July 2019

Locations and Dislocations: Reflections on the Contemporary Women’s Writing International CWWA Conference at Algoma University

by Maggie Neal Doherty

The confluence of physical location and conference theme— “Locations and Dislocations: Places and Spaces in Contemporary Women’s Writing”— could not have been more poignant or tangibly felt during the July 3-5, 2019 International Contemporary Women’s Writing Association Conference at Algoma University in Sault St. Marie, Ontario, Canada. With the rippling waters of the St. Mary’s River, which serves as the border between Canada and the United States, flowing nearby the host university, the focus of the conference carefully called attention to space and place, and its often complicated and fraught meanings. 

The examination of place, especially that of Algoma University’s, which is the historical site of the Shingwauk Residential School and now features the Shingwauk Kinoomagge Gamig, an Anishinaabek institution for university studies and residential school survivor focused exhibit, was highlighted against the robust paper presentations and powerful keynote presentations by writers and scholars like Gwen Benaway, Paula McGrath, and Columpa Bobb. For me, the conference was both a homecoming and an exploration. I grew up in northern Michigan, the state across the river from Sault St. Marie, and spent my summers with my grandmother in the eastern Upper Peninsula village of Cedarville, which was a mere hour’s drive south from Algoma. As a child, we would frequent the towns of the border twin cities, either watching hockey matches at Lake Superior State University in Sault St. Marie, Michigan or crossing into Canada to ski. I was able to pair the conference with a family vacation, and was happy to return to my childhood landscape of the Great Lakes now that I reside in Montana. 

While the physical landscape and setting of this conference was familiar, the conference itself was new territory as it was my first paper presentation. The questions posed by the conference itself are similar questions that I seek to address, or, truthfully, discover in my own literary research. As a recent graduate with my MA in English Literature from Northern Arizona University, much of my focus was on ecocriticism, and the role that place and space have in contemporary literature, especially in the construction of identity, community, and culture. I was overjoyed by the acceptance into the conference as a presenter, and was even more thrilled to present on the nature writing panel with McGrath and Nina Bannett. My paper explored the relationship between kinship, identity, and the environment in Louise Erdrich’s novel Tracks.

The schedule of presentations and keynote speakers were designed to foster an intimate environment, as well as provided a much appreciated opportunity to attend all sessions without fear of missing out on a panel which is usually the case with concurrent sessions. This unique feature of the conference allowed for a greater depth of questions and discussions proceeding the engaging presentations. Admittedly my conference attending experience is limited in number, having only attending the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association fall conference last year, yet I felt that the quality of the papers, and the subsequent discussions were much more focused, enriching, and substantive. While the panels offered a wide range of papers, the connecting themes like gender and dispossession such as the first day’s panel, “Symbolic Spaces,” or the challenge to domestic spaces and trauma which was addressed in the “(Dis)comforting Domestic Spaces.” It was remarkable in how each paper linked to another, which allowed for a robust and engrossing dialogue among the participants. It also speaks to conference organizer, Alice Ridout’s, diligence and artfulness in selecting papers and arranging meaningful panels. 

Beyond the convergence of presentations and keynotes, another highlight was the food. The conference provided all meals, including receptions that featured traditional Anishinaabe food by a local caterer. On the first day, following the provocative CWWA Keynote Address by Benaway in the newly remodelled Shingwauk auditorium, in which she staked out new concepts toward relationships to landscapes and places, interspersed with witty academic jokes, participants were treated to dishes like wild rice salad, Anishinaabe corn soup, and what was the crowd favorite: bannock and fry bread with maple butter. Experiencing meals together, either at post-keynote receptions, or lunch between panels, also fostered a deeper sense of community and collegiality that I truly admired. Whether it was noshing on seconds, or even thirds, of slices of bannock smeared with sweet maple butter or refilling cups of coffee, the opportunity to connect was truly a welcome and encouraging outcome.

An especially poignant example of this fostered community occurred on July 4th, American Independence Day. The conference dinner was located at a hotel situated on the St. Mary River which we were informed offered us the opportunity to watch the fireworks display from Sault St. Marie, Michigan. At dusk, many of us gathered on the lawn outside of the hotel, and watched as a barge on the river, shot brilliant after brilliant firework into the clear night’s sky. It was not lost on any of us, a group of people hailing from England, Northern Ireland, Australia, Ireland, Canada, Pakistan, and America the many layers of meaning that occurred during each fiery explosion. We were standing on traditional Anishinaabe land, in the country of Canada, while watching the neighboring nation celebrate its independence. There were certainly some good natured remarks between the British and American delegates during the fanfare. 

We joked that Alice could not have planned for a more exciting, or more colorful, event for the conference. The organizing materials cited Algoma’s location as the inspiration for the conference theme and I felt that it pressed beyond inspiration and became practical and purposeful. We went from inspiration to inquiry, and the place itself formed a formed a critical foundation that allowed us to explore this tension between locations and dislocations, and how our research is seeking answers to these complex questions as posed in contemporary women’s writing.