OUR MOTHERS' STORIES
Created by jn benjamin with help from Storythings
jn benjamin is a Black woman from south london. she is also a multidisciplinary creative who works regularly as a writer, producer and broadcaster. her work is primarily focused on social issues, neurodiversity, arts and culture, and love. jn benjamin is well known for talking and writing about theatre and has been published in titles including Skin Deep Magazine, The Sunday Times, Exeunt Magazine, The Stage, and Time Out. She recently made a pilot arts and culture programme for No Signal Radio (check out the reviews and tings show here).
jn benjamin loves analogue photography and printed photographs. she owns a collection of vintage cameras.
Give us the elevator pitch for your piece
our mothers’ stories is an audio storytelling project about who our mothers were in their pre-motherhood days. i relatively recently found out my mother lived through the nigerian civil war (and that my maternal grandfather fought in it) and it really hit me how much i don’t know about her life - and by extension, about my own heritage. this project is an effort to fix that. when women become mothers, everything they were before that moment is subsumed by this new identity. we, their charges, rarely stop to consider what their lives were like before our arrival into the world - yet, they existed. a few years ago now, a friend from secondary school told me how her mother, cecilia - also known as 'aunty cece', would beam with glee as she recounted stories of growing up in her native ghana. one story was about how she got caught by nuns kissing boys behind a bike shed. how funny to learn that what we were doing not so long ago, her mother had been doing decades before us. my friend and i resolved to talk more to our mothers about their pre-motherhood lives - maybe we'd make a little creative project out of it. devastatingly (and unexpectedly), cecilia passed away in april 2020. with her death, we lost countless untold stories of her childhood, adolescent and early adult life. not long after cecilia passed, i spoke to my own mother about her life before children and she shared with me her memories of the nigerian independence celebrations in 1960; and that she lived through the biafran war, in which her father - my grandfather - served. i also learned that one of her first jobs when she arrived in the uk was in a pub - if you knew her, you'd find that hilarious too. these are all stories i hadn't heard before. cecilia's death really hit home not only the importance, but also the urgency for us children of immigrants - whose histories are less readily available - of collecting our mothers' stories, it's important for each of us on an individual level because it nourishes our sense of identity; we are their legacy and their lives in turn form a crucial part of ours. but in a wider sense, to document these stories is to not only pay homage to those who made us, it's also to acknowledge their existence as full human beings and honour the contribution they made to the world beyond having children.
Why did you want to make this piece?
our mothers’ stories was conceived against a backdrop of the covid-19 pandemic, which began in 2020 and brought with it a profound grief that has been felt the world over. i was particularly struck by the unexpected death of so many elders - some of whom the parents and grandparents of my friends - which brought to the fore a collective sense of urgency to hear and preserve their stories. for those of us children and grandchildren of the african and caribbean diaspora whose parents were born abroad, this task feels even more important. i want this project to be a provocation. a little nudge to encourage more people to seek out and preserve, in some way, their own mothers' stories. the pilot episode is the story of my mother, mrs. utuk. it was recorded in april 2021.
What are the next steps with your piece?
i would love to turn our mothers' stories into a series length podcast. please do get in touch if you can and want to help me make that happen!
What's the most interesting thing you learned as part of this?
I learned all about my paternal grandpa and how he fought in the Nigerian Civil War. I found his story so fascinating. He was, essentially, kidnapped by the Biafran Army when they were building their corps in the area where he lived. After he was taken, the family members that were left behind dug a hole in the ground and buried his Nigerian Army uniform. Apparently, so fierce was the conflict between the two sides that if it had been found in or near the house by people from the Biafran side, everybody there would have been killed. It was also really interesting to note all the ways in which I as a teenager was really similar to my mother as a teenager - even though we didn't spend much time together when I was in that period of my life. I am really intrigued by the nature/nurture debate.