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Inspired by Seven Sisters and the South Downs

by Alinah Azadeh, Writer, Artist and Social Activist

I’m thrilled to be taking up the inaugural post of Writer-in-residence for the Seven Sisters as it comes into SDNP ownership. The role will run until the end of 2022 and my work will also reflect the stories of the wider Sussex Heritage Coast.

My earliest memories of the South Downs are visiting Beachy Head, with my tiny hand firmly clasped in my vigilant mother’s, bending backward into the strong winds, spotting the red and white outcrop of the lighthouse in the creamy blue sea.

 My partner, two children and I have always enjoyed regular wanderings into the ancient woods and chalkland hills around us, and my current favourite spot is close by, a hidden valley within the Malling Down Nature Reserve, where I have seen deer, Adonis blue butterflies and birds of prey circling overhead as I circumnavigate the steep slopes of the valley on my daily walking ritual.

Especially since the Covid pandemic began, like many who live near the Downs, I go there to connect with nature, stay mentally balanced, download new ideas and dream ahead – note, sketchbook or voice recorder in hand. From there I develop ideas for projects or the outline of a poem or story.

I feel very strongly that the South Downs National Park is incredible medicine for the soul and a free resource which could be far more widely accessed and socially inclusive and am very excited to be part of making this happen.

My mother, whose deep love for her Iranian culture and for political freedom, gender equality and inclusivity – in the face of bigotry and oppression – still influences my work and life, loved the epic vistas of the Sussex coast, where she first lived in Eastbourne, on arriving to train as a nurse in 1965. When I first visited Iran with her in my twenties, I had a similar reaction to the monumental grandeur of the mountains there as we travelled, discovering family connections and the extraordinarily rich heritage of this politically troubled country together.

I recently completed my first novel, inspired by my late mother. The novel poignantly concludes on the Seven Sisters at Birling Gap, where her ashes were cast at her request.

From this story ending and research into the rapid erosion of the cliffs, came the idea for We See You Now, an audio story I wrote and recorded, which invites listeners to reflect on their own sense of belonging and relationship to our shared coastal land and future.

Loss, migration, identity and the impermanent nature of life and our landscape due to climate change are therefore close to my heart and concerns as a writer and artist, as is the power of the creative imagination through story and the direct experience of nature in solidarity with others, to inspire a change of perspective and action together.

As part of my residency, I will be exploring and using the heritage and rich metaphors of the coast to write new stories for an audiowalk series that follows on from my first audio story and reflects the full diversity of who we are now as a nation, as well as exploring new ways of looking at landscape and our place and identity in it.

I will also be co-creating a wider participation programme inspired by the central themes of the writing, in close partnership with the National Park Authority team and supported by a major project grant from Arts Council England. This will introduce other emerging writers, local communities and be delivered with a range of organisations, including Writing our Legacy, New Writing South and ONCA, actively amplifying voices, histories and a whole spectrum of experiences of landscape and coastline, rooted in racial, gender, class and other forms of diversity.

Our two-year programme will include writer retreats, workshops, outdoor walks and live events, podcasts, online/social media events, creative commissions and a publication.

I hope it will act as a bridge to a post-Covid world with a stronger sense of connection to the power, beauty and importance of this landscape from which we imagine new futures and collective, creative possibilities.

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