Writing Centre brings Hope to aspiring writers

18 November 2002
Writing is subversive: According to Christopher Hope, the most recent of the Writers-in-Residence at the Centre for Creative Writing, the best kind of writing is the kind that questions everything.

YOUNG writers in the Centre for Creative Writing have over the past year or so been able to avail themselves of the experience and wisdom of a number of leading South African authors, and they had plenty to learn from internationally acclaimed novelist Christopher Hope, who recently rounded off his two-month stint as Writer-in-Residence at UCT.

Based in Languedoc in the south of France for the past few years – he describes himself as “a South African living abroad” – Hope has earned himself an enviable reputation since his first works of poetry and fiction were published in the early 1970s.

Renowned for his comic satires of both South Africa – inter- and post-apartheid – and England, he has also penned poetry, radio and television plays, and plenty of non-fiction and travel writing, as well as regular contributions to both English and French newspapers.

Teaching, however, is a new addition to his résumé, he admits. But it's also something he's been keen to get into.

“When I was a Wits undergraduate some 30 years ago, I wanted to write, but there was no-one to go to back then,” he says. “You were basically on your own.”

So when Professor Stephen Watson, who co-ordinates the English Masters creative writing programme, first broached the topic of creating a centre at UCT that would recruit published writers as mentors, Hope eagerly put his name into the hat. “I liked the idea of working with younger writers, and doing it in South Africa,” he notes.

A short interval and one invitation later, Hope recently set up camp at UCT to share his insights with third-year and Masters students.

“I don't think you can teach writing,” he points out as a caveat, however. “All I think you can do is encourage people to see why, I think, the best writing is subversive, to understand that good writing doesn't have any answers but has plenty of questions. All you can do is give people a sense of enthusiasm, and point them in the direction of interesting work.”

And UCT students have come up with some interesting work of their own, reports Hope, covering everything from soft porn to travel writing. “What's nice to see is that people are reinventing their own experiences or reinventing the history of this country; it's subversively interesting.”

Despite his apprehension about lecturing, programmes such as the one offered by the Centre for Creative Writing are essential in that they provide aspiring writers with access to those who have been doing it for a while, Hope adds.

“I don't like teaching, and I don't like big institutions, but I like young writers, and I just think writing is a bit like shoemaking; it's very good to speak to someone who actually makes the things.”

On his departure from UCT, Hope travelled to Johannesburg for the South African launch of his recently released Heaven Forbid, before returning home to France where he will continue work on his latest piece of non-fiction. This, he says, will deal with “the absurdities of power and the brotherhood of tyrants” and will feature Robert Mugabe, Hendrik Verwoerd and Slobodan Milosovic among its cast of potentates.

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