Canon Tales Presents 'Free?'

Posted on November 3, 2009 in Uncategorized

To celebrate the official opening of the FREE WORD centre, Canon Tales presented ‘Free?’, showcasing the professional and personal stories of the people and organisations now based in the centre.

 
The centre’s mission is to promote innovation and collaboration, and to ‘push boundaries to promote, protect and democratise the power of the written and spoken word for creative and free expression.’
 
Each speaker was asked to consider the question, ‘how free is the word?’ illustrating their thoughts and stories in the traditional Canon Tales format of 20 images, each lasting for 21 seconds, totalling a 7 minute talk.
 
First to speak was Miranda McKearney, Director of The Reading Agency. Miranda shared her story with us, and explained how she became part of FREE WORD. Her engagement with the written word really began, she told us, as the age of five, when she was allowed to choose her own books at the library. ‘Suddenly there were all these feelings, pinging around my brain as I read. And the best thing was that I could go back and get more, and choose my own! I felt like I was connecting to other lives and feelings – and the rest of the world. I became a “bigger me”; I was suddenly freer.
 
‘When I grew up, I became an arts marketer. I started working on reading projects with freedom of speech activists, which started me experimenting. This led to me starting The Reading Agency seven years ago. Its mission is to bring more reading to more people.
 
‘I see libraries as a radicalising, socialising force – the difference they’re making is what gets me up in the morning. Our Summer Reading Challenge attracts around 700 000 kids. We also run HeadSpace, which looks at libraries and their future as a service by allowing young people to design their library space, and the Six Book Challenge. It really makes a difference.’
 
Next to speak was Tim O’Dell, Reader Development Officer for the London Borough of Lambeth. Tim’s images included many of authors, such as Doris Lessing and Ben Okri, who have spoken in Lambeth libraries. Tim spoke about the fact that, with the advent of the web, ‘everyone can Google. Libraries might therefore seem redundant, but look at the recent surge of reading groups. In the last three years, we’ve have over 150 authors in Lambeth libraries.’
 
Regarding the idea of the ‘free word’, Tim told us ‘access to words has to be free. People learn about empathy and the other through reading. It improves society. We’re lucky to have organisations such as The Reading Agency as a bridge to make his happen.’
 
Following Tim was Sarah Ellis, programme manager for Apples and Snakes, the leading organisation for performance poetry. Sarah spoke to us about, and shared images of, the project that she has been working on for the past year, promoting freedom through participation. Five writers around the country were asked to write on the theme of place. ‘Each chose their own residency, which ranged from a London allotment to an area of Derby rife with postcode wars and gang culture. The artists stayed in their chosen place for a year, absorbing the place and creating work in response to this.
 
‘One way that they shared this work was through blogging. They created an online world where they could work with an audience to discuss their residencies. This also gave the artists the chance to share their thoughts and participate in their chosen community. The online element meant that they could share their work with an audience who wouldn’t have had the chance to participate otherwise. They were able to highlight disenfranchised people and those who may not have a voice otherwise.’
 
Next to tell his tale was Robert Sharp, campaigns manager at English PEN. Robert’s canon tale was concerned with the work and history of English PEN, which, he told us, began as a literary dining club – ‘social networking before there was social networking! They began to do some campaigning. C.A. Dawson Scott was the founder, and John Gallsworthy was the first president.’
 
Robert’s images also included one of Harold Pinter and Arthur Miller on a fact-finding mission to Turkey, with Orhan Pamuk as their guide. ‘Our main projects include taking literature in other languages and translating it into English. This bothers some regimes, who are not interested in having a multitude of voices in their culture.
 
‘Aung San Suu Kyi is one of the people who has been on our case list for the longest. These people attack your family and friends, so your voice is silenced even if you have escaped and are free. There’s a trend in freedom of speech issues in the UK to legislate for offence or outrage. There’s an outsourcing of censorship from governments to communities. Communities want to censor each other. There’s a move to stop criminals from writing their memoirs and profiting from their misdeeds, but this law would technically apply to someone like Nelson Mandela.’
 
Sophie Lewis of the Dalkey Archive Press, whose mission is to establish an international context for the appreciation of modern and contemporary literature, was next to speak. She first showed us an image of Dalkey’s Context magazine, ‘it’s free! And it gives critical context to works you haven’t heard about yet.’ Next up was Flaubert: ‘we publish classics too!’ Sophie told us, ‘he’s the reason why I wanted to work for Dalkey.’
 
Sophie showed us a rather bleak image of her first sight of the archive, which is based in Illinois. ‘I realised that it wasn’t about pretty places, but about freedom of mind.’ She also showed an image of ‘our founding editor and director, John O’Brian. He’s a visionary, and has kept us going since the 1980s.’
 
The next few images were, in Sophie’s words ‘a pantheon of stars. We publish people who you know to be great, such as Melville and Gertrude Stein, but whose less major works go out of print after publication in English. We keep all our books in print continuously. It’s not about accessibility, but boundary-pushing. Many of these works need to be translated. It’s not so much about breaking down borders, but about acknowledging them and publishing across them.’
 
Sophie finished by displaying several images of anthologies showcasing writing from various cultures that might not otherwise be published, including Finnish, Cuban and Japanese volumes. ‘This is our attempt to redress this. There are so many voices you wouldn’t hear if they were never translated.’
 
Director of the Free Word Centre, Shreela Gosh, concluded the first half of the evening, telling us that ‘words are all around us,’ and in the spirit of encouraging audience participation and liberation had us all singing Happy Birthday.
 
She went on to tell us about, the parents of Free Word, and Dame Liz Forgan, Head of the Arts Council, ‘or our fairy godmother. We wouldn’t exist without the Arts Council. We wanted to find a home for literacy, literature and freedom of expression, and here it is.
 
‘We’ve been here a couple of months now, and it’s still a puzzle; it’s complicated. I need a decoder machine!’ Shreela’s images helped her to explore the nature of the Free Word Centre. ‘What if Free Word was a plant? It has deep roots, it’s flexible, it moves around. It’s like the whole eco system! Or what if it was like an animal? Would it be a giraffe? An elephant? No, I think it’s a fish, swimming against the tide.
 
‘Our ambition is to take our national centre to the rest of the world and become international. We are trying to make links and partnerships all across the world. Only three per cent of books published in the UK are in translation – it’s an important issue that we’re working on here.’
 
After an interval, Lance Lattig, Candice Holdsworth, Janee Rambocus and Natasha Schmidt from Index on Censorship gave a powerful presentation. Index on Censorship was founded to make sure people were continuously aware of the suppression of the freedom of speech, without having a political or ideological axe to grind. Their canon tale consisted of a series of images of figures such as Salman Rushdie, Liu Hongbin, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Eduado Galliano and Anna Politkovskaya, together with quotes from these figures regarding freedom of speech.
 
Rebecca Swift, co-founder and Director of The Literary Consultancy, was next to speak. Her images included Moomins merchandise, a book written by her school teacher, which was later published by Virago, where Rebecca once worked, and Emily Dickinson, who was ‘freed and imprisoned by the gift of words. She made a marriage to her art.
 
‘Those of us who are free to write may be ambivalent about the double-bind of freedom. Jacques Derrida completely ruined everything! My first job was as a translator – I like to think I was freeing the word into English. But now the politics of translation is a big issue.’
 
Rebecca’s images also included Virago’s Carmen Kalil, ‘who liberated the words of women,’ and a black hole – ‘I was made redundant, and entered something of a psychic black hole. I was in a very bleak state, beyond language. I started a secret consultancy, using Betty Swann as a pseudonym. I charged people £50 to tell them what I thought about their poetry. Then I started the Literacy Consultancy, to help people think about their work. We help free people’s work into the market. But the question is, are you creatively free when you enter the market? Discuss!’
 
Nikesh Shukla, web editor at Booktrust, in a rapid, performance poetry style, showed us images of Rumplestiltskin – the brothers Grimm’s vivid stories frightened him as a child, and made him think his baby sister would be taken away, and Children’s Laureate Anthony Browne’s Gorillas – ‘he is showing us that picture books are for all ages.’
 
Spiderman also made an appearance – ‘ my mum didn’t like the fact that I read comics, but the fact was I read more than any other kid in my class’ – as well as The Buddha of Suburbia – ‘I wasn’t allowed to watch the TV programme, so I read it instead!’ Nikesh’s canon tale ended with images of some of Booktrust’s work – ‘in the letterbox club, children in care get a parcel with their names on, it gives them a sense of ownership, and we run education projects, encouraging creative writing in schools. That’s how we free the word.’
 
The evening was brought to a hilarious close by Joshua Idehen and Raymond Antrobus, artists in residence at the Free Word Centre, who brought us a spontaneous and ingenious Canon Tales ‘on the hoof ‘, written as they’d watched the evening unfold.
                                                                                 
Lucy Mitchell