Place writing in a pandemic

Since the turn of the millennium, whether responding to globalisation, the rise of digital technologies, or the climate emergency, many writers have become increasingly preoccupied with place and its meanings.

Today ‘place’ in contemporary literary culture is everywhere: from the award-winning creative non-fictional works of writers such as Iain Sinclair, Kathleen Jamie, Robert Macfarlane and Amy Liptrot to the innovative outputs of small presses such as Longbarrow and Uniformbooks; from the emergence of literary awards, including the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing and the Portico Prize for work that ‘evokes the spirit of the North’, to influential websites such as Caught by the River, the Berlin-based Elsewhere and The Willowherb Review that celebrates nature writing by emerging and established writers of colour.

The Centre for Place Writing (a new research centre based within the Department of English at Manchester Metropolitan University) has been developed to provide a platform to discuss, develop and showcase new writing with a sustained focused on place, whilst also promoting literary critical study of such work. What we define as place writing is essentially literature that moves setting from the background to the foreground, figuring place as the primary subject of a literary work. This broad definition allows for the inclusion of all literary forms: from poetry to fiction; from screenplays to radio essays; from creative non-fiction to digital storytelling. For us, place writing is any literary work that has place at its imaginative centre. It is a genre rather than a form.

To launch the Centre we invited key figures in the field, including colleagues from Manchester Met, to respond to how ideas of ‘place and its meanings’ shifted radically in the age of Covid-19 for a digital project called PLACE 2020. As billions of people around the globe went into different forms of lockdown earlier this year, our relationship to place(s) changed radically as most of us were forced to stay put. Many writers produced a deep mapping of their own localities. Some dug deep to diarise the material realities of the near-at-hand. Others found themselves drawn to the imaginative geographies of remembered and/or anticipated elsewheres. The 24 submissions included within this digital showcase collectively encapsulate our broad definition of contemporary place writing.

Iain Sinclair produced a non-fictional prose piece reflecting on pre-Covid adventures in the Amazon, Caroline Bergvall wrote a new poem reflecting on isolation in rural Norway, Jessica J. Lee created an audio work exploring the richness to be found within a square-mile of her apartment in central Berlin, Anjum Malik produced a collaborative poetry film that celebrates new arrivals to north-west England and artist Lola Flash documented the Black Lives Matter protests during lockdown in New York City.

The vital emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement meant that the public conversation began to concentrate on the inequalities and injustices that are deeply ingrained within all of the places – the cities and the towns, the valleys and the villages – in which we live. What is more, places – from Minneapolis to Manchester – became sites of public protest. For many writers, then, documenting the lockdown necessarily meant investigating the inextricable and often insidious entanglements of the local and the global.

The curation of PLACE 2020, has underlined to us the exciting range of work in this broadly defined field, as well as the lack of ethnic diversity in mainstream representations of contemporary place writing to date. The Centre for Place Writing aims to play an active and major role in changing the landscape of contemporary place writing by ensuring all voices are incorporated into the conversations, projects and events we run.

In documenting this extraordinary period in our histories, PLACE 2020 has also opened up questions about the future. The lockdown restrictions may have been eased for many but, as the threat of Covid-19 remains all-too-present, there is a pervasive uncertainty about what our experiences of place are going to be over the coming months and years. It is similarly uncertain what forms place writing might take in the age of coronavirus.

David Cooper and Rachel Lichtenstein are co-directors of the Centre for Place Writing, Manchester Metropolitan University. You can visit PLACE 2020 here: https://www.placewriting.co.uk.