In the Spotlight: Untold
Untold is a development programme for writers who are marginalised in society by community or conflict. Untold amplifies the work of emerging writers by identifying, developing, translating and promoting their stories to a global audience. It is in the process of registering as a charity in the UK, and we are delighted to support its work by adopting it as a charity while it awaits its UK registration.
Untold is run by a team of experienced writers, editors and arts-for-social-change professionals. They have come together to work with participants in marginalised communities, particularly in areas of conflict and post-conflict, who have a story to tell but little opportunity to develop and share their writing.
The launch project of Untold – Write Afghanistan – is currently working with women writers from across the country..
Afghanistan has 60 million Pashto and Dari speakers, and a rich literary tradition. However, years of chronic instability has resulted in little opportunity for creative expression. There is minimal infrastructure for local writers and literary translators and editors, or for the sharing of writing between language communities and ethnic groups.
The situation is particularly difficult for Afghan women, whose stories often remain hidden. Writers who have reached international audiences are invariably men, and invariably do so from outside Afghanistan. Women writers have original and important stories to write, which they want to tell in their own voices and share within and beyond their communities.
So, what is Untold doing about it?
Untold’s development programme, selects local writers from a countrywide open call, who then have the opportunity to develop their writing with experienced translators and editors, connect and share their stories with other local writers, and reach new international audiences in translation.
Write Afghanistan is creating a replicable model that can be applied to other areas of conflict and post-conflict, where marginalised writers’ stories have little opportunity to be developed and reach a wider global readership.
The strongest stories developed through the project will be shared on international literary platforms, and Untold also aims to publish a long-overdue anthology of women’s writing from Afghanistan. A region’s upheaval cannot be explained without local, female perspectives, and Untold works to amplify these voices.
Currently, Untold is working with 10 women writers across Afghanistan, from Kabul to Juzjan and Kunar, who are benefitting from the project in numerous ways. They feel more connected – locally, across ethic, linguistic and regional borders, and internationally, to readers and supporters in the UK and across the globe. They also have an enhanced ability to tell their own stories, in their own voices; an increased understanding of the international cultural landscape; and a greater sense of personal identity through their ability to express themselves creatively.
As the project develops, emerging literary translators and editors – both locally and from the Afghan diaspora in the UK – will also benefit from the project.
More broadly, Untold is educating readers and audiences, in the UK and internationally, about underrepresented – and often misrepresented – cultures and different ways of living, facilitating writers to share their experiences in. their own words.
Founder, Lucy Hannah, tells us more about the programme:
How did the idea for Untold come about?
I have worked in many parts of the world with emerging writers, leading workshops in creative writing and script-writing, and finding new platforms and different ways for writers’ stories to be heard. The idea for Untold emerged from this work, which highlighted how hard it is for your stories to be read and heard, if you live in a country which has little or no creative infrastructure. Of course, digitalisation has helped, but it is not always available, and writers still look for guidance to develop their craft, to be connected with other writers, and to access spaces for the exchange of creative ideas – particularly in areas of conflict and post-conflict.
I worked in Afghanistan for BBC Media Action / AEPO in 2008 and 2018, training new script-writers for the country’s long-running radio soap opera, New Home, New Life. During the process it became clear that the team, particularly the women, also wrote short fiction, but there is no outlet for it to be published. They told me these stories just stay in their homes, often not shared with anyone. I knew these women were strong storytellers in one medium – radio drama – and they agreed they needed a way to develop and share their other writing.
Can you tell us a bit more about the launch project of Untold – Write Afghanistan.
An open call for writers to submit stories attracted more than 100 pieces from women across the country. 10 of the strongest stories were selected by a team of Afghan readers, and we are working closely with these women writers now. We work remotely, via phone and online, with two translators in England and an experienced editor in Sri Lanka to develop the work. We also work to broker links between these writers and global publishers, to give their stories the best chance of being read more widely. We are also connecting the writers to each other to enable a local creative community to grow – something they are greatly enjoying.
What makes your work special?
I think it’s a combination of a highly rigorous approach to the work and a trust in this particular remote, creative, process. There are minimal opportunities for writers in conflict and post-conflict situations and when their experiences are represented, they are invariably represented by Western and Global North voices. Untold is special in not only working with creative writers in these areas, but in being guided by the belief that it is the writers' own stories, their own voices, and their own words which are so valuable.
Creative expression is intrinsically tied to a sense of individual and national identity. What has been the most inspiring story you have seen that highlights this?
As Director of Commonwealth Writers, I commissioned a short film from Barbados called ‘Auntie’ – a drama inspired by temporary care givers, known as “Aunties”, who looked after the children of parents who migrated from the Caribbean to find a better life. Eventually, the parents would earn enough to pay for their child to join them, often leaving Aunties bereft. The film resonated so much with hundreds of care-givers around the world, that an online global platform was created where they continue to connect and share their own stories from the past.
What is the biggest challenge you face?
The biggest challenge we face with our launch project is probably working in languages (Dari and Pashto) that do not have a big pool of experienced literary translators. So alongside developing emerging writers, we are also building the capacity of emerging translators and hopefully, in the future, literary editors. Obviously, the sensitive and often hostile environment in Afghanistan is hard, but the participants are resilient, and hopefully our project also provides a welcome diversion from the daily challenges of living in such a tense environment.
What would £10,000 enable you to achieve?
£10,000 would enable us to identify a further cohort of 10 writers from across Afghanistan with strong stories, and for them to work closely with an experienced literary fiction editor and translator, develop their craft, and enable their work to reach a wider global readership.
What gets you out of bed in the morning?
When I wake up, my colleagues in Kabul and our editor in Sri Lanka, are already half way through their day, which is a great motivator to leap out of bed and join them.
Visit Untold's website at www.untold-stories.org