The Literary Consultancy Comes to Asia

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Rebecca Swift, Director of The Literary Consultancy, will be at the Hong Kong Literary Festival in November this year to talk about how her UK-based consultancy can help writers working outside Britain.

The Literary Consultancy (TLC), begun in 1996, was the world’s first editorial consultancy. Co-founded by writer and editor Rebecca Swift and Hannah Griffiths (now a publisher at Faber & Faber) it has sought to help writers gain in-depth, professional feedback. Some send their work before they submit to agents or publishers, others when they receive rejections and are confused about why. Nowadays, agents and publishers rarely have time to give detailed feedback to writers, so TLC filled in that gap. There are now other similar consultancies and ‘book doctor’ services, some more reputable than others.

Rebecca and her team currently work only in the English language, but they do work with writers outside the UK. They include Neamat Imam, a Bangladeshi-Canadian novelist, who with the help of TLC, signed with top UK agent David Godwin and whose book The Black Coat has been published by both Penguin in India and by Periscope Books in the UK; Damien Brown, whose account of working with Médecins sans Frontières, Band-Aid for a Broken Leg, was published by Allen & Unwin in Australia; Perdita and Honor Cargill, represented by Hannah Sheppard at DHH Literary Agency following a TLC assessment, who have just struck a two-book deal with Simon & Shuster; and Catherine Ferguson, represented by HHB Literary Agency who published her book Humbugs and Heartstrings via Harper Collins’ e-book first imprint Avon.

TLC’s editorial assessment service is suitable for writers who have started a project and would like guidance before continuing; writers working on a first draft; writers wanting an honest assessment of whether the work is ready to submit to an agent/self-publish; writers who are confused by feedback they have had. See the guideline to editorial fees. FEES

Mentoring

The consultancy’s online mentoring scheme, Chapter & Verse, for writers who want to see a book project through to completion; writers who need sustained support, with deadlines, encouragement, and constructive feedback. Chapter & Verse can be accessed from anywhere in the world. This scheme is designed to fit around a writer’s other commitments, providing over the course of a year six email feedback sessions with an experienced writing mentor who helps craft the work, help the writer find his or her voice and complete a full-length work. After the development process, writers receive a full editorial assessment of the whole work by a separate editor. This currently differentiates TLC’s service .

For those of you who can make it to London, TLC offers an Industry Day at its London base, the Free Word Centre, with an agent and editor as guests. Writers have attended from Bangkok, Canada and Europe. Those who can’t make it can access a PDF information pack with a write-up from the day.

Copy Editing and Proofreading

Matching copy-editors and proofreaders to writing projects is an area of our work we have seen increased interest in over the last few years,

As publishing options for writers proliferate and more authors decide to publish independently, TLC has seen increased interest from writers needing copy-editors and proofreaders. They will discuss with a writer whether this kind of editing is suitable before you part with any money. Writers who seek this service include those for whom English is a second language and who want help ‘cleaning up’ their work.

TLC does not advise writers to translate their own work into English unless they are an expert, as often this will result in a text that a copy-editor will have difficulty ‘fixing’. Copy-editing is corrective; not designed to re-write your text. It’s also not cheap, so make sure this is the final stage of editing, or you risk re-introducing errors which may need a further copy-edit to correct.

Who Uses Editorial Services?

‘We find that most of the writers coming to us are first-time or “emerging” writers wanting support to develop their craft and gain a better understanding of where their writing might fit into the market,’ said Swift. ‘But we also have regularly published or contracted writers come to us with books that, increasingly, their agents haven’t the time to help them develop.’

Most of the literary agents TLC works with are UK-based, but they also have contacts in Hong Kong, India, Australia, the USA, the Caribbean, and Africa, and they will do their best to support writers through these networks.

Finding Success as a Writer

Reaching publication success as a writer is in some ways easier than ever (via self-publishing), and in other ways more difficult than it’s ever been (squeezed editorial budgets, more focus on marketing and publicity when commissioning new titles within publishing houses).

On the one hand, the latest International Publisher’s Association annual report is encouraging; more books are being published than ever before. But this comes with a warning: Canongate Publisher Jamie Byng said in an article in The Guardian last year, ‘I think we publish too many books … and I think this impacts negatively on how well we publish books as an industry. It is very easy to acquire a book. Much harder to publish it successfully.’

There are some notably writers who disagree. Novelist Jenn Ashworth stated in the same article, ‘More books and more people talking about books is always excellent … it is a shame we have fewer and fewer librarians to help readers navigate their way through all this glorious literary chaos and find hidden gems.’

What’s clear is that good writing needs champions; those who can help not only source, but polish these ‘hidden gems’.

Says Swift: ‘When we find a particularly gifted writer, a “hidden gem” from any country, our professional reader or mentor flags the writer up to our in-house team. We will then look at the work, and think about the various pathways open to the writer; so what might be best for the book, according to the genre, the target readership, the market appeal, and so on.’

It’s an exciting time, and there are plenty of options for writers who are serious about writing, getting their work up to standard, and making it available to readers across the English-speaking world. The internet has opened up many possibilities, and it’s a thrill for all at TLC to be working at the intersection between the writing on the one hand, and potential readerships on the other, and finding ways to help writers form relevant links between the two.

By Aki Schilz

AkiSchilzTLCAki Schilz is a writer and poet based in London. She works as Editorial Manager at The Literary Consultancy.

Dealing with Rejection

Andrew Madigan deals with dealing with a publisher’s rejection.

Charles Bukowski’s first published piece was, ironically, ‘Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip’ in Whit Burnett’s Story magazine. I thought of this today when I opened my email, sipped a double-espresso (okay, I’ll be honest, it was a quintuple), got ready to greet the day, and confronted an awful rejection.

We don’t want this.

No thanks. No pretending that it’s nothing personal. No softening the blow. 

Not a great way to start the day, but it was still better than one those impeccably fake and simpering rejections that tells you how special you truly are, and not to worry, that your voice will get out there, and not to buy a sturdy length of rope.

I’ve received 1,000’s of rejections over the years, and some of them still sting. The good ones – handwritten, with personalized messages! – I can still remember. (Mostly, because I sleep with them under my pillow.) I get a lot more acceptances these days – maybe 40 percent of the whole: I’m a frequent contributor to my Mom’s blog – and very few rejections. Instead of rejections, I get silence. No response. Not sure what the editors are doing. Strict email filtering protocols? Skipping work?  Playing email like it was Asteroids and the Delete button was Fire? 

My first submission elicited my first rejection. The university quarterly, which was supposed to be quite good. They rejected all three poems – quite rightly, I’d guess – but said that one wasn’t as terrible as the rest. Yeahhh! However, it was unpublishable because I had used underlining and dialogue. Poems do not do that! Well, they do. To be clear, Student Editor from 30 years ago (I’m still mad), there are no rules in Art. That’s the first rule. 

It was Bukowski, coincidentally, who taught me that poetry could have dialogue, underlining, recipes, descriptions of puking and hangovers, whatever you want. (This may seem like an elegantly sophisticated bit of symmetry, returning to Bukowski, but it’s just an accident. I’m not that clever.)

The worst rejection was from a top university quarterly in the Midwest. The Azure Peony or The Forlorn Buckeye. A very earnest and well-regarded literary journal. The note was, by my reckoning, a B-3, the very best kind of rejection. A B-3 is entirely handwritten and contains both strong encouragement and a request to submit further work. (An A-3, by the way, might be apocryphal. It is entirely handwritten and contains absolutely no encouragement and requests that the writer submit no further work, ever.) The note said:

We really enjoyed this piece. It was hilarious. One of the best things we’ve read in years. We were all rolling around on the floor laughing. We won’t be publishing it.

How did we get from the first four sentences to the last? I was confused. 

Comedy, that’s the rub. University quarterlies are often quite humorless, true, but comedy’s not easy. Nonetheless, comedy rarely gets an Oscar and is rarely appreciated as much as it should be. As Moliere said, dying on stage while portraying a character who was pretending to die (yeah, it confused the hell out of everyone), Dying is hard, but comedy is harder.

But dealing with rejection is even harder than that. 

 

andrew madiganAndrew Madigan is a freelance writer/editor. He writes for Washington Parent, Arlington Magazine, Salon, The Guardian, Five O’Clock, Gate37, Punch, and other periodicals. His work has appeared in The Believer, The London Magazine, The Iowa Review, The New Haven Review, Phoebe, The North American Review, Gulf Coast & other journals. His novel, Khawla’s Wall, is published by Second Wind.

 

Actors and Literary Translators, the Great Imitators

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Shelly Bryant argues that literary translators need the same skills as actors who imitate the voices and mannerisms of others.

Last year, the world lost one of the greatest comedic geniuses of our times when Robin Williams passed away. While he will be remembered for many roles on television and in the movies, his earliest claim to fame was as a stand-up comedian. From those early days of his career, one of the main tools of his trade was the impression, and he was one of the best. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ed Sullivan, Groucho Marx, Robert De Niro, and Carol Channing were just a few of the celebrity impressions Williams employed in a single film, Aladdin. He captured the mannerisms and voice of each one convincingly, alerting his audiences immediately to whom he was depicting.

This same gift of imitating others’ voices and quirks comes to life on the page in the work of a gifted literary translator. The translator’s job is not to duplicate the words of an author in a second language – taking the ‘original’ and repackaging it in a ‘target language.’ Instead, the translator’s job is to mimic the voice and mannerisms observed in the source text and replay them in a different venue for another audience. The translator’s voice will be heard – just as we see Robin Williams even when it is unmistakable that he is mimicking John Wayne or Ronald Reagan – but it will be a faithful enough representation of the author’s voice that the personality of the source material will come to life, being foregrounded to the point that the translator is lost in the shadow of the author. This is why the same work will sound slightly different in the hands of different translators, though the original is recognizable in each rendering.

The trick to successful literary translation is similar to successful impression. One must latch onto some details of expression, voice, or gesture and magnify those, being aware that doing so requires the relinquishing of other details. It is not a duplication of the whole person, but imitating certain traits specific to her or him. Sometimes it was a gesture or mannerism, such as John Wayne’s distinctive walk, that Williams would hang his imitation on, but as often as not, it was the voice. Jack Nicholson, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and Walter Cronkite all became part of the repertoire on the strength of their very recognizable voices.

A similar skill can serve as the perfect foundation for a successful literary translation. The decision about what to latch onto and what to relinquish will vary from translator to translator, and that which is lost in the process will invite comments and criticism as soon as the work is published.

Sometimes, in order to make the impression recognizable, exaggeration of a point is required, and all exaggeration is necessarily a departure from the strictest literal translation. For instance, in my translation of Sheng Keyi’s Northern Girls, I knew as I read the book what I wanted the English version to sound like. It needed to bounce. It was crisp, sharp, cheeky, and extremely clever. When I started the translation, the first sentence of the book read, ‘她,就是钱小红,湖南的。’ The most literal translation of this is, She is Qian Xiaohong from Hunan (Province). My translation is, Her. Right there. That’s Qian Xiaohong, from Hunan Province. My version is more consistent with the voice of the novel as a whole, even if it is something of a ‘free’ approach to that first sentence.

On a larger scale, I had another decision to make early in translating Northern Girls. In the Chinese, there are no quotation marks to set off the dialogue. On the page, it all looks like free indirect speech, which often flows fluidly into more narrative portions, occasionally making it a little tricky to discern between dialogue and narrative, or between the narrator’s voice and a character’s thoughts, in an application of stream-of-consciousness techniques. In Chinese, this makes for a very fast-paced read, creating a lively text that is full of verve and sparkle. In English, the application of the same technique would slow the narrative down, as evidenced by much English-language stream-of-consciousness fiction. I made the choice from the beginning to forego the use of the technique, opting for an imitation of the voice, style, and personality over a duplication of the technique. Throughout my work on the translation of the novel, I tried to consistently apply this approach.

Another point to consider in translating from Chinese to English is that longer sentences and paragraphs are more the norm in Chinese. I often break a single Chinese sentence into two, or even several, English sentences. I have heard some translators suggest that sticking to the sentence and paragraph breaks – even the punctuation – of the original is part of the standard used to judge accuracy. (To be fair, I don’t think I’ve ever heard that from someone who works from Chinese to English.) The problem with this is that the same sentence breaks create a very different effect in English to that achieved in Chinese, which results in an imitation that seems to miss the mark of the voice or original personality of the piece. I prefer to be more faithful to the overall effect, even if it means sacrificing some details.

It might be argued that this approach fails in the strictest standards of accuracy. Rather than try to dispute that claim, I would reply that ‘strict accuracy’ is seldom an ideal that should be pursued in literary translation. Instead, I aim for faithfulness – a faithful rendering of the voice and character of the text – in an attempt to imitate the original’s effects on Chinese readers in an English-language readership, as opposed to a duplication of textual details. If a translation is too literal, it creates an odd mirroring that is like what you expect to find in a fun house; you might recognize the image, but you immediately know it is distorted.

Emphasizing imitation of voice in translation is not without its problems. I have seen my own preoccupation with imitation of voice create some problems or misunderstandings in the course of a project. In one instance, an author hired me directly to translate her work. When the final draft was complete, I received an email from her husband, a native English speaker, who wanted revisions done to capture what he considered to be the voice of the piece. He described it as upbeat, feisty, and fast-paced. This puzzled me, because my feel was that the text was slow, contemplative, and a little melancholy. I sought another opinion from a colleague, who agreed with my understanding and felt the voice I had employed was a good representation (or imitation) of the original. So, while the client and I were both focused on imitating the voice of the text, we were hearing different voices.

The matter was cleared up when I replied to the author’s husband, asking him to give me some examples from the text where he felt the voice was significantly different in English from the Chinese version. He wrote back to say, ‘I don’t read Chinese. This is just the impression I’ve got from my wife narrating the story to me.’ This was a somewhat unusual turn of events, with her spoken retelling of the story taking on a faster-paced, more frenzied tone than she employed in her writing. Her husband and I were each trying to mimic her voice, but she was not using the same voice when addressing each audience. The differences of opinion arose not only from the differences in the forms of the text presented to us, but in our respective relationships to that text. We were two very different audiences, and so the text morphed in our readings of it, resulting in almost polar opposite ideas about what the English version of the book should sound like.

When I thought more about this experience, it made perfect sense. The intended audience for a specific project always plays a key role in the approach to translation, a fact which creates space for many versions of the same work in translation. No single rendering can perfectly convey the original in the target language, translation by its nature being an inexact art, so multiple versions created for a variety of audiences and performed on numerous stages is the ideal. Sadly, it is an ideal that is rarely achieved, especially considering how inadequate the body of work we have available to us in translation is, even in the best of circumstances.
ShellyShelly Bryant  is the author of six volumes of poetry and a pair of travel guides for the cities of Suzhou and Shanghai. She has translated work from the Chinese for Penguin Books, Epigram Publishing, the National Library Board in Singapore, Giramondo Books, Rinchen Books and Griffith Review. Her translation of Sheng Keyi’s Northern Girls was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012.

Spinal care for writers

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Developmental editor Laurel Cohn looks at story structure.

No, this column is not about how to maintain correct posture at the computer (are you sitting up straight?). I’m interested here in the notion of the spine of your story.

Just as you can’t function at your optimum if you have spinal issues, your story needs to have a strong and healthy backbone. Think of your story as a creature. It does not need to look realistic – it can have a multitude of limbs and unusual features – but it needs to be able to stand on its own and deliver its creator’s intent.

Being able to identify the backbone of your story is crucial to help you work out whether you have unwanted growths that need to be excised or require additional material needed for balance.

PLANNERS AND PANTSERS

Some writers meticulously plot their story before they begin chapter one. These are the planners. Others just start writing and let the story develop and unfold as they go. These are sometimes referred to as ‘pantsers’, those who write ‘from the seat of their pants’.

There is no right or wrong way; it is totally dependent on the writerly practice that works for the individual author. However, in my experience as a developmental editor, structural issues are common in both fiction and narrative non-fiction book-length works, and while planners do sometimes need to apply structural adjustments to their work, it is the pantsers who usually need to consider significant spinal manipulation.

DIAGNOSIS

The first step is to find out exactly what you’re dealing with. Some writers know there are structural issues in their work, but are not sure how to go about identifying them.

Writing a chapter outline after a completed draft is a good start. It is also useful if you are some way into a work and you feel like the structure eludes you. Some publishers require this as part of the submission (particularly for non-fiction), but even if they don’t, and even if you are a planner, it can be a very illuminating exercise. Using point form or prose, note for each chapter the key event, characters introduced, time covered, themes, plot threads etc. What you put into your chapter outline will depend on the type of manuscript.

You could begin with quite a detailed approach, but see if you can end up with no more than six to eight dot points or two to three short paragraphs for each chapter. The idea is to outline what you have written, not what you intended to write.

You may find that the draft is well-paced and balanced, with no major holes or blips. Or you may find that some chapters don’t seem to have a key dramatic event and others are choc-a-block with action; that a sub-plot seems to disappear from the narrative for over half the book; that a character is redundant; that the pace is uneven. Reviewing your chapter outline will give you ideas on what is working, what is missing and what needs to be rethought.

IDENTIFYING THE SPINE OF THE STORY

Diagnosis is only the first step. In order to fix structural issues, you have to  identify the spine of your story. One strategy is storyboarding.

A storyboard is a series of illustrated panels in a sequence, like a comic book. It is used in film to help plot stories and you can use it to help identify the key structural points in your manuscript: the bones of the spine. Once you understand where the spine lies, you can more readily amputate unnecessary limbs or strange growths that cripple the story. Storyboarding also helps you see your story as more than a collection of words – the individual bones are depictions of characters, their actions, and the consequences of those actions.

To storyboard your plot begin by listing the three main events that take place in your story; not just three random events, but the three things you are most likely to tell a friend when describing what happens in your manuscript. Use the three main events as roughly beginning, middle and end, and turn them into three panels. Now fill in some of the spaces between these main events and storyboard your plot to around 12 or 15 panels. Alternatively, create a single panel that shows the key event of each chapter. You may end up with ten or twenty panels, depending on how you have organised your material. This is a little like a visual version of the chapter outline.

HONING THE STRUCTURE

There are various ways you can play with your storyboard to help you hone your narrative structure. You can cut your panels apart and rearrange them. Storyboarding can help you discover whether you have too much story or too little. It may reveal that your story’s ending is really your beginning or that one character (or more) has no real impact on the core of the story and can be cut. It might show that the sequence of events isn’t as tightly constructed as it should be. It can be a very useful tool in the revision process. You can use storyboarding to plan ahead, and you can also use it as a diagnosis tool for what you have already written.

Different genres and different stories may lend themselves to different types of layouts. For example, in a story where the passage of time is critical (such as a crime story) a spreadsheet may be appropriate so you can chart hours, days or weeks. There is a fascinating sample of J.K. Rowling’s spreadsheet for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix at www.slashfilm.com (search for J.K. Rowling).

There are lots of different ways to represent a structure using shape, colour and space. I have worked with writers who have used mind maps, excel spreadsheets, outlines and index cards. Whatever shape your skeleton takes, and your representation of it, using colour and visual patterning may help you to see your work differently – to identify weaknesses and build on strengths in your story structure. With a strong spine, your story is more likely to fulfill your intentions.

 

Laurel Cohn is an editor and mentor passionate about communication and the power of narrative to engage, inspire and challenge. Since the late 1980s she has been helping writers develop their stories and prepare their work for publication. She is a popular workshop presenter and runs an editing and manuscript development service. 

What Colour is Your Writing Workshop?

Sreedhevi Iyer argues that her Masters in Fine Arts in Asian Writing at the City University Hong Kong answered Junot Diaz’s criticism about the lack of diversity in most writing workshops.

PULITZER PRIZE WINNING novelist Junot Diaz wrote in the New Yorker in May 2014 about his experience in an MFA creative writing program at Cornell University.

I didn’t have a great workshop experience. Not at all. In fact by the start of my second year I was like: get me the fuck out of here.
So what was the problem?
Oh just the standard problem of MFA programs.
That shit was too white.
Some of you understand completely. And some of you ask: Too white … how?
Too white as in Cornell had almost no POC—no people of colour—in it. Too white as in the MFA had no faculty of color in the fiction program—like none—and neither the faculty nor the administration saw that lack of color as a big problem.
‘That shit was too white’

Diaz was a visiting writer at the City University Hong Kong’s MFA Creative Writing program in 2011. On learning of the closure of this program, he told China Daily, ‘In my years as a writer I have found very few institutions that make the practice of writing into a global conversation. At City U you have writers from all over the world learning from each other, cross-pollinating, creating hybrid possibilities — and it’s no accident that this is happening in Hong Kong, long the crossroads of Asia.’

Others associated with the program took to social media and other newspapers to express their dismay at the announcement of the closure. Canadian short story writer and novelist Madeleiene Thien wrote in The Guardian about why she accepted a position on the faculty in 2010. ‘I wished to learn what a multilingual, multi-canonical literary workshop might look like.’

City U began its low-residency, distance learning MFA as recently as 2010. Xu Xi, the Director of the program, is a cosmopolitan writer who put the program together with global intentions. The program’s first summer residency had an international cohort of more than twenty nationalities, a model that has prevailed throughout the life of the program. Some of the students are of Asian origin, and some who have no Asian ancestry want to write about their experiences in Asia. The program explored and encouraged cultural engagement.

Staff included a diverse, international collection of writers, among them Robin Hemley, then also the Director of Creative Non-Fiction at the University of Iowa; James Scudamore, nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2009; Sharmistha Mohanty a novelist from India; Filipino author Jose Dalisay who was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize,;Jess Row from the United States; and Tabish Khair from Denmark. They brought with them a wealth of literary traditions and pedagogical knowledge. With so many faculty members and students from many parts of the world, new things happened in the program that went beyond label of origins.

In my experience, the beauty of multi-canonical workshops lies in how, when everyone in the program is so different from each other, differences disappear.
If someone is publicly labeled long enough and often enough, they come to see themselves that way. Asian-American. African-American. Chinese-Australian gay male. British-Indian straight female. I am a doubly hyphenated writer–Indian-Malaysian-Australian. This came to mean nothing in an environment with so many identities.

Diaz wrote in his essay: ‘Simply put: I was a person of color in a workshop whose theory of reality did not include my most fundamental experiences as a person of color—that did not in other words include me.’ But this was not so in the workshops I attended at City U.

The MFA Xu Xi headed in Hong Kong personified the ideal Diaz spoke of, by the sheer force of its diversity. When labels collapse, the writer can unload that baggage and just focus on the craft. In workshops, we were just people. We were given story samples and suggestions in line with how we would already tell our stories, instead of converting them to fit privileged aesthetics. It no longer mattered where we had come from, or how we self-identified. We no longer explained to the dominant paradigm because that paradigm was no longer there.

MFA faculty members gave us innovative craft ideas that reflected our cosmopolitan, post-label reality. Instead of learning to fit into the labels, we learned to overturn them. A workshop with Jess Row included a short story by Chimamanda Adichie called ‘Jumping Monkey Hill’. It was a searing piece on the racial undertones in a creative writing retreat in Cape Town. In class discussions, we realized power imbalance influenced the creativity of the disadvantaged. This was real. Our writing exercise was to produce a satirical piece critiquing our own MFA program. Bite the hand that feeds you. It was an odd, but genius, act of self-permission.

Another example was the use of point of view. For example, I had a story in mind during my time as a student. I had been writing it for a while. It had an interracial newlywed couple from Melbourne, Australia. They were on their honeymoon in a small village in India. They realize during the trip their marriage is already breaking down. The wife, Rachel, is an Anglo-Australian, and the husband, Mohan, a South Indian. Both of them become slightly different versions of themselves during the trip. Rachel has the biggest character arc in the story and the most focus. But could I write in the voice of a white woman? Do I dare? Could I even hope to have this published in any decent literary journal that would take the story on its merit ?

The MFA pedagogy understood my collectivist way of viewing the world, and helped manifest it in my craft. Instead of the individual point of view, Xu Xi raised a question of a collective point of view. Instead of first person singular, how about first person plural?

I could write the exact same story but change the vantage point to the village. Not one person, but every person, tells this story, which is how stories last over time in the first place. And if the village is telling this story, it will be a ‘we’. We see. We feel, we think.

More recently, Madeleine Thien conducted a Generative Writing Workshop that evoked the hand of the Buddha in its ‘abhaya mudra’, or to ‘have no fear’. Going by the Japanese form called ‘Palm of the Hand’, the idea was to generate five separate pieces of flash fiction, rather like the five fingers of the palm. Eventually students weave them into a singular tale during the editing process, just like fingers that close into a fist. The creative process takes the many and forms it into one – much like the program itself.

Such aspects in this program made it innovative. It considered writers who came from many places and spoke in many voices. It nurtured alternate perspectives and understood the need for more diversity in the literary world.

In announcing the program’s closure in her blog, Xu Xi wrote that ‘we look at the world with a different lens from many other MFAs because we’re not about one nation, one language, one culture, one race, one religion, one anything.’ On Brevity magazine’s blog, faculty member Ira Sukrungruang wrote: ‘This was a program like no other, producing writing like no other. It was not only shaping literature in Asia but also adding diversity to the western canon.’

All those involved with the program knew it was a gift the world should continue to value.

 

SREEPHOTOBWSreedhevi Iyer’s work has appeared in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal (Hong Kong), The Asian American Literary Review (US), Hotel Amerika (US), Free Word Centre (UK), and Two Thirds North (Stockholm).

An Unofficial International Writing Community

Why would I, a middle-aged, white Australian woman, consider applying for City University of Hong Kong’s low-residency MFA program?

I was nearing completion of my first book and planned to return to the red-dirt mining town of my childhood to find two former friends, both Aboriginal, both former residents of Kurrawang Mission. I suspected by now that they were members of the Stolen Generations—Aboriginal people removed from their families as children—and I wanted to tell their stories and examine my responsibilities as a white settler descendant. Trouble was I had no idea how to write about race.

Where better to learn than in a dynamic new MFA program, brainchild of Xu Xi, with an Asia-Pacific focus?

So what did I actually get from the program? I’d signed up to produce writing that could make a difference. In workshops and through distance mentoring, my teachers honed my craft and guided me through the final draft of my first book (The Boy Who Loved Apples). Over subsequent semesters, they taught me to interrogate my biases and gave me the language to write about race. I graduated with a complete manuscript. After reviewing it, award-winning Australian writer Melissa Lucashenko, of Goorie (Aboriginal) and European heritage, wrote that my memoir “with luck, could change many Australian minds.”

I’d expected great teaching, after all my teachers included accomplished writers like Luis Francia, Justin Hill, Ravi Shankar, Marilyn Chin, Xu Xi, Robin Hemley and Suzanne Paola. (And who could forget Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz’s inspirational two hour lecture?)

What I hadn’t expected was membership of an unofficial international writing community. Through their writing, my talented co-students introduced me to other rhythms and sounds, and opened my eyes to the many different Englishes in this part of the world. Three years post-graduation, I’m in regular contact with many of those writers.

Hong Kong poet Nicholas Wong, whose searing second collection Crevasse was recently published, is one of them.

Nicholas writes, “I am forever indebted to the wonderful teachers who worked with me with a belief that, a bilingual speaker born in Hong Kong, could make a difference to the literary scene of the city and the world.”

Sreedhevi Iyer is another. Sreedhevi is an Australian passport holder, born in Malaysia of Indian heritage, currently living in Hong Kong, a hyphenated identity, as Nicholas puts it. She writes, “The best thing I obtained from this program was a sense of artistic liberation. I would pigeon-hole myself to be what others thought I needed to be. This MFA broke a glass ceiling. I could, for the first time in my life, write the way I *really* wanted to.”

So why would the University close our MFA? Is it a politically motivated decision or do they not realise the program’s potential? In Sreedhevi’s words, “It is a gift the world should continue to have.” City University needs to rethink its decision and support our vision of a creative and cohesive future.

Amanda Webster

webster-amandaAmanda Webster graduated from the University of WA as a doctor long before undertaking the MFA in Creative Writing low residency program at City University of Hong Kong. THE BOY WHO LOVED APPLES is published by Text.

Response to the Closing of the CityU MFA Programme

On the Closure of the CityU HK MFA and the Wider World of MFA Programmes

All of us in the world of creative writing in Hong Kong, especially those of us who care for the mutually beneficial work that concurrent MFA courses can offer to writers in a major city, are saddened to hear of the closing of the City University MFA programme. The press release published earlier laments the loss and its ability to “contribute to Hong Kong’s growing importance as a international centre of arts and culture.”

At the same time, we need accuracy to move forward together. The press release from CityU also includes this comment by unnamed CityU MFA students, quoted from “social media”: we hear that CityU’s MFA Programme offered them “the only opportunity to pursue a degree in creative writing without relocating to the US or UK” (emphasis added). This is simply not the case, and it is unprofessional for all interested in the field of creative writing, especially for prospective students, to let it stand unchecked. More importantly, such diffuse quotations miss a larger point. Each, and any, MFA programme is professionally and internationally valuable.

The MFA at CityU, like every other MFA programme, we know, is situated on an already vibrant local and international landscape of MFA and other Creative Writing programmes. We are all part of the story about support for Creative Writing in Hong Kong and the region, and we need to tell it well, especially for the emerging generations of writers. We support all such programmes in their support of writers, and look to all of them for what each can offer.

Dr. Page Richards
Associate Professor
Director, MFA at HKU
School of English
The University of Hong Kong

 

 

Closure of City University of Hong Kong’s Creative Writing Programme

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25 Distinguished Authors Protest


April 29, 2015: TWENTY-FIVE internationally recognised authors from around the world, including US Pulitzer Prize winners Junot Díaz, Rae Armantrout, and Robert Olen Butler, have signed a letter to the President, Provost, and Chairman of the Council of the City University of Hong Kong, protesting the university’s decision to close its highly successful and admired MFA Programme in Creative Writing.

The MFA Programme, established only five years ago by Hong Kong-based novelist Xu Xi, has brought many distinguished writers (including the signers of the letter) to the university’s Kowloon Tong campus, and has already resulted in six books and hundreds of published poems, essays, and short stories by MFA graduates and current students.

The only reason given for the closure (which was announced, with no previous discussion, by the acting chair of the Department of English on 27 April) was that “the programme has only been able to enrol a small number of students every year.” However, the current size of the program (approximately 40 students) is well within the model proposed by Xu Xi when the university established the program in 2010. The program is financially self-sustaining as of 2015.

In their open letter protesting the university’s decision, the writers state: “The CityU MFA Programme is the first truly global creative writing program anywhere in the world. It has attracted students from 20 different countries, and a writing faculty that represents literary traditions of Asia, the Americas, and Europe…In the future, we feel that the MFA Programme promises to make CityU a widely recognised centre of global literary and cultural dialogue, which will in turn contribute to Hong Kong’s growing importance as a international centre of arts and culture.”

Current students and alumnae of the MFA Programme have reacted with shock and disbelief to the news of the programme’s closure. Many of them have taken to social media, noting that the MFA Programme offered them the only opportunity to pursue a degree in creative writing without relocating to the US or UK, that it has given them an opportunity to explore their roots or connections to Asia in a welcoming environment, and that it provides a rare haven in Hong Kong for free, imaginative expression. A petition from current and former students and supporters will be delivered to the university administration within days; other protest measures are under discussion.

The authors who signed the letter are: Jess Row (USA), Tabish Khair (India/Denmark), Nami Mun (USA), Evan Fallenberg (Israel), Robin Hemley (Singapore), Jose Dalisay (Phillipines), Suzanna Paola (USA), Shawn Wong (USA), Marilyn Chin (USA), Luis Francia (USA), James Scudamore (UK), Ravi Shankar (USA), Rae Armantrout (Pulitzer Prize winner, USA), Tina Chang (USA), Bob Shacochis (Pulitzer Prize finalist, USA), Junot Díaz (Pulitzer Prize winner, USA), Robert Olen Butler (Pulitzer Prize winner, USA),Ira Sukrungruang (USA), Sybil Baker (USA), Sharmistha Mohanty (India), Madeleine Thien (Canada), Chang-rae Lee (USA), Richard Blanco (US Inaugural Poet, 2012, USA), Richard Jackson (USA), Rawi Hage (Canada).

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For more information, contact
Jess Row, MFA Programme faculty: rowjess@gmail.com (USA) +1 718 490 4203
Xu Xi, MFA Programme leader: xuxi@me.com (Hong Kong) +852 9175 2839