Les Culturelles brings fiction by EPFL students to life

Elisa Shua Dusapin © Romain Guélat

Elisa Shua Dusapin © Romain Guélat

On May 22, works of fiction written by participants in the 2023 CDH-Culture creative writing workshop will be read aloud by actors from the Pôle d’Expression Théâtrale (PET). This public event is part of the festival Les Culturelles, free and open to the public from May 15-22.

World renowned for its programs in engineering, math, and basic sciences, EPFL is not necessarily thought of as a place for creative writing. But since 2021, when Véronique Mauron Layaz, Head of CDH-Culture began organizing the creative writing workshop, students from all disciplines have the chance to practice their craft with professional writers.

“At EPFL, writing is not generally prioritized, apart from scientific writing, which obeys strict rules and formats,” Mauron Layaz says. “A fiction writing workshop allows students to free their imagination, to experiment with other means of expression, to find a different language. It is an exploration.”

The course is capped by a public reading of the works of fiction by four actors from EPFL’s Pôle d'Expression Théâtrale (PET) group, Selena Comelli, Océane Lüthi, Chloé Manz, and Thibault Rieben.

A mutual curiosity

Elisa Shua Dusapin, a Franco-Korean-Swiss author who has won multiple awards, including a Swiss Literature Prize for her book The Pachinko Parlour (Les Billes du Pachinko) and a National Book Award for the English translation of her book Winter in Sokcho (Hiver à Sokcho), has been teaching in the workshop since its first year. For her, the appeal was working with students who don’t have much literary experience and are working in the sciences.

“I was really curious about working with students and people who don’t have any direct link with literature,” she says. “I never specifically wanted to be a writer. For a long time, I thought I would be a biologist, ethologist, or studying medicine for example. If I had had better math grades, maybe I would be doing one of those things. But I still kept that fascination with the sciences.”

Thibault Rieben, an EPFL master’s student in mathematics, first heard about the workshop through his participation in other CDH events and found the idea of learning how to write from professionals intriguing. He liked it enough that he’s now back for his third year.

The structure of the workshop is unique. Five authors – Elisa Shua Dusapin, Blaise Hofmann, Max Lobe, Fabienne Radi et Anne-Sophie Subilia – all from different cultures, of different ages, recognized in the Swiss literary world, and whose work deal with questions relating to ecology, sociology, imagination, origins, identity, journey, among other topics, were chosen by Mauron Layaz to lead the workshop. At the outset, they are presented to the students, each of whom chooses the writer with whom they would like to work with. They then send a short text to their instructor before meeting one-on-one to get feedback and make revisions. This is followed by a second meeting, which allows them to go deeper into stylistic questions about their work, before the whole group comes together to hear their texts performed by the PET actors.

The workshop is built around the annual THEMA chosen by CDH journalist Anne Laure Gannac, a broad theme around which numerous CDH projects, such as a podcast, lectures, and this workshop, are developed. This year’s THEMA is energy, and students in the workshop wrote texts relating to the theme in any way they interpreted it. For example, one student has written about a slightly different EPFL where the L stands for lapin (rabbit), and created an EPFL full of rabbit students and professors. The writing that comes out of these workshops covers a broad range of topics, such as the future of the planet and dealing with issues of burnout, but also understands energy as a creative force that animates everyone.

“One advantage with the EPFL students is that they are generally very open to critique, very receptive, very humble,” Shua Dusapin says. “At the same time, they’re hard workers, very serious.”

“Taking the time to create something”

Many of the EPFL students have never written fiction before, or perhaps they’ve been writing for a long time but in secret.

“Often it is the first time that they show what they’ve written to anyone,” Shua Dusapin says. “I find them very courageous.”

For Rieben, who doesn’t normally write a lot, he appreciates that the workshop gives him a framework for writing. He says that the deadlines are both the best and most challenging part of the experience.

“I like to write,” he says, “but without the structure, I don’t necessarily do it.”

He’s still not sure what he plans to do after graduation, whether he will look for a job as a math teacher at a high school or work in theater or something else. In any case, he has found the advice that his teacher Max Lobe has given him to be useful in his life.

“To write a text you have to take your time, you have to imagine things, you have to live things,” Rieben explains. “You spend a lot of time thinking, almost more than writing. Philosophically, the interesting thing about writing is taking the time to create something.”

“A human exchange”

Mauron Layaz created this workshop during the height of the Covid pandemic as a way of bringing people together. “The campus was empty, and classes were being given over video conference,” she explains. “In spite of that, I wanted to develop a participatory artistic event that could bring students and writers together, even if remotely.”

Her idea worked. For Rieben, the workshops have been an opportunity to meet other creative people with whom he has since collaborated on other artistic projects. He especially enjoys the public reading of the texts where he gets to meet the other participants and hear their work out loud.

“Hearing literary texts read aloud gives an interpretation which may surprise the author and above all, confronts them with the polysemy of their work,” Mauron Layaz says. “And for CDH-Culture, it is also important to collaborate with other associations on campus, like PET.”

Shua Dusapin also appreciates the connection she makes with her students during the workshops. She has just finished writing her next novel, which will come out in August, and explains that writing can be a very solitary activity. She finds that the workshops help make her a better writer.

“Every time I do a workshop with students, the questions I ask them about their text are ones that I can also ask myself about my writing – the rhythm, the structure, the narrative point of view, the effectiveness, the relevance or not of a certain subject, the form. These things are in fact really universal,” she says.

“At these workshops, I feel like I'm finally coming back to the concrete reality of the writing profession, to the art of it. It feeds me, to have this human exchange."

Author: Stephanie Parker

Source: Campus

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