Sunday, 30 September 2012

International Association of Galician Studies Conference 2012

Just over two weeks ago now (12-14 September), the 10th Conference of the International Association of Galician Studies was held at Cardiff University. As regular readers will know, my dissertation about Galician travel literature was due in to Cardiff University on 14 September, so this couldn't have been a more perfect coincidence, especially as the conference only takes place once every three years and can be anywhere in the world. What better occasion for my first conference paper?

I was also extremely lucky to be placed in such a welcoming and fascinating panel with Paula Portas Pérez (Cardiff University), Helena Miguélez Carballeira (Bagnor University) and María Liñeira (Oxford University), plus Olga Castro (Aston University) as moderator. Our papers were very varied, but complimentary, considering what various different groups mean by Galician national identity.

Paula, who I had had the pleasure of hearing speak before at Cardiff, back in December, presented research on the discourse of feminism by political nationalists, from 1975 onwards. Through analysis of conference proceedings, propaganda and other documents released by Galician nationalist groups - primarily what is now the BNG (Bloque Nacionalista Galego) - she has observed that while feminism as an abstract concept is touted as one the defining characteristics of the modern, liberal Galician nationalism, in practice women are ignored or marginalised. Most nationalist rhetoric refers to workers, farmers and fishermen - all imagined as male - not mentioning women at all, while some publications actually stated that the place of women was in the home, and that their policies would make working conditions better for men to enable them to provide for their women so that women do not have to work. Paula suggested that the espoused feminism of the Galician nationalists is therefore more of an electoral ploy than a genuine desire to achieve equality for women in Galician society.

Continuing with gender issues, Helena (who recently received an AHRC grant which will allow her to publish two books this year - yay!) spoke about cultural normalisation in Galicia and the problems with it. In particular, she discussed a collection of erotic short stories - Contos eróticos / elas (Erotic Fiction/Hers) published by Edicións Xerais de Galicia in 1991 alongside Contos eróticos / eles (Erotic Fiction/His). The aim of these collections was supposedly to normalise erotic literature, thus diversifying Galician literature and creating another space for female writers. However, of the seven writers in Elas one was actually man, while another was, according to Helena, almost certainly a man using a female pseudonym. Moreover, many of the stories contain horrific acts of sexual violence and rape, which completely goes against the idea of empowering women and celebrating female sexuality that the collection espoused. Helena also briefly alluded to the María Reimóndez affair. After María joined us for lunch, I asked some of the other conference participants who she was (I admit I'm still very ignorant when it comes to Galician culture). It turns out that she had written a gendered translation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time: where the English said only 'the', in Galician it was necessary to chose male or female, so María wrote the male nurse, the female windsurfer etc. The publishers weren't happy and fired her, as this article explains further. EDIT: María Reimóndez gives her version of the incident in this article

María's talk about 'the linguistic criterion' was of particular interest to me as I'm fascinated by the idea of what makes a national literature and the formation of national canons. Her argument is that we need to look beyond language to define 'Galician' literature, as this is too restrictive. Writers such as Pimentel and Valle Inclán were born and raised in Galicia, and their writing often manifested a particular Galician mindset, a preoccupation with specifically Galician themes, but they are not accepted into the Galician canon because they wrote in Castilian. The counter-argument is that the linguistic criterion stops literature being dominated by 'bio-politics' (i.e. you can only be Galician by blood), but these are surely not the only two options available. María added that this linguistic criterion has meant that many young writers, raised in monolingual Castilian-speaking environments, write in Galician in order to achieve success and status, but Galician has no meaning to them - it is as if they were writing in Esperanto. It was clear from María's presentation that a significant rethink of the definition of 'Galician literature' is necessary.

We must challenge the maxim "One nation, one language, one literature".

Finally there was my presentation about the link between travel writing and the creation of Galician national identity by the Xeración Nós (early nationalists of the 1920s and 30s). I somehow cut the 20,000 words of my dissertation into 20 minutes, discussing: why further study of Galician travel writing is necessary; the personal effects of travel on the authors Ramón Otero Pedrayo, Vincente Risco and Alfonso Castelao; how their conservative attitudes carried with them from Galicia coloured their interpretation of the cities they visited; lessons for Galician nationalism acquired from experience abroad; and finally what 'Europe' meant to the three authors. A lot to fit in to such a short space of time, but thankfully everyone was very receptive. The next job is to get it published!

I then sadly missed the rest of the day as I had many other tasks to carry out while in Cardiff (including handing in my dissertation :D), but caught two very interesting, primarily literature-based, panels on the Friday morning.

Alexia Dotras Bravo (Universidade de Coimbra) shared her experience of working with vast collection of letters to Carolina Michaelis de Vasconcelos (Portugal's foremost lady of letters at the turn of the Twentieth Century), which had been donated to the University where Vasconcelos had been the first female professor. The letters she received give a fascinating insight into the literary and musical tastes of the times and will surely be a source of much research for years to come.

Antonio Iglesias Mira (Centro de Investigacao em Artes e Comunicacao), spoke about how the attempt by a group of drama students at Coimbra University, the Circulo de Iniciacao Teatral de Coimbra, to put on a play entitled Castelao e a sua epoca in 1969 ended in severe State repression, as part of a wider Academic Crisis. He explained how the play was written by Ricard Salvat, who had gained a reputation for presenting political theatre (especially Brecht) as academic lectures so that it could be censored. A very interesting window into the repressive atmosphere of 1960s Portugal...

Marga Romero Lorenzo (Universidade de Coruña) presented Lois Tobío, another travelling early Galician nationalist and a prolific translator. He translated both to enrich the Galician language and to express himself creatively. Like Risco, he believed that Portuguese was the saviour of the Galician language, giving it the status it deserves. He also believed in the power of music for learning languages (something I share with him!) and knew how to sing - but not speak - in Bulgarian.

Learning another language is entering a new world - Lois Tobio

Danny M. Barreto (Vasser College) talked about modern Galician identity in Suso de Toro's Sete palabras, arguing that instead of trying to limit Galicia to one language and place, we must accept that there are multiple Galicia's (returning to María Liñeira's point): 'Castilianized Galicia' and 'emigrant Galicia' are just a few examples. Danny argued for a 'spurious Galicia', a Galician identity aware of its own contradictions and inconsistencies, explaining how Sete Palabras portrays a confrontation with myths of origin and hybrid, multiple identities.

David Miranda Barreiro (Bangor University) presented Claudio Rodríguez Fer's 1993 short story A Muller Loba, about a female werewolf in New York. On the one hand, the story continues the long tradition of werewolf stories in Galician culture (Risco wrote about the importance of werewolves in Galician oral tradition in 1925 for example), while on the other hand a feminist reading of the text explores the female werewolf as a manifestation of strong femininity which will not be tamed by a man. Picking up on Danny's different Galicia's, David also showed how the use of traditional Galician mythology in New York links the 'interior Galicia' with the 'exterior Galicia'.

Catherine Barbour (University of St Andrews) talked about how Queen Christina of Switzerland has become an inspirational figure for Galician women in Teresa Moure's Herba moura. While a champion of education and extremely intelligent herself, Christina is mostly remembered as Descartes' 'groupie', which Catherine suggests is symbolic of the marginalisation of women within Galician literature.

As you can see, I learnt an awful lot about a huge variety of subjects, but I'm still sad I missed out on so many more. Thankfully, all of the presentations were filmed and will hopefully be put up on the website once they've had time to process them. You can also follow @estudosgalegos on Twitter or find them on Facebook for all the latest Galicia news.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Knowledge By Degrees - A KCL Student Musical

Another university, another round of student productions to review, starting with Knowledge By Degrees (@KBDMusical), a new musical written by Wendy Dickinson and directed by Claire Harbourne. Interestingly, it's not a Student Musical Society that is putting it on but MedSoc (who apparently do a lot of musicals). I must admit I was a little dubious before I went, but I was genuinely impressed by the production - both the performances and the show itself.

The story follows four house-mates - Ben (Cameron Carr), Helen (Cat Palethorpe), Emma (Emily Bates) and James (Rowan Williams) - through their final year at a fictional university, from 'champagne teas' to tears and tantrums. Ben thinks he's God's gift to women, but a total disappointment to his parents. Helen is in love with him and flying off the rails. To counterbalance, there's bubbly Emma and loveable nerd James. When I first heard about the story, I questioned whether I would care about these self-obsessed students, but actually I got really caught up in the storyline. It's a bit of an emotional roller-coaster and made me very grateful for the sane, well-adjusted house-mates I had in my final year! At the same time, it's packed full of laugh out loud moments, and things that you never thought would work, like a sung idealism versus realism philosophical debate.

The casting was particularly strong. There were a few line fluffs (I'll blame opening night nerves), but the main cast convincingly brought their roles to life and the singing was faultless from all four leads. Many times throughout the show I found myself taken aback by their range and power. It was a shame, however, that the music was a bit too loud, so sometimes I couldn't make out the (surely witty and intelligent) lyrics. The most impressive part of the production, though, was without doubt the music. From the strong overture to the ridiculously catchy 'What You Tweet Defines Who You Are' (which I am still singing over 24 hours later), the moving 'I Dreamed That I Had Died Tonight' to the rousing 'This Is It', Dickinson displays a remarkable talent for musical theatre composition, and I look forward to hearing what she does next.

The final performance of Knowledge By Degrees is at the Greenwood Theatre (near London Bridge) at 7pm on 28 September 2012. Tickets are £10/£5 for students.

Day Two @ KCL - Departmental Induction

Back to King's again today for my Departmental Induction, and finally a chance to meet the rest of the Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies postgraduates. There are seven of us starting PhDs, which is about half the SPLAS research students now, as many of the older students have just finished. I met four of the others today, as well as the five new Masters students and many of the staff.

One of my main reasons for choosing King's was that the department seemed so welcoming, supportive and friendly, and I definitely got a taste of that today. The lecturers completely put our minds at rest after the 'Efficient Researcher' booklet we received yesterday had terrified us all by suggesting we won't have a moment free for fun and will be horribly stressed until we finally retire. That may be true of scientists in their labs, but it seems like in SPLAS at least we know how to enjoy ourselves.

With that in mind, I must recommend the Arts and Humanities Festival, from 13-27 October at KCL (also visit their fascinating blog). The festival brings together academics and artists from across all the Arts and Humanities disciplines to share their work with the wider public in interactive ways along the theme of Metamorphoses. This can be everything from adaptations of a play to social change in the Middle East, as well as a particular focus on how the Arts and Humanities are changing in twenty-first century academia. Unfortunately, while I'd written all sorts of events in my diary, I hadn't actually thought to book them, so many are already booked out. There are still lots intriguing events available though - I'm particularly interested in the Digital Humanities Pecha Kucha and Metamorphoses and Languages - so book quickly a Plus don't miss the SPLAS showcase on 22 October to learn all about what us research students are up to!

There seems to be an incredible range of topics studied within my department, which is another of the factors  that drew me to King's. Just from the people I met today, there is a student investigating music in Lusophone Africa (Cape Verde and Mozambique), another looking at the Brazilian lyrical novel, another analysing changes in representations of the family in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, and another focusing on the translation of Spanish plays into English. I can't wait to learn more about their subjects as well as my own.

Maughan Library on Chancery Lane
After meeting the department, I made a brief visit to the Maughan Library which struck me as exactly how a library should be. I'm not sure how it compares to other university libraries in terms of the number of books available, but the setting is magnificent. Sadly the Venezuelan literature section is still only about half a shelf though!
The spectacular Humanities reading room.
There is now only one more afternoon of inductions to go, on Tuesday, and then I'll be a fully fledged research student. Whoo!

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

And so it begins...

As of Monday, I am officially a PhD student at King's College, London. Not that much happened on Monday, beyond being given my student card (with obligatory awful picture). I was there just long enough to have a look around and feel a little overwhelmed by the thousands of excitable freshers. King's has 24,000 students, spread over five campuses, but somehow it seemed busier than Cardiff (30,000 students, two campuses).

Today was my first real day there, with an afternoon full of inductions from the various support services. For one of probably very few times, I mingled with neuroscientists while learning about all the extra activities to fit in to the three years as well as research. One speaker pointed out that there are only 1067 days until my thesis is due in! Despite that, I aim to keep this blog up-to-date with all the fascinating opportunities open to me as part of such a vibrant department and university. My diary is rapidly filling with talks, film screenings, performances and more, so I hope this blog will be buzzing.

I ended the day with a really enjoyable student musical, Knowledge By Degrees (review coming soon), which made me really feel at home. I may be at my fourth university now, but some things never change!

EDIT: Forgot to say, one of my highlights of the afternoon was the presentation by the very droll Rev Tim Ditchfield, College Chaplain. I had wondered why King's had such a religious vibe about it and it turns out the College was created in 1829 by the Church of England to counteract the 'Godless and infidel' UCL down the road.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

A Taste of Wales - Caerleon, Monmouth and Chepstow

Croeso y cymru! Despite what I thought when I first heard the name, A Taste of Wales is not a gastronomic festival, but rather a day trip around South East Wales: Caerleon, Monmouth and Chepstow. I was extremely excited about this trip as I love the countryside, castles and Roman ruins, but sadly we could only persuade thirty students to come with us (apparently the experience of Cardiff on the same day as football, cricket and Speedway had put them all off Wales for life!).

The day started with the coach breaking down just outside of Bath, but undeterred, we turned it into an opportunity for more induction into British culture and took advantage of the tea rooms handily located at the side of the motorway. 

Finally, we made it to Caerleon, site of the Isca Augusta fortress, which was used between about 75 and 300AD. Our first stop was the recreated Roman barracks at the National Roman Legion Museum, where we experienced life as centurions.

Our photographer Louis captured this very realistic example of Roman weaponry

Next was the Caerleon Spa, where the centurions would get clean after a hard day's beating each other up with hams. Unlike at Bath Spa, the water would not having been heated from the ground so they just had to get a little chilly.

Wanting our ruins a little more ruined, we then headed to the old barracks and amphitheatre, where all that remains are the foundations revealed by archaeological digs.

Roman barracks

Football seems to have replaced gladiatoring in the centre of the amphitheatre

Next up, we were off to the incredibly quaint town of Monmouth, where the streets were lined with bunting and flowers. 

We took advantage of the Heritage Day, which allowed access to many usually closed buildings, to satisfy my film geekery and visit the beautiful old Savoy cinema.

 This is how a cinema should be, a real theatre with plush seats, velvet curtains and a stage for cavorting on.

Talking the projectionist into letting me visit the projection room made me unspeakably happy. I'd never seen a film reel before and I loved to see how tradition is still preserved. Celluloid feels so much more like a film should be than a disk or computer file.

Last but not least, we went to Chepstow Castle, Britain's oldest surviving post-Roman fort, which began construction in 1067. The signs were a little scary, but we all amused ourselves pretending we were Kings and Queens of the Castle.

In short, South East Wales is clearly the place to go for a fun day out!

Saturday, 22 September 2012

English Language Centre - Social Programme Comes To An End

Time has flown by and the Summer Social Programme has come to an end. My attempt to write weekly updates failed, mainly due to having to complete and hand in my dissertation, and then being so busy with the students that there was no time for anything else. Here's a potted version of our last few weeks.

Live Jazz @ Green Park Brasserie
We like to take the students to a range of music through the summer. We had folk earlier in the summer, so it was time for some jazz, courtesy of local singer James Lambeth. I loved his jazz version of The Smiths' Bigmouth Strikes Again. As the rest of the Green Park Brasserie was taken over by a Swedish birthday party, we also learnt their birthday song. It's a lot longer than ours (this video is a shortened version).

Ja má hon leva! means 'Yes, long may she live' - change the hon to han for a man. It was nice to see that unlike the French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and apparently even Chinese (according to the students with us), they haven't taken the same tune.

Dinner @ Brasserie Blanc
The next day, I was paid to go for a three course meal at Raymond Blanc's new chain restaurant. It's a tough job, but someone's got to do it! Although one student expressed her disappointment that Raymond himself wasn't cooking for us (I tried to explain that one would have to pay hundreds for that privilege), the food was very tasty, and I maintain that eating is an important part of British social life that they need to get involved with.

Last Night of the Proms
As the summer drew to a close, it was time for a final burst of excessive patriotism, with the Last Night of the Proms. We waved flags and taught the students to link arms to Auld Lang Syne. It's a good job none of our students are from former colonies though, as singing about the glorious expansion of Britain as other countries fall to our might probably wouldn't have gone down so well!

Day Trips
First there was Stonehenge and Salisbury. Once again I wished there weren't so many tourists at Stonehenge, so I could pretend to be Tess. Then there was A Taste of Wales, which was the best day trip of the summer and therefore deserves its own blog post. Finally, we rounded the summer off with a trip to Oxford, where the students' literary fantasies were all focused on Harry Potter, while fellow Student Helper Kerrianne was far more excited about Alice in Wonderland.

At Christchurch
Harry's dining room
Final party
It all ended with a huge party, combining just about everything from the summer: music, food, party games (Giant Jenga went down well ;-] ), and lots of Union Jacks. A wonderful way to end an amazing summer :D

Thanks to our brilliant photographer, Louis Lai!
Thanks to all the students and of course the other Student Helpers for making it such an unforgettable summer!

Monday, 3 September 2012

Fifty Shades: e-Readers, pornography and a literary boom

About a month ago, I had the pleasure of finally meeting Pino, editor of Bibliomula, in person. During a tour of my favourite London bookshops, I pointed out the piles and piles of Fifty Shades and was surprised to learn that the series hadn't reached Venezuela yet. Intrigued, Pino asked me to write about the novels, their background and their impact. My article is now available here, but if you don't speak Spanish, here it is in English.

The Fifty Shades phenomenon may not have reached Venezuela yet, but it has swept the English speaking world, getting millions of women talking, and more importantly, reading. As an ardent bibliophile, I should be very happy about this legion of new readers; I only wish they were reading something better!
Fifty Shades of Grey, and its two sequels, tell the story of shy virgin Anastasia Steele and her sexual awakening at the hands (and other parts) of her domineering boss, business magnate Christian Grey. Its author, E. L. James (real name Erika Leonard), started writing fan-fiction in 2009 under the pseudonym ‘Snowqueens Icedragon’. Three years later, she is in Time magazine’s list of The 100 Most Influential People in the World. Fifty Shades of Grey has surpassed sales of the entire Harry Potter series put together on Amazon, making James the best-selling Brisith author ever, reportedly earning over £6000 an hour from sales of her series. So how did a novel that started life as an online adult retelling of Twilight end up causing such a stir?

Fifty Shades is a key example of the way that the Internet and e-Readers are changing the book market. James first shared her story with her online community of Twilight fan-fiction readers and writers. Because it contains multiple graphic sex scenes – terribly written, repetitive and riddled with euphamisms like ‘inner goddess’ but graphic nonetheless – people began to talk about it. James then made her novel available for free in e-Reader format. It is no secret that the advent of e-Readers, which make it impossible for anyone else to see what you are reading in public, has given rise to a boom in erotic literature aimed at women. Amazon has thousands of novels – dubbed ‘mummy porn’ – available for free or next-to-nothing. The experts say that women have always feared shame or public disapproval too much to indulge their sexual urges reading pornographic novels in public, but will happily do so in secret. Fifty Shades therefore found a significant audience, and in January 2012 news networks began to use the series as an example of the rise in popularity of female erotica. The news stories created such a buzz around the series that even more people wanted to read it, to be part of the discussions sparked by the controversial novel. Never one to miss an opportunity to make money, the publishing industry quickly got on board, and Vintage Books published paperback editions of the series in April. By that time, everyone knew what Fifty Shades was and it had become so fashionable to read it that it was no longer necessary to hide behind an e-Reader: the front cover boldly proclaims the title and the explicit content. Piles and piles of the series now adorn the tables of every bookshop in England and other authors and publishers keen to take advantage of the boom are rapidly putting out their own copy-cat books. A mini sexual revolution has occured in publishing, thanks to the combination of e-Readers and gossip.

On the surface, all of this makes me very happy. While e-publishing is often cited as the death of books, it makes me very happy to witness an example of self-publishing leading to astounding success in traditional publishing. That people are flocking to bookshops and spending money on novels in the age of TV, computer games and social media can only be good news. That the book has sparked a new climate of openness towards female sexuality is surely a positive thing. Yet I still hate Fifty Shades and wish that people would read anything else.

The main plot of the novel is that Christian introduces Anastasia to BDSM (Bondage, Domination, Sadism, and Masochism). I’m an ‘each to their own’ kind of girl, and have no problem with people doing whatever they want with each other in the comfort of their bedrooms as long as it is consensual and safe. The problem with Fifty Shades is that Christian intimidates Ana into doing things she is clearly not comfortable with, and physically harms her. When he leaves her terribly beaten, she says it is her own fault because she forgot to use the safe-word. This is dangerously close to the rationalisations of so many women who suffer domestic abuse and not something we should be encouraging. Moreover, Christian’s domination of Ana extends beyond the bedroom, as he controls every aspect of her life. He treats her awfully and yet Anastasia adores him and insists that if she pleases him now, she can ‘fix’ him later. Anastasia is clearly an idiot. Not only because her logic is entirely flawed – she will never change him if she keeps pandering to his every desire – but also because every sentence out of her mouth is utterly vacuous, matching the dire literary quality of the rest of the book. Much like Twilight itself, it is obviously the fantasy of a bored middle-aged woman in desperate need of a thesaurus. Yet its fame guarantees that a whole generation of women will grow up thinking it is not only acceptable but actually desirable to have a man control you, treat you terribly and even physically harm you against your will. So, as much as I appreciate this new literary boom, I worry where it might lead.

English Language Centre Social Programme: Week 4

This week was full of goodbyes and plenty of tears, as many of our students left us to go back home. Apparently university in China and Japan starts again this week - unlike us lazy British who are off for almost a month more still!

To end on a real British stereotype, we had a tea-party. There were no cucumber sandwiches or scones, and the setting was nowhere near formal enough, but it still felt like a fitting ending.

Talking of tea, this week I've been busy learning about the cultures and traditions of some of our students, starting with Turkish tea. One of the students sent us a video about the importance of tea in Turkish culture, which is also a nice introduction to many facets of Turkey.

He also taught us about a lovely Turkish custom as one of the students left. When someone goes on a journey, you pour water behind them, because water always knows how to find its way home.

Students leaving also means lots of gifts. Most of them are very nice things like fans, bookmarks, drawings and origami paper.

Some, however, are a little more unusual. One of them was a fan featuring Hannya, a grotesque demon representing a woman driven to rage by jealously. While freaking us out, this did at least give us an opportunity to learn more about Noh theatre. Apparently the mask can be either frightening or sorrowful depending on the angle. A white mask, like the one on the fan, represents an aristocratic woman while a red mask is a lower class woman. Unfortunately I didn't get a picture of the fan before someone snaffled it, but the image on it was a bit like this:

A wide array of edible goods have also appeared in the office, from chocolates and cookies to rice crackers, meaning we are constantly snacking at the moment. One of our favourite finds has been the self-proclaimed Strange Taste Horse Beans. We're not sure if they would taste any better if we didn't know what they're called, but they're a great example of the mis-use English in Chinese marketing.

If any students are reading this, please do bring us more artefacts or foods from your home countries, we love learning about them!