Review of Beyond the Walls 2019

In anticipation of the publication of 2020’s Beyond the Walls anthology, I have been reflecting on past editions.

By A Creative Writing Student

At first glance, the most striking part of 2019’s Beyond the Walls, is the front cover. The bright yellow background allows the title to stand out and is eye-catching as its sits on a bookshelf. The skilfully etched hand invites the reader in, gesturing them to open up, to delve Beyond the Walls. The blurb takes the reader on a whirl-wind tour of both York St John University and York itself, it’s epic history ranging from ‘Roman ruins, Viking remains, a Gothic cathedral and Victorian splendour crisscrossed with Medieval cobbles.’ 2019’s theme is immediately clear, the ever-changing matter of identity, a subject that can take us, as Dr Naomi Booth states in her preface, from ‘Yorkshire to Nebraska to Mars’. It’s a question asked of the reader in the blurb; ‘Who will you become after venturing beyond the walls?’. I’m ready to go. It’s an exciting start.

Three forms of writing are included in 2019’s Beyond the Walls; poems, creative non-fiction and prose. We begin with poetry. We begin with home. Where better to explore the theme of identity than with home? The first place to shape us, the place we can love and hate, miss and long for, all in equal measure, all at the same time. As promised, we arrive in Nebraska with a bitter-sweet love-letter to a home even colder than Yorkshire’s winter, but it’s a place that grows on its writer through the poem. We move to London where Secret Lives Beyond Uncanny Doors highlights all the things we cannot see behind closed doors through its use of bold blocks of black, reminding us never to assume we know what’s truly going on. We pack up and move in Home, as the writer worries about the mark they’ll make in this new phase of life, in this new place, under ‘new clouds […that] aren’t the clouds that I’m used to’. But identity is more than the place we call home, and Beyond the Walls does not forget this. Skilfully tackling issues of consent, mental illness, discrimination and disrespect, Mine NOT Yours! takes the reader through all the lessons in society, from the ones untold to the ones that are never heard and the ones few wish to understand. Defined explores where identity sits in all of these. We end with a lens focused on confidence and warning of the dangers of comparing you own to others.  Already we have covered a wide range of topics, and the next two forms only seek to add more.

Although the shortest, the creative-nonfiction of 2019’s Beyond the Walls packs an epic punch. Both pieces take the reader on an emotional journey, continuing through the exploration of past identities and homes. The Morning After mourns lost identities, working through the grief. Grandma’s House is a more nostalgic trip down memory lane, back to a time of childhood, chicken and chips.

Our theme of identity turns a chilling corner in the prose section. The first is a mysterious journey through the subconscious mind as the character seeks to find the answers of the future. The next story has its characters literally paying for their lives with all aspects of their identities, highlighting all the parts of the world that make us us. These stories create a sense uncanniness, alluding to the dangerous undercurrents an unsure identity can have. Learning about yourself is also tackled, heart-warmingly so, in String Making, which accounts a tale of a child learning about herself. She learns to accept her identity as she holds some ‘strings’ with pride, whilst letting other parts slip away. We begin to explore the impact of other people on identity, too. String Making looks at the identity of ‘friend’ and what it means to hold that title, while Mr Smith lovingly tells the story of a man who continues with his and his wife’s traditions even after she has died. But identity cannot be explored by writers without the anthology taking a look at writing itself, and its impact on identity. Skilfully giving voice to a character talking to his writer, The Four Ghosts of Martin Croft allows Martin to voice his opinion of his writer as they take his identity for their own. This story also explores the links of family identity and identities of past lives lost in time.

Every page of 2019’s Beyond the Walls provides moving and thought-proving pieces that all deliver on the promise to move beyond the walls of York (and Nebraska and Mars) and deep into ourselves. Feeling inspired, I’m excited to now read 2018’s edition and see where they take us beyond the walls.