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Bending Genre in Under the Shadow

Post by Shivani J. K. Rayat

Film is one of the most popular forms of art in this day and age, from fanatical franchises featuring morally challenged superheroes in worlds that always seem to be ending, to political and socially educational films such as The Big Short and Blackfish, as well as more artistically orientated independents like The Lobster and Under the Skin. And then there are those films which bring into question just how far we can stretch the limits of genre; Babak Anvari’s psychological drama Under the Shadow is one of the very few ‘scary’ films I’ve enjoyed for the simple reason that it does not constrain itself to the rules of a mainstream genre film.

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Anvari’s film deals with complex issues around ‘restrictions of freedom’ and ‘not being able to look after your child’ (as Anvari himself alluded to in the Q&A section of his talk at the University of Westminster). But perhaps most importantly it is also concerned with character ‘realism’. This is particularly true in a scene near the beginning which focuses on the family enjoying a meal. The film as a whole is extremely tense, but it was these little moments that created an intimate, and almost intrusive atmosphere.

An idea of invasion is also something that Anvari’s film explores, most notably through the Djinn, the ghostly presence which threatens the mother’s relationship with her daughter. This mythological creature seemed to ‘travel on the wind’, thereby finding its way into the home of the protagonists, which is also being threatened by war, missiles and solitude. At the same time, the female lead is struggling with the oppressive nature of her country and society and the looming fear that she is an unfit mother.

Such themes have also occurred in other psychological dramas. The Babadook, for example, is an Australian film which features a woman whose grief for the death of her husband becomes personified through her son’s book. Another film that features a grieving mother who turns on her children is The Others, which has an M. Night Shyamalan style ending, that I will say no more about.

In his talk, Anvari also spoke very interestingly about ‘world building’ and how more recent films, particularly action/adventure stories, do not take any time to establish the environment that they are set in. A film like Godzilla, for instance, jumps straight into the action and doesn’t give the audience time to catch up. On the other hand, as Anvari pointed out, in an older film like Jurassic Park, ‘you don’t see a dinosaur until about forty minutes in, and it’s not even trying to kill you!’ Under the Shadow builds its world very successfully, while also trying to keep us guessing as to what obstacles the protagonists are going to face next.

When you watch this film (it’s on Netflix by the way), do not expect jump scares or cheap shots to make you fear something around every corner. Consider instead the detailed world, the realistic characters and the terrifying way a safe space turns into something that is no longer a sanctuary. Overall, Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow is an excellent example of a psychological drama that is really worth getting scared over.

 Shivani J. K. Rayat, March 2017

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Writing the Other

Post by Zainab Dawood

Jemma Wayne, alumna of the University of Westminster, came to Regent Street campus on Friday 3rd March to speak about ‘Writing the Other’. Her new novel Chains of Sand is about the 2014 Gaza conflict, focusing on the points of view of two Jewish men, one living in London, one in Israel, along with a host of other perspectives. The book explores the themes of identity, politics, and war. In her talk, Wayne focused specifically on the topic of difference.

chains of sand

Writing about Difference, Wayne said, is writing about something very rich with emotion. In her novel, she writes from the perspective of many characters, switching point-of-view rapidly within chapters deliberately to create a sense of discombobulation. One minute, you’re reading about Udi, a veteran of the IDF, the next minute you’re reading about his mother, the next, from the perspective of Daniel, a Jewish Londoner. Reading it, Wayne’s goal has been achieved; it certainly is confusing. But through that confusion comes a sense of understanding, familiarising oneself with foreign thoughts and experiences. Reading the perspectives of people whose religious/national identity play such a huge part in their lives and decisions creates an appreciation for the figure of the ‘other’, and in fact makes them less of an ‘other’ and more of a ‘self’.

During the conception of her book, Wayne conducted interviews of various Israeli citizens to gather a diverse set of perspectives on life there and of the 2014 war. She said these interviews added a sense of authenticity to her writing, as it was like having a window into someone else’s life. The more genuine the work, the more powerful, Wayne stated. She compared fiction to journalism, saying that in journalism there is an assumption that there’s a hidden motivation behind a piece of writing, that readers of an article will feel either validated or confronted by the words. Fiction, however, is different – it connects to the person behind a story, and we see the art in the writing.

For a writer from a minority background, her words were reassuring – she showed that it is possible to write a story deeply rooted in ethnic and religious identity without skimping on relatability to an audience who doesn’t share the same background as myself. Wayne’s experience in writing the novel resonated with me because at times it can feel like some stories are off-limits. You cannot write from certain perspectives because you have not experienced it. Wayne showed me that this is simply not the case, that with enough research and authentic contribution, you can write a story that speaks about a totally unknown identity but that still holds a very human familiarity.

Zainab Dawood, March 2017

Choosing to write

One thing that has been drilled into me throughout my time at Westminster, from the moment I stepped through the Regent Street doors, is that your writing is only governed by your experience. The old tradition of the more you read the better you write is still at the forefront of any advice I have ever been given. Chloe Aridjis is a prime example of this; Aridjis is the author of two novels, Book of Clouds and Asunder, as well, as being a co-curator of the Leonora Carrington Exhibition at Tate Liverpool that opened in March 2015.

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In her talk it was evident that her writing was heavily influenced by her life experiences. From birth she had been thrown head first into the literary world with her father being the famous Mexican poet Homero Aridjis. She spoke extensively about her childhood, during which she moved from the US to the Netherlands and to Mexico City. As a child, Aridjis would wake up to many great poets, such as Ted Hughes and Jorge Luis Borges, sitting round her dining room table having breakfast, and speaking in conversation with her family. She was also taken to different poetry festivals organised by her parents, with all of this falling into her day-to-day routine. As she has grown-up she has spent time in Berlin and England, but when talking about Mexico and her heritage she was filled with pride and passion. Again, this was example of her background and history moulding her writing.

It seemed to me that Aridjis had no choice but to be a writer. Her immersion in the literary world gave no option for anything else that wasn’t creative. Her influential childhood gave her a lasting impression that none of us would ever have had the chance to experience. Aridjis’ life is full of many different inspirations which, as a writer, I am in awe of. These inspirations have helped shape her writing and have drawn out ideas and creativity. With her own childhood seeming like something straight out of a book, how could she be anything but a writer? It posed the question why did I become a writer? For me, it was to be able to become like many of my own favourite and admired authors. I wanted to be able to provoke a change in the reader, like many great writers have made me undergo. For Aridjis it was like the path was already laid out before her. There was nothing else that she could have become and after hearing extracts from her novel ‘Asunder’, it seemed she would be wasted in any other profession.

Lucy Cranfield, February 2017

Watching the ending

In a chat about film-making, journalist, screenwriter and director Dave Nath discussed his transition from making documentaries to drama and answered his critics over the ending to Channel 4’s The Watchman.

The seemingly endless possibilities in creating plot can often be an obstacle for writers. Eliminating choices to reach the ones with the most authenticity, that propel the narrative, is essential according to Nath. A journalist turned dramatist, he admitted that writing fiction “can be paralysing when you’re faced with a blank page. But it’s useful to get material down even if that means getting it wrong at first”. He praised his training in journalism for giving him the ability to summarise a story quickly and concisely and with his first foray into drama, The Watchman, he had the core details of the story formed early on. From there it was a case of fleshing it out, working on dialogue, texture and tone and crafting it into the film, with some guidance from his older brother, Westminster University’s Michael Nath.

The 2013 documentary series Bedlam won him a BAFTA and was followed by another BAFTA-winning series last year, The Murder Detectives – part fly-on the wall documentary, part CSI – which explored the tensions and transmutations of real life murder investigations as they unfolded. His reward for moving into fiction was “absolute control over the storytelling”.

The WatchmanThe Watchman, filmed in just 10 days, gave him the opportunity to take the reins of the narrative. The film portrays a CCTV operator up against a vicious and uncompromising street gang, part of a generation “anaesthetised by violence on the screen”. 

After The Watchman aired on Channel 4 this year, the public took to social media to respond to the film’s finale in seething fashion. People were taken by surprise, some were upset, felt cheated or were loathe to discover there was no follow-up, while others found value for money in the open ending. Explaining his intent, the director said “What I wanted to ensure with the ending was that the character’s integrity stays intact. He’s a moral person, a father-figure who looks out for people. He buys his dignity in the exchange at the end.” The ending also opens up the possibility of a reboot in the future: “people were talking about the possibility of Carl working for them, running the cameras for the gang”.

There’s a nod to British gangster flick The Long Good Friday in the closing sequence, a reference perhaps lost on younger viewers, and Nath found his Bob Hoskins in an actor, who, ironically, has often been cast on the wrong side of the law – “Stephen Graham was my first choice.” Before The Watchman was filmed, the actor had performed in Boardwalk Empire and Pirates Of The Caribbean and it’s hard to imagine a setting further away from Chicago in the Roaring Twenties or CGI-heavy seas than a dark, singular monitoring room location – “It was all low budget but he was interested in doing it. He’s one of those actors who cares about supporting British film.”

Keeping to 45 minutes in length, The Watchman’s compressed action gives it a momentum exclusive to the one-off television drama format. Nath aimed to deliver as much as possible in that time-frame by trimming off the excess: “for the characterisation to work in that time there’s no room for the breathing space you’d find in a series”. As a storyteller he’s not one for giving too much away, which allows him to re-frame the characters later on – a writing technique that he relishes. An exposé on Carl’s relationship with his wife is revealed later on in The Watchman but it’s left to the viewer to infer how it developed: “I wanted it to be ambiguous, for people to think “is this the cause or effect of his detachment from the family?”

The filmmaker’s manifesto on writing drama is about being “counter-intuitive, driving it with the unexpected”. He wants to turn things on their head and to treat the audience with intelligence as much as he wants to grip and entertain. And as he found in the murder investigations he covered with the beat, real life often comes packed with surprises.

Nath is currently writing another single drama for Channel 4 due to be broadcast later next year.

Alex Hancock, December 2016

Truth is a trouser word

As the first fogs of autumn rolled down Regent St, I saw a figure take shape, and it was an agélaste.  Agélaste is a word invented by a great and very funny writer called François Rabelais (pictured); it means a person who does not laugh, and affects gravity. You probably know a few.

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Consider what we want as writers …

‘Would like’, you mean – want is bad manners.

Very well. We ‘would like’ to make our readers feel, think, worry, fear, hope, fall in love, know themselves better. And see truth. Not much to ask, what? … Well laughter’s the wind that freshens thought, and feeling; and it may be a way to the truth. But for a long time, our culture’s been down on laughter. Look what happened to Parson Yorick, in the novel some of you are enjoying this autumn.[1]

Yesterday, or thereabout, the winner of the Man Booker Prize was announced, and it’s caused a stir. For why? Because the winner (The Sellout by Paul Beatty) is funny. Must be some mistake! The judges of the Booker, and other of our splendid literary prizes, never pick a funny book. The truth’s grim, right? History’s a nightmare. This is the worst year ever. So your judges have been afraid of seeming frivolous. Then they read The Sellout.

Now, you can be funny and win the prize! Maybe it’s the grim books that were frivolous, or hypocritico-sanctimonious. And for why? Because they were taking advantage of pain; because there’s more to being serious than wearing a long face … Meanwhile, the laughing books are doing what they’ve always done: making us think, training us for truth. At long last, the judges have understood the most famous sentence in philosophy …

‘Truth is a trouser word.’

What the hell’s that supposed to mean?

Seven times seven are the meanings of the sentence, friend Agélaste. But today’s is as follows: as the leg to the trouser, so truth to hilarity … you can’t keep them apart. Especially in novels.

Think of Dickens, laughing so loud he kept the family awake, in those late-night sessions at his desk: he’d just invented Jaggers or the Golden Dustman. So what if your people move to another town because they’re sick of the sound of you hooting and slapping your thigh? You’ve been writing the truth! Take Franz Kafka. We think of Kafka as a fearful prophet, and he was too. But when his friends came round to listen to his drafts and Gregor woke as a beetle, or Josef K was arrested in his bed, they laughed till their moustaches burned off in the backdraft (which is why Kafka, Max and Felice, have smooth faces in photos).

Back soon with more nonsense, amigos

But for the moment,

Beware of the agélastes!

[1] Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759-67)

Michael Nath, December 2016

Beating the block

On the 11th of November, the immensely talented Gwendoline Riley came to the University of Westminster for a Q&A and workshop. It was, for me, a truly inspiring afternoon, filled with discussion and affirmations. Gwendoline talked about how growing up she always had her head in a book, which I think resonated with most people in the room. We got to hear the story of how she was published after her tutor read something she’d written, and offered to put her in touch with an editor. I personally felt relieved after hearing her story about being published, as most people will tell you that it’s near on impossible to do it on your own. Gwendoline told us that as writers, we should read as much as we can, especially when it comes to the classics. I think, as students, it’s easy to get caught up in life and forget to read. But in order to hone our skills as writers, we need to read a whole range of literature, from the classics to the modern and all that comes in between.

opposed-positions

In the second half of the session we focused on setting and place, where we picked apart extracts that Gwendoline had compiled, discussing what we liked and what we would possibly adapt for our own writing. She told us how she had ‘borrowed’ a paragraph from another book once, and worked on it until it was hers, and nothing of the borrowed paragraph remained. She told us that this helped her get through her writers block, and that it’s a technique she occasionally uses when she feels that she’s really stuck. I found this extremely useful, as writers block is something that I’m sure all writers have suffered with, at least once. I’ve tried a range of techniques to break down my writers block, but this was new to me.

As she really caught my attention with it, I decided to give Gwendoline’s technique a try. I picked up one of my favourite books, took the first paragraph, and started moulding it. It took a while, but after 20 minutes of solidly working on it, my block had faded and the paragraph was my own.

It was a pleasure to take part in such an in interesting and useful workshop, and I’m very much looking forward to reading her next novel, First Love, when it comes out.

Rhianna Saunders, November 2016

LIVE writing

When it comes to creativity, it is tempting to seek affirmation. As a writer, seldom is there anything better than hearing your work praised. Fear of embarrassment, disapproval, or being told that, after so much effort, you’re not as good as you think you are, is common amongst creative writing students, and a constant source of anxiety. At best it strengthens our resolve, at worst it makes us transfer to economics.

mutantsFor these reasons, it is tempting to search for dictums – commandments to worship at the altar of creativity – that let us know we’re doing something right. ‘Show don’t tell’, ‘less is more’, ‘write what you know’: these are “rules” all of us have looked to for guidance— rules that we often forget aren’t eternal truths. But Toby Litt won’t let us forget. In fact, in his guest lecture last week, he was adamant that we should break these rules. For Litt, greatness in writing means embodying the spirit of free-form jazz; it is all well and good to be competent, to have the formal elements down and play a melody, but competency isn’t enough. There has to be more. There has to be risk.

Awareness of the self is also crucial, and Litt suggests that studying your own reading habits is vital to understanding and improving yourself as a writer. At the end of the lecture, he proposed four tasks writers should undergo to become better acquainted with themselves: writing, reading, re-writing, and re-reading.

More than anything, Litt’s creative philosophy is individualistic. He doesn’t want you to write to better the world, he wants you to “write for yourself”. What I took away from his lecture was: only adhere when it suits you. If the pressure of being yourself is too much, be someone else. Write with a pseudonym. Write what you love. Write what is LIVE, and be open to the process of growth and transformation, because thinking that there’s nothing left to learn is the biggest pitfall of all. Competency is boring.

Cameron Sherwell, November 2016

On being a fish out of water

Miranda France (@MirandaFrance1) delivered an interesting, inspiring and eye-opening talk to Creative Writing students at the University of Westminster last Friday. One of the main things that stood out to me as an aspiring writer was how open and honest she was about her work and all that it entailed: from how she stumbled upon writing; to how her publisher told her to go back and rewrite the entire second book as it just wasn’t her. Her editors gave her the most important advice a writer can receive: that sometimes writing is like solving a Rubik’s cube that just doesn’t want to be completed. She was honest about all the highs and the lows suffered while writing, though, as she put it, you suffer many more lows as a writer than you do highs. She mentioned how everything she has been through shaped her to become the writer and person she is today, which spoke to me as everything that has happened so far in life has made me the person I am.

the-day-before-the-fire

She spoke about the essay she wrote that launched her writing career and landed her the book deal, and how without that offer she may not have ever written what she has. While her first book, ‘Bad Times in Buenos Aires’ – an extended version of the essay – is not the kind of  genre I usually read, it seems like it would be an interesting and rewarding experience. Her second book, ‘The Day Before the Fire’, sounded more my cup of tea and I definitely want to look into it more. Not only did the journey surrounding the character Ros resonate with me, but the story behind the title also prompted me, and my reflective writing class, into a lengthy reflection about history. It explores how we, as a society, love to preserve the memory of the past, no matter how cruel and ashamed we should be about it, for it shaped the world today. We can assume (based on our own history) that centuries into the future, places we know and the parts we are ashamed of will be preserved for new generations to learn about.

From the talk the one piece of advice I will take with me as I progress as a writer, and I am sure many others will also, is:

“Do not be afraid to feel like a fish out of water.”

Because as a writer you need to throw yourself into new and possibly uncomfortable situations to come up with a great story. Thank you Miranda for a great perspective on writing and showing us that following the road to writing is not impossible.

Hannah Buff, October 2016

 

Writing myths #1

A popular myth about writing is that everyone who writes, writes everyday. It stems from the mythology of a blinding passion being the fuel of writing. And who powered by a blinding passion can go a day without writing?

The reality is very different. Writing, as I see it, is episodic, seasonal. I rarely write everyday. And in fact, recently, I took an epic nine month break from writing altogether, to refresh my palette, charge up my fingertips and gather some new rolling down the hillside of life experience.

People skeptically said to me of this sabbatical, Oh but Nick you can only afford to do this because you’ve written fifteen books. But the reality is this: I’ve taken breaks from writing before, in fact quite regularly.

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Studying the fever graph of my writing career, I see episodic seasons of high temperature productivity (for example, in one season, the writing of three 70,000 word books in 15 months); in-between quiet seasons of bitty, fleeting, quick-turnaround activity (journalism, essays, contributions to anthologies, album liner notes, blogging) and hushed periods of no-writing where there was quite happily nothing that I wanted to say through writing.

On the MA Writing Business course, we had a guest speaker recently – a former graduate of our BA Creative Writing programme – and she said that at one point on her road to success, she didn’t write a single word for eighteen months.

The best part of this revelation is that her writing career took off as soon as that sabbatical ended and she’s now doing very well for herself. That eighteen month silence, though painful at the time, with hindsight now, turns out to be the best career move she could have made because she stayed silent when it was the right move to stay silent. When she started feeling her writing again, she followed that call and doors opened for her all over London.

If you look at writing careers generally, of course you’ll find plenty of examples of writers who can go about the work with a factory-esque 9 to 5 vigour, books firing off into bookshops with precise regularity. That’s just one way of writing. Just as my episodic, seasonal variety is one more. The point here? Don’t worry if you don’t write anything for a few days, weeks or even months. You haven’t lost the passion. You’re no less of a writer. You’re just busy being you. Trust that the silence is more fertile than a screen full of empty words. That writing is a journey. And that when you have something to say again, the words will of course come running by the thousand.

Nick Johnstone, October 2016

True enough

Last week, I began co-teaching one of our creative writiFile:Indian Election Symbol Ink Pot and Pen.pngng courses with the playwright Ben Musgrave. And when Ben asked the class to write down something they believed in ‘as a writer’, I thought I’d take part in the exercise too. At first I was slightly surprised by what I wrote: ‘your writing needs to be true enough’. But as we started talking about our different answers, I realised I’d been thinking through versions of Ben’s question for a very long time.

The search for ‘authenticity’ and’ truth’ is a preoccupation for many writers. And at the same time, we’re often given advice like ‘write what you know’ – as if that will automatically confer some kind of truthfulness on our work. But writers are always champing at the bit to write what they don’t know, just as readers want to read what is new and unfamiliar. (Which reminds me of something similar I once heard a theatre director say: that an audience most wants an authentic voice from a world they’ve never been to.)

Writers quickly understand, therefore, that truth and truthfulness are very slippery ideas. What will happen to them both as our imaginations take flight, as characters drawn from our own experience develop lives of their own? And perhaps more worryingly, how can you be sure that your work speaks to your own wider sense of truth? Your feelings about the way the world is, or ought to be. Not all writers are motivated by such ‘moral’ concerns, but many of us worry about the ‘meaning’ of our work, and how that meaning translates onto our own values, our own beliefs about what is true.

The problem for me is that I always find it impossible to quite pinpoint meaning – at least, not without reducing what I’m writing to a banal platitude, or trivially obvious statement. It’s also impossible to ever say, once and for all, what I believe about something. Instead, I find myself constantly testing the things I feel most certain about, unable to avoid the possibility that I’m wrong, that things aren’t really that way at all. In other words, I never know what the whole truth is about what I’m writing, or about my own values, or what I think might need to change about the world.

Which is where true enough comes in – a strategy, maybe, to stop me becoming frozen in the headlights, confused and intimidated by the difficulty in achieving complete truthfulness or authenticity. I find that I can continue to have faith in something I’m working on as long as there is at least some truth – some moments of recognition, some details from my own life and experience which I feel, for now, I can stand by. Perhaps, for me, truth is like a single drop of dye in a pipette, with the power to colour an entire cup of water.

All this is why, when another writer comes to me and says that they are stuck with their idea – when they’ve lost interest, or belief in it – I suggest that they give the story, or one of its characters, a little bit of themselves. To hand over a detail from their own life. Because usually that tiny injection of the author’s real, lived experience is enough to re-vitalise the story, and rekindle the writer’s passion for telling it.

Matt Morrison, October 2016