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The Only Question: Kelly Kaur - Elena Traina

Тhe Ulyanovsk UNESCO City of Literature Program Directorate continues publishing The Only Question - new international project - materials. 40 authors from 18 UNESCO literary cities (or related cities) participate in the project.  Authors from Ljubljana and Melbourne – Andrej Tomazin and Jo Langdon – are the new guests of the project.

The organizers invited writers, poets, playwrights, translators from UNESCO literary cities, to imagine that they have the opportunity to ask an author from any other literary city, just one question. The initiative will help to introduce the authors from the literary cities to each other and establish their dialogue. The project will also let us understand what issues are of concern to authors from different countries today. Besides, it will provide an opportunity for readers to get to know new writers and poets.

Questions and answers by the authors (in Russian and English) along with a short biography of each participant and links to their publications will regularly appear on the Ulyanovsk UNESCO City of Literature Website, other literary cities' websites, and social media, etc. Writers' dialogs will also be offered for publication on the project partners' platforms (literary magazines, libraries, literary media, and mass media). As a result of the project, in summer 2022 an online anthology will be released (in Russian and English) with all the conversations

Kelly Kaur


Dear Elena,


How wonderful to meet you. I am Kelly Kaur, from Calgary, Canada. I grew up in Singapore and know a few languages.


I am fascinated by your point here: “[Elena] is an independent researcher in Creative Writing Studies, investigating the theory, pedagogy and practice of creative writing in non-anglophone countries.”


What are some of your observations to date about ESL creative writers and/or the “practice of creative writing in non-anglophone countries?”


Thank you


Kelly Kaur

Elena Traina

Hi Kelly,


Thank you for getting in touch. What a difficult question, which would probably deserve a PhD dissertation to reply (I am working on it!). At this stage, I can share two very general observations, one about Creative Writing in non-anglophone countries in general, and one about ESL.

Where Creative Writing is not taught as an academic discipline (e.g. Italy) or where it is only just establishing itself as such (e.g. Spain) there's a fascinating but all the same worrying tendency to draw most of the theory from the Anglo-American tradition. This is quite natural because CW as a discipline in American universities is at least a century old (and 50-year-old in universities in the UK). However, what I find disconcerting is how tutors fall in the habit of pointing to Anglo-American literature as best practice. First of all, they rarely acknowledge the role of the translator, which in this day and age is unacceptable. Secondly, they don't just refer to Anglo-American literature, but to a very certain type of literature: Raymond Carver, Hemingway, etc. This perpetuates very old and static perspectives without considering how literature has evolved. Also, by doing so, tutors miss the opportunity to engender a dialogue between local/national literature and creative writing.

About writing in English as a second language: what I have observed so far is my Italian students are very anxious to sound native and accurate, and feel more reassured when they receive linguistic and stylistic feedback to “make them sound native”. In other contexts, however, particularly in countries with a colonial history, tutors and students experiment with what Kachru called “World Englishes”, producing “contact literatures”.I’lI hope that this is clear enough and not too boring for you!


Thank you very much for your question. And now, to mine: how has learning several languages shaped your identity and where do you feel at home as a writer?


Warmest wishes,




Kelly Kaur


Thank you for your intriguing question. I grew up in Singapore, where there are four official languages: Malay, Tamil, Mandarin, and English. The main language is English; we have the heritage of British colonialism that we were exposed to in the past.  


For me, growing up in Singapore, my main language spoken at home, in school, and everywhere else for me has always been English. I took Malay in school and was fluent in it, speaking to my fellow Singaporeans in Malay, at times. At home, my family and I spoke in English, and, of course, like all Singaporeans, in Singlish. I love Singlish and the identity it creates for us fellow Singaporeans, the way our tongues comfortably settle into a patois of languages spoken in Singapore. Then, as an immigrant in Calgary, Canada, I navigated my way as a fluent English speaker. 


Therefore, since I speak English in both countries, place and places have shaped my perception of identity – I speak English in Singapore, Canada, and anywhere I go in the world. For me, both Singapore and Calgary have shaped my poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.  


When I write a story that is based in Singapore, I like to include English, Singlish, and other words and ideas from all the languages that come into play to give my characters the authenticity of place, language, culture, and tongue.   I love what you say: "I am now trying to understand how I can encourage my students with writing that is less concerned about accuracy and more concerned with self-discovery, identity & community, despite Italy not having a colonial history matching that of India, Singapore, Macau, etc."


Where do I feel at home as a writer? As an immigrant, I will always be defined by 2 places, 2 spaces, 2 lands, 2 worlds, 2 countries – I love this uniqueness, and I appreciate the complexities that merge into my writing as a writer. 


Kelly Kaur

Kelly was born in Singapore and now lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She teaches at Mount Royal University and at Athabasca University. Kelly is interested in exploring themes of race, color, immigration and women's issues. Kelly has been published internationally in anthologies and journals: some include Understorey, Anak Sastra, WordCity Monthly, The Social Distancing Arts Festival, Poet of the Republic, BeZine, on Blindman Session Beer Cans, in The Best Asian Stories 2020, The Best Asian Poetry 2021, and in the International Human Rights Arts Festival. Her novel, Letters to Singapore, Stonehouse Publishing, will available April 2022. 


Elena Traina

Lena Traina wrote her first novel when she was eleven. It was a fantasy story set in Stone Henge, which at the time she believed to be in Cornwall. She saved it on a floppy-disk and gave it to read to a boy she fancied. He didn’t read it, but passed it to his mum, who was an Italian teacher. She was the first of a very long list of supportive women who motivated her to keep writing.

She won her first national poetry competition at 16 and her second at 22, with her poetry collection Tre Concerti being awarded the Primavera della Poesia Prize, dedicated to Alda Merini. She was also one of the selected Italian poets for the Milan Rain of Poems by Colectivo Casagrande in 2015.

She received her MA in Literary Translation at University of East Anglia, in Norwich, where she started a career in public libraries while working on her creative projects.

She wrote the Italian version of her debut novel Amarantha between 2015 and 2018, and published it with a small press co-directed by a man who was then involved in a sexual harassment scandal. For this and other reasons, she fought to regain the rights to the novel, which by that time had been selected to be re-edited and published in translation by Kurumuru Books.

During the pandemic, she took a year off living and working in the UK to stay closer to her family, so she moved to Turin to gain a Diploma in Contemporary Humanities at the Scuola Holden, where she experimented with writing for other media and wrote an award for her first script of a short film, The Morning After.

She is an independent researcher in Creative Writing Studies, investigating the theory, pedagogy and practice of creative writing in non-anglophone countries. She hopes to write a PhD thesis on the same subject, one day.

A decent singer and guitar-player, and novice accordionist and singer-songwriter, she has been seen and heard busking in the streets of Norwich, Milan and Turin. Who knows where to, next.