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How words change our world


Kate Tempest, Hollie McNish, words changing the worldCan words change the world?

Poetry, stories and literature are often dismissed as being frivolous creative pursuits that should be secondary to the real stuff – like the economy, or politics.

These, people might say, are the fundamentals of life, and what really matter. If we want to change the world, there’s no time for play and words. As WH Auden wrote ‘In Memory of WB Yeats’: ‘For poetry makes nothing happen.’

The words are slightly out of context, but often quoted as such, and this misses a fundamental fact – words build a world.

Yes, it may be naïve to think that terrorism, war, climate change and poverty can be solved by reading poetry or stories, but they can be addressed by communication and relationships.

Rebecca Solnit in her essay ‘Silence Is Broken’ articulates this beautifully: ‘Words bring us together, and silence separates us, leaves us bereft of the help or solidarity or just communion that speech can solicit or elicit.’

Language has many functions – flow of information, education, entertainment – but its most important is communication. As a tool for connection, there is little more powerful.

Words are what enable us to have a discourse and engage in conversation. And by conveying viewpoints and perspectives we learn about other cultures, even more crucial in our global age.

There’s a huge opportunity in hearing another’s voice and understanding their opinion, the context it is born from, and in challenging preconceptions.

By allowing us to take a closer look at the similarities, and differences, between ourselves and others, we take away some of the immediate thoughts and barriers, and find a level of human connection.

The capacity of literature to evoke empathy doesn’t only mean it makes a reader feel compassion for a fictional being, it also draws our awareness to and reinforces our recognition that there are other points of view in the world, that there are other ways of living, and what these ways may allow us to experience.

Writing does not have to be explicitly political, anthropological or economic in subject or tone in order to offer value.

It can simply help us to envisage things afresh, and re-present apparently fixed states, some of which may appear to be quite fundamental differences, such as gender and religion.

Bridget Minamore, a writer and student from London, rose to prominence when sharing her poem ‘Hypocrites And Double Ds’ for International Women’s Day.

Written with a group of teenage girls in a drama workshop, she has described it as being “about highlighting the problems women face and celebrating the positive female role models we have already.”

Cardiff poet Hanan Issa aims to challenge stereotypes about feminism and Islam through her work. She met Nasima Ahmed at the Cardiff Women’s March, and they are working together to design art and words that demonstrate equality.

Zadie Smith’s novels ‘White Teeth’ and ‘NW’ explore the place of race, ethnicity, gender and class in modern multicultural London through the lives of a handful of characters.

Literature is storytelling. For centuries this is how people have made sense of the world, whether it’s the Bible, Aesop or hip-hop.

But by telling or listening to or reading the stories of other people and places in the world we can appreciate the nuances and vicissitudes of individuals’ lives, and how they might fit into a wider context.

Take Hollie McNish and her book of prose and poetry ‘Nobody Told Me’.

Addressing the realities of becoming a mother for the first time, her poem ‘Embarrassed’ manages to cover the worries of motherhood, the lack of facilities for mums, the proliferation of porn, the controversy surrounding formula milk being sold to parents in Africa.

In her one personal tale many issues are addressed – all this while sitting on public toilets to breastfeed her daughter.

McNish cites one value of creativity as the way it “often brings out the structural and political issues and makes them easy to engage with in so many different ways.”

This year, spoken word artist and poet Kate Tempest is guest director of the Brighton Festival, and she has curated a programme to celebrate what she calls the ‘Everyday Epic’ – art that helps us connect to ourselves and others, explores our individual stories and differences, and encourages audiences to take a walk in someone else’s shoes.

And as she said, “Art is social. It should be a part of life. No big deal – just life itself.”

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