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Mariko Nagai plans for her forthcoming residency in Norwich, UNESCO City of Literature

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 23 June 2016

WCN is excited to announce the first of two Japanese writers visiting Norwich UNESCO City of Literature this year, as part of a residency programme generously supported by the Nippon Foundation.


Mariko Nagai is an author, translator and photographer. She is Associate Professor of creative writing and Japanese literature at Temple University in Tokyo. Mariko's residency in Norwich will take place between 1 July and 1 August. Website





'I never know what a space would do to the projects at hand – I’ve often started a residency thinking I would work on a particular writing, only to find that the space demanded that I work on a different project. When I came across Writers' Centre Norwich's call for Japanese translators and writers to apply, I was in Singapore for a conference/research, thick in the history of karayuki-san (oversea Japanese prostitutes from the late 19th – early 20th century). Of course, I thought, this is what I want to work on, and Norwich, being in the UK, is a perfect place to work on this project. It would only make sense, I reasoned, to work on this project about imperialism and body trafficking and migrant workers in the country that was one of the imperial powers, the country which Japan looked upon as a model of imperialism. 

For the month of June, ever since I found out that I got the residency fellowship, I’ve been preparing for it: reading, thinking, creating an extensive outline, and daydreaming about these women’s lives who ended up in places like Singapore, Mumbai, Vietnam, Cape Hope, whose bodies were intimately connected with aspirations of the new empire. Then a week ago, when I invited Sawako Nakayasu to do a talk on translation (the 2016 PEN Translation Award winner, The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa) at my university, her talk inspired me to dig up an old manuscript – an eight year old translation of Fumiko Hayashi’s Hourouki – and to reevaluate my relationship with it. Though portions of it have been published in journals, I didn’t revise it enough to pitch it for a book publication. Is it time to rework on it? Yes, I thought to myself, Fumiko’s book needs to be read now, maybe not eight years ago, but now – her book which deals with earthquakes, collapsing economy, unemployment, militarism, patriarchy, all the things that are relevant today, needs to go out in the world. And of course, I have a new project I’ve been daydreaming about for a year or so -   about shifting borders and migrations and displacement and nationalism - that I still don’t know what narrative shape it will take. 

What will I work on? These are the projects I will be packing in my bag, but to tell you the truth, I won’t know until I get to Norwich. Maybe the city will reveal to me to a project I haven’t even dreamt up yet.'

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A moving tale that enriches the reader: Reviewing The Illusion of Separateness

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 21 June 2016

Readers' Circle member and retired library worker Joy Travers reviews Brave New Reads pick The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy. Read on to get a flavour of this astounding novel:

This beautifully written novel tells the story of how acts of kindness and compassion can have long-lasting and far-reaching consequences. Inspired by true events from World War II, Simon Van Booy has skilfully composed an engaging read which captivates and engages from the start as we are drawn into the different life experiences of the characters.

Van Booy illustrates with clarity how the consequences of the actions of one person can shape, for good or ill, the lives of future generations. However it is one man’s simple act of compassion toward another, in a situation over which neither had control that provides the basis for the story.  This act is proof that the human spirit, although sometimes bowed can never be diminished.

The chapters switch between World War II and the present day, focusing separately on each of the characters, revealing how their lives are all connected, and how a single act of mercy resonates through the decades. The author masterfully disentangles each separate thread and destroys the illusion of separateness between the characters. He shows how the human condition can be shaped by seemingly random events whose importance is revealed only when the whole story has unfolded.

The six main characters narrate their own stories with clear and understated prose describing in concise detail the events that make up their lives. Without graphic language or violence, the full horrors of war, loss, death and separation are illustrated to the reader. Van Booy explicitly conveys the thoughts and feelings of each of the characters with elegance and beauty, even when the events themselves are shocking and ugly. 

There is a poetic dexterity and a delicateness of touch to the writing, making The Illusion of Separateness compelling to read even though it portrays events that are breathtakingly sad. I felt a warmth and empathy towards the characters and wanted to continue reading to hear their stories.  This novel succeeds in drawing together the seemingly unrelated strands of different countries, characters and timescales weaving them into a moving tale that enriches the reader and gives hope for the survival of the human spirit.


Simon Van Booy will be at Huntingdon Library, Wednesday 29th June, 3.30m. Buy your ticket for only £2.

Alternatively, join Simon at a creative writing workshop at WCN Dragon Hall on Thursday 30th June, 6.30pm. Priced at a mere £12, this workshop is open to writers at all stages of their careers: from those new to writing fiction, to the more practised.

Read an extract of The Illusion of Separateness to get a feel of the book.

Borrow The Illusion of Separateness from Cambridgeshire Libraries, Norfolk Libraries or Suffolk Libraries.

Find out more about The Illusion of Separateness
.

Find out more about Brave New Reads



About Joy Travers
I have recently retired from working in Cambridgeshire Libraries after a period of over 20 years service. At present I am using my new found freedom to travel and enjoy having the time to do the things that I like doing. Walking, keeping fit, socialising with family and friends and attending live music events are things I get a buzz from. I have also enjoyed having time to read for pleasure – not just to send me to sleep after a stressful day at work. Brave New Reads has been a stimulating and interesting way of going back to the library as a customer – a lovely experience.

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Concise Novel, Epic Poem: Signs Preceding the End of the World Reviewed

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 06 June 2016

Readers' Circle member Roland Ayers reviews Brave New Reads pick Signs Preceding the End of the World. Read on to see what he thinks:

Unusually there is no poetry selection among this year’s Brave New Reads. Yet with prose as poetic as Yuri Herrera’s, who needs poetry? In fact, the exact choice of words were not his, translated as they were from the author’s Mexican Spanish to English – or as the novel would put it, from latin to anglo – by Lisa Dillman. The Translator’s Note at the end provides some insight into the challenges translation presents. According to Lisa Dillman the original prose is ‘often infused with understated affection and tenderness’, its style ‘elegantly spare’, the use of language 'nothing short of stunning’. It is tribute to the meticulousness of her translation that such qualities shine through into anglo.

Language itself is one of the novel’s themes. Its sassy, yet tender-hearted young female switchboard operator protagonist Makina, operates phones in native tongue, latin tongue and the ‘new tongue’ of those who have crossed to the North. She ‘knew how to keep quiet in all three too’. The word verse is frequently used as a verb meaning to exit. In the Spanish, jarchar, from the Arabic kharja, it was inspired by concluding verses of Arabic and Hebrew poems of the thirteenth century. They would tell of a transformative exit, often a lover’s goodbye, in a feminine voice. The whole novel turns out to be just such an exit for Makina when she heads to the North (the word America never used).

 

The novel’s nine-chaptered structure draws on the rich literary heritage of the Meshika (known to us anglos as Aztecs) who told of nine underworlds to be passed through following certain kinds of death, each underworld the losing of something, a transition to something less human, something new. Underworld in general is a theme. An ominous opening passage sees a sinkhole open, swallowing ‘all the oxygen around and even the screams of passers-by’. Underground trains ‘ran round the entire circulatory system but never left the belly’. Tunnels lead out onto a deserted baseball arena where anglos ‘play a game to celebrate who they are’ and a top dog latin godfather plays out his own sport.

And that haunting final chapter. But you don’t want me to tell you about the final chapter, you want to be haunted by it for yourself, along with all one-hundred-and-seven pages of this concise, yet epic tale. And if you are reading this before 10th June, you will want to attend the Meet the Author event too. If you then visit a bar in Mexico, you’ll want to order an authentically unpasteurised and delightfully alliterative pecan pulque.  Alas, not served in the Norwich branch of Marzano.


Get a taster of Signs Preceding the End of the World with the opening chapters.

Borrow Signs Preceding the End of the World from Cambridgeshire Libraries, Norfolk Libraries, or Suffolk Libraries. Find out more about Signs Preceding the End of the World.

Find out more about Brave New Reads.


About Roland Ayers
Roland Ayers is a Writers’ Centre Norwich member who is grateful to the Brave New Reads selection procedure for exposing him to literature, good, bad and amazing, he would not have otherwise discovered. When not reading potential Brave New Reads, he reads about neuroscience, linguistics, neurolinguistics, cognitive psychology, philosophy, running and North Korea.  

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Just Gripping: The Last Pilot Reviewed

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 25 May 2016

Sarah Salmon, Brave New Reads Readers' Circle member and librarian, reviews her favourite book of 2015: The Last Pilot. See what she thinks...

I am so happy that this book made it into the 2016 Brave New Reads as I’ve loved it for over a year and in fact it was my favourite book of 2015 – and I read over 200 books last year so this is quite a feat!

I knew this book was coming - the author Benjamin Johncock wrote it in the library where I work. We’d met, chatted, and discussed the book in advance of its release and I was haunting the Net Galley website* daily looking for the chance to read an advance copy. I was worried that this much expectation would only result in disappointment...

The Last Pilot follows the life of Jim Harrison, who doesn’t just fly planes – he tests them (to destruction). Jim is working in a famous test pilot school in the Californian Desert when he is picked to join the Astronaut corps. This, however, is during the time of the early space programme, when being an astronaut really meant you had to have “the right stuff”. Emotional weakness meant that at best you’d wash out of the programme and at worst the distraction could kill you. Jim is about to be tested to his limits.

I’m not going to say more about the plot because I want everyone to have the excitement of reading this book for the first time. Instead I’m going to say why I loved it so much.

I am a space nerd (I’m not hugely into the technology and the big rockets but I love the human stories). I’ve read numerous biographies, autobiographies and history books about the early manned space programme (and the later ones) and I’ve been privileged enough to meet, listen, and talk with these personal heroes. They were brave men (women didn’t join the programme until 1978) and they were foolhardy. They were also flawed, despite being presented as infallible heroes to the public.

The Last Pilot conveys all of this, and despite being fiction I was constantly convinced that Jim was one of the original astronauts from the era. The details were all so much in tune with what I’ve read and heard that as I was reading the book, I was walking in the same places and ‘seeing’ the action unfurl. I’ve read other novels set around the space race and they’ve either missed the feel completely or read like a history book – The Last Pilot was just a gripping read, and one that you can enjoy without being a space nerd like me (I can prove this as I lent my copy to a non-space-enthusiast family member and they read the book in just two sittings).

If you wonder if all of the elements in this book could happen—and there are some events that I thought did stretch credibility a touch—further reading and watching assured me that such scenarios could and do take place. This book is an incredible reconstruction of the heady early space program.

 


If you’ve read the book and want to read or see more about the space race then these are my top books and films:

Last Man on the Moon (film) – currently available to download from iTunes and other platforms, DVD due soon.
A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin (book)
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (book and film)
Moondust by Andrew Smith (book)
Carrying the Fire by Mike Collins (book)
An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield (book)

The astronauts from this era are all in their late 70's and older now but they do still travel to the UK, along with men and women from later missions. If you’d like to hear them speak then I recommend looking at the Science Museum events page, the National Space Centre in Leicester and also the wonderful team who run Space Lectures who really take the motto ‘Failure is not an option’ to heart!

 


Benjamin Johncock launched Brave New Reads in Norwich with Colette Snowden (author of The Secret to Not Drowning). Listen to a podcast of the event below.

Read an extract of The Last Pilot to get a taster of the novel.

Meet Benjamin Johncock at Wisbech Library on the 16th June or at Woodbridge Library on the 19th July.

Borrow The Last Pilot from Cambridgeshire Libraries, Norfolk Libraries, or Suffolk Libraries.

Find out more about The Last Pilot.

Find out more about Brave New Reads.



About Sarah Salmon
I am an avid reader and self-professed space nerd who will travel silly distances to meet these pioneering icons.  One of my proudest moments is getting a tweet liked by astronaut Tim Peake while he was serving on the ISS!

When not reading about the space program I can often be found at the theatre which is another passion, or out and about with my camera trying to capture photo of a barn owl. Despite the love of all things space and astronomy I have no wish to actually travel in space myself – I know I’d get space sick and not enjoy the ride!


*NetGalley is a site where book reviewers and other professional readers can read books before they are published, in e-galley or digital galley form

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Hurrah! Brave New Reads 2016 is here!

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 17 May 2016

May heralds the start of summer and the beginning of the bank holiday season. But most importantly, May brings Brave New Reads back to libraries in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire.

What’s Brave New Reads, I hear you cry!

Well, it’s a book club like no other. It recommends six brilliant books, chosen by readers for readers. It invites people (like you!) to go further with their reading, through book clubs, author events, book quizzes, creative writing workshops, and much much more.

Brave New Reads takes place in 18 libraries across Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. In each of these libraries you can borrow the books, come along to the events, chat about the titles and pick up an array of our very beautiful print (including collectible bookmarks!). 

As I said earlier, Brave New Reads is special because the books were chosen by readers. We call these literature lovers the Reader’s Circle, and they hail from all walks of life and all parts of East Anglia. To choose the final six, this dedicated crew read a longlist of over 120 books and whittled down the selection again and again until we ended up with the crème de la crème of modern publications. 

Without further ado, the books are:

The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock

‘First light was a diesel spill across the sky. The ground was gray. The hard silence of the desert sung.’

Technically brilliant and emotionally charged, this novel will transport you to America in the early days of the space race. Jim Harrison is in training to break the sound barrier, poised to become one of the very first astronauts, but his promise will be tested by a family crisis of stellar proportions. Discover a different world in this economic, elegant, and hugely powerful book.

‘An outstanding read: riveting, snappy, and very very cool.’ – Sam, Norwich Readers’ Circle





The Secret to Not Drowning by Colette Snowden

‘“The secret to not drowning,” she says, “is to get out of the pool before you get too tired to keep swimming.”’

Marion can’t do anything without Him knowing. Her only escape is her weekly swimming trip, but soon she’ll learn that taking the plunge creates far-reaching ripples. An intimate and immersive glimpse into emotional abuse, The Secret to Not Drowning shows how the smallest of acts can be the bravest. Take a chance with this compelling and quietly wonderful novel.

‘A humorous and imaginative page turner, written with a terrifying sense of menace and discomfort.’ – Ruth, Cambridge Readers’ Circle





Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume

‘I was wrong to try and impose something of my humanness upon you, when being human never did me any good.’

The story of a lonely man, and his one-eyed rescue dog. One Eye and his owner are both outcasts from society, clumsily navigating the world as best they can, each completely dependent on the other. Simultaneously tender and tragic, this is a compassionate and claustrophobic tale of loneliness and friendship. Dog-lover or not, this poetically poignant novel is sure to touch your heart.

‘I found myself engrossed in this jewel of a story. Sensitive, funny and hugely affecting, Baume’s language ribbons naturally out onto the page.’ – Alvina, Ely Readers’ Circle




Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

‘We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent.’

This crucial and devastating non-fiction book takes us to death row, showing the heartbreaking histories of the prisoners and revealing the inherent prejudices of modern-day America. A scathing, virulent, and utterly necessary condemnation of the US justice system, this book is sure to leave you gasping, crying and raging, but also filled with gratitude and hope. Absolutely not to be missed.

‘An autobiography, a social history, a treatise on the importance of equal justice, and a gripping thriller.’ – Kathryn, Norwich Readers’ Circle




Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (Translated by Lisa Dillman)

‘They carried photos like promises but by the time they came back they were in tatters.’

Makina is gutsy, determined and not frightened of anything. When her mother asks her to travel from Mexico to the US to find her brother, she sets off almost immediately, pausing only to meet the local underlords. Carrying an unknown package from a kingpin, she traverses underworlds, borders, and boundaries, crossing dreamy lands. Echoing Greek myths, this breath-taking novella will move you to other planes of existence.

‘Full of heart and guts, poetic, brief and rich – nothing short of stunning.’ – Roland, Norwich Readers’ Circle




The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy

‘He did what they told him to do. He would have done anything they told him to do. He hid inside the pronoun we.

An uplifting tale of interconnection, coincidence, and the strangeness of life, this striking novel explores the impact of small actions. Moving across time and space, from wartime Britain to modern-day California, The Illusion of Separateness shows the tenderness of people, and how seemingly simple actions have great consequences. Haunting, luminous, and totally absorbing, this book will give you a fresh perspective on what it means to be human.

‘Beautifully written. A magical read, which kept me captivated until the very last page!’ – Joy, Huntingdon Readers’ Circle

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Our Communications Intern Jo Thompson picks her highlights from the City of Literature programme

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 09 May 2016

Simon Armitage, Irvine Welsh, Jackie Kay; our new Communications Intern Jo Thompson picks favourites from the City of Literature line-up at Norfolk & Norwich Festival 2016.



Seeing Simon Armitage and Daljit Nagra billed for appearance, I booked two tickets for Fierce Light before I’d started at WCN, or checked whether my partner had the night off. I now know this world-premier event commemorating the Battle of Somme is a part of the City of Literature Programme. The programme is the biggest it’s ever been, and working to prepare this bumper crop of big names and exciting events has, needless to say, resulted in buying more tickets.

It’s also meant bothering my friends. Every event is likely to appeal to someone. Fans of Trainspotting have been alerted to an evening with Irvine Welsh in the Adnams Spiegeltent. My fellow medievalists were made aware of the discussions on Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, two of the first women ever published. With Ben Rawlence talking from experience about life in Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, bestselling authors like Kate Summerscale sharing their latest novels, graphic novelists discussing their craft, and the biggest names in poetry performing, the festival really packs a punch. Browsing the events is a joy, and real confirmation, if any were still needed, that Norwich deserves its UNESCO City of Literature status.

Fierce Light remains a standout event for me. New work has been produced by the poets to think seriously about war, its immediate complexities and what it can mean to us now, 100 years on. Accompanying the poetry are short films, specially commissioned. In one of her poems for the event Jackie Kay writes ‘the past is lively, impossible to pin down’. Perhaps this is why mixing film, poetry and images in an attempt to in some way recapture World War feels so appropriate. Jackie has worked with her father, discussing his experiences of war, as well as her son, a filmmaker, to create the multi-media work that will be showcased at Fierce Light. It all promises to be something really special, and I’m glad I’ll be there for it. 

I was less immediately sure what to make of The Story Machine. It’s enigmatic, advertised as a literary event like nothing you’ve experienced before, powered by literature and oiled by theatre, and has become the feature I’m most excited about. The participants hear live stories from world-renowned writers, but not from the usual distance, sitting in rows with an author at a microphone. The Story Machine will be held at Dragon Hall, the stunning medieval home of WCN. Attendees are encouraged to wander through its rooms, garden, cellars at their leisure, making use of the street food pop-ups and specially-curated bar, taking in short stories in unexpected, intimate, immersive, truly one-off ways.

It feels unusual to not know exactly what you’re in for with this event, the charming twists held back to genuinely surprise and enchant on the day, but the more I think about it the truer it seems to storytelling. Hearing about the plans in the office feels like a spoiler.  

The Story Machine is full of surprises, delights that must be discovered, live literature truly alive. It asks the audience to shift gear, let their cogs turn over in fresh ways, and put a little trust in an innovative literary festival bound to please.





Click to see the full City of Literature programme.

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French Tear, Red Lotus, Mr Jameson...our literary themed taster cocktails for The Story Machine

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 06 May 2016





Things are stepping up a gear at Writers' Centre Norwich, Dragon Hall as we begin preparations for the immersive, interactive, multi-sensory Story Machine.

With three hours of video projects, illuminations, live performances and more set within the (hopefully) sunny grounds of our beautiful medieval building, we're expecting you to get a little thirsty. So what's on the menu you ask? Take a peek...


COCKTAIL TASTING MENU

Our taster menu - kindly invented by the cocktail connoisseurs at 42 King Street - corresponds with some of the stories taking place during the day. 


‘Theatre Six’ by Sarah Hall
French Tear: spiced rum, orange liquor, and fruit juice provide a tart accompaniment to this troubling picture of the near future. 



‘Here We Are’ by Lucy Caldwell
Red Lotus: a romantic combination of lychee liqueur, vodka, cranberry juice and fresh lime. A drinkable, fruity cocktail with a bright pink colouring resembling the neon of the early 1990s.



‘The Fly’ by Katherine Mansfield
Rum and Raisin Old Fashioned: a modern take on an old whiskey classic.



‘Mr Salary’ by Sally Rooney
Mr Jameson: whiskey with a mixture of melon liquor and fresh kiwi to create a unique and unexpected mix. 



‘A Cruelty’ by Kevin Barry
Unexpected Classics: a choice between a rum based classic and a popular tequila cocktail served with an unexpected twist. Breaking the routine of classic cocktail drinking.


‘Still’ by Anna Metcalfe
Plum Negroni: a fitting twist on the timeless classic using plum liqueur to resemble the plum tree and creating a glorious culmination to the evening. 




Cocktails are £5 each, or you can have a taste of all six over the course of the event for £20. Steady on now, though...these will be smaller measures!

We've also got food available from the lovely Purple Plum Catering, including vegetarian and vegan options. Each meal comes with your choice of story: 'The Reader' or 'The Writer' by Etgar Keret. 


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(tags: Festival, NNF16)


Fierce Light

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 07 April 2016




Just over a month remains until the world premiere of Fierce Light, a major national co-commission from 14-18 NOW, Norfolk & Norwich Festival and Writers' Centre Norwich. Below, WCN Programme Manager Sam Ruddock allows us to peek behind the curtain at what lies in store at this very special commemoration of the Battle of the Somme.

/

The past is lively, impossible to pin down.

So writes Jackie Kay in the brand new commissioned poem she has produced for Fierce Light, a commemoration of the Battle of the Somme. And it’s this challenge of how we make sense of such vast and indescribably bloody events as the Battle of the Somme – casualty figures numbered around 57,000 for the British on the first day alone, of which nearly 19,000 were deaths – that inspired the idea for Fierce Light in the first place. The changes wreaked on our world by World War One reached beyond politics, economics and technology into the very fabric of our daily lives, our communities and relationships. It was the artists of that war – perhaps the poets above all – who took on the challenge to make sense of a world transformed almost beyond recognition.

So, to commemorate the centenary anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, Fierce Light has brought together outstanding poets from the UK and around the world to look once more at the legacy of battle, the forces changing our world, and the struggles we face to make sense of them.

Jackie Kay has gone back to explore the story of her grandfather, Joseph Kay, who fought in the second Battle of the Somme, was captured, and injured, and survived the conflict. She visited Imperial War Museum North in Manchester and with an historian tracked down the records of her grandfather – including the date he was captured as a prisoner of war and the names of the medals he was awarded. He’s remembered in Jackie’s poem as a ‘shy man, bit withdrawn, shrapnel in his arm’, singing the miners lullaby Coorie Doon in the pre-dawn light. 



On telling her ninety year old dad about this, Jackie reported that he was overcome with new knowledge and memories of his father. He appears in Jackie’s poem, too, remembering seeing his father up early to polish the buttons on his tram drivers uniform, and he, still singing Coorie Doon, ‘still singing his father.’ 

Jackie has subsequently worked with her filmmaker son, Matthew, on the film of Fierce Light, meaning that in one way or another, four generations have been involved in what you will see at Fierce Light. 

The psychological fallout of war, which can be explored in our event with Matthew Green, author of Aftershock: Surviving War, Surviving Peace, is also mined by Daljit Nagra, in his response to Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘A 1940 Memory’. There’s a passage in Nagra’s piece which I find almost unbearably moving and utterly poignant to the memory of war, impossible as it is to pin down.

Dear Jack, what blurs you most
so great words forever moral
your mind to war recall? 
Is it the soldier smithereens 
at your arm, the Hun dispersed 
by your pluck that day you lay 
in their bunker to read sonnets?
Or how you just couldn’t die? 

Look at you now, our haunted
hero.

Elsewhere, Paul Muldoon’s takes us into the mind of a young infantryman from the Ulster Division, on July 1st 1916 - the first Day of the Battle of the Somme. It’s barely three months since the Easter Rising, and he finds himself ‘entrenched/no less physically than politically’ in the struggle for Irish independence. But he’s also a young soldier, big questions of national struggles and the world, take a backseat when compared to memories of home, and of Giselle, the girl he met just before departing for the front. It’s classic Muldoon, and the pastoral offers a contrast to what we know is coming in the forthcoming battle. This contrast, and what it opens up in contextualising the destruction of the battle and the fall of man, is also at the heart of Simon Armitage’s ‘Still’ that will be presented alongside Fierce Light. I’ll write more about that – and Yrsa Daley-Ward and Bill Manhire’s work in the coming weeks, as well as the wonderful filmmakers, who have been adapting these great new works of poetry. 

We hope to see you at the Fierce Light event at Norwich Playhouse on Friday 13 May, and the exhibition that runs at East Gallery throughout the Festival.


Co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, Norfolk & Norwich Festival and Writers’ Centre Norwich.

  

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Spring Short Story Competitions 2016

Posted By: Anna Scrafield, 05 April 2016



Spring is the time of plans and projects, according to Tolstoy, and who are we to disagree?
Forget the spring cleaning, and get stuck into these short story competitions. With prizes ranging from cash, to publication, (and even a rather quirky competition for those interested in writing the future!) there's a lot to keep you away from the hoover and focused firmly on the keyboard!

Happy writing, and do let us know if you are successful!

Deadline: 25 April 2016
Open to publish and unpublished writers from the UK and abroad, this competition accepts short stories up 2200 words, and has an £8 entry fee. First prize is £1000, and winners will be published in the anthology. 

Deadline: 29 April 2016
This year, the festival is seeking stories of up to 1000 words written by or for children. Winners will read their work at Oxford Festival of the Arts in June. 

Deadline: 30 April 2016
Open to published and unpublished writers, both UK and overseas, this competition is very open with entries welcomed from any genre. There's an entry fee of £8, and a first prize of £1000 available.

The Cardiff Review Short Story Award
Deadline: 15 May 2016
Open to new and unpublished writers, this competition seeks short stories of between 1000-5000 words, and winners will be awarded a cash prize of £150. Entry fee £2. 

The Sunderland Short Story Award
Deadline: 1 June 2016 
Open to younger writers too, with categories for 11- 16 as well as Adults, this competition not only has a cash prize, but those shortlisted will have their work read by a literary agent and by publisher Unthank Books, who will consider work for publication in their anthology.

Deadline: 10 June 2016
A prize for both short stories and flash fiction, The Brighton Prize folk have asked to be challenged and excited. Prizes of up to £500 available. 

Deadline: 20 June 2016 
A prize founded in commemoration of the centenary of one of our finest short story writers of the 20th Century, the annual prize of £1000 goes to the best unpublished short story and is published in Prospect, and RLS Review. 

Deadline: 30 June 2016
A new short story competition, with a little bit of a twist! Entrants are asked to submit poems or short stories on the theme of an imagined future England, and the competition features a twist... but we'll let you find out about that yourself! Winners will be published online, and there's no entry fee. 

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A Factory of Art; Bringing The Story Machine to Life

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 30 March 2016




In our second Story Machine blog from WCN Programme Manager Sam Ruddock, we're given a sneak preview of the accompanying sculptures, drawings and soundtracks that have been commissioned by talented artists in order to bring the Story Machine to life.



One of the great and unexpected joys of producing The Story Machine has been the other art works we’ve helped bring to life. Illustrations, drawings, sculptures, soundtracks, audio recordings, and more, all commissioned, designed, and developed to help explode the eighteen amazing stories off the page. 

Our first task was to acquire a leg. And not just any leg, either. This leg had to represent the severed limb of a Poet Laureate who has been hung, drawn and quartered and is now being dragged to Scotland as a demonstration of England’s power! Given the illustrious subject matter, a manikin simply wouldn’t suffice. Film prosthetics proved a little lifeless, and not sadly in the way we wanted. We thought about trompe l’oeil painting to see if we could recreate the rotting look on a manikin. But nothing felt quite right. 

That was until we came upon the work of Martha Todd, a ceramic artist. Although not produced to imitate flesh, there was something in the angles of her feet that gave them a deeply human look. In one, the toes were curled underneath the foot, as though the entire weight of the body was crushing down upon it. In another, the toes were pointed, calling to mind crucifixion or other long-abandoned methods of execution. There was suffering in these sculptures, and something almost painted and metaphorical about their composition. We were enthralled and - after much hard work to source materials so that we could afford this beautiful, troubling limb – commissioned Martha to sculpt it for us. This is the first glimpse of that limb, ghostly white, spectral, shockingly disembodied.

Next up, Adam Avery AKA The Suffolk Punch Press, was invited to produce a show poster to help visualise the extravaganza. We wanted to capture both the feel and textures of Dragon Hall, – essentially the canvas we are painting The Story Machine upon - and the sheer multiplicity of stories that are being produced. His response is one you will be familiar with: the wooden beams of the Great Hall adding texture to a series of icons that represent themes across the different stories. There’s a quirky feel to them, a sense that nothing may be quite as it seems. I love it and we’re hoping to have limited edition prints for sale on the day. I’ve already reserved one for me! 

Elsewhere Beverley Coraldean of Geneality Art came on board to produce pencil drawings to accompany our grand climax to the show: Anna Metcalfe’s transcendent exploration of the power of art to transform the everyday into the universal. I don’t want to give too much away about the story itself, other than to say that it revolves around the pictures that a boy and his father take each year as the last leaf of the plum tree in their garden falls to the ground. Beverley is producing thirty-two new images to accompany the show, and we have plans for them to become something altogether more dramatic in the final crescendo.

No tale of the lengths we’ve gone to for The Story Machine would be complete without the international exploits to record Etgar Keret reading his stories. He has done so, directly and specifically for The Story Machine. Huge thanks for this to Yochai Maital and Mishy Harman who produce and present Israeli Story, modern stories about the ancient land of Israel and the people who live there. Without their assistance, Etgar’s remote involvement would not have been possible.  

This has been a multimedia experience like nothing I’ve done before. It’s been a thrill to have new pieces of art float across my desk on a weekly basis, and I can’t wait to see them come together with the audience in May. 

Come and be part of our grand experiment. 


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The Best of Brave New Reads

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 29 March 2016


For seven years, Brave New Reads (formerly known as Summer Reads),  has been recommending brilliant books to the people of East Anglia (and those further afield too). We’ve suggested intriguing works in translation, scintillating non-fiction, stunning poetry collections, amazing novels, and fantastic short story collections. We’ve included recommendations from all around the globe; from Australia to Kazakhstan, Jamaica to Mexico, Japan to India.

Over those seven years, we’ve advocated for almost forty titles, encouraging people to try something new and exciting. We’ve heard from many readers, saying how much they’d enjoyed the books and the programme, how they’d discovered new authors because of Brave New Reads and found new genres and styles to enjoy.

So, to celebrate seven years of brilliant books, we asked the Readers’ Circle and the WCN staff to tell us their favourite books from Brave New Reads gone by. After many suggestions, much deliberation, and lots of enthusiastic exclamations and comparisons, we’ve settled on nine books which we think showcase some of the best of Brave New Reads.

Without further ado, they are:

 

A Light Song of Light
Kei Miller

Jamaican poet Kei Miller’s poems are presented in two parts; Day Time and Night Time. Day Time is soon undermined by a Night Time place where cool caves and bat wings tickle the neck. This collection faces the tough stuff of life but through it all the Singerman calls as Miller uses rhythm and song to pull you through his laments towards a praise of light in language that truly sings.

“I’ve always proclaimed not to understand poetry... but the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I loved this book.” - Readers’ Circle





 

All the Birds, Singing
Evie Wyld

Jake Whyte is running from something. But what?

Living alone on a British island, her only companion is Dog, who helps her tend her sheep. Dog’s whimpering and scared though; something is coming. Something that’s picking off the sheep one by one, creeping through the evening as a stranger lurks by the trees over the field...

Flashing through it all there’s Jake’s former life in the heat and rough of Australian sheep farms, the life she ran away from overseas. Why?

“A star of a book! Gritty, brutal and strangely witty in parts.” - Readers’ Circle

 

Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Katherine Boo

What is it really like to be poor in Mumbai? Follow the daily lives of slum-residents Abdul, Manju, Sunil, One Leg and Asha who live next to a toxic pond facing Mumbai Airport and its luxury hotels.

Pulitzer prize-winning Boo gets behind the statistics to give lively voice to these slum-dwellers and their stories; the different ways that they deal with thwarted hope, envy, corruption and religious divide in a new India full of possibilities that are constantly just out of reach.

“A spectacular book that deserves each and every accolade it has received.” - Readers’ Circle

 

 

Beside the Sea
Véronique Olmi

A single mother takes her children on their first trip to the seaside. As they run from rain to hot chocolate to the fun-fair we see the woman’s close and complex relationship with the two little boys unfold. These are precious children whom she wants so badly to protect from the very unkind world, from hunger and pain. But we find that the severest danger can lurk much closer to home in this emotionally tough but brilliantly written read.

“Bleak yet riveting. Be brave: this is life at its harshest and writing at its most affecting.” - Readers’ Circle

 

 

Down The Rabbit Hole
Juan Pablo Villalobos


Holed up in his Mexican castle, Tochtli is getting along playing with his collection of hats and taking daily lessons. But when his teacher disappears and Tochtli finds out that his gangster father has been lying to him, even the promise of a Liberian pygmy hippopotamus doesn’t help.

This delicious, neatly written short novel reveals the hectic world of precocious, likeable seven-year old Tochtli just as it starts to unravel.

“Tochtli is a brilliant narrator. I defy you not to be charmed by his tale of a world that, for all his young awe, is far from innocent.” - Readers' Circle

 

 

Fallen Land
Patrick Flanery

Fallen Land charts the downfall of three generations of land-owners and the disintegration of their American dream. Louise reluctantly sells her family land, property developer Krovik builds on it and goes bankrupt, and the Noallies family move in, ready for an untainted future but unprepared for what’s to come. Saturated with an eerie menace, the prose shifts and mutates to create an unsettling and gripping novel.

 "A chilling portrait of obsession and how it can get out of control. Fallen Land is a brilliant and compelling read." - Readers' Circle

 

 

Strange Weather in Tokyo

Hiromi Kawakami (translated by Allison Markin Powell)

Tsukiko navigates the Tokyo of her thirties in a solitary path from her flat to work to the local bar. One evening she comes across her old school teacher there, the upright, quiet ‘Sensei’. A gentle relationship develops over good beer and delicious morsels and they end up gravitating towards each other more and more. They attend a cherry-blossom party together, but both end up leaving with other people, and silence ensues. Will they ever get past their mutual loneliness and fear?

“A wonderful, beautiful, slowly engulfing novel” - The Readers’ Circle


 

The Beautiful Indifference
Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall’s stories are a portal into the fascinating inner lives of women who are often hiding or recovering from something untold. From one women in search of excitement, to another waiting for her lover to leave so she can make the biggest decision of her life, this collection of carefully crafted moments engages all of the senses, using the rhythms of body and landscape to tell beautiful stories that will stay with you.

“These fabulously written, looming and austere stories are beautiful and a joy to read.” - Readers’ Circle






This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You
Jon McGregor


You never thought that kind of thing could happen to somebody like you. But then it does. Set in the lowlands of the fens, these brooding stories evoke quiet menace – from the drama of buried bodies that risk being dug up, to the buried crisis of an everyday break-up. The book’s very readable style masks fierce technical skill as McGregor builds tension and plays with your expectations to keep you hooked all the way through.

“These stories are creative, strange, sometimes genius, reflections on life. Read them, you won’t be disappointed.” - Readers’ Circle

 

Let us know your favourites in the comments, or tweet us @WritersCentre using #BraveNewReads.

All of these books are available to borrow from the Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire Library Services.

The 2016 Brave New Reads books will be announced at the start of May. Sign up to the Writers’ Centre Norwich e-news to be the first to know which six made it through!

Find out more about Brave New Reads.

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The Story Machine

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 02 March 2016

 

 

This year's City of Literature programme at Norfolk & Norwich Festival 2016 features a brand new style of event for the literature sector - The Story Machine. Powered by literature and oiled by theatre, this is a unique interactive and immersive experience where stories from world-renowned writers seduce participants at every turn.

As a brand new event with a lot of surprises planned for the day, what can we expect in advance? Sam Ruddock, WCN Programme Manager and the driving force behind The Story Machine, will present a series of blogs over the coming weeks that helps to shed light on how he will bring The Story Machine to life and why it's such a ground breaking literary event.



The Story Machine is the literary festival I have always wanted to produce: a funhouse jam-packed with interactive, immersive, and brilliant short stories. There will be no lecterns, no audience sat quietly in ordered rows, no discussion about the author’s childhood or where – and on what – they write. Nothing but brilliant stories given the space and time to shine as brightly as they do on the page.

In the first of a series of blogs about The Story Machine, I want to share some of how we came to produce it, and what you might expect if you come along to its premier in May. 

It all started with a team discussion of the art that’s made our hearts sing and our brains fizz over recent years. As we talked, what became apparent was that we all loved immersive experiences : theatre that asks the audience to get involved and shape it alongside the actors, Secret Cinema showings that let you step inside the world of the film, exhibitions that you can touch and feel and sometimes even taste.

Why, we asked ourselves, had we not encountered a literature festival experience like that? One answer that came immediately to mind was that we don’t need festivals for that. We’ve long believed that the reader is an active co-curator, conjuring the story in their mind every time they open a book. Recent research into the neurology of reading has even suggested that there is little more immersive for our brains than deeply settling in to read a book. So we changed the question: how we might recreate that immersive feeling of reading in a literature festival?
In searching for the answer, two things came in handy: the mass production of Moby Dick  at the Southbank Centre’s London Literature Festival and Iliad by National Theatre Wales. I had never seen any literature festival treat a text with such dedication, respect, or joy as these did. In doing so, each showed that great literature, great writing, and great stories might be right at the centre of an event, rather than a small add-on as it so often is. Back at work I sat in the glorious glass-fronted gallery at Dragon Hall pondering these questions and came across an article about those amazing short story vending machine that had appeared in Grenoble. In that moment, it all came together in my mind.  

This building might become a machine for discovering and engaging with great stories. An idea was born.  

Stepping into The Story Machine will feel like you are entering a secret garden, or disappearing down Alice’s rabbit hole. There might not be a magic potion that shrinks you down to size – or for that matter a talking Mock Turtle (one day, one day!) – but as you explore our 15th century Grade 1 Listed home at Dragon Hall, you’ll encounter all sorts of beguiling characters and tales taking place in nooks and crannies in, outside, and under, this wonderful building. Over the course of three hours you’ll plot your way through stories by thirteen hand-picked writers from all over the world, sample story-themed food and cocktails, and uncover secret stories where you’d least expect them.

Jon McGregor – whose provocation at the National Conversation also helped shape some of our thinking – will tell a story from the driver’s seat of a car. Israeli superstar Etgar Keret – one of the most cheekily playful writers I know – will whisper true stories across space and time in the dark of our cellars. In the Great Hall an unpublished new story by Sarah Hall kicks off a series exploring the relationship between humans and nature, that which we can create and that which we cannot control even in ourselves, life and art. We finish with a glorious crescendo as Norwich-based writer Anna Metcalfe’s debut collection blinds us with a moment of pure transcendence.  


In curating the Story Machine we read hundreds of stories to find the ones that thrilled us. We weren’t short of talent, and I emerge with a renewed belief in the vitality, creativity and heart in the writing of this most difficult of forms. Along the way, we’ve been delighted to work with The Special Relationship who produced Moby Dick at the Southbank Centre, Granta’s exceptional New Irish Writing edition, our good friends at Galley Beggar Press, and Cathy Galvin’s Word Factory. 

What is literature when it steps off the page to dance with us? What are stories when we find them to be so much more, or less, than we imagined? Come along to The Story Machine, and you might just start to find out. 

Happy Reading.

Sam

Tickets for The Story Machine will go on-sale on Thursday 3 March 2016 from the Norfolk & Norwich Festival website www.nnfestival.org.uk

Illustrations by Adam Avery.


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The Dilemma of Choice: Deciding on the Final Brave New Reads Books

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 23 February 2016




Way back in September, with the 2015 Brave New Reads still fresh in our minds, we (that’s the WCN staff and the Readers’ Circle) began to read for the 2016 books. We started off with a list of over 120 books, including poetry, short stories, non-fiction, works in translation, and—of course—novels.

What came next involved a symphony of organisation – copies of the 120-odd books needed to be sent around East Anglia to Readers’ Circle members in Norfolk, Cambridge and Suffolk, spreadsheets were designed, and surveys were created. Then the Readers’ Circle, our hundred plus eager volunteer readers, began to read and review the books.

 

When we read to choose the Brave New Reads books, we look for originality, brilliance (of prose and plot), and excitement. We ask the Readers’ Circle to rate the books according to green, amber, red and to send us short reviews too. And then we create huge spreadsheets using the data, marking top choices and average ratings. (Find out more about the process in this blog on Cutting the Longlist or in Recommended by the Readers’ Circle.)

After five months of reading, we’d collected over one thousand reviews, and managed to cut down the very long list to a shortlist of just under forty books. We’d heard from readers in Ely, Swaffham, Cambridge, Huntingdon, and from many other towns and cities across East Anglia. And then it was time for us to meet and make a decision.

The Brave New Reads team travelled to Suffolk, enjoyed a phone conference with Cambridgeshire readers, and welcomed readers to WCN’s new home of Dragon Hall. Over all the conversations, we explored the titles which stood out for people and asked why they thought that this book should be recommended to the people of East Anglia. At the end of each meeting we asked for six top choices and two reserves. Unsurprisingly competition was extremely fierce, with much extended deliberation and cries of cruelty when a top six was insisted on.

The next day, armed with each county's Readers’ Circle final choices, some complicated statistics, a bundle of the 1000+ reviews, and two large bags of books, the BNR team travelled to meet the Steering Group (representatives of each library service). Our mission was to settle on a final six.
Over the next few hours the Steering Group and the BNR team discussed our short-shortlist, of about 20 books, looking at the reviews and the top choices for each county. We examined the statistics (the average rating for each title, the number of reviews, the number of top choices) and discussed the content, style, and themes of the book. We thought about whether the books were ‘brave’, startling and exciting; whether they would appeal to a wide range of readers; whether they tackled important topics. We talked about the things the Readers’ Circle had said about each book; and discussed the titles we’d read ourselves.

Finally, we were left with ten books, all of which we thought were equally brilliant, with different strengths and weaknesses. At which point we began to look at practical issues: the date of publication, the format availability of the titles, the gender and nationality of the writers, the spread of subject matter, the publisher, the setting of the book and more. We wanted the “package” of Brave New Reads to entice readers and library users, so we looked at jacket design too, wanting an aesthetically pleasing combination.

 


After another protracted discussion and further scrutinising of the Readers’ Circle opinions, we eventually decided on a final six. The result: six brilliant books, recommended by readers, which explore important contemporary issues and showcase fantastic writings.

And what are they? Well, you’ll find out in May....

 
Find out more about Brave New Reads.

Sign up to our e-news to be the first to hear about the May selection.

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The Library: Developing the Readers of Tomorrow

Posted By: Rowan Whiteside, 17 February 2016

The sixth in our 'Love Your Library' blogs is by Alison Thorne, a Norfolk librarian, and shares all the brilliant things you could do in a library; from borrowing books to making new friends.





I love books. No really …I LOVE BOOKS! I listen to them in the car, I’m surrounded by them at work, I spend a huge proportion of my work time talking about and promoting them, and in my free time nothing makes me happier than reading more of them. It has been that way for as long as I remember and working in a library really is the dream job! I am passionate about libraries, library use and how libraries play a vital role in developing the readers of tomorrow.  

I’m a huge fan of crime fiction but I often get bored reading the same thing. The Brave New Reads promotion has got me reading different genres and one of the longlist for 2016 became one of my Top 10 reads of 2015. Thank you WCN! I’ve even become a poetry reader – although I confess to finding most poetry a struggle. I’m in three book clubs, love having recommendations from other people and finding new authors who then have a backlist of titles I can look forward to.  

So why should readers use libraries?

Places to explore
Libraries are a safe environment for you to explore whatever your reading tastes might be – and the perfect place to try new things. It’s free to use and to borrow books. By borrowing, you’re not committing as you do when you buy a book. Try a few chapters and if you’re not hooked, just return the book on your next visit. For as little as 60p you can request any title in library stock and have it delivered to your local library.  

Books, books and more books
Libraries have thousands of books on an amazing amount of subjects; from vegan cooking to setting up your own business! You can search for things online. Norfolk Libraries also have special collections of books which support your wellbeing (Books on Prescription/Dementia Collection/Macmillan Cancer Collection) and support job seeking (Jobseekers/Enterprise collections).

Promotions
We are all busier than ever and all libraries have attractive displays that change regularly so that you can more easily find something to tempt you. Libraries have regular promotions throughout the year and these include Norfolk’s Great Big Read in the Spring, and Brave New Reads of course. In 2016 Norfolk will be adopting a Shakespeare theme, with a range of titles which echo Shakespearian themes. Many libraries run regular community reads encouraging readers to try the same title and then share their views with others.  

Book clubs
Perfect for readers in a rut! Where better to try new things than with a group of like-minded readers who want to try new things too. It doesn’t matter if you loved or hated the book, a book club is the perfect place to see something from another reader's point of view. Your local library may have a book group you could join, or if not, Norfolk Libraries can give you tips on setting up a book club of your own. Libraries also run shared reading sessions – opportunities to listen to prose or poetry being read aloud and then share your response to it. Dersingham Library had a shared reading session for Brave New Reads last year, and hearing the extracts definitely encouraged more people to then borrow the book.

Social media 
You can find Norfolk Libraries on Facebook and Twitter promoting new books, library events and all things bookish. I’m a huge fan of Pinterest (if you don’t know it it’s a place where you can PIN images onto virtual boards for future reference) and you can find Norfolk Libraries on Pinterest too.  Each month we create boards to promote new titles, and each book jacket image links directly to our library catalogue so that you can request that book. I keep a Pinterest board of ‘Books to read’ and browse it from time to time for a little inspiration.

Digital media
Did you know that you can download ebooks, eMagazines, and eAudio from Norfolk Libraries?

Library staff
We read lots of things, are very happy to make recommendations and really love it when you like something we recommend! You can also read and send in your reviews to our book blog.

Happy reading!

Alison

I have worked in Norfolk Libraries for 26 years and so much has changed during this time that I barely know where to start! When I first began at Lynn Library they were just in the process of introducing computers and doing away with the old system of cards in trays. The way people read and find information has changed so much and libraries have adapted well.  I now work in 3 libraries – Dersingham, Hunstanton and Lynn. We run computer courses, offer tablet help, promote e-books, run adult colouring classes and more, and keep everyone up to date with what we are doing on Facebook! I never knew libraries could be such exciting places to work. 

 



Across the country and the world, libraries are facing unprecedented threats. Lack of funding and cost-cutting means that in the last 12 months the UK has lost 49 libraries: almost one a week. In light of this, WCN is running a series of blogs under the title 'Love Your Library', a follow up to the #LibraryAdvent project. WCN has worked closely with library services on a number of projects, including Brave New Reads; an immersive reading programme which recommends brilliant books.


Read WCN Development Manager Conor McGeown's blog The Treasure of Libraries.

Read Assistant Manager of Haverhill Library, Kate Ashton's blog The Library as Lifeline.

Read eight year old Morgan's blog on why Libraries are Cool

Read The Last Pilot author Benjamin Johncock's blog on The Lighthouse of a Library.

Read Cambridgeshire Librarian Ruth Cowan's blog on The Tremendous Gift of Libraries.

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Re-imagine India: WCN staff and Norwich writers form cultural connections with Kolkata, India

Posted By: Stephanie McKenna, 16 February 2016

In January writers Patrick Barkham, Vesna Goldsworthy and Anjali Joseph were accompanied by WCN's Melanie Kidd, (Programme Coordinator) and Kate Griffin (Associate Programme Director) on a five day research and development trip to Kolkata, India. This marked the start of a partnership to form cultural connections between England’s first UNESCO City of Literature and East India’s educational and cultural centre.

Funded by Arts Council England and British Council the trip aimed to develop artistic links between the two countries, paving the way for a more substantial and sustainable project under ACE’s ‘Re-imagine India’ umbrella.

Melanie Kidd, Programme Coordinator at Writers’ Centre Norwich, shares her highlights from the trip below...

























(l-r, Vesna Goldsworthy, Melanie Kidd, Patrick Barkham)

On Saturday the 9th January three writers, all with a strong connection to Norwich, along with myself and my colleague Kate, all met in Kolkata for a swift, exhilarating, petrol-fuelled, ride of India’s former capital. The colours of Kolkata are sweet and zingy, celebrating its vibrancy, and the rich, spicy smells of street food fight against the health-hazardous stench of exhaust fumes. Kolkata is busy. But it’s not chaotic. It’s very easy to inhale its rhythmic buzz and float down its smog-drenched streets.

Accompanying the writers nearly 5,000 miles on a smooth Air India flight, I spent much of my time simply wondering - why Kolkata? Once our extensive itinerary began, it soon became apparent why this Indian city was a one-stop-shop for literary inspiration and heritage! 

Barely shaking off the jet lag, Monday morning saw our coffee-fuelled writers thrown into an eight hour literary symposium on ‘de-professionalisation’ at Presidency University. During the symposium I was inspired by the engagement and response of the students, darting between their lectures and the symposium, leaping from their seats to add ideas and opinions to the debate.



Later in the trip, during our literary walking tour our tour guide, Ramanuj, introduced us to Henry Louis Vivian Derozio in South Park Cemetery (well, his grave at least). Derozio was an Anglo-Indian radical thinker that in 1826, at the under-ripe-age of 17, became an English Literature teacher at Presidency, introducing the concepts of free thinking and learning through debate. During the symposium one of the students offered the opinion that universities should continue ‘opening their doors’ to other ideas, disciplines, training and values. I couldn’t help but think that Derozio would be ‘whooping’ in his grave, chuffed to bits that his teachings live on in those energetic students, challenging the ways in which they learn.

As my interests lie heavily in social development and community projects, one of the most inspiring moments of the trip for me is when we went for lunch with Naveen Kishore, founder of Seagull Books. Seagull is a small publishing company with a large reputation. Alongside publishing, Seagull also deliver projects such as The Seagull School of Publishing,  a heavily subsidised professional course in editing and book design for young people; and PeaceWorks, using the arts to promote social change. Both of these projects are what I would call ‘investment’ projects; investing in the education, creativity and social development of young people and the community. What an inspiring publishing company, leaping down the path of social impact, investing in Kolkata’s cultural personality and future.

























Towards the end of the trip, our literary tour guide, Ramanju, proudly said he believed that the people of Kolkata were less financially driven than in other parts of India, and more influenced by their passions. I had met several Bengalis on my trip that confirmed this, who had studied or trained to be scientists, mathematicians or accountants, but had dropped it all to follow a less financially driven career in culture and the arts. Something else that Ramanju had said got me thinking: ‘Everything in Kolkata can be fixed’. He was referring to the industrious nature of Kolkata, where everything that had been made by human hands could be fixed or changed by human hands. Nothing from the past goes to waste. Ramanju’s words meant something different for me, echoing a wider sense of cultural renovation. 

That last evening those words stuck in my mind, as we watched the Appejay Literary Festival’s ceremonious launch; a festival that revitalises spaces entrenched in Kolkata’s cultural heritage using new writing and ideas. Kolkata was by no means slow-paced. However, it had a strong sense of reflection and pride. It is city that is comfortable in its skin; proud of its past which shapes its present, and inspiringly excited about its future. 

Although our visit to Kolkata was brief, I took home the sense that culture is a ‘door way’; opening up a place for others to explore, unlocking a past, providing a path of opportunity and letting in other cultures and influences. The other thing I took home? A mountain of books from Seagull’s spider-web of a book shop! If you ever make it to Kolkata, take an extra suitcase for book shopping. It’s not called a literary city for nothing!


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