A Community Engagement Project for Writers and Readers of Cultural Politics
By Claudia C J Fratini (Department of English Studies – UNISA)
The concept that writers read is not a new one, and every ‘self-help’ beginners writing course, whether books or online material, stresses the importance of looking to previous masters for inspiration. However valuable this piece of advice may be to the emergent writer, what is important in this statement is not that ‘writers read’, but rather how and what do writers read in order to create new and relevant stories.
In his book, Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling, Donald Maass (2012) re-empowers the writer stating that writing fiction in the 21st Century means reflection not only on our times, but also on ourselves. Through the concept of ‘Writers Read’ one can take Maass’s observation a step further and add that writing in the 21st Century not only involves a reflection on our times and ourselves, but also and most importantly, on how the writer interacts with his/her times, how as writers the personal, social, political and cultural environment is ‘read’ to in turn tell stories that resonate a contemporary present through text and language. This is in essence the focus of the 2015 Community Engagement Project CA036.
Initiated in 2013 in the then Department of Classics and World Languages at UNISA1, the project has undergone a progressive metamorphosis in which the possibilities for greater collaboration, discussion, debate and impact could be explored, thus allowing the project to have a broader and more meaningful impact. In 2014 the project moved to the Department of Afrikaans and Theory of Literature where through collaborations with the Writers Guild of South Africa, Controluce, Tirisano Centre (UNISA), the Institute for Gender Studies (UNISA), the Italian Institute off Culture (Pretoria) and UNINT (University for International Studies – Rome) the project’s aims were further defined.2 One variable has however remained constant and that is the project’s aim: creating safe spaces for speaking realities and creating dialogues that explore and express questions of Human Rights, Social Justice, Youth Development and Creative Expression. With this aim in mind and the importance of opening up dialogues that explore these questions, the Writers Read event has become a key initiative in the greater Community Engagement Project3, asking the questions: What is it that Writers Read? and Why is it important that they read? Housing the project in the Department of English Studies thus makes logical sense as the primary endeavour of such a department is investigating the effects of society on literature and literature on society not only from the perspective of the finished product (the literary text) but also from the angle of its production (the language used to express these effects).
The importance of literature in society and the value of studying literature, as readers and writers, in its various forms (literary text, film, media) is perhaps best encapsulated by Amir Eshel (2013: 5) in his statement on the concept of ‘fututity’: “Futurity” he says is, “tied to questions of liability and responsibility, to attentiveness to one’s own lingering pains and to the sorrows and agonies of others. Futurity marks literature’s ability to raise, via engagement with the past, political and ethical dilemmas crucial for the human future”. The ‘Writers Read’ initiative seeks to explore this very engagement with literature through the reading of not only the printed text but that which surrounds us as active participants in an ever-changing socio-political and cultural environment. The collaboration with the University of International Studies in Rome (UNINT) that focuses on the role of Cultural Politics in society and its effects on creative production as well as the Tirisano Centre and Institute for Gender Studies who centre their work in the fields of Human Rights, Social Justice and LGBTi issues has allowed the project and its participants to engage more meaningfully with the concept of what it means to be an responsibly engaged writer and the inextricable link of this profession to that which occurs in one’s environment.
From the 16th to the 19th of November 2015 a series of events that focus on this very issues will be organised by the Povey Centre at UNISA. These events include two film screenings (16 & 17 November) with Q & A sessions with the Producers and Directors of the films as well as health and social practitioners, and academics in the fields of Cultural Politics, Gender and Social Justice, and a two day workshop (18 and 19 November) in which the concept of ‘Writers Read’ will be explored within the framework of Cultural Politics.
In the film, E-bola by Christian Marazziti the recent e-bola pandemic is depicted in story-documentary fashion allowing not only audiences but medical practitioners and community members to engage with the reality of the pandemic. The film does not only ‘tell a story’ but gives vital information that is used by medical professionals and health workers in the field on how to deal with this threat and the precautions that need to be taken. The film, Anna (For Your Love) directed by Giuseppe Gaudino and produced by Dario Formisano offers an intimate look into the ‘black-and-white’ life of a Neopolitan woman, caught in a life of physical, mental and emotional abuse. Set in the backdrop of Naples, a city that notwithstanding its allure and beauty is subject to the abuses of crime and violence, the film explores the female body and its traumas through those of the city. Both films premiered at the Venice Film Festival this year with Valeria Golina winning the coveted Coppa Volpi Award for best actress for her performance as Anna in the film, Anna (For Your Love).
The writing workshops, open to both students of the Povey Centre’s Creative Writing Programme and socially engaged members of the public will conclude the initiative, bringing home the concept that as writers who read, the task as both Maass (2012) and Eshel (2013) point out, is not to just tell stories, but rather to tell stories that resonate and reflect our times and ourselves, stories that engage with questions of liability and responsibility that reflect on the political and ethical dilemmas crucial for the human future.
1 In that year, the renowned Italian-Togolese author, Kossi Komla Ebri was invited to present lectures and workshops that highlighted the importance of understanding the ‘Other’ through everyday experiences and interactions. Dr Komla Ebri is the author of a number of books, amongst which Imbarazzismi, translated into English by Dr Giannella Sansalvadores of the Department of Afrikaans and Theory of Literature and to be published by UNISA Press in 2016.
2 Writers workshops were organized that focused on the development of young South African screenwriters, a field that is in need of much development and which has great potential for South African Youth. During the same event, the film which premiered at the Venice Film festival that year, by young Italian Director, Sebastiano Riso, Darker than Midnight was also screened and a Q & A session with the Director opened up discussions with the LGBTi community and how their stories can be told.
3 As from this year 2015, project CA036 has found a home in the Povey Centre of the Department of English Studies at UNISA and has formed stronger alliances with the Tirisano Centre (Department of Sociology) and the Institute for Gender Studies as well as with UNINT and Controluce.
Eshel, A 2013. Futurity: Contemporary Literature and the Quest for the Past. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Maass, D 2012. Writing 21st Century Fiction: High-Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling. Ohio: Winter Digest Books.
The organisers would like to thank the Ambassador of South Africa to Rome, H E Nomatemba Tambo for her support of the project, Prof Antonio Falduto of the university UNINT for his willingness to present lectures during the project and his enthusiasm at creating meaningful collaborations, Mr Leon Roets of the Tirisano Centre, Prof Deirdre Byrne of the Institute for Gender Studies, Mr Giuseppe Gaidino (Director, Anna), Mr Dario Formisano (Producer, E-bola), Moleboge Modikwe for her administrative assistance and last but certainly not least, Prof Mirriam Lephalala, Acting Head of the Department of English Studies at UNISA for her support, guidance and unfailing belief in the value of this project.
For more information on the initiatives please contact the author and Project Manager, Claudia Fratini at:
tel+27 12 429 32 41; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org