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.