Writing workshop: Lines of Communication


Saturday 14 June 2022 from 19:00 to 21:00, Muntpunt, Literair Salon S1, Munt 6, 1000 Brussels

We will take a closer look at device in fiction, including characterisation and symbolism, at work in the writing process. You can work on a new text or on an existing one. Prose writers from all walks of life are welcome. The workshop is led by Fintan O’Higgins.

About Fintan O’Higgins
Fintan O’Higgins has written for the UK’s oldest TV series, ‘Coronation Street’, and has led workshops in drama, poetry and prose fiction. He also developed playscripts, and feature films. Fintan’s television drama writing experience also includes popular TV series such as ‘Emmerdale’ and ‘Hollyoaks’, and ‘Coronation Street’.

25 euros payable on the day, with Registration via e-mail: brusselswriterscircle@gmail.com
Food and drinks available for purchase at the Muntpunt café downstairs.

Missing the Exit


The recently published book of poems, Missing the Exit, by Michael Adubato, a former Brussels resident who can still be found milling about Sablon on occasion, takes readers on a journey brought to life through literary form.

The majority of his poems focus on the theme of travel as they were written during Adubato’s numerous trips around Europe, where he has lived most of his life, while some are his reflections on the time spent back home in New Jersey, USA.  One particular poem was written in a Dunkin’ Donuts in the city of Newark, where his ancestors settled during the great American migration of the 19th century. 

With a passion to write, Adubato is at his best when he can hit the roads, the rails and the skies, and scratch his itch to write and travel.  In one of his poems he says that, “Home is nice, but you cannot really live and learn and discover in a familiar and confined space.”  Considering his extensive travels, this does seem to be so, for this Mons based poet. 

He writes about what he sees during his travels, his experiences while sitting in a café, a bookstore, walking among the ruins of an ancient Greek city, or while flying at 35,000 feet above Earth.  By exploring the spaces without, he is inspired to mine the places within his interiority.

His free verse style depicts slices of everyday, ordinary life, which as such does not elevate him to some esoteric plane of poetry, but instead keeps him earth-bound and close to his reading audience.  His kitchen is the setting for a couple of his poems where he is seen, rather read, roasting up a Thanksgiving turkey and on another occasion “making waffles with maple syrup”, where he lives life in all its glorious simplicity, rather than merely contemplating it.

He writes about drinking Romanian wine, the country of Afghanistan, where he spent a few weeks, the passing of another year, and about reading Charles Bukowski, one of his favorite diversions.  The simplicity of Adubato’s poems effectively transports the reader into the scene depicted, one of Adubato’s gifts. 

His poetry also gives us his insights into society with commentary on world affairs, such as the horrors of the Syrian war. Overall, Adubato is perceptive without being overly analytical. He acts as an observer whose task is to state facts without aestheticizing them for art’s sake.

Missing the Exit gives the readers a glimpse into the poet’s life, enticing them to journey back to his poetic world time and again.  Adubato shows that missing the exit brings us “to a new destination”, and can be a good thing.   

Introducing the Monthly WordPrompt


Introducing the Monthly WordPrompt.

Each month, WordPress invites writers to entertain a single word that serves as a prompt for your writing, your art, your coding — “whatever it is that makes you, you.” 

For March, the WordPrompt is: BRIDGE. Use that word as a jumping off point to publish a new post, whether you’re a lifestyle blogger or a foodie, a photographer or a poet.

If you’d like to post your writing on the Brussels Writers’ Circle site, just let us know in an email to brusselswriterscircle@gmail.com. However you create, participate on a broader level by adding the tag #WordPrompt to your post and join others on WordPress.com using the prompt. Next month, they’ll share a few of their favorites

Brussels City of Stories


Let’s fill the city with stories! For its second edition, Brussels City of Stories will gather personal stories from all over the city. This is the second year the Brussels Writers Circle will be participating in the Brussels City of Stories, an initiative of Passa Portathe 140Muntpunt and La Foire du Livre de Bruxelles. See last year’s publication full of stories from our circle!

This time City of Stories will explore the theme of public transport as a place and setting for stories of encounters. Help us fill the city with stories… In the coming months, Brussels City of Stories will work together with different associations and groups to collect stories. We suggest reading out your stories and getting feedback from the Brussels Writers’ Circle, and then emailing the revised stories to us at brusselswriterscircle@gmail.com by the 1st of March. The results will be presented on Saturday 4th of June on the STIB-network and in 4 metro stations. Participate and send us your story!


Like stories, urban transport connects people and places. Sometimes, during a journey or while waiting for the bus or the train, these stories cross paths. Some of these interactions mark us, positively or not. They become stories that we tell ourselves to make us laugh, to reflect on or to challenge reality, to imagine, to dream. Help us capture, connect and spread these unique moments!


  • Deadline = 1st of March
  • Maximum 700 words
  • 1 piece for each writer
  • Label your piece with your name and email address, and include a short bio
  • Email your story to brusselswriterscircle@gmail.com
  • Muntpunt will select the stories for the issue

Muntpunt and the STIB we are looking into forms of presentation by billboard, QR-code (audio or text), print, visual art, and live performance in the streets of Brussels on the 4th of June. Discover more on the process of Brussels City of Stories on the web.

Why can’t I publish my book in my first language?


The Trouble with Kindle’s Fine Print

By Layla Sabourian

Saying Goodbye to Madar, a children’s book about loss & grief, now available in 5 languages!

Picture this:

After weeks of scrolling through articles, putting your work up for workshop, and tediously editing, you’ve finally done it. You’ve labored and huffed and stared so long at that Word document that your eyes have threatened to fall out of your head. But here you are, scrolling through BWC as the author of a full manuscript. You’ve finally stopped typing. No more markups with a red pen—no more late nights spent yawning, thinking Just one more paragraph… 

No more! Finally, your book is finished. Hooray! 

…What now?  

If you’re me (and you have a budget), you create a team of editors prepared to send off submission queries to every publisher on Earth that’s accepting unsolicited manuscripts. We’ve been researching agents and editors like mad! Spreadsheet after spreadsheet, query letter after query letter—the publishing industry is not for the faint of heart. I’ve received more rejections than I can count. 

After writing two books—over 200,000 words of my life—I was exhausted. Nobody wanted to give me the green light; I felt like I was back in the venture capital industry, fighting tooth and nail for funding. Why didn’t anybody think my story was as special as I did? How much harder was I going to have to work to prove myself? What was I doing wrong? 

That’s when I hit Google and I learned the truth: 

The odds of getting published are simply not in your favor.  

If the numbers are right, and only 3 manuscripts in 10,000 get published, where does that leave us unagented authors? Do we not deserve to be seen and heard, too? 

As I’ve been searching for a home for my memoirs, I’ve also been writing and submitting a number of multilingual children’s books to agents and publishers. Maybe fiction would be a more fruitful route for my dreams of being a big-wig author? My dream was always to be traditionally published, and to become a bestseller with a passionate, like-minded audience around the world. 

Well, I was correct, in part. One of my stories, The Discovery of Magic was published through EdiLivre—but that yielded few sales, and they now own the English version of that story in its entirety. Finding high-quality publishers that not only accept unsolicited manuscript submissions, but adequately promote their works has proven to be quite a challenge for an unagented author of color writing nonfiction about her true life experiences as an Iranian orphan. 

The list of publishing gimmicks is endless (and growing). 

Even if you do manage to find the publisher of your dreams, pricey editing packages and long time frames from big names are dissuasive. In the modern era, lots of people are turning to self-publishing—namely through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing services. 

Uploading to KDP is nothing short of excruciating for a newbie, I won’t lie. The road to publication—an underwhelming and tedious three-stage process by comparison to the months of work you’ve poured into your submission packages—requires a number of particularly formatted files that KDP moderators run through the wringer. A number of employees manually review every submission, and they remove content that doesn’t meet their standards. 

Unfortunately, publishing frustrations don’t end there.

It can take up to 48 hours to learn that you’ve made an error along the way, even if it’s a miniscule fix like realigning the cover or dragging a text box inside a border. Regardless, you have to manually edit and reupload the entire document, which can be a bit of a time-suck. 

All things considered, you’ll still be published at the end of the day—or week, rather—if you decide to self-publish through Amazon. It’s free to upload, and you receive up to 70% of the royalties from all of your book sales, which is more than most publishers offer. 

The real trouble for me came in Language selection. 

As the head of a multiracial-multilingual household, it was important to me that children be able to see themselves reflected in the stories they read, and I made it a priority to make my work as accessible as possible. My stories have been translated into English, Spanish, French, Dutch, Farsi, and even Chinese and Slovak! 

But as I tried to self-publish Saying Goodbye to Madar, a story that features my eldest daughter learning of the death of her great-grandmother, I was humbled to find that Amazon doesn’t allow self-publications in Farsi. That story has strong cultural themes, and it was important to me that I be able to release that book in Persian as well as English—my late grandmother deserved to be able to understand a story written for her, I figured. As I struggled to understand why I couldn’t publish in my first language, I could only imagine Madar staring down at my work with strained eyes, appreciating the illustrations and nothing more. 

I tried publishing the Farsi version of Saying Goodbye to Madar as an Arabic book, hoping the KDP moderators might be able to overlook the differences, but they have hawk eyes. Then I tried to publish another of my stories in Chinese after I’d been fortunate enough to locate a team member that could provide a translation for us. Again, to my surprise, we couldn’t publish My Recipe for Good Mental Health in Chinese. There was no option for Mandarin—only Japanese—so I tried again. The mods weren’t having it, which begs the question: 

Why does Amazon—the world’s largest book retailer—

insist on censoring certain languages?

From what I’ve read, because Amazon is an American company first, the corporation is heavily influenced by American foreign policy. A number of Persians have been crying out for justice—Afghans, Iranians, and Iraqis alike. Over 100 million people on the planet speak Farsi, but Amazon remains silent. 

Some speculate that Amazon is fearful that the books they distribute will wind up in Iran, where book bans are frequent and guidelines for forbidden materials change. Given the United States’ tumultuous relations with Iran, it’s understood that Jeff Bezos doesn’t want to ‘stir the pot’ and create any friction with Iran or with China, who’s also struggling with rigid censorship policies. 

So what does that mean for me and my team of editors?

If I decide to self-publish my memoirs on Amazon, I won’t be able to upload the story of my life in my native language. Part of my audience will always be excluded, through no fault of their own, as I was through most of my life as an Iranian orphan in the midst of a religious war. In the face of my mission to create educational, inclusive spaces for adults and children alike, there are few things more heartbreaking than that. 

My team and I have started creating bilingual editions of books as a means of ‘skirting around’ Amazon’s linguistic restrictions, and I’m proud to report that Saying Goodbye to Madar is now available in Bilingual English-Farsi on Amazon. We’ve yet to find a way to publish My Recipe for Good Mental Health in Chinese, however.

If anybody in the BWC has had trouble publishing in their language of choice, I’d love to hear about your experience. Have you found a viable workaround my team and I haven’t come up with yet? What are your thoughts?

BWC’s Teodora Lalova publishes debut poetry collection “Afternoons Like These”


Written in Brussels, Sofia and everywhere in between, “Afternoons Like These” is the first poetry collection of Teodora Lalova (published by Ars, a publishing house based in Bulgaria and established in 1991). The book is a bilingual edition, both in Bulgarian and English. Teodora collaborated with Jason Spinks (a fellow BWC alum), Kalin Petkov and Gabriela Manova for the translation of the texts. The poetry is accompanied by several of Teodora’s black-and-white photos (for more of her photography, check her Instagram page @sledobedi).

“Afternoons Like These” can be found in Brussels, at Librairie Filigranes, and can also be ordered via the author herself. You can read one of the poems included in the book below (an earlier version of it has been previously featured in Porridge magazine).

Brussels, winter

The station breathes in just as bloated and exhausted as before.
Across the square, there are tourists buying chocolate in a last minute shopping spree;
and the rain, in a show of manners,
is tiptoeing gently – there are some stories in the streets around
that still await their promised time to happen;
they mustn’t be disturbed before it’s come.

Look, I could put it like this:

There is something not right with time here.
I’m not sure whether I age faster or, quite the contrary –
Once we’re introduced a second time, I’ll be annoyingly young again.

Maybe this time is drowsy, you know, it cannot see well,
Or it could be limping, dragging one foot behind (a wounded sparrow)
outside the markings of the road.
But what the right time would be,
and what makes the paths
of our every choice align,
I prefer not to ponder that now.

But all of these are wind-blown words. Time is perfectly fine,
it’s at peace with itself, as it should be. Actually, you know, “As I walk,
As I walk I curse at the wind”, is what I should probably say.

I was careless with the winter of this capital, and that’s that.
I was counting the hours of sunshine the way a soldier rations his cigarettes.
Only now did I begin taming it, playing it Coltrane when it’s least fitting,
we’re learning how to be wise together. And now I know:
this city prefers to hear the ‘80s on the radio.

Sometimes I wonder what you’d say when you cross for the first time
the yellow hall of the station designed by Baron Horta.
To me it looks like an idea of Berlin.
Or our Sofia many years ago.
Like a scratched vinyl of lullabies

Look, I could put it like this,
but the rain? The rain has started to run.

“Afternoons Like These” (Ars, 2021) by Teodora Lalova
Editor: Valentin Dishev
Cover: Anna Lazarova
Translation: Jason Spinks, Kalin Petkov, Gabriela Manova

Teodora Lalova (1992) was born in Varna and grew up in Sofia, Bulgaria. She studied at the National Lyceum for Ancient Languages and Cultures, obtained a Master of Laws degree from Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”, and holds an LL.M. in International and European Business Law from KU Leuven (Belgium). She is currently a PhD candidate at KU Leuven and lives in Brussels. Her poetry has been featured in numerous Bulgarian and international outlets, and she holds awards from several Bulgarian poetry competitions.


On Crystallizing Reality


Letter to a Debut Writer

 by JL Morin

My obsession with scribbling out thought waves and arranging the words has led to articles, books, tumors, decisions, more waves… Now that I’ve read out the cubist perspectives of Nature’s Confession and the parallel universes in Loveoid to the Brussels Writers’ Circle, I feel the next level demanding a new form. A blend of autobiography, essay, history, medical mystery, memoir, reflecting my place as a writer in the cosmos, engendering.

The new species would begin with a word to debut writers, among them, my self when I was beginning to write. I’ll be reading at virtual Brussels Writers’ Circle meetings from this fresh start with an author’s hindsight ― how notes overflowing, larks incanting, a sunlit mourning may invite you to the top of a page to strew pearls from the night’s sleep ― and warning how torrents of expatiation and revision may follow before Pause inevitably leads to the central question, Why write? If you are lucky enough to avoid the red-light district of Commercial Success, years spent at the ancient pursuit may furnish visionary glimpses of the answer through the veil of that temple.

Files fill. Answer out of reach, the question gnaws. Other diversions are remunerative. Nor does one write for the notoriety. God forbid people should start popping in to interrupt your writing. The sound of Craft sold @ online degree programs grates the artist’s spirit. Process suggests itself, then falls face-down, backstabbed by its own algorithmistic rhythm.

I found myself in this position a few years ago writing Loveoid. A wake, I came downstairs in my pajamas. I was eager for a fresh start. But there was a leak to sort out before I could get to my manuscript. Then an orange cat rasping outside my window needed care. I talked to him continually so he wouldn’t bolt, “Who’s here, who’s here?” to his appreciative purr. I was further checked by his tuxedoed entourage, suggesting feeding time. They commanded my attention even after they’d licked their paws…les coquins. These kitties are like aircraft, they just tuck in their feet and cruise into the astral plane.

At last, chamomile infused calm. I sat facing the page and tried to remember what I was writing. In the pause, the ‘what’ became ‘why’. It had to do with breathing life into circumstance. My pen picked up dust from a storm in the Sahara as it scratched the surface of the neglected pad. Restarts followed breaks, moving my body through the sea, then back to exercising my mind, dialogue springing from my head, my lips reading it out. I made it to the end of the novel, written the way I’d like to see reality bend ― with corporate overlords transmuted into conifers, and the lovers’ in eternal embrace ― and raced back to the beginning for fear of extinction, the re-writing, a kind of healing, to lift the veil and seize a pre-Masonic method of crystallization.

In my life so far, I’ve seen a deeper answer a spectrumful of times. As alma mater Virginia Woolf said, buried mid-paragraph, in the marrow of her Writer’s Diary, “What an odd coincidence! That real life should provide precisely the situation I was writing about….  I think writing, my writing, is a species of mediumship. I become the person.”

But did she also know that when a writer ‘becomes the person,’ their waves resonate with the waves of others? Waves meet and reinforce, increasing their amplitudes. Until bigger and bigger waves crystallize the new reality: Where life starts: A deeper reason for writing.

Overhead, The Ltd. will shush, Crystallizing reality is crazy. Art can’t be an incantation: rain dances are not…not for the civilized…not for invoking rain…no need to paint caves for a successful hunt. We have hypermarkets. The algorithm will hone its Craft.

And now on to crystallization, the tenets of which answer, “Reality is madness!”

This excerpt is the beginning of JL Morin’s manuscript, Venus in Virgo. She is the author of five novels and a children’s book.

To join the Brussels Writers’ Circle, subscribe here and get emails about our weekly meetings and events.

Newfound Time


By Layla Sabourian

Because I’ve always been extremely social, my loved ones all assumed COVID would bring loneliness and depression my way. What they didn’t realize was I’d been dreaming of writing the story of my life for years, but I could never find the time to sit down and do it. Amidst all of the social gatherings, birthday parties, work-related soirees, and both American and Iranian holidays my family celebrated, I hardly had time to breathe. Our family’s forced relocation to Belgium opened up a world of creative opportunity for me, though. With the Belgian schools closed, I finally had the luxury of time, so I decided to sit down and write the darn thing. 

For the first time in my life, I treated myself to a revitalized, ergonomic workspace. I bought a brand new desk (with a slide-out keyboard tray!) and a beautiful 27-inch Apple computer. Though I do have to share my workspace with my husband, the breathtaking lakeview from our office window whisks me away from the stress of work—all I have to do is turn my head.

All good, right? I sat down at my desk, but recanting the details of my life suddenly seemed daunting, isolating, and overwhelming. How was I supposed to start? Blinking at a blank Word document, I realized why I’d placed my writing on the back burner for so long—this was going to be a solitary activity. I did a simple Google search on how to write a book and was immediately showered with spam sent out by predatory publishers, marketing companies, and writing coaches who wanted to charge me for mere advice, without a single introduction to a literary agent. By some grace, as I was about to give up, I typed in “writers in Brussels” and boom! This group’s website popped up. I signed up right away and was surprised to receive an email the next day asking if I would be interested in sharing my writing at the next meeting.

That was my first prompt! I penned the words as fast as I could—the next meeting was only days away. Shakily, I read my piece in front of Brussels Writers’ supportive, constructively critical audience. As I soaked up all the feedback I received, I knew what I had to do. In six weeks, I managed to write not only my first memoir but its sequel, as well as a number of children’s books. I realized writing didn’t have to be solitary as I’d feared, returning week after week to the Brussels Writers’ Circle. Sharing my writing journey with other authors was nearly as rewarding as finishing my memoir!

Five months later, the group announced an opportunity to participate in a contest run by Book Voyage—an invitation to share an excerpt of my memoir outside of our now-intimate Writers’ Circle. I selected a chapter from the beginning of my memoir, and I was happy to be able to read it out and mesmerize the audience with a little bit of the storytelling magic I grew up with in Iran. Not only that, the interviewer and I hit it off really well; Meabh, a journalist from Ireland, is also a mother, and we had a lot to talk about. Her authentic interest in my story resulted in a follow-up meeting a week later, and she wound up doing a TV segment on me for Bruzz TV station. As fun as that was, I’m most happy that my writing helped me make a new friend in Belgium. After all, what good is writing and our stories if we don’t share them, too?


“The Goddess of Light wrapped herself around me in luminous tendrils, anchoring me to the ground. Mithra nearly ripped my shoulder from its socket. As I held onto the wheel of the plane, her strength and her wisdom coursed through my veins like liquid sunshine. Her presence required no declaration; it was simply experienced and understood. When I turned to face her, I saw what I can only describe as a kaleidoscopic version of myself reflected in a thousand mirrors, amplified by some cosmic brilliance. Mithra was formless and unconfined: an iridescent entity without a face or a body, but I knew it had to be her.”

Read the story on page 15 of Book Voyage.

Layla Sabourian writes about food, culture, and motherhood. Her work has received starred reviews in various Journals. She is a San Francisco and Brussels-based author who lives with her husband, her especially naughty dog,  and two exceptionally perfect daughters. 

Before she started writing her memoir, Layla earned a graduate degree in International Relations from the University of Westminster in the UK. After that, just to shake things up, she moved to Silicon Valley where she spent 10+ years in tech. She now writes part-time, while leading her content creation company for kids, Chef Koochooloo.


BWC’s Jeanie Keogh publishes short story collection Press 9 for Pig Latin


Photo Credit: Eduardo Sanchez, Unsplash

It all started with a writers group. This one. An ever-changing group of different folks, a motley of cultures, diverse genres, and writing projects at different stages of development. The feedback was always valuable — thank you — whether they were of utter disinterest or impassioned, inspired and lengthy critiques. They kept me busy for weeks (and even months) afterward. From rough first draft to polished, published book of short stories, the BWC played an instrumental part in shaping the work. Each of the 10 stories that made it into the collection passed through at least one BWC feedback session. You showed up, read the words, and it meant the world.

Press 9 for Pig Latin began as a small print run of 100 books in September 2019 intended for distribution amongst close personal contacts and writing friends, a sort of informal advanced reader copy for my intimate literary circle (you know who you are). Then there was lockdown, a lull in creative work due to the birth of my daughter, and other paid professional writing projects that naturally took precedence. Since the travel restrictions, I decided it should become available as an ebook.

While I much prefer putting a physical, signed book in the hands of the people who want to buy it, I do put as much love and care into writing heartfelt dedications in cyberspace to those of you who buy a digital copy so feel free to reach out. For those who want a hard copy, there are some still available at Waterstones bookstore downtown. The ebook is widely available everywhere online (Barnes and Noble, Chapters-Indigo, Amazon, and FNAC. Here’s a teaser from the story ‘Somewhere Over Greenland‘. Thanks for reading.

You put the completed pregnancy test in a silk-lined bag with a note on it for the baby-to-be. On one side of the paper, you write “Hello.” On the other, you write “Goodbye.”

The silk-lined bag goes into a drawer.

Other things you’ve put in silk-lined bags include sprigs of lavender, special gemstones and charms, an engagement ring from a love gone south. Those were keepsakes. You’re not sure what this is. Some kind of wish, maybe even a prayer.

You pull the silk-lined bag out every day and look at the two parallel lines. One plus one. A very different thing, this math involving human life.

Weekly BWC Tuesday Workshops In-person and Online


Dear Writers,

Weekly meetings are underway in the new paradigm! We are alternating between in-person and online circles. You can find us IRL in the back room at Falstaff every other Tuesday. On the Tuesdays in between, tune in from Wherever to the Brussels Writers’ Circle online — double-check our emails beforehand for any changes. Answer our emails to sign up as a reader, and we will be in touch to put you on the schedule.

To join the Brussels Writers’ Circle, you can subscribe directly here and get emails about our weekly meetings and events.

Happy Holidays!

The Brussels Writers’ Circle Team

Brussels Writers’ Circle launches new anthology at three Brussels events


The Circle 19: a Brussels Anthology is the third collection to mine the talent of the Brussels Writers’ Circle. It showcases twenty-seven writers representing fourteen countries. Some of the award winning authors included in The Circle 19: a Brussels Anthology are: Patrick ten Brink (Germany), TD Arkenberg (USA), Irina Papancheva (Bulgaria), Niamh Moroney (Ireland), Xavier Quiepo (Spain), and Teodora Lalova (Bulgaria).

If you like science fiction, you’ll love Zoheb Mashiur’s Brand New Me or Karmen Spiljak’s The Collectors. Romance? Check out Katja Knezveic’s The Dinner. If you’re a fan of historical fiction or contemporary poetry, you should definitely read Larisa Doctorow’s The Immortal Regiment, or ME Grey’s Impact Pathway Metric.

Please join members and friends of the Brussels Writers’ Circle to celebrate this latest literary project at one of these upcoming events:

26 November, 17:30 – 19:00, Waterstone’s Bookshop, Boulevard Adolphe Maxlaan 71-7 (Facebook event);

30 November, 19:00 – 21:00, Muntpunt Grand Café, Leopoldsraat 2 (Facebook event);

14 December, 19:00 – 21:00, Are We Europe, Boulevard Barthélémy 20.

To request wholesale copies of The Circle 19: a Brussels Anthology for your store, please contact Cynthia Huijgens at +32 (0) 470 326335. For more information about any of the above events, please email your query to bwcsubmission@gmail.com.

Thank you for supporting Brussels-based writers!

On the Move: Poems and Songs of Migration

by Sarah Reader Harris

What’s the point of poetry?

When I used to go round the refugee centre inviting people to a poetry workshop, I would often meet with incomprehension: ‘But how will that help me get my papers?’ When people’s lives are in turmoil and they are desperately trying to navigate their way through the confusion of red tape and piece together some sort of future for themselves and their families, how can poetry possibly be relevant?

And yet I remember once going to a talk given by a woman who had been taken hostage and imprisoned and she told us what kept her going was poetry. Lines of poetry that she remembered and would repeat to herself through the endless hours of torture and deprivation. When everything else had been stripped away, she held on to these poems in her head as pearls of great price that nobody could take from her. They gave her comfort and solace and the courage to carry on.

Twelve years ago I started organising poetry workshops in Petit-Château, the biggest and oldest refugee centre in Belgium. We would start off with a poem, originally in Dari or Arabic or Tigrinya, and see if it said anything to us today. We discovered Rumi that way. And Nizar Qabbani and Reesom Haile. And many, many more. Poets are greatly respected in the Middle East and nearly every Palestinian would smile at the name of Mahmoud Darwish as if I had mentioned a friend. The poems brought us together. Sometimes we didn’t understand them. Sometimes they generated a discussion. Sometimes they touched our hearts and we recognised something of ourselves in them. Often it was just seeing the letters of our own language on a page that made us feel less alone.

Music is a universal language

But we were limited by the constraints of our many mother tongues and Google Translate couldn’t do justice to the intricacies and nuances of what we wanted to say. And that was when I had the good fortune to meet Marieke, a talented singer and songwriter, who came along one wintry afternoon in 2017 with her ukulele, and added a whole new dimension to the project. By then I had decided poetry needed to breathe and moved my workshop from the classroom to the open air.  Every Monday, rain or shine, I stuck a large piece of brown paper on the wall and invited passers-by to create a poem with me.

Marieke’s music lifted these words from the page and made them sing. She would bring along percussion instruments and encourage everyone to join in, so that even the most reticent could participate. Music is a universal language which brings people together and transcends cultural and linguistic boundaries. Marieke not only brought music with her but also a whole new method of songwriting called Story to Song. This is a collaborative process, where a person is invited to share a story from their life which is then guided into a song. You can read more about this and our project on her website Migration Songs – Marieke is Guiding Song.

Last year we were honoured to be chosen as one of five finalists for the 2021 Amateo Award for arts participation projects across Europe for which we produced this video: On the Move: Poems and Songs of Migration [Amateo Award 2021]. There is also a podcast made about our work which you can find here.

Out of this fruitful partnership our book was born – On the Move: Poems and Songs of Migration – highlighting 27 songs from 18 different countries with lyrics in 11 languages. It’s illustrated with photographs and available in black and white and colour from all Amazon marketplaces. A portion of the proceeds from every sale will be donated to an organization that works with refugees. We are now working on a project for children about creatures on the move so will keep you posted!

‘She, the island: A novel about Fuerteventura’ (excerpt)

by Irina Papancheva


She saw him standing a short distance ahead, tall, bright-haired, bright-eyed. He was waiting for someone. For her. She was walking towards him, calm and contained, but also with an inner elan, such as she had not experienced for… an immeasurable time. As she moved closer towards him, the features of his face became clearer: a broad forehead, fine nose, the upper lip slightly thinner with a mole above the left corner. Gripped by sudden tension, she felt the hairs on her skin prickle in the cool breeze of the air conditioner. He was holding a light blue surfboard. He saw her, his eyes laughed, the mole lifted with his smile. Marina felt a throbbing low in her stomach as if the smile had penetrated her womb and shifted something inside. Without taking her gaze off his bright eyes, Marina smiled back, but with slightly more restraint. Only then did she look down. Another step and they were level. One more, and she passed him.

Desert in the middle of the ocean: this was her first thought when they came out. She felt the breath of the sea on her face. Breath, different from the cool breeze of the air conditioners. A disembodied caress in the middle of the rocky desert.

Gerard has encircled her waist with his hand and leads her somewhere. She does not ask where because she knows. She walks with him, surrendering herself to the hand that gently but powerfully pushes her farther and farther away from the airport and from the blue (or maybe green? maybe grey?) eyes of the boy.


Gerd looked deep in thought. It was as if, in the minutes she had left him to go to the toilet, he had managed to travel far, far away… She followed his gaze. A couple was walking away from them towards the exit of the airport. The woman’s dark hair fell in waves on her back, just below her shoulders. She wore a blue linen dress that outlined a slender body and revealed shapely legs. The man’s hand rested on her waist. He was taller than her, with silver hair. Nothing to explain the slight wrinkle between Gerd’s eyebrows, his motionless expression. What could have attracted his attention?

It sometimes happened that he briefly drifted away. At such moments she had no idea what was going on in his head. Not that she knew much better the rest of the time, but then she did not wonder. In these moments, however, she had the feeling that she did not know him at all, did not know anything about him. She would wake up one morning and see his side of the bed empty without the imprint of his body. And then she would realise that she had made everything up. Everything: their cohabitation, waking up together, early morning lovemaking, the flat, furnished with such enthusiasm (more hers than his), the long walks by the river, the journeys, the surfing, even Fuerteventura… Such crazy thoughts. What would a therapist make of this? Not that she needed one. The analysis she could do herself.

His exquisite profile turned towards her. The fog lifted from his eyes, and his mole twisted into a smile. She felt like covering this mole with kisses. Every time she felt like doing it, but this time more than ever.

She restrained herself. Such public displays were not for her. He grabbed the handle of the suitcase, and the two of them continued to the exit where Enrique was waiting.

He and Gerd embraced joyfully. In his English with its strong Italian accent, Enrique regaled them with tales of waves and surfing, and with plans for the coming days… Gerd and Enrique were like children, excited and eager.

Half an hour later, in the flat. This was their third time on the island, and it felt as if they had never left. Enrique made coffee while they put their luggage in his bedroom. He slept in the small living room-kitchen when they were there.

“How are you, hombre?” Gerd patted him on the shoulder.

“Not too bad. Now I work in a bar. Mostly in the evenings. In the mornings, I sleep late and then – the surf.”

“This I call a life!” Gerd laughed.

Did she hear envy in his voice? If he could live such a life, would he prefer it to their orderly existence in Freiburg? She did not want to know. But why these thoughts again? She had probably overstretched herself. The island will bring back her balance, she was sure of that.

The Writer

Salida de emergencia. Emergency exit. The transparent sticker on the window of the minibus made the inscription look like it was carved in the sky, an emergency exit to heaven.

Three days before departing, she had bought a second return ticket with an earlier date. She had become anxious. What if she could not leave the island? If she found herself in a self-inflicted exile? All the photos she had seen of Corralejo showed the ocean, the dunes, surfers, a few commercial hotels and restaurants, and a couple of streets. Except for the ocean, it did not look like a place she would like. Her memories were similar – a promenade, a restaurant where they had had lunch. Nothing else. They got onto the bus and headed for the dunes. A second return ticket. Was this her emergency exit?

“What are you going to do on the island? There is only sand there,” a Spanish acquaintance had asked when he heard she was leaving for Fuerteventura.

Unamuno had spent four months here, and his exile, unlike hers, was not imaginary. What did the island do for him? Did it help him face his demons? And how had he mastered those demons, while not knowing the date of his departure?

She did not want to step into this territory. The second ticket was her warranty for peace of mind.

Before she left, she had read most of Unamuno’s philosophical books with a pencil in hand. She had underlined some of the sentences and taken notes. During her flight, she started reading ‘The Agony of Christianity.’ On page 28 she circled the following passage, adding an exclamation mark:

When Lev Shestov, for example, discusses the thoughts of Pascal, it seems he does not want to understand that being a Pascalian does not mean accepting his thoughts, but to be Pascal, to become a Pascal. From my side, again, it has happened many times that, when I’ve met a person in some writing, not a philosopher nor a wise man but a thinker, when I’ve met a soul, not a doctrine, I’ve said, ‘But it was me!’ And again, I lived with Pascal, with his century and in his ideals, and again, I lived with Kierkegaard in Copenhagen, and in the same way with others. And isn’t this the highest proof of the immortality of the soul? Would they not feel in me, as I feel in them? After I die, I’ll know if I am to be revived like this in others. Although, even today, don’t some of those outside me feel inside me, without me feeling inside them? And what peace there is in all this![1]

Would she be able to become an Unamuno while on the island? Would Unamuno truly live in her, and her novel? Would they connect in the space, tricking time?

The bus drifted along the road through the dunes. Everything was the same. Everything was different. The volcanic mountains. The golden sands. The people who climbed the sandhills, strangers in the desert. The vastness of the ocean. A joyful ease filled her. She had returned.

She would find the keys in the Indy café. Her landlord, a young Spaniard, had told her this in a text message. She got out at the stop at the top of the main street and walked down it. It was a long, busy street, with a shopping centre, rock bar, restaurants, shops for different brands… Indy café. The blond woman behind the counter introduced herself as Alma, gave her a set of keys, and told her how to get to the flat. It sounded easy. Down the street. The square on the left.

“Come over for a drink later,” she suggested.


The apartment was empty. A kitchen with a bar, high stools and a sea view. Two locked doors in the hallway and one that was open. This must be her room. It was bright, with a king-size bed and a wardrobe. She arranged her clothes, took a shower, and went out.


“For the Greeks, exile was heavier than death because those who are far from home cannot be sincere, and those who cannot be sincere in their homeland are not able to be, because they are not really in it.[2]


The beginning of any journey can be so predictable with its excitements and expectations, and its repetitive actions (finding rental cars or taxis; journeys to and searches for the hotel or flat or house; contemplating the landscape and getting to know it, taking it in, attempting to digest it and hold it – if possible, forever – or forget it – if possible, forever; checking in, feeling satisfied – or not; noting the comfort or lack of comfort; looking for a place for breakfast or lunch or dinner; the end of the first day). It has just started, and it is already over. The only space in which it can be kept and experienced again and again is the space of memories. Even the awareness of the current moment cannot keep it from slipping away because the moment we are trying to stop has already passed. But still, every time there is something new, something different that distinguishes it from all the previous beginnings of all the previous trips.

This time it is the feeling, the special feeling that the meeting – no, not a meeting because they have not met yet – that the passing encounter with the boy has brought her. It is difficult to give it another name because it is so sudden and illogical, unreal but alive… the feeling. That is the word she used for it on that Saturday morning in January, shortly after she and Gerard got into the white Audi and took the road to Corralejo.

Gerard tells her something. She is not listening. She only catches occasional words as her eyes, behind sunglasses, scan the rocky landscape. Fuerteventura, Germans, World War II, Franco, Africa, asylum. Suddenly she becomes aware of the silence. Gerard has stopped talking. She takes a look at him; his gaze is fixed on the road. His sunglasses with a fine frame turn towards her and his hand gently caresses her knee.

Palm trees surround the hotel. “White, tidy cottage, two linden trees in front.” How ridiculously your memory can surprise you. It strikes suddenly. Before you know it, it has already sucked you in. On the remote island in the ocean, a child’s voice has started tinkling in an attempt to recite Ran Bosilek’s poem “White, neat hut.”

She banishes the memory. It does not belong here. The only similarity lies in the whiteness, nothing else. The hotel has eight storeys, a lush garden, a swimming pool, jacuzzi and dozens of sunbeds. No linden trees at all. The room is spacious, with a view of the ocean, the sands and the mountain ridge behind them.

And the ocean… The ocean has the colour of a postcard: blue-green, azure overflowing into the yellow of the island. Yellow like the dress she bought before they left, which now lies in her suitcase with her other dresses, her underwear, sandals and jerseys, patiently waiting to be worn for the first time. It is as if it had been a presentiment of the island, a hint of what was ahead of them. A sign, but of what? The island, the desert, the straw-coloured hair of the boy? Her eyes take in the ocean and draw her into it. Now they are one. Her lips open slightly, and she gives herself to it.


There is no time to waste. Time-is-wind-is-wave-is-surfing. Three hours of breaking the waves, the wind, the time, the surf. The moment you are on the board, all doubts, fears and thoughts scatter and disappear like sea foam. Keeping yourself on the board requires your full concentration. It takes presence. Here and now. One hundred per cent. An uncoordinated thought and the board slips beneath your feet, the wave knocks you, swallows you and spits you out wherever it decides.

She remembers the beginning, the first lessons. Catch the wave. That is it. But how do you catch a wave? How? You learn. Gradually. It is a feeling. A feeling that you learn to have. To possess this wave, to make it obey you, to make it yours. Like taming a rebellious horse. The horse is a different thing, a being. You make contact. You make it obey. But the wave… How do you conquer an element?

Gerd slides with the coming wave, slightly crouched on the board. He carries himself on it gracefully. The wind stretches his bright hair. Blows in his tanned face. A winner. A master of the waves.

How long ago was that? How had she managed?

She takes the next wave and also stands up. Flying in the spray, the wind, infinity…

The Writer

She had lunch on the square, which was visible from her kitchen window. The restaurants were full. She had imagined a deserted Corralejo in January. Instead, she found herself in a city flooded with sunshine and warmth, vibrant, joyful and hospitable. Quite different from the city in her memory.

The supermarket was around the corner. Everything here is around the corner. Comfortable, easy, calm – and slow. That is how she felt the rhythm of Corralejo in those first hours.

She did the chores for the next few days, then dropped in at the Indy. Alma was not there, but a big man was standing behind the bar: Kumar, the Indian owner. When he discovered she was Bulgarian, he told her of another Bulgarian who cleans his house. That surprised her. She had expected to be the only one on the island, which had more or less turned its back on Europe. She asked him to put them in touch, and he called her. They arranged for the Writer to go and see her the next day at a Sunday market.

“…the chance, which is the beginning of freedom,” Unamuno winked at her.

She drank a small beer and met another member of Indy’s team. Enrique, an Italian, had moved here because of the surf. His friends, a German surfing couple, had also arrived yesterday from Freiburg.

She spent the afternoon walking on the promenade and lying on one of the wooden platforms there. Not far from her was a statue of a woman with a long dress and an elegant hat. She was staring at the ocean, shading her eyes with her hand. Next to her was another statue of a man, a woman and a child, embracing. This woman’s face radiated bliss and gratitude. Next to them, a bucket of dead fish. The statues of the waiting woman and of the woman whose waiting has been fulfilled: that is what she called them on this first day.

A street musician was playing the guitar and singing his arrangements of well-known pop songs. A lyrical and heartfelt performance. She turned her face to the sun and felt the tension that had built up over the past months melting away. The heat, the caress of the breeze, the gentle sound of the ocean… She has arrived in a different place. Different from the confident purposefulness of Brussels, from the crunch of the heavy European machine, the organised gaiety of the after-work parties, the easy communication and the difficult relationships, the shiny sports clubs, the smell of urine on the central streets, the poverty of the homeless sleeping on cardboard, the designer chic of the eurocrats, euro-consultants, euro-lobbyists, euro-successful-people, to whom it seems she now also belonged. It was… different. She wondered what she had wanted the second ticket for. She already knew she would not use it, she would not leave Corralejo in a week, nor two weeks, nor even a month; she knew she might never wish to leave Corralejo… And this knowledge came to her not as a thought but as a feeling. A feeling of peace, freedom and profound harmony that was forming somewhere at the depths of her tired being.

[1] Unamuno: Articulos y discursos sobre Canarias, Francisco Navarro Artiles, 1980, Discurso de los juegos florales

[2] Unamuno: Articulos y discursos sobre Canarias, Francisco Navarro Artiles, 1980, Discurso de los juegos florales

Irina Papancheva is a Bulgarian fiction writer who lives in Brussels. She is the author of the illustrated children’s book ‘I Stutter’ (Ciela, 2005), the novels ‘Almost Intimately’ (Kronos, 2007), ‘Annabel’ (Janet 45, 2010), ‘Pelican Feather’ (Janet 45, 2013) and ‘She, the island’ (Trud, 2017), the novella ‘Welcome Nathan!’ (2019) and short stories. ‘Almost Intimately’ got the audience nomination in the 2008 Bulgarian national literary competition South Spring (Yuzhna prolet), and ‘Annabel’ has been shortlisted in the 2014 January Contemporary Bulgarian Novel Contest of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester.

Irina’s work has been published in Bulgarian, English, French, Arabic and Persian.

Website: http://ipapancheva.com/