Thoughts on Writing and Politics in Kolkata

Yesterday I had the immense pleasure and privilege to teach a creative writing workshop with a group of students here in Kolkata at the British Council’s Teaching Centre. It was an absolute delight to spend a couple of hours working with students who had finished the British Council’s first two creative writing courses in the city, and I was hugely impressed by the students’ seriousness, their intellectual acuity, and their exuberance.

I find it is always good to teach outside of my home country, because it challenges certain assumptions that I have about what writing is or should be. And this was certainly the case yesterday. If there is one thing that stood out for me about the workshop, it was this: these were students many of whom had a very strong sense of what writing can—and perhaps should—do politically. At the beginning of the workshop, we did a short exercise on why writing matters. In response to this exercise, a large number of the students said that they were interested in using writing as a way of tackling questions of social justice, women’s rights, transgender issues, and so on. And what was particularly striking is that in many cases these were the first reasons that the writers in the group gave for writing.

In my experience, this doesn’t happen very much in the classroom in the UK. And I was wondering after the workshop why this should be. I don’t think it is that somehow the students in Kolkata are inherently more concerned with questions of justice and injustice—to make this claim would be to sell my students back home seriously short: questions of justice matter to us all. Instead, I think it is something about the discourses that surround writing, the ways that we habitually think and talk about what writing can and should do.

Back home, the fact that writing is a political act—as it must be, because in putting words into the public sphere, you are trying to affect this public sphere in some way—is something that is rarely foregrounded. There are reasons for this, no doubt. One is that our universities (despite occasional paranoid claims from the UK government that they are hotbeds of loony Marxists) are largely depoliticised. And they are not just accidentally depoliticised, but ideologically so. We are taught that we should be apolitical in our teaching—as if there has ever, in the history of the world, been such a thing as apolitical teaching. This apolitical stance (which is, of course, a political stance) is one that mitigates against exploring more openly the political power and potential of writing. But I don’t think that this is the only reason that we soft-pedal the political aspects of writing. I think there is also a general cultural tendency to think about creative writing either in terms of questions of craft, or as a way of fulfilling the needs and demands of a market, or else as a means of self-expression and personal growth. Think about how many creative writing textbooks promise improved technical skills, or commercial success, or personal fulfilment. Then think about how few present the act of writing as a robustly political act.

It is not that I think questions of craft, personal fulfilment, or the market are unimportant. I delight in well-crafted writing. I think that fulfilment is a worthy goal. And if writers care ultimately about communication, then it is good to think about who it is we want to communicate with, which raises questions of the market and readership and so on. But these three sets of questions are not the whole story, and if we want to think about writing more broadly, these questions should take their place alongside questions of politics.

What happens if politics drops out of the way we talk about creative writing is that the political motivations and concerns we have as writers, students and teachers do not so much disappear as go underground. They become subterranean. It is not that my students back home—or my fellow creative writing teachers—do not have political concerns. They do. And it is not that I do not have these concerns as a teacher and as a writer. I do. But more often than not we don’t really bring these political aspects to light, so they don’t become a part of the general discourse surrounding what we are doing as writers, or as students of writing, or as teachers of writing.

Perhaps—and I don’t know if this is true or not—there is also something here about a lack of faith in writing. Perhaps back home we have lost our belief that writing can change things, or can address broader social and political issues. Perhaps we have become too complacent, and have fallen into thinking about writing either in terms of some kind of self-referential aestheticism, or else in terms of feeding a market hungry for ever-new entertainment products.

But if this is the case, then we at least need to address this lack of faith head-on. We need to admit to it, to examine it, to see if it really holds up. Because I wonder if what appears as lack of faith can often, on closer examination, turn out to be instead a simple failure of nerve.

Whatever the case, I am grateful to the students I worked with yesterday here in Kolkata for their energy and fire. And I am grateful for the reminder that writing is, and always has been, a political act.

Comments

kathz
Reply

A really interesting and thought-provoking post.

I think that one of the reasons we focus on craft when teaching creative writing is a response to the teaching of English Literature, which tends to treat literature as something between a naive production and the conduit for other voices (the Muse, the time of writing, a socio-economic group or an “unapprehended inspiration.” We need the emphasis on craft to say that there is more to writing than this.

But we also live in an age when even mainstream politics has been depoliticised. Believing what politicians say is treated as naive (this is often stated publicly when voters try to hold politicians to account) and the media presents us with a view of politics in which image and strategy often outweigh policies. It’s not surprising, therefore, that subtlety is praised in writing and directness under-valued.

Given my past as an Auden scholar, I note that Auden’s “poetry makes nothing happen” is often quoted, divorced from its context of elegy for and implicit debate about Yeats’ politics and poetry – the core question is how we respond to poets whose work presents very right-wing and or fascist views. There are generalising statement which say that Auden gave up politics in his poetry after this, while in fact his poetry became more directly and extensively political; the late poem ‘The Garrison’ says, straightforwardly, “whoever rules, our duty to the City/ is loyal opposition” – but the political content is ignored, which also says something about how the reading of literature tends to ignore what it is saying if it doesn’t conform to a dominant view, whether of a writer or of the wider world. So writers can be as clear as they wish but they face the danger that what they say will be missed in a concentration on the more acceptable or less political aspects of their writing.

We have a further problem. When, in 1937, a pamphlet was published with the title “Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War”, authors were expected to have an opinion and to take sides. Now authors with views that are not conventionally mainstream are criticised for their “bias”, as though there was an unbiased middle-ground which writers were required to share. It sounds to me as though the writers you met in Kolkata were less aware of this flattening tendency in the writing, criticising and reading of literature – and even as though they live in a society in which real and critical engagement with the world is still welcomed.

The playwright and director John McGrath, in his book A Good Night Out (35 years ago), talks about the difference between middle- and working-class theatre audiences. He suggests that while middle-class audiences value subtlety (even when this means being politely bored and clapping at the end), working-class audiences don’t tolerate boredom and appreciate directness – what he writes is something like this: “They have minds of their own and want to know what your mind is.” Do we have an audience that wants to know our minds – especially that bit of our minds we reach through writing and imagination – and do we have the courage to say clearly what out own minds are?

Will
Reply

Polite boredom… oh, it’s a curse. Interesting reflections, Kathy. The notion of the unbiased mainstream middle-ground (which shifts ever rightwards) is a particularly alarming thing.

Anupama Bhattacharya
Reply

Hi!
I was one of the participants of this session. I was an enriching experience where we learned so much from you in such short span of time. It was a privilege I can’t compare! I wish we could get more of you.
May God bless you!

Will
Reply

Hi, Anupama, It was great to meet you. The best experiences are those where everybody is enriched. And I certainly have been by making a connection with you all. Keep in touch.

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