‘Don’t write about what you know,’ advises novelist Colum McCann, ‘but towards what you want to know. The only true way to expand your world is to think about others.’ In the Department of Film & Creative Writing we are constantly pushing our students to expand their worlds; to use creativity to challenge boundaries; to tell stories that have never before been told, or have been left untold for too long.
In our own work, we also hold these principles dear. All of the Creative Writing lecturers are working, publishing authors, who have produced novels about issues as diverse as the aftermath of World War II; the gay community in the wake of the AIDS crisis; University rape culture. We employ tireless research and imagination to try and get under the skin of worlds and ways that are often very removed from our own. Ultimately, we hope to gain – and offer – a deeper understanding thereof, whilst also interrogating the ethical issues inherently at stake in such a process.
This summer, my fourth novel, Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan, will tell the story of the Jewish community in Twentieth Century Ireland – a fascinating, all-but-forgotten history about which I knew almost nothing until a few years ago. However, I have long been inspired by the aforementioned McCann who, through his fiction, is dedicated to stepping outside of himself; learning about other cultures and finding stories in the most unlikely of places – from the black homeless population of New York to the Roma community of Eastern Europe.
Meanwhile, in 2014, McCann founded the international organisation Narrative 4, which likewise believes in storytelling as a means of breaking down barriers and shattering stereotypes. Promoting ‘fearless hope through radical empathy’, Narrative 4 works with groups of teenagers across the globe, teaching them the importance of their own story, as well as the importance of appreciating others’, no matter how unfamiliar they may appear. They have hosted events in America, Ireland, Israel, South Africa, but it is the first time they have come to England as part of a project at Birmingham.
For the first stage of the project, my colleagues and I ran a series of preparatory sessions with three diverse local schools, introducing them to concepts of empathy and understanding, as well as the power and potential of storytelling. We discussed our own writing experiences and processes, as well as some of the world-renowned authors affiliated to Narrative 4, such as Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Adichie.
Then, in May 2016, three Birmingham and Black Country schools (Joseph Chamberlain Sixth Form College, Earls High School, Holyhead School) came together for a ‘Story Exchange’ event run by Narrative 4 advisors flown in especially from the US. Here the students worked in pairs, sharing stories from their own lives, before reuniting as a group to tell one another’s story back to the room, using the first person – inhabiting that experience and making it their own; really stepping into somebody else’s shoes.
A series of follow-up events will discover the various ways in which this process has impacted on the students; how they feel differently about empathy, about others, about themselves. We will also explore how these discoveries might be used in their creative writing; how they might feel better equipped to write what they don’t know and expand their worlds.
More and more, Creative Writing is being championed at this University. As such, this important project once more reaffirms the discipline’s significance and potential. We are honoured to be working with Narrative 4 and hope it will be the first of many meaningful collaborations, moving forward.