Letter to the People of Birmingham

Dear Strangers

We may meet, or we may never meet. I am an artist, debtor and the keeper of The Book of Debts,  which is currently touring the UK.  One Volume per location, it is filling with human stories of debt – past and present, online and in public places. Its stories then form a public performance unique to that place. They are recited aloud before being burned – in an act of symbolic debt relief – followed by a celebratory ‘wake’.

 The Book of Debts is now in Birmingham until March 15th and I invite you to get involved in any of the free events coming up, or you can read or contribute to The Book of Debts online and I will only know you through your words. The book is only as powerful as the contributions it contains…


So, what do you think about when you think about debt?  Money, time, love, attention, gratitude? Shame, denial, regret, anger, injustice? Love, community, compassion, forgiveness? Who owes what to whom?  Do all debts have to be repaid?  How responsible are we for what family, our community, nation or we owe?  Is there a story you would like to see an end to?  From priests to market traders, activists to office workers, students to bankers, The Book of Debts is open to anyone who finds it, whether debtor or creditor – past or present. The debt can be owed by you or to you. Or it may be owed to or by a third party – individual or institution.  It may be financial, social, emotional, ecological or spiritual – or all of the above. All entries are anonymous and you can add as many as you like.

I was at the Library of Birmingham, gathering stories this winter – take a look.  Here are the next opportunities:

  • March 4, 5.30-7.30pm, I will be at the Old Joint Stock theatre, introducing the project as part of a free, informal creative writing session, hosted with writer and storyteller Gavin Young and open to all.
  •  March 5, (Ash Wednesday) I’ll be visiting the End Hunger Fast campaign in the grounds of Birmingham Cathedral in the morning, followed by further workshops for young writers at University of Birmingham, hosted by Writers Bloc.
  • Friday March 14, promenade in the afternoon – around Colmore Row, in search of further contributions.
  • Saturday March 15, 2.30 – 4.30pm Final Event, hosted in and around Birmingham Cathedral. Details here.

Please share –facebook event here or @burningthebooks. All events are free. To contact us mail: books@burningthebooks.co.uk, call Elizabeth on 0787 353232 – or just welcome me with an open mind when you see me with my Book..


Yours truly

Alinah Azadeh


Birmingham, Chapter 2 :The Art of Uncertainty

‘The world as we know it is built on a story. To be a change agent is, first, to disrupt the existing Story of the World, and second, to tell a new Story of the World so that those entering the space between stories have a place to go. Often, these two functions merge into one, since the actions we take that re part of the telling of a new story are also disruptive to the old’

Charles Eisenstein: ‘The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible’

I’m reminded at the moment that the key to making relational art – responsive to place and community – is to be open to fail, to put oneself publicly at risk and to embrace the uncertainty that a work based on sometimes random encounters can necessitate. This can induce great fear as well as great excitement (apparently they are hormonally identical). Only experience mitigates the intensity of the fear, or maybe a kind of faith in the power of the unknown. To be willing to shift territory and listen to what is and isn’t working, to stare it down until clarity re-emerges.

Clarity is coming back into the Birmingham chapter of this project. After a slightly shaky start in the late autumn, where our partnership with our original supporters, Fierce, took a different turn from what was expected – affected by resources and unfortunate timing – we found ourselves postponing our planned finale until the Spring and opening ourselves to the possibility of a totally different outcome.

In the context of The Story of This Project’, I am seeing how important the experience of what originally felt like a very difficult entry point into this unknown city  – which I am growing very fond of but haven’t yet got the full measure of  – is. In that Story, The Book of Debts is finding its entry point independent of me, it has taken me to places and people anew.

Elizabeth (my brilliant producer) stepped in and brokered a short residency for me at the Library of Birmingham, where I spent time with The Book of Debts in November, and encounters there and since (first off with John Nightingale, previously recounted in this blog) brought us into three new relationships, all of which are forming the work and its outcomes:

  1. The Cathedral of Birmingham – who will host the final event in their square on March 15th, preceded by a public discussion event on debt, art, faith, indebtedness, forgiveness and social responsibility (to be distilled but that is the current, broad starting point). The Dean, Catherine Ogle, is one of only four women Deans in the country, very arts focused and understanding of the potential of this project to draw the public together in a powerful way on a taboo subject. She also tweets!
  2. The Jubilee Debt Campaign, who are co-organising an international conference on debt on March 29th at SOAS, London, of which this project and two other artist interventions will feature.
  3. A connection with a creative writing society and the student community at the University (and beyond?), where we will run a writing workshop, and invite participants to be part of the final event. Love this, as a good number of entries there so far have been from the student community (mostly involving student loans and the impact on their concept of their future) – and they, after all, are the ones who will re-write the future. So a creative writing society is a perfect match. More on that soon.

We have other avenues to chase up and to re-invite, some via The Dean and John Nightingale’s contacts, including inter-faith groups, credit unions members, the Colmore District and homeless shelters.  These obvious sectors of society have coloured my public encounters in November, where I have met and talked in depth with a cross-section of people – from a homeless man in the library on an emotional debt owed to his foster carer, to a city banker on the social injustices of payday lenders and the mental health of banking employees (this will be a separate post, soon).

BTB@Duckie,On Stage provocation.

BTB@Duckie,On Stage provocation.

I am conflicted around this idea of engagement, and its scope, as I am aware that, on the one hand, inviting a formal group to engage with this project, whether through a free creative writing workshop or via a one-to-one encounter with me – on such a taboo, and frankly seemingly spiky subject – is a huge challenge.  I do increasingly believe that it is part of the challenge of such projects to create their own temporary community, which this will, as will be evidenced on March 15th. And yet, when we are welcomed in to a particular, ready –made group situation, by people who are up for listening, engaging and responding to what we are bringing – either through my own words or the words already written in the book by the public  – it is such a joy and feels spot -on! So I think that a mixed menu is the answer – of the contrived situation, with the random, disarming, encounters with strangers in multiple contexts ( which is in fact how we got our connection with our new host in Birmingham).

I really got the value of the ready-made context when we did our One Nighter at Duckie in November. People got it, through the liveness and strange poetry of it, the broadness and depth of the subject beyond the initial judgement that this is all about money /failure/fear – to it’s wider possibility of being about the art of being human, of interconnection, of the possibility of finding a story which is more aligned with who they are or how they are now willing to see another.  What this even means I am still uncovering, but it is clear that The Book of Debts, Birmingham, will offer up a perspective on this, which I could never get to by myself.  Which is why I make this kind of work in the first place.

Birmingham, chapter two, here we come. Expect more news soon. And – you can add your own contribution to The Book of Debts here, now, online … ready for recital and burning on March 15th.

on twitter: @burningthebooks