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Immigrant voices heard in Life Writing

Friday, August 11, 2006

Immigrant voices heard in Life Writing

AUCKLAND – New immigrants are bringing a distinctive flavour to the body of work emerging from Massey University’s popular Life Writing course.

In most academic courses, students never hear about the startling events, painful moments, exotic episodes and revealing recollections of their fellow students.

But in this course, at Massey’s Auckland campus, such material takes centre stage. Indeed, students learn a lot about each other’s lives whilst critiquing their attempts at turning them into fascinating stories, if not art.

A young man from Baghdad writes tenderly of his Egyptian-born great-grandfather, and in a poem of the war-ravaged history of his Middle East homeland.

A Chinese woman, a former high-flying television documentary maker in Shanghai who spent her teenage years on a farm labour camp during the Cultural Revolution, tries to recapture in prose the lost memories of her own teenage daughter’s early years when she was a busy working mother behind the camera.

A former New Zealand policeman puts aside real-life crime stories and is concentrating now on writing children’s fiction.

As its title suggests, the course deals with biography and autobiography. But that doesn’t mean students are encouraged to wallow in narcissistic outpourings. The course combines academic study and analysis of literary masters – from Graham Greene and Marcel Proust to Margaret Atwood – with workshops in which they apply writing techniques to their own lives, says lecturer, author and book editor Dr Jack Ross.

“Writing has to be approached as a pragmatic craft as well as art,” he says. “There is a lot of false awe surrounding it.”

The fact that almost half of the students enrolled in the course come from other countries, reflects New Zealand’s growing cultural diversity, he adds.

Overseas students find their homegrown tales stand out as exotic in the context of a New Zealand writing course that was launched seven years ago by Dr Mary Paul, programme co-ordinator for English at Massey’s School of Social and Cultural Studies in Auckland -

But even the dullest life has its moments and can be turned into compelling prose if the writing is well executed and the story given shape, says Dr Ross.

Anthologies of students’ best writing are published every two years.


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