Today we speak to Manchester Writing School alum and School Liaison Assistant Robert Nelson from the Manchester Metropolitan University. Read on to learn about the prize-winning Mother Tongue, Other Tongue poetry project, the importance of Creative Writing in today’s world, and Robert’s own writing interests. Follow him on Instagram: @infinitelyrobert.
Tell us about the Mother Tongue, Other Tongue project at MMU…
Mother Tongue Other Tongue is a writing competition which has been running for nearly a decade now. It celebrates linguistic diversity in the UK and the importance of learning new languages. The competition has two components. First there’s Mother Tongue, for children who speak a different language at home. They can write an original piece (usually poetry but not always) or use an existing one that means something to them. They then write a commentary in English discussing its significance/importance. This commentary is what we judge from. It’s really inspiring to read all the children’s work, which looks at everything from nursery rhymes sung to them by their mother, to more topical writings on issues like the climate crisis.
The Other Tongue category asks for a completely original piece written in a second language that the entrant has been learning at school (usually French, Spanish, Italian, but not always). Then it’s up to a team of specialist judges who are either native speakers or fluent in each chosen language. Competitions like this allow children to use their language skills in ways they’re not often pushed to. In many cases, the kids will realise they have a greater understanding of their chosen ‘Other Tongue’ than they first thought.
This is my third year working on the project and it has gone from strength to strength. Each year keeps getting better and it’s been a lot of fun. The University also runs workshops for schools where MMU poets go and talk to pupils about writing. Getting to hear the kids’ stories is very rewarding and it’s always interesting seeing what they can come up with. Last year, we were awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize – a great honour for all of us – and, in February this year, I even got to attend an award ceremony at Buckingham Palace!
The competition was endorsed by Malala Yousafzai and Imtiaz Dharker, right?
Yes, Malala and Imtiaz have both attended our celebration events and spoken about the importance of multilingualism. They are both so inspirational and have done so much for education in the UK and around the world. Malala is a great icon for women’s education, so it was truly humbling to hear her speak about her upbringing. Imtiaz is also such an incredible and passionate poet. I find her poems personally inspiring and I’m thankful they have a space on the GCSE curriculum. We should all be listening to progressive, original voices like her.
Wasn’t it Carol Ann Duffy, former Poet Laureate, that founded the MO/OT project?
I didn’t get to work with Carol Ann directly, but she played a huge role in founding Mother Tongue, Other Tongue and has attended previous years’ events. She’s a literary giant and such an important figure for contemporary British poetry. I’ve been fortunate enough to see her perform in the past (working in outreach has its perks!) and I love the powerful imagery she evokes in her writing.
You’re an MA Creative Writing graduate yourself. In which medium do you work best?
I’ve loved reading ever since I was young, and first-person perspective novels are definitely my favourite. It’s both fascinating and thrilling to see inside a character’s head, allowing you, in a sense, to become that character, and to experience their world as they do. I experience this quite a lot in my own writing. You have to become your characters in order to write them, which allows you, and your readers, to then sync with that character and their fictional world.
Tell us about your own writing interests/current writing projects…
I’m working on a couple of different things right now. I’ve just started a new piece exploring online relationships during the coronavirus pandemic. I feel topics like relationships and closeness are especially relevant as we try to navigate our current global health crisis. Social distancing measures have changed the way we work, live and learn, directing people towards the internet in ways we’ve never seen. More so than we could have thought possible.
Of course, the internet played a growing part in our daily interactions before the pandemic too – especially in how we start and maintain relationships. Social media, in this regard, has been both the best and worst thing to happen to society. Thank you, Mark Zuckerberg… I like to write about relevant topics like social media usage, alongside more sensitive issues such as mental health. I think there has been too much “othering” and not enough normalising, which doesn’t make much sense, as virtually everyone experiences mental health troubles at some point in their lives.
What role does Creative Writing have to play in today’s world?
I think Creative Writing is something that will always be very important. It allows us to express our hopes, dreams, fears, fantasies, and thoughts. It is of great relevance today, as we find ourselves in a heretofore unprecedented situation. Almost like we’ve stepped out of reality and into a Margaret Atwood novel. Writing and reading about global issues like the coronavirus helps us rationalise and process the gravity of it all.
Which authors inspire you?
I’ve been immersing myself in a lot of books by Korean and Japanese authors. I love learning about different cultures and experiencing alternative perspectives. One writer who really inspires me is Han Kang. She’s a Korean novelist best known for her book The Vegetarian, which won the Man Booker International Prize, but one of my personal favourites of hers is Human Acts.
Human Acts looks at the 1980 Gwanju Democratic Uprising from multiple perspectives, which really humanises the massacre and sheds light on the tragedy of war. It’s a book that really touched me as a writer. One can only aspire to be able to communicate the depth of human emotions in such eloquent terms.
Written by Michael Conroy and Robert Nelson.
Image from the Manchester Metropolitan University.
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