How a creative-writing program that admits just seven students a year is cultivating the country’s next generation of literary giants
Ghalib Islam is a slight 32-year-old whose unassuming demeanour belies the brilliant literary career that likely awaits him. Fire in the Unnameable Country, the author’s debut novel released this spring by Penguin, has become one of the year’s most hotly debated works of Canadian fiction.
Islam’s book is unconventional, to say the least: at one point, its narrator, who happened to have been born on a flying carpet, turns into an owl. The story takes readers on a dystopian journey through an unspecified, if vaguely Middle-Eastern, country under the grip of thought surveillance. The book’s publisher has said that, upon receiving Islam’s manuscript, there was a sense that they had found Canada’s George Orwell.
But U of T found him first.
Though many years in the making, Fire in the Unnameable Country took shape in the university’s two-year creative writing MA program. Islam, who earned his degree in 2006, was among the program’s first graduates. It was during his studies that he completed the first draft of his novel. U of T is also where he befriended fellow student and author Jonathan Garfinkel, who would connect Islam to both his literary agent and eventual publisher. Islam’s academic advisor – and reason for applying to U of T in the first place – was none other than Margaret Atwood.
“He worked very hard and long on that book, taking it through several metamorphoses,” says Rosemary Sullivan, the program’s first director and one of its founders – and an award-winning author herself. “He always had the advice and support of Margaret Atwood, long after the formal mentorship was over.”
Islam says Atwood pointed him to works of fiction whose narrative styles influenced his own inventive approach. “Once in a while she would point to a text, and say ‘this is an example of metafiction I think you should look at,’” he recalls, laughing over his surprise when she recommended Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. It had never occurred to him that his more obvious influences, such as the magic realism of Günter Grass and Jorge Luis Borges, had been cut from the same cloth as the 19th-century novelist.
A mentorship, which pairs each student with an author working in either poetry or prose, has proven to be one of the MA program’s key selling points. Atwood isn’t the only big name involved: Griffin Poetry Prize-winning poet A.F. Moritz, Dora Mavor Moore Award-winning playwright Linda Griffiths, and former Poet Laureate of Toronto Dionne Brand count themselves among the program’s adjuncts.
The star cast of mentors isn’t the only major draw. Unlike programs that focus squarely on producing and workshopping a manuscript, U of T’s program also includes academic courses, allowing students to go on to pursue a PhD in English. Also unlike many MFA programs, U of T’s funding package provides students a paid teaching assistantship in the department of English, should they want it. It’s no surprise, then, that the program – which admits only seven students each year – is poised to produce Canada’s finest crop of upcoming writers.
“We get about 10 applicants for each available place, so the competition is very intense,” says the program’s director, Richard Greene, a professor of English at U of T Mississauga who took over from Sullivan in 2012. The requirements are stringent: prospective students must have earned a BA with no less than a B+ average. They must also have a “very fine portfolio of creative writing” (published or unpublished), says Greene, and sterling academic references. Without fail, each round of applications turns up countless gems. “There is nothing I hate as much as signing rejection letters for writers who are obviously full of promise,” says Greene. “But it happens every year.”
For 2012 graduate Suzannah Showler, U of T’s hybrid professional-academic approach made it the only creative writing graduate program she applied to. “At the time, the idea of doing an MA rather than an MFA appealed because I wanted to keep the door to a PhD ajar,” she recalls.
It was the late Michael Dickson, a professor in the department of English, who came up with the idea of introducing a creative writing degree to U of T’s School of Graduate Studies. He got an enthusiastic response from the English department’s other creative writers, so he approached Sullivan, a Governor General’s Award-winning writer, a colleague and a friend, in the early 2000s to spearhead the initiative.
Student funding was an early – and a crucial – consideration. In addition to the teaching assistantship, the program has always encouraged students to apply for the Ontario Graduate Scholarship and for funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. In 2009, Carla and Clayton Gilders established the Adam Penn Gilders Scholarship in Creative Writing at the department of English, in memory of their son. The scholarship varies in amount and is awarded to one first-year creative writing student every year. (Then, in 2012, the department began offering the Avie Bennett Emerging Writing scholarships, worth $7,000 and awarded to each student accepted into the program.)
From there, Dickson, along with his colleagues, determined that the program’s first year would include academic coursework and a multi-genre writing workshop, with the second year devoted to producing a manuscript that would be defended in an oral exam. Sullivan came up with the idea to pair the students during the second year with professional writing mentors, who would offer advice and encouragement to each burgeoning author along the way.
“Those of us in the department who have had long experience in writing understood that it’s really important to try to include a professional context in which the students could work,” says Sullivan.
The idea was not to teach students how to write but to nurture the ability they already have. “There are of course writers’ ‘tricks,’ in the best sense of the word, that can be taught to young writers, such as how to manipulate your characters’ points of view, where metaphoric language works, how to create tone, the importance of structure and so forth,” says Sullivan. Ultimately, however, the program aims to build a writer’s self-assuredness.
“For a young writer, so much depends on confidence and stamina,” says Sullivan. “It takes discipline to spend days alone writing in a room. For this, you really need a network of support.”
Students hone and refine elements of their craft, but membership in a close, creative community is really the program’s hallmark. As Sullivan puts it, “The students in a creative writing program gain as much from the support of the other young writers in the program as from the director; they gain a sense of community that sustains the outrageous desire to turn oneself into a serious writer.”
Each mentor is paired with a student on the basis of mutual compatibility and interest. Often the students themselves will have an idea of a specific writer they’d like to work with; otherwise, the program’s director will make a recommendation.
Most of the program’s mentors are based in Toronto, but not all – Montreal-based poet, editor and anthologist Carmine Starnino is a first-time adjunct faculty member this year. He describes his approach to mentorship as “full service”: a combination of manuscript guidance, professional direction and moral support.
“I think what young writers are missing is a sense of the lay of the land,” says Starnino. “So, I can provide a lot of that. I think what U of T has in mind is to help poets not only write better poems but to help them talk to editors and understand the editorial process.” He and his first assigned student corresponded through a combination of phone calls, email, and trips between the two cities – another glimpse of what writers can expect in an increasingly global publishing sphere.
Poet Michael Prior has been assigned to work with Starnino in the next school year. Prior considers himself fortunate to be able to tap into the writer-editor’s wisdom around making a living as a poet. His fellow classmates have also proven themselves to be a useful professional resource; in the often-solitary world of writing, these connections can be hard to come by.
“[The program is] a great way to network with other writers and to get to know people,” says Prior. “I’m really grateful for my classmates. They’re all brilliant and very talented, and [working with them has] been a great way to develop my writing.” He adds that having to actually sit in a room with six other people critically reading his work has made him extra-meticulous about his phrasing.
“I still think the best way to learn to write is to do so diligently and read widely, but the workshop is great for refining style and catching the parts of one’s writing that one may be too close to, and consequently unable to identify as not working,” says Prior. “As well, sharing class time and hanging out with each other has led to a sort of a collective library of influences – both in each other and in the writers whose work we admire and introduce to the class.”
In this age of ebooks and dwindling publishing profits, network-building opportunities and business development skills are essential. Early on, the students listen to a talk about the ins and outs of the publishing industry that hones in on landing an agent and figuring out royalties. But the mentor also helps their student learn marketing and self-promotion.
Suzannah Showler is another of the program’s recent luminaries. A 2013 finalist for the prestigious RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers, she released a book of poetry, Failure to Thrive, this past spring. (The award’s 2013 winner, Laura Clarke, is also a graduate of the program.) Showler says she benefitted from the direction she got from Sullivan, in particular, who stressed a need for pragmatic thinking when considering a writing career.
“If I’m lucky enough that I get to keep writing, trying to find a balance of career and craft that feels authentic is something I’m probably always going to have to work at,” she says. “When it comes to that, the U of T program gave me access to people to turn to as examples or sources of wisdom who I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise.” She considers, in particular, her mentor-student relationship with the writer Kevin Connolly as one that not only opened doors, but was instrumental in forming her book.
She describes the program itself as “really Canadian feeling and collegial and supportive.” Because of its small size, there’s room for everyone to have their own identity and, as Showler puts it, “not be elbowing one another for territory.”
While director Richard Greene is coy about how he sees the program evolving, he’s excited to point out the addition of new mentors – the poet Karen Solie, for one. He’s also proud of new entrance grants. “It has been a great development, easing the financial situation of the students,” he says.
U of T’s creative writing students and alumni have received countless honours for their fiction and poetry in the past decade, and have published more than 20 books. Among these are All We Want Is Everything, a collection of short stories by Andrew F. Sullivan, which placed on The Globe and Mail’s Top 100 list of Canadian fiction for 2013.
Canada’s literary darling du jour, Ghalib Islam, remains grateful for the hand U of T’s program had in shaping his work, particularly for how it helped him develop new habits and a heightened sense of confidence. “I came to the program already a writer, but what changed were certain methods or processes,” he says. “It was a very vibrant, dynamic program.”
Though retired, Sullivan keeps abreast of the program’s goings-on and its alumni successes with a sort of quasi-maternal pride. While she recognizes that the Internet age poses challenges to the publishing industry, she remains convinced that the demand for substantive, thought-provoking literature won’t disappear anytime soon. And, as long as there are writers, the need for communities that support them will remain. Still, she deadpans: “A writing workshop is really about building the necessary arrogance you need to be a writer, to believe that you can survive as a writer in the world.” As far as she and a legion of successful graduates are concerned, it’s a worthwhile mission.
Read an excerpt from Fire in the Unnameable Country, by Ghalib Islam (MA 2006)