We have revealed Owen Sheers’ selection of 10 writers for the International Literature Showcase and on the podcast this week Owen is talking to Chitra Ramaswamy about his list and how the writers are asking the questions that will shape our future.
Owen Sheers is an author, poet and playwright and Professor in Creativity at Swansea University. In the conversation you’ll discover the details of Owen’s list, including his introduction to each writer and the reasons why he finds their work to be so important – spanning topics including the environment, structural inequality and the role of a writer at times of transition and change.
What role can writers play in shaping a more just world, and how do we ensure that we don’t go back to ‘business as usual’ after such a catastrophic event?
A transcript of this episode is available below.
The ILS is a partnership project between the National Centre for Writing and British Council, supported by Arts Council England and Creative Scotland.
Hosted by Simon Jones and Steph McKenna.
Music by Bennet Maples.
My name is Chitra Ramaswamy, I’m an author and journalist and today I’m in conversation with author, poet and playwright Owen Sheers, who will be revealing his selection of 10 of the most inspiring UK writers who are asking the questions that will shape the future. The list was commissioned by the National Centre for Writing and British Council, supported by Arts Council England as part of the International Literature Showcase, a 2-year programme to promote writing from the UK to new international audiences.
Hi there Chitra, how are you?
I’m good thanks, how are you?
Yeah, I’m great thanks. I’ve found a spot in the house where I think my sort-of being homeschooled children can’t be heard.
Well done! Well, I’m barricaded in an upstairs room with an extremely big bag of washing put against the door so no-one can come in. We’ll see how we get on.
So, Owen, it feels appropriate – it feels like the times dictate, in fact – that we begin in the present, which is lockdown and the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. I think we’re probably in week 8, or 800, or I’m not quite sure anymore. But I just wondered if , you know, you could begin by painting a bit of a picture of your lockdown life. Your writing life at home at the moment. How’s it all going?
Yeah, well, it’s a fascinating mixture, isn’t it? As I’m sure lots of writers are saying, in one way there hasn’t been that much change to my personal life – well, no, I should say my personal working life. There’s always a pretty large amount of self-isolation in writing, holed up in my writing shed on the side of a hill in Wales. So i guess the biggest changes are that we’ve put two young children into that mix.
It’s quite a change!
Which is actually quite a change. My wife also works from home, so we’re actually very lucky, in that we’re able to split the working week straight down the middle, so I do still get two and a half days per week. And for the rest of the week, I have to admit, having the kids at home – and I’m not sure how successful we’ve really been with homeschooling – but it’s been mostly a real joy.
But, I’m aware that we’re speaking from the privilege of being on the side of that hill in Wales, so we have space, we have access to nature. I’m aware that that’s something that so many other people don’t have. So yeah, in short it’s kind of been some really strangely lovely times, interspersed with evenings of apocalyptic dread. Shards of reality every now and then puncturing through.
I know, it’ s a very kind of complex, melting pot of emotions, isn’t it? And I wondered, even asking you the question – beginning with the most humdrum of questions, ‘how are you?’ – but those words have become so much more pregnant with meaning, haven’t they? When we’re asking people now how they are, we’re really meaning it, and that made me wonder what the pandemic is doing to words, and to writing. Is it increasing its meaning, does it feel more important, or in other ways does it feel more defunct and too distant of the business of key workers and that idea that writing can’t actually fix a broken leg, or ventilate a patient. How are you feeling about your craft at the moment?
Well, it’s a really good question and it dovetails really with how this selection came about, really, as well. That question, that I’ve always had for whatever reason, I don’t know why, what is a writer’s contribution? If a writer wants to put their shoulder to the wheel, how might they do that?
And of course I know that there should be no ‘shoulds’ in literature. The only duty of any writer is to try to be as good as they can be, but in this period it is interesting – I was talking last night with my wife, and there’s a lot of discussion of how people are turning to drawing and art as a way of looking in the moment, and as a a way of feeling a connection through all of this distance. And I suppose writing, as a form, doesn’t feel as immediately accessible to so many people in that way. But what it can do in this period, I think, and what I suspect it IS doing, is that it can pay that close attention. It can be a form of highly attuned memory, and that’s what I’m interested in.
Yes, you’re right, it feels very far from the lives and the jobs of key workers, but in the months and the years after this, in terms of joining the dots and asking the questions: how were those key workers treated? How often did we hear their voices? What were their lives like before this? How have some of the narratives become blunted, how have they become broad?
So that paying attention, that inquisitive aspect of writing, I think will have a huge part to play. And to come back to your question: how are we? What I have found fascinating is that, yes, people are asking that in terms of each other’s mental health, our physical health, but we are aware of this wider conversation of how are we? How do we live? Who are we? What are our ways of being? I think that’s something else, another territory that writers I hope – I think they already are playing into, actually – that questioning.
Hold on, let’s take this pause, take this change as an opportunity to ask these questions. Because we all knew, before this happened, that things have to change. That there has to be systemic change. In a way, one of the biggest obstacles, it seemed to me, or one that people spoke about, was about how capable are we of radical, cultural change? And this current crisis is tragic, but if it has shown us one thing it’s that we can change. So I think that’s really interesting. In that area, language is certainly feeling sharper, once more.
Absolutely. And this idea that you speak of there, Owen, of our duty as writers to somehow record the present moment, whatever that happens to be, and this one is a deep crisis, is a real reminder of what you’ve been doing in your recent work. I’m thinking of The Green Hollow, for example, about the Aberfan mining tragedy, and the mining village, or I’m thinking about your poem, the NHS 70th anniversary poem – this idea of poem as a kind of reportage, influenced so much by events as they’re happening.
Yes, that’s right. And I guess I moved towards those projects, and the form of them, which is a kind of verse drama, really as a way of answering that question that has dogged me for a while. Perhaps I took the easy route in answering it, but a route I’ve become increasingly fascinated by, which is the writer as a conduit for the voices and stories of others.
In some ways, I suppose, it goes back to that bardic idea. To create these communal stories through lots of individual experiences. In all of those projects, they very much begin, I suppose, in the world of journalism with primary evidence and lots and lots of interviews with other people, and they create composite characters to hold and render these stories.
And I suppose that was my slightly clumsy answer to that question. How can you contribute? And it’s given me a huge amount as a writer, because this is very much a two-way process. it’s not entirely altruistic – yes, I’m very interested in giving voice to voices who haven’t had the chance to be heard before, but also what you receive as a writer is extraordinary. I’m always amazed by the generosity of people to offer up their experience into these kind of things.
And I suppose, you’re absolutely right, it was that experience, over those two projects and an early one called Pink Mist which was based on interviews with recently injured service personnel and their families. It was the experience of that which led towards the selection that we’re talking about today, in that I suppose I was interested in finding writers who were answering that call, perhaps in more subtle ways and more inventive ways that I have myself.
We’ll come on to that selection. It’s such a fascinating and diverse chorus of voices that you’ve picked. It really does speak to your own concerns as a writer, as well as the moment in which we find ourselves. If we could stick with that moment for a minute longer, I think it’s so interesting to think of – do you see it as a direction that your work has taken, this notion of giving voice, or poetry as reportage or place or prose, even? Is it something that’s happened as a kind of response to living in a period of great crisis, turbulence – I’m thinking of pre-Covid here. Brexit, what’s happening in America, climate emergency. It’s a moment of emergency, cultural and climate and political. Has it changed you as a writer?
I think it has. Undoubtedly. It brings with it all sorts of risks, and I think you touched upon it there in your question. It’s when things start to feel urgent – in your life, in the imminent futures of your children, and that urgency rises tot a certain level within you, when it has to be addressed.
And so initially, I think, it also comes from a sense of frustration. Maybe in some cases a sense of anger, even. Certainly Pink Mist, that project with service personnel, rose out of me coming into contact with much more nuanced and worrying and disturbing stories of the long shadow of conflict, and how that shadow falls across families and communities. Those dots weren’t being joined, stories weren’t being told.
Your instinct as any writer is to provide a counter-narrative to any anonymising source. And so certainly with the NHS piece, more recently, again that felt like an opportunity to tell a more nuanced story. To try to paint a psychological and an emotional map of the NHS, which was an institution which I felt had been ridden roughshod over for many years. In some ways we had forgotten as a society where it had come from, and what it had been born from.
More recently, you’re absolutely right, across several projects, across opera and TV drama and a novel, the climate crisis has occupied my mind. And as I said, this brings risks with it. It’s much harder to make good art when you’re taken over by an urgent issue that you want to explore and excavate. So it has changed me, and it IS changing me, and I’m still finding my way through that change. At times I take a step back and say, well, what would I write if I wasn’t going and looking for other people’s stories? What is my story? Maybe it’s also a response to your own life, and settling down to a certain extent, and you’re having to go elsewhere to find things of more interest? But I don’t think that’s necessarily true: you want to people these issues with people and with experience, and if you haven’t had that experience yourself there’s an instinct to go out and find it.
It’s impossible to unpick which parts of it come from the stage of life in which you’re at, and also the world in which we live. It’s all threaded together; there’s no need to unpick it, and it would be impossible.
Although, it is interesting. The more you look at the climate crisis the more you realise that, as a species, it is a n on-going failure of narrative. We know what we’re doing, we know what we should do and what we can do to avert it, but people who want to tell a different story, or postpone it for a few decades and kick it down the road a bit – they have won the narrative. And that’s where I am fascinated. What is the role of storytellers and filmmakers and theatre? I think we have a huge part to play there.
The word that makes me think of is ‘responsibility’.
Yeah, but it’s also a massive artistic challenge. That’s why it’s the very best of our storytellers who need to take it on, because in many ways you are going against the grain of governments and individuals. That’s what it so interesting about this present moment, in that it’s brought the idea of change and different ways of being, the idea of holding on to some of the aspects of this moment, and it’s made the conversation more alive and more possible.
That seems like a very hopeful springboard to take us into your list. So these are 10 writers that you have selected. It’s really interesting the umbrella term, this notion of 10 writers who are ‘asking the questions that might shape the future’. In a way it’s such a slipper term, I found it very hard to hold onto. I kept having to return to it, and think ‘what are they trying to do again?’ Because really, it’s the responsibility of all writers to do that, and yet when you really delve into this list and spend some time with it I just found all sorts of really interesting and subtle commonalities between them.
They seem together, as a collective, to speak to the moment in which we’re living. I keep coming back to the present, because this is a list for now and now, the present, is that it’s doing very strange things to our concept of time. Bending it and elongating it in all sorts of ways, because the past and the future have become very painful and difficult and frightening places to go. So we have this present that these writers are working in, yet they have to and you have to, and we all have to, find ways in which we can ask questions of the future at the same time. It’s a really interesting paradox, because writing is a slow business.
I wondered if we could begin, before we go through the writers one by one, if you could say something about the group. What you feel they maybe have in common.
You’re right, it is something of a slippery term. Of course, what we hope of all literature and all writers is that their works ask questions and ask questions of us. But I suppose what I was drawn towards in these writers – and, as I said, this list was born in that idea, that question of how do you capture and render an aspect of activism and still make good art? It’s very hard to do.
I was looking for a certain kind of question. Questions that have that sense of urgency, about the now. How that questioning happens. That’s about craft and skill, about how the questions are posed within the works.
As a group, yes, when you first look at them they look incredibly diverse – many forms, many styles, many aspects of perspective and experience. But what I was first struck by was their ability to make connections; to look through the established norms. It’s a phrase I’ve used already in this conversation: to join the dots, to acknowledge and address and explore more nuanced narratives around questions of identity, belonging, heritage.
And of course, part of doing that, although these are very much writers of now, looking into the near future, all of them, I think, have a really extraordinary understanding of the past. Both on a very, very personal level in quite a few cases, but also on that level of cultures and nations. There’s a real, incredibly active conversation in these works between the apst – who we have been, what we have done – and who we are. Those are the components that ask the question: who shall we be?
I think it’s impossible to read this selection of writers and not ask these questions. Who have we been? What have we done? Where are we going? Something that came through, more evident in some of the writers like Raymond Antrobus and Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, and perhaps Hannah Lavery, is ideas of belonging. How those ideas are braided between place and ancestry. But actually it’s something that comes through in nearly all of the works in various ways. I’m really interest in that: the importance of acknowledging how vital and crucial to individuals, to societies, belonging is, but also how unless those stories of belonging are told in their entirety – and not in a selective or easy way – then they can be quite dangerous.
At the end of Alys Conran’s novel Dignity, she talks about how the other side of belonging can become an exclusion zone; how a home can become a fortress. That’s something else that connects these writers. And the third part, and again you could argue that this is something you’d ask for any writers, is a quality of attention and attention to the present moment, which I think allows those connections to really come to the fore in their work.
All of this, for me, comes together to address and pose the question: we are about to go through, we’ve probably started already, a massive repositioning of who we are to each other, and even more crucially who we are in relation to nature and the planet, our home. I think it’s that question of how are we going to reposition ourselves that comes through in a lot of this work. That’s everything from Laura Bates addressing sexism, addressing still the greatest human rights crime on this planet, the mistreatment of women and girls at the hands of men, to someone like Elizabeth-Jane Burnett who is going right down, into the soil, and saying ‘look, we have to acknowledge what we’ve done to the soil, and in the long run what will happen to us because of what we’ve done to it.’
I’m not sure that’s given you a coherent overview entirely, but this was the territory that these voices and these writers were speaking into for me. When you read them as a whole it just made those possibilities of who we might be in the decades to come feel very alive in the mind.
That’s a fantastic summing up of the list. I’ve got questions fizzing and popping all over the place now. Perhaps it would be good to take the writers one-by-one, and as we talk about them individually we can talk about them together as well.
Let’s begin with Martin MacInnes, who seems to me such a brilliantly globalised writer. This idea of place, which is so present in your own work, place as both a kind of integral, our ancestry, but also as a springboard to the world. We’re living in a completely globalised time now. Martin is very influenced by Clarice Lispector but very much comes from the Highlands of Scotland as well.
You’ve put your finger on it. Initially a lot of these works are on quite an intimate scale in terms of place. That interplay between the local and the global, that’s one of the most pressing questions. How do we keep the best of internationalism, but perhaps do away with some of the worst of global capitalism?
In Gathering Evidence, Martin’s new book, I just thought he plays with that sense of interconnectedness on this global level, across questions of extinction and data collection, with such ludic skillfulness, but a really unsettling structure and voice, so actually his characters are very much knocked out of place and are adrift in this global environment in which you feel a sense that there’s a search for a sense of belonging, in each other, and through these other means – be it through the investigation of a species which is about to become extinct, or through thinking about what we can capture about each other through the most intimate data collection.
I just loved how he wove those two apparently very disparate worlds together in his two main characters. We are living in the sixth great extinction, and that’s one of the driving plotlines in this book. Then, alongside that we have John, who is a programmer who – and I don’t want to give too much away, because that’s something else that Martin MacInnes does very well, which is that you feel that there’s a detective novel under this book as well, part of it’s internal workings.
There’s a real playfulness of form and subject matter.
Absolutely. In terms of that form, the opening of the book reveals to us that in my beginning is my end, if that’s not too much of a clue, and then to watch the journey towards that through this interconnection through these apparently disparate worlds of nature conservation and data apps felt incredibly inventive, and goes back to what I said earlier. He found a wonderfully novelistic way of rendering these issues which we know are very, very contemporary and we know are going to define who we are in the future. The degredation of the natural world, the growth of AI, our increasing reliance on algorithm, data collection, how much of us we give away and how much of ourselves we see in what we give away in the online and the virtual world.
So he’s really here because, yes, you can investigate that in documentary, in reportage, in academic books, but there’s a reason why we still turn to novels: because they can do things those other forms can’t. He’s pulled off something quite extraordinary, in managing to create a really great novel out of those materials.
I’m just thinking as you’re talking, Owen, that he’s doing something so clever in terms of speaking to how disparate everything seems at the moment, yet also the connectedness of it all. He’s saying something about how our brains now work, with all of the data that’s constantly being fed into them. Even the simply act of scrolling through a social media feed, you are just jumping from here to there to everywhere, all the time. That’s a really interesting space to explore in a novelistic sense.
And also, of course, this really interesting interplay between individuality and the easure of the personal and the unique, as well. This app that the central character creates, Nest, which obviously is the single word that most obviously joins these two narratives – his partner is off investigating the nests of these chimpanzees, and this whole idea of a nest, our home, on that intimate local level and on that global level.
But this app, it thrives on our completely individual movements. Second by second by second. And yet as people become more and more immersed in this representation of themselves, they lose more and more of themselves. I thought that was a really beautiful and lyrical description of what’s happened over the last 10 years in terms of our relationship with our virtual selves.
Absolutely. You used a word there, ‘erasure’, which I feel is a good place to move on to your second writer. This is in no particular order, this list, it’s just the order in which I happen to have written them down.
The next one is Raymond Antrobus, and I feel like his response to erasure of all sorts of cultures and communities, is so creative and so playful and so moving. When you read one of his poems you read them from the gut. He’s one of the most exciting poets and performance artists around today.
He really is. It’s fascinating, as there are quite a few poets like this around at the moment, but he’s one of the best examples of where he’s brought with him elements of that performance world onto the page so successfully, which is why they work so well on the page as well. He’s an incredibly moving poet, with these quite fearless, accessible but incredibly skillful poems.
You’re right, his collection The Perseverance is absolutely people with stories and voices that in various ways just haven’t been heard, or have been silenced, or have been kept in very specific spaces of the general consciousness. That’s why he’s in this list, because if we’re going to move forward in anything like a healthier way than we have done in the last 40, 50 years we have to get better and more comfortable with the multiple, and with the different.
I suppose this comes to the fore most obviously with his poems around deafness, and being deaf himself, and the deaf experience, but also around his own heritage or being Jamaican and British. I’m sure we’ll be returning to this a few times in this list, but it’s the way that he keeps that double-scale of the personal heritage and the societal heritage, constantly in place throughout the poems.
Just as I said Martin MacInnes did something that only the novel can do, Raymond has taken those elements of activism, because that’s what’s in the DNA of these poems, and has imbued them with so much empathy and emotion and such an acute sense of language that he’s done something that only poetry can do.
Another very strong thread running through these writers is the notion of writing as activism, or an act of resistance. We’ve got a few writers here, Raymond Antrobus being a very good example, but also the likes of Adam Weymouth or Laura Bates or Elizabeth-Jane Burnett – writers are are not just politically-driven, or writing from a particular political viewpoint, but that their writing is actually like a form of direct action.
You’ve really touched upon something there. Potentially previous generations of writers would kind of separate the political writing and the life writing, but the political, with a small p and a capital P, I’d say, comes to us so much more naturally braided into these works. That’s what I was looking for, what I was asking for, for it to live within these works in a much more organic way that, for me at least, never feels overtly forced but is handled with a lambent touch.
Organic – another word to ease us onto the next writer, Elizabeth-Jane Burnett. What a fascinating book The Grassling is! It’s memoir, it’s biography, it’s a kind of dictionary of the soil. At one point she’s rolling around in the fields and it turns almost into a piece of performance poetry. Tell us about her inclusion on the list.
Well, The Grassling just blew me away, because it’s such an extraordinary book. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything like it. It keeps evolving and morphing under your hands. You think you’ve got one thing, then you’ve got something else. You think, yes OK, I’ve got a naturalist’s diary, an excavation of physical place, geographical place, also heritage, her mixed Kenyan-British heritage, and she keeps returning to this one field that has been in her father’s family for generations, in Devon. I was fascinated by that, because in a book we’ll talk about later, Dignity, the characters talk about the idea of ‘square mile’, or a Bengali word and a Welsh word both referring to that unique place that is your habitat. That’s something that Elizabeth-Jane Burnett is doing here.
It’s the depth to which she goes. As you say, she goes deeper and deep into the soil, until you’re in a world of relationship which is not just her and her father and his parents before him, or her and her immediate nature, it is us and this element that enables us to be, which we have in some instances treated so badly. I think I am paraphrasing, but there is a line that sang through to me, where she more-or-less says “we should be kind to the soil if we are to be kind to ourselves.”
There is that idea of the soil containing somehow all of history. As you go down into it, you’re delving into the past. Such as fascinating idea, at both a physical and a metaphorical level. There’s something about Elizabeth-Jane Burnett and a lot of these new nature writers, who are claiming this form for themselves that has traditionally been a form written really by the white, middle-class establishment, and usually men as well. The thought of Elizabeth-Jane Burnett rolling around in the fields of Devon is so pleasing.
It really is. That sense of fresh eyes coming to a subject and therefore making us see again. You feel it all the way through these works: an insistence that actually it’s not enough for this knowledge of the natural world to be held by certain academics, or naturalists. Every single one of us needs to have a 101, basic, ground-level education and awareness of the ecological systems that keep us alive. It needs to be as naturally part of us as breathing, which is what I took away from this book. What I found really exciting was how much more we as a society
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