Peter John Hassall is lecturer at Zayed University in Dubai. In 2003, he devised the Extremely Short Story Competition (ESSC), which has spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula and the Far East and is having an impact on English as a Foreign Language learners and the wider population in these regions.
Three ESSC Anthologies based on university students’ entries have been published so far and the ESSC Exhibition ‘Facets of Emirati Women’ is touring internationally. Peter was in Greece last October.
He was a plenary speaker at the 3rd TESOL Greece Tripolis Event and ELT NEWS did not miss the chance to talk to him.
∙You are the initiator of the extremely short story competition. How did it all start? It all started way back in 2003. I was an advisor to the Zayed University (ZU) Student Literature Club in Dubai. I thought that I should perhaps encourage the students to write something in English themselves, because at that time there was very little creative English authored by Emirati nationals.
I had lived in New Zealand prior to coming to the UAE in 2000 and had listened with interest to a week-end talk show on Radio New Zealand.
The host of this program, called Brian Edwards, asked listeners to send in their 50-word short stories. Some of these stories were read out on his show and later, in 1997, compiled into a book called: ‘Incredibly Short Stories’.
It seemed to me that this would work very well with the ZU Student Literature Club and so I tried it out with them. This was the very first story I showed them:
Arrival, cold, feeding, warmth, elimination, changing, powdering, adoration, faltering, growing, eating, progressing, changing, yearning, palpitating, grasping, conjugation, exquisite joy, fear, flight, growing, fancying, waiting, needing, building, mating, parenting, building, working, boredom, losing, yearning, escaping, sinning, exquisite joy, pain, remorse, settling, observing arrival, feeding, changing, powdering; stability, peace, feeding, cold, departure. Bill Humphrey, NZ
I showed the ZU literature a number of different 50-word stories from New Zealand based on different types of writing involving routine everyday events, humor, horror, fairy-tales and even science fiction!
As the students appeared eager to ‘try their hand’ at writing 50-word short stories I devised the first instructional advertisement for what I termed the Extremely Short Story Competition [ESSC] as follows:
Win Great Prizes & Get Published with the Extremely Short Story Competition
All you need to do is write anything you want to write about. You can write fact or fiction, poetry or prose or even things that are ‘nuss-u-nuss’. Use the Word Count on your computer to check. Remember the title and author’s name are extra. There are 50 words here.
Here the anglicized Arabic term ‘nuss-u-nuss’ was used to refer to anything which was half Arabic and half English. It was very important for Emirati students to be able to use their own ‘World English’ to write about things they knew about – which were ‘close to their hearts’.
This paid off and the ESSC submission process, with prizes sponsored by the British Council, motivated 150 female ZU students to e-mail in 250 x 50-word stories to the Zayed University Literature Club from the two campuses of Zayed University – in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, which is two hours south of Dubai.
Since that time, we have had websites built and upgraded to enable the ESSC to function at government tertiary colleges and universities throughout the UAE (2006) and even, with the support of the British Council, reach throughout the Arabian Peninsula including all the GCC countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE and even remote colleges in Yemen.
To date, we have published 3 ESSC anthologies from Zayed University UAE, with two English/Japanese ESSC e-anthologies now available worldwide from vendors such as Amazon.
∙Why 50 words and not ...100? Is there a rationale behind the 50-word-limit? Well, the ESSC was initiated before ‘tweets’ on ‘Twitter’ which have a maximum of just 140 characters. In an article which I wrote in the Journal World Englishes (Hassall: 2006, 149), I referred to texts of exactly 50-words as ‘information bytes’.
I explained that I considered the texts produced by the ESSC are of a significant length, upon which many innovations for English Language Teaching and also E-government may be built.
The ESSC 50-word ‘stories’ provide the minimum amount of text with which something really meaningful may be expressed and which can capture something about the cultural background, history and aspirations of the writer.
In fact, I have recently run a slightly different competition in the UAE. This was a bi-lingual English/Arabic competition which invited Zayed University students to write just 40 words – one for every year that the UAE has been in existence.
It has recently been the 40th anniversary of the founding of the UAE and this 40 words for 40 years competition collected 40 stories in English and Arabic which together with a photograph or another visual using the national colors of the UAE (green, white, red & black) comprised an exhibition which has been on display since the 40th UAE National Day at the beginning of December 2011.
This 40wX40y competition was highly successful and succeeded in functioning bilingually in Arabic and English – but perhaps it did not do justice to the creativity of the student/authors in quite the same way as the 50-word ESSC competition does.
∙Can students express themselves in 50 words? The 50 words constraint appears to really help most students express themselves. Initially, students might complain and suggest that they cannot express themselves as they wish in exactly 50 words.
However, very soon students get used to writing exactly 50 words and seem to enjoy checking the word-count and choosing their words carefully to express themselves in exactly 50 words.
The 50 words constraint really seems to helps students develop economy of language - carefully selecting words for their conciseness and clarity.
From the writing instructor’s point of view the exact 50-word prescription has the advantage that students are forced into proofreading and modifying their written work, at least once, to satisfy the 50-word requirement.
Perhaps what is most noticeable about the 50-word short stories is that so many students appear to be able to succeed with this format in their own, unique way.
Diversity is celebrated with the ESSC: the smallest voice of the most gentle student writing about an innocuous subject, such as family pet, might be put next to the work of vivacious, prolific writers where all manner of subjects, styles and genres might be dealt with.
It is this diversity of expression which makes the 50 words ‘stories’ so exciting for me.
∙Is writing a short story a creative approach to writing? As I mentioned earlier, the word ‘story’ in the 50-word ESSC competition invites student/authors to write ‘fact or fiction, poetry or prose’.
The word ‘story’ was chosen to ensure that low-level students who wished to contribute to the ESSC were not discouraged by alternative, more academic, words such as ‘text’ or more narrowly defined terms such as ‘poem’ or ‘haiku’ , ‘flash-fiction’ or ‘mini-saga’.
Rather what was being offered was a discourse arena or real-life language laboratory where students could experiment with their creative ideas, in small ‘chunks’ (cf. Allwright, 1977), and try them out on their peers (stories were put on display in their home institutions) and the general public (in both ESSC newspaper columns and ESSC anthologies).
Given this, the whole approach to writing for the ESSC was creative. Student/authors were initially given complete free-reign about what they chose to write about and how they chose to write it.
This provided a wonderful opportunity to find out what this little-known group of Emiratis actually wanted to write about and how they wanted to write it and made it possible for comparison to be made with Japanese student/authors who had been given similar freedom of expression.
In very positive ways, this provided real relief for the student/authors and their teachers who were generally primarily focused on the instrumental use of English for examinations (such as the IELTS or TOEFL).
I like to think that if students are really to achieve high grades (bands or scores) on such academic English examinations then they really need to get involved with the language creatively and engagement with extra-curricular mechanisms for stimulating imaginative language production, such as the ESSC, might really help them develop those parts of language which more usual language classroom tasks ‘cannot reach!’.
∙The ESSC is popular within the Arab peninsula and the Far East. Has there been any plans to introduce it to Europe and beyond? My colleague Ken Collins, who is an EAQUALS member and lives near Bordeaux in France, and myself have been interested in introducing the ESSC into Europe for some time.
This year, following a highly successful ESSC workshop at the EAQUALS International Conference in Prague when the ESSC was made an EAQUALS Project Partner, Ken and I presented papers for TESOL Greece at the Tripolis Art Centre, where Panagiota Bourtsoukli, Academic Manager of the Bourtsoukli Language School (EAQUALS accredited member), had arranged for the ESSC ‘Facets of Emirati Women International Traveling Exhibition [Facets FITEx] to be put on display.
Ken Collins, the ESSC administrative co-ordinator for Europe, presented “Implementing the Extremely Short Story Competition in Europe: Benefits & Procedures” and I spoke on “Germinating World Literatures with the ESSC”.
Following this, the ESSC Facets FITEx Exhibition was sent onto the QUEST Conference held in Bucharest Romania where Dr. Laura Muresan on behalf of QUEST (the Romanian Association for Quality in Language Services: an Associate Member of EAQUALS) displayed the Facets FITEx Exhibition prominently and Ken (in SW France) and myself (in Dubai, UAE) presented similar presentations by video-link.
Following this, the ESSC has been discussed further in Sofia, Bulgaria at Optima, the Bulgarian Association for Quality Language Services.
It is hoped that the ESSC will be introduced either monolingually or bilingually in at least one of these countries: Greece, Romania or Bulgaria, in 2012 when the ESSC website will be made available: www.50words.org
To see which places the Facets of Emirati Women International Travelling Exhibition [Facets FITEx] has visited, go to www.zu.ac.ae/facets and click on the map. We have also had expressions of interest to show the ESSC Facets FITEx Exhibition in Mexico, Eqypt and SW China with possible follow up by the ESSC team at a later date.
∙Some of the short stories I have seen, with their visuals, are works of art. Is writing an art or a skill? To me writing is both a skill and an art. In terms of its instrumental use writing should perhaps be considered a skill or a craft. I am a teacher in the Department of Languages, University College Zayed University where I teach academic writing as a skill.
However, I do consider that writing, particularly when it engages the creative capacity of the individual to its fullest, may also be considered an art.
In this case the individual would need to make choices regarding what they wish to express and how they wish to communicate this to achieve maximum artistic effect which might include elements of surprise, engagement and sincerity.
The 50-word short story competition is something which really encourages artistic endeavor.
An earlier presentation I made at the University of Birmingham, UK and the TESOL France Colloquium (2009) was entitled “World Englishes as Art: the Extremely Short Story in Arabia and the Far East”.
Professor Chris Kennedy, who organized this lecture at Birmingham, explained: ‘What is so refreshing about this creative approach to writing is that students are free to choose their own content and their own expressions but in exactly 50 words. The result is a fascinating insight into the cultures and concerns of students from all over the world.’
Brian Aldiss, the British science fiction writer and originator of the 50-word Mini Saga competitions in the Daily Telegraph back in the 1980s produced Mini Saga books ‘seeded’ with 50-word contributions commissioned from a host of award winning writers including Carol Shields winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Rachael Cusk winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award and John Le Carre together with celebrities such as the comedian Harry Seycombe and the pop-singer Ray Davies of the Kinks. In 2009, Brian Aldiss came to the UAE and saw the Facets FITEx Exhibition on display at the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature (EAIFL) and attended the launch of the 3rd ESSC anthology “Facets of Emirati Women: World English Voices of the UAE” on the EAIFL Fringe.
I wonder whether you find it as exciting as I do to read what multiple unknown authors from diverse cultures want to tell you in just 50 words.
I will leave you with the synopsis provided by Amazon for the Facets of Emirati Women: Japanese/English ESSC E-Book [Kindle Edition] Peter John Hassall (Editor/Author), Fujimi Sakai Tanaka (Translator), Yuko Takeshita (Translator):
Facets of Emirati Women tells fascinating stories of a new generation of women from the United Arab Emirates, one of the youngest and most rapidly developing nations of the world. Today, less than 20% of the six million population are Emirati Arabs; the majority now consist of Asian nationals.
In addition, there are now many more males than females inhabiting the UAE. Together these remarkable contrasts have conspired to ensure that, to the outside world, Emirati women appear members of a relatively unfamiliar and enigmatic sector of UAE society who, as all Emiratis, have experienced incredible changes on a global scale.
It is for these Emirati women and their men-folk that this e-book hopes to provide a creative space, to enable them to express their thoughts and ideas in writing and photographs to provide a glimpse into their world. http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B005S682JM