Inter-disciplinary Research on Wales from Swansea University. Ymchwil rhyng-ddisgyblaethol ar Gymru ym Mhrifysgol Abertawe.
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. LlyrGwyn 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.