My friend Sarah and I ran a creative writing workshop out of a musty classroom in the Western suburbs. We were told that the students had limited English skills. So I spent the two weeks prior texting my aunt for Arabic translations of English and Assyrian words. I wanted the session to be as accessible as possible. The kids came in and sat around wooden desks. Their hands scrambled for the stale chips on paper plates.
It took a thirty minute conversation about Avengers, Fortnite and the phrase ‘gaba esh’ before any of them felt comfortable enough to start writing. We told them not to worry about spelling and punctuation, to focus instead on narrative and expression. The workshop looked promising until the two supervising teachers made their way around the room, leaning over students’ shoulders to whisper the correct sequence of letters for a word or scribble full stops, commas and apostrophes across their writing. The excitement dissolved as most kids struggled to write past the first paragraph.
I can appreciate the correction of the students writing was a means to manage the creative space and offer practical assistance, but we must consider how this method unintentionally values certain voices over others. Whilst those with a confident grasp of English can power on in their expression, the unique narratives of students unable to perfectly mark a phrase are left stumbling over an ‘e’ or a full stop focusing on avoiding the red pen.
Language is a means to communicate, navigate and articulate thoughts and experiences. The focus of language should be understanding. If I can understand you or if you have communicated a thought or feeling, language has served its purpose. As an extension of basic language the rules of grammar, punctuation and spelling are a tool to help navigate expression and offer clarity. They can make, in certain instances, a piece of writing more accessible in meaning. This is however, an idealistic view.
In my experience, English tends to be approached quite rigidly. Correct spelling, grammar and punctuation takes priority over the expressions themselves. Mistakes become the focus and weight is completely removed from whatever message an individual is attempting to articulate. What should be tools, become weapons used to navigate the unfounded fear of ‘alots’ and ‘youse’. As an adult, I still find myself fumbling when I have to sound out the letter ‘H’.
This method is particularly problematic for those engaging with english as second or third language. The narrow approach strengthens the obstacle for those who do not speak english as their first language to engage with the Arts. Creative writing is not an exclusive realm. It is not the fantasy of a lone white man sitting at his desk thumbing through his thesaurus for new words to describe a sunset. Creative writing is an active engagement with written language as a method to explore thoughts and experiences relevant to being human. It benefits from being a space to break and build words and sentences to fit the voice of the individual writing. Spelling and punctuation can be learnt with time and practiced to perfection. However, unique perspective and engaging voice cannot. English is elitist enough without suffocating someone’s expression because they’re missing a word or a letter.
As a movement focused on empowering culturally and linguistically diverse communities, Sweatshop presents an alternative approach to creative writing. Their aim is enabling engaging stories and voices. Writer Kelvin Yu, featured in the Big Black Thing Chapter 1, has a story titled ‘Red Pocket Time’. By dismissing standard sentence structure, each of the stories eight lines comes out punchy and focused perfectly capturing the intimacy and tension of of a family dinner. The third sentence in the work “The chopsticks aim at the food as they fight for the crab.”
Reads like a zoom on a camera lens, we do not see hands or bodies. The image holds tight to the nimble chopstick ends shuffling food across a plate. It does not need the clarification of whether people are fighting or chopsticks are fighting. It rides tension and metaphor easily.
The last line of the story is “12am. Every family leaves their Corollas and Camrys which hope will be a Lexus or Mercedes one day.” and it sits better than any perfectly punctuated cliché ending. We have an immediate sense of understanding and affection for the families based on that final aspiration. It carries, for me, the same poetic weight as the final lines in Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet “And you can’t help but worry for them, love them, want for them – those who go on down the close, foetid galleries of time and space without you.” I dread to think how “Red Pocket Time” would have come together if the first lines had been attacked with corrections before the piece had a chance to sit on the page.
Writer Farah Abdelkarim, featured in the Big Black Thing Chapter 2, has a story titled ‘Lakemba Mosque’ which gives a sample of the young Arab experience in Bankstown. She describes the youth “…all bunched up in groups with the cigar hitting their crusty ass lips as they laugh like a bunch of hooligans thinking they’re cool yet they’re all underdeveloped, all coming to Bankstown not to buy anything, just to kickback and smoke some hashish.” The tone of the writer’s voice, the unique phrasing and casual approach to sentence structure puts her in with the mix of young people being described.This unfiltered approach puts the reader right up against the action. Another advantage to more liberal approaches to creative writing is the opportunity to explore unique metaphorical language. This is exemplified in Abdelkarim’s work when she describes the beginning of a fight where “Majnoon’s shoulder hit Shayma’s shoulder so hard that her kebab went flying in the air like a Jetstar plane.” The kebab flies through the air not like a vague bird or a ball but a “Jetstar plane”. With reference to an affordable Australian airline, the metaphor gives an immediate sense of place and economic standing.
There is value in examining and practicing the rules of the English language. However, for the purposes of creative writing and expression structure, spelling and punctuation should not come at the expense of what could be a delightfully original story or expression.
About the author
Monikka Eliah is an Assyrian-Australian writer from Fairfield and is part of the Sweatshop Writers’ Collective. Monikka has participated in National Theatre of Parramatta’s Page to Stage program and Curious Works Breakthrough Program and was a recipient of the Southland’s Emerging Artists Award in 2018. Monikka’s work has been published in The Big Black Thing, SBS Life and The Lifted Brow.