Waterstone's Piccadilly #WOTWLitFest Writers In Residence

Claire Adam, Emily Devane, and Divya Ghelani at Waterstones Piccadilly - Writers in Residence 2016

Claire Adam, Emily Devane, and Divya Ghelani at Waterstones Piccadilly - Writers in Residence 2016

 

On May 1st my fellow Word Factory apprentices and I joined the politically charged Writers of the World Unite! Festival as Writers In Residence. It was full of Russian revolutionary poetry, debates on identity politics and globalisation, Caribbean literature, and looked at the radical potential of graphic novels with writers from across the globe.  

I ran a weekend-long Write In! as part of the #WOTWlitfest, with the aim of encouraging passersby to write about issues of injustice and social change. I asked myself, “How might storytelling by everyday people differ from political/media narratives?” and “How might such storytelling challenge indifference to injustice and promote human rights?” These questions were at the heart of the festival, as well as part of the Word Factory’s 2017 theme of Citizen: the New Story. My challenge was to incorporate the big questions of our day into little creative writing tasks. But would people want to engage?


I enticed passersby towards our Embertons Cafe Word Factory desk by offering up black boxes filled with writing stimulus labelled Characters, Desires, and Disruptions. They chose something from each box, chatted about it with Claire, Emily and I, after which they sat in silence, writing a new piece of flash fiction with us. If “hands on” stimulus wasn’t their bag, they chose a book from our Citizen Library (a brilliant list of political writings, recommended to us by the Word Factory team). I told them, for example: “Turn to page 74, line 6, and start writing!”


The results were fantastic! I don’t just mean the wonderful flash fictions people came up with. I’m talking about the fact that everyday people were sitting with strangers, chatting freely or writing quietly, whilst engaging with big topics of the day, in ways that felt accessible, fun, and creative.
We weren’t Suited Politicians, Media Moguls, or Famous Authors. We were readers, sometimes writers, everyday citizens, reclaiming narratives for ourselves, learning to take risks by trying on new ideas and characters – stepping out somehow.

On The Word Factory and my mentorship with Vanessa Gebbie

Divya Ghelani was a Word Factory apprentice in 2016 – a year of political upheaval. She recalls how she experienced some seismic shifts of her own.

If 2016 was a year of political apocalypse, it was also, for me, one of personal discovery. I spent many days in isolation, reading and writing in Leicestershire libraries and coffee shops, and working on a slow trickle of freelance copywriting that still makes up my bread and butter. I’d experience the what-are-you-doing-with-your-life frowns at family gatherings, while enjoying the crazy-happy beating of my heart whenever I received news of a short story acceptance.

Amid all that, the novelist Jacob Ross suggested I apply to be an apprentice at the Word Factory. “You’re doing well,” he told me, “but you need to get out there more.” I thanked him, but told myself I didn’t need a mentor – I was writing at least 1,000 words a day. Besides, wasn’t the whole point of writing that you found your own voice? I wasn’t keen on a stranger imposing theirs onto my own, especially as mine was beginning to bloom in confidence.

Weeks later, as I was struggling with another chapter and too much coffee, I looked up the Word Factory online and saw a photograph of a group of people at Waterstones Piccadilly listening to and talking about short stories. They looked like they were having so much fun. I saw that the Word Factory ran a series of masterclasses and evening salons with established writers; chosen apprentices gained free access to all that.

I thought hard about my own short stories and screenplays. My novel seemed to have swallowed me whole and my self-isolation meant that I rarely submitted to publications in the way others did. My short stories were never finished to satisfaction and I didn’t have much of a writing community or audience. Despite my three literature degrees, my publications and wins, I felt very much alone.

After I won a place on the scheme, Cathy Galvin, the Word Factory’s director, emailed me to say that she and the novelist Paul McVeigh had placed me with a mentor based on the tone and style of my winning entry (a story entitled An Imperial Typewriter), about the Leicester black workers’ strike in 1974. My mentor’s name was Vanessa Gebbie, a prizewinning novelist, poet and short story writer.

I was nervous about meeting Vanessa. I had been taught by a long list of excellent writers at UEA, but an apprenticeship felt different, more intimate. I wasn’t sure how Vanessa worked, if her teaching style would be suited to me, if we would get along. And so I started reading her novel, The Coward’s Tale, about a nine-year-old boy sent to live with his grandmother in Wales, who befriends the town beggar telling stories outside the cinema.

I was taken by the lyricism of Vanessa’s prose, her web of stories within stories, her natural ability to evoke forgotten histories and places. I felt an affinity with her as a storyteller, and liked the idea of being mentored by a woman. She has a light touch, is gentle and kind, and her eye is where the magic is; incisive, sharp, quick to challenge. Vanessa asked me to address issues of balance in my stories, and encouraged me to take my narrative to brave places. She seemed genuinely excited by my weirder, more experimental stories. She advised me to follow my voice and my ideas, and not hers (unless my heart told me to).

I once told Vanessa I was struggling to get away from the noise of daily life and paid work to focus on my book. She read a full draft of my manuscript and recommended me for a stay at Gladstone’s Residential Library in Wales. For a period of deep and magical silence I worked on my manuscript, cheered on by the mystics and saints that line its library walls. Vanessa’s kindness and encouragement came at a time when I needed it most.

The Word Factory had become that supportive writing community I once craved; my brilliant fellow apprentices are now my friends. I was glad to have been part of the Sublime Women Word Factory theme because I learnt from the likes of Marina Warner, Dubraka Ugresic, and was reacquainted with the teachings of my wonderful former UEA writing tutor, Michele Roberts.

Prior to the apprenticeship, my unpublished manuscript had received an Honorary Mention in the Harry Bowling Prize and was longlisted for the Deborah Rogers Writers’ Award. During the apprenticeship, it was further longlisted for the SI Leeds Literary Prize and shortlisted for Penguin Random House’s WriteNowLive competition. I also had new short stories placed in Litro India magazine edited by Shashi Tharoor and Bare Fiction’s upcoming anthology.

Now I experiment with greater confidence. I finish things. I apply to more competitions and am cool with knock backs, because that’s how I learn. It’s all part of a shift I feel inside me, a greater sense of my own rhythm. I’m full of hope as I finish my book and send it into the world, and I fully intend to build a writing future filled with many more novels, short stories, essays, articles, and film scripts.

An Imperial Typewriter - A Writer's Journey

[You can read my response to the Leicester University Affective Digital Histories' Creative Commissions call - on the Centre for New Writing's website here and watch my reading here.]

Reading at Indian Summer Festival in Leicester.

Reading at Indian Summer Festival in Leicester.

My father’s side of the family are Ugandan Asians. They arrived in the city of Leicester along with thousands of other refugees during the exodus of 1972. Like many people from Leicestershire,
I knew something of Imperial Typewriter Company. My uncle had been an assembly worker at the firm back in the ‘70s and my father sometimes told me stories about him. Due to the rise of personal
computers and overseas competition, sales at Imperial were dwindling long before the strike of May 1974, which is the subject of my story, but when the factory closed its doors for good in August ‘74, it was said that the strike played a role in the company’s late decline.

Over five hundred workers participated in the strike. Many of the strikers were Leicester’s newly arrived Ugandan Asians.

They were protesting against unpaid bonuses, poor salaries and a
paucity of promotions for black workers. The ‘Asian Workers’ Strike’
(so-named by The Leicester Mercury) was unofficial and received
little support from the TGWU.

Learning about the strike during my research intrigued me.
The strike seemed to tell an alternative story about Leicester’s
Ugandan Asians. It juxtaposed the easy narrative of the prosperous,
successful, conservative ‘twice migrant’ Ugandan Asian alongside
early community stories of failure, racism and poverty, of learning
to fight for one’s rights and facing the consequences. It was these
different threads that I sought to tie together through writing ‘An
Imperial Typewriter’.


Leicester University offered up its archivists, oral historians
and academics to help writers better understand how local
communities changed in response to urban decline. Alongside
family histories and living room conversations, I listened to around
twenty oral histories and watched numerous documentaries on
the subject. I read the work of Pippa Virdee and Valerie Marrett’s
‘Immigrants Settling into the City’. Helped along by archivist Simon
Dixon, I immersed myself in images, press cuttings, audio and
video clips. I poured over the university’s newly acquired Leicester
Mercury archives. Guided by oral historian Colin Hyde, I walked the
exact route my character Vinesh takes from the Imperial Typewriter
Company on East Park Road all the way to Faire Brothers in the
Cultural Quarter. Colin’s knowledge of local history illuminated the
city’s streets, enabling me to envision Leicester as it might have
been in 1974.


I am too young to have ever owned a typewriter, but my
grandfather, Mohonlal Ghelani, used one near enough every day.
He used to be a criminal lawyer in Kampala and spent the last years
of his life at the vast desk of his council house on Sharpley Road in
Loughborough, translating the Bhagavada Gita from Sanskrit and
Gujarati into English, working on a beautiful old typewriter with a
Roget’s Thesaurus beside him. As a young girl, I remember watching
in awe as he wrote. Even before I could read, I wanted to inspect the
typewriter’s keys, run my fingers along its inky ribbon and tug its
silver handle to make it ‘ping’. Like my character Vinesh, I wished for
a typewriter of my own, one that would tell my stories.
‘An Imperial Typewriter’ is of a modern fable about an
immigrant worker’s journey through Leicester. It also a writer’s
attempt at reading her own story a little better.

 

'An Imperial Typewriter' is being converted into a short film and cross-media project with the help of the 2014 edition of B3 Media's TalentLab, Nottingham University's Mixed Reality Lab, and Leicester Museums.