Why do writers write? Was the opening question put forth by chairperson Miguel Syjuco, Filipino novelist and professor at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) to panelists Kapka Kassabova, Bernardine Evaristo, Hallie Rubenhold and Inua Ellams in the Writers’ Table 3 session at the recently concluded Hay Festival Abu Dhabi (Feb 25 – 28), held at Manarat Saadiyat in Abu Dhabi.
The panel conversations in English and Arabic tackled intimate truths of fiction and poetry to the geopolitics of a volatile global reality.
Here are the responses by the writers to the first question Why do writers write?: (The responses have been slightly edited for clarity)
Kapka Kassabova is a Bulgarian writer who is the author of the universally acclaimed and multi-award-winning book Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe and To The Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace.
“We can certainly tune into the untold story and in that way seek out a form of justice or form of reconciliation through storytelling. For me, justice is a big thing. I grew up in totalitarian communist Bulgaria where there was no free speech. Writers had to be state-approved. It was a formative experience growing up in an atmosphere like that. In a totalitarian society, things are not always overt. It’s often the undercurrents that are felt even by children. I think children are very sensitive to injustice. That is how I open the narrative of my book Border, with a scene from my childhood on the beaches of the Black Sea, very close to the border with Turkey where the last stretch of the Iron Curtain ran. We were all aware of the fact that we were close to the militarized border zone where people got killed trying to cross. That kind of thing you don’t even have to necessarily understand at the conscious level as a child, you know. It’s at a cellular level, it’s everywhere. It’s in the atmosphere. That’s why I have been driven into this direction of exploring under-explored human geographies. I think it would be arrogant to say, ‘giving voice’ to those who haven’t had. I think that’s not the right formulation but perhaps it’s simply the desire and hunger that I have to hear the untold stories, that for me are the really important ones and are often written out of the official history that is famously written by the victors, and I want to challenge that.”
Bernardine Evaristo is a British author who is the first black woman to win the Booker prize. Her bestselling novel, Girl, Woman, Other, jointly won the Booker Prize in 2019, alongside Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments.
“I teach creative writing at Brunel University in the UK and the problem that we have in teaching students today is Netflix. They come into the class, they are sluggish and when I ask what were you doing? They say they were watching Netflix until 3 AM. I really worry about the future of writing actually. Because young people today have so many options to entertain themselves. So we all might be in a similar thread here in terms of untold stories. Definitely, I write stories that otherwise wouldn’t be told. At a deeper fundamental level, it’s my chosen creative expression. I was the child in the classroom who daydreamed. I wasn’t very interested in school and I used to sit and disappear into my imagination. Reading was my greatest pleasure as a child. I used to go to the library, pick up several books and then come home and read them over the weekend, and go back to the library and get another batch of books. That was how I entertained myself as a child. There wasn’t much going on for me as a child. We didn’t go for holidays, I was living in Suburbia, we played in the streets, that’s what people did back then. I discovered my own imagination and the imagination of others through reading books. And I found that incredibly enjoyable and stimulating. So it became my chosen form of creative expression. Although initially, I was an actress who also wrote for the theatre. So I was writing the kind of parts that I wanted to see that weren’t available in the 1980s when I came of age. The narrative is really important in our lives, stories are intrinsic to who we are as human beings. It’s how we process our experiences in micro and macro scale, it’s how I process life. So, if I didn’t have writing as a way for me to make sense of the world I am living in, then I would feel a huge vacuum. If you were to say to me you can’t write anymore, not even in private, I think it would destroy me. So, there’s that going on as well. Then there’s this sense that I have of a community that hasn’t been written about much, which very specifically for me is the black British community. As I said, I write from that perspective. So, growing up our stories weren’t there on the bookshelves. So, I feel a huge sense of responsibility to tell those stories but it’s also with joy. The fact that there hasn’t been that many writers out there from the black British community actually means that the field is wide open to write all kinds of things from historical to contemporary, all kinds of perspectives and all kinds of narrative, because there is almost nothing out there as there’s few of us doing this work. So, there is a sense that I want to be a voice in the world, I do have an ego. So I like being heard, I like being listened to. I like my imagination and what I’ve come up with creatively being paid serious attention to, and when I don’t get that, that causes me pain. I am in a good position at that moment. It’s great that the work that I am producing is floating out in the world. People are listening to what I have to say and how I want to say it. So, all of those things are in the mix and probably more.”
Hallie Rubenhold is a British historian and author. Her work specializes in 18th and 19th-century social history and women’s history. Her 2019 book, The Five, about the lives of the women murdered by Jack the Ripper was awarded the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-fiction.
“I think we are at a really interesting point in time in redefining what the historical narrative is. Because now we are opening it up to other people. Working-class women, women in general, people of colour have almost been written out. And when you start integrating these voices back into history, you get a fuller picture of what it actually is. And that’s hugely gratifying to be part of that experience, it’s incredible. And that’s one of the reasons why I write and one of the reasons why I get up in the morning when I was writing the ‘Five,’ was this idea that these women have been so defamed and here I can take 5 women who represent working-class women, poor women who had zero voice and almost no rights and the world is going to know their stories now. And that was an incredible sense that was propelling me to the computer. I do feel compelled to write, I feel I have to tell stories. Before I could even write, I was dictating books to my parents. It’s a compulsion to tell stories. The other thing I was going to pick up on was Netflix. Netflix can be our friend and our foe. Netflix distracts us, but as a writer, I have found that Netflix and box sets have totally influenced how I think of stories now. It has influenced me not only as a writer but as a reader, how I consume the story. And I have learned how good box sets such as MadMen and Breaking Bad tell us about how to develop characters, create lean storylines, how to go into a scene and come out of a scene and hold the reader and want to make them turn the page. I have learned that through visual media. I think it’s fascinating. One thing that we should be aware of as writers are the degree to which the popularity of long-form television is influencing the way we take in the story and the way we address readers. When we are writing, we may have to take that on board in order to hold their interest in a similar way.”
Inua Ellams is a poet, playwright, performer, and designer and is one of the most celebrated contemporary creators in the UK for the wide-ranging nature of his work. He is a Member of the Royal Society of Literature and an ambassador for the Ministry of Stories, an organisation that fosters the potential of 8- to 18-year-olds as writers. After publishing four poetry books and receiving the Fringe First Prize at the Edinburgh International Theatre Festival for his first play The 14th Tale, Ellams sold out his run at the National Theatre and on the world tour with Barber Shop Chronicles. His most recent play, The Half God of Rainfall, a work in verse that mixes Greek, Nigerian and basketball mythology, opened in March 2019 to great critical acclaim. In addition to his intense graphic and literary output, Ellams has founded The Midnight Run, an urban tour from dusk to dawn, and RAP parties that combine poetry slam with urban music.
“Writing can be a bit blasphemous. So most of the time, I wake up thinking about poetry and that’s just all I want to do. But to write poetry is one of the most redundant, empathetic things because you’re building this machine made of largely air and hope and using words to do it, which do not retain their meaning, they change from generation to generation. So you are building this contraption built of unstable material, whether in print or digital, the whole process is ridiculous. When you’re writing poetry sometimes, you are discovering things as you are writing it, so you can also see that you are creating a whole universe and it can all fall apart. Especially it’s late at night and it’s just me over my laptop and I am lit by the screen and feel like I am bonded with this machine and it’s just us, and you have the internet and you can Google search everything you need to create this machine, made of air, it feels like you’re skating on nothing and just riding that is just weird. It’s scary. That’s what I love, that sensation. And then there’s everything that is built on – trying to understand yourself, trying to represent a community, trying to find hidden stories to tell, shed light on things – that’s absolutely vital but what sits on top of that is this transaction of nothingness, that’s when you go ah-ha.”