Interview: Nina Rapi
- Published: 22 November 2009
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Nina Rapi is a Greek-born award-winning playwright based in London. Two years ago, she launched Brand - a literary magazine for 'outsiders', which has gone from strength to strength. She spoke with Katrina Fox.
You’ve been writing for more than 20 years. How has your writing evolved over the years – in terms of themes and what’s important to you?
I've gained more pleasure from it, feel less tortured by it, have clarified things more. My themes in the last three plays (Angelstate; Reasons to Hide; Moments in Time) are very much the core themes not just of my writing but my politics and my life: surveillance, censorship & power on the one hand and intimacy, art and identity on the other. How they intersect, how we internalize things, how we project; how state power can sometimes invade the most intimate spaces but, most importantly, how intimacy (and art) are ultimately the last resistance!
Another change that has occured recently, has been my return to my first love i.e. short stories. I had a collection published in Greece in 2006 and am now writing a new one on outsiders, funded by the Arts Council.
How has feminism has shaped your work?
When I first started writing seriously i.e. 1989, feminism had already been a significant part of who I was, my take on reality. In terms of writing, there was a lot of talk at the time about feminine /feminist aesthetics (two different things) which fascinated me. The whole idea of: is there such a thing as 'marked' writing, i.e. specifically feminine writing which however didn't necessarily correspond to a biological gender.
Helen Cixous's, Monique Wittig's writing and Sue Ellen Case's ideas did influence my approach to structure, choice of characters, venues considerably.
You’ve said you felt an outsider on many levels – please expand on this.
I've experienced myself as an outsider, from the age of two, which is my earliest memory. Always on the edge of things, being different, observing, not really belonging anywhere 100%. Partly it was to do with me perceiving myself to be 'a third' i.e. neither boy nor girl (without being transgender).
Also I suppose, 'observing from a distance' is what writers do and I was always very curious about what people do to each other and why. I was fascinated by watching the various rituals in the villages, small towns and Thessaloniki of my childhood. As I emigrated to England, the sense of outsider came from being a foreigner. The first three years here were especially traumatic in that respect.
As a dyke, strangely, I haven't really felt much of an outsider, as ever since I came out, I was surrounded by dykes. The scene was my natural habitat for years. Overall, I feel that being an outsider is now just a part of who I am, having lived on the edge for so long, even though I have moved towards the centre professionally (but not aesthetically or politically)...
How has this influenced your work?
It has influenced both the production and reception of my work. Writing wise, my style has always been characterised by at least two styles; engaged and realistic (which I associate with Greece) or detached and stylised (which I associate with London).
Which is more me? Both I suppose, it's just that some stories lend themselves more towards one rather than the other, even though recently I have been merging the two and I think this is part of at last feeling at home in London.
How has it impacted on getting your work produced outside a lesbian/feminist niche?
A lot of my earlier work was not produced by lesbian companies as might be expected
( I perceived them to be Anglo Saxon in preoccupations and styles and therefore not having much affinity artistically, though I enjoyed them as audience). Instead my work was encouraged and supported by women's theatre groups and contexts and/or feminist individuals in positions of power. Still, I have had work produced outside that niche, in fringe theatre venues, the West End (Shorts Season) and have collaborated with Soho Theatre and even had a proposal for a trilogy of plays seriously considered by the RSC etc but somehow I reached a glass ceiling...
Please say something about your most recent writing projects – what they are, what was the inspiration behind them and where they sit among contemporary writing/theatre in Britain.
My most recent theatre project is Moments in Time (working title) that I mentioned above and it is the third part of a trilogy of non-naturalistic plays on surveillance, intimacy, the body. With this play (for which I got RAE funding) I want to explore its cross-genre possibilities. I've always included other media in my plays e.g. live music and choreography but now I want to take this one step higher, seeing how digital arts or installation or live music and video for instance can become integral parts of the text. The process then will be individual writing yes but also collaborations with cross-genre artists.
I went to a week-long workshop at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith in June called STORM, which was inspirational. Forty or so people trying out different methods of making theatre, from installations, mime and puppetry to physical theatre and classic playwriting.
The energy was incredible. There is a movement if you like in the UK towards mixing different genres, different disciplines not just in theatre but other forms of writing too and we have included some of those in the latest issue of BRAND.
Let’s talk about Brand. When did you first decide to start a literary magazine?
I co-founded GLINT (Gays and Lesbians in Theatre) in the early 90s and was its editor for while it lasted (couple of years). I also worked as Arts Editor at Everywoman Magazine in the mid 90s. Around the beginning of the Noughts - what a word! - a friend and I did try to set up a literary/ideas magazine.
We got a lot of interesting people involved but depended too much on funding before we actually started the magazine (as opposed to GLINT which came very much out of ‘let’s-just-do-it- attitude and that’s why it happened). So this effort didn’t get the hoped for funding and it never happened. So there was all this magazine background and the desire stayed with me. So, when I applied for a part-time but permanent job at the University of Greenwich, I said at the interview that I wanted to set up a literary magazine. They got very excited about the idea and I was pleased.
Please say something about the process – its challenges, how you got the funding together especially for a print magazine – and how you got from the idea to the first issue.
The desire to create a new cultural space in a magazine format wouldn’t leave me and as soon as I started teaching at Greenwich, I decided it was time to get going! I formed a few core ideas e.g. I wanted it to focus on the short form, be international, edgy, politically engaged.
I wanted it to be really inclusive though e.g. queer informed without it being queer as such etc. Also, I was determined it would include plays, that was very important. I immediately felt I needed collaborators, so I asked a couple of colleagues to come on board and they were delighted. One of them was Cherry Smyth, a good old friend as well, whose contribution was and continues to be crucial to the making of the magazine. We decided to include art by contemporary artists, as well.
We looked at various magazines to decide on the format and I found a Greek magazine called THIAVAZO whose size and look I liked. We used that as a model. A designer was needed and I asked a few to make a bid. I finally chose Raff Teo who is fantastic and he has really contributed lots to the visual look of the magazine.
Funding was an issue of course but by then I was so driven, nothing would stop me. I persuaded the Head of School to give us £5000 start up money and BRAND happened nine months from inception, i.e. first issue came out in June 2007. After only the first issue, we were shortlisted for the IncWriters Outstanding Contribution to Literature Award 2008, so it was an auspicious start!
Why a print magazine, when arguably you could reach more people online?
I love the sensuality of the paper form: its texture, its look, its smell…And something about the timelessness of it. It’s going to be there for a while…Online mags are great and some I love having my own work published on, e.g. 3AM and Pulpfiction. They are two totally different experiences though, both as a writer and as a reader. Of course we do want to reach more people and right now we are looking at making our website more interactive.
What is BRAND, exactly?
BRAND is a celebration of the short form, of writing that is edgy, risk-taking, politically engaged. BRAND is genuinely inclusive and international. BRAND is probably the only high-quality literary magazine in the UK to publish short plays, as well as stories, poems and creative non-fiction.
BRAND is post-single-identity without ever denying the importance of identities.
BRAND is cross-genre and as much about content as it is about style.
Why the name?
The name was a problem at first. We were trying to find a name we would all three agree and three months on, no name had been found. I was out having dinner with my mate Valerie Mason-John, in Compton street, and suddenly the name BRAND came to me. She thought it was great, it had edge and to go for it.
The next day I said the name to Cherry and the others and everybody thought yes! So it stayed. Once we got the name, the identity became even clearer. For me the name worked primarily because of its multiple meanings and by making an ironic comment on the whole branding business.
You said in your intro to the current issue that BRAND is ‘outside’ the mainstream in terms of content, yet also has a part within the mainstream by its inclusion in prestigious literary festivals. What are your thoughts on the precarious situation some outsider artists find when they are embraced by the mainstream, and how they can juggle reaching out to more people while not selling out?
I suppose integrity is key here. I’ve always admired people like Patti Smith, Caryl Churchill, Pinter who have been embraced by the mainstream but have managed to keep their artistic and political integrity intact. They are my ‘role models’ if you like. This is what I aspire to. I do believe it’s possible to reach more people and not dilute your aesthetics, your vision, your politics - as long as you aim for the highest common denominator and not the lowest!
Please say a little more about the idea of creating a space for outsiders and whether this then makes it an ‘insider’ space.
I conceived BRAND from the beginning as a space for outsiders which would become their ‘in’ space i.e. they’d feel welcome there without the need to create ‘border patrols’ to keep other outsiders from coming in. If you feel you’re ‘in’, hopefully that gives you confidence and makes you feel more generous towards those who are still outside the ‘charmed circle’. Hopefully.
Brand is published twice a year – approximately how many readers do you have?
We publish 500 copies but I trust a lot more people than that read us.
Who is the typical Brand reader?
Edgy literature lovers, writers, artists, queers, students, anybody who appreciates the short form, International writing and stunning contemporary images.
Please give a couple of examples of Brand writers and say why they fit into the Brand mould?
The playwrights Naomi Wallace & Anthony Neilson, the novelists/short story writers Ali Smith and Rana Dasgupta, the poet Yang Lian are good examples. They are writers who are bold and exciting, who take risks with both theme and form and have been embraced by the mainstream but have not ‘sold out’.
What writers and playwrights (apart from yourself!) are doing really innovative and interesting work right now?
Aha – lots! And not just now but for a while! I love the theatre of Howard Barker, Martin Crimp, Anthony Neilson, Phillip Ridley, Naomi Wallace, Debbie Tucker-Green, Theatre de Complicite.