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.