Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Constructing Identities and Changing Spaces in Wales Graduate Conference: Report

The complicated nature of identity and the significance of place in Wales was the focus for this interdisciplinary conference held at The Graduate Centre at Cardiff University on 24th June. The conference was lively and diverse, exploring art, literature, history and much more. The opening keynote lecture was delivered by Professor Damien Walford Davies of Aberystwyth University, who discussed ‘Archipelagic Cartographies’ in the work of Welsh-by-birth artist and writer Brenda Chamberlain. Davies’s proposed a reading of both literature and maps (termed ‘literary geography’) in Chamberlain’s work. The themes Davies introduced -belonging, alienation, identity, the importance of place – were important keywords that dominated the conference.

The first panel I opted for, ‘In-between Identities’, was literary in focus. Llyr Gwyn Lewis’s research (in Welsh) explores Celticity in the writings of Irish poet W. B. Yeats and Welsh-language poet T. Gwynn Jones. I am a great admirer of Yeats, but I was unaware of T. Gwynn Jones’s work. Llyr delivered a fascinating paper on the uncanny in Yeats and Jones, focusing on images of wandering and movement from place to place. Not only is this work an interesting comparative approach, it also brings something fresh to the vast amount of Yeats criticism out there. The second paper of the panel by Gwennan Elin Higham looked at the remarkable Kate Bosse-Griffiths (as a Welsh learner myself, I was both admiring and envious of Bosse-Griffiths’s ability to learn Welsh in just two years!). Bosse-Griffiths’s position in Wales was an interesting one, as she was both part of Welsh society yet marginalised due to her German roots. The last paper in this panel looked at the neglected husband and wife writing duo John and Emily Pearson Finnermore, and Michelle Deiniger’s paper explored the gendered themes in these two writers.

Cardiff University’s Professor Katie Gramich and Dr Tomos Owen held a workshop on gendered constructions of Wales and Welsh identity. Focusing on the figure of Dame Wales, Gramich first led us through the positive and negative aspects of this gendered construction of Wales, before Owen looked at issues of form and genre, taking the example of the male-dominated industrial novel as his starting point. It is in this tradition that the stereotypical ‘Welsh Mam’ flourished. This was a stimulating session, and prompted us to consider whether gendered constructions of Wales still have any relevance in today’s Wales.

Can we be Welsh and British at the same time? Recent census figures point to an increase in people feeling more ‘Welsh’ than ‘British’, but this may not necessarily be a new phenomenon. Martin Hanks’s paper explored feelings of national identity during the Second World War; it is often thought that, in times of trouble, we choose to be British rather than Welsh. Hanks’s paper revealed however, that there seemed to be a strengthening of Welsh cultural identity, while also recognising the need to defend their British national identity during wartime. Two papers explored Cardiff, though from very different angles- Beth Jenkins explored gender and civic/national identity in Cardiff, looking closely at the significant role women played in the construction of Welsh/British identity, while Simon Jenkins looked at the intersection of race and prostitution in Cardiff’s infamous Butetown area.

The last panel of the day, ‘Renegotiations of Identity’, proved to be an incredibly stimulating and relevant one, with three brilliant papers exploring contemporary Welsh Writing in English. Lisa Sheppard’s ‘Tony Bianchi: Cymro? Sais? Bryneichwr?’ explored Bianchi’s conflicted English-but-Welsh-speaking selfhood, and suggested that through the alternative identity of ‘Bryneichwr’, Bianchi could reconcile his fractured selfhood (though crucially, it is perhaps only in literature that this can be achieved). The second paper, presented by Emma Schofield, looked at post-devolution Welsh Writing in English, arguing that Cardiff was the focal point for many writers to reimagine Welsh civic identity. While all the papers were fantastic, one of the highlights for me was Robert Walton’s paper on masculinity in contemporary Welsh women writers. Walton suggested that the real reluctance in society to reimagine alternative masculinities was reflected in the works of Rachel Tresize, Deborah Kay Davies and Holly Howitt. It also worryingly continues the dark tradition of masculinity in Welsh literature. When it comes to men, we don’t seem to have come very far!

The conference ended with a spirited keynote by Kate North, novelist and poet, who talked us through her creative influences and gave us insights into the writing process (as someone who is unashamedly fascinated by writers, I thoroughly enjoyed this talk). This conference was well organised, and all involved delivered great papers. It is surely encouraging that postgraduate conferences of such high quality are occurring in Wales today- it just furthers my belief that it’s a very exciting time to be working in the field of Welsh studies.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Conference Report: New Research in Welsh Studies Graduate Conference 18th June 2013

The future of criticism in Wales certainly looks bright, if the recent Richard Burton Centre Graduate conference was anything to go by. The conference, ‘New Directions in Welsh Studies’ was an exciting glimpse into the thriving postgraduate research culture at Swansea, with many of CREW’s own researchers participating. Kicking off the day was Liza Penn Thomas’s paper, ‘I’m Spartacus: Homoerotisicing the Homosocial in the Art of Ken Etheridge’. This was the first time I had heard of Etheridge’s work, and Liza’s paper was a truly eye-opening introduction. If the words ‘inviting buttocks’ don’t grab your attention, I doubt anything will…

Two papers explored the fascinating yet neglected theme of disability in Welsh Writing in English, and I found both papers very thought-provoking. First up was Alex Rees’s paper, ‘The Rest of His Body Was Imperfect: Representations of Disability in South Wales Coalfields Literature 1900-48’, which revealed some fascinating insights. What perhaps was surprising was the sheer volume of Welsh texts that featured disabled figures, polarized as either comic scapegoats or grotesque villains. Georgia Burdett’s research explores disability in contemporary Welsh Writing in English, and what struck me was the apparent development in the portrayal of disabled figures in the Anglophone Welsh novel. Georgia’s paper, ‘Soaked Days and Drenched Nights: Alcohol and Substance Abuse in the Novels of Niall Griffiths’ seemed to suggest that far from being the marginal villains that were prevalent in coalfields literature, Griffiths’s protagonists were real people, both (in Georgia’s words) ‘heart-breaking and hilarious’. Society is to blame for characters such as Ianto or Stump, yet they are not simply victims. Georgia’s paper revealed just how far Welsh Writing in English has moved on from the simplistic caricatures that populate coalfields literature, and how the theme of disability has been explored with real care, understanding and sophistication by contemporary Welsh writers such as Griffiths.

While the focus for this conference was on Wales, Charlotte Jackson’s paper highlighted that we aren’t always so inward looking. Her research is a comparative study of Welsh and Native American writing in English and she is exploring the obsession many Welsh writers seem to have with Native American culture. Charlotte’s paper presented two conflicting engagements with the figure of the Native American (which struck me as being similar to the polarized representations of disability explored in Alex’s paper). Charlotte revealed how the Native American is used to serve a specific purpose in the works of two very different writers, Dannie Abse and R S Thomas. In Abse’s short story, ‘My Father’s Red Indian’, what initially appears to be quite a comical tale becomes a means of self-exploration through an ‘other’. The figure of Jack Evans, the Welsh Native American, becomes a way for Abse’s father in the story to explore his anomalous position as a Welsh Jew. Thomas, on the other hand, not renowned for his sense of humour, uses the Native American more negatively as an example of what could happen to the Welsh if they lose hold of their distinctive culture. Charlotte’s paper revealed the fascinating insights that can be made through a comparative approach to literature, and I look forward to seeing more of this kind of work in Welsh studies.

Kieron Smith’s paper on the Welsh documentary film-maker and poet John Ormond included a chance to see some clips of Ormond’s film Borrowed Pastures. Seeing Ormond’s films is always enlightening, as Ormond is such a fascinating but mostly forgotten figure. Kieron suggested that this film is an example of ‘popular ethnography’, as the film explores (the distinctly Welsh) themes of exile, alienation, and communication through two Polish refugees stranded on a farm in rural Carmarthenshire. Kieron argued that Ormond, though working at the BBC, had a certain degree of freedom in the films he choose to make, and this certainly seems the case with a film such as this. The film also explored the tensions in the idea of Welsh citizenship; as Kieron suggested, the two refugees are not completely excluded from Welsh society, yet due to their racial/ethnic difference, they are not completely assimilated into it either.

Moving from the cultural to the political, it is a truth universally acknowledged in Welsh political and cultural studies that Welsh identity is a very contentious issue. Syd Morgan, working on the ‘Civic Nationalisms’ project, presented us with some interesting new ways of considering Welsh identity, but given the complex nature of this matter, left us with more questions than answers. At the heart of the project seems to be how to define and development a sense of national identity for all those who choose to identify as Welsh, but whether an identity can be purely ‘civic’ is an idea many will struggle to accept. How far can we move from a cultural sense of Welshness before we lose what makes us distinctive? If you believe yourself to have a national identity, are you therefore a nationalist? (Wales’s very own ‘n’ word, which still carries negative connotations) This paper certainly received spirited responses from certain members of the audience. It is surely a project to watch… Sticking with politics, Rebecca George investigated the ever-controversial Welsh health service, and analysed the policies that are required to have a real impact in a devolved Wales. As Rebecca argued, Wales has specific health needs, and it seems that the greatest emphasis on healthcare in Wales is now on prevention and restoration. Stephen Murray’s lively talk on the Basque workers in the Dowlais iron-works was a thoroughly absorbing paper. Focusing on the larger migration to the Dowlais area during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the paper was a real eye-opener for me. Given the papers that had come before it, focusing mainly on ‘the Welsh’, this paper revealed cultural interactions that have gone into making a more ethnically diverse nation. Given the links that have been made between the Basque and Welsh languages, this could provide a foundation for more comparative work in the future.

The final paper was delivered by Dr Mathew Jarvis from Lampeter, who is working on the Leverhulme-funded ‘Devolved Voices: Welsh Poetry in English since 1997’ project. It is initiatives like this that we need to see move of in Wales- it is ambitious and inclusive, almost to the point that they have too many exciting poets from widely different backgrounds to deal with! But perhaps now in Wales, we can’t have too many voices. However, the paper did highlight, for me, perhaps a problem with Welsh studies- it’s arguably cosy nature. Again and again we seem to be hearing the same voices. However, this conference brought out new, fresh voices, and ones that hopefully will play a key role in the development of Welsh research in the years to come. The day ended with chair Daniel Williams encouraging us to think of new directions for the Richard Burton Centre itself. Personally, I think the most pressing issue ensuring that this kind of research into Welsh culture is preserved, developed and disseminated to the wider public.

Raymond Williams wrote in Modern Tragedy, ‘We come to tragedy by many roads. It is an immediate experience, a body of literature, a conflict of theory, an academic problem’. Replace ‘tragedy’ with ‘Wales’ and I think you are close to the situation we are in in post-devolution Wales. Coming from a variety of angles -literary, visual, filmic, and political- the papers delivered showed just how exciting, diverse, and stimulating the field of Welsh studies is at the moment. The great thing about coming to Wales from different roads is that it opens up the possibilities for where we are going; there are many destinations open to us.