Interviewed by Justine Chamberlain
Manchester Writing School Visiting Teaching Fellows Sherry Ashworth and Anjum Malik are heading out to Dubai to visit the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature, in association with MMU’s Manchester Children’s Book Festival. I caught up with them in between prepping their work and packing their cases.
Dubai isn’t a place I’d normally connect with Manchester Metropolitan University. Why are MMU sending you out there?
Sherry: We have an exciting opportunity to partner up with the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature (EAFL). MMU is always seeking to widen its reach and an international audience is very exciting to us, particularly because we teach so many of our Masters courses online. This means that we have students regularly from all over the world, so any opportunity of showcasing what we do in other locations is very exciting. Also, it’s because we enjoy literature festivals!
Anjum: It’s great that EAFL and MMU have come together in such a good cause, like giving people the opportunity to learn about literature and be a part of it too.
Are you also going to be blogging out there?
Anjum: The groups I’m working with have students who are interested in blogging, and are going to be doing this for me. I’ve asked if anyone would like to do it and knew that younger people will be much better at it than me! I will also be running some writing workshops, and I’m going to be performing one of my monologues in a school, where I will be getting the kids to write their own monologues. One of my guises is as a scriptwriter and I’ve been performing my monologues for some years now, and encouraging others to do the same. Sherry and I will be sending updates back to the Manchester Children’s Book Festival’s blog.
Who are you meeting out there?
Anjum: The literature festival have organised a two-day workshop where people want to do some screenwriting. The school I’m working with is GEMS Wellington Academy and I’m really looking forward to that.
Sherry: I’m going to be visiting Dubai Gem Private School to do creative writing workshops with teenagers, which is something I love doing because most of my novels are for teenagers. For these two days, I’ll be doing an intensive creative writing workshop with some keen and talented writers who live and work in Dubai. It’s going to be very intensive and exciting.
Growing up as a child, what was your favourite book?
Sherry: Oh, there are so many I can’t say! I’d probably plump for The Family from One End Street by Eve Garnet, which was the first children’s book I read that featured children I could identify with. Being a working class kid from North London all this Swallows and Amazons, and being able to go on boats and take picnics and ginger beer in the countryside left me cold. I’ve always been a reader that’s looked to find myself inside a book. The Family from One End Street was about slum dwellers and even though I wasn’t a slum dweller, it resonated more. It was written in the 1920’s and I have no idea how it found its way into our house!
Anjum: I did my growing up in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and England, so my books will be very different to any books people will be used to in the UK. My favourite books were actually comics in Pakistan, which were about djinns, which are like giants in fairy books and how their life would be as some tiny bird in a cage on top of a mountain. So I grew up on those. I also did a lot of reading of Urdu literature as a child in Pakistan and loved the big poets of Pakistan.
Children are notoriously picky about what they read. What do you think the special ingredient is, in a children’s book?
Sherry: Drama and immediacy. Children get bored if you spend ages setting a scene. Children get resentful if you preach at them. They need to be in the book, they need to identify strongly with what’s going on. You need character and story and immediacy.
Anjum: I don’t think children are picky. I think children are very honest and they don’t waste time. I’ve performed to young people of all ages and the younger they are, the more honest they are – they just fall asleep or walk away if they’re not interested. You’ve got to get them interested in your characters, and I think as a child I loved being taken away into the world of who I was reading at the time.
Does MMU have a way to support people who want to specialise in writing for children?
Anjum: MMU runs children’s writing courses at the Manchester Writing School – one of the branches of the MA they run in Creative Writing is a specialist Writing for Children route. It’s run by brilliant tutors!
Sherry: Would-be writers who are particularly interested in writing for seven-year-olds upwards to about 15, will get special support from qualified tutors in teaching writing for that audience age group. It’s available on campus in Manchester or online to anyone, anywhere.
Manchester hosts the Manchester Children’s Book Festival, the Manchester Writing Competitions, and the Manchester Literary Festival. It has its own world class Writing School at MMU, which offers online master’s degrees in Creative Writing to people anywhere in the world. Do you think Manchester can challenge for literary hotspot of the UK and maybe even the world?
Anjum: Absolutely. It just shows in all those things we’re doing in Manchester; we are leading the way. Especially MMU; they have so many different things going on in the literary world – they were the first to do a children’s book festival – no one else in the North West does that – so definitely. I think we’re doing marvellously. Why not take over the literary world?
Sherry: There is something very, very special about Manchester and literature. This city is of just the right size to foster writers and it means they’re very much part of a community. With MMU, its traditions are rooted in real Manchester – it used to be Manchester Polytechnic and we’ve always looked out for non-standard students, whether they are international or they’ve come to us through an indirect pathway. I like to think that we have our finger on the pulse of Manchester’s creativity. The synergy between the university, its traditions and the students and city is really unbeatable.
When does the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature start and where can I find out more information?
Anjum: The EAFL in Dubai runs from the 4th to the 8th of March and has a massive programme of events. It’s the first time MMU are working with EALF and I think it’s great that MMU are going out into the world and forming international partnerships.
Sherry: Our workshops are a prequel to the main festival, which commences on the 2nd March. There’s a website with all the information: www.emirateslitfest.com.
And the Manchester Children’s Book Festival?
Sherry: That starts on 26th June and runs for a week and a half, hopefully with the same weather the Dubai festival will have!
Anjum: It has some great authors booked already who are being kept under wraps! Anyone can be first to know who is attending by signing up to the MCBF newsletter or by keeping an eye on the website: www.mcbf.org.uk. If people are quick, there’s also the Manchester Writing for Children Prize for anyone who’s a children’s poetry writer.
Manchester Children’s Book Festival will run from 26th June – 6th July 2014 and the full programme of free and ticketed events for the public will be announced at the end of March.
Sherry Ashworth has written fiction for children, teenagers and adults. She is a visiting teach fellow at the Manchester Writing School and runs a publishing company Hidden Gems Press. Find out more about Sherry at www.sherryashworth.com.
Anjum Malik is a poet and scriptwriter who also exhibits and performs her work. She is a fellow of Manchester Metropolitan University and lectures to the new writers at the Manchester Writing School. Find out more about Anjum at www.anjummalik.com.
Justine Chamberlain is a Masters student in the MMU Writing School, specialising in poetry. Her blog can be found here and you can follow her on Twitter @justineswriting.