This month we talk to one of the writers of This War is Familiar, Nicoletta Barrett. Niki wrote the first of the four plays, The Departure, about two sisters in a war torn country. Originally from the Midlands, Niki studied at Goldsmiths in London and has travelled extensively. We chatted to her about her inspirations, how she came about writing the play, and her views on the refugee crisis.
1989: Tell us a bit about your background and what made you decide to start writing.
NB: I studied Drama and English at Goldsmiths, which was a great place to learn about theatre. After leaving, I tried my hand at acting and various other professional jobs. From 2011 onwards, I moved to China through the British Council and taught English as a foreign language, alongside learning Mandarin Chinese.
When returning to the UK to give birth to my daughter, I was keen to check out my local arts scene. One of my friends said ‘why don’t you write?’. I’d always wanted to do it, but needed that focus and encouragement. Eventually, I joined the 2014 Write Away at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. I really enjoy the process of page to stage, collaboration and connecting with fellow artists.
1989: The Departure is about two women in a war torn country with very different views on whether the right thing to do is to stay or to start afresh somewhere else. How were you inspired to write the play?
NB: I received the brief from 1989 and around the same time, I spoke to my Syrian friend Adam via Facebook chat (my toddler accidentally pressed the call button!). Our daughters are the same age and I’d kept in touch since we both left China. He told me about his journey around Europe, seeking asylum with his young family. When he told me that some of his elders had chosen to stay behind in Aleppo, I was shocked. I imagined a conversation that could’ve taken place between them and asked many questions. There are thousands of other stories to be heard, but this is just one fictional story that merges together real life experiences.
Also, my experience as a member of the Cypriot diaspora has always been a big part of my life. My maternal grandparents are refugees from northern Cyprus. I’ve heard lots about people who are enclaved and I was intrigued by that life.
1989: What we loved about The Departure is that you conveyed very well two very different opinions without ever taking sides or suggesting one view to be right and one to be wrong. Was it hard to stay neutral, and how important was that to you?
NB: I wrote The Departure during the build up to Brexit and eerily, the play was performed live on the day of the referendum result. It was hard to stay neutral but everyone has a right to speak and be heard, even if his or her view isn’t what we’d like to hear. I found the character of Fatima the most difficult, as she represents a more conservative view. But in the end, is it right to give either a louder voice over the other?
However, I am concerned that people have less compassion or even lack understanding of what it means to be a refugee. For example, Fatima suggests Amira may be seen as an opportunist if she leaves one country to search for asylum in another. A person is a refugee because of the lack of protection by their country of origin, regardless of the various stages involved in that journey.
1989: We know you are an avid traveller. How does travelling affect your writing?
NB: It can be refreshing to see things from a different perspective and that can be inspiring. Or maybe it’s a matter of listening to people interact with one another. When I’m writing, I can reflect on my experiences a bit – the exchange of ideas. If it makes me or others think more, I’m happy with that.
1989: What country would you love to visit next and why?
NB: Mexico. My friend has family there and I think they would show me a good time and all the best places to go. I would also like to become a better salsa dancer!
1989: As well as being an accomplished writer, you are also an actress. Which one do you prefer?
NB: I enjoy both but I think it’s easier to feel a bit more isolated as a writer. An actor can draw upon energy from other people in a space or workshop. Writers are less inclined to organise meet ups, in my experience.
1989: What projects are next for you?
NB: I’m currently acting in a local short film. I’m interested in setting up a vlog and have just created my own website (Nicolettabarrett.com), so stay tuned.
Follow Niki at @NikiPeggy to keep updated on her upcoming projects.