in my left eye, and at the time I believed it was the product of my overactive imagination and my lazy eye. I’m not sure if they stalked me for a day, a month, a year or longer, but for an indeterminable time I was aware of their presence everywhere I went. I didn’t question it. Something within my six-year-old sensibility told me they were a visual representation of The Ancestors watching over me and I felt safe. I don’t remember when I finally realised the mountains were not my East and West African ancestors transported to South Wales to ‘watch my back’.
Years later in York, the smell of hot chocolate and burnt biscuits was similarly comforting. It evoked nostalgia and reminded me as I transitioned to adulthood that there was something essential in childhood that I should work hard to keep. I remember when I discovered the smell wasn’t imaginary: I was sat in my first off-campus house with my good friend and housemate Ali. We were in our little front room talking over daytime TV. The room was small. It was carpeted, wallpapered and curtained, with multiple-layered and clashing, faded and dog-eared patterned textiles. During the conversation Ali was comparing York to London and offhandedly mentioned the smell of burnt biscuits in York. I was stunned and I sat in silence as she continued to talk. The imaginary smell that encouraged me to remain connected to youthful innocence was not born of my overactive imagination and inability to see in 3D. It was because, unbeknownst to me, there were two chocolate factories in York. Oops.
Tomorrow I’m going back to York. This year I’ll spend more time in York than I have done since I left, nearly 10 years ago. During that time I’ve become better at noticing when something is a figment of my imagination and when it is real. I think I am able to do this with 92% accuracy now. I’ve managed to harness aspects of my imagination and sometimes I am paid for doing so. During this year in York I’ll facilitate creative ‘happenings’, arts workshops, creative writing sessions, and events – inviting people to connect with their childlike creative sensibilities.
In some ways this residency materialised from the corner of my imagination and my lazy eye, the hinterland at the edge of reality. I read about CAHR in the York University alumni magazine Grapevine, which is still sent to my parents’ house in London. I was really moved by an article about the Ugandan human rights defender David Kato, who had been on CAHR’s Protective Fellowship Scheme and was later tragically killed for his human rights work. When I read the article I wanted to work with the CAHR but didn’t know how. A year later I contacted Professor Paul Gready, the director of CAHR. We talked about CAHR’s work and upcoming projects, my work and my connection to York. Over the following 12 months I worked closely with CAHR to shape the residency, the idea grew into a project. It moved from the peripheries of my lazy eye and suddenly it’s real and about to begin. I don’t mind admitting that I’m a little terrified.
It is the night before I officially begin the residency at CAHR as part of the York Human Rights City project. It is also the night before the American National Day of Action to Close Guantanamo, the 61st anniversary of the UN Disarmament Commission, and International Human Trafficking Awareness Day. With a theme as broad as human rights and so many global human rights causes and issues, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. I’ve wondered how I should approach this work and how to document it in this blog. After spending a lot of time thinking about it I’ve decided to linger on trivialities – or what I’m calling smaller stories. Helpfully, one of the themes of the York Human Rights City project is ‘local-global connections’ and it is the local that I am interested in, in fact more than the local – the personal. The fragments and smaller stories that make up the larger narratives of people’s lives.
This blog will focus on the stories of the people I meet, the projects we deliver together, and the narratives we form about our experience in York in 2013. Thank you for reading this far. I hope you’ll stop by on occasion to see how we’re doing and to comment on posts.