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.

K-Link Widening Participation Scheme

(Originally posted on 24 April 2014)
As a firm believer in the importance of widening access to Higher Education, I was very happy to be asked to take part in K-Link recently. K-Link is King’s widening participation programme, which gives children from less privileged schools throughout London a taste of university education. Through the programme, I had two – very different – opportunities to teach secondary school children.
Firstly, GCSE students from the three schools that the SPLAS department is partnered with came in to King’s for a full day: a Q&A with current students, a translation workshop, tour, and finally a taster seminar. One of the school groups – 16 boys and girls, plus two teachers – had an introduction from me to studying culture as part of a language degree. I began by explaining what a seminar is – ask lots of questions, try out new ideas, do lots of practical exercises. We then broke up into small groups and brainstormed definitions of culture, before looking at some Frida Kahlo paintings and an extract from a short story by the late great Gabriel García Márquez.
The students were clearly tired after such a demanding day, and many of the boys were too cool to show enthusiasm, so it was challenging to get them to participate, but I succeeded in the end (I’m very grateful for much needed help from their teachers in this). After the session, one teacher told me that although they were reluctant to speak, he could tell that they had gained a lot from it. He said he was really happy for the children to have had the chance to experience cultural studies when the demands of GCSEs allow no time for anything like this, which made all the effort worth it.
The following week I went into another of our partner schools. This time I was extremely lucky to be teaching four of the most gifted, enthusiastic girls I could hope for. We covered similar material but the small group size and eagerness of the pupils meant we could go much more in-depth. I was hugely impressed, as they were more engaged than some of my final year students! I felt privileged to teach them and really pleased to learn that they all plan to continue to language study at university.


(Originally posted on 10 April 2014)
As I mentioned in my last post, it seems like for as long as I’ve been at King’s, I’ve been “preparing for my upgrade”. Now, after 18 months, I have survived the process and am finally a fully-fledged PhD candidate.
I really had no idea what to expect from the upgrade meeting. I had spent the day before rereading the 20,000 word chapter that I had handed in for examination back in February, assuming that I would be quizzed on it. As it turned out, I wasn’t expected to say much at all in the meeting. Instead, it was a chance for the examiners, especially my secondary supervisor who had not previously commented on my work, to share their comments, queries and advice. While my two supervisors work on literary/cultural studies like myself, my third examiner was from political science, so she brought an interesting alternative viewpoint to the discussion.
My supervisor insisted that it went really well and that all three examiners had been impressed with my chapter, but I must admit that at the time I was just completely overwhelmed by the amount that I still have to think about. The wealth of further reading recommended by the examiners, and their suggestions on how to expand or refine sections of the chapter will surely prove invaluable in the long-run, helping me to make my thesis better. However, at the time I just wanted to run away and hide from it all. Only now, two weeks later, having finally completed the paperwork, that it has finally sunk in that I’ve passed. Now I can relax for the next 18 months (well, except for researching and writing and teaching and conferencing!) until submission, which I’m sure will come around all too quickly.

Putting It Together

(Originally posted on 23 February 2014)
Art isn’t easy
Every minor detail is a major decision.
Having just the vision’s no solution,
Everything depends on execution.
The art of making art is putting it together.
Writing a PhD might not seem like ‘making art’, but while I grapple with the sprawling mass of knowledge I’ve accumulated over the last 18 months, Sondheim’s words are stuck in my head.
It seems that almost since I started my PhD I’ve been preparing for my upgrade. It was going to be after 9 months, then 12, then 18. It really is happening now, as soon as we can find a time when all three of my examiners are free (which is proving remarkably difficult). As part of the process, I had to write ‘a substantial piece of work’, which usually translates to about 10,000 words. I set myself the challenge over the Christmas holidays to turn the knowledge I’d amassed so far into a coherent contextualising chapter. It took many hours of puzzling over spider diagrams and discussing with my supervisor before the lightbulb moment when I suddenly realised how it all fits together. It turned out I had far more to say than I thought and the chapter ended up at 20,000.
With that done, all I had left to prepare was an outline of my thesis. It was only one page yet I almost found it harder than the 60 I’d written over the holidays. I had been planning to write a chapter about each novel in my corpus but it soon became apparent that this wouldn’t work, or maybe it would, but a thematic approach would make a far better thesis. Having worked out a plan with the main themes arising from the novels, I took it to my supervisor who promptly suggested that I lose the whole first section  and concentrate entirely on the second.  While I know that she is right, it will make a much tighter, more coherent thesis, and I’m excited to be working on this one theme (metafiction and intertextuality in contemporary Venezuelan novels), I can’t deny that I felt a brief mourning period for the topics that I first came in to the PhD with (reactions to nationalism and socialism in fiction). I know I’m not alone – another girl in my department scrapped half of the material that she had planned to include in her thesis at the halfway point too. Part of the PhD process seems to be accepting limitations and evaluating how to do the best research in the time-frame allowed. I keep reminding myself too that the work I’ve done so far isn’t lost or worthless by any means. Hopefully once I finally get this upgrade out of the way, I can turn that earlier work into an article to publish. In the meantime, it feels great to finally have an outline of my thesis on paper and start to envision the finished product in the not-so-distant future.

Being a Graduate Teaching Assistant

(Originally posted 14 February 2014)
Last night I was one of the speakers at a training session for potential Arts and Humanities Graduate Teaching Assistants, which has prompted me to finally write the blog about teaching I’ve been promising for a while now.
I began teaching – leading seminars for a final year module about the Latin American ‘New Historical Novel’ – five weeks ago now and I absolutely love it! Since October I’ve been taking a teacher training course run by King’s Learning Institute called Enhancing Academic Practice, so it’s great to put all of my theoretical learning into practice and this experience has confirmed to me that university teaching really is my dream career. I get such a buzz from sharing my passion for literature with the class and getting them to really engage with it.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much freedom I have been given to design the class around the set source material. I can come up with my own activities and choose  my favourite extracts for the class to analyse. I’ve also been given a lot of scope to bring my own expertise to the module, and was even asked to lead the lecture last week based on my research. The trust my lecturer has placed in me and my students’ appreciation of the knowledge I bring to class has been an invaluable boost, and I’ve also learned or revised a huge amount that will directly help my thesis too.
One of the main concerns potential GTAs expressed last night was about how time consuming it is, particularly with the ever-increasing pressure to finish your PhD within three years. However, all of the speakers – myself from SPLAS, and others from history, classics, English and Film – said that we spend no more than one day a week preparing and all agreed that this was a valuable use of our time. We would all certainly recommend taking the opportunity if it is available in your discipline.

Making connections: Latin American literature in China

(Originally posted 4 February 2014)
This academic year I have been co-organising our departmental seminars ( with a fellow Tianai seminar 1PhD candidate. These seminars give current students a chance to try out their research in an informal setting, usually before a big scary conference, and get constructive feedback. Other weeks we get a external speakers in to share their expertise. I love the opportunity these seminars afford to learn about other aspects of my field that I never usually encounter, but this week’s was a particular joy.
Last Wednesday we welcomed Tianai Wang to the department to talk about the influence of Spanish language literature in translation in her native China. Tianai has recently graduated from the MA in Comparative Literature here at KCL so her presentation was also a homecoming, as staff were certainly very happy to see her back.
Tianai seminar 2
What I most enjoyed was the opportunity to learn about a culture that I know shamefully little about and the surprise of how much Latin American literature (my own speciality) has influenced contemporary Chinese writers. Mo Yan, for example, was praised for his ‘hallucinatory realism’ when awarded his Noble Prize in 2012 in much the same way that Gabriel Garcia Márquez was for his ‘magical realism’ upon winning the prize in 1982. Tianai’s presentation therefore gave me a new way of thinking about literature that I am very familiar with, as well as an entrance to a whole new literary world.

Tomorrow’s seminar is Dr Juliet Perkin’s talking about translating the 15th century chronicles of Fernao Lopes, worlds away from contemporary Chinese literature, but another topic that I look forward to learning more about.