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August 03, 2010

Keynotes at the Third Biennial International Conference of the Contemporary Women's Writing Network.

Writing about web page http://cwwn.sdsu.edu/

In San Diego in July, I attended the Third Biennial International Conference of the Contemporary Women’s Writing Network. Organized by Edith Frampton and Anne Donadey , the conference was titled New Texts, Approaches, and Technologies .

Keynote by Susan Stanford Friedman

The conference began with a fascinating keynote speech by Susan Stanford Friedman from University of Wisconsin-Madison. The talk was titled ‘Riding the Waves: Women’s Writing and Feminist Literary Studies for the Twenty-first Century’, and Stanford Friedman began by questioning why there is still a need to look at women’s writing specifically. She noted that feminist literary studies no longer claims commonality between all women. Instead we have turned to Woolf and De Beauvoir, because they insist on a full humanity for women not restricted by the categories of gender. Stanford Friedman suggests that we must be ‘attuned to oppression but not limited to it’.

Thinking about new directions in feminist literary studies, Stanford Friedman lists the following areas:
• biocultures and the posthuman;
• digital and visual cultures;
• environmental studies;
• and the movement from the national to the transnational.

In all of these areas, the focus is on diversity rather than commonality.

In the second part of Stanford Friedman’s lecture, she moved on to talk specifically about religion and women’s writing. Stanford Friedman contended that religious oppression does exist, but affirmed that representations of religion by women do not always condemn religion. Our analysis should not begin in assuming that religion is always negative in women’s writing. Instead, three factors were suggested as the basis of effective analysis, considering women’s negotiations with:

1. the theological,
2. the institutional and
3. the cultural aspects of religion.

Engaging with these three areas, women writers explore their faith, their relation to religious authorities (often men) and their identities as transnational subjects. Fundamentalism is an issue too because it creates strict and exacting boundaries between those who are inside or outside accepted traditions: those who are believers or those who are infidels. Opposed to such boundaries, however, is another aspect of religion which is mystical, spiritual or personal.

To illuminate her explorations of women and religion, Stanford Friedman provides a detailed reading of two fascinating books: The Translator by Leila Aboulela and A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar . She also mentions Adhaf Soueif’s novel The Map of Love, in which an Edwardian war widow has less freedom than Islamic women under the veil. Like The Map of Love, The Translator and A Map of Home consider the relation between Islam and the west, but they do so by depicting a love affair between an Islamic women and a Western man. Both novels are in the category of the bildungsroman, but Aboulela presents a more orthodox muslim view much like that of Zainah Anwar , while Jarrar is a secular Islamic writer in the vein of Irshad Manji’s The Trouble with Islam Today . The comparison of the lyrical poetry in Aboulela’s The Translator and the graphic style of Jarrar’s A Map of Home was fascinating, and Stanford Friedman was convincing in showing how each writer engaged in their own way with Islamic thought.

(Personal Note: What impressed me about this keynote was Stanford Friedman’s demand that more attention be brought to women’s representations of and dialogues with religion. She talked about how religion has been rather sidelined by feminism, and this made me recall my own work on the Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis and her unique fusing of non-Conformist Christian beliefs and Zen Buddhist practices. Approaching Lewis via a detailed understanding of her religious beliefs has not been popular. It’s almost as though some critics want to ignore the fact that Lewis is religious.)

Other Keynotes

There were many other interesting keynotes during the conference. Caroline Bergvall gave a fascinating talk on her own poetic and artistic practice titled ‘Middling English: Nodalities of Writing’, which was interrupted by an earthquake, though Bergvall bravely went on with her talk. Thadious Davis gave an interesting keynote titled ‘Enfoldments: Natasha Trethewey’s Racial-Spatial Phototexting’, and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni gave a talk titled ‘One Writer’s Journey’ on her creative practice. In addition, there was a remarkable experimental poetry reading, featuring Rae Armantrout , Cristina Rivera-Garza , Anna Joy Springer and Elizabeth Willis .


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