Archive for April, 2007

The Hindu Sunday Magazine: Writing in the Margins

THE HINDU SUNDAY MAGAZINE
April 29, 2007

Writing in the Margins

by ANTARA DAS

Khola Baksho encourages creative writing among marginalised and underprivileged youth of Kolkata.

TALES of courage and inspiration hardly ever begin with food packets. This one, however, proved to be an exception, as one learnt at the launch of Khola Baksho (Open Box), a magazine meant to encourage creative writing among marginalised and underprivileged youth, who spend their lives in shelter homes, red light districts, urban slums and railway platforms.

“When poetry writing workshops initially started in our shelter home, I used to look forward to it more for the food packets than anything else,” said Uma Dutta, one of the 10 youth workers of “Kalam: Margins Write”, instrumental in conceiving, developing, editing and designing the magazine.

Empowering youngsters

“Kalam: Margins Write”, is a wing of the NGO Daywalka Foundation, a U.S.-based NGO that fights trafficking in women and children for commercial sexual exploitation, with special focus on India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Kalam, a rights-based creative writing programme, empowers marginalised young people to script their own story instead of it being written and spoken from outside.

The idea of Khola Baksho manifested itself when Uma and other youth workers of Kalam, who had gone through a two-year period of reading, writing and composing poetry, decided that they must do their bit to bring other marginalised voices to the forefront.

So began the journey that saw the youth workers travel through the city as well as the outlying villages, the open box in their hands, urging young people in schools or shelter homes to write about themselves, convincing the uninitiated that in their fledgling efforts lay a world of possibility waiting to be discovered.

Often, the youth workers were turned away at the gates of the institution themselves. Sometimes, they were mistaken for vendors who were selling those boxes. But wherever they managed to deposit their box, they never came back empty handed. “After all, the urge to express our feelings is present in every one of us,” says Uma .

A strong sense of professionalism marked the approach of the youth workers involved in the production process. Mostly in their teens or early twenties, they devoted themselves to the production process, quickly becoming proficient in the use of software necessary to edit and compile the poems written in Hindi, Bengali and Urdu by these new and emerging writers.

Professional attitude

“The youth workers, many of whom have a very traumatic past, were more professional and stricter about deadlines than any of us,” said Bishan Samaddar, Programme Coordinator for “Kalam: Margins Write”. The Daywalka Foundation financed the entire initiative.

At the official launch of the magazine on February 18, the youngsters who had contributed to the magazine read out their poems on the stage in front of an assembled audience.

While a poem by 13-year-old Bobby Makal explored the meaning of life (“What is life, a torn blank page that is carried away by the wind… “), another by Prakash Upadhyay, 14, recounted the memory of a previous love, ending poignantly with: “She left, and in her wake/she left behind her memories.”

What emerged, from the act of reading the poem as well as through the interactive session that followed, was that these young adults had well rounded ways of looking at their past and present and a lot of hope for their future.

So while Prakash wanted to become a radio jockey and Sarathi Khatoon wanted to involve herself in social work, Rahul Goswami was already a part of an aspiring Bengali rock band.

Kalam had initiated this programme as it had felt that the time had come when the margins started writing for themselves instead of waiting for someone outside to do the job.

But as Anindya Chattopadhyay, a youth icon and member of the Bengali rock band Chandrabindu, who had come to launch the inaugural edition rightly summed up, “Poets do not reside in the margins; where they reside is the fountain of creativity.”

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Visual Literacy in Neighborhood Diaries

While thinking through ideas for Kalam’s citizen journalism project — Neighborhood Diaries (ND) — I’ve been reading Wendy Ewald’s I Wanna Take me A Picture, a seminal work on the pedagogy of Literacy through Photography (LTP).

In an earlier post, Bishan shared visions for the curriculum of ND, outlining pertinent themes to ground young practioners in as they engage in the process of documenting and narrating intimate and local worlds through photography and writing.

Ewald in her practice of LTP stresses the the importance of teaching young people how to “read images” as a fundamental step before launching young practitioners into the process of photography and writing. I think this a crucial component for us to consider in ND’s curriculum — the component of Visual Literacy. ND will be working with youth living in slum settlements, red-light areas and other neighborhoods, which are often visually incarcerated in tropes of “the poor,” “the unhygienic,” or “the criminal,” in many popular discourses. Our curriculum needs to encourage and guide young residents to critically think about visual representations of neighborhoods like their own, as well as,  explore the politics of  the  gaze. I think its important for the young practitioners to recognize, interpret and interrogate the Outsider’s Gaze in order for them to realize their own Gaze and its difference. As Ewald says,

Reading the photograph helps students progress from observing the details of an image to trying to understand the story behind it. In reading this way, we’ve laid the groundwork for the children’s more nuanced examination of other images, and for their thoughtful planning of their own photographs. Through the process of reading photographs, children can begin to understand that photographs do indeed convey the emotions of their subjects – not simply because of the some magic inherent in the subject itself, but through the choices the photographer makes and the way in which images are made.

For our curriculum we should consider keeping the first few sessions around Visual Literacy. But what about visual literacy? And what activities would be effective to stimulate visual literacy? These are good questions. Questions I don’t have the answer to. But I think its a good inquiry we should engage in as Educators. Its a direction we should consider exploring as we think through Neighborhood Diaries as a pilot project and curriculum-in-the-making.

posted by Sahar Romani

Forays into Fiction III: Building Character is Hard Labour

“A Character who we care for acts to fulfil his desire with important consequences.”
—– Philip Gerard, Creative Nonfiction.

With this definition of a ‘Story’ in mind, I started a series of Fiction Writing workshops with Kalam’s regular group of youth on Sunday, April 22. Attendance was low (only 6 youth), but the group was focused and serious about writing in a new mode.

We started with a basic analysis of the line quoted above. It was once again understood that we needed to think up a character and give her/him a life if we have to write a good story. The group took a while to think of characters they could write about. They were feeling the pressure of the possible narrative, which is bound to happen to self-conscious writers: “Oh this character must have a terrific story to tell, or to act in… so it can’t just be any random person. He or she must stand out!” Whereas, what we really need think of is just any random person, without the self-evident promise of a thrilling narrative. That is the only way we can avoid falling into the trap of clichéd self-driven narratives. Once everyone had someone to write about in their minds, it was time for a detailed physical description. I stressed that these things may not form a part of the final story, but it is important to create a complete picture of the character in one’s mind. And it is important to write it down as well so that, if needed, the writer can paint a most perfectly detailed picture of the character for the reader. The fact that this was a new medium for the poets became evident when they read out their descriptions. Most were glaringly sparse in details. And some were too metaphoric, dwelling on how they eyes of a young girl smelled of matchsticks and monsoon clouds! But the group was receptive to criticism, and vowed to include the most excruciating details when they write. It was then time to describe action. As an exercise, they had to describe (in as much detail as possible) something really commonplace that their character does. The participants were now coming into form, getting to understand the medium of prose and how it works. This time the descriptions were richer, and some included interesting glimpses into the personality of the character. After all, it is important to slowly reach the inner core of the character, identify and understand the desires in her or him that will take the story further. This inner reality of the character will be explored in next day’s workshop, scheduled for May 13.

It was a challenging workshop for the participants. Some complained it was too much work, and required too much thinking. Some claimed that they were used to writing poems which did not demand such ‘boring’, ‘tedious’ details. One can really pick and choose to describe the most desirable things in a poem, and the poem still reads fine, because a poem is not necessarily about painting a clear and complete picture. The other complaint the participants had was that they were not writing about themselves. Their poems (especially those out of the Kalam workshops) are all about aspects of their own lives: they are more clear-cut works of self-expression. Where is the ‘self’ in the story if it is about another character? I said that the story is not about just any character, it is about a character ‘we care for’: ‘WE care for’. There is identification in that. There is sympathy. Besides, what the character chooses to do in the story will also depend on our choices. The character’s desires would, in some covert way, mirror our own desires. A story is, hence, a very potent vehicle of self-expression: it’s just that the self-expression is perhaps less obvious and more complex and layered. And that is precisely why writing a story is very hard labour. And the labour shall continue.

Posted by Bishan Samaddar

Forays into Fiction II: Stories for Peace

Seagull Foundation for the Arts, Kalam’s long-time partner, has been working in some mainstream schools, engaging adolescent students in after-school hours discussing notions of ‘Peace’ and exploring possibilities of expressing ‘Peace’ through the arts. Seagull wanted Kalam to do a few workshops with a group of 14-year-olds from one such school in South Calcutta, focusing on story-writing that would lead ultimately to the production of some ‘Stories for Peace’. Kalam does not really work with non-marginalized youth, and it also does not work on themes like ‘Peace’. But I felt that this could be another opportunity for Kalam to test the efficacy of its fiction/non-fiction work-plan.

On April 20, in the air-conditioned Audio-Visual Room of a South Calcutta School run by a Gujarati Trust, I met a group of 7 boys and 16 girls, all terribly well-behaved students of the 8th Standard, for a one-hour workshop on story-writing. I was apprehensive about all the participants being only 13 or 14 years old. We have worked with youth of this age earlier and it has been very challenging, leading Kalam to focus more on youth who are nearing adulthood. However, I was surprised by the maturity of these young teens. The round of introductions was quick and smart. We jumped straight into activities, considering the fact that we had very little time. Once again, I wanted to treat ‘Character’ as the starting point of a story. So, after a quick round of activity where two volunteers from among the group described each other in great detail (designed to develop observation, attention to detail, and expression of detail in words), it was time to hunt for a character to write the story about. So I asked the participants to think of one random person they may have met or observed in the last three months who they thought or (more importantly) felt was interesting. It could not be a person they know well: it had to be someone they are intrigued by, someone they would want to know more about. And since they do not know the person, they would also have to imagine a lot. The participants took about 30 seconds to think of a person they could write on. I asked them to write a ten-line description of the person, mostly a physical one. In ten minutes we had 23 characters described. We only had time to hear a few. The characters chosen were diverse: a mysterious neighbour, a trendy young man with a speech disability, a middle-aged man in a ‘safari suit’, a super-cool guy in red shoes who is also a champion at Table Tennis and has a really progressive model of mobile phone etc. One girl had chosen to describe me the facilitator, and she insisted on reading it out. Gingerly, I agreed. And it turned out to be a rather erotic description, very innocently done for sure, but capable of raising giggles and eyebrows nonetheless! The participants surprised me with the amount of detail they had put into their descriptions. Many had included speech and behaviour patterns as well.

Most of them said that they would like to write a story on the characters they had chosen. Two of the girls said they would choose some other character. I explained how a story progresses only when a conflict is introduced. It required some examples of ‘conflict’ before the group could grasp what I was talking about. I stressed on little conflicts, simple ones, like you would have with your brother about watching TV etc. They had to now imagine (and write) what kind of a simple conflict their characters could go into. This would be their homework till we meet again next month.

For once, the workshop was completely in English. I think, for me, this made things easier and faster. It was evident how different these kids were from most of the youth Kalam works with. Although most of the kids we work with are bright and smart, but being regular school-goers, these kids were completely at home with the idea of expressing themselves through writing. And there was virtually no shyness in communication. I did not have to persuade anybody to share what they have written. I look forward to the next workshop, scheduled for May 11. The challenge in that workshop would be to weed out clichés in the situations that the participants would have imagined for their characters. But the group being exceptionally bright and very receptive to new ideas, it would be a pleasure anyway. I really think that this workshop demonstrated that the approach we are trying to take to the writing of fiction could be an effective one. It is time we introduce this method of story-writing to a regular Kalam group, and evaluate its efficacy.

Posted by Bishan Samaddar

Forays into Fiction I: Finding the Human Story

Kalam had started working through the medium of Poetry. It was felt that poetry was actually a more accessible form of creative writing, and more readily accomplished. And the success of Writing Out, which is mostly a poetry-based curriculum, testifies to it. However, for a while we have been feeling the urge to venture into other modes of writing, including Creative Non-fiction and Short Fiction. With this in mind, we had sought help from ASU’s Darcy Courteau, an MFA graduate and a flourishing young writer, in order to come up with a Creative Non-fiction curriculum. Darcy helped us create a skeleton of a curriculum, which we are slowly fleshing out. Borrowing themes and exercises from this curriculum (which is spread over 12 weeks), Kalam has started facilitating short workshops on writing fiction. These are mostly about testing waters: trying to understand how we can best handle this very different medium of self-expression.

Recently, Kalam was approached by Swayam, a women’s rights organizations working with survivors of domestic violence and their children, to conduct a one-day workshop on writing short stories. Swayam’s concern was that whenever the women are asked to write something about themselves or their experience of the world, they end up writing essays! How could they be inspired to see ‘stories’ in human situations, and write about those situations in the form of meaningful fiction? Kalam thought it could try. We termed the workshop ‘Finding the Human Story’.

So, I, with a quickly-drafted session plan for a day-long workshop, met a group of about 20 women at the Swayam centre on March 26. We had never worked with adults before. So, I really did not know what to expect. The participants hailed from all kinds of socio-economic backgrounds, and their age seemed to vary from 25 to 55. Challenging, it appeared. But when we started the workshop everyone was so completely receptive that I was soon relaxed into the group.

What makes a story come alive is a convincing character; and the identification of the author/reader with that character becomes the usual human response to the story. We had a few photographs collected from newspapers and news magazines, which we had planned to use as props. The participants were divided into groups of four/five, and each group was given a photograph. We asked the participants to identify a person from the photograph that they want to make a character out of, and then try to describe the person’s physical, mental, socio-economic make-up in as much detail. Once that was done, we had to identify a conflict that each character could get into (which is the lifeblood of a story) and finally to how it can be resolved. At the second stage, after the characters had been identified and made more real through descriptions, some of the participants wished to work individually on their stories, which is, after all, the way it should be. Those less confident were happy working in groups. Throughout the exercises, it was stressed that while building up the character, the participants should think of an aspect of their own personality that they may want to express through their character, especially an aspect of their identity that is not easily expressed or visible. After the 6-hours workshop (including a 1-hour break), many of the participants were excited about sharing their stories. Some were perfectly completed, while some needed editing. We did not have much time to discuss craft and technique. Yet, some of the participants showed exceptional skills in way they began and ended their stories, and in the way they wrote dialogue or used bits of internal monologue.

It was a pretty successful workshop considering the output, but I felt that to work with younger people who are really new to the medium, we would need more concrete exercises to help them develop their stories and reach resolution. Swayam is interested in building a partnership with Kalam, and we may return later to work with the same group on more aspects of Fiction writing.

posted by Bishan Samaddar

Neighbourhood Diaries: Imagining a Curriculum

posted by bishan samaddar

We have been talking about Neighbourhood Diaries for a while. It envisions to combine elements of Self-exploratory Creative Writing, Literacy through Photography and Citizen Journalism. However, we haven’t given much thought to what exactly the curriculum would look like. Here’s a skeleton of a curriculum that can be given some thought to, i suppose. Like Writing Out, this might also start with the exploration of the immediate self, and then slowly move centrifugally to larger themes. Each section should take up three to four weeks:

Self…  Discussion: Exploring the self: how do others see us? How do we see ourselves? Talk about Identities.  Activity/Writing Activity: Locating one object with which you identify, or something that symbolizes your self-perceived or self-defined identity.  Photo Assignment: Self-portrait and Photo of the identity object.  Self-inquiry; developing the spirit of questioning/interrogating self and beyond.

Home… Discussion: Home as a space which is a mixture of both desirable and undesirable elements. A part of your home you like, a part of your home you do not like that much (What memories are associated with these spaces? What issues come up?). A part of your home you like, a part of your home you do not like that much. Objective: Critical consciousness of personal space.

Neighbourhood (Place)…Discussion: Two specific places in the neighbourhood that has significance for you… description, daily activities, histories. Vignettes, focusing on details and based on observation and researched histories. Photo Assignment: Photographs of the places, from different angles/perspectives or at different times of the day, representing different aspects of the same physical spot. Developing research skills, consciousness of subaltern histories.

Neighbourhood (People) Discussion: Looking at people as characters. Writing Activity: Select one person in the neighbourhood and make a Portrait Sketch, based on observation, interview, researched personal histories. Photo Assignment: Portraits + Photo series depicting the daily life of the subject. Researching Life Stories.

Global Connections

posted by bishan samaddar

With most of Kalam’s youth force occupied with yearly exams, we have been concentrating on building and strengthening other connections in March. ASHA-Seattle, a volunteer-based collective who we had approached for support and funding, has shown a lot of interest in Kalam. Following Sahar’s presentations on Kalam before the board of ASHA, one of their representatives, Srijan, came down to Calcutta to acquaint himself with Kalam’s work.

On the morning of Wednesday, March 21, he came to the Daywalka office and spent quite some time talking with me and some of the Kalam youth. Joy, Nargis, Bina and Uma were present for the interface. They had taken time out of their busy schedules to come and meet Srijan. The great co-incidence was that Srijan was as open and articulate as they were. I started by giving a short introduction to the various programs that Kalam runs, including Writing Out, Footpath Poetry, Open Box and so on. Srijan had his set of questions, incisive, analytical, with a genuine and friendly interest to know what we are about. He explained his own visit to the youth as well, and the youth, especially Bina, had several questions about ASHA. The youth were clear, concise and forthcoming about articulating their experience of Kalam.

The discussion even turned into a sort of brainstorming session as to what saleable products Kalam could make. Joy and Srijan discussed this at length. Srijan said that ASHA would love to have cards and posters with poems/photographs/art works from Kalam. They can be a good source of fundraising at a very practical level. Uma spoke about her experience of designing the Kalam magazine. Srijan, being a software engineer himself, was interested in what kind of software we use for design, and was impressed with the youth’s familiarity with Freehand.

Following this, Srijan had a little chat with our Legal Officer and the main force in Daywalka , Suman Saha, about registering Kalam as a separate entity. We shared our concerns with Srijan openly. Registration is not an easy process here, neither is the act of accepting grants from foreign organization even after we are registered. We brainstormed ideas as to how to overcome these problems. Unfortunately, Srijan was in town only for a few days, and there was no Kalam workshop or event scheduled during that time. So, he could not be a part of one. He however said that some other representative will surely come at some other point and we would be able to show him our work on the field. On the whole, it seemed a rather fruitful interface. Kalam hopes that its relationship with ASHA becomes stronger through these interactions.

Furthermore, Kalam’s proposed new project Neighbourhood Diaries has attracted the attention of Global Voices Online. We had approached Aparna Ray, who is a contributing author for Global Voices Online, to help us introduce a vernacular blogging component to the Diaries project. Aparna recently told us that Global Voices is looking for such new projects to fund. This is obviously a terrific opportunity for Kalam. We have sent Aparna a basic proposal, and a preliminary budget. We are eagerly awaiting a response.

Ruth Margraff, a NYC-based playwright who had conducted a play-writing workshop with Kalam’s youth in 2005, was back in Calcutta. She met me for a long interview about our work in Kalam. The interview was for a book she is co-authoring on the subject of ‘Peace-building through the Arts’. It was very interesting to talk about how Kalam could be a peace-building programme in a very subtle but potent way. All these developments are very encouraging for us. It makes us trust ourselves that we are a part of a programme that has tremendous possibility of making a difference in the world.