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Thursday, May 7, 2015, 09:13

The class is over

By Chitralekha Basu

CityU scrapped its MFA in creative writing program last week. One more proof of profit-driven HK not caring all that much to cultivate the arts? A report by Chitralekha Basu.

The class is over
Nicholas Wong, graduate of the CityU MFA program, has just published his second book of poems, Crevasse, from Kaya Press, New York.

Last week City University of Hong Kong (CityU) scrapped its MFA in creative writing program, somewhat abruptly. The unilateral decision to discontinue a program that had attracted 50 percent of its students from 20 countries and some of the world’s most sought-after writers as teachers is intriguing. The program even operated at a profit in the last academic year, although in an ideal world profit might be found among the meaner things of low ambition. The objective of a university writing program, primarily, must be to hone and nurture the students’ creative faculties.

Still, people investing substantial amounts of time and money (HK$181,350 in tuition fees) would demand tangible, quantifiable results. As indeed would the institution offering the infrastructure to run such a sophisticated program where international literary stars with proven credentials as teachers of creative writing — Junot Diaz and Chang Rae-lee, to name just two — were part of the visiting faculty.

For a fledgling program — only in its fifth year — the CityU MFA in creative writing hasn’t done too badly. Its students have been published in several literary magazines, including local publications Asia Literary Review and Asian Cha. Nicholas YB Wong, a member of the 2010 cohort, whom Asian Cha editor Tammy Ho Lai-ming describes as “one of the most recognizable and exciting English-language poets in the city and whose work addresses issues of identity, politics, history and sexuality”, just published his second book of poems, Crevasse, with Kaya Press in New York. His classmate Lavanya Shanbhogue came all the way from Mumbai, India, drawn by the low-residency feature of the program, especially since she was juggling a full-time job and mothering an infant when she began the course. Back then she wasn’t sure if she had the potential to become a published writer. By the time she had completed the course, she “had a book deal (with Roli Books, India, which is publishing her novel, The Heavens We Chase, later this year), a literary prize (Commonwealth Short Story Special Prize, 2011) and a certain discipline with which I approach my craft”.

 “My novel is an MFA baby,” says Lavanya. “It was born here.” She had intended it as a linked short story collection, until her tutor, Madeliene Thien, suggested it might work better as a novel. She recalled how Thien once “hand-edited 60 pages of my manuscript and posted it to me all the way from Canada when a medical condition prevented her from using the computer” — an incident which should put paid to those who doubt the efficacy of a largely long-distance writing program and its ability to build and nurture a global community of writers.

Celebrity writer Junot Diaz was ready to trade a teaching position with Massachusetts Institute of Technology for one in CityU. “That’s how impressed I was with the program, with its mission, its students, staff and faculty,” says Diaz, best-known for winning the Pulitzer for The Brief Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao. “I was ready to relocate to Hong Kong for the opportunity to be a part of their vision. I’ve never been to an MFA program anywhere that tempted me with its excellence the way CityU did.”

“In my years as a writer I have found very few institutions that make the practice of writing into a global conversation. At CityU you have writers from all over the world learning from each other, cross-pollinating, creating hybrid possibilities — and it’s no accident that this is happening in Hong Kong, long the crossroads of Asia,” says Diaz.

One too many?

The question is: does Hong Kong really care? Often labeled a “cultural desert” and now increasingly struggling to hold its own against Beijing and Shanghai, which seem to grow in stature as centers fostering artistic excellence and educational achievement, can Hong Kong — traditionally known to have put profit before cultivation — sustain creative writing programs run by at least four universities?

Neither Page Richards, director, MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), nor Lo Kwai-cheung, who heads the Creative and Professional Writing Program at Hong Kong Baptist University, seem too worried about what the future holds for them.

Richards finds the existence of so many “thriving” creative writing programs in their myriad forms — “undergraduate, postgraduate and community programs” — reassuring, proof that the currency of creative writing “in Hong Kong and the region is already strong, and still mutually evolving”. “I am confident that the MFA in Creative Writing at HKU will continue to flourish with the support of the university and the enthusiasm of the talented young writers who study in the program,” she says.

Similarly, Lo is positive about the sustainability of the program he runs at Baptist University. “Our writing program is government-funded and a bilingual undergraduate program, which is very different from a self-funded master’s program (like the CityU MFA in writing course),” he says.

At a time when “the economy is trying to capitalize on creativity, the discontinuation of the CityU MFA is actually against the current,” he says, pointing out the irreconcilable nature of the two impulses. “It gives people an impression that even the university disparages arts and humanities.”

Tammy Ho too is worried about the symbolic implications of the closure. “The program was helpful in raising the visibility of Hong Kong in the global literary scene,” she says. “I worry that by shutting it down at such an early stage, we are depriving the city of a wealth of future talent and sending a negative signal about Hong Kong’s commitment to the literary arts and culture more generally.”

What went wrong?

Nury Vittachi refuses to buy into the idea that the government may not be doing enough to support arts practices. The author of the popular Feng Shui Detective series, Vittachi founded the well-esteemed journal Asia Literary Review, started the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and was instrumental in bringing the Man Asian Literary Prize — an offshoot of the Man Booker Prize, the biggest literary award in the UK — to Hong Kong. In short, he is one of the key players to have put Hong Kong on the global literary map.

“Hong Kong does care about the arts,” says Vittachi. “Through the Arts Development Council, it pumps money into art projects, from books to theater to exhibitions than most other cities on the planet. Yet books must work as commercially successful objects, and it seems that university bosses feel they have the right to argue that the same applies to book-writing courses.”

He imagines the CityU program could in fact have been a bit too “global” in its approach to have resonated well with the local market. “Students only met two or three times a year. Most of the work was done remotely through online services. ‘Classmates’ were individuals thousands of miles apart. I wonder whether a course organized in a more standard way would have attracted a bigger body of fee-paying students locally in Hong Kong, and thus been more financially secure?” Vittachi asks.

A similar course in digital entertainment he gives at Hong Kong Polytechnic University — which also entails “creating narratives that work as novels, movies, comic books, games and graphic novels” —he says, “is dramatically over-subscribed, with hundreds of applicants for just 30 places”.

 Most people with or without links to the CityU MFA program, however, agree that the decision to scrap it defies rationale. “Maybe the university management underestimated the extremely high esteem the program is held in both locally and overseas,” says Peter Philips from Australia, a part of the 2010 cohort. “I just hope they are willing to reconsider their decision and realize the potential this MFA has to nurture creativity and intercultural dialogue in Asia,” he adds.

Contact the writer at basu@chinadailyhk.com

 

 
 
 
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