The Role of the Writer in Times of Change: Reflections on WEM Conference 2017

The Role of the Writer in Times of Change was one of the titles of the events at last week’s Writing East Midlands Conference. This is an important topic for me, and many others I suspect, as we navigate the labyrinthine potential pitfalls of 2017. 

[The Role of the Writer in Time of Change: panel discussion with Nikesh Shukla, Kerry Young, Femi Oyebode, chaired by Henderson Mullin.]

The panel discussion in question meandered a little off topic at times, but I feel like there was a function to this. Everything is a subplot right now. In the face of seismic change, we can only deal with issues piece by piece.

As Kerry Young rightfully began, ‘we are always in times of change, many small things happen before the big thing surfaces, something she likened to volcanic plates shifting long before surfacing as an earthquake. And all the panel seemed to agree that the writer has no set role so much as a responsibility to themselves. Femi Oyebode advised: ‘Be true to yourself and don’t worry about being relevant’. Young said our only role as writers is to ‘…feed ourselves and follow our conscience’. Nikesh Shukla suggested it was ‘…the role of gatekeepers in the industry to reflect the times’.

A writer can only write about their passions, their hopes and fears. That these are likely to reflect the current political earthquakes affecting our anxiety levels and preoccupations is a natural side product. It also may only be very apparent with the benefit of hindsight. The socio-political narrative of the last 18 months will only fully reveal itself retrospectively when we have the objective space to reflect. And this narrative is like all narratives we write, whether fiction or non-fiction, as Young stated: ‘How it happens and why it matters are the story’.

There was an ongoing theme that resurfaced through this panel discussion and other events during the day, including ‘Another Land: Places, People and the stories they tell’ and Nikesh Shukla’s closing keynote speech. The theme was the role of black and minority ethnic (BAME) writers within the industry. Shukla was tired of being asked to take part in ‘Diversity Panels’ within the writing and publishing industry. Both he and many of the writers represented that day seemed to agree that they felt compelled to be part of positive campaigns to increase diversity in literature and be good role models for young people, but at the same time, they each wanted to be known first and foremost as a writer. Just a writer, not an Asian writer, or a black writer, or a diversity campaigner and writer, just a writer.

[Another Land: Places, People and the stories they tell: Panel discussion with Ishi Khan-Jackson, R.A. Villanueva, Eve Makis, chaired by Sandeep Mahal.]

To my detriment, this is the first year I’ve attended Writing East Midlands’ annual Writers’ Conference as March is usually a busy time for us with events and projects. But I definitely feel it’s a worthwhile endeavour as the biggest local event of its kind. There’s a lot crammed into a day, and in some ways, each of these items needed more time to breathe and be appreciated. But as a whistlestop tour to gather ideas and meet other writers at various stages of development, it’s a rewarding experience and well worth your time.

Many thanks to Writing East Midlands who continue to be an important regional development agency for writers of all kinds. To find out more visit their website here.

@WritingEM  #WEMconf17

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