All entries for March 2010

March 26, 2010

V–Day Letters at the Smithsonian Postal Museum, D.C..

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Interview about Feminism, Literature and Rape Narratives.

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Note: In the third from last paragraph, the author gets mixed up – she mentions Sonya when she means Sorcha Gunne, my co-editor. I think that she was confusing her with my colleague, Sonya Andermahr. The article is taken from the University of Northampton magazine, Park Avenue and I reproduce it here, because quite a few people have asked me why I would want to research such a disturbing topic.

March 24, 2010

Five Decades of Innocence and Experience: The Work of Eva Figes.

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An International Conference co-organised by:

Division of Media, English and Culture, School of the Arts, University of Northampton (UK), & Departamento de Filología Inglesa y Alemana, Universidad de Zaragoza (Spain)

To be held at the School of the Arts, University of Northampton (UK)

10th-11th September 2010

Photo by Harold Stern

Almost five decades have elapsed since the British writer Eva Figes began her literary career. Born in Berlin in 1932 into a family of assimilated German Jews and forced to emigrate to Great Britain in 1939 due to the outbreak of the Second World War, Eva Figes has contributed to the corpus of contemporary literature in English thanks to her prodigious output as both critic and novelist. In 2009 the British Library decided to acquire the rights to her personal archives, and so we think that this is the moment to give Eva Figes the place she deserves in the contemporary literary canon by organising an international conference on her work.

Despite being an established writer and having won some important literary prizes and titles in England (The Guardian Prize in 1967, the Honorary degree of Doctor of Letters by Brunel University in 2002), her work has received relatively limited critical attention. Figes’ life experiences – her childhood experience of the Holocaust; emigration to a foreign country; being a woman trying to forge a literary career – have left significant traces in all her works. Moreover, Figes’ own writing career which spans the 1960s to the present in many ways reflects the evolution of British fiction in the post-war period. Her work resists classification within a single, unifying category. Whether seen as a feminist inheritor of Virginia Woolf, analysed as an Anglo-Jewish writer, or regarded as part of a postmodernist literary aesthetic, Figes’ work represents a unique contribution to English literature. We welcome approaches to her work from any perspective which provides insight into Eva Figes’ wide-ranging and impressive oeuvre.

Plenary speakers to include:
• Dr. David Brauner (University of Reading, UK)
• Prof. Thomas Michael Stein (University of Mainz, Germany)
• Dr. Julia Tofantšuk (University of Tallinn, Estonia)
•A Guest appearance from Eva Figes to be confirmed

Suggested topics to explore include, but are not limited to:
•Eva Figes in relation to Contemporary British Fiction and the literary canon
•The feminist agenda and the construction of female identities in Figes’ works
•The question of Jewishness and the presence of the Holocaust in Eva Figes’ literary world
•The construction of identity in Figes’ fictions
•The persistence of modernism in Figes’ works
•Eva Figes as a literary critic
•Eva Figes’ relation to postmodernism
•Eva Figes as inheritor of Virginia Woolf
•Eva Figes and Trauma Studies
•The autobiographical aspect in Figes’ novels
•Formal experimentalism in Figes’ novels
•The ethical dimension of Figes’ literary production
•The evolution of Figes’ literary career
•Narrative and story-telling in Figes’ works
•The experience of motherhood in Figes’ writing
•The experience of war in Figes’ works
•Writing as self-healing in Figes’ literary career

Please submit paper proposals (abstracts of 300 words and short bio) to both conference organisers by 1st April 2010:

Dr. Sonya Andermahr (University of Northampton, UK):

Miss Silvia Pellicer-Ortín (Universidad de Zaragoza, Spain):


Download cfp in Adobe Acrobat here: call_for_papers_figes_conference.doc sonya.pdf

March 21, 2010

Changes to GCSE: Students no longer assessed in writing poetry.

Writing poetry has been shown time and time again to have positive effects on the thinking skills and creativity of children and teenagers. Recent changes to the Welsh and English system mean, however, that, in GCSE English, writing poetry has been sidelined and will not be part of students’ assessment.

This is apparently due to changes to assessment parameters made by the Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills (DCELLS) in the Welsh Assembly Government and The Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA) for England. The changes now mean that it is practically impossible to write poetry for the creative writing task in coursework.

The first problem is that under the new rubric, a limited amount of time is allowed, which makes it tricky for the writing of poetry. At university level, there are sometimes exams in which a poem has to be written in a couple of hours – e.g. The Practice of Poetry module at University of Warwick – but this kind of task does not seem suitable for school students. In general, students need more time to draft their poems and to think through the implications of their chosen forms and lexis. For school students, the writing of poetry needs to be a marathon not a sprint. The parameters then would have to be radically altered for writing poetry to be included.

The other problem is that there is a set length, a couple of thousand words, which obviously does not suit poetry as it is more condensed than prose. Again this could be sidestepped. At university level, where we are teaching modules that include the choice of writing poetry or fiction, we might ask for 100 lines of poetry or a 3000 word story. This would be a simple adjustment to make to the assessment guidelines.

What really strikes me, though, is how easily poetry has been relegated by these assessment guidelines. Of course, there will still be opportunities for students to write creatively elsewhere on the course, but to me, the omission of writing poetry from the assessment has extremely strong symbolic significance. Those teachers who are scared of poetry (they do exist!) will have an excuse now not to include it. Poetry is not thought to be important enough to become an indispensible part of the curriculum. We can only wonder why?

Is it that we are facing the same old snobbery, the belief that only an elite group of privileged students have the ability to write poetry? Having taught Creative Writing at the National Academy of Gifted and Talented Youth and at GOAL, a writing course for underprivileged kids, I know this to be false. What is more, poetry can be a wonderful discovery for less privileged students as a means of expression and a useful way to learn how to write about their lives with power and eloquence.

Or is it simply that the bureaucratic educational bodies have decided that poetry has little worth or usefulness in today’s society? It’s true I suppose that poetry does not always fit easily with mark schemes or pie graphs or utilitarian charts of students’ development, but poetry is and will always be – as an art between language and music – a fundamental way of expressing the heart and soul of a culture, especially in a place like Britain where literature, and poetry especially, have contributed to the construction and critique of the national character.

Overall, I lament the loss of writing poetry at GCSE. Its omission means not only that a generation of new British poets may never begin to write, and not only that the appreciation of poetry developed by writing in the form is diminished. I am especially concerned because this sidelining of poetry is a worrying sign that the British education system is slowly dismantling the role of poetry in British life and replacing the poetic with ‘clear objectives’ and ‘measurable outcomes’, the myopic bureaucracy that seems to blight so many British institutions.

March 19, 2010

Hospitality and the Rat: Irina Aristarkhova on the Art of Kathy High

Writing about web page

Warning: If you have a rat phobia, you might not want to read this entry!

This week, I went to see Irina Aristarkhova (Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies and Visual Arts at Penn State) giving a talk about “Hosting the Animal: the Aesthetics of Hospitality.” Aristarkhova was discussing the artist Kathy High and the artwork Embracing Animal (you can see her website here ). High created an installation using transgenic rats created for drug experimentation. High explains on her website:

Transgenic rats are different than wild type rats. Transgenic rats are rats that have foreign DNA inserted into their genome. This means one or more genes from a non-rat organism (i.e. human, fish, plant or jellyfish) has been added, through some tricks of modern molecular biology, to every one of a trangenic rat’s cells. Transgenic rats are walking around with non-rat expressible molecules in their bodies, minds and even in the cells that go on to make their children. Sometimes referred to as hybrids, cyborgs or chimeras, transgenic organisms are an interspecies mix of DNA, a targeted collage of two or more organisms. The most important thing to remember is that their alteration is permanent and inheritable. This means that their kids and their grandkids with have the same difference that they do.

To create her installation, High bought a number of transgenic rats and took them into her home. She looked after these rats with painstaking care, as she explains (again on her website):

I bought them to try and make them live as long as possible and to see if they could become healthy given their prior genetic conditioning. I will treat them holistically with alternative medicines such as homeopathy, environmental enrichment, also good food and play! Stress is one of the triggers for their conditions. I know because I, too, have autoimmune problems (in the form of Crohn’s disease and Sarcoidosis). Thus, I identify with the rats and feel as though we are mirroring each other. I feel a great kinship with them. When I see them feeling tired I recognize that kind of exhaustion. I know they need rest in a way that is total. If they ache when being touched, I understand this is from fevers. I also know they do not know how to behave as pets. They are not pets. They are extensions, transformers, transitional combined beings that resonate with us in ways that other animals cannot.

Aristarkhova finds High’s project interesting in relation to the ethics of hospitality espoused by Derrida et al. High does not see the rats as pets but ‘injured guests’ in need of care and she has an affinity with them because of their shared autoimmune problems. Aristarkhova compares High’s installation with The Temple of Rats, Karni Mata and with Jainist beliefs about respecting the life of nature . What seems to be most significant about Kathy High’s work is that in hosting the rat, an animal that has such an intense stigma about it, she pushes the boundaries of how we define hospitality and reformulates what it should include.


Further Reading

Aristarkhova, Irina and Faith Wilding (2009) ‘“My Personal Is Not Political?”: A Dialogue on Art, Feminism and Pedagogy’, Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies 5.2. Access available online (accessed 19 March 2010).

High, Kathy (2009) Embracing Animal website. Access available online (accessed 19 March 2009).

Still an Ordeal Being Processed by Police After Rape

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When I was visiting Florida earlier this year, I noticed an article in a local paper Folio titled ‘Why It Sucks To Get Raped Jacksonville: Advocate Jessi Acosta offers an unvarnished look at rape’s official aftermath’ authored by journalist Susan Cooper Eastman. The story discusses the Sexual Assault Response Centre in Jacksonville, Florida, and whilst there have been improvements, according to the article, the wait for a forensic examiner can be an ordeal. Sometimes these women have to wait for hours without drinking, showering, combing hair or changing clothes. In addition, when examiners are called out on weekends and holidays, the rape survivor can be made to feel like an incovenience.

March 18, 2010

Frida Kahlo – Self Portrait Dedicated to Leon Trotsky

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Here is a photo from my visit at the wonderful National Museum of Women in the Arts in DC. Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait dedicated to Trotsky stands alongside a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth and other wonderful works by women artists:

Frida Kahlo

For more entries on Kahlo, see this link .

March 15, 2010

A DreamÖ But Not Yours: Three Turkish Films

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Last week, I visited the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC, where there is currently an exhibition of contemporary women’s art from Turkey titled ‘A Dream… But Not Yours’. I spent a summer in Turkey (mainly Istanbul) when I was a student, so I was interested to see the exhibition, and in visiting it, I found the quality of the films included to be particularly impressive.

Esra Sarigedik Öktem, who put the show together, has brought together some striking and fresh artwork with specific yet transnational feminist messages Canan Şenol’s film Exemplary (2009) had parallels for example with Nawal El Saadawi’s 1979 novel Woman at Point Zero.


As in El Saadawi’s fiction, Şenol’s animated narrative described a cultural situation in which the heroine never had a chance of being autonomous because of the institutions and traditions that regulate women and their bodies. Watching these women struggle in the mythical, fairy-tale stories of Şenol is extremely moving, as their desires and ambitions are rejected, broken, eradicated. What is perhaps particularly disturbing about Şenol’s commentary is that it is the mothers who force their daughters to submit to patriarachy’s norms.

Another fascinating film that featured in the exhibition is İnci Eviner’s Harem (2009), which is based on engravings by the German artist, Antoine Ignace Melling, who was invited by Sultan Selim III to produce sketches of life in Istanbul (or Constantinople as it was then known). Eviner cleverly uses the background of Melling’s Interieur d’une partie du harem du Grand Seigneur but transforms it:

Melling’s courtly vision is radically altered in Eviner’s version; the harem becomes more like a prison or mental institution than a vision of luxury. Eviner inserts animated women into Melling’s background, but rather than being engaged in domestic or courtly activities, Eviner’s figures are all dressed in a prison-like uniform and their behaviour is odd, eccentric and disturbing. One woman wields a pick-axe, reminiscent of chain gangs; another reads while conducting an imaginary orchestra; groups of women carry inert bodies, while others kiss or rhythmically thrust in sexualised movements. The sultan of Melling’s original becomes a figure dressed in a teddy bear costume, who is offered a silver sphere by one of the “inmates”. The whole effect is fascinating and of course it reminds us of the traditional Turkish miniatures. In this case, however, the harem is far from being a site of pleasure and decadence. Instead it is a place where women are driven mad by the restrictions imposed upon them.

The desire for freedom was a theme of the final film that I wanted to highlight: Nevin Aladağ’s Raise the Roof (2007). This film features a number of women on a modern cement rooftop, each listening to music on an Ipod/walkman and dancing alongside one another to a separate rhythm. The location of the film is suggestive. Why a rooftop? Were the women looking for a secluded place to express themselves? Why couldn’t they have danced in the middle of a street? What the film suggests is that the woman are able in this empty and abandoned space to be themselves in a way that would never be possible in a crowded street. The film zooms in on their legs dancing and their heels making indents in tar. Aladağ’s Stiletto is exhibited alongside Raise the Roof and features the indents that each women’s heels made. There is something very satisfying in the fact that each pattern is different: each woman danced with the others but all the time to her own beat.

Franco Moretti’s Trees

Follow-up to Franco Moretti's Maps from The Midnight Heart

In his recent study, Graphs, Maps, Trees Franco Moretti takes his analytical models ‘from three disciplines with which literary studies have had little or no interaction: graphs from quantitative history, maps from geography, and trees from evolutionary history’ (2007: 1-2). Moretto distances himself from academics that look to ‘French and German metaphysics’ and he commends instead the methodologies of ‘the natural and social sciences’ (2). I am going to discuss his findings in three blog entries:

• and Trees.



Darwin’s tree was more than just a diagram. Moretti describes Darwin’s kind of mapping as creating ‘morphological diagrams, where history is systematically correlated with form’ (69). Playing on evolutionary theory, Moretti suggests that ‘divergence pervades the history of life, defining its morphospace – its space-of-forms’ (70). But the question is, how does this work for literature?

Moretti begins to consider this question by focussing on British detective fiction, where divergence was dictated by ‘the literary market’ and its ‘ruthless competition – hinging on form’ (72). British detective fiction developed through the sophisticated presentation of clues in the narrative and Moretti explores which strategies worked and which were unsuccessful. What he discovers is that the ruthless market makes ‘writers branch out in every direction’, sometimes forcing them ‘into all sorts of crazy blind alleys’ (77). Consequently, ‘divergence becomes indeed, as Darwin had seen, inseparable from extinction’ (77). If there is divergence, there must also be convergence, but Moretti is keen to note that ‘Convergence […] only arises _on the basis of previous divergence, and its power tends in fact to be directly proportional to the distance between the original branches (bicycles and internal combustion engines)’ (80).

Having explored the evolution of a particular genre, Moretti turns to mapping a specific literary technique: free indirect style. Moretti suggests that free indirect style has a ‘composite nature’ which ‘made it “click” with that other strange formation which is the process of modern socialization: by leaving the individual voice a certain amount of freedom, while permeating it with the impersonal stance of the narrator. And the result was the genesis of an unprecedented “third voice”, intermediate and almost neutral in tone between character and narrator: the composed, slightly resigned voice of the well-socialized individual, of which Austen’s heroines – these young women who speak of themselves, in the third person, as if from the outside – are such stunning examples’ (82).

Moretti maps various branches and streams of free indirect speech in international fiction, such as British and Irish modernism and Latin American dictator novels. Moretti notices though that one convergence that was not possible is that of free indirect speech with dialogism. Interestingly, in response to this fact, Moretti comments that ‘Culture is not the realm of ubiquitous “hybridity”: it, too, has barriers, its impossible limits’ (85).

Overall, in mapping British detective fiction, or the use of free indirect style in international literature, what Moretti is suggesting is a different way for academics to analyze the novel. Ultimately, he asks us to ‘Take a form, follow it from space to space, and study the reasons for its transformation’ (90).

Further Reading

Moretti, Franco (2007) Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History. London and New York: Verso.

Franco Moretti's Maps

Follow-up to Franco Moretti's Graphs from The Midnight Heart

In his recent study, Graphs, Maps, Trees Franco Moretti takes his analytical models ‘from three disciplines with which literary studies have had little or no interaction: graphs from quantitative history, maps from geography, and trees from evolutionary history’ (2007: 1-2). Moretti distances himself from academics that look to ‘French and German metaphysics’ and he commends instead the methodologies of ‘the natural and social sciences’ (2). I am going to discuss his findings in three blog entries:

• Maps,
• and Trees.


Three Mile Cross

In this section, Moretti focuses on Mary Mitford’s Our Village (1824-1832) which is based on a town in Berkshire called Three Mile Cross. Moretti makes a map of volume one of Our Village and shows that geographically the town is in the centre of a concentric pattern of events which spiral out into the surrounding countryside. The narrative space of the book circles around the village always returning to the centre.

Moretti explains that the first time he discovered this shape was in mapping Our Village and he had never encountered it before. In thinking about the concentric pattern of Our Village, Moretti suggests that the space reflects ‘the older, “centred” viewpoint of an unenclosed village’ (39).

Other texts that engage with the village as the centre of human society also show a concentric pattern like the one in Our Village. Moretti points us to Walter Christaller’s study Central Places in Southern Germany , where the centre is the target settlement which provides the most specialized services and trading. Around this target settlement grows a ‘market region’ and it is encircled by smaller versions of the largest, central town. Moretti maps this concentration of services and trade in Our Village too, noting that the characters have to make more and more journeys to urban centres to access their specialised services and shops.

Like John Galt’s Annals of the Parish (1821), Our Village represents simple, everyday life occasionally punctuated by surprises and remarkable events emerging from the urban centres. This contact with the urban and the national becomes more sinister though in Berthold Auerbach’s Black Village Stories (1843-1853), where outside interference in village life becomes oppressive and regulatory. Moretti concludes: ‘In their animosity towards national centralization, village stories diverge sharply from the provincial novels with which they are often confused, and are if anything, much closer to regional novels’ (52).

Out of these debates on these village stories, Moretti begins to think that his maps are not so much geographical, as they are diagrammatic. These diagrams map the object of the characters’ desires in some instances. For example, Moretti analyzed the Parisian novel and found that the young male protagonists all lived on the opposite side of the Seine to their lovers. The diagrams, however, can also map forces. Moretti explains that this involves ‘[d]educing from the form of an object the forces that have been at work; this is the most elegant definition ever of what literary sociology should be’ (57). Consequently, Moretti finds that in the Our Village stories from in and around 1828, the map of narrative space becomes less concentric, and Moretti suggests that this change is due to historical unrest at the time reflected in the 1830 Peasant Uprisings. The narrative space of the British novel can no longer be concentric, because such village idylls were being killed by industrialization. According to Moretti, Elizabeth Gaskell’s portrayal of rural life in Cranford (began serialization in 1851) ‘is Madame Tussaud’s idea of a village story’ (63).

While these insights may not be exactly new, it is fascinating to look at literature with Moretti’s approach and what is offered here is certainly a fascinating view of international writing and the space of narrative. The comparison of Mitford with Christaller, Galt and Auerbach is very convincing, and the chapter on ‘Maps’ does offer a new mode of reading literature through the ‘matrix of relations’ that makes up the social fabric of the novel (54).

Further Reading

Moretti, Franco (2007) Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History. London and New York: Verso.


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The Midnight Heart

“Zona de plagas donde la dormida come / lentamente / su corazón de medianoche” – Alejandra Pizarnik

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