Gail Ingram in conversation with Lola Elvy, founder of youth journal fingers comma toes – hosting the 2020 NFFD Youth Competition
Lola Elvy: Children have an innate desire—and ability—to create. I think this creative desire is something that lies within all of us, that we learn to temper as we grow and have to prioritise other needs of life; but I am drawn to how, for children, creativity is always the priority, and it affects how we see the world. It seems pure to me that when we have no other responsibilities, we are driven to create; we learn through creativity, form bonds with one another. In our early ages, we see the world through the eyes of imagination, and as we grow, that view shifts; we start to comprehend the complexities of our world, and the responsibilities attached. Listening to young voices reminds us of an uncluttered view of the world, and especially today, where noise and responsibilities are ever-increasing, this reminder seems crucial in understanding our world and helping to shape a better society for future generations.
LE: In terms of the nuts and bolts of the competition, I don’t think it will make much difference that it will be run by youth, though it is now free and open to international entrants. I think it’s important for young people to be actively encouraging each other in their creative pursuits, as active encouragement only gives rise to more encouragement. Hannah Daniell, 2019’s winner of the youth NFFD competition, will be guest-judging this year, making it all youth-run. I like the idea of having a creative space that drives itself, so that we as youth are not only participating in the initiative, but we are the initiative, and can form a community around our endeavours.
LE: fingers comma toes started in 2015 when I suggested the project to my friend Tristan, who founded the journal with me. At the time, I didn’t have a specific vision for the journal’s future. It was an experiment for me to branch out from my own writing, and I thought it would be a fulfilling way to gain exposure and experience. I also wanted to share the creativity of children, in an environment that was uncompetitive and free. Over the last five years, the “vision” for the journal has evolved. I want to use fingers comma toes as not only a literary journal, but a platform for youth projects across the board: projects in visual art, photography, writing, music, science, education… In our January 2020 issue, we included a feature interview with Christchurch youth activist E Wen Wong, whose work in addition spans across poetry and science. This interview was the first of what I hope to be a series of many dialogues with young individuals who are passionate about their world, from art to scientific discovery.
LE: Reading youth writing, one looks for a balance between pure imagination and how well-crafted a story is. There are lots of different kinds of stories, but authenticity is always key. The stories I love reading the most are the stories I’ve never heard before—sometimes this means unexpected characters, or a sense of humour that lets the imagination run unbridled; sometimes it means language that’s raw or beautiful, a phrase that paints a vivid picture or makes the reader see the scene in a different light. As someone who writes mostly poetry, I like to pay attention to the detail of the writing itself; but I also like to be entertained with plots and characters I would never imagine.
LE: It’s very hard to make a general recommendation. Some of my personal favourites are Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness (series), Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (trilogy), and Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. But perhaps it’s not always what you read, rather how you read, that really helps hone, or start, your writing. Even when your favourite authors are always changing, it’s worth asking yourself why you like (or don’t like) certain books at certain times: Is it the story? Is it the characters? Is it the language? Thinking about why you like reading is a big step in thinking about how to write.
LE: Thanks, Gail!