Thursday, 17 December 2015

Connections, collaboration, and communication: what I learnt from the LAHP Languages and Policy Workshop

On Monday 7 December 2015, I attended a workshop on languages and policy hosted by the London Arts and Humanities Partnership. Having worked for The Policy Institute at King’s while completing my PhD on literature and cultural policy in Venezuela, I was very keen to learn more about how languages – or, more broadly, language-based area studies – interact with policy. This thought-provoking workshop highlighted three areas of interest: how policy affects the study of languages, the intersection of languages and policy outside of academia, and how aspects of language-based academic research can link to policy. For me, the workshop can be summarized in three linked key terms: connections, collaboration, and communication.

From Jocelyn Wyburd’s facts and figures about the crisis in languages education, particularly the deficit of secondary school language teachers, it was clear to me that we need to work together across the languages to lobby the government and encourage the study of languages. To do this, we must also reach out to other disciplines, such as neuroscience to show the cognitive benefits of language learning, or social scientists to discuss multilingualism and social cohesion. Philip Cavendish from the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies at UCL gave an example of a department which combines traditional language-related research (study of a language and its related culture) with subjects including politics and international relations, while also working with institutions beyond the university (the FCO, Open Democracy, the Calvert Foundation). I found it a shame, however, that there is not much communication between SSEES and other languages departments. I strongly believe that scholars in different languages have a lot to gain from working together; not only the traditionally taught European languages, but also the Asian and African languages which are often limited to specialist institutions such as SOAS.

In the second session, Chris Murray (Institute for Public Policy Research), Helen Laker (Southwark Council), Carolina Gottardo (Latin American Women’s Rights Service) and Lucila Granada (Coalition of Latin Americans) all demonstrated the interplay between languages and policy in the real world, in sectors such as education, health care, housing and employment. What struck me most was that all four depend on volunteers. While it was suggested that volunteering could be considered as an internship for PhD students, I thought that as undergraduate students often complain that they do not get enough speaking practice, why not put them in contact with associations or charities? I would like to explore further how to integrate this useful language practice into the undergraduate degree.

The final session stressed the importance of putting yourself out there, meeting people, making connections and being prepared to go beyond your comfort zone. I noted that Hilary Footitt called her work on the language policies of NGOs ‘a strange project to have arrived at’, and I paraphrased Ben Schofield with ‘If someone offers you something weird and wonderful, go for it’. The panel encouraged us to think creatively about links between our research of obscure literature (in both Ben’s and my case at least!) and wider policy implications. They suggested going to conferences on subjects outside of our own to find links, as Hilary did, both with other disciplines and other institutions. From lobbyist Zacahary Bishop, I learnt to develop my USP/‘elevator pitch’, so that if I’m ever in a room with policy-makers they can tell straight away if there is an opportunity for collaboration. Finally, Ben (who is something of a Twitter personality: @haben_und_soll), reminded us that social media is a useful tool: we should let the world know what we’re doing so people can find us!

Given the focus on connections, communication and collaboration, it was great to have not only speakers but other attendees from a wide range of disciplines, including sign language, education and medical humanities. We definitely learnt a lot from each other, and left inspired to build more connections beyond our own disciplines.

For more information about the LAHP, visit

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Fabrication: KCL Arts & Humanities Festival 2015

Given that I started my PhD writing about the KCL Arts and Humanities Festival, it seems only fitting that I end in the same way. This year's theme is Fabrication. As usual, it's a broad theme, ambiguous enough to allow King's staff and students to shoehorn in their wide range of interests, but - to the joy of my inner five year old - staff from the Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies department took it literally and got us engaging in arts and crafts.

Fabricating Across the Atlantic

My beloved supervisors, Professor Catherine Boyle and Dr Elisa Sampson Vera Tudela, decided to celebrate the Andean tradition of making arpilleras, small tapestries sewn onto sacks, which have been used for decades as a form of protest or a way to share life stories. Chilean Human Rights advocate and researcher Roberta Bacic curated an exhibition of arpilleras from Chile, Argentina and Peru, with narratives of dictatorship, strikes, or making a stand against domestic abuse. Also on display was an arpillera created by Chilean exiles in Sheffield and South Yorkshire, telling the story of how they had started a new life.

Catherine and Elisa wanted to take the festival as an opportunity not only to display arpilleras but to consider how they can be understood in and adapted to our own context. They asked: 'What does it mean to tell our own stories of here and now in a city of movement and transition like London, through a creative form borrowed from elsewhere?'

To answer that question, they turned the Council Room of KCL into an arpillera workshop, led by artist Linda Adams who, inspired by the Andean example, explores political themes through tapestry. Armed with thread, fabrics, paper templates and PVA glue, we were challenged to make a collective tapestry narrating our own experience of London. Naturally, I made myself dancing.

The day ended in a dramatised reading of Tres Marias y una Rosa, a Chilean play by David Benavente and Taller de Investigación Teatral depicting an arpillera workshop. The four women of the title discuss their financial and marital struggles as they make arpilleras for export, the only way for them to support themselves and their families. Catherine had worked with the Head For Heights Theatre Company in a mixture of translation and devising to make the play work and resonate in an English context. While we had been busy cutting and sticking, Catherine, director Karen Morash and four very brave actresses spent the afternoon locked away rehearsing. After only a matter of hours with the play, they put on an incredibly engaging performance. I was surprised to learn that the original play had been written in 1979 as the frank discussions between the women and their struggles to support their families through economic crisis are just as relevant today.

Translation games: weaving translation into a poetic collage

I've been a fan of Translation Games since it launched in 2013, to the point where I invited the organiser Dr Ricarda Vidal to introduce her fascinating project at the Migrating Texts colloquium last year. Translation Games plays with translation across not only different languages but different media in a ‘public-facing programme of ludic workshops’. The project employs the arts to make languages interesting for the general public, while at the same time trying to discover whether there is an ‘essence’ of a text which carries through different media.

As Ricarda explained, Translation Games began with a project called What We Made in which a short narrative text commissioned from the American Colleen Becker was translated in a sort of telephone game from English to French to Italian and so on. Each translator only had access to the previous step, although the text was also translated back into English at every stage. At the same time, the text was translated from writing to film to ceramics to an audiovisual piece and finally to choreography, and simultaneously from text to textile. Translation Games has since run further projects, including translation from poetry to scents, and a challenge for students and artists to translate a photographic version of a poem by the Serbian Vasko Popa into an English poem.

My favourite Spaniard Dr Maria-José Blanco has now joined Ricarda and thanks to an AHRC grant the pair organised a translation train beginning with the poem Still by Denise Riley, through 12 artists, each using a medium of their choice. They then set a competition to translate the final image back into poetry. The original poem, 12 images and the winning poetry translation can be seen here. One of the artists, Sarah Sparkes (whose playful musings on death and the afterlife I was first introduced to at the launch of Ricarda and Maria-José's book The Power of Death), also teaches classes at the Tate on paper engineering, and so it was decided that participants at the Fabrication event would be challenged to translate one of the poems or the images into a paper structure.

After practising different cuts and folds, I chose the last image in the chain by Domingo Martinez to translate into paper. Although I had a great time cutting, sticking and drawing with ink, I did also reflect seriously on what were the key aspects of the image which gave it its meaning: the colours, the contrast between dark and light, the layering and the image of one hand grasping another.

At the end of the day, all the translations were sewn to canvas to be displayed in KCL. As you can see below, we each had very different ideas, which demonstrates the impact of the personality and interests of the translator on their output, but we still found elements in each of them which convey the meaning of the original poem.

This is just a tiny part of a packed two weeks of festival. For the highlights, check out King's Arts and Humanities' Storify.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

A Playlist for the Pelican

As my favourite model and sister Zoe has just launched a fantastic fashion blog, The Pelican in Briefs, I've been thinking about songs focused around items of clothing. I could have gone with Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, but thankfully some of my all-time favourite songs are sartorially themed. Please comment with your fashion favourites. 

Bob Dylan - Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
'You know it balances on your head just like a mattress balances on a bottle of wine, your brand new leopard-skin pill-box hat'.

Leonard Cohen - Famous Blue Raincoat
'Ah, the last time we saw you you looked so much older, your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder'.

Velvet Underground & Nico - All Tomorrow's Parties
'A blackened shroud, a hand-me-down gown of rags and silks, a costume fit for one who sits and cries, for all tomorrow's parties' 

The National - Fashion Coat
'In a fashion coat I float down my city. Don't you think I look pretty any more?'

I have a very depressing taste in music, so perhaps it's best to end on a happy note. I caught these guys supporting Augustines twice in a week last December. This song is so ridiculously catchy that by the second gig I was singing along.

Arkells - Leather Jacket
'I pulled on up and with a southern accent I offered you my dad's leather jacket'.

Monday, 23 February 2015

New Arts Centre at University of Bath

When I joined the University of Bath as an undergraduate in 2007, the demands for a new arts centre had already been bubbling away for some time. Over my four years there, reporting on the arts for the student radio station, and later attending regular student representative meetings, the fabled arts centre - supposedly 'in progress' - began to feel increasingly utopic. So it was with delight that on my most recent visit to Bath this Tuesday I visited The Edge, which houses not only a theatre and rehearsal space, but arts studios, music practice rooms and a dance studio. The most pleasant surprise for me, though, were the three galleries run by the ICIA (Institute of Contemporary Interdisciplinary Arts), ensuring that free contemporary art would be a permanent feature of the new student experience.

Passage - Miranda Whall

A perfect fit for the inaugural exhibition at the ICIA, interdisciplinary artist Miranda Whall has created a multi-screen and surround-sound installation, charting her physical passage through Europe, Mexico and Thailand and the simultaneous artistic passage through her recent projects developed in each place. A Turkish dancer twirls from screen to screen, later a solitary goldfish swims the same path. Vibrant flashes of fruit flying through the jungle and smashing against a tree juxtapose the stillness of an old woman at rest. Singing in French and Spanish, bird calls, music, and muddled underwater whispers combine with the images to create an immersive and hypnotic experience.

0º00 Navigation (Part II) - Simon Faithfull

Equally interdisciplinary artist Simon Faithfull brings together a video, a slide show, a globe, and a range of postcards reproducing line drawings and diary extracts, to represent his 'obsessive and deranged journey exactly along the Greenwich Meridian'. Part I charted his journey through England, while in this second part, we travel from the top of France to the bottom of Africa. The slide show is particularly striking: rapidly progressing from verdant French countryside to barren Burkina Faso, with the coordinates at which each photograph was taken in the bottom left corner, it forces the viewer to confront the common usage of 'West'. The written extracts, meanwhile, predominantly from the African leg of the journey, give fascinating glimpses of a part of the world rarely present in travel literature.

Find out more about the new centre and what's on at

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Final Year Begins

With the new term upon us already, the countdown begins: just one year until submission.

Writing for King's Arts and Humanities life blog over my first two years at KCL really helped me to keep track of progress. Now that I need it more than ever, the blog is no more, so I've determined to keep up the blogging here instead.

So what's going on?

Migrating Texts
Three workshops about subtitling, translation and adaptation at the Institute of Modern Languages Research. The three of us organising have been working on this for over a year now and not a week has gone by without some emails, meetings or phonecalls related to it. It's amazing how a two-day event can take so much organising! We now have a website (, social media presence (@MigratingTexts), and most of our speakers booked (I do a happy dance in my bedroom upon confirmation). Still to do: finalising some funding, registration, hoping enough people will come to cover costs!

Sticking with the IMLR, arranging the 7 sessions for next year's graduate forum was spectacularly easy by contrast. I sent an email to various mailing lists asking for participants, got lots of interesting proposals, matched people with dates. As my favourite meerkat would say, simples. Find us on Facebook: IMLR Graduate Forum

Then there's what I should actually be working PhD. I now have a word document for every section of my dissertation, alrhough the conclusion at this point mainly reads:
(thanks to the @ThesisWhisperer)
I still haven't finished writing the section I had planned to have drafted by the beginning of June, but mainly because I keep finding new things to read (i belatedly discovered the Senate House treasure trove). I'm now flitting between rewriting/adding to my first section and drafting the second.

I'm also on a reading binge, working my way through my Sudaquia collection. I need to build up my Venezuelan literature website! As teaching begins next week, I'm alternating Venezuelan novels with Spanish travel writing, enjoying working on the peninsula again for the first time in years.

Most importantly, I've decorated my desk for inspiration. Hopefully my next blog will show that it has worked!

Monday, 7 July 2014

Posthumous Publication and Translation of José Saramgo's Skylight

The story behind José Saramago's Skylight (Claraboia) could grace the pages of one of his novels: a Nobel Prize winning author is reunited with a manuscript written in 1952 which had lain dormant in a publisher's draw after 36 years. As Saramago's wife Pilar del Rio explains in a touching prologue to this new English translation (released by Harvill Secker on 3 July 2014), the Portuguese Nobel Laureate was somewhat weary of this "lost novel" at the time, and refused for it to published until after his death. Although Saramago went on to have a glittering literary career in later life, hearing nothing back from the publisher about Claraboia deeply wounded his pride and it would take nearly two decades before he dared to write another novel. As a result, it was only following Saramago's death in June 2010 that Claraboia was published, and in that way became, as Pilar affirms, a gift from beyond the grave.

In her introduction, Pilar delights that so many germs of Saramago's later writing are already present in Skylight. As this is the first time I've read anything by him, I can't comment, but on the strength of this utterly absorbing character study, I certainly want to read a lot more.  Skylight is a portrait of the six families who occupy an apartment block in Lisbon, their loves, loneliness, fierce domestic battles and everyday struggles, all overheard and gossiped about by the neighbours. 

While the novel's setting is identifiably the 1950s, and the shadow of Salazar looms large, this ensemble cast are strikingly modern. Saramago does not shy away from the thoroughly taboo topics of his day, from lesbian love to domestic abuse. Given the glorification of the family as the cornerstone of the nation under Salazar, Saramago's unsentimental portrayal of many unhappy marriages (and one beautifully happy one) is particularly brave. His refusal to pander to the morals of his day is striking. Lucía may be a kept woman, but Saramago portrays her with great respect, as her behaviour puts that of those who call her a whore to shame. The bullying brute Caetano is put in his place by his long-suffering wife. It is this type of thinking, totally at odds with the conservative dictatorship of the time, which Pilar assumes intimidated the publishers at the time of submission and doomed this brilliant novel to the draw.

The autodidact Saramago's prose is a joy to read. He effortlessly peppers the day to day speech of the working class with erudite references to Beethoven, Shakespeare and Diderot, with a glimmer of pride at the knowledge of these great figures he acquired for himself. As many readers have already noted since the Portuguese version was published in 2011, this novel feels as alive and fresh as those he published just before his death. Thankfully, Harvill Secker have done justice to the original by entrusting the translation to the multi-award winning Margaret Jull Costa who always demonstrates that remarkable skill of making readers forget that they are reading a translation.

Readers familiar with Saramago's work will no doubt enjoy playing detective, hunting through Skylight for hints of later works. For those, like me, with no previous experience of this fantastic author, as both his first and last novel, Skylight seems the perfect initiation. 

Click here to buy the eBook from Amazon, or here for the hard copy.


Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Celebrating interdisciplinarity, collaboration and the digital

(Originally posted 1 June 2014)
In the past few weeks I’ve been lucky enough to participate in a range of events at King’s and beyond which have filled me with enthusiasm both for my own research and for the future of academia. These events have shown me the possibilities for collaborative research across disciplines, for making the most of the digital and for sharing learning beyond the classroom.
First up, on Friday 16 May, was Research with Reach, a full-day event organised by Ella Parry-Davies and Penny Newell from the Department English, which brought together postgraduate researchers from across the Arts and Humanities and a fascinating range of speakers from within and outside academia. The day was born from Ella and Penny’s desire to learn more about how to share knowledge beyond the academy while hopefully supplementing our incomes in the process! We gained useful insights into journalism, running public workshops, speaking at festivals like Hay, and making the most of blogging and social media. It was a particular pleasure to meet Prof Alan Read, the driving force behind the Inigo Rooms and the Anatomy Theatre, as I really admire how those spaces have been created to bring art and performance into the university and allow innovative ways of exhibiting research.
Then on Tuesday 20 May, the Union conference, run by my fellow Arts and Humanities Life blogger Naomi Lloyd-Jones and a very dedicated team of postgraduate researchers from across the departments. The aim of the conference was to explore and celebrate interdisciplinarity by giving new researchers – including many MA students who had never presented a conference paper before – the chance to share their research beyond the restrictive boundaries of academic departments and find connections. I really loved noting how research in philosophy, for example, linked with my research on nationalist cultural politics, while the very novel ‘paper as performance’ which ended the day not only impressed me but left me with concrete ideas for improving my own teaching practice. Explaining my thesis to non-experts proved to me that I really know my research and don’t have to hide behind long words, and the final lively workshop and debate session only reinforced my enthusiasm for sharing my research with wider audiences.
While the participants of Union enjoyed a tasty conference dinner, I headed off to Birkbeck Arts Week to celebrate the second birthday of Alluvium Journal, an open access, post-publication peer review journal of twenty-first century literary criticism. Having followed Alluvium and many of its editors/writers on Twitter for some time, I was very excited to meet them in person and to hear more about their pioneering developments in the production and dissemination of knowledge about literature. One particularly interesting case was Zara Dinnen’s use of Google docs to write papers collaboratively with friends and colleagues in other countries.
Overall, it was incredibly refreshing and inspiring – amidst all the doom and gloom that surrounds academia in the age of funding cuts and mounting bureaucracy – to meet like-minded people who are passionate about creating exciting new research and sharing it both beyond departmental borders and with the wider public.