The University of Pretoria’s (UP) revived Unit of Creative Writing graduated three of its PhD students during the autumn 2021 graduation ceremonies. Drs Barbara Adair, Angel Dionne and Florence Ndiyah successfully completed the programme under the supervision of Professor David Medalie, Director of the Unit for Creative Writing and Professor: Department of English at UP.
Prof Medalie said that the graduation ceremony is an immensely proud day for the students, the University, and for him personally. “The Unit of Creative Writing is a very small unit within the faculty of Humanities. It was started about 15 years ago, but then became dormant until 2017, when a decision was made to breathe new life into it. As director, it has been a joy to see it grow beyond my wildest expectations, which just shows how much interest there is in creative writing generally, and what a good reputation the programme at UP is enjoying.”
Including the three recent graduates, the unit has 13 PhD students and seven master’s students under Prof Medalie’s supervision, with a further three working in the Department of Afrikaans, one in the Department of Drama and, for the first time, a student enrolled in a master’s in creative writing in isiZulu through the Department of African Languages.
Prof Medalie said that it is not simply the quantity of students that is gratifying, but also the quality: “We are getting exceptionally fine students who are doing very well. The three graduates had glowing reports from their examiners, who are based locally as well as in Canada, the UK and US. This is remarkable, as of course the reception of creative writing is subjective, but they all responded very positively to their creative work and theses.
“I have great hopes that what these students have written will get published; not only have they done extraordinarily exciting things with language, but they have also written about very important themes in their work.”
The PhD programme is demanding of its students, and requires a full-length creative work as well as a thesis based on scholarly research.
Prof Medalie said that Dr Dionne’s collection of short stories about loss, disappointment and the complexities of human relationships is highly original. Dr Dionne is an assistant professor of English at the University of Moncton Edmundston campus in Canada, and said that she stumbled across UP’s Creative Writing Unit by chance: “It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and the programme was exactly what I was looking for – research only, a concentration on the art of creative writing, and an experienced research supervisor. My interactions with Dr Medalie stand out. He was always quick with feedback, and under his guidance I have seen my writing skills grow and flourish. I have a better understanding of the creative and critical writing process because of him.”
Johannesburg-based Dr Adair, who said that she gave up a law career to start a writing one – and has written three novels since – focused both her submissions on the Art Deco movement in South Africa, looking in particular at the buildings in Springs (in Ekurhuleni, Gauteng), which has one of the highest number of Art Deco buildings in the world. “Her compelling work brings in questions of immigration, migration, xenophobia and social and cultural change, all within the context of the origin of these buildings and what has happened to them now,” Prof Medalie said. For Dr Adair, the highlights of the programme included the research itself, which involved talking to people living in the buildings (which she said dispelled all stereotypes), and working with Prof Medalie. “We shared ideas and his supervision made me think and think.”
Prof Medalie described the novel that established author Dr Ndiyah wrote as part of her PhD requirements, The Things We Don’t Talk About, as dealing with the issue of polygamy in fascinating ways. The book is set against the troubled political backdrop of her home country, Cameroon. Having completed her master’s degree at Lancaster University, UK, Dr Ndiyah said that she thought that it would be good to choose an institute in Africa for her PhD, given that all her creative work until that point had been Afrocentric. She said that it had been an honour to work with Prof Medalie, who was incredibly supportive, and that she wished to express her gratitude to the staff members of UP, with special thanks to Ms Jean Pretorius, Ms Adrienne Warricker, Ms Tracey Andrew and Ms Nombulelo Maphanga.
To any prospective students, Dr Ndiyah had the following to say: “Go for it. The deadlines and feedback will push you to challenge yourself to improve the standard of your creative work. The thesis will trigger your creative mind. The degree will set you on a whole new stage.”
Prof Medalie’s advice to interested applicants is to ensure the required writing portfolio is prepared very carefully: “Make sure there is something exciting about the writing; regardless of the subject or genre or theme, it is about the quality of the writing. It needs to be powerful and original and one needs to be intrigued by what the writer does with the language.”
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