We’re honoured to welcome author Mathilda Della Tore for a guest blog on her new book, Conversations From Calais, hailed by writers like Khaled Hosseini and Kamila Shamsie, documenting conversations between volunteers and migrants met in Calais.
Conversations From Calais is a project I started in 2019. After spending time volunteering in Northern France and feeling so frustrated by the way refugees and asylum seekers were being portrayed in mainstream media and by politicians in the UK, I wanted to find a way to share what I was hearing there. Conversations From Calais was born from that frustration. It’s a project that documents conversations between volunteers and migrants and pastes them onto city walls, as a way of re-humanising the refugee crisis. This ever-growing collection of conversations focuses on capturing the diversity of experiences and avoids creating new stereotypes of displaced people as villains, heroic figures or hopeless victims. It shared these conversations by simply pasting them on walls all over our cities.
So how did it become a book? Well, the idea for this book came about during the first 2020 lockdown, when I had too much time to think and had run out of space on the walls of my street to put up any more posters. I started to think about creating an archive that would live beyond walls and social media. Both mediums felt so temporary, and I wanted to create an archive collection that felt more permanent. I wanted these conversations to be let into our homes, our classrooms, and our libraries. I also wanted these conversations to be read as a whole, to share a more holistic representation of the sorts of conversations myself and other volunteers were having in Calais.
After what felt like endless rounds of editing a proposal, I found and agent and a publisher that signed me and we started bringing this project to life. Since 2018, this whole project has been a huge team effort, and this book was exactly the same. One of the first things we decided together is that we wanted the book to include a series of essays by different contributors, to go alongside the posters. I came up with a list of people who have used their voice to defend refugee rights in their own lives and professions. We came up with a selection of campaigners, comedians, artists, writers, chefs and journalists and it’s honour to share the pages of this book with Osman Yousefzada, Gulwali Passarlay, Nish Kumar, Joudie Kalla, Waad Al-Kateab, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Ai Weiwei and Inua Ellams. They’ve each shared some of their story by responding to a theme that related to the posters, such as Food and Shelter or Hope and Future. The last big piece of the puzzle was that I wanted to have a charity partner for the book. I had been volunteering for a while with Freedom From Torture’s local North London group, so they felt like the perfect fit. I am so happy that every book sold supports the incredible work they do to support refugees and asylum seekers and survivors of torture in the UK.
I keep thinking of what I want this book to achieve and it’s hard because ultimately, I want it to change people’s mindset towards refugees and asylum seekers, but that is firstly a very difficult thing to do and secondly a very difficult thing to measure. So how will I ever know if this book really had an impact? Well, I’m not sure I’ll ever know. But here’s to hoping that this book is read by people who aren’t really sure about how they feel towards this topic. And here’s to hoping that this book is a way to get them to start engaging with this topic in a ‘bite-size’ way. And finally, here’s to hoping that it helps more of us realise that truly listening to one another is powerful and the first step to creating a world that brings us closer rather than further apart.\
Conversations From Calais will be released during Refugee Week 2023. Available to pre-order here.