Rearrangements in Writing

Zachary Omitowoju speaks to students about opportunity and diversity in Creative Writing.

Zachary Omitowoju

Diversity is a hot topic at present. To conclude what I feel would be a friendly send-off at the end of my placement, I wanted to write about – and get some insight into – diversity in Creative Writing. So, with that task in mind, I asked some more NTU Creative Writing students: Paul Adey, Mathew Gallagher and Jess Parkinson.

‘My viewpoint is that the more backgrounds we are exposed to, the more we can learn about the world around us’, said Mathew. ‘How are we supposed to know what, or how, people on the other side of world, or even in our streets, think if they are not given the opportunity to tell us? As writers, we should be enriching ourselves with not just those from our own background, but with as many backgrounds as possible.’

He added what he thought we could do to achieve this:

‘We need to ensure that as many opportunities are available to as many people as possible. As a carer, and especially during the pandemic, I’ve been grateful for opportunities that have allowed me to participate in creative writing events I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford. I think the idea of offering spaces in events to groups who otherwise might not (or are unable to) attend would be a great first step for writers who may otherwise miss, or be missed, out.’

Of course, Nottingham Creative Writing Hub is one of the ways NTU does this: the events are free, and well attended by people outside the university – as was the one I chaired in January.

Jess essentially agreed:

‘Even though over recent years there have been projects and outreach programmes to get to these writers who might not otherwise have been published (for example), more can be done by more people to make sure everyone gets an equal opportunity and I believe that starts at the top – like publishing houses.’

Paul shared similar thoughts too, and said it was urgent:

‘Yes, I think there is a huge disparity in terms of class, race, and gender in the creative writing industry, often (historically) in relation to who gets a voice. I certainly believe that there is an urgent need for diversity.’

He added: ‘Whilst noticing this divide, I don’t necessarily resent it, as I accept that creative writing (book writing, poetry, and ‘higher forms’ of literature) has been structured in this way for a long time, as many people from middle and upper classes are drawn to it (reading/writing) as a passion, and form of expression. 

Speaking in terms of increasing race and class diversity in the creative writing industry, I think people like Marcus Rashford, Skepta, and Akala are figureheads of movement and change regarding the introduction of literature (and its great power) to more working class people and more diverse audiences.’

I then asked whether they were concerned about staying true to themselves when writing to help others relate with them or their characters. Paul’s answer was refreshingly authentic:

‘Due to my background in (and study and practice of) ’90s rap, the trope of keeping it real remains at the forefront of my mind anytime I work creatively. Whilst this focus has had its negative effects on my work over the years (stopping me from branching out, trying new approaches), overall, staying real—staying true to myself, my background, my accent, my artistic values—has helped more than hindered me. With that being said, I’d like to be able to be myself without assumptions being made of me due to these aspects. In an ideal world, I’d like to be able to talk about what I need to and express myself in whichever way I feel empowered/confident, without those elements being questioned, or brought into the equation of my artistic output.’

He doesn’t want to be defined by his identity:

‘Under these circumstances, aspects of the human condition such as astuteness of thought, diligence, experience, and adaptivity are highly valued / prioritised, and elements such as race, age, gender, class, are less vital. I am very aware of the flip side to any coin, and whilst this perspective may seem valid to me, I completely understand that it might be contentious and/or often plain wrong for others.’

As for Jess, she stated that she used to be concerned:

‘When I first started writing that was a huge thing for me – making sure my characters were relatable. Then, I started writing genres that I personally had no interest in, or had to research heavily, and my characters became relatable to the people who knew that genre, but not necessarily to me, so my ability to characterise has improved massively over the years.’

Mathew added:

‘No, it’s not something that concerns me, as my ‘self’ is what makes my writing unique. That being said, research is the key to authenticity when not writing about yourself.’

That sounds like good advice.

That being said, I then asked if these characters were easy to make relatable and got some very insightful responses. Mathew said:

‘You need to ensure that you’re researching effectively, asking people from those backgrounds questions. Only that way can you represent those backgrounds in an appropriate way. To give a personal example, my dissertation is a historical fiction looking into a battle during the Boshin Civil War in nineteenth-century Japan. As someone who is distanced from both the time and place, it’s my responsibility to ensure I both research and consider their lives as I write. The differences in class, societal roles, societal expectations, morality, religion, and so on. These are all things I need to think of and portray properly. Is it easy? No, but I think the effort will benefit both me and my writing.’

Paul added:

‘Going back to writing about what you know, I feel that if a writer writes on subject matter they are sure of, certain of its inner workings, their almost innate understandings of these subjects, and the minute details involved—aspects of that subject that others just couldn’t know—will show through on the page. When thinking of writing culturally relatable themes, and universal relevance and resonance in terms of the overall human experience, I think that most, if not all texts express these themes in some way, shape or form. When stripped back, I think that’s most authors’ intention, to shine a light on an aspect of humanity, as a way of helping themselves (and their readership) to grasp these aspects more firmly, to help understand themselves and their surroundings better.’

Jess summarised: ‘As long as a writer you’ve done your research and present things well and respectfully, there’s no reason you can’t write about anything.’

I asked them about how they felt (personally) about the portrayal of diverse characters and storylines are being represented more fully now than it used to be. Paul started off by admitting he studied more previous eras of literature:

‘As a reader, I tend to study previous eras, so I might not be so well qualified to answer this question regarding contemporary creative writing. From my somewhat narrow perspective of mainstream media, however, I see a lot more diversity than I used to (even if only on surface level), in the movies, on television advertisements, etc.

I follow English football, and there have been changes made regarding football commentators’ and pundits’ vocabulary, in respect of narratives illuminated on social media platforms by the likes of Raheem Sterling, Troy Deeney, and Marcus Rashford. For me, when trying to think positively regarding this matter, just hearing these individuals publicly addressing issues surrounding diversity (such as racism in football) in the media, and seeing elements of diversity occur (incrementally, as a very slow, gradual shift) within large, predominantly white-owned industries, is really revealing, and uplifting. When thinking about the future and imagining a place in society for my son and daughter, I have high hopes that when they reach an age of racial awareness, they are able to negotiate life’s hurdles without their skin colour being a factor in any of their decisions.’

Jess added:

‘I do feel that more diverse characters are being represented more, especially with authors such as Eve Makis being very popular!’

Mathew’s answer was helpful and encouraging:

‘A lot of the time, good representation comes from people from a diverse range of backgrounds working on projects, especially as writers, or from other writers who are willing to research properly to ensure proper representation. I think there are certainly more portrayals available now, compared to when I was younger, but I think it’d be inappropriate for me to suggest that diverse characters and storylines are being portrayed ‘more fully.’ My opinion is to listen to people of those backgrounds as they speak on the matter themselves, and when I come to write, ensure that I represent them accurately.’

My closing question for this blog post was one I felt was the most important, especially moving forward: What do you feel can be done to improve diversity – in terms of viewpoints and demographics – within Creative Writing? After all, nationwide, a disproportionately small proportion of students from working class and/or non-white backgrounds take the subject.

‘Letting people know that they’re represented’, said Jess. ‘And that their own writing could be received no matter who they are or where they come from!’

Paul’s answer came from a slightly more musical angle:

‘From my perspective of musicianship and creative writing (rap, lyric, spoken word, poetry, and creative writing), it’s rare that practitioners of hip hop culture, or active members of the hip hop community are visible in higher education settings. This might be due largely to hip hop’s natural aversion to traditional forms of institutional educational, but until prominent members of popular cultures such as rap and hip hop are visible in these places, like-minded people (young people and mature students alike) may not view academia as a valid path to follow, especially when attributing their literary/creative values to a vocation/career. In the end, though, I think it’s important to note that many creatively minded peoples’ interests were/are fashioned outside of an educational environment. My interests were largely shaped outside of school. This was because I was inspired by artists who lived outside of mainstream ideologies, political agendas, and current affairs, in the narrow, often unseen, grey areas of society. As I said earlier, there is a flip side to every coin, and in my opinion, much of the important, if not vital elements of creative writing can only be learned outside of an educational setting.’

To me, Mathew’s answer reminds us to remember where we are in these challenges and gives me hope that everything will be alright:

‘Normalise diversity. At every level. We often say that children are born without thoughts of judging others, until we impart our prejudices upon them. I think it’s important to introduce children to people who are not like them. Books with neurodiverse characters, or characters of colour, or characters that represent LGBT+. If you can show these kinds of books to children, then it’ll help them understand people who both are and are not like them in these regards, and they’ll carry that on into their adult lives. More importantly, it’ll also help readers of those books who are of relatable backgrounds to feel represented. In turn, it might encourage them to write about their own experiences or write characters that represent themselves. We need to encourage this positive cycle, not just for those living now, but for the generations that follow us.’

Zachary Omitowoju is a BA Media Production student at NTU, and is currently on placement with the Nottingham Creative Writing Hub as part of NTU’s Humanities-wide ‘Humanities at Work’ module.

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