Women Writing Space, Saturday 7th March 2009 @ University of Warwick
After several months of planning, the conference I have been organising is now over. It was, I felt, a very successful day: everything ran smoothly and to time, the papers were excellent and engaging, and the 50 delegates all seemed to enjoy themselves! Aside from all the organisational experience I gained, the day was academically beneficial to me as well and I got a lot out of all the papers (the advantage of having selected all the papers ourselves, a day of pure intellectual indulgence!). Arina and I will be writing a report on the conference in the next few weeks, for now I wanted to blog my thoughts on and responses to the papers whilst everything is fresh in my mind.
The day got off to an exciting start with Rosa Ainley's keynote presentation titled "Interstitial practices: Crossing the Threshold in 2 Ennerdale Drive, a memoir of a house". Rosa began with a discussion of her work as a writer - describing that she "writes spaces into existence" through text, image and sound - and identified the common theme running through her current projects as a concern with "interstitial" spaces. This notion of "interstitial" spaces/practices denotes sites of border crossings, in-between spaces; it's a concept that really interests me as my work on journeys is concerned with between-spaces, and I really like this idea of the space at the interstices as a way to describe/explore/engage with such spatial instances. Rosa's current projects provided the material for further discussion of this in the presentation, beginning with "design for a waiting room" (e-published on outsidedge) which raised ideas concerning the in-between nature of spaces designated to waiting: spaces of public/private thresholds, transformative spaces where one passes from one state to another. The project of the presentation's title, 2 Ennerdale Drive provided the main focus for discussion; this work is "memoir" of a 1920s suburban family house, a process of writing the building into a textual space. Here issues of the public-private threshold were explored by focusing on the hallway, a space that is typically overlooked in studies of houses but provides a rich site for exploration in its mediation of interior and exterior space, a place of welcome and separation. Rosa finished by discussing the blurring of interdisiplinary boundaries that this kind of work entails: architecture, literature, and critical and creative writing are all involved - and Rosa posited that one way of describing her work is as a "digital A Room of One's Own". I'm still mulling over a lot of the ideas contained in the paper and I'm sure I'll continue to do so in the coming weeks.
The first of the three panels was on "Contemporary Urban Spaces". Katherine Cox began with the paper "Queering the Maze: Representations of Gendered Space in Jeanette Winterson's The Passion" which offered a detailed exploration of historical representations of the maze and labyrinth before considering their representation in Winterson's novel. Central to this were issues of gender, and Katherine detailed the ancient associations of the labyrinth, often associated with feminine sexuality through depictions of a dangerous, enticing, womb-like space. Winterson's city-labyrinth of Venice engages with these historical representations but in such a way that she constructs the city as a space for multiple gendered possibilities, a disruptive and contestatory site that escapes a single gendered identity. Zoe Skoulding followed with her paper "City Space, history and quotation: Redell Olsen and Frances Presley" which used the theoretical framework of postmodern geography to explore the role of history and quotation in representations of urban space in the works of these two contemporary poets. I was very interested by this use of Doreen Massey's and Gillian Rose's work, and the interpretation of the poets positioned Olsen's work as constructing a space-time that accords with Rose's notion of paradoxical space. Massey's ideas about the "clash of trajectories" in urban environments were also brought into the discussion, especially in Presley's work in which spatial movement is of great significance. Fabiola Popa's paper on "Identity Shaped by Space in the work of Penelope Lively" concluded the panel with discussion of the relationship between space and identity in Lively's work. A series of dichotomies- nature/culture, urban/rural, and public/private - provided the framework for the analysis, providing contrasts which, she argued, often intertwine to construct a sense of identity.
The focus thus far was on contemporary issues of space and gender but with the last session of the morning, the second keynote presentation by historian Lynne Walker, we moved into the realm of Victorian spaces with the paper "Going Public: Victorian Women, Identity and Space". The presentation looked at three writers who lived and worked within a short distance of each other in Bloomsbury in the 1880s: Adeline Sergeant, Mary Augusta Ward, and Agnes Garrett. All of these women worked from home and were also involved in philanthropic projects a short distance from their homes; as such, their domestic spaces provide interesting sites to explore given that they function as both private home and public work spaces. A fascinating analysis of these domestic spaces ensued - involving some wonderful late-Victorian photographs- with Lynne questioning how their domestic spaces were employed, and positing that the spatial practices of creating these domestic/work spaces were central to the construction of their identities as women writers; further, their identities as successful writers are represented in the textual spaces they create. Although working within a different historical context, the paper drew on some similar themes to the preceding presentations: the public/private realms were of particular importance given the blurring of home/work spaces; and the significance of spatiality in identity construction was central to Lynne's discussion, as she identified how creating these spaces offered the possibility for the contested subject positions of women writers to be constructed into a more respectable identity through the production of particularly gendered spaces. Lynne's paper not only raised some interesting qestions about gender and spatial construction but also demonstrated how productively the analysis of "real", material spaces can be integrated into the analysis of "imagined" textual spaces.
The afternoon consisted of two panels. The first of these, "Nation Spaces", centred around themes of home and belonging in the mid-20th Century. Rebecca D'Monte's paper "The Home Front: Women Dramatists During the Second World War" looked at women playwrites' theatrical representations of "home" during the period 1939-1945. At a time of great instability, "home" could no longer function as a stable concept and often featured as a counter to notions of safe domesticity; such representations entailed a redefinition of the relationship between gender and space, which was situated within the wider context of the blurring of public and private spheres in Britain at this time. Ann Hoag's paper "Re-mapping Home: Rebecca West's Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" looked at West's 1942 text, a piece of travel writing about Yugoslavia. Although concerned with a space away from England, the textual depiction of Yugoslavia repeatedly refers back to England and thus creates a textual mapping of England onto Yugoslavian land, imaginatively re-constructing Yugoslavia as "home". This representation of a foreign space as "home"- treating the space-away as a blank canvas for a projected, imagined, spatiality- strongly resonates with the Imperial mindset that is recurrent in spatial representations in nineteenth-century travel writing, and in discussion after the panel Ann confirmed that there are certainly problematic elements of Imperialism apparent in West's writing, as demonstrated in this use of spatiality. Emma Short's paper on "Home, the Body and Belonging in Elizabeth Bowen's The Death of the Heart" finished the session by positioning questions of home and nationality in the context of corporeality and embodied experience, as well as postcolonial theories of exile and belonging; Bowen's novel was situated by Short as existing within a hybrid, liminal sphere, in which the meaning of "home" is uncertain and unstable.
The final panel of the day, "Victorian Borders and Boundaries", returned to issues of gender and space in the nineteenth century. Kate Garner began by addressing the issue of "Mapping the female body in George Eliot's 'Janet's Repentance' and Kate Atkinson's Human Croquet". Kate explored the relationship between the female body and maps of the rural period, concentrating on the maternal body and ideas of maternal spaces. In 'Janet's Repentance', spatial marginality is determined by maternality and the journey of Janet positions her on the "outskirts" (a word which Garner offered an interesting gendered exploration of); Kate Atkinson's text explores the transgression of spatial borders and similarly maps the "mother town" to explore the heroine's isolation. Mary Mullen followed with a discussion of "The Space of the Age: Historicizing the Present in Aurora Leigh" which introduced a new spatial theme to the conference by raising the question of the relationship between space and time. Mary discussed the idea of "spatialized time", positing that Barret Browning's notion of the historical age is a spatial concept that offers a new way of thinking about literary periodisation. Lastly, Henriette Donner's paper "Writing from the 'Third Space': Charlotte Bronte's Villette" considered the novel as an immigrant novel concerned with the politics of the third space. Henriette offered a detailed exploration of what the "third space" entails, identifying it not as a "multicultural" space but rather an informal space in which the immigrant voice can speak from the intersection between two nationalities. Although this is a contemporary concept, Bronte's representation of Lucy Snowe's experience in the town of Villette positions Lucy within a "third space", drawing out the challenges of it whilst allowing Lucy a liminal position that is ultimately transformative of cultural meanings.
I thoroughly enjoyed the conference and although it was busy and a little stressful at times, it was wonderful to sit down to such fascinating papers- we were very grateful for such interesting contributions from all the speakers. The conference website has now been taken down but I have put all the abstracts and speakers' biographies onto the conference page on my eportfolio.