Refugee story quilts add to the cultural fabric of Idaho
Writer Malia Collins was Idaho’s 2020 and 2021 Writer In Residence, the highest literary recognition in the state. The Idaho Writer In Residence carries a responsibility to encourage other writers in the state and to cultivate writing communities.
During her time as Writer in Residence, Collins helped compile a book of stories of people who came to Boise as refugees. Artisans from Bhutan, Congo, Afghanistan and Somalia, among other places, participated in a project to create story quilts depicting their diaspora journeys.
The book is the culmination of years Collins spent in the community, helping quilters to articulate their experiences on paper and choose imagery for the quilts.
“I very much believe in the way stories connect us to each other, that knowing somebody else's story helps us to understand their situation,” Collins said. “And we can't know what someone's story is until we ask, until we hear it.”
Collins weaves storytelling into her daily life, practicing writing each morning as a habit.
In Boise’s North End, her home office exudes inspiration, lined with books, photos and artifacts from her life. Altars of knickknacks and art honor friendships and memories. Images of her childhood home in Hawaii and her own children’s adventures there decorate the walls, keeping her past in the present.
Currently, Collins is writing an alphabet book about public art in the city in collaboration with the Boise City Department of Arts and History, and working on a memoir based in Hawaii. She gives writing workshops through the Idaho Commission on the Arts and The Cabin and also teaches English and Creative Writing at College of Western Idaho. She’s also written several children’s books about Hawaii.
The Story Quilt Project started about 10 years ago when the Idaho Commission on the Arts approached Collins to facilitate the storytelling the quilts would be based on. This wasn’t Collin’s first experience with quilting and storytelling, and she was excited to help artisans summon imagery that could translate into a colorful quilt.
A native Hawaiian, she attended quilting circles as a child with her mother, who quilted with a community of indigenous culture bearers, practicing traditional crafts. Each quilt tells a story of place. Tagging along with her mother, Collins listened as quilters chatted and entertained each other, connecting and in community.
“The designs for the Hawaiian quilts would come when the sun was shining through the tree and a shadow was cast on the ground of the branch or the leaf or the flower that it was shining through,” Collins said.
For the Story Quilt Project, she tapped into her childhood memories sitting at the feet of Hawaiian quilters at Queen Emma’s Summer Palace, a retreat for the Hawaiian queen in the 1850s just outside of downtown Honolulu.
“It made sense to me to tell stories through these quilts, through these pieces of thread, through these scraps of fabric that turned into images and shapes,” she said. “It felt natural to talk story. It felt natural to share stories with each other. And it felt natural to get to know each other through stories.”
Collins also applied her experience as a writing teacher. The artisans began with an image they thought they could spend time with. As a creative writing professor, she teaches the concept of the objective correlative, or an image that carries emotional weight in a story.
“The first thing that I did when I met these refugee artisans was I would say, ‘Describe to me a memory, something that you see, something in the natural world, in the place where you grew up. Colors or shapes or trees or flowers or smells. Something that you remember.’"
At the local nonprofit Artisans For Hope, refugees gathered to sew, and she met with people to listen to stories, eat together and socialize. The nuts and bolts of getting stories onto paper took years of work cultivating relationships and building trust within the community. Collins asked participants to describe the homes they left behind and their journeys to Boise, a resettlement city.
She worried for their welfare as they connected to the visceral past.
“Part of me was wondering, ‘What's it going to be like for them reliving these moments that are filled with so much violence?’ I always said, ‘Only tell me the story that you're comfortable telling me.’”
Through the Story Quilt Project, Collins sought to transcend their status as victims of war-torn countries and to highlight the humanity and complexity of life.
“I think I do steer away from using ‘refugee’ because they're so much more than that,” said Collins. “There's stories of immigration, there's stories of change, there's stories of transition,” she said. “They're so vivid, and they're heartbreaking, and they're beautiful, and they're sad, and they're moving, and they're resilient.”
Participants drew the images on paper and cut out the shapes they would piece together into a quilt. The ideas gradually became objects, a physical conversion of the emotional weight of the stories. Collins worked diligently with each participant to translate and process the stories into visual and textured tapestries.
“There's that physical connection between the imagination and the hands,” she said. “With every stitch, that moment in time came back in the world of the quilt.”
Some of the participants did not share their story with Collins until they had been working with her for six years. Some of their reluctance was the difficulty of expressing themselves in English. Words to describe the results of war, the emotions and grief, aren’t practiced often. After finally listening to their divulgences, Collins felt it was worth the wait.
“There's something healing that comes from sharing your story and having somebody pay attention and listen to it. And I feel like with the Story Quilt Project so much, I'm just bearing witness to these stories.”
The story quilts would also go on to have a larger audience as they traveled the state in an exhibit for communities large and small, who were given a glimpse into the experiences of their new neighbors.
“There was something about the stitching together of these images when they were telling these stories that very much echoed the stitching together of these quilts and the concentration and the time of making these quilts. Maybe there was a little bit of healing that was coming out of that, too.”
In 10 years, the project produced more than 60 quilts by nearly 30 artisan participants, and more than a dozen volunteers and staff. Looking back on the time and effort, Collins bursts with pride and gratitude for the experience.
“This community has made Boise a richer place, a more interesting place, a more compassionate and thoughtful and kind place to live. And that's the big joy.”
This piece was produced for Expressive Idaho in partnership with the Idaho Commission on the Arts’ Folk and Traditional Arts Program, with funding support from Dr. Suzanne Allen, MD and the National Endowment for the Arts.