UEA writers to create new digital works as part of 50th anniversary celebrations
- Credit: Nick Butcher
Henry Sutton, director of the creative writing programme at UEA, talks about a new landmark project to commemorate the course’s 50th anniversary.
The University of East Anglia’s Master of Arts in creative writing is the oldest in the country and the academic home to prize-winning alumni including Sir Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan and Emma Healey, among many more.
This year, as the course marks its 50th anniversary, UEA has unveiled an ambitious programme of events, including a landmark creative technologies project called Future and Form.
The year-long initiative will see six UEA alumni work with creative technologists, local young people, schools and key cultural organisations to explore the interface between contemporary literature and creative technology. The project is supported by Arts Council England and will culminate in a six-venue exhibition, as well as an interactive and immersive online platform.
Writers Ayòbámi Adébáyò, Mona Arshi, Tash Aw, Imogen Hermes Gowar, Mitch Johnson and James McDermott will work with a variety of organisations across Norfolk – including the National Centre for Writing, Norwich Theatre Royal and the Norfolk Museums Service – to bring new forms of writing to new audiences.
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Ultimately, the aim is to transform the idea of writing as something printed on a page into something digital. “It might be on a screen, it might be part of a hologram, it might even be something far more immersive,” says Henry Sutton, professor and director of creative writing at UEA. “We’re asking questions about how we can reach wider, more diverse audiences that haven’t necessarily been involved in literature or new writing.”
Henry says that while the MA has changed over the last 50 years, with new courses introduced to focus on poetry, scriptwriting and crime fiction, books have largely stayed the same. “But I’ve become increasingly aware of new technology and how that might impact the literary form,” he says. “How can we enhance it?
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“There are a lot of amazing creative technicians out there working in areas of immersive reality, virtual reality, augmented reality... but in the more abstract, artistic and creative sense, those technicians are operating in ways that tend to prioritise the technology, rather than the content.”
Henry’s aim for the project is to offer room for creative experiment and engagement. The project’s six writers will challenge existing norms about how works of literature – whether it’s a book, poem, short story or piece of drama – are consumed and understood.
The collaboration with Norwich Theatre Royal is expected to examine how social media can be used in a theatre setting by incorporating media as part of the performance, while work with the Norfolk Wildlife Trust will explore how poetry might be consumed or read at its site in Cley.
Although many of the projects are site-specific, Henry says that the final products were always intended to be virtual – which is particularly timely in the current climate, as more and more of us stay home to slow the spread of coronavirus.
“The end results were always going to have a very impressive digital platform,” says Henry, “and most of the projects will be interactive, so people will be able to engage with them. If we fast-forward a year and we are still on lockdown, we can still do this.”
It has been 50 years since Angus Wilson and Malcolm Bradbury founded the MA in prose fiction at UEA. Today, the university’s world-leading approach continues to set the standard.
“It is regarded as one of the best creative writing courses in the world – if not the best,” says Henry. “I think that comes from having a really big international cohort, from being diverse, from being progressive and from continually looking forward.”
The idea of looking forward is central to the anniversary celebrations, known as CW50, which begin on 1 October 2020. It will include a new-look literary festival (to be launched later this year), as well as a new scholarship programme, conference and, Henry hopes, a new strand of courses.
Henry also says that he believes the creative writing course’s enduring popularity is due, in part, to the fact that writing is so crucial to one’s identity. “People realise the importance of stories, of writing, of trying to articulate what it means to be alive, what it means to be human, what it means to have relationships. Creative writing, in one way or another, explores this.
“Now, obviously you can’t just sit there and accept that and carry on doing what you’re doing. You have to continue being innovative, which is one of the reasons why the Future and Form project is there: we want to keep pushing, keep developing, keep doing new things.”