Something unprecedented happened to creative writing teaching at the University of East Anglia in 2013. It extended itself beyond the location it had been identified with for forty years – Norwich – and took on an abbreviated but periodic incarnation in Calcutta. Once I agreed to take on the responsibility of leading the India workshop, I decided to experiment with the form. It was, after all, a plunge into the unknown. No British university, let alone UEA, had gone down this route before in India. One thing was clear to me from the start: that the workshop should be an international one, and open to applicants from anywhere. Since Calcutta, for decades in industrial decline, was one of the great cities of modernity, it seemed right that we should begin by allowing the city to redefine what an ‘international workshop’ might be. As it happens, each eight-day workshop in fiction and sometimes non-fiction brought successful applicants from various parts of India and of the world to Calcutta. Unlike writers’ retreats, which annul everything besides the immediate environment, and provide a kind of oasis for creative practice, these workshops were situated in the centre of the city, and it was part of the experiment they represented that they should be, on some level, in conversation with it.

I confess I’m not an advocate of creative writing pedagogy. Nor am I one of its products. As with all pedagogies, though, you learn a great deal as you teach. It’s astonishing to follow the evolution of students’ writing, whether it’s over six months or eight days. One is also reminded that, especially today – when writing and publishing have undergone a metamorphosis that has basically left them unrecognisable – it’s essential that writers not stop thinking about what they are and do. This is beholden upon academics and professional thinkers too: that they not allow themselves to be wholly demarcated by the conventional and disciplinary parameters of scholarship and enquiry.

The idea of the symposium arose from a number of impulses: firstly, the belief that it’s no longer enough for writers to simply devote themselves to ‘creative’ practice and teach or study creative writing and have nothing to do with the conceptual underpinnings of their writing and their lives, any more than it is for academics in literature departments to simply produce monographs and shut out the problem of writing itself. Secondly, there’s been a feeling among many that there’s an urgent need for a conversation, and a forum, that goes beyond what you hear or encounter either at a literary festival or an academic conference. To achieve this one has to, on the one hand, eschew celebrity and book signings in favour of dialogue and response; on the other hand, steer clear of the closed professionalism of the conference and open out the conversation to people from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds who have a stake in the discussion.

In April 2014, I wrote the mission statement on ‘literary activism’, which appears on the website as both ‘manifesto’ – as it is the starting-point of the project – and ‘mission statement’ for the first symposium. That inaugural symposium led to a book in 2017 (published in India and the UK), from which five essays now appear on this website. As papers and essays from subsequent symposiums, from 2016 to the present day, are uploaded, new ‘mission statements’ will be added; but the rubric – ‘literary activism’ – will remain unchanged, as will the manifesto. In 2014, I sent it out to people who might, I felt, have something valuable to say, given the attempts they’d made in their own work to widen the scope of what could be talked about. This is the principle on which speakers – whether I know them or not – have been invited to take part. Certain contributors feature more than once, when they happen to be people with whom I’ve been sharing these preoccupations for years.

I contacted academics, novelists, poets, translators, and publishers. Each one would be given an opportunity to speak on the subject in way that they wouldn’t – I invoke that interdependent dichotomy once more – at an academic conference or literary festival. Not everyone invited could come to the first symposium, held in December 2014 at Jadavpur and Presidency Universities in Calcutta, but many did – again, from different regions of the world, like the students who attended the workshops. Some of those who couldn’t travel to Calcutta in December, like the novelists Tim Parks and Kirsty Gunn, participated in a one-day event organised in partnership with St Hugh’s College in Oxford in October 2015. This established a pattern: an annual two-day symposium in India, and a one-day spin-off on the year’s theme at another location: twice in Oxford, and once in Paris. Since 2018, the symposiums have been generously supported by Ashoka University.

One or two people I’d shared the theme with in 2014 were misled by the word ‘activism’ till they read the mission statement. They thought I meant to organise a meeting for those who undertook some form of activism through literature. Though this would have been an excellent idea, they soon realised that the symposium intended to excavate other meanings through that word.

This website features a section called ‘magazine’, in which new writing – essays, poetry, fiction – and art and videos will be uploaded.‘Literary activism’ is interested in the place of creative (whatever the genre or art-form) and critical practice today. A magazine space in this instance is a reaction to the terms being set in Brooklyn, Manhattan, or London. The concentration in, and on, these locations has had consequences: among them, a simplification of cultural history and a periodic performance of excitement, each dependent on the other. Moreover, a unidirectional flow – say, from London or Delhi or Calcutta towards Brooklyn – drains the life-blood for all involved. Making the flow go in other directions is essential not for the sake of balance, but for the intellectual viability of these practices.

Amit Chaudhuri

This website has been made possible by a grant from Ashoka University.