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Education Undressed: An Interview With Author Ruth Fowler

Author, critic and screenwriter Ruth Fowler advocates free education for all, a reimagined, less white feminism, and the dethronement of Creative Writing MFA programs.

Ruth Fowler, British-born US-based writer. (Photo: Rebecca Miller / CC)

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Ruth Fowler is a Los Angeles and London-based author who first came to media attention after writing several articles for

The Village Voice. She has written for The Guardian, The Observer, and The Norton Anthology for Creative Non Fiction. Her first book, No Man’s Land, was published 2008, and was republished in May 2009 as Girl Undressed. In 2008, she wrote the screenplay for the short film Supraman and The School of Necessity.

Daniel Falcone for Truthout: Thank You for allowing me to interview you. I wanted to ask you some questions today regarding education. Could you share with me your general outlook on education’s importance and tell me something about your own education?

Ruth Fowler: My education was absolutely free courtesy of the UK government. I was the last year to have my university fees paid for, and even with my fees paid for and a means-tested grant to help me out, I suffered a lot to get my degree. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that expensive, overpriced education perpetuates class and racial divisions and forbids social mobility. It’s punitive and it’s disgusting. Without my education, I would never have managed to leave Wales, travel the world and have the imagination and strength to become a writer. People from my class, people from my side of the world, did not become writers. Yet a brief period of meritocracy in the UK allowed my working-class father to become a doctor, and allowed his daughter to go to Cambridge. Sadly, that period is now over.

Can you give me some examples of how education has motivated you to be more creative? Do you think global citizens are experiencing a shortage of creativity via the educational system?

I found plenty of ways to be creative through a rounded secondary education that encompassed arts, sciences, languages – everything. I would have loved to have done more dance, more art – more, I suppose, privileged creative arts which are usually denied the average Joe. However, an exposure to drama and literature made me love writing and theater, and eventually led to a career in screenwriting, so I can’t complain too much.

I do think creativity is neglected in the education system, mainly because it’s characterized as frivolous and privileged – I don’t think that’s any reason to deny inner-city kids the same exposure to dance, music and art as kids at Harvard Westlake. But let’s get our priorities right: There’s a vast disparity between the experiences of global citizens, and while the rich all across the world have it pretty easy, the poor are denied access to clean water and medical attention. While I love education and can’t stress the importance of it enough, there’s no good introducing ballet to a small village in Africa which is still reeling from the effects of imperialism and colonialism, and can’t treat cholera.

Your talents are varied and widespread, and you have prolific talent and abilities in many areas. How much of this do you attribute to education? Can you share with readers your main influences?

My main influences were books and theater. My parents didn’t have a lot – they had five kids, and my Dad was a NHS doctor back in the days when the wages weren’t great. We also lived in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, so books really provided me with an escape from a very pedestrian, rural existence. I wasn’t really happy as a child for a multitude of reasons, and I fell in love with escapism. It made sense for me to try and make a career as a writer. Interestingly, I now write fiction and nonfiction. That doesn’t seem to fit in with the backstory – was always running away from reality. I guess I grew up and started to try and figure it out rather than running from it.

You once wrote, “Although I earn my living as a screenwriter, books are my first love. It pains me to see that even after centuries confirming that “the establishment” rarely has its finger on the pulse concerning what will last and endure as great literature, it still insists on pretending otherwise.” I believe that “establishment” schools have trouble teaching writing. What suggestions would you have for students who want to improve their writing? What signifies a good writer in your view?

I think good writers are good readers. Good writers are those who can simultaneously make sense of their own experience, and other peoples. We all start out writing about what we know – ourselves, predominantly. I know a lot of writers who have gone very, very far with that without ever having the ability to look outside their own heads, and personally, I don’t think they have grown or achieved anything very interesting despite an initial burst of talent. I have a friend who always writes about young adolescent boys or girls coming into sexual awakening. It was great the first time; now, it’s tedious, but it got him a pretty nice career and paid off the mortgage. The establishment is obsessed with youth. They want to find and nurture talent younger and younger, and suckle it before weaning that writer into who they want – like Zadie Smith, who wrote a fantastic first novel, but has since become a very predictable writer whose penmanship reads like an old, pretentious white guy. Then there are “the greats” – those writers who the establishment insists on telling us, over and over, can do no wrong and must Always Be Obeyed, when frankly, some of the stuff they’re producing is pretty terrible and should be called out as such.

You have been courageously outspoken and have indicated that “The Creative Writing MFA is the singularly most devastating occurrence to hit literature in the 20th century, churning out writers of utterly indistinguishable competence.” Can you link this observation to any one glaring weakness in our educational system as well?

I don’t think there is one glaring weakness. I think there are multiple glaring weaknesses. But the one that stands out initially is the erroneous belief that talent and success can be bought. This has created a small, elite group of writing schools and teachers desperate to dictate to the rest of us who we should be reading in order to justify the ridiculous amounts of money they charge for MFAs. I am, and always will be, a staunch believer in free education. Removing education from the prison system has been one of the greatest disasters of the last few years. I am continually depressed by how we are moving towards a more hierarchical and uneven social system which is indicated by the deliberate deprivation of education to the masses.

Can you comment on how feminism has been packaged in literature over the past couple of decades? In other words, what do our young students need to know about in regards to feminist criticism? Do you consider yourself a feminist? And how do you define feminism?

I define feminism as a useful political tool which sadly defined itself along racial lines, and in so doing, rendered itself obsolete. I’m heartened by feminism being reclaimed by women of color, who aren’t afraid to tell white women that they’re wrong. The most perfect example of this are the group of Muslim Feminists who are outspokenly critical about FEMEN’s characterization of all Muslim women as “victims” in need of “saving.” I think when we read older feminist criticism, we simply need to take into account that intersectionality had not yet struck a chord in the minds of the greats – it simply wasn’t something they thought about. So feminism is a great white blank. Of course, there are brilliant black feminist writers like Audre Lourde or bell hooks, but they seem to get excluded from the canon when taught in universities.

I have issues with the term feminism because of its problems in recreating oppressions it has tried to break down. I’ve been called a radical feminist, but then rad-fems seem to be mainly trans-hating, sex-negative types which I certainly don’t relate to at all. In short I consider myself a feminist, in full understanding of the difficulties and complexities of the word, the theory and the practice, but without a coherent sisterhood. I’m hopeful that one day my white sisters will shut the hell up, stop squabbling with each other about pornography and irrelevant bullshit, and learn to listen and support their black and brown siblings.

Some of your own life experience (Girl Undressed: On Stripping in New York City) illustrates a need for economic equality and the eradication of sexism in institutions. Many of today’s students probably think that strippers are poor decision makers living immoral lives while making bad choices. Can education overcome such simplistic and naïve viewpoints?

Education can overcome bigotry, if a person wants to learn and has an open mind, but not everyone does. Not everyone is able to learn and have an open mind. Some people’s experiences and prejudices are too set. We can only keep educating the next generation, the next, in the hopes that eventually, we can stop hating life’s victims and start looking towards the real perpetrators of crime: those at the top, making money from everyone else’s misery.

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