A Movement of Letters
“At Open Letters we focus on something no longer in fashion: Words. Whether you work with words, or just indulge in a little word play, this is where you can mute the noise and strum out the meaning behind words.”
So goes an excerpt from the website homepage of Open Letters, a non-governmental, for-profit society founded by two Lahore-based humanities students and former incubatees of The Hatchery. Open Letters organizes community-based activities throughout the country with the aim of fostering a culture of instruction, collaboration and constructive criticism in the arts. SIL had the opportunity to catch up with the original Letterheads, Ahmad Shah Durrani and Amna Chaudhry, cofounders of Open Letters.
SIL: Tell us a little bit about Open Letters and how it has evolved.
Open Letters: We launched Open Letters in February 2013 as a simple initiative: We wanted to organize writing workshops in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. That’s exactly what we did up till the summer. We organized several workshops, got a good response and developed a model to assess whether our participants were improving, what aspects of writing they were improving in and so on. At the same time we started organizing public events wherein people would come in, have tea, and share original music, poetry and short stories. Essentially, we established community based creative support groups for both people with a casual interest in writing, poetry and music as well as for seasoned writers seeking a space to refine their work before publishing. Indeed many writers have gone on from our workshops to get published.
SIL: What is your biggest market?
Open Letters: Our main market is Karachi because it is the largest city and the most educated. It also provides many open community spaces for artists, such as The Second Floor (T2F), which is where we are housed. Our target audience is primarily students from high-income private schools who go through our reading, writing and critical thinking workshops and events. However, we plan to eventually include public schools in our model as well.
SIL: Can you tell us about some of your recent events?
Open Letters: The most recent event we organized was a performance-poetry evening with Irish poet and winner of the 2011 BBC Edinburgh Fringe Poetry Slam, Catherine Brogan at The Second Floor, where Cat enriched audiences with her spoken word poetry. Previously, we had a Writer Discussion Series on Saadat Hasan Manto, with a live reading and talk by Tahir Manto in November 2014. We also provide a platform to our writers to participate in cross-cultural events of The Second Floor, for example the recent Story Hack, a socio-cultural exchange of letters and stories between youth in India and neighboring countries.
SIL: Do you think the arts will feature a more prominent role in the agenda of upcoming social enterprises in Pakistan?
Open Letters: We see the social enterprise scene in Pakistan as highly tech-based, or tech-obsessed really. However, we also see scope for the arts. When we started our writing workshops, we were a bit queasy about their reception but we got a great response and had to accommodate people beyond our full capacity. People actively seek opportunities to learn the arts whether that’s prose, poetry or painting. Self-expression always matters and people always need a space to express themselves. As an organization, we don’t cling to a strict definition of what social enterprise is or what it should do. Poverty alleviation is great, but to afford someone the opportunity to express themselves is also a noble cause.
SIL: Any message that you’d like to give to new start-ups?
Open Letters: Don’t worry about scale. Lots of early-stage enterprises are obsessed with scaling up. Focus instead on why you do what you do, what needs your work addresses and perfect your product before launching it en masse. For arts-based enterprises and the people behind them, it’s not about ‘making it big.’ Be patient and first develop a reputation. The market will eventually come to your level.
SIL: We wish you the best in your initiative and hope you create a true movement of letters!
This story was published by Taimoor Toor on 15th January, 2015