First session of The House of Fiction. Photo credit The House of Fiction Facebook Page.
Can creative writing be taught? This question poses more issues than answers. Teaching creative writing is an established tradition in the West, especially in Anglophone countries. The first MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) in creative writing was inaugurated in the United States of America in 1936 under the leadership of Wilbur Schramm. His Iowa Writers’ Workshop became a starting point if not a beacon for writing programs worldwide. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop has since its inception given writers the necessary tools to excel and achieve success both at home and internationally.
The debate on whether creative writing can be taught or not is still going on. The novelist and professor Hanif Kureishi has criticized creative writing courses declaring that creative writing courses are a waste of time. Contrary to Hanif Kureishi and other writers and professors who are against creative writing courses, there are many who see them beneficial and this goes hand in hand with the saying which states that “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”
In Tunisia, there is no degree being offered in creative writing. Besides, creative writing workshops are scarce. The cultural scene is also marked by retrogression and decline. This does not, however, justify the absence of action or resignation. It is worth mentioning that some educational institutions and culture houses encourage the establishment of literature clubs that act like writing workshops. This plays a great role in saving young and promising seeds from being doomed and crushed in this hard time.
Having said that this retrogression does not justify any absence of action, we can say that there were and still are some projects of paramount importance that aim at encouraging young talents and equipping them with necessary tools to pursue and realize their dreams and to rejuvenate the Tunisian literary scene.
The Story Club is one of the oldest literary clubs in Tunisia. It was established in October 1964 and based in the Cultural Club Aboul-Qacem Echebbi in El Ouardia. It was founded by such great names as Mohamed Laroussi Metoui, Mustapha Fersi, Ezzedine Madani, and Mohamed Salah el-Jebri. Every Saturday afternoon, members of this club meet to read, discuss and analyze their stories. Furthermore, established writers are always there to help amateurs ante up their craft by assessing their texts and giving them constructive feedback and criticism. The Story Club also publishes Kissas (Stories); a quarterly journal devoted to the short story. The journal always publishes emerging writers. Since its establishment, the club has paved the way for so many budding writers such as Basma Chaouali, Hafidha Gara Biban, and Nabil Darghouth to have a place in the Tunisian literary scene. These names would not be lucky to get exposure without the help of The Story Club; a venue that acts as a fresh reservoir for the stories of the next century in Tunisia.
Another venue which functions more or less like a creative writing workshop is the Literary Wednesday Club at Tahar Haddad Culture Club in Tunis. It is coordinated by such great names as Youssef Rzouga and Massouda Abou Bakr. The club invites established writers to talk about their experiences and from time to time, it also invites budding writers to discuss their literary products with established writers. This interaction is very important for zealous aspiring writers who learn from the experts and fine-tune the budding talent in them.
Tunisian writer, essayist, translator and publisher, Walid Soliman, who is considered as one of the most innovative figures in contemporary Tunisian literature and owner of Walidoff Editions, launched in September 2013 a creative writing workshop which focuses on prose. This workshop is called New Voices and it is headquartered in Ibn Rachiq Culture House in Tunis. Every Saturday, he meets the participants to discuss their texts and interact with them. The outcome is very rewarding because Walid Soliman ingrains in them the notions of respect, diversity, discipline and hard work. The participants sit with each other, listening, reading, learning, interacting, sharing, exchanging ideas, experimenting, and battling with numerous writing exercises and prompts under the mentorship of Walid Soliman and guest writers. The main aim of the workshop is to improve the craft of writers and to encourage them by bringing different perspectives to the art of storytelling.
The workshop has helped in one way or another improve the skills of aspiring Tunisian writers, as well as encouraged both published and unpublished writers by giving them a platform to fulfill the urge for self-expression. It continues to attract huge interest within Tunisia and writers that have emerged from this workshop have the potential to contribute effectively to the Tunisian literary landscape.
Some success stories have been recorded. In 2014 the workshop published its first book of fiction which is in fact a collection of short stories titled Yawmou Farah…Wa Kissasoun Oukhra (A Day of Joy and Other Stories). It includes short stories written by Ghada Ben Salah, Noura Khelil, Weaime Rouine, Ayman Owidah, Nabil Gueddiche, Ihssen Mejdi and Najiba Hammami. The collection is introduced by Walid Soliman and published by Walidoff Editions under the series “New Voices”. In addition, most of the participants published some short stories in Arabic literary magazines of some repute, both online and print. Nabil Gueddiche published his debut book under the title of Al-Abath Ma-aa Nietzsche (Trifling with Nietzsche) (Edition Zeineb, Tunisia) which is a collection of short stories in 2014 and in 2015 Dar Soual (Lebanon) published his novel Zahratou Oubbad Echams (The Sunflower).
Award-winning Tunisian writer and novelist Kamel Riahi, who is considered as one of the pillars of contemporary Tunisian fiction is famous for his initiatives. He opened the literary salon Nas Decameron in 2012. Nas Decameron is a cultural salon that presents a different cultural experience from the usual and standardized image of literary activities. Apart from Nas Decameron, Kamel Riahi coordinated several workshops in Tunisia and abroad. For instance, he ran a workshop about the forms of narrative writing in Dubai titled “from self to imagination” and a workshop about short story writing in Oman.
Riahi’s desire to establish a laboratory for narrative and prose writing in Tunisia made him launch a cultural journalism workshop in November 2014 which was in fact an activity among those held in the Narrative Avenue; an initiative he launched two years ago in Ibn Khaldoun Culture House in Tunis.
As far as the Narrative Avenue is concerned, the participants enter a different ‘room’ each week. The ‘room’ here is metaphorical. It means a center of interest like madness, prisons, death, Franz Kafka, Marilyn Monroe, etc. They read material about the ‘room’ and discuss them till satiation. Then, they are asked to write a literary text drawing on this experience.
Kamel Riahi is always fascinated by the western tradition of organizing creative writing workshops, making literary stars and producing literary masterpieces. In several interviews Riahi always stresses the fact that inspiration is just an illusion or a false impression. He strongly believes that creative writing is a craft that requires exercises and training. He always mentions Haruki Murakami who considers writing as a physical effort. In this regard, Riahi launched another initiative called The House of Fiction with Palestinian writer and critic Reem Ghanayem. This workshop is essentially online. Its first session will start in February 2015 and the starting theme will be “Childhood and Boyhood: Love, Crime, and Violence.” This first session gathers a bunch of aspiring talents from Tunisia and abroad.
The manifesto of the House of Fiction states that:
There is no longer a place for writers made by fate and for writers fine-tuned by an innate talent. We are all novice writers. We live the lust of speech. We carry tales and stories in a very sensitive complex stock. Some of us are lucky enough to become writers. Others stop thinking about this. Between these two extremes, it comes the function of learning writing to sift through the experiences, to discover new talents and to create an intimate world between the text and its writer and between the writer and readers. It assesses amateur texts and scrutinizes the lively ideas to filter them according to elegant narrative techniques and ways provided by the workshop. The goal behind the training in writing is to reproduce the meaning of writing and its functions and to give it new significances.
Kamel Riahi and Reem Ghanayem added in the same manifesto that:
The House of Fiction is an experimental attempt that opens onto each other and enriches our human experience and our complex visions of the world. We are trying to demolish the boundaries between contrived dichotomies: The central and the peripheral, the digital and the physical, the real and the virtual, the local and the universal. Thus, we invite everyone to the banquet of literature and writing like the habit of other peoples which transcends these dichotomies and creates a new literature with new tools that fits into the rhythm of this era and its various beats. Writing courses have proved to be successful as an experience that entered into the western academies and it is time for our societies to join in this experience.
Despite some objections, creative writing workshops have proven to be an enjoyable and memorable experience. They certainly cannot make writers out of non-writers, but at least, they remain useful opportunities for those who aspire to become writers. Aspiring writers would be more aware of the common mistakes. Besides, they would learn about the hidden secrets of writing. There is also the aspect of the contact and interaction especially with award-winning authors in an amicable environment. Despite the fact that they are scarce, these workshops have proven that many aspiring writers in Tunisia are thirsty for such opportunities to rediscover and polish their rudimentary creative writing talents. There is no university in Tunisia offering degree programme in Creative Writing. Thus, creative writing workshops are one way of getting skills in creative writing in the country, and those who are lucky to participate should consider it a catalyst to find a foothold in the realm of writing.
Ali Znaidi (b.1977) lives in Redeyef, Tunisia, where he teaches English. His work has appeared in various magazines and journals worldwide. He has published four poetry chapbooks including Experimental Ruminations (Fowlpox Press, 2012), Moon’s Cloth Embroidered with Poems (Origami Poems Project, 2012), Bye, Donna Summer! (Fowlpox Press, 2014), and Taste of the Edge (Kind of a Hurricane Press, 2014). He also wrote a book of fiction titled Green Cemetery (Moment Publications, 2014). Some of his poems have been translated into German, Greek, Turkish and Italian.
He keeps a blog about Tunisian literature at tunisianlit.wordpress.com and you can see more of his work on his blog at aliznaidi.blogspot.com