Dr. Lillian Allen to lead new creative writing program at OCAD U
June 21, 2018
With Jamaican-born Dr. Lillian Allen leading the way, OCAD University is set to unveil its Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in Creative Writing program.
Changing its name in 2010 from the Ontario College of Art & Design to reflect its university status granted 16 years ago, Canada’s oldest and largest art & design education institution becomes just the second national university to offer the degree program after the University of Northern British Columbia which partners with the Emily Carr University of Art + Design to provide the joint degree program that connects creative writing and studio practice.
OCAD’s program starts in September 2019.
Unlike other creative writing programs in Ontario, the BFA will enable students to hone their craft while exploring multiple art and design practices.
“The catalyst for this program is the large amount of people out there who are expressing themselves, telling their stories and reflecting what’s going on in society,” said Allen who is also an accomplished dub poet and spoken word artist. “There are people outside the established forms of writing who are also producing a kind of literature that’s being responded to and consumed by many people, in a lot of cases by more people than who actually buy books. I think there is no place for those folks and this is a way to bring some of them into an academic learning situation and for them to professionalize what they are doing by basically working towards a degree and also figuring out what it is they want to do with their writing.
“…What we are looking for, above anything else, is commitment. As long as you are interested in writing and have done a little bit of it and you promise to take the support and do the work, we guarantee success.”
The program includes the study of living literary culture and literary art practice and production and emphasizes the practice, craft and production of spoken, written and verbal texts as well as experimental language forms that exist inside and outside established genres.
“I envisage us attracting a mixture of all kinds of writers,” said Allen, a two-time Juno Award winner who started the Toronto International Dub Poetry Festival. “Although we are trying to attract 30 to 40 per cent of people who are already writing and performing their work out there in the community, we are also looking for people who are in the traditional forms of writing. They may just want to write a book or tell a story in the same way that it is being told in the mainstream. We are looking for those other people who want to experiment and break across the boundaries of a genre. We want people who want to work in media and take their writing in a whole different realm.”
Allen said the program will stand out because of the mixture of age groups it will attract.
“We are going to definitely get a lot of high school graduates, but we are also looking for people who have been out there organizing in the community and older people who want to come back and get a degree, but do something that they really wanted to do all their lives,” she noted. “This will provide that framework and context. In the university environment, they will be thinking about their role as writers, how can they actually make their lives and work important, how can they effect change, how can they build a literary culture, how they can be part of it and how they can change it.”
Each writer is expected to develop a writing research practice in the first year.
“That is something that nobody has written about or very little about or even talked about very much,” said Allen who in 1993 co-produced and co-directed ‘Blak Wi Blak’ which is a documentary about Jamaican dub poet Mutabaruka that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. “They are going to find that thing that they are interested in, whether it is personal stories or communities that no longer exist.”
OCAD offers a minor in creative writing that Allen and assistant professor Catherine Black helped establish.
The fifth of ten children, Allen’s passion for writing was cultivated in Jamaica’s Spanish town.
“I always loved stories,” she said. “I was read to a lot by my older siblings and I read to the younger ones. In a place like the Caribbean, your imagination is a major part of what you do. When I started telling my own stories and writing my own poems, people appreciated them and that reinforced that I was on the right track and doing something good. When I realized that people actually wrote books, I said I wanted to become a writer.”
Allen came to Canada in 1969 to study at the University of Waterloo. That same year, she moved to New York and pursued communications and Black studies at City College of New York.
She returned to Canada in 1974 and settled in Toronto after spending a few months in Jamaica.
Allen, who was the first Canada Council Writer-in-Residence at Queen’s University 12 years ago, has been teaching creative writing at OCAD since 1992.
“I started doing ‘Introduction to Creative Teaching’ which I still teach,” the grassroots artist and cultural activist who has five courses, said. “I am in an environment where people are creative and it’s a joy to walk in there. For the most part, I can’t wait to hear what my students have to say or what they are thinking. For my make-up, it’s really a nurturing and supporting environment. I have trained and supported hundreds of young writers. Once you are a student with me, you are forever connected to me. I offer that to all my students.”
A few years ago, Allen started the OCAD U Belize Project. Working directly with the Winsom Foundation as a community partner, OCAD students and faculty collaborate with social organizations in Belize to establish a program and administer creative writing workshops as well as develop education-oriented community art sites and events.
In 2007, Jamaican-born arts activist and mentor Winsom Winsom started a non-profit organization in Cristo Rey village in Belize. She runs an after school arts club for students and brings in artists to teach young people creative writing, painting, crochet and drama.
Allen took a group of students to Cristo Rey for the first time in 2014.
“I took up this initiative because I realized that a lot of my students need to think about their role in the world,” the 2016 Wilfrid Laurier University honourary degree recipient said. “I tell my students their lives could be important not only to them, but someone else. We have so many resources and access in the North that we take things for granted. For those students with an interest to change the world and make an impact, this is a great opportunity for them to develop some partnerships with young people in Belize and understand what they can do to be relational and connect.”