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“Literature is nothing but carpentry. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood,” quoted by Ms Sarah Ann Bower, the writer-in-residence at Lingnan, from the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Despite more than 10 years’ teaching experience in university settings, Sarah has always tried to approach the teaching of creative writing as craft rather than academic discipline as this is what she believes it is.
During her residency in the English Department at Lingnan, which began in January and concludes in mid-June, and has been generously supported by the Drs Richard Charles and Esther Yewpick Lee Charitable Foundation, Ms Sarah Ann Bower has been teaching the craft of fiction writing to second and third year students of English studying the Language of Literature and Young Adult Fiction. Her aim is to complement their theoretical studies by illustrating how theory leads to practice and how practice can be theorised. Giving classes in the basic building blocks of fiction – characterisation, plot, dialogue, scene-setting etc. – she has encouraged students to write their own short stories of around 1,000 words each. She has also hoped to inspire them by widening their reading beyond the syllabus to include classic and contemporary English and American writers such as Tim O’Brien, Ernest Hemingway and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. They have looked at everything from dialogue in the plays of Samuel Beckett to the plotting of murder mysteries and soap operas.
“The response of the students has been wonderful. The culture of a Chinese classroom is very different from that of the UK, where students need no encouragement to engage in discussion and challenge their lecturers, and I was worried in the beginning that perhaps my students didn’t understand me, or had no interest in learning the craft of writing fiction. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Once the ice was broken, students have gained confidence in reading aloud and critiquing one another’s work, and the stories they have produced exhibit great imaginative flair. All life has been conjured from our classes, from transvestite Ferrari drivers to presidential bodyguards with surprising personal habits. We have covered everything from murder to romance to catastrophic plagues and animated furniture. Chinese students may be quiet, but there’s certainly a lot going on below the surface!” said Sarah.
Much of this outpouring of creative work will find a wider audience in an anthology of creative writing in English which Sarah will be editing for publication at the end of the semester, and to which students from any department are welcome to submit contributions.
As well as teaching, it is part of Sarah’s remit to engage in community outreach activity, and she has been working, alongside PhD student May Yu Hsiao-min, with eight to 11 year olds at Hing Tak School to produce a contemporary drama based on the fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast. “I have been very impressed by the standard of English among these very young students, and their enthusiasm for the project is irrepressible. If you didn’t think fairy tales could happen on board spaceships or in high rise apartments, think again,” said Sarah.
At the core of any writing residency is the resident writer’s own work. Sarah has published two works of historical fiction, The Needle in the Blood and The Book of Love. Her third novel, a contemporary mystery entitled Erosion, will be published later this year. While resident at Lingnan, she is working on a fourth novel entitled Love Can Kill People, Can’t It? which weaves together the stories of an English woman with a mysterious past and a Palestinian terrorist.
On 30 April, Sarah talked about her work with her predecessor, the poet Jennifer Wong, on a panel chaired by Prof Michael Ingham during which they exchanged notes about their experiences as writers in residence at the university. “Bringing out the creativity of students is very important even if not every one of them wants to be an author. Students should seize the opportunity to engage in creative activities in university,” said Sarah. Jennifer, who was writer-in-residence at Lingnan in 2012, applauded Lingnan students for their curiosity and inquisitive attitude in the process of seeking knowledge.