A transliterate feast with Romeo and Juliet

"What are you doing over the festive season?" You often hear this question at this time of the year, but "Taking part in a Shakespeare reading" is not often the answer! It might seem a rather "boffinish" thing to do, as our youngest reader, Lizzi, remarked, but we will remember the Romeo and Juliet reading that we hosted on Saturday 19th December as a highlight of our festivities (and only a tad boffinish!). The company and the food were as great as those at Capulet's feast and the text as rich as ever, of course, but besides these essential elements, we also enjoyed seeing the Fonteyn and Nureyev ballet version to Prokofiev's gorgeous score (Royal Opera House, 1966), as well as the Shakespeare Readers Group's Facebook facility, on our new wide-screen TV.

This transliteracy experiment in bringing together voice, text, dance, music and screen was a first for this group, but in fact the clash and/or conflation of literacies is a continuous process, one that went on as much in Shakespeare's day as in ours. One member, Irene, pointed out a few words in the text that were possibly innovations by Shakespeare, reflecting the time's great excitement about language experiments as writers took inspiration from Europe and the Renaissance. These words dismayed or delighted the audience then, sometimes for different reasons than they do the same for us now. Then, these innovations were challenging because they were new; now, they are challenging because they are archaic, which may yet dismay some and delight others! It struck me that part of our enjoyment arose from the unique mix of literacies called up between us as we sought to share a pleasurable experience.

A requirement for participating in the group is "the ability to read English aloud fluently", an ability all our readers possess to greater or lesser degrees. But each also brings different perspectives, experience and skills. One might say that each possesses a variety of literacies. Some have English as a second language and  place emphases differently from first-language English speakers. The impulses of their primary literacy call our attention in new ways to individual words and to the iambic poetic flow of Shakespeare's English. Some are academics who revel in explication and analysis of difficult or unusual portions of the text. Some intuitively inhabit their characters, bringing them alive through vocal variation that responds to each event in the story. Some are older and voice the concerns of older characters with an empathy that is not yet available to the younger readers. Some are dramatists who read even Stage Directions with a conviction that enables us to see and feel the context of the action. We learn from each other.

Each time we took a break from the reading, we watched the ballet. There are inevitably losses and gains in the process of transliterating the familiar story of the star-crossed lovers into the languages of music and dance. Some modifications to the storyline might disappoint, for example when scenes are left out or conflated, but other changes might delight when they richly express implicit characterization, emotional interplay or actions sometimes only hinted at or briefly mentioned in the text. The introduction of Juliet and the Nurse, the balcony scene with Romeo and Juliet, Juliet's rejection of Paris and the final death scene are examples of wonderful choreography and dancing that carry the audience right to the passionate heart of Shakespeare's poetry, without words.

A new literacy for the group is that of relating to one another on-screen via Facebook. Everyone who attended had responded to the invitation via Facebook, but with varying degrees of comfort depending on their familiarity with the tool. Many had struggled to find their way back to the Event page to see the Links and find the scripts. For this reason, I presented a brief Facebook overview to demonstrate the difference between the individual's Profile (using mine as an example), the Shakespeare Readers Group and the Romeo and Juliet Event and to explain the import of leaving comments on each of the different Walls. We also looked briefly at the new Facebook Privacy options, to allay fears about publishing one's data to the world.

This move to organising the readings via Facebook Events has become necessary for several reasons. It is quicker to monitor attendance and dramatically cuts the number of emails to and from individuals that I as organiser previously dealt with. It also facilitates an ongoing sense of community which is otherwise fragmented between meetings, as the group has grown to over twenty people, not all of whom can come to every reading. There is also interest from people outside the UK who cannot attend readings but would like to participate in discussions. For instance, Eva, a member in Italy, shared our anticipation before the event by posting a link to a blog post she wrote in 2007 about Shakespeare's possible models for the Romeo and Juliet story in the real city of Verona.

Facebook is clearly useful in these ways, but I had not appreciated to what extent this particular new media literacy might have a direct impact on our appreciation of the plays themselves, until one of our new members, Anna, posted a link to this write-up of a student project that views Romeo and Juliet as A Facebook Tragedy of competing social networks which "contains an emphasis on the bonds between kinsmen and family. The play focuses on both honoring these bonds, and the consequences of breaking bonds."

Shakespeare offers all the fascination of the archaic and unfamiliar to those who are keen on historical mysteries, but most of his enduring attraction is due to the aptness of his themes for every age and the up-to-date voice with which he has always spoken on issues close to the human heart. This powerful communication has demanded translation into almost every world language and transliteration into every conceivable medium (live theatre, music, dance, film, TV…), with each translater or producer creating new metaphors in order to stay true to the old themes in their new medium. In our networked age, it should not surprise us to find Shakespeare alive in Facebook too!

This post is x-posted from http://tiatalk.wordpress.com

Talking, Connecting

Analysts have revealed that the number of mobile users in Africa is growing at double the rate of the rest of the globe. From 1999 through 2004, mobile subscribers in Africa jumped to 76.8 million, from 7.5 million. The technology revolution has come to African countries via the mobile phone, not the personal computer, as it did in America and Europe. And just as the internet encouraged the creation of some digital firms, the mobile phone boom in Africa is creating many opportunities, but tailored to local needs.


South Africans have launched the first text based entertainment, fiction written specifically for the mobile phone. Novel Idea inspires innovative content creation on the mobile platform. The pilot, which launched on 7 July 2008, is apparently the first time short fiction has been specifically commissioned for delivery via mobile phones in Africa. It has also been a unique way to promote professional South African writers.

In Kenya, there is a service called M-Pesa. This is simply an extra line on the mobile phone menu that says: "Send Money". With this, people go to an office, transfer funds onto their phone account, and then send them to their friends, or family, or anybody else with a mobile. The receivers then go to an office, show the code on the mobile and some ID, and collect the cash.

I remember, when mobile phones were first introduced, how people in the remote villages were so eager for service that they built ‘treehouses’ to catch signals from distant mobile phone masts. I remember how demand for air time was so strong in Nigeria that from late 2002 to early 2003 operators there were forced to suspend the sale of SIM cards, while they strengthened their networks. Today, when I think of how the mobile phone has influenced the lives of Africans, I think of the old woman unable even to write her last name, telling customers to call her mobile phone if they want to buy the fish she sells.

Reading/Singing poetry aloud [followup]

On 1/12/09 I posted Transliteracy and the Voice: Chinese, Hollywood Talkies, and Reading Poetry Aloud where I talked about introducing the poetry of Keats to IOCT Masters' students with computer science backgrounds. I challenged them to memorise a few stanzas but hadn't expected any more than that so was very surprised when, a few days later, Dave Soden, one of those students, sent me this link. He had set La Belle Dame Sans Merci to music and performed it himself with a guitar accompaniment. The result? This haunting and memorable song.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci from David Soden on Vimeo.

Facebook: The Transliterate’s Soap Opera?

B is having a baby

B's finds out she might lose the baby and goes to hospital for tests

B's test results come back fine – the baby is ok

B can't wait to meet “the bump” and is driving everyone up the wall with baby talk

B's “bump” is going to be a footballer – kicking a lot and making B feel rotten

B is beginning to get the jitters about giving birth….

This could easily be a soap opera plot line. But instead, it is a series of Facebook updates, each accompanied by typed dialogue and comments from supportive friends, photographs, scan images, illustrated “gifts” and polls to predict the baby's name. This is just one storyline of many that could be populating your news stream on Facebook – effectively bringing a television soap opera-type narrative into your online experience.

However, analysis of any reasonably active Facebook news page will demonstrate that that a far greater range of literacies is required to engage with this type of soap opera. On my own news feed today I have received the “stories” of my friends' lives through:

– statements, asynchronous dialogue, timestamps, links, invitations to comment…

– including a “thumbs up” graphic, indicating to me when someone else likes an update

– a photo icon accompanying each update, photos posted by friends of events (mostly work Christmas parties!)

– shared either for amusement or for education

– updates when friends play or progress in Facebook-based games, such as Farmville, or quizzes.

This stream of content is then effectively framed by adverts, much like a a television soap.

Although Facebook may appear to be predominantly text-based, to engage fully, I must be able to navigate and understand this entire range of literacies. And engage I must to find out about all of the plot and character developments. For example, the designers of Facebook have restricted the amount of space any one update may occupy, thus truncating messages or conversations and forcing the user to click to view it in its entirety. However, this forced engagement does also offer the convenience of choice – if I am not as deeply interested in a particular character – sorry, friend! – or plot line – sorry, life development! – then I can gloss over them.

But is this what a soap opera is supposed to be about? There are many reasons viewers of television soap operas give for their often addictive viewing: seeing how other people handle issues, character association, familiarity, the cliff hangers, chatting with friends about the most recent plot line… However, they also cite convenience and escapism. The scheduling of soap operas at times when people have just returned from work make them a relaxation mechanism. Active – or rather, action-based – engagement is not mentioned.

Facebook The Soap Opera is increasingly easy to access – particularly via mobile devices – making it a convenient addiction at any time of day. You can see, in real time, how other people handle life's dramas and influence them more effectively than by shouting at the television. You can associate with the familiar characters – they are people you know personally after all. Some of the characters may be people you have little physical contact with, so may as well be fictional characters within the Facebook soap opera. Real life narratives also feature cliff hangers, just like constructed ones.

What I am beginning to see in Facebook is an interactive, transliterate soap opera – a narrative space in which I can relax and be entertained by the ordinary features of life. But I am encouraged to engage and I am encouraged to “read” in different ways within the same space.

All of this leads me to wonder, perhaps not uniquely, whether constructed soap opera narratives could be delivered within the Facebook platform? Would people want or need further ordinary life stories delivered within this environment? What could a constructed narrative bring to this existing, self-perpetuating mixed media soap opera?

In fact, the thought is not unique. In researching this I discovered “Boymeetsgirl” an experiment in interactive storytelling which relied heavily, although not exclusively, on Facebook. What I found particularly interesting about producer Jill Golick's website was this statement: “Together we can create branded entertainment that's targeted, inexpensive and highly effective.” Soap operas originally gained their name due to the soap company advertising that funded their production. This statement from Golick highlights the potential for ad-funded writing in this area, with stories crafted as desirable brands. This brand aspect also links into a popular feature of the TV soap – the cohesive effect which binds fellow viewers in conversation after the broadcast. So maybe there will be a market for constructed narratives….

The reason for my thinking about this is that I have recently started drafting a short Facebook-based story about gossip culture and constructed identity entitled: “What do you think of Josie?”. The aim is to enable users to post comments/observations to a group, jointly creating the character of the new girl at work (Josie), and the happenings that pertain to her. This was conceived as an interactive, collaborative writing exercise. However, thinking about Facebook as more of a soap opera platform, I am reassessing how I should manage the delivery of my story to make best use of the strengths of the platform. It is also helping me to get a better understanding of my potential audience – something I admit I have struggled with since I moved into writing for new media.

So, is this the future of the soap opera as television viewing figures and advertising revenues fall? Possibly. Or are we seeing a new, transliterate audience emerging for ordinary life stories – including some who may not ever consider watching a TV soap?

I will admit that I consider myself in that latter category with regards to TV soaps, despite the common indoctrination techniques of parents and house mates. However, I think I could become a fan of a Facebook soap…. Make of that what you will!

Transliteracy & Learning Symbiosis

Engl 102 Multimodal Fictions 016 If Walter Ong suggests that it is impossible for societies to function in the same way as literate ones, then would one also say that it is impossible for transliterate cultures to operate like pre-transliterate cultures?  I'm thinking about this as a re-read Ong's thoughts on technology and learning:

"technology, properly interiorized, does not degrade human life but
on the contrary enhances it”

and to understand the technology of writing means

"to understand it in relation to its past, to
orality, the fact that it is a technology must be honestly faced” (

It is with these thoughts in mind that my students and I began our final unit of the term: "Inanimate Alice and Transliteracy." Having spent time giving students an overview of online narratives and various examples (blog fiction, flickr stories, tweet narratives etc…), a background of narrative theories, and the current definition of transliteracy, we were ready to put our learning into practise.

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Transliteracy Conference, 9th February 2010, Leicester, UK


Free to attend. Click here for more information
Registration and Delegate List
Twitter #transliteracy
Tuesday 9th February 2010 at Phoenix Square Digital Media Centre, Leicester, UK

Transliteracy and the Voice: Chinese, Hollywood Talkies, and Reading Poetry Aloud

animated gif popup - click here if you can't see it In recent weeks a few things have got me thinking about the role of the voice in transliteracy. I've been taking a beginner's class in Mandarin, and therefore have been introduced to the fascinating intonations of the language. As you probably already know, a word can have different meanings in Chinese depending on the way it is pronounced, so this means my group spends a lot of time vocalising the sounds. It is many years since I have been required to chant aloud with the rest of the class, and I'm finding it really enjoyable, even though much of what I'm learning drains away the minute the session ends. Right now I'm not so much learning Mandarin as experiencing it. I've never been to China (am going next year) but the physical act of stretching my vocal chords in different ways to pronounce the language feels almost like a kind of psychic travel on its own, a way to inhabit a different culture just through learning how to say and hear its sounds.

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