'Last Year of Guaranteed Funding' for the WayWORD Festival
Some Highlights From This Year's Festival
By Theo Pieczka
The WayWORD festival returned to campus this month for a successful fourth year, running from the 19th to the 24th of September.
With an extensive programme of over forty events ranging from comedy to dance to poetry readings, WayWORD is Aberdeen’s only literary and cross-arts festival organised by the University of Aberdeen and the WORD Centre for Creative Writing. This year featured big names such as Kathleen Jamie, Sean Wai Keung, Michael Pedersen, and Chitra Ramaswamy.
Considering the diversity of the programme, it was surprising to see common themes emerging over the course of several very different events. I found one example of this in the screening of Isabel Seguí and Lorena Cervera’s provocative documentary, #PrecarityStory, which follows the story of Seguí as a precarious university worker amidst the 2018-2020 industrial action in the UK. Opening on a black screen with the bold statement ‘This film is not about me, but my working life’, the documentary explores Seguí’s position working both as an academic staff member and as a university cleaner in order to earn a salary just above the poverty line. Intertwining thought-provoking and heart-wrenching scenes (‘I cannot lie to students’, Seguí says to camera after meeting with a prospective PhD student) with a frank sense of humour (‘I don’t prefer marking to cleaning toilets’), #PrecarityStory uses Seguí’s working life as a vehicle to bring attention to the real people at the centre of the strikes.
The film draws its title from a hashtag under which precarious academic staff across the country shared their stories — reflecting the collective nature of both the subject matter and the making of the documentary.
Cervera and Seguí did not shy away from any discomfort or tension in tackling such a fraught situation. When asked to share more of her personal life, Seguí quipped, ‘I sacrifice my body but not my soul’ — a statement serving as a painful reminder of the workload pressure university staff are often placed under.
Huddled into a small room in a corner of King’s Pavilion, only hours before the announcement that Aberdeen’s own strikes were to end, tensions were high in the audience as the film concluded and the floor opened for a Q&A session with Seguí herself. The following half-hour revealed expressions of frustration at the lack of communication within The University and College Union (UCU). Seguí commented that she made attempts to arrange a screening with UCU but received no response. There seemed to be a growing sense of desperation, as the questions all seemed to lead back to the same key concerns: Have things changed? What can we do next? How do we fight systems from within?
An unexpected answer to such questions could be found in one of Friday’s events: a discussion on biographies and memoirs with Chitra Ramaswamy, chaired by Aberdeen University’s own Timothy C. Baker, with student Eleanor Campbell also interviewing. Ramaswamy’s new book Homelands: The History of a Friendship, published in April 2023 by Canongate Books, relays the incredible life of 99-year-old German Jewish refugee Henry Wuga. It explores the bond Ramaswamy and Henry developed over the ten-year period in which she was writing the book. One of the challenges she faced while writing, Ramaswamy explained, was Henry’s shifting memory over that long stretch of time. In an effort not to take the stance of (in her words) the ‘thoughtless biographer’, Ramaswamy found that the ‘problematic nature of memory surfaced as a theme in the book.’ Ramaswamy demonstrated this approach by reading a passage from the very end of the book, which deals with the start of Henry’s journey to the UK via the Kindertransport scheme. It was also important, she said, to write the book in the present tense in order to keep Henry’s story alive and to show that his story did not conclude with the end of the war. Describing this blurring of genre, Ramaswamy expressed that she thought of Homelands as ‘human nature writing.’ While only hearing snippets of the book, I can agree this is an apt description.
As Ramaswamy discussed the book, what came through perhaps more than anything else was the loving relationship that she and Henry shared, and how much care she took in telling his life story. She spoke with a calm, collected, and journalistic voice; her words were carefully chosen and imbued with a sense of urgency. She knows the weight of Henry’s story and holds it with grace. At one point, she referred to him as her ‘adopted Jewish grandfather’ and spoke of the unexpected emotional significance of finding that intergenerational bond. Growing up as a second-generation Indian immigrant, she lacked that connection within her own extended family. Ramaswamy revealed more throughout the evening on striking the balance between telling her story and Henry’s, and the care she took to never equate the two. Leaving the audience with a stark reminder of the relevance and gravity of a story like Henry’s, she stressed that
Homelands is a testament to friendships made across divides, and that it is this solidarity and persistence of human connection which will save us.
She ended with a passage recounting the first time her parents met Henry and his wife Ingrid, describing them as ‘four wildly British people’ all here for ‘reasons as bound together as the ocean floor.’ A similar theme of migration and community emerged at an earlier event exploring the poetry of Sean Wai Keung and Michael Pedersen. The evening began with a reading from Keung’s latest collection of poems sikfan glaschu, which explores his connection with food and living as a second-generation immigrant in Glasgow. Keung compared his desire to perform and write poetry to his desire to provide for people through his cooking. Listening to him perform his poems certainly felt like eating a complex and satisfying meal. He spoke with a soft, inviting voice, and his words traversed a broad palate of observant humour, emotional vulnerability, and political awareness. One of his poems deals with grief, inheritance, and Keung’s relationship with his maternal grandfather (or gung gung, in Cantonese) in a moving reflection on human connection, similar to Ramaswamy’s. In a particularly touching story, Keung described a pile of old receipts he inherited from his gung gung which featured a number of sketches and drawings, and he then read the ensuing poem that focused on one such sketch of a tree. Another poem explored Glasgow’s Chinatown: ‘This place was built by migrants’, he read with vigour before taking a meaningful pause, ‘and we have been eating here ever since.’ He finished reading to the sound of thoughtful murmurs and resounding applause.
While Michael Pedersen’s writing covers much of the same areas of food, death, grief, and cats (he dubs these the ‘four pillars of society’), his presence as a performer could not be more markedly different from Keung’s gentle yet powerful approach. Wearing a vibrant purple t-shirt adorned with bright letters of varying fabrics and the words ‘The Cat Prince’ (after his latest poetry collection The Cat Prince & Other Poems), he began his set by removing his shoes, because they squeak ‘like your upstairs neighbours shagging.’ Positively overflowing with words, it is nearly impossible to tell where Pedersen’s poems start and end; he was thrilling to watch. Though occasionally intercut with editorial asides such as ‘‘F**k Pluto...that’s not in the poem, it’s a personal vendetta’, his pieces were nonetheless emotionally cognizant and contained striking explorations of grief and masculinity.
The festival ended on Sunday with Scotland’s Makar Kathleen Jamie, in conversation with Alan Spence. Certainly one of the festival’s most well-attended events, Jamie opened with one of her older poems titled Black Spider. As rain thundered onto the roof of the King’s Pavilion Main Hall, the stage was set for an atmospheric discussion of the natural themes in Jamie’s work. One of her poems painted an image of sea birds moulting their feathers, while another described geese flying south for winter — a theme reflected on this year’s WayWORD poster. As always, her words hummed with a historical resonance: ‘It reassures you when things happen when they’re supposed to’, she remarked about the geese.
This conversation later turned to her use of Scots. She said that the complexity of Scots and its dialectal differences prevented her from writing in it for forty years, so she opted for a pan-dialectical approach. She spoke of the ‘wonderful resource’ of living in a country with three indigenous languages. Similarly, when asked about her role as Makar, she expressed, ‘It’s a great thing, not all countries have a national poet’, before adding that ‘they should.’
Finishing with an eye towards the future, like the geese flying south,
Jamie stressed the importance of climate justice, reminding us again of what surfaced as the common thread weaving WayWORD together — the resilience of human connection.
She read the final line of What the Clyde said, after COP26: ‘Hear this: fail them, and I will rise.’ As the crowd filtered out of the Pavilion for the last time, Jamie encouraged them to take a paper boat from a basket at the entrance as part of the Paper Boats campaign to float a legion of boats outside Holyrood to demand climate action.
After collecting her flowers from the closing thanks of the WayWORD festival, I spoke to creative director Helen Lynch, who said that ‘The festival has been fantastic year on year’, and stressed that what makes the programme so wonderfully diverse is the students’ involvement with curation. After telling me that this is the ‘last year of guaranteed funding’ for WayWORD, she said the festival is important in its ‘celebration of all the arts, [...] so the University should continue to fund it.’