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Reviews / Wordplay 2021: Identity, creativity and a strong sense of place

Shetland’s annual literature festival Wordplay, celebrating its 20th birthday this year, comes to an end later today (Sunday). Alex Purbrick went along for Shetland News and spoke to local and visiting authors

Alan Windram at Brae Primary School. Photo: Brae Primary School

THE LATE Orkney writer, George Mackay Brown once wrote that “the imagination is not an escape, but a return to the richness of our true selves; a return to reality.”

Over the last year reality for many has been a challenging place to be but Brown’s words remind us that the power of the imagination to nurture and sustain us can take us to another reality, perhaps less fearful and intimidating, offering us the chance to see the world from a different perspective.

Opening the door to Brown’s realm of creative reality is honoured and promoted in this year’s Wordplay festival which opened on Thursday evening giving a live audience the opportunity to hear poetry and stories from Shetland’s talented local writers as well as paying tribute to George Mackay Brown through reading some of his work.

Winners of the 2021 Shetland Library Young Writer Award were announced with awards given to three age categories.

From the work of young and old came powerful readings of creative writing firmly rooted in Shetland soil with strong evocations of the local environment, and a powerful sense of what it means to explore the imagination whilst bound to the timeless sense of identity and culture within the Shetland storyscape.

Writer’s night is certainly the heart of the festival as Wordplay curator Malachy Tallack said: “There is so much good writing in Shetland and part of Wordplay has always been hearing local writers share their work with audiences whom for the rest of the year are unlikely to encounter it.

Wordplay curator Malachy Tallack. Photo: Paul Bloomer

“It’s also important to celebrate young writers and encourage them. Winning the young writers award can be such a boost to young people, and I hope they continue writing after entering the competition.”

Sustaining young people on their creative journey is an important element of Wordplay with workshops and events for children organised by Chloe Tallack, young people’s librarian at Shetland Library with support from Shetland Islands Council, Scottish Book Trust and Shetland Library.

Live performances

One visiting guest who brought a very interactive, exciting storytelling experience to school children in the isles was Alan Windram, Bookbug Picture Book Prize winner in 2019 whose book One Button Benny had kids and their teachers dancing and singing along to his inspirational robot story.

Alan spoke about how much he has enjoyed doing live events again: “Over lockdown I did loads of online readings and shows but I missed doing live performances. To perform to a blank screen is really hard but when you’re live everyone is involved.”

Young children have enormous creative capacity and openness to the imaginative world but as they grow older and become more self-conscious, they can move further away from remembering how to easily open that door.

Through exploring graphic novels, award winning duo Metaphrog composed of Sandra Marrs and John Chalmers are leading two workshops over the weekend, unlocking the magic of creativity for older children and young adults through learning to create comics and characters.

John said they had done more than 600 workshops during their work as Metaphrog “and we’ve seen the world is changing, becoming an increasingly visual culture. We recognise comic novels are greatly attractive to young people because they are anarchic and great fun as well as an artform in their own right.

“They are good for readers, young and old as well as reluctant readers and in a world where children are saturated with digital screens, there’s a risk of children losing their imaginations and their chance to dream.”

Giving children a ‘chance to dream’ feeds those fertile fields of imagination which helps them become adults who can draw upon their rich inner world for sustenance and growth.

Rewilding

There are talks and workshops from contemporary writers in Wordplay that reflect on this such as Alycia Pirmohamed whose workshop on Sunday explores the possibilities of ecological and nature poetry, and Mary Paulson-Ellis who gave a talk on her third novel Emily Noble’s Disgrace on Saturday and explores the power of personal objects in our lives to forge our individual stories in her Sunday workshop.

Islands of Abandonment author Cal Flynn

Author Cal Flynn shared her thoughts during a Saturday workshop on how to best to express emotions, thoughts and stories through different writing techniques as well as a live talk at Mareel on Sunday evening to discuss her latest book Islands of Abandonment looking at how sites of human abandonment around the world have been rewilded by nature.

Whereas the Shetland local writers work features strongly on their sense of place within the landscape, Cal Flynn explores how the human sense of place and time can be very quickly eroded away when we abandon a community or physical home.

She expressed how “the scale and time that has passed in abandoned places dwarfs us. There is a sense of human history laced into the landscape especially in places like Shetland and that is a very humbling, impressive thing that has a profound emotional effect.

“Yet abandoned places sit in an uncanny valley where they are much more abandoned than ruined yet they look like human habitations. People don’t know how to grasp them and place them.”

Whereas Flynn discovered that in abandoned places, nature begins to weave a different story of time and place independent of human intervention, so also must we not forget the importance of telling a story, as George Mackay Brown reminded us, “….in which everyone living, unborn and dead participates (otherwise) men are no more than bits of paper blown on the cold wind.”