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.