The Inside Story

Published on 28 February 2016

Guided by artists, at-risk youths transform their life stories into new narratives of hope.

BY PAMELA HO

What is it about a song or a poem that makes us cry? Why is it that it can make us feel understood and less alone? Surely, you have a go-to song that you play when you need a shot in the arm.

Words possess the power to speak straight to the heart, if they are written from the heart.

“Stories are universal, and words are a currency that anyone can attain,” says performance poet Marc Nair, who has worked with migrant workers and poetry. “Having the ability to wield words allows you to empower yourself to effect change, starting from within.”

“Our minds are wired to make meaning. When a traumatic event occurs, our minds work overtime to process the experience. Writing helps us frame the experience into a narrative,” adds Crystal Goh, a singer-songwriter and co-founder of Diamonds On The Street (DOTS), a social collective that empowers individuals and communities through music, drama and storytelling.

“When we translate an experience into language, we essentially make the experience graspable; and this is what allows us to create meaning and eventually to craft a new narrative of hope,” she says.

POWER OF POETRY Performance poet Marc Nair has worked with migrant workers and at-risk youths, using poetry-writing as a means to empower and transform.  PHOTO Marc Nair

HOPE FLOATS

And Goh would know. In 2011, she was building a name for herself as a singer-songwriter when she lost her voice. She was diagnosed with spasmodic dysphonia, a voice disorder that had no known cure. Goh was devastated. In the midst of her anguish, she penned a song to remind herself to keep hoping. As her belief grew and her voice miraculously started returning (albeit not fully), she felt compelled to share this empowering experience with others. And so, DOTS was born.

One of the first communities DOTS worked with was at-risk youths from Residence @ St George’s (RSG), a girls’ home run by Methodist Welfare Services. These girls were referred by the Ministry of Social and Family Development and voluntary welfare organisations, or mandated by the Court to serve their probation in a residential facility.

“They’re likely to come from dysfunctional families and are generally unmotivated in school. Some also fall under the negative influence of peers who give them the sense of belonging and attention they crave,” reveals Goh, who first worked with the girls in December 2012.

In December last year, Goh teamed up with Nair for Reword, a spoken word and music project presented by Words Go Round, the Singapore Writers Festival’s programme for students, teachers and the community. Over a span of seven weeks — for two hours each week — the duo guided 10 girls from RSG, aged 16 to 21, through a creative process to give voice to their stories.

MELODY FOR A MALADY Singer-songwriter Crystal Goh founded Diamonds On The Street to give hope to troubled souls. PHOTO Jean Paolo Ty

WIELDING WORDS

The programme is designed to enable the girls to make meaning out of their crisis through guided reflection. Through the workshops, they learn creative skills to communicate difficult thoughts and emotions, and to positively reframe crises. Goh elaborates, “According to poet William Plomer, ‘creativity is the power to connect the seemingly unconnected’. The creative process allows them to pay more attention to their experiences, to connect the dots; and through translating these reflections into a poem, song or spoken-word piece, they begin to own their new narrative of hope.”

The girls work both individually and in small groups, focusing on incorporating poetic elements such as imagery and personification in their writing. Nair observes that they have become more confident in their written form of expression, seeing the power of using similes and metaphors to describe their world.

“It also allows them to talk about personal issues from a distance,” Nair says, adding that he has been pleasantly surprised by how articulate and inventive the girls are in devising unique angles and even creating sustained metaphors in their work. “Some examples include using the extended metaphor of a computer to represent growing up, or exploring ideas of separation and distance using the image of a tree set adrift on an ocean.”

MARC MY WORDS Engaging teenage girls from St George’s in the creative process of crafting spoken word poems from personal letters they have written.

HEARTFELT HARMONIES A private showcase where at-risk youths perform their pieces for loved ones, mentors and caregivers in a safe environment. 

TRUE COLOURS

Veronica Lim, programme executive at RSG, observes that the duo has managed to gain the girls’ trust through their patience and non-judgmental approach. Their encouragement and affirmation have also helped the girls express themselves more freely.

“At RSG, we have programmes like art therapy, dance and inspirational talks for our girls, but Reword lets them put their personal life stories into songs and poems; and these inspire and touch people’s hearts — first themselves, then those around them.”

The Reword journey culminates in a private showcase where the girls perform their pieces to their loved ones, mentors and caregivers. “Through performing, they experience how this new narrative affects the people they care for,” explains Goh. “Being able to connect with their loved ones using their new narrative is what will give them the courage to act on these new truths.”

Their audio compositions will also be documented for a public showcase to share their journey of healing through words. The hope is that their heartfelt words and stories will resonate with others. But Goh is quick to add that the girls’ identities and confidential details are strictly protected.

Through this journey, Goh herself has been moved. “Listening to their reflections, I’ve developed a deeper appreciation of their courage and resilience. I’m inspired by their ability to transform their stories of victimisation to stories where they are survivors who have gleaned wisdom.”

Lim believes the girls are better able to affirm themselves, knowing they can be accepted for who they are. “With the acceptance comes readiness to not only express who they are, but who they hope they can be one day. Also, what they’ve written becomes their own art piece. They take pride in their ability to do something positive and constructive with their lives.”

REWORD, REFRAME Leading at-risk youths through a process of guided reflection to transform their personal stories into new narratives of hope.

Join Crystal Goh and Marc Nair as they share this experience in How Words Shape Our Journeys at The Arts House, 11 March, 8pm. Visit www.singaporewritersfestival.com for details.

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