By Dr Nadia Niaz
Until I started teaching a re-invented capstone Creative Writing subject called Encounters with Writing at the University of Melbourne in 2016, I had never given the relationship between my small corner of the academy and the community at large much thought. I had always thought of these as two separate spheres, having internalised the received wisdom that the University exists as a pedagogical and academic space and the non-academic world as both a more practical and more emotional space.
Teaching the Encounters with Writing subject, now looking forward to its third year, has made me re-examine my uncritical acceptance of this division. In this subject, each tutor works with a different idea or organisation and guides their students through a semester of research and collaboration culminating in a mini-festival at the end of the teaching period.
My students and I work with volunteer curator Lella Cariddi and her project What Happened at the Pier, which she has been running under the auspices of Multicultural Arts Victoria (MAV) since 2015. The project preserves and recounts the stories of European migrants who arrived in Melbourne through Princes and Station Piers prior to the 1970s. Lella does this by collecting and exhibiting artefacts, stories and audio-visual installations evoking the journey of her ‘Memory Keepers’ and their families.
My students interacted with and responded to the 2016 exhibition housed at the Museo Italiano in Carlton and the archives of the 2017 exhibition. Their objective was to produce a creative work that would form part of the mini-festival and then be delivered to MAV for inclusion in future exhibitions.
For many of my students, this subject involves several firsts. It is often the first time they interact with anyone outside the university for the purpose of a university creative writing assignment, the first time they involve themselves in the stories of strangers they have been asked to represent, the first time they examine and question their own families’ backgrounds and journeys, the first time they collaborated to produce an event for a subject, and the first time they have to produce work for a ‘client’.
What these firsts have in common is that they require the students to formally look outside the bounds of academia to produce their work. Many of the Memory Keepers make themselves available to be interviewed and share their stories and histories with these university students. This means that my students must interact not with abstractions but with real people who entrust them with their stories in the hope that these may be preserved and passed on. Lella walks the students through her exhibitions, answers questions in person and via email, and takes them on a guided tour of Princes Pier, where she herself arrived as a girl.
That the Memory Keepers trust and invest in them is not lost on my students. In the reflections my students write at the end of the subject, most comment on their newfound understanding of the ethics of representation and the way that the faith the Memory Keepers have in them motivates them to produce the best work they can. In interacting with this curated community of migrants, my students learn the difference between appropriation and inspiration.
Thus far, my students have chosen to create immersive, experiential and participatory installations and poetic audio-visual artwork. The tone of the pieces have ranged from melancholy and nostalgic to satirical and confrontational. Each year, Memory Keepers have attended the festival and have reported feeling validated and hopeful that their stories will not be lost.
For students and staff alike, the mini-festival is an opportunity to see an audience’s response to their semester’s work firsthand. Although this response is often quite intense and emotional for all involved, the students report a feeling of validation because their work is seen and appreciated by an audience that includes by the very people who have inspired their work.
After having taught this subject for two years, I have learned that interacting with Memory Keepers instils in my students a respect for other people’s stories much faster and more deeply than a semester’s worth of readings or discussion could. They realise that stories they are tasked with retelling are the lived histories of people much like their own parents and grandparents that must therefore be treated with care and consideration. It teaches them to search for connections between themselves and other people and to see the writing process as a conversation rather than a solitary act or solely the product of the writer’s intellect. It bridges, in short, the purported gap between the ‘intellectual’ and the ‘emotional’, between the university and the community within which it sits, and creates a moment of mutual visibility and validation.
Encounters with Writing demonstrates that a strong community engagement element can enhance and support the teaching of Creative Writing. It is also far from the only subject in the discipline where such opportunities for engagement exist. How much more might our students learn if we were to take them up?
Nadia Niaz received her PhD in Creative Writing and Cultural Studies from the University of Melbourne, where she is a Creative Writing Teaching Associate in the School of Culture and Communication. Her areas of interest are multilingual creative expression, particularly in poetry, the practicalities and politics of translation, and language use among third culture kids and other globally mobile cohorts. Nadia’s own poetry and prose have appeared in Pencilled-In, Peril, Offset, Strange 4, Text, Mascara Literary Review, Cordite, The Sum Times, and the Alhamra Literary Review.