Saturday, November 07, 2015

On Teaching Creative Writing as a Woman of Colour

Ten years ago, I took up the challenge of leading a BA: Creative Writing in the UK.  At the interview (and in the decade that has followed) I kept one secret. I was deeply sceptical of Creative Writing programmes, although I could not have articulated my discomfort at the time. This post is an attempt to begin to do just that: explore why I had been sceptical of Creative Writing programmes, how I confronted that discomfort and tried to find solutions, and - in doing so - stumbled upon on something very unique.

When I first began my teaching job, I had inherited the curriculum and syllabus and in the first years I had very little leeway. Yet it was apparent in the very first class I walked into that neither were adequate, appropriate, or indeed to use management-speak, 'fit for purpose.'

I teach one of the most diverse (British and international) groups of students possible. But beyond that simplistic term lies a whole range of experiences and identities: my students are often from economically and socially disadvantaged sections of British society. They are often the first in their families to pursue higher education. Many juggle multiple jobs with family responsibilities for parents, children, siblings, and are often primary carers for more than one person. In many cases, they are first or second generation Britons, with complex migratory pasts, cultures and histories. Institutionally, many are classified as 'mature students' which flattens the life experiences that they bring to the classroom. All of this makes their decision (especially after the fee changes) to study Creative Writing even more risky (and brave).

Yet none of the course that I inherited ten years ago reflected the reality of students we were teaching. Junot Diaz's brilliant 2014 MFA vs POC essay was still years into the future but I was in a strange situation of living out the dilemma. Albeit from the other side! I wasn't a PoC writer participating in a workshop (An aside: I never did an MFA in Creative Writing. The very few workshops and writing groups I have experienced were enough to turn me off them. And for all the reasons that Diaz details). I was instead the course leader and tutor who could - perhaps, just perhaps - make a difference.

My first changes were discreet. I couched them in pedagogically acceptable language of familiarising students with the canon, with critical theory, with contemporary writing.  Surreptitiously writers like Leslie Marmon Silko, Wole Soyinka, Mourid Barghouti, Alice Walker, Nawalel Saadawi made into my reading lists, as did bell hooks, Edward Said and Frantz Fanon.  The reading list has steadily grown and expanded over time to include writing in translation as well as newer writing (Alex Wheatle and Ta-Nehisi Coates are two of the more recent additions).

Then a couple of years ago, when I got a chance to redesign the course as part of a university wide exercise, I decided to expand the curriculum to include more critical fiction on the grounds that you can't write it if you haven't read it.  And I expanded the syllabus to be focussed on aspects of not just writing as a craft but also research skills, critical thinking, and most importantly critical writing (Critical Fictions is now a set text and I wish someone would republish the volume).  Then I fought to include modules that gave students a chance to learn about the publishing industry, to devise query letters, book proposals, elevators  pitches. I wanted to discuss publishing not in a NYC/London-centric way but open it up to global changes, markets, and developments. It makes sense when my students are from as far away as Brazil and Burma, and want to write and publish for their own people.

In the past ten years, my students have gone on to do amazing things. They write, perform and publish powerful, critical imaginative worlds. They work in publishing, media and cultural industries across the globe. Many teach, mentor and nurture, hopefully paying forward some of what they acquire during their degree.

Teaching Creative Writing has also helped me recognise and articulate my own discomfort. Junot Diaz is right in flagging up MFAs (and in the UK, MAs and BAs in Creative Writing) for their inability to support and nurture PoC.  From the other side of the line, my conclusion is perhaps more distressing: Creative Writing courses are by definition imagined and designed for writers who are primarily white and middle class. The courses are designed to not confront or engage in the necessary emotional, psychic, intellectual, critical and yes, political, work that is required when writing from the margins. It isn't just the workshops that exclude - as Diaz astutely notes - but the very structure, design and conception of these courses.

This is why Creative Writing courses don't - and can't - serve those of us who are PoC, queer, non-binary, differently abled, or in multiple other ways structurally and historically disadvantaged. Even the token getsures towards nonconformist, challenging writing are designed to channel the writer on the margins into more conformist spaces. This coerced conformity is not limited to PoC experience in just workshops but at all levels, including the prescribed readings, the forms and themes considered culturally valuable (and thus worthy of being written), and the critical engagement (or lack thereof) with not only words on a page but also literature as a whole, forms and barriers to cultural participation, and thus with the world beyond.

In the past ten years, I have tried to find ways to circumvent thees design flaws and subvert the underlying premise of teaching Creative Writing. I must admit that it is a draining, exhausting task that often means I finish leading my workshops (and academic terms) feeling shattered. Yet it is also the most rewarding job I have ever held because I am - hopefully - widening the ladder, smoothing the climb, extending a hand to pull in yet another fellow writer from the margins.

Toni Morrison said recently that 'We don't need anymore writers as solitary heroes. We need a heroic writers' movement: assertive, militant, pugnacious." I keep hoping that with each graduating cohort, I am contributing a little to this possible heroic writers' movement.

But damn...I wish it were not so exhausting, draining, and all too often so very solitary!

PS: if the above speaks to you, or sounds familiar, or you'd like to swap ideas, please get in touch.

PPS: I hope to blog more about my reflections on my experience of teaching Creative Writing so watch this space.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

While Murdoch Media Focusses on Labour 'Problems', Can We Talk About The Tories?

Every morning I wake up to read the Murdoch press, only to be told that the Labour party are at the brink of collapse. I don't know. They may well be - after all, party politics often happen beyond the public eye. However, I rarely read anything about the post-election internal dynamics of the Conservatives (beyond fairly superficial pieces on the various politicians jockeying for party leadership). This may be - I concede - because there is an assumption that the party has won quite decisively, and need not consider voters (or potential ones) at all for a bit.

If so, it doesn't quite chime with the growing tetchiness and fumbling in the behaviour of many in its rank and file, both in real life and on social media. I recognise that many - especially on the left - would simply write this off as 'Tory arrogance' but I believe it is more complex. The party's higher ranks may well be clueless, as demonstrated for example by the poor optics of laughing just as Jeremy Corbyn was speaking at the last PMQs of poverty in Britain.  The behaviour on social media of accounts of more junior Tory party members seems just as dissonant with a clear combination of irritation, arrogance (or perhaps more accurately, bravado) and an odd reluctance to answer questions.

While I have been watching multiple socmed accounts and party members flounder, here are some examples (that I have directly experienced):

1. The rather ineptly branded @LGBToryUK account went on a blocking spree on twitter during the party conference. While blocking is indeed a useful function for individuals, an institutional account that blocks en masse - and not for abuse but simple questions - is demonstrating both lack of social media savvy and incredible ineptitude.

I was blocked for a single tweet responding to an all-white, all male panel on queer issues at the party conference (my response was a rather mild 'oh dear'). Interestingly, I didn't notice for days until multiple LGBTIQ activists and freelance journalists began complaining of being blocked. On checking, I found I too had been blocked. And then, on raising a fuss, I was quietly unblocked. The administrators then claimed that I hadn't been blocked at all, despite screenshots, and have since refused to either apologise or explain how this magical block-unblock happened.  To be quite precise, they are pretending they need not engage at all with me.

2. A stranger version of this is unfolding at councillor level in my area. Last year, after I experienced a racist hate crime, the local Tory councillors were fastest to mobilise and reach out. A year later, this has changed (the MP is again Labour so perhaps the councillors have decided there is little to be done until an election is closer?).

When questioned on issues ranging from immigration and the refugee crisis to tax credits and Brexit, the councillors are locked into a pattern. They predictably share the party line on their accounts but when asked for their own stances, are unable and unwilling to answer. When pushed, all they can offer is: 'we have no input into the party policy.'

Now this may well be true, but - for example - when the Home Secretary declares that 'immigration harms social cohesion,' a voter living in one of the areas of highest immigrant densities in the country can only be concerned. Surely it is then up to the councillors to soothe (or exacerbate) fears, and explain that the area is not (or is) facing a clear and present danger of social strife.

3. The local party office appears just as incapable of answering questions about how government policy - now decided entirely by the party as it is no longer in coalition - is impacting daily lives of residents, taxpayers and voters in the area. All queries are answered with a standard, 'please contact us if it is about council services.'

There may well be a party edict asking the rank and file to not comment on any policy matters. Given that most of the mainstream media appears invested in keeping all questions of politics at their most superfluous, this may even be a smart and reasonable tactic. However, in an age of social media, this is as poor a response as the optics of MPs 'laughing at poverty' during the PMQs.

However, I believe the reasons go beyond party edicts or arrogance. There is - I believe - a growing disconnect in whatever is decided at cabinet level and how it is communicated to the rank and file. Although party members fall in line with stating similarly worded, mechanical explanations, they are also left incapable of defending the government's policy decisions in any substantial way. They are also left floundering because the government policies are often increasingly indefensible - not only on moral grounds - but on logical, even small case conservative, pro-business grounds.

There is also - I have learned in the decade of living in Britain - an oddly feudal attitude to politics (and this cuts across party lines). As Indian politics practices a less subtle, more in-your-face version of this, I am quite familiar with it. Elected officials - from MPs to councillors in Britain - hold an implicit attitude of bestowing largess on their constituents. So an active and effective MP (or other elected official) will often respond instantly and immediately to small, personal grievances raised by individual voters. At MP surgeries, issues of council services or policing or individual difficulties can be raised and resolved. And there is a not so covert expectation that the voter thus being helped will then be grateful and suitably reward the party/officer with future voting loyalty.

This is really a modern version of a feudal lord handing out tit-bits to keep peasantry from revolting!

The principle that a democracy requires its elected officers to be held responsible not as feudal lords bestowing favours, but for service to voters appears non-existent.

In some ways, this is also why the Conservative party rank-and-file appears bewildered. Accustomed to abuse by opponents and assuaging individuals with supposed help is all they know. The very idea that a voter may question them on matters of policy or ideology appears almost entirely foreign. It is for this reason that @LGBToryUK blocked any who asked even the simplest of questions. They have nothing to 'bestow' on the voters. They have little explanation for why their tag erases the T in LGBT, or indeed why policy discussions on LGBT issues are being handled entirely by a very narrow set of people.

This is also why a local councillor - Hampstead's Oliver Cooper - can tetchily declare that politely albeit repeatedly questioning him about 'social cohesion' and anti-immigrant rhetoric from senior members of his party is 'insulting and harassing' him. It is also why he believes simply saying 'I do not accept the premise of your question. Fin.' is an adequate response to a voter.

However, social media and the changing demographics in Britain is demanding a new kind of politics (unlike many, I don't see Corbyn as a substantive harbinger of this). This form of politics will require more than a few elected officials 'resolving voter difficulties' by calling up a bureaucrat or contacting an office. As a voter, I am not interested in receiving 'gracious help' on an individual basis. I want to see efforts made for structural changes so the difficulties faced by me are not passed on to the next voter, and the next generation. (As an aside and this is material for another post, the Conservative party would do well to examine the Republican implosion across the pond. The final crumpling of the 'Southern strategy' holds lessons for the Tories who want to solely pander to an ever-shrinking and ageing 'base.')

Of course any kind of politics is hard to effect. At the same time, it is necessary that politicians in all parties began to learn this. If any politician or party believes they only need to deal with the voter to bestow favours, or can summarily dismiss their concerns, they are profoundly mistaken.  If members of any party - but Conservatives in particular - feel that they don't have to go back to the electorate any time soon, simply because the next national level elections are far away, they are again mistaken. There are multiple other elections coming up before 2020 where the MPs may not bear the brunt of voters' discontent, but that may be borne by other elected officials.

Before ending, and perhaps this is the compassionate side of me, this also may be a reason for the current fumbling behaviour of so many in the Conservative party. Unable to defend the ridiculous rhetoric emerging from the upper ranks, they are just battening down the hatches, hoping that the questions - and voters - will go away.

And that's where they are wrong.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

MORE books added to the #wherebooksgo giveaway

First of all, a HUGE thanks to everyone who has been sending in photographs of #HotelArcadia from all over the world for #wherebooksgo. Currently, we have 151 photographs from 28 countries. We have also had FOUR winners from three different countries who have won copies of bookss by novelists from Korea, Australia, and Scotland! This has truly become a global reading, travelling and book-loving enterprise.

We also have a NEW winner: the 150th photograph for #wherebooksgo won a copy of Paul Hardisty's debut Yemen thriller, The Abrupt Physics of Dying. And funnily enough, the book is flying its way to fellow writer, Chris Chalmers!

Many of you will know that #wherebooks go started as a both sentimental as it was what I wished to do while reading Paul Sussman’s  novel, The Labyrinth of Osiris, after he had passed way, and romantic as I have always wanted to know where books went with their readers.  So when Hotel Arcadia came out, I requested readers to send in their photographs; I love getting a glimpse into their lives, and minds, which is both a joy and a privilege and one that would be impossible without technology and social media.

From the very beginning #wherebooksgo has been a fun crowdsourcing project to trace my new novel, Hotel Arcadia's travels around the world with its readers. It is really simple: readers take a picture of the book wherever they read the book – at home, travelling, somewhere familiar or exotic – and post it on Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag. Or they send it to me on Facebook, or email it.  I share the pics further on my website and social media. 

Readers have been sending pics from across the globe and the hashtag looks a lot like my dream list of places where I – not just my book – long to go. And I am getting to know readers from across the world who are so disparate and diverse and yet connected by their love of reading. Somewhere along the way, I realised that #wherebooksgo could also help share books that I have enjoyed reading with readers. So I have been reaching out to writers and publishers to ask them for copies of books for a #giveaway. 

Over the summer, we added the lovely Princess Bari by Hwang Sok-yong to the #giveaway thanks to Periscope Publishing. And the lovely Orenda Books contributed copies of David Ross's hilarious Last Days of Disco. We still have ONE FINAL COPY for the #giveaway.  And while, a copy of Paul Hardisty's CWA-listed, debut thriller set in Yemen, The Abrupt Physics of Dying has been won by the 150th photograph, there is a SIGNED copy (exclusive first edition hard back) of Ragnar Jonasson's Snowblind waiting for a lucky winner!

But we have some exciting news: Today we add TWO MORE books.  First up, we have two copies of Kati Hiekkapelto's FIRST Anna Fekete novel, The Hummingbird (Arcadia Books, 2014).  Defenceless, has just been released to FAB reviews. When caught up with Kati on her promotions tour, I just HAD to get her to join. As you can see, I really had to work to convince her (it involved tea and cakes...and books!)
As I had not yet read Kati's new novel, I cheekily asked her to contribute the book I had read earlier in the year and enjoyed very much: The Hummingbird.

It has been one of my favourite thrillers this year and am really pleased that we've been able to include the book that started it all!

And SECOND, by a complete coincidence, turns out that Chris Chalmers has ALSO just released a new book. It is HOT OFF THE PRESS which makes its addition to #wherebooksgo even more exciting.

Light From Other Windows explores the unravelling of a family when the youngest son goes travelling around the world and gets caught in a tsunami. The lovely book blogger Jackie Law has a review of it here.  Am SO pleased Chris agreed to contribute two copies to the #wherebooksgo #giveaway.

Chris's book is poignant, moving, and despite a grim topic, very life affirming.

SO keep those pics coming. And watch this space. We'll be working updating the pics, adding more books and finding more ways to share books we can all love!