Thomas Heerma van Voss was NCW’s virtual writer in residence throughout October, with support from the Dutch Foundation for Literature and New Dutch Writing. During his month with us, Thomas met our Lit Insiders – a group of 14-17 year olds who have a passion for reading and writing. In his session with the group he spoke about the differences he sees between writing and reading in the UK and the Netherlands. He also led a couple of short writing activities with the group, which got them thinking about subtle ways of showing emotion in characters. One member of the group, Amelia Platt, has written this blog about the experience.
As lockdown 2.0 began, many of us once again were limited to our homes with more time on our hands. Those weeks offered a unique chance to not only enjoy but widen our bookshelves. The importance of reading from a wide range of cultures is something I have become interested in recently. I have always loved English Literature as a subject but have been questioning whether the title, ‘English Literature’ in fact limits our appreciation of the subject. Of course, our national language is English and therefore any study or enjoyment of literature will have this focus. However, there is a danger of becoming so caught up in an ‘English’ focused study of literature that we end up removed from a wider understanding and appreciation of literature. This is something I have become painfully aware of in my own educational experience with the only foreign authors I have formally studied being Americans. This is in sharp contrast with other countries where students are schooled in their own writers alongside writers from other countries.
The importance of reading from other cultures was emphasised to me at a workshop I attended with the Dutch writer Thomas Heerma van Voss. Thomas has published four works of fiction. His latest publication, Thank You For Being With Us comprises two compelling short stories and is translated by Moshe Gilula. A key theme of the workshop was the idea of cultural interchange. It was fascinating to hear Thomas speak about the process of translation. He spoke about the strangeness of the translated text in that it is something that is inextricably linked to the writer but also separate. As a group we discussed Dutch and English literature, their similarities, and differences. It was wonderful to have a conversation even though we were separated by hundreds of miles. Thomas also talked about how reading from other cultures had influenced his own writing. Norwich’s literary heritage, especially the work of W.G Sebald, was a key inspiration. Hearing Thomas speak was a perfect example of how literature at its best is a collage of different times, people and places, all building upon one another.
Reading literature from around the world can benefit our own writing. As part of my Arts Award, I researched literature styles from around the world including French, Native American, Chinese, and Punjabi literature. I then created a piece of writing inspired by each of these conventions. I noticed as the result of the project a marked improvement in my own writing. I became more ambitious and imaginative, no longer limited to the same ideas, styles, and techniques. Reading widely therefore is not only a pleasurable thing but something that can truly benefit the way in which we write.
We live in an age of globalisation where access to writing from around the world has never been easier and the opportunities for communication across cultures are endless. In this year especially, the discussion about reading from a diverse range of cultures has never been more prescient. As our cultural institutions undergo a reckoning over racism, the time has come for us as individuals to widen our bookshelves. Reading other cultures will allow us greater understanding of the world we live in, developing the crucial quality of empathy. While reading widely definitely will not solve every social ill, it offers a foundation on which to begin.
In conclusion, reading widely from other cultures offers so much. A chance to gain a wider understanding of the world around us and the multiple differing human experiences, leading to a greater sense of empathy. Alongside the impact upon us as readers, it can also make us better writers as we become more imaginative and experimental. Especially as we grapple with being repeatedly confined to our houses, reading offers a fantastic way to widen our horizons.
If you’re feeling inspired but don’t know where to start, why not check out this NCW blog on the best translated books.