Industry Insight: Tessa McWatt in Conversation with Millie Norman

Tessa McWatt is Professor of Creative Writing at UEA, and the author of seven novels, a novella for young adults, an opera libretti and, most recently, the memoir 'Shame on Me: an Anatomy of Race and Belonging'. In this Industry Insight, Tessa shares her thoughts on collaboration, her writing process and envisaging new futures for academia and publishing.

Tessa McWatt

MN: Could you tell us a little about your practice?

TM: Thanks for inviting me, and thank you for calling it ‘practice’. That’s what I like about this site and the work here – you see writing in the realm of art practice, which is how I see it. Not all writers do. Many see it as an offshoot of their reading, and a tradition that involves solely literature, but for me it is very much about art that I make that is grounded in language. I am really open to different ways of engaging in language. I started out as a poet, moved to fiction because poetry couldn’t contain the breadth of narrative I was envisioning (although I think it actually can; I’m just not the right person to be doing that). I’ve written seven novels (the seventh coming out in 2021), a novella for young adults and opera libretti, and most recently I’ve written a non-fiction book about race. All my work centres on ideas of belonging and displacement, and each of the books has some sort of formal experiment as a basis. For example, I wrote a novel, Vital Signs, in which the narrator is a graphic artist and he uses international signs to communicate to his ailing wife. I worked with a graphic designer to come up with international signs for abstractions like forgiveness and anger. I love to collaborate with others and to challenge myself to push my fiction writing to new places. I would like to work with digital technologists and other creators as well. Having said all that, I also love the solitude of writing, where meaning is made for me, by me.

MN: I’m so glad you agree! It is one of the things about literature that I’ve found so disheartening - how many people insist on its insularity. To me, all art is is a means of communication - so that includes writing, movement, performance...they’re channels through which to communicate. And they speak to each other, too. You mention your opera libretti (‘The Knife of Dawn’) and your collaboration with a graphic designer in ‘Vital Signs’ - has understanding writing as an art practice informed your approach/process in collaboration? How has collaborating with composers differed to collaborating with visual artists? Or is it more about the relationship fostered than respective mediums?

TM: Absolutely my art practice in collaboration has greatly informed my work as a writer. I have this sense of an immediate audience, the person I’m writing to, for, with, and I think it makes the work much more intimate from the outset. Writers often work in a vacuum and end up writing for themselves (which is not initially a bad thing), but in collaborating with a composer or visual artist, for example, I have to project my words into a whole other sensory field, and therefore it’s pointed and somehow more consciously for the receiver. The relationships are very important. I learned so much from those other artists, about different modes of expression, about different realms of meaning. I am in awe of those artists for what they can achieve with their tools.

MN:What does your writing process look like? How does it differ between fiction and memoir or essay?

TM: I usually start with a character and a desire to know more about the way this character exists in the world. I dream, lie on the floor, take long walks, rollerblade, swim, and usually the character comes alive more and more inside me. Then I head off on an adventure and the first draft becomes a place of understanding what the story is actually about. There are many, many drafts to refine and structure and improve. With non-fiction the process is less dreamy, and in the case of my memoir the ‘character’ was me, but structure is always something to be uncovered. In Shame on Me I had the idea of using body parts as chapters so that I could dissect and undermine the preconceived notions of race. With that structure in place it was easier to create a narrative that worked towards an embodiment of myself that was nonbiological.

MN: In that process of walking, rollerblading, that allowing yourself the quietness/solitude/space to take on the character’s thoughts/emotions/identity outside of a “Tessa” context (as in spaces that you fundamentally associate with your own life)? Or is it more about putting the character in motion, allowing their body to fill yours? Or neither!

TM: It’s about losing myself. Going into a space without thought, without order, about going into that liminal space between reality and the imagination, then allowing the imagination to take over. It’s a bit like just dreaming while awake.

MN: How do your academic and creative careers intersect or inform each other?

TM: My academic career feeds my creative career and vice versa. My research is my writing, and an academic post allows me to pursue research in many different ways, working with others as well as on my own to pursue critical as well as creative ways of being an artist.

MN: Shame on Me was astonishing. The structure recalls the formal experiments that you mentioned before - where do you source the foundations for these? Do they intersect with your academic research?

TM: Again, I think it’s about dreaming. About letting go to think about what shape helps to best form the idea. What are all the realms doing with response to the idea? How is the idea best expressed? I order it and then work within what I’ve come up with in terms of structure. It’s like a poet giving herself specific constraints in which to realise an idea or poetic moment.

MN: How do notions of place and identity inform your work?

TM: They have been at the centre of my work, not because I have always wanted to be writing about identity, but because part of my knowing of myself comes through writing. I come from a history of dislocation and rupture, so the desire and need to understand place and belonging have been key. I once wrote an article called “I Move Therefore I am,” and was not really being ironic. I see myself in the process of becoming, all the time. When that becoming involves place and rupture, the issues of identity take centre stage. While I also write about metaphysical concerns of being human, they also centre on being human in a particular place. I have a complicated family tree that represents migrations and dislocations due to colonialism, slavery and indenture. To understand identity under the historical conditions of colonialism and power dynamics might just be a lifetime of work.

'Shame on Me' - Tessa Mcwatt

MN: What issues of accessibility and gatekeeping exist in the worlds of publishing and academia? How might we challenge them?

TM: This is a huge question that I’m not sure I can answer properly here. There is the issue of positionality (where one sits in relation to power dynamics) that is the heart of the question of gatekeeping. Up until now the gatekeepers haven’t really been asked to consider their positions to power and ‘otherness’ in a way that made them question their choices for publishing or academia. That’s beginning to happen in terms of superficial notions of diversity and inclusion, but real power is structural, so we really need to understand how it operates and how we all fit into that structure in order to fully understand accessibility. We also need to dissect what accessibility means, and to what? To power? Do we want to replicate power dynamics but change the content? What can we do outside of those structures or how can we reinvent a way of living that refuses power structures and looks to other models of creative practice and distribution of creative ideas? There are many examples, but a truly decolonised enterprise has not as yet been fully conceived for publishing or academia. We can start with ourselves as individuals and understand who we are in the dynamics of power and the dynamics of change. Imagine ourselves as gatekeepers and challenge the whole notion of gatekeeping.

MN: I completely agree. I’m not sure we can restructure from the inside - especially since the power to even begin having those conversations lies with those in power, who benefit from it. I think finding and nurturing alternate spaces and methodologies is maybe a starting point for how we begin to build decolonised academic models. Being white, able-bodied and middle-class, both of these worlds were set up for people like me, so I can’t voice exactly what this might mean. There’s a lot of work to do. I did use to think a lot of the answers to accessibility laid with online facilities - what we do at !GWAK, online teaching, MOOCs, YouTube...but that’s feeling increasingly unsustainable after this year. So many of us are suffering with screen fatigue, and those with sensory issues are finding their learning inhibited/made triggering or stressful by not being able to regulate the sounds of poor connections, for example...

TM: Yes, so true. I think we might be getting screen illnesses. And we have to remember that the access to those screens and that technology is also governed by gatekeepers of huge economic power. And our data has become their resource extraction exercise. Data extraction is the new commodity of the plantation. We’re all playing our part in the plantation now. We need a new form of abolition, a new way of imagining just what freedom is, just what justice is. We need our imaginations to lead us.

MN: What is your advice to aspiring writers?

TM: It’s a cliché to say read, read, read – so I’m not going to reiterate that here. While reading is crucial, I think that working with others and staying open, listening, exploring, experimenting with what you see, hear and write is important in finding your voice. Keep the work central to your joy, to what you need to do. Play. Love.

MN: What do you hope to see in the future of creative writing?

TM: I hope we just see more! More ways of approaching language, more ways of working collaboratively, more voices, more perspectives we’ve never encountered, more challenges to the status quo, more ways of connecting with one another through literature and art, more ways of being happy and responsible humans, more ways of making meaning for a life that is brief and needs to have purpose.