Ana Menéndez is the daughter of Cuban exiles. Born in Los Angeles, Menéndez has lived in at least three continents: America, Asia and now Europe, where she currently coordinates the creative writing minor at Maastricht University (Netherlands). Her own story brings back into the EACWP the complex and enriching discussion of both identity and diversity. Additionally, Ana openly exposes her perception about the creative writing culture in Europe also dealing with her American background
How do we dream Europe by teaching Creative Writing?
«The activity of art,» wrote Leo Tolstoy in What is Art, «is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it.»
Art, for Tolstoy, was more than a means to pleasure, it was a fundamental condition of human life, one that nourished and was nourished by the human capacity for empathy. We dream Europe by creating our own stories and imagining those of others’. Teaching writing means giving students the skills they need to create vibrant, honest, rigorous works of art. So they may tell their own stories.
Is there a European identity when it comes down to Creative Writing?
This is an especially interesting question for me, as an American (at least by passport) who has arrived on the continent bearing yet another dubious American export. «Creative Writing» as an academic discipline in Europe has yet to win the acceptance that it has on the other side of the Atlantic. American ideas about creativity tend to be too optimistic for European tastes. And while there is much new research that suggests that creativity can be fostered –even learned – it remains a controversial idea. Certainly the history of aesthetic philosophy in Europe would be, to put it best, skeptical. Kant, for one, argued that the genius of the artist is unteachable. Any school that emphasized a rules-based curriculum, he argued, would simply produce a «soul-less» art of imitation.
Talent vs instruction is something of a false dichotomy. Every serious writer and reader will acknowledge that we need both: The artist prays to both Apollo and Hermes. But the debate continues to animate creative writing pedagogy. This, too, is nothing new. Think of the battles between the surrealists and the Oulipo group. The term «Creative Writing» may carry American overtones. But the teaching and philosophy of writing is deeply rooted in the European tradition. As are arguments about how best to go about it.
This diversity of thought matches the diversity of languages and it is this rich diversity above all, which constitutes our «European» identity. At Maastricht University, our creative writing classes are conducted in English, which allows many different nationalities and linguistic traditions to mingle and learn from one another. About 40 students have passed through the program in its first two years, representing a dozen mother tongues, among them: Dutch, German, English, Latvian, Norwegian, Luxembourgish, Swedish, Russian, Finnish, French, and Arabic. That is Europe!
What is the dream behind every method we teach?
I am still not convinced that creative writing can be taught, but I know that it can be learned (for every great writer has managed it). My method is to teach students how to read – to really read, critically, with an eye for style and structure and craft and art — so that they may then teach themselves how to write. There are no short cuts, just a lot of reading and writing. It’s important to remember the pleasure of creating. And to joyfully accept the sometimes difficult work of it. By the end of their time with us, our students have read some 100,000 words and written 50,000 of their own. And they always say, at the end of 20 weeks, that they could have done more.
Which stories are told now in Europe? How by teaching and learning Creative Writing are we writing Europe?
The stories told in Europe today touch on obsessions that we have always had as human beings. Each age interprets them according to its own paradigms. But really those things that animated art for the ancient Greeks and the ancient Zen poets of China have not changed that much. Wang Wei, who lived from 701 to 761 wrote, «In mountain forests, I’ve lost myself completely: identity’s nothing but the role we play in public.» (I’m quoted from David Hinton’s excellent translations).
These questions of identity, of finding one’s way home, of forging a journey with meaning, they are always with us.
The story of Europe is a long polyglot epic of empire and conflict and innovation. It traces a history of mass migration that continues to challenge static notions of nationhood. It is a story that is continually being renewed and reinvented. And in this, the role of translators has been as important as the role of writers themselves.
Today, as in the past, the translator is a liminal figure, an exile with a checkered past, passing messages back and forth across the border. It is joyfully perilous work. And sacred, for it keeps the stories flowing.
Docent, Maastricht University
The daughter of Cuban exiles, Ana Menéndez was born in Los Angeles. She is the author of four books of fiction: In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd (2001), Loving Che (2004), The Last War (2009) and Adios, Happy Homeland! (2011). For nearly 18 years, Menéndez worked as a journalist in the U.S. and abroad, lastly as a prize-winning columnist for The Miami Herald. As a reporter, she wrote about Cuba, Haiti, Kashmir, Afghanistan and India, where she was based for three years. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Vogue, Bomb Magazine, Tin House, Poets & Writers and Gourmet Magazine, and has been included in several anthologies including Cubanisimo! and American Food Writing. She has a B.A. in English from FIU and an M.F.A. from New York University. A former Fulbright Scholar in Egypt, she now lives in the Netherlands, where she coordinates the creative writing minor at Maastricht University.