Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Can a writer effect social change? by Miriam Halahmy

Last month I was invited to the Pegasus Theatre in Oxford to speak at the INSPIRE Conference on Creativity and Social Change. On the panel were Andy Mulligan, author, Yasmin Sidwha, Creative Learning Director at the theatre, Simon Fisher, conflict transformation specialist and Ryan Clune, part of the theatre company.

Little did I know that as we spoke, a wonderful cartoonist, Josie Willey would be summing up our presentations on a huge sheet at the back of the room.

When I posted this on Facebook, the lovely Janet Foxley said, "She's made you look about twenty, Miriam."

Sheepish grin.

But Josie has actually summed up my presentation very well. I really did talk about all the things in the cartoon.

Yasmin opened the Conference by saying that this is the first year of a four year programme at the Pegasus Youth Theatre called, Eyes Wide Open; opening the minds of young people, asking the question, What would you stand up for? After the conference afternoon, we all stayed to see the current productions at the theatre, both with teenage companies. WARZONE by Andy Mulligan set in 2014 and 1914.  THE POWER WITHIN with the dance company of young women which focuses on women in history. Both productions were very powerful and beautifully presented.
However, first of all, we each gave a ten minute presentation.

What did I say and how can I measure whether my writing has any effect on social change? Here is a brief summary of my presentation.

Speaking as an author The secret is not to lean on issues in a novel, not to preach, patronise and dump information. A good novel works by creating strong three-dimensional characters who stand up and stand out on the page. If the characters work then you can take your reader anywhere in the known and imagined universe and you can deal with the most challenging issues of our times.
In my novel HIDDEN, I cover human rights, asylum seekers, immigration, racist bullying, family problems, loss and romance. But it is the characters and their dilemmas which engage the reader.

In my experience young people are open to social and political issues and they are not afraid to admit their ignorance. One 12 yr old girl wrote to me after reading HIDDEN, "I didn't know we had immigrants in England." She does now - maybe a piece of evidence of how a book can help to effect social change.

Young people like to read across a wide range of genres as do adults.; paranormal romance, crime, dystopian, chic lit, etc.
But in my experience they are also hungry for the kinds of books I write which deal with some of the most contentious issues in our society today.
If my fiction can help to effect social change, then that certainly feels very worthwhile.

So how do I know if I do have any effect on my readers?
Perhaps from the feedback.
"I normally only read paranormal romance but I loved your book. I've never read anything like it."
"I enjoyed HIDDEN because it involves racial problems which we all come across in society today."
"Your book made me think about asylum seekers and refugees. Alix and Samir inspired me very much."

Young people know that they don't like racism but they often don't know how to challenge views which come into their everyday lives. Fiction can help to provide some of the tools for dealing with stereotypes and challenging racist views.
If writers can show young people through fiction that they are not so different from the Other then we can help to change minds and create a platform for social change.
Ultimately I write because I have something to say.

Well that's a bit about what I had to say at this inspiring conference. But the other members of the panel also made some wonderful points.
Simon Fisher started with a card he had stuck on his fridge : "If war is the answer, it must be a very stupid question."
( Note to self : must get that card.)
Simon made the point that creativity can create uncertainty, dissonance, challenging the norms. This helps people to begin to think differently. Creativity can help to open doors. In his work in conflict transformation he asks people to look at the world through different glasses.

Simon believes that everybody can make change and it is essential to empower ordinary people and not just politicians. His work encourages people to look at things differently but we can only do this when we feel safe.

Ryan Clune believes that drama is a unique way of expressing yourself and of influencing an audience. His goal as an actor is for the audience to go away and think about something new. Pegasus is a theatre which is centred around social change, reaching out to the community in the widest possible way. Creativity is a way to spark conversations that people often don't want to have such as on racism and poverty.

Andy Mulligan's play WAR ZONE asks, What would you stand up for? He feels that his responsibility is to the creative process. He loves sitting with his characters and taking them on a journey but it is up to the reader where that journey goes.

This is just a brief summary of everyone's presentations but each one was very different and there was a lot to take away from our Conference. It was a great afternoon and the final cartoon was absolutely amazing.


Joan Lennon said...

Important stuff - thanks for posting!

(You mean ... you're NOT twenty?)

Uouo Uo said...


كشف تسربات المياة
غسيل خزانات
شركة نظافة عامة

Miriam Halahmy said...

On the inside maybe Joan.
Thanks for your response Uouo.

Nicola Morgan said...

Well said, Miriam. Really important points. And what a wonderful cartoonist!