English Shared Futures: a journey into the English creative writing landscape

From the 5th to the 7th of July (2017) our partners from NAWE hosted the English Shared Futures conference along with some other British organisations. Our colleague Ana Guerberof attended the event on behalf of the EACWP board. Here is her exhaustive and thoughtful account of her experience in Newcastle. Thank you, Ana!

By Ana Guerberof

This was my first time to attend a conference on creative writing in the UK and the first time to represent the EACWP, so I didn’t know exactly what to expect, and I was, of course, a bit nervous. English Shared Futures was organized by the English Association and University English and supported by NAWE (a member of EACWP), Institute of English Studies and the Higher English Academy. The conference was taking place in Newcastle upon Tyne from July 5th to July 7th, 2017. Three very packed days to discuss not only Creative Writing, but a multitude of themes under English Literature and Literary Criticism, and English Language learning.

I arrived in Newcastle, an extremely friendly city –the only place, in my experience so far in Europe, that is at a level with Ireland in gentleness– on the second day of the conference. The striking thing about this conference was the amount of venues (in Northumbria University, Newcastle University and Newcastle Civic Centre) sessions (over 150) and participants (check out the programme here). Every hour there were thirteen options, yes thirteen, to choose from. Every hour I was faced with a dilemma. Often I decided depending on geographical proximity or what others, with more knowledge, were recommending to me. Fortunately, after each talk we could discuss, in the very convenient fifteen-minute tea breaks, with other colleagues their sessions and get a grasp of what was discussed there.

I was not the only EACWP member to assist, mind you, Gale Burns (from Kingston University), Andrea Holland (from University of East Anglia) and Derek Neale (from Open University) were also there to share a panel called After Brexit: Life without Erasmus organized by Seraphima Kennedy (our own representative from NAWE). Our session was the first one on Thursday morning so we did not entice a huge crowd –I fear that the word Brexit might have put some people off, as they must be exhausted of the word and the entire process by now—but, to compensate, we got an engaged group of people. Firstly, I gave a brief presentation of what the EACWP is all about, and our past, current and future projects (you can see more information on this site), and then my English colleagues discussed their challenges in the classroom with the increasingly difficult status of foreign students and teachers. They were all concerned and had little information on the situation with European programmes, such as Erasmus, after Brexit, but were somewhat hopeful that certain initiatives go beyond the country’s policies, and that exchanges are a fact and a necessity and they will continue to happen. The EACWP could be an avenue for the UK to channel these exchanges (among teachers and writers).

So, once I fulfilled my duty, and I was less nervous, I had two full days to enjoy the conference. Even though the conference was very academic at times, it made me think of Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666, it was incredible to see how creative writing teaching has flourished and is organized within universities and education institutions in the UK if I compare it, for example, to Spain. The dimensions and contributions of this event will be simply unfathomed in Spain, and I dare say, the Spanish speaking world. Among my favourite sessions were the three plenaries that I assisted to. Deborah Cameron’s Language and the Problem of Female Authority hit all the right notes. I felt she was expressing with scientific data what I have been thinking in recent years about the question of gender inequality. To summarize a very extensive talk: if we continue to look at women’s attitudes from a deficient aspect (without real data to back some of this misconceptions), as women having the problems, and women having to solve them, we will not only continue to have gender inequality, but we would have probably lost a sense of identity and a lot of money on courses that are trying to fix women! Really, she hit the nail on the head!

Bernardine Evaristo’s Creative Writing took us through the creative process of her new novel (Mr Loverman) and discussed the question of representation of different races in English Literature in a Q&A session. Diversity was a recurrent topic in the conference because one of its aims was, precisely, to foster inclusivity and diversity. For all the criticism and deficiencies that were discussed, and I’m sure they are all accurate, I couldn’t help but thinking that this topic is also completely inexistent in Spain, and not because the issues are not present.

Finally, Brian Ward’s Martin Luther King in Newcastle: remembering and forgetting took us through his incredible journey to uncover the events surrounding Dr King’s visit to the city. From a handkerchief to actual footage of the visit. It was a magnificent story, and we had the opportunity to see and listen to brief section of the speech King delivered in Newcastle University. What an original way to close the conference!

As I mentioned earlier the report by one single person cannot do justice to the magnitude of this conference. But I would like to mention my favourite sessions. In Ethics in Memoir, Poetry and Fiction presented by our own Seraphima Kennedy, Winnie M Li and Hannah Lowe discussed the creation of their two novels Dark Chapter and Long-time no see, respectively, based on true events. They explained how they dealt with retelling their own story and the issues they faced as lot of the “characters” are still alive. Hannah told us how she followed the footsteps of his father through the UK, Jamaica and, almost, China. A memoir of reconstructing our past to learn who we are. Winnie took the audience to the edge of their seats explaining her crime novel based on true events, her own rape fifteen years ago. A story about overcoming violence, of course, but above all about reinterpreting violence so the scars are easier to live with.

The session on Hometowns and influences with Paul Munden, Maura Dooley, Susan Watson, Ros Barber gave the accounts of different projects that involved Jane Austen, Laurence R. DH Lawrence, and the Isle of Shippey. If you thought writing about writers’ houses was boring, these projects showed a completely different viewpoint, and they left me wondering who financed this type of projects in the UK, again I couldn’t see this happening in Spain.

And finally, I attended Diversity in Teaching and Learning presented by Claire Hynes and Andrea Holland from UEA. This was one of the last thirteen sessions in the programme, so it wasn’t crowded but again we were a very enthusiastic audience. I could summarize this talk by saying that diversity (including gender, age, race, sexual orientation, etc) is still an issue in the UK even though the Equality Act was passed in 2010. Teachers, however, the speakers told us, have an obligation to keep their eyes opened and make sure that in the courses, diversity is addressed. Even though the speakers remarked that the issue was more talked about than acted upon, I thought how little this is discussed in Spanish universities and events, and they are necessary.

Lastly, I would like to mention the parallel events that the conference had in the evenings. I was lucky to attend the poetry reading by three laureates poets: Carol Ann Duffy and Jackie Kay from the UK, Lorna Goodison from Jamaica, accompanied by musician John Sampson. Apparently since Carol Ann Duffy is the Queen’s laureate poet, she is assigned a musician during that year to accompany her! Traditions that can only happen in England. The venue was full, no wonder, as the quality of the reading merit it. Afterwards, I shared an excellent Indian meal with writers Keith Jarrett, Winnie M Li, and Seraphima Kennedy where not only I discovered that London is a bit of a country of its own, but that we were all linked through very similar, although apparently different, life experiences.

As I’m here at the airport waiting to board a plane to Paris to attend the EACWP first Teachers’ Training in Normandy I reflect on all the aspects to learn from this conference. Even though it was difficult to follow at times (because it was very academic and English is not my mother tongue), I’m sure I will put all these ideas to a good use in my classes and in organizing events within the EACWP.

I will like to end by saying thank you to Seraphima Kennedy, not only because she is an excellent advocate of the EACWP within NAWE, but also because of her timely advise on certain talks, her incredible energy, and her extraordinary capacity to make everything she presents or talks about interesting. Seraphima, I’m eagerly waiting for your next book! as I’m sure it will be as beautiful and passionate as you are.