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Kamila Shamsie on Writers Bloc

  • By Tom Chivers
  • 2nd January 2012
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Writers Bloc is a new writer-led initiative which explores education throughout the world. Ahead of its launch at the Free Word Centre, livestreamed at freewordonline.com, co-founder Kamila Shamsie talks to us about the project and her article on Pakistan's curriculum challenges.

How did Writers Bloc come about?

Writers Bloc started about four years ago. Zadie Smith went to Liberia with Oxfam and wrote an article which told you about the place in a human, non-wonkish way, just with Zadie’s very observant eye. George Soros, who is the founder and chairman of Open Society Foundations (OSF), read the piece and showed it to Hugh McLean, Director of OSF’s Education Support Program As I understand it, he said something along the lines of, ‘this is wonderful; there should be more like it.’

Hugh then called Rachel Holmes and me to set up a meeting, and we asked Zadie, Hari Kunzru and Nick Laird to come along as well. The five of us agreed to be trustees of a writer-led initiative, funded by OSF but with complete editorial and decision making control in our hands. The remit was fairly straightforward: find writers, send them to different countries to write about anything related to education which strikes their interest, and get the pieces published.

What has Writers Bloc achieved so far?

The first stage of Writers Bloc has been to send ten writers out to ten different countries and we’ve been very lucky to start off with a group of really wonderful, thoughtful writers – Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, Aleksandar Hemon, Nathalie Handal, Tahmima Anam, Petina Gappah, Zukiswa Wanner and Hardeep Singh Kohli – along with three of the trustees, Nick Laird, Rachel Holmes and me. The resulting articles, as well as Zadie Smith’s essay introducing the project, are being published in Guernica Magazine from January 10 onward. We’re particularly delighted to be partnered with Guernica, not only because it’s an exciting and dynamic publication, but because the fact that it’s web-based means people all over the world can engage with it. Hopefully people will be able read these articles in the countries they’re written about. Of course that’s more likely in countries with high rates of literacy in English, but we’re very open to – in fact, we’d like to encourage –  potential translators approaching us, or for local newspapers and magazines to print the articles in paper-based formats for those who don’t have online access.

What are the aims of the project?

There are lots of policy papers out there on education and, of course, the work that NGOs do is irreplaceable. But the kind of articles we have here can reach people who wouldn’t ever read a policy paper. They take what can be rather abstract ideas about education and the state and add that spark of life through narrative and description, and through the curiosity and passions of the writers who all engage quite intimately, both in terms of intellect and emotion, with the places they’re writing about.

We don’t want publication to be the end of the project but rather occasion for a new step which places the essays in the public domain and starts a conversation around them about such matters as education, grass-roots initiatives, government policies, the role of NGOs versus the state, and the dangers of ‘bad’ curricula. Just to give one example of how the essays might have an impact: the piece I’ve written is on Pakistan and the need for curriculum reform (the school curriculum at present reflects the thinking of the religious right and aspects of it are a propaganda tool for jihad) – the process of reform which had started when I first researched the article has now stalled. There’s some talk of trying to revive it, and perhaps an article about the issue at stake could play a part in that.

Hugh McLean from OSF said it wonderfully after reading the essays: ‘This collection of essays on education does not have the same obligations that policy has, it roams free from the burden of proof, not needing to cost out a set of options or elucidate a program for action. It does not need to know what the next moment might contain. Its role is to take the discussion to a new place and to have it with new people.’

So you’re not trying to replace the language of NGOs, but are they still an audience for the project?

We’re hoping that people who are professionally engaged in the field will read the articles and perhaps stumble upon something unexpected, or a fresh way of looking at an old problem; but we do also want people who are not in the education / NGO / policy world  to read the articles. You never know what ideas can arise from a compelling piece of writing, or who it might provoke into some kind of action, whether that action is posting a link to the article on Twitter or becoming involved with a group that works with education or asking local politicians to take note of certain issues if they want your vote. I love Hugh’s phrase about not needing to know what the next moment will contain – that’s one of the delights of the project.

In her introduction to the project, Zadie Smith talks about how writers can bring a different language or tone to this field. How would you describe that language?

One of the things that most of the pieces share is dialogue, or an observational moment or description which makes the place seem not so far way. The language can remove it from an abstract place and abstract set of problems and allow the reader to really see it. Here you are, in this classroom, this is what it looks like, this is what the kids look like, this is what they’re saying. For me, it’s not just about education, though of course that’s central – but many of the countries we write about will be known to readers primarily through news headlines –  Bosnia, Palestine, Pakistan, Zimbabwe etc.  I hope the project un-abstracts ‘the other’, in whatever form ‘the other’ takes. That’s one of the things that’s hard to pin down when you talk about ‘aims and objectives’, but it’s really important.

Children looking out the window of a train in Pakistan.
Photo by Citizens Archive Pakistan

How did you select the writers?

They are writers who have qualities of intelligence, observation, sensitivity and curiosity, as well as analytic ability. If they have those qualities and are interested in the topic, they are going to bring an interesting eye to it.

Your own piece is about education in Pakistan. How did you decide where to go and what to write about?

It was always obvious that I’d want to write about Pakistan, because that’s where I’m from, and I already had some areas of interest around education. One of the things I’d often thought is that simply educating people is not enough; what kind of education you’re giving them is absolutely crucial. In Pakistan over the years the curriculum has disintegrated in many ways, with less room for critical thought.

So I already had this idea in mind when,  in a moment of serendipity, the filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy put up a photograph on her Facebook page that she’d taken of a textbook, showing the Twin Towers with a plane going into it, and underneath in Urdu ‘Tay – Takrao’ which roughly translates as ‘C for Collide’.

So children are learning the alphabet using an illustration of a plane flying into the Twin Towers. I got into touch with Sharmeen, not knowing how fruitful the conversation might be. As soon as I started talking to her, I knew I had found the story.

In your article, there is a real sense of progress, a feeling that things might change, when you realise that Obaid Chinoy has been appointed to the Curriculum Reform committee in Pakistan, but you say it’s now stalled…

The initial version of the essay ended on a rather positive note but unfortunately I’ve had to update it with a more sombre ending. In the intervening months, the dynamic woman who was in charge of education in that province has been fired, possibly because she was interested in this project. Even when I was writing about it, it was clear that it could so easily be derailed.

As you say in the work, ‘You know, in Pakistan it just takes one moment, one person, to derail a process. But there are so many people who want to get this right.’ Which could almost be a motto for Writers Bloc. It’s a very human project, and not about abstracts.

There’s a dual thing going on. On the one hand a lot of the pieces want to give credit to certain individuals, to brilliant teachers or people starting up small projects. But then when you put the articles together, you realise that you need a bigger structure, something across an entire country, which is something only governments can deliver. So it’s very important to put pressure on governments. I hope by focusing on small projects, people see them as pilot schemes. And what’s working in one country can be applied to others, as there are often similar problems.

How do you see the project developing in the future?

It’s an exciting time as we are thinking about what the next stage might be. Just within the Free Word Centre there are several organisations working in literature and free expression who are interested in coming on board in some way for the next series of articles. And OSF has been wonderful to work with so we hope they’ll want to continue funding the project.   It’s possible to see this as a project which takes on subjects other than education. Whether it’s freedom of expression or climate change, there’s a whole world of issues out there which you can match with writers who want to engage, and who can be engaging in response.

Kamila Shamsie speaking at the Free Word Centre
Kamila Shamsie at the launch of the Free Word Cenre

Writers Bloc is launched in front of an invited audience on 17 January at Free Word Centre and will be livestreamed from freewordonline.com from 6.45pm.

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  • Informative. Hope the Writers Bloc will be able to move in its intended direction. I don’t know how things work in other countries, but in Pakistan, over the last 60 plus years, we have had several policy papers on education, millions of dollars spent by the NGOs, also scores of well-meaning people have worked in this sector, but without making much headway. Unless the state decides to make a radical 180 degree change, initiatives in small pockets (read a few private, elitist schools, although by and large they are also stuck in a time warp) will not bring about the change we wish to see. Our children will continue to suffer the bigotry of those in control.

  • David Hawker

    Congratulations on an exciting project,and a wonderful launch event. It’s true that we need to find a new idiom for bringing the issues about education to life and create the mind of lasting impact in public consciousness which neither ephemeral journalism nor boring policy documents can achieve. I found the essays powerful precisely because they were more literary and reflective than these other two genres. More please!

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