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A review: ‘Contemporary Women Writing Race: Textual Interventions and Intersections’ Symposium

October 2021

by Shelby Judge

Getting ready for a conference in the time of Coronavirus means putting on your best shirt to sit in your own bedroom, plugged into your computer. It is an unusual state of being although not necessarily a bad thing. Not only can you drink good coffee from your favourite mug, but the conference is no longer limited by geography. This was the case for the recent symposium, Contemporary Women Writing Race: Textual Interventions and Intersections, organised and hosted by the CWWA. Due to the conference being online, it was a truly international and intersectional conference: speakers and attendees joined in from across the UK, India, Pakistan, America, Austria, Hungary, and beyond!

What better environment could there be for discussions of race in contemporary women’s literature than a completely global one?

The conference opened with an address from the CWWA chair, Dr. Kerry Myler, who shared how the event was initially going to be a small follow-up to a previous event, but it quickly metamorphosed into the large and varied symposium we were all here for. You could tell from Kerry’s opening address how passionate and excited the CWWA team were to share this event with all of us. This positive, collaborative spirit continued throughout the symposium.

Beginning the conference with an entire panel on Bernardine Evaristo’s textual politics was a great choice. I think it’s fair to say that Evaristo is a central figure in contemporary women’s writing, and as a woman of colour who often deals with the theme of race in her writing, it is no surprise that her work was the source of so much academic attention for this conference. A highlight for me in that panel was Ana García-Soriano’s paper on diversity and equality in the short story, ‘The White Men’s Liberation Front’ (2020), where Evaristo subverts reality in presenting an academic world where white heterosexual men are marginalised, thus ironically addressing white male supremacy in the academy. Ana’s paper also situated Evaristo’s work in the literary context of the contemporary short story, which was truly fascinating.

As I am sure many of you will agree, one surefire way to tell that a conference was good is when you leave with a long list of books to add to your TBR (To Be Read) pile. Imagine my sheer delight at realising that ‘The White Men’s Liberation Front’ is freely available online. Even more short stories were added to my ever-growing TBR pile during Marni Appleton’s paper ‘Postfeminism and “minor” feelings: Affective resistance in short stories about Anglo-American Chinese girlhood by Jenny Zhang and May-Lan Tan’ in the panel on intersectionality and dualities (brilliantly chaired by Jade Hinchcliffe). Moreover, Marni drew upon Gill & Orgad’s article ‘The Amazing Bounce-Backable Woman’ (2018) in her critical construction of the postfeminist protagonist and she analysed Zhang and Tan’s protagonists in terms of their affective resistance to neoliberalism. At the end of her paper, I was left considering the revolutionary, activist potential when we consider the intersections between race, gender, and feelings.

I was thrilled to participate in the panel ‘Race, History, and Contemporary Women’s Writing’ with a paper titled ‘Decolonising the Classics in contemporary adaptations of Greek myth’. I started by briefly outlining the long tradition of classical imagery and  iconography being used in the service of colonialist, white nationalist, and sexist ideologies, and the problems posed by attempts to decolonise the discipline. Then, I went on to look at two contemporary novels that adapt Greek myth where race is specifically written into the retelling – Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire and Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage The Bones. I was ultimately trying to demonstrate that such adaptations are writing race back into Greek myth, writing back against the co-opting of Classics in the service of white supremacy – that they are actively, presently decolonising the Classics.

My fellow panellists were completely brilliant. Jennifer O’Reilly’s paper on Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Ntozake Shange’s Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo as Ethnographic Fiction was so interesting, made all the more so by the inclusion of afrocentric murals in her powerpoint that are freely visible in New York. For O’Reilly, these texts, which include oral folkloric traditions, recipes, and instructions for rituals are a means of reconnecting with African Diasporic cultural traditions. Seohyun Kim’s paper on Hortense Spillers and Sojourner Truth was so important to the conference, concerned, as it was, on two of the most important Black women activists from the USA. Seohyun’s analysis of Sojourner Truth’s plate in Judy Chicago’s dinner party was an engaged account of the erasure and hypervisibility of Black women’s sexuality. On a more personal note, it filled me with nostalgia for my Master’s degree in Women’s Studies, where we discussed at length Chicago’s artistic and activist choices in her ‘Dinner Party’.

My favourite part of presenting a paper at a conference has to be the Q&A, especially when we get to think about how all of our papers talk to each other. In our panel, I think the way that ancient and modern histories (and herstories!) are being revisited and reclaimed for activist purposes was a unifying and immensely productive theme.

Sometimes, one-day symposiums start off really strong, and taper off towards the end. Or perhaps it just feels that way because everyone is rather tired after a long day of stimulating thought. Either way, that certainly wasn’t the case with Contemporary Women Writing Race, where the final panel on the poetics of writing race and resistance dealt with some very serious topics, including colonial violence, indigenous identities, and violent entrenched racism. The papers were concerned with metaphysics, poesis, and archival theory, which was an incredibly enriching note to end on. Minh Huynh Vu’s paper on hauntings and spatial poetics in Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Ghost of (2018) was a great final contribution to round off the day, clearly evidenced by the enthusiastic and generative discussion that followed in the Q&A.

Overall, the Contemporary Women Writing Race symposium really typified the importance of the CWWA as a collective. It provides space and resources for people to come together to discuss some of the most important topics in today’s society, particularly pertaining to how they are presented, and contended with, in contemporary women’s literature.

Shelby Judge is a PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow.

Follow her on Twitter @Judgeyxo

She also runs a research-related blog TheShelbiad.blogspot.com


Being Bookish: Creating a Community of Readers

September 2021

by Hannah Spruce

It’s often said that the PhD experience is a lonely one, and mine was initially very sequestered. When I began, I debated whether to move from the North to the Midlands where my new institution was located. It was a drawn-out, indecisive debate resolved by not making a decision and thereby staying put.

No longer a student at a Northern institution and miles from the Midlands I felt severed from university life. I sorely missed the social and intellectual life of the university – the public lecture, poetry night, book launch, workshop, and pub gathering. These segments of academic and literary life are emotionally, intellectually, and if we believe in such things, spiritually enriching. I missed the communal spirit that university life can provide. I badly desired some sort of scholarly community and resolved to formulate my own from the outside.

I became the resident academic in a DIY coworking community of artists, photographers, designers, and their many wonderful dogs. Long before I joined them, a founding group had come together to rent a chilly warehouse, thus creating our makeshift headquarters. There, I met an incredible network of women. On one of many mucky Winter dog walks on which I complained (a lot), one of these women encouraged me to re-create the social-intellectual space I missed. That conversation led to the birth of ‘Bookish’, a reading group that has thus far survived the pandemic, the sad closure of our coworking space, and has immeasurably improved my PhD experience, teaching, and research practice.

Birthing ‘Bookish’

In January 2019, I held the first meet-up. I had publicised through social media, and as I sat in our co-working space with the lights ever so slightly dimmed, I was very nervous. Would anyone show? More importantly, if anyone did show, who would show? At the specified time, woman after woman walked through the door carrying our first title until there were about fifteen of us occupying the coworking space’s many sofas, fold-out chairs, and bean bags. When I got home from that first meeting, I was so exhilarated I would find it hard to sleep.

Our initial plan was to read nonfiction and we began with Laura Thomas’s Just Eat It. Everyone has a relationship with food, and women’s experiences with food are particularly wrought by patriarchy and domesticity. We shared a lot and covered a lot. Always, a feminist perspective sat at the heart of our discussions as we spoke about diabetes, disordered eating, motherhood, morality, and fatness.

These conversations were rigorous, generous, and insightful and they helped shape my feminist practice which is so integral to both my teaching and research.

In the nearly three years that Bookish has been running, we’ve branched out to include poetry and fiction, but we remain firmly committed to nonfiction. We read and discuss topics like antiracism, borders, capitalism, disability rights, feminism, food, mental health, prisons, and pregnancy.

The Book Club as Teaching Preparation

Teaching opportunities for postgraduates can be hard to come by and I fretted about gaining some whilst living at a distance from my institution. I sent a short teaching CV and a speculative email to several local universities requesting the head of teaching deployment to please keep my CV on file and think of me if any teaching cover came up. In January 2021, I was asked to teach an online module on gothic fiction.

I found that the book club prepared me for teaching in higher education. I prepare for the reading group as I would for a seminar; I formulate questions, jot down key talking points and issues, and research the context around the book, author, and issues.

The book club was especially helpful given that my start in teaching was online. Following the announcement of lockdown orders in March 2020, our book club migrated online, and we met virtually in April for the first time. In the midst of the government rule permitting outdoor exercise once-a-day, we turned from our usual fodder to a book on swimming at the Hampstead Heath Ladies Pond. With its accounts of the invigorating effects and camaraderie of cold-water swimming in the depths of winter, depictions of unhurried summer days on the heath, and even with the talk of eels and pike the book was calming. But, for me, the virtual meeting felt disastrous. With all the change in the early days of the pandemic, I hadn’t realised that the pandemic would alter the feel of our book club too.

Did I cry after? Yes, I did (and it was calming). In person, these meetups had always felt inspiring, fast-paced, and uplifting. The virtual space seemed, in those initial screen-to-screen conversations, to stilt the fruitfulness, emotional energy, and comradeship of our former meetings. Thankfully, this feeling didn’t last.

Months of hosting a virtual book club acclimatised me to online discussion. And when I began to teach via my laptop for the first time, I knew no different having never taught in a physical classroom. I was over the stiltedness, I was comfortable with the essential pauses that permit online discussion, and I was poised to exploit all that the virtual classroom offers. Without the book club, my first teaching experience might have felt like that first tear-inducing online meet up. Instead, it was joyous. As we discussed classic gothic literary texts from Horace Walpole to Anne Radcliffe the enthusiasm of my students was palpable in the digital ether.

The book club recovered that vital intellectual and grounded network of thinkers I felt I had lost. And through the book club, long may it last, I will continue to have that.

ABOUT: Hannah Spruce is a Midlands3Cities PhD student in the School of Arts at the University of Leicester. She is interested in contemporary women’s writing from Canada and the United States, and has been running @bookishleeds since January 2019. 

An incomplete list of book club picks  
Lola Olufemi – Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power (Pluto Press, 2020)Sayaka Murata – Earthlings (Granta, 2020)
Sophie Lewis – Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against the Family (Verso, 2019)Frances Ryan – Crippled: Austerity and the Demonization of Disabled People (Verso, 2019)
Carmen Maria Machado – In the Dream House (Graywolf Press, 2019)Esmé Weijun Wang – The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays (Graywolf Press, 2019)
Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser – Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto (Verso, 2019)
Various Authors incl. Ava Wong Davies and Margaret Drabble ­– At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond (Daunt Books, 2019)
Jay Bernard – Surge (Random House, 2019)
Juno Mac and Molly Smith – Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers Rights (Verso, 2018)
Akala – Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire (Two Roads, 2018)
Laura Thomas – Just Eat It (Bluebird, 2018)
Reni Eddo-Lodge – Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (Bloomsbury Circus, 2017)
Roxane Gay – Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (HarperCollins, 2017)
Alex S. Vitale – The End of Policing (Verso, 2017)
Katherena Vermette – North End Love Songs (The Muses’ Company, 2012)
Mark Fisher – Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Zero Books, 2009)  

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

July 2019

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. 


Jade’s First CWWA Conference: Surveillance, Speculative Fiction and Starting a New Chapter

January 2019

by Jade Hinchcliffe

A year after starting my MA (by research) in English Literature at the University of Huddersfield, I attended my first external conference which was hosted by CWWA at Northumbria University. It didn’t get off to the best start. I had just handed in my thesis 10 days before and was exhausted, I learned I would need to leave the conference early because I had a PhD interview to attend which I hadn’t had much time to prepare for and it took me six hours to travel to Newcastle because of Storm Ali. Once I arrived cold, soaked and tired at the station, however, things started to improve. Two lovely young women saw my confused expression as I stared at my map, outlining the route from the station to the hotel, and they kindly showed me to my hotel. This foreshadowed what I was to experience at the conference- an abundance of support, kindness and encouragement from people who went out of their way to welcome and inspire a new, inexperienced researcher. Unsurprisingly, I felt very nervous at the prospective of presenting a paper and then travelling back to Hull the next day for my interview, especially considering the disastrous and stressful incoming journey! Thankfully, I was immediately reassured by my fellow presenters and soon relaxed.

After a good sleep, I felt ready for the day ahead and excited to meet new people and hear their talks. I was fortunate enough to attend the conference with my MA supervisor, Sarah Falcus, and some of my fellow colleagues from Huddersfield, Nick Stavris and Steff El Madawi, who also presented. The theme of the conference was “Writing Wrongs” and there were a plethora of diverse panels and presentations, expertly put together by Rachel Carroll and Melanie Waters, which reflected the exciting and varied research in this field. I firstly attended a panel on “digital voices” which featured discussions on feminist readings of Han Kang, blogging as a form of communication between writer and reader and issues that Mexican women writers face when publishing. I was very impressed by the speakers and the insights they gave us concerning the ways female authors communicate with their readers by using innovative digital practices. I also attended two panels on “mapping the city” and “rewriting female sexuality”. There were some very interesting discussions which followed these panels, that were sparked by the presentations, such as: how we interpret space as being private or public, how female writers are “writing the body” and ways of reading female autoerotic fiction. Although I was unfortunately unable to attend any more panels, I had the opportunity to hear Clare Hemmings’ keynote speech entitled “writing ambivalence: sexual politics and the speculative” and I learned a great deal about her research on Emma Goldman. I was also very pleased to be able to be at the book launch for Mary Eagleton’s Clever Girls and the Literature of Women’s Upward Mobility and Clare Hanson and Susan Watkins The History of British Women’s Writing 1945-1975. Mary Eagleton’s generosity, in allowing Clare Hanson and Susan Watkins to share her book launch, serves as yet another example of the way members of the CWWA support each other and are proud of each other’s achievements. Overall, I found listening to people’s research very interesting and was able to add to my never-ending book list!

I presented my paper, “Juli Zeh and the right to privacy and our bodies in a surveillance society”, on the “speculative fiction” panel with Susan Watkins and Nick Stavris. After I gave my paper, I was overjoyed that many people in the audience wanted to read The Method by Juli Zeh and was delighted to be asked to recommend similar contemporary texts on surveillance and dystopia. I found Susan and Nick’s papers, on post-apocalyptic fiction and time in Doris Lessing and Megan Hunter’s novels, highly insightful and it gave me ideas for future projects. I was particularly disappointed not to be able to attend the “eco feminism” panel as it covered similar themes to my panel, however I was able to speak to the presenters during the breaks and ask about their research. Being able to meet new people and learn about their work was one of my favourite parts of the conference and I felt more confident approaching people as the day progressed, especially after I had presented my paper and had gotten over my nerves.

At the evening meal, I had a lovely discussion with the women at my table who all gave me advice and encouragement for my interview, which was unexpected and very touching. When we all sat down for dinner, I noticed that there was a good balance of lecturers, early career academics, creative writers and postgraduate students who were all complimenting each other on their presentations and giving each other advice. I urge new researchers to join the CWWA and come along to some of the conferences and events to experience the supportive environment and gain the confidence to present. Attending and speaking at CWWA conferences also provides people with the opportunity to form new connections and to collaborate on projects. After the conference, I felt refreshed and motivated to go to my interview as I knew from attending the conference that I definitely wanted be a researcher and my conversation at dinner encouraged me to believe in my ability.

Since the conference, I have been awarded a studentship to study for a PhD in Media, Culture and Society with the North of England Consortium for Arts and Humanities (NECAH) at the University of Hull under the supervision of a leading surveillance expert and happily I have also been able to keep Sarah Falcus as my second supervisor at the University of Huddersfield! Recently, I became a CWWA member and I was also appointed as a steering group member for the Postgraduate Contemporary Women’s Writing Network (PGCWWN), which is a separate organisation that is related to the CWWA which I learned about at the conference. I will be involved with organising the 2019 PGCWWN conference with the other members. Details of the upcoming PGCWWN conference and other events hosted by the PGCWWN and CWWA will be posted in the following months so, don’t just watch this space, get involved and share your research!