Wednesday 23 March 2016

Shakespeare Lives

I was recently looking for things to get involved with in a writing-related capacity.

There's a scheme the British Council run called Shakespeare Lives.

The total core funding of the project for 2015/16 is £1million from British Council reserves, backed up by £1million match funding from the GREAT Britain Campaign. The program runs from January to December 2016, awaiting funding confirmation from the GREAT Britain Campaign for 2017.

This funding primarily supports the production of central design, project and social media campaign assets as well as licences and opportunities for showcasing film and other creative content internationally.

The priority 'market' countries for the scheme are:

  • China
  • India
  • USA
  • Brazil
  • Mexico
  • South Korea
  • Indonesia
  • Turkey
  • Poland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Japan

Not a bad reach for two million quid.

Though I first heard about it through the British Council in Kigali.

There's an interesting article titled: Should Shakespeare be Taught in Africa?

Although it doesn't come to any particular cut-and-dried conclusion, it does raise some important points, such as ''Making something compulsory usually has the effect of making it resented." Not that Shakespeare Lives is compulsory, it's more of a celebration, but it brought back memories of many a school English lesson.

Often, when you say you're not that fussed about Shakespeare, you're met with the condescending reproach: 'Oh, you just don't understand Shakespeare,' or 'You haven't had the right teacher.'

Believe me, I do and I have.

I studied Shakespeare during English at high school. Then again at performing arts school, aged 16-18. During my BA in Theatre Arts, I not only studied Shakespeare, I translated and annotated scenes from Antony & Cleopatra into British Sign Language and back. There's actually a signed performance of The Tempest, featuring one of my tutors. I've been to The Globe a couple of times, even stood on its stage for a behind the scenes look.

Third from left, back row.

I've studied Shakespeare in some depth. To the extent that I know what a faux pas it is to admit that my favourite play is probably Titus Andronicus

People pie, what's not to like?

And I do admire him, whoever he was. I love what he did with the English language.

But, in total and complete honesty, I wouldn't say he blows my bollocks off. He may be 'the world's favourite playwright,' but I'd rather watch Philip Ridley any day.

Yes, Shakespeare was the originator of many an original plot. But there's a risk that by perpetually reincarnating old work, we miss out on some splendid new stuff. 

And no, it doesn't have to be an either or situation. You can enjoy old stuff and still have new stuff, but when it comes down to: what would you rather do with two million pounds?

Well, I'd rather invest it in supporting publishers of contemporary work in places that probably don't desperately need Shakespeare right now.

I did an MA in Language & Communication Research. I sometimes find Shakespeare hard going. It's so much of a challenge for native English speakers that it's regularly re-imagined using modern language and interpretive dance.

When we're talking about ways in which to get second-language English speakers enthusiastic about reading and writing English, a 400-year dead bard probably isn't the best route forward.

Recently, I've been reading some incredible African writers: Nii Ayikwei Parkes and Nnedi Okorafor. There's even a science fiction movie called Crumbs set in Ethiopia.

I mean, this stuff is kick-ass good. Not some long-dead British dude imagining Bohemia with a coastline, but people with strong geographical knowledge of lesser travelled places, inventing the future and the present in language that astounds.

Recently, someone interested in creative writing sent me a manuscript. She's a writer from East Africa, writing in a fantasy style that was slightly off key. She considers herself a fan of romance, and when asked for her favourite author, cited Danielle Steel. Yet in writing exercises she opted to describe the landscape of outer space, rather than the bench beneath the cherry blossom.

Let's put aside the question of whether her reading tastes would be different if she'd had access to science fiction, not just the books benevolent expats felt they could throw out of their long-haul luggage. 

I've spoken about the problems lack of access brings for artists in developing economic countries. Countries where you can't sell anything you write, and you can't read anything anyone else has written. Yay for technology in the twenty-first century.

Many of this writer's characters were blue-eyed, living in LA or Australia, yet they spoke about relationships and desires in a distinctly rural African tone. 

If you've ever watched Chimamanda Adichie's TED talk on The Danger of a Single Story, you'll understand what might have happened:

I was also an early writer, and when I began to write, at about the age of seven, stories in pencil with crayon illustrations that my poor mother was obligated to read, I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out. 
Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn't have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to. 
My characters also drank a lot of ginger beer, because the characters in the British books I read drank ginger beer. Never mind that I had no idea what ginger beer was... 
Now, I loved those American and British books I read. They stirred my imagination. They opened up new worlds for me. But the unintended consequence was that I did not know that people like me could exist in literature. So what the discovery of African writers did for me was this: It saved me from having a single story of what books are.

It's natural for all writers to emulate other writers and the type of writing they admire when they're first setting out. All of us, whatever nationality, play with pastiche. It's how we learn.

But at a certain point, in most of our cultures, we're encouraged to stop emulating others and find our own voice. We're told that we have a voice, and that this voice is something other people would like to hear.

Whereas in many countries - those where you have no national examples of internationally selling authors, you can't sell your own work online, and your publishing industry is in its infancy - you might never receive that message. You can end up thinking that in order to get read, in order to be a good writer, you need to be like other writers. When the other writers you have access to are Shakespeare, Enid Blyton and Danielle Steel, that can become a little limiting. Pastiche no longer acts as a learning tool, but a template.

That is why people like Nii Parkes, Okorafor and Adichie are so bloody important.

And why, if we're going to talk about what to do with two million pounds, I'd rather see it invested not in exporting Shakespeare to Africa, but in exporting Africa to the rest of the world. Developing African literature courses - including playwrights - capacity-building publishers, campaigning for fair online payment systems that provide access to the international market.

If you were doing that and Shakespeare, great. 

But if you had to choose one?

Sure, college courses and university degrees in Shakespeare are great, introductory drama workshops and interactive online modules. Wonderful. Keep heritage alive, by all means, and let those who want to take it further, take it further. But Shakespeare is not as accessible, engaging or culturally relevant as many other, living, contemporary, multifaceted working authors. He certainly doesn't need the money as much.

The few times he has been globally magnetic in the recent past have been with a Hollywood budget, an A-list cast and a pyrotechnic team behind him. With that, you could make Poetics of Aristotle chair-gripping stuff.

We have very limited resources. Cuts to the arts are chronic. What is the very best, most useful approach we can take with limited finances available? What will have a lasting impact on aspiring writers in Africa, and what's likely to breed a fresh generation of readers?

Maybe four hundred years down the line, it's time to let go, just a little bit, and embrace the living.

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