Dedicated to all the others: A new direction for Una

As a literature student, I’d wanted words to fix me. But it was images that pieced me back together. For months I’d been stumbling under the weight of my own silence. Sometimes it buried me. An alternating lack or intensity of emotion isolated me from everything but my own trauma. Becoming Unbecoming offered me a model to live by, a way to feel less alone without speaking and without turning rape into spectacle. Una’s images of dark forests and of her own body—lying supine, sometimes literally rooted to the earth—captured my own feelings of being both trapped and vulnerable…

Una’s discretion in regards to her own experiences—and even her identity—made me realize that my story is not for someone else’s entertainment, and that even in silence I can find solidarity. She dedicates her book “to all the others.” It’s the first book I ever read that was dedicated to me.

Sarah Hildebrand, Public Books (2018)

I’ve been wanting to tell you about all this for months, and I’ve been working on it for years but with little faith that it would actually turn into a thing, and now that the pieces are falling into place I’m proud but also scared of the enormity of the task. Finding the words to explain is hard, and perhaps that’s because much of this is beyond words… after all, that’s kind of the point. When I started drawing and writing Becoming Unbecoming I just wanted to see if a graphic novel could be a useful way of communicating about the things that were so hard to talk about, and apparently so difficult for others to listen to. Words failed me as much as people, justice and institutions failed me.

Since the book was published in 2015 I’ve had many people reach out to me to tell their stories, and I’ve tried to be worthy of their trust in me and my work. It’s just a little book, but it has a big heart, like me. Now, finally, I have a chance to make something of these encounters and what I’ve learned from them, and to formalise the process of helping others find creative ways to tell their life stories. I’m only at the start of this adventure and it is still quite fragile – I have funding till April 2022 and then I will need to find a way to make this more permanent and sustainable, but I have support, I have friends and colleagues, a team, and I have all of you.

When I wrote Becoming Unbecoming I had no idea how much it would mean to so many people. So, so many.

Tonight I had the pleasure and privilege of gathering by zoom for a book club, based around Becoming Unbecoming, with a small, brilliant group of women who are going to trust me to help them tell their life-stories. It’s the first stage in a six week activity that will explore a range of approaches to writing lives that have been touched by violence. I’m being very cautious and have spent a long time preparing and learning for this ethically challenging scenario. I’m hoping to learn as much from them as they do from me and I’m so grateful for their contributions. What a fantastic group they are.

The six week pilot project is funded by Leeds Inspired. Just a little pot of money to do big work. After the pilot, I’ll take what I’ve learned into a period of research and development funded by Arts Council England, and after that, a major project that I hope will build into an international, mass participation legacy for Una and her little, red dress.

Today is Thursday 25th November, International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, a day designated by the United nations to raise awareness of rape, domestic violence and other forms of male violence against women. One of the aims of the day is to highlight that the scale and true nature of this violence is often hidden, but why wouldn’t it be hidden? We have only just begun to learn to speak about it (though we have not yet learned to listen). Like toddlers learning a new language, we need to practice, and we may get it wrong at first, but we mustn’t give up until we can express ourselves freely.

So, what am I going to do about it?

Well, as I said, I’ve been working up to this for quite some time. I always thought I should use my work as a resource, I just wasn’t clear how that would work. But my readers showed me how. They emailed, they hung around after talks, they befriended me and I befriended them. Like Sarah Hildebrand, quoted above, they showed me how the themes and aesthetic of Becoming Unbecoming can help others find their voice, which is nice, because I dedicated it to them.

So I’ve spent a year or so researching ways of establishing non-profit organisations with the help of a hardy and extremely patient voluntary board. I’ve filled in endless forms, learned about company structure, charities, CIOs and CICs, fundraising, management roles, ethical training, research integrity and safeguarding. I’ve read some of the most long winded, inscrutable and boring documents that exist on this earth. I’ve eaten too many biscuits and drank lots of tea. An all of this has resulted in a brand new arts organisation, a not for profit social enterprise, Red Dress Collective.

We have to change the culture. To do that we have to create culture. We need stories, told in ways that help.

The work helped to awaken a subject that should not be swept under the carpet. The young women began to talk about the issue. The group grew stronger and an enormous bond was forged.

Felipe Vieira Gallisteo, theatre director, Mauá, São Paulo State
Dedicado a todas as outras – Coletivo Rubra (2019)

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