STAMMA'S panel at Hay Festival

(L-R: Margaret Drabble, Hannah Tovey, Zaffar Kunial & Owen Sheers)

Neha Shaji reports back from Hay Festival, where we brought literary figures together for an illuminating panel discussion on stammering.

On June 1st, we organised our very first panel event at Hay Festival, the world-renowned literary festival held in Hay-on-Wye, Wales. 

Our four speakers came from differing literary backgrounds: the poet Zaffar Kunial, the poet and academic Owen Sheers, novelist Hannah Tovey, and novelist and biographer Dame Margaret Drabble. However — and this was our point — they all stammer. The event was sold out, with people who missed out on tickets sitting nearby to listen.

The conversation centred around, not the difficulties of stammering or solely their own life experiences, but rather its effect on their pages. Several lauded literary figures throughout history, across the globe, experienced disfluency of some sort: Lewis Carroll, Dambudzo Marechera, David Mitchell, Somerset Maugham, among others. With many of them, disfluency has an interesting and visible effect on their writing; for instance, Carroll's wordplay, his Dodo, or Marechera's literary fixation with the tongue. Owen started the conversation off, expressing how it was in poetry that (he) "first found fluency on the page". 

A woman speaking with a hands-free microphone
Hannah Tovey

It led to a discussion among the four about form, memorability and rigidity. Dame Margaret, who ended the session with a recitation from Shakespeare, told us how "a friend of my father's once said he remembered me — because I stammered". A consensus was reached about writing providing an ostensible freedom from word substitution, with Hannah humorously stating how the latter was not a cure-all, "because what was I supposed to do, memorise the whole dictionary?". Owen defined how the untethered nature of a stammer was to its benefit: "My stammer is something I don't understand. And one of the most positive aspects of my stammer — is that I still don't understand it". He brought up Jonty Claypole's book (Jonty was also one of our Patrons!), on the unruliness of stammering, 'Words Fail Us' prompting the other speakers to agree and audience members to ask for further recommendations.

It was in poetry that I first found fluency on the page.

Owen Sheers, poet

Zaffar spoke about the tensions and contentions between disfluency and multilingualism, admitting that at a certain point, "I wondered perhaps if I didn't want to become more articulate than my father," for whom English was a second language. He went on to read his poem, 'Foxglove Country' later on, and saying about it: "I looked at the 'xgl' sound in the middle of the word foxglove, how it leads to love. And sometimes, when watching the show Just a Minute, I think — God, just how long a minute is". Zaffar's perspective gave us an extra point of consideration: that of stammering, second languages and the perceived generational hierarchy of English speakers in the UK. Writing this and thinking back, I can definitely recount moments where, when I stammered in public, the immediate assumption was that I did not have a grasp of the English language (which happens to be my first language). 

A man holding up his hand to illustrate a point
Zaffar Kunial

Referring back to Jonty's book, Owen asked the panellists what effect their "acute consideration of words" had on their writing. He recounts a moment when he had started switching words around in his poetry, to enable him to read them aloud, and realising that — those are his words, that he thought of and put down purposefully — so he would no longer change them to accommodate his stammer. Hannah agreed, stating that she's already spent thirty-odd years changing words around, so she wasn't about to start doing it on the page. "There is a beautiful freedom," she continued "in being able to chuck something down, and sorting it out later. And I love, love, love writing dialogue — fast paced, witty conversations that as I child I would shy away from".

The conversation was witty, prompting audience interaction and plenty of food for thought. We're already gearing up for next year, wondering how best to continuously engage with the entanglements between literacy and fluency. It seems urgent, especially with Labour's current focus on improving 'oracy' and 'fluency' in children (see a recent BBC news article), to encourage conversations around how disfluency is not an inherent barrier to writing, or public speaking, or literary prowess, but rather fluency-first attitudes cause harm, especially when engendered so young. And how it is important to be an effective listener and reader too: how the onus of articulacy is neither a rigid set of Fluency Rules, nor to be purely shunted onto the person speaking. So perhaps the best quote from Hay to end this with is one from Owen Sheers, who "remembers the day — when I realised that being articulate is not the same as being fluent".

Head to our Features section, where you can watch one-to-one discussions between Margaret Drabble, Zaffar Kunial and Owen Sheers, all about stammering, language and creativity.

Two women in running outfits holding flags and looking at the camera
Tayo & Bhupinder
A speaker on stage at STAMMAFest 2023

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