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Deborah Campbell takes in the view while on a writing assignment in the United Arab Emirates - photo courtesy of Deborah Campbell
Deborah Campbell takes in the view while on a writing assignment in the United Arab Emirates - photo courtesy of Deborah Campbell

UBC Reports | Vol. 54 | No. 12 | Dec. 4, 2008

Weaving the Personal and Political: New Writers Drawn to Genre

By Lorraine Chan

Krissy Darch got into UBC’s Creative Writing Program to practice alchemy. She aims to transform 400 pages of raw notes into a lucid work of literary nonfiction -- a genre also known as participatory or immersion journalism.

An MA student, Darch arrived in Vancouver this fall with a suitcase full of journals about her experiences working and living in Accra, the capital of Ghana.

“I came to the Creative Writing Program for mentorship and support to edit this huge amount of material,” says Darch, who has a BA from the University of Ottawa in visual arts. She will complete the book as her MFA thesis.

Darch is one example of the growing waves of young writers intent on telling stories that weave the personal with the political – a trail blazed by authors as diverse as Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Ryszard Kapuscinksi, David Foster Wallace and George Orwell.

Student interest in the genre has exploded, notes Deborah Campbell, one of four instructors teaching nonfiction writing in UBC’s Creative Writing Program. A freelance journalist, Campbell’s work has appeared in Harper’s, The Walrus, The Economist, Ms., New Scientist and The Guardian.

Campbell says enrolment has more than doubled over the past three years, with 25 graduate students currently in the program’s two nonfiction classes.

“Many of them have a global view and an interest in bringing a writer’s eye to real-world issues,” explains Campbell, a Vancouver native and UBC alumna whose international background includes studies at the Sorbonne and Tel Aviv University.

For Darch, the attraction is being able to explore ideas of neo-colonialism, and the phenomenon of “slum tourism,” in which local people see privileged foreign aid volunteers and business expats “waltz in and waltz out” in ever increasing numbers.

Between 2005 and 2008, Darch saw these worlds colliding during two separate eight-month periods working as an intern and volunteer in Ghana. Her first assignment, from a Canadian non-government organization, had her teaching basic literacy and visual arts skills to children and adults. Her students were mostly women who eked out a living by working as seamstresses, housekeepers or as market traders selling basic household items.

Darch lived close to the community library where she taught. She noticed, however, that many volunteers stayed in compounds or in Accra’s affluent neighborhoods, getting to and from work in air-conditioned SUVs, rather take than the city’s crowded buses.

Darch has chosen for her working title an apt proverb from Africa’s Ivory Coast -- “The Stranger Has Big Eyes” -- that alludes to the blinkered view of many Westerners. Her book also addresses the fresh-faced and idealistic youth who arrive hoping to save the world, but receive some harsh life lessons.

“Every year, NGOs send new waves of workers,” says Darch. “A lot of them are young women who’ve never experienced gender inequality or abject poverty. They often don’t realize when local men want to take advantage of them.”

Darch says she’s grateful to have Campbell’s guidance “as a working writer” to capture these myriad realities. Campbell has earned a reputation for distilling complex global issues into truthful narratives, particularly about the Middle East. Campbell’s 2002 book, This Heated Place: Encounters in the Promised Land, provides a literary journey inside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Able to speak French, conversational Farsi, Hebrew and some Arabic, Campbell immerses herself in the societies she writes about. She spent more than two months living among Iraqi refugees in Syria for her article Exodus: Where will Iraq Go Next? The article appeared in the April 2008 issue of Harper’s and was recognized this fall with the Dave Greber Freelance Writers Magazine Award.

Campbell’s classes provide students grounding in the basics of journalism, with assignments that focus on interview and research skills combined with narrative storytelling techniques.

She frequently counsels students not to confuse the “I” with the “eye” -- the use of first-person narrative must always be justified. “If you’re telling the reader you’re hungry or tired, that must in some way serve the story.”

When critiquing student work, Campbell says she’s careful to stress that no amount of time at the keyboard can replace true-life experience.

“The students who really flourish are inquisitive,” says Campbell. “They’re able to look at the world from more than one perspective.”

The workshop style classes provide instant feedback, which Darch has found extremely useful. “This is a group of some of the most discerning readers you can find. You always end up walking away seeing things in your work you hadn’t seen before, positive and negative.”

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Last reviewed 03-Dec-2008

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