‘Creative writing brings fresh air in the classroom’ An Interview with Vishnu Singh Rai

by Sajan Kumar

Vishnu S.  Rai is a well-known name in Nepalese ELT. An Associate Professor of English, Department of English Education, TU, Rai has been involved in teaching, training and research for more than two decades. To his credit, he has published a number of books and articles on linguistics and ELT. More importantly, he has designed present secondary level courses and written textbooks.

Besides, he loves creative writing and his stories poems and dramas are taught in Tribhuvan University, and other universities. He is one of the members of Asian English Teachers Creative writing Group which runs workshops and conferences and also publishes poems and stories for Asian students. The Group has already held conferences twice once in Kirtipur (2008) and in Dhulikhel (2010) in Nepaland this March the group is all set to meet in Birgunj for the workshop and conference. With reference to the objectives, activities and rationales behind those activities, I tendered some questions to my guru, Vishnu Singh Rai. Below are the answers in his own words.

1.       You are involved in Asian English language creative writing project? Could you please inform us about the rationales behind formation of such a group? What activities does the group do and what are the substantial achievements?

Thank you Sajan ji. I am delighted that you want to know about Asian English Teachers Creative Writing Group, and intend to inform the ELT practitioners of Nepal about it.

The Asian English Teachers Creative Writing Group was formed in 2003 by Prof. Alan Maley and Dr. Tan Bee Tin. I am pretty sure that those who are interested in language and literature interface know Alan Maley who was honored with the life time achievement award in ELT by IATEFL in 2011.

About the group: A small group of Asian teachers meets once a year in a different country to write original stories and poems in English.  These are then published and made available for use as teaching input to classes in the Asia region.

So far, the group has met in Bangkok, Thailand (2003), Melaka, Malaysia (2004), Fuzhou, China (2005),  Hanoi, Vietnam (2006), Salatiga, Indonesia (2007), Kirtipur, Nepal (2008.), Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (2009), Jakarta, Indonesia (2010),  Dhulikhel, Nepal (2010), Jember, Indonesia (2011) and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (2012)  Participants to date have been drawn from Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, China, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Nepal, Pakistan, Australia and the UK.

Rationale and Objectives: The group operates in the belief that teachers whose first language is not English are not only capable of but are also uniquely well-placed to write literary materials for use by their own and other students in the Asia region.  By virtue of the fact that they share their students’ background and contexts, they have an intuitive understanding of what will be culturally and topically relevant and attractive for them.  What they all too often lack is the confidence in their own ability to write interesting material.  The group operates to dispel this misconception.

The following rationale underpins the activities of the group:

  • A belief in the value of creative writing in English both for teachers and for students.(see below)
  • A belief in the ability of teachers in the region to produce their own English teaching materials.
  • A belief that these materials will provide useful input for promoting reading (and other activities) in English.
  • A belief in the value for professional and personal development of forming a closely-knit, Asia-wide, mutually-supportive learning community of teacher/writers.

The objectives are:

  • To produce poetry and stories appropriate in level and content for use by Asian students of English at secondary level.
  • To publish and promote these as widely as possible, thus creating a wider awareness of the value of CW.
  • To develop materials and activities for the teaching of creative writing.
  • To run creative writing conferences and workshops for the wider teaching community wherever possible.
  • In this way, to boost the self-esteem and confidence of teachers of English in Asia.

The intended outcomes are:

  • A set of stories for extensive reading and related language work.
  • A set of poems intended for language work, and to stimulate creative writing by students.
  • A set of teacher-generated creative writing activities.
  • Publications, website and conferences for teachers in the region to raise awareness of the value of creative writing activities.

In other words, the project aims at three main audiences:

  • A small group of writers who produce the materials, and in so doing develop professionally and personally.
  • English teachers in the region at large who will use the materials and hopefully go onto develop their own in due course.
  • Students of English in the region who will use the materials, and will themselves produce texts which can be fed back as input to other students.

2.       Do creative writing activities help to develop language skills of the students in anyway? You know that poetry often makes use of distorted language, i.e. poetry often breaches the code? Could you please specify the possible ways creative writing helps students to learn language?

Yes, I do believe that creative writing activities help students to develop their English in a more interesting way. This is the reason creative writing activities in ELT has been introduced in many countries. It is sad that it has not yet reserved its place in ELT courses and syllabuses. However, the teachers have realized its importance and usefulness in ELT, and they have started using it as an effective tool in ELT. The members of the group have introduced it with great success. I, too carried out a small scale research with M.Ed. Students (Major English) on creative writing activities and its usefulness in classroom teaching and findings were as expected. The students (the prospective teachers) found it very interesting although they had never done any creative writing in English. The research report was published in the NELTA Journal 2009.

I agree that most people believe that the language of poetry is archaic, that it cannot and is not used in daily communication. They are mistaken. If we observe people talking and communicating we notice that they use all kinds of figures of speech (what we call literary language) in their daily communication. We all use simile, metaphor, irony, paradox and what not in our “daily” language. And what’s interesting as an eye-opener is the fact that those who use more figurative language in their day to day conversation are liked by the hearers. The more we use figurative language the more we liked  and appreciated by the listeners.  Poetry ‘breaches’, I would use the term stretches the code of a language, but so does the spoken language in daily conversation. Creative writing helps students to equip them with the literary devices to make their language more beautiful and appreciable.

3.       The conventional belief has been that writers are born? Do not you think the group that you are involved in aims to deconstruct this established belief with the aim of teaching creative writing? Some people still questions if creative writing can be taught.

Firstly, conventional belief and truths might be wrong. We must keep our mind open and do not believe what is carried over as tradition. The tradition of Sati Pratha, for example was considered to be pious by Hindus but it has been discarded because it was based on false belief. The Earth was thought to be flat until 19th century. Had we blindly believed on that, mankind would have never achieved what he has achieved today. Let us not go fat –how about teaching. Traditionally, it was considered good to be caned by guru  -knowledge can gained only by hard work and the ‘hard work’ meant physical punishment by teacher. I still remember my childhood when my friends were slapped, caned and even kicked by gurus (thank god I escaped those punishments because I was somehow better than them). Today physical or mental punishment in schools is completely unacceptable. Our group don’t believe on the belief that creative writing cannot be taught.

I agree that some people have some special talents right from their birth –this is what you call ‘writers are born’. That might be true. But it is also true that creative writing is an art that can be taught or more suitably people can be helped to learn the creative writing art in the same way as they are helped to learn other arts and crafts such as painting, drawing or music.

Another thing which I would like to emphasize is the fact that there are two aspects of creative writing, (a) to be a creative writer and get published, etc., and (b) to use creative writing in the classroom. Our group tries to do both. But when we do creative writing in a classroom, the primary purpose is to help the learners develop their language skills without stress and with fun. It gives me great pleasure to say that some of our members started writing poems and story first time when they joined the group and most of them are published now.  So far, 11 volumes by Pearson Malaysia, 2 volumes by Bhundipuran Prakashan, Kathmandu, and 1 volume by LINCOM EUROPA, Germany have been published.

4.      I came to know that the group is formed with the belief that all too much of what is available on the international market is culturally or otherwise unsuitable in Asian contexts. Why do you think that the available literature is not appropriate for Asian students?

This question is related to the question –Who is a better teacher –native speaker of English or non-native speaker of English? Both have their strengths and weaknesses but teaching English as a second or foreign language, a non-native teacher (I mean local non-native teacher) is better because s/he knows their students and their culture and background far better than a non-native speaker.

Similarly, I believe that the textbooks and teaching materials developed and written by native speakers might be very good in themselves, but they might not be appropriate the students of our region. Although there are individual differences in them, there are many things which are common among Asian students (e.g. their second or foreign language learning style is different from those of the Europeans or Americans). It is quite natural that Asian teachers know more about their students than a native speaker teacher. Naturally then, the materials developed by Asian teachers or stories and poems written by Asian teachers are more appropriate, relevant and ‘larger than life’ for Asian students.

5.       What do you think are the implications of the activities of creative writing group  in ELT in Nepal and elsewhere?

Creative writing is fun. Creative writing breaks the monotony of the class. It brings fresh air in the classroom. It helps students to learn language with fun. The most important thing is that it boosts their morale. It gives them confidence that they can write poems and stories in English. The same is true with the teachers. Once they are exposed to creative writing activities, their self-confidence soars up.

6.      The group holds conferences in Asian countries to demonstrate that creative writing is feasible in a foreign or second language. This is what Braj Kachru said when he coined the phrase ‘Bilingual’s creativity’. How far have you (group)  been successful in unveiling the creativity of Nepalese? How many poets and story writers has the group produced in Nepal?

Well, as I said earlier, the group does not claim to produce Shakespeare, Keats or Yeats. It helps them to find and believe on their own capability. All the group members are published by different publishers in and outside Nepal.

7.       What are the reasons the group has limited its scope only to Asian EFL/ESL classrooms? Do not you think the works can go beyond? Do not you think the works can form a part of Asian literature?

Yes, we would like to see it grow. But you know growth without purpose and direction is like Kathmandu city which is growing in all directions resulting into a polluted city of cement concrete. The group has deliberately kept it small. Too big a group doesn’t work. This group has no president, no secretary, no election and no obvious material benefit as in other organization. All the members are dedicated: they attend the workshop in different countries on their own (they seek for funding on their own and if they cannot find it they do not attend or spend their own good money). So, it is not like NELTA which is big and being its member by paying some membership fee, you can have some material benefit (e.g. attend a conference in London or get a chance to further your study). Asian English Teachers Creative Writing Group is open for all who can look after themselves –the only requirement is that you can write.

8.      How do you compare the literary works by bilinguals such as Nepalese or Indians with native writers of English? Do not you think that the literary works produced by native writers are superior to those by bilinguals’?

Language is not a property of its native speakers. Their millions of native speakers of English but all of them are not creative writer. As to the second part of your question, I would say that there are many non-native writers of English who have won such prestigious prize as Booker Prize. Indian and African writers of English are world known for their creative works. Recently, Nepalis have also started writing in English and I am sure in the coming years, some of them will receive international prizes (some of them have already received prizes (e.g. Samrat Upadhyay for his fiction and D.B. Gurung for his poems) .

So, no. I do not think that non-native writers’ works in English are in inferior in any way to the works of the native speaker of English.

9.      Could you please let the readers know about next conference in details?  Who are the presenters and what are the programs?

The next workshop plus conference is going to be held in Birgunj from 8-13 of March. It has two parts. In the first part, we organize a three days workshop in which the members of the group meet and write poems and stories. Their works are peer edited. They also go to a writing trip to a local place and spend whole day there in their creative work. The products of the workshop are collected and published. The members who are coming from abroad are:

Alan Maley (UK)

Jaikaran Mukundan (Malaysia)

Mallika Vasugi (Malaysia)

An Thyu Nyugen (Vietnam)

Handoyo F (Indonesia)

Teng Minag (China)

Li wei (China)

Kanakon (Thailand)

Gillian (Maynmar)

Khaing Tin (Maynmar)

Iqubal (Pakistan)

In the course of inviting an acclaimed creative writer from Nepal, Professor Dr. Govinda Raj Bhattarai has been requested to be the judge of poetry recitation program to be hosted on the third day and also as a plenary speaker in the conference.

One person is coming from the US as a support from the US Embassy, Nepal. Besides these members from abroad from Kathmandu following persons will participate.

Tapasi Bhattacharya

Maya Rai

Motikala subba Dewan

Vishnu S Rai

In addition to these members, since the conference is being organized in Birgunj generously supported by Birgunj colleagues such as Mr. Kedar Prasad Shah and Sajan Kumar Karn, some enthusiast from Birgung will also participate in the workshop. They are: Sajan Kumar Karn, Suresh Shrestha, Pravin Kumar Yadava  and Ram Awadhesh  Ray. 

In the second part, we organize a two day conference for the local English teachers to expose them on various aspects of creative writing and its use in the classroom. All the members will present papers and run workshops on the various aspects of creative writing in the proposed two days conference. The member from the US will run workshops also in other NELTA branches after the conference is over. I am sure the teachers and ELT practioners in and around Birgunj will benefit from it. I would like to take this opportunity to invite all ELTers and others to participate and make the conference successful.

Thank you very much indeed for your co-operation! 

3 thoughts on “‘Creative writing brings fresh air in the classroom’ An Interview with Vishnu Singh Rai

  1. Hats off to you Sajan ji for an excellent interview with our Guru V. S. Rai— a source of inspiration for those aspiring to explore the interactive space between creative writing and ELT. I too was rather nostalgic while and after going through your questions and Rai sir’s answers— nostalgic for the college days with him lecturing on semantics and pragmatics.
    I do believe that creativity is both style and content. So far as the latter is concerned as Rai sir has rightly said we should respect and capitalize on the core cultural experiences of our ELT teachers and students. This will give them more confidence.
    I think creative writing in English is both short-term and long-term investments. Short-term in the sense that it gives we ELT practitioners and our students a sense of immediate achievement. Long-term in the sense that it is probably the most significant strategy to appropriate and claim our ownership of the language. We are moving, though slowly and steadily, in this direction.
    I hope the Asian English Teachers Creative Writing Group will see active and creative involvement of more ELT enthusiasts that will widen the interface between ELT and creative writing in Nepal. I also hope that this in the long run will contribute to what the project of authenticating Nepalese English and Nepalese ELT.
    Finally, I hope that the upcoming conference will be a howling success.
    Bal Ram Adhikari

  2. Apparently it is going to be a great literary celebration in Birgunj, the lowland of Nepal, where we can be hopeful for the potential qualitative expansion of creativity in teaching and learning, as well as in thoughts, speeches and actions for further rise in the taste of language, literature and culture. I feel myself so lucky to have my place secured at the conference so as to learn more about creative writing and to practice it extensively. We are heartily thankful to Rai Sir and the international team of creative writers!

  3. I found the interview with VS Rai Sir quite informative along with precise reflection on the practice of creative writing in Nepalese ELT. Another fascinating fact that the interview has covered is Asian English Teachers Creative Writing Group which is formed with a view to promote English language skills through teaching materials developed by the non-native speakers of English in Asian context.

    While going through the interview, there comes an dilemmatic situation for language teachers ‘Are the text books written by native speakers or non-native speakers are relevant to Asian classrooms?’. However, Rai Sir makes a strong argument which is quite convincing, I think. No doubt, native speakers have excellent language skills but the text materials developed by them in Asian context are not as relevant as the non-native textbook authors since one size doesn’t fit all and the non-native speakers, here Asian authors are quite familiar with language classrooms and contexts, which mean a lot to learn the language effectively.

    We witness significant paradigm shifts taking place for the promotion of Nepalese ELT. Like the intervention of different ELT activities carried out by NELTA, the group will have, in some way, significant contributions in Nepalese ELT too. The formation of such a group was the need of the hour too since the number of non-native English speakers is outnumbered. These associations have different strategic directions but they are inclined to the common goal of promoting ELT in our context.

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