What is the role of the arts in reducing ethnic tensions and how can marginal voices be heard? Afrodita Nikolova's research investigates how arts interventions can build peace.
What is the role of the arts in reducing ethnic tensions and how can marginal voices be heard? Afrodita Nikolova‘s research investigates how arts interventions can build peace. She has a personal interest since she comes from Macedonia where tensions between Albanians and security forces in 2001 spilled over into violence which she says has left “a huge scar” on Macedonian society.
Her PhD in Education, which she begins in the autumn, will explore the role of arts interventions in developing critical thinking around issues of identity and intercultural communication.
It will build on her masters, also at Cambridge, which covered student responses to the Merchant of Venice in Macedonia. “I was interested in students’ reaction to the play’s treatment of religious tensions in the 17th century and whether the text might trigger reflection on ethnic tensions in Macedonia. Some of them had witnessed violence on religious and ethnic grounds at first hand. I felt the issue of prejudice was the elephant in the room in our formal education system and was interested in how arts interventions could work in Macedonia.”
Afrodita, an award-winning poet from Macedonia’s Aromanian minority, has always, as she says, “perceived the world through literature” and feels arts education has a vital role to play in combatting prejudice.
She was born in the small town of Shtip in eastern Macedonia just two years before the country won independence from the former Yugoslavia. An only child, her mother is a supervisor in a textile factory and her father works in local government unit.
She was interested in language from an early age. She wanted to learn the alphabet before she went to school. She used to go to hospital quite a lot when she was young because she had health issues and was fascinated by the Latin words on the doors. When she started primary school she loved to write, but her teacher complained her writing was too abstract. Her mother supported her though and used to help her with her writing. Aged nine, she bought one of her teachers a gift. They complained it was cheap and she was so angry that she wrote her first poem about her feelings and about how school was limiting her creativity.
When she got to secondary school, though, she found support from her literature teachers who encouraged her to continue writing. She tried to write a novella, penned a series of sonnets, read poetry from Lorca to the Macedonian canon and became very interested in how readers interacted with books. “I always knew writing was my thing,” she says.
The turning point for her came when she started her degree in English language and literature at Ss Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje. One of her visiting lecturers in creative writing was an American underground poet, Sean Thomas Dougherty. “His poetry was riveting and focused on marginal groups in society, but it was his approach to the creative process that was interesting to me,” she says. “He also taught me to appreciate the musicality of poetry.”
She wrote a lot while she was doing her degree and attended many poetry readings. At the end of her second year her poetry pamphlet “Omaynina” won a national award – the “Lesnovski Dzvona” prize. With a colleague she co-founded a literary magazine ‘Sh’. It was a spin-off from an NGO student magazine on higher education quality. She is still an editor on the magazine. It began as a student publication, but has also published writing by teenagers with special needs. It runs short story competitions which are judged by well known Macedonian writers and holds regular poetry readings of material published in the magazine.
By her fourth year she became more interested in exploring identity issues after reading literature by African American and Jewish writers.
Afrodita says she was in part drawn to marginalised groups because she is Aromanian and, although the group is very much assimilated in Macedonian society because there are no obvious religious or cultural differences with the majority, she says she felt different growing up. “I was ashamed, especially when they asked in school surveys what ethnic group I belonged to. The stereotypes about Aromanian tend to be negative – that they are mean, for instance. I tried to suppress my identity so as not to stand out,” she says. “Later I accepted it.”
During her degree, she wrote an essay reflection on her ethnic identity and prejudice for a writing competition. It led to her being selected to travel to Sarajevo to attend workshops with Macedonians, Albanians, Serbs and Bosnians on how to resolve ethnic tensions in the Balkans peacefully.
Afrodita began leading creative writing workshops in her home town with students and young people and volunteered at the Centre for Social Initiatives in Skopje, working mainly with marginalised young Roma people.
After graduating she worked for a year as an English language teacher to children aged between four and eight and to adults and teenagers, teaching them about English language and culture. Two years previously she had travelled to England for the first time to do a language course in south London.
She started a masters in English literature in Macedonia before receiving a scholarship to do an MPhil at Cambridge from the Ministry of Education and Science in Macedonia. She was drawn to the Cambridge course as it focused on the role of education in the arts. Her final undergraduate paper was on the role of teachers in developing students’ creativity. “The course at Cambridge was on Arts, Creativity, Education and Culture and covered everything I was interested in. There were no similar courses in Macedonia as the arts and education are very compartmentalised,” says Afrodita, who is a keen actress. “It opened up a new window for me. I mixed with students from a kaleidoscope of different arts traditions, from drama, art and novel writing to music and tv directing.”
Afrodita joined the Pembroke Poetry Society and was exposed to different types of poetry such as rap and slam poetry. “We don’t have a slam poetry scene in Macedonia. Poetry tends to be for the privileged,” she says. She is passionate about changing this.
After her masters, she needed time to reflect and returned to Macedonia where she applied for a PhD at Cambridge. She will be the first Gates Cambridge Scholar from her country.
Afrodita also started a creative writing programme based around various art forms, including theatrical improvisation at Goce Delcev University in Shtip. For the last five months she has been working at the European University, teaching English to law and dentistry students. She is looking forward to returning to Cambridge in October, under the supervision of Dr Burnard.