Inciting the Global Imagination in Oxford & Lisbon

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Yours truly had the honor of presenting at two academic conferences this summer, 7th Global Conference Diasporas: Exploring Critical Issues, organized by Interdisciplinary.net and held at Mansfield College, Oxford, UK, 5-7 July 2014 and The International Conference Youth in/and Literature, organized by the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities at the Universidad NOVA de Lisboa in Lisbon, Portugal taking place 9-11 July 2014.

The Diasporas Conference ran con-currently with Interdisciplinary.net’s other conference “The Apocalypse”, and it was great fun asking those presenters how the apocalypse was going during mealtime. I also got a much appreciated dress rehearsal from the apocalyptic attendees who asked about my research and then surprised me with a host of questions, which even more surprisingly I found myself not only able to answer but enjoyed mulling over and discussing.

So what was presented in Oxford? Along with fantastic papers such as fellow Saint Mary’s College Professor Dana R. Herrera’s “#OFW: Social Media and the Public Discourse Regarding Overseas Filipino Workers” provocative topics included:

  • What Difference a Century Makes: Caribbeans in the Amazon in the Turn of the 20th and the 21st Centuries, Maria da Graça Martins
  • Locating the Self in a Disaporic Space: A Study of Imtiaz Dharker’s Poetry, Rimika Singhvi
  • The Stories We Tell: Drifting and Linking in Dionne Brand’s Prose, Eshe Mercer-JamesEconomics and Diaspora, Ram Vemuri

Each of the presenters on my panel complemented each other’s work, as we all spoke on ambivalence and pluralism to deepen the discussion of diasporas from multiple perspectives. See for yourself:

Session 8: Border-crossing Narratives
Chair: Richard Merritt

  • Then the World Widened: Daring Creative Writing Students to be Cartographers of the Global Imagination, Rashaan Alexis Meneses
  • John MacKenzie’s Letters I Didn’t Write: Home is Where You Are, Kristen Smith
  • Collaborations in Diaspora: Canadian Experiments in Cross-Diasporic Multi-Authored Poetry, Heather Smyth

And what exactly did I present?

The abstract:

Then the World Widened: Daring Creative Writing Students to be Cartographers of the Global Imagination

Pankaj Mishra called for a “bolder cartography of the imagination” in his essay “Beyond the Global Novel” (Financial Times 2013), and a chorus of critics echoed his sentiments posing that the “global novel” or “world literature” sacrifices the specificity of real political traumas for the sake of deadened, feel-good multiculturalism. Though no matter how publishers and academics categorize, plenty of creative writers in our proliferating MFA and PhD creative writing programs aim to tackle transnational narratives. Likely to fictionalize aspects of their own transnational experience or origins, a novelist-in-training will set the world as her stage and her characters as polyglots. How will she avoid the relativistic dead-zone of multicultural platitudes while interrogating notions of politics and identity? How does she begin to depict what Mishra demanded as a “challenging cultural otherness”?

The global or transnational storyteller will likely implement such techniques as the multi-stranded narrative. She will have to demonstrate multilingual sensitivity, and her fiction will undoubtedly straddle simultaneous senses of space and time. This paper examines ways for creative writing students to practice these specific techniques by exploring the works of Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss and Chris Abani’s Virgin of Flames both of which demonstrate linguistic virtuosity and polyphonic narratives with the intent to grasp what Bertolt Brecht named the “estrangement effect.” Taken from a craft rather than theoretical approach, this paper will illustrate ways to shape a de-centered, global narrative. For a cartographer at this scale must pursue intersections of truth and art, which requires from the writer and the reader a mutual construction of story and meaning. The writer, in this sense, relies on ambiguity and ambivalence to create a purposeful vertigo that is both world-making and world-breaking.

An excerpt:

In crafting the polyphonic narrative, the writer will want to assume that all perspectives, no matter the social or economic standing, have something to lose. From the wealthiest and most comfortable to those who are beyond the margins, every voice has to count. So how to justly cover the stakes? How to viscerally capture the urgency of what’s at stake for each character? The writer must ask herself:

  • How does each character represent a microcosm and how do these individual microcosms make a multiverse?

  • How does each perspective contradict, complement, mirror, and refract one another?

  • How best to splinter the self of each character, knowing that heart, body, and mind are in opposition with one another for each character?

  • How do these oppositional forces within each character map time and space both for the characters and for the reader?

The takeaway from this conference in this particular network  is that passion is key. Interdisciplinary.net goes to great lengths not to emphasize titles or rest on stature but to focus on shared interests and dialogue. Each of the presenters were deeply invested in their topics, which was most engaging and inspiring.

As for what happened in Lisbon, the two conferences couldn’t have been more different. The first one was small and intimate. Forty attendees maximum aside from the two organizers, everyone present sat on a panel, so attendance was expected through the duration of the conference. Conversely, at the New University of Lisbon, I never got a hold of how many attendees were present because people were always coming and going. Half of the presentations were in Portuguese, so panel attendance was uneven depending on which language was spoken. Despite the variation, the opening keynote speaker, Shane Blackman, Professor of Cultural Studies, Canterbury Christ Church University, Kent, United Kingdom, proved most informative and timely, speaking on ethnography, which yours truly will be experimenting with come fall semester.

My panel included:

1) Bulgaria and Spain, Petya Yankova and Lida Aslanidou (University of York & City University London, UK)

2) “Then the World Widened: Daring Creative Writing Students to be Cartographers of the Global Imagination”, Rashaan A. Meneses (Saint Mary’s College of California, USA)

3) The Biggest Loser: Mercer Mayer’s Little Critter Series, the Queer Art of Failure, and the American Obsession with Youth Achievement, Michelle Ann Abate (Ohio State University, USA)

Of course, with the good counsel of a wise colleague I didn’t present the same paper from Oxford, but riffed off the original and found myself deeply interested in exploring how the bildungsroman of the 19th century reflects the building of a nation that mirrors the building of an individual through socialisation. Pushing the idea into a contemporary context, I’m curious to see how the bildungsroman, especially concerning the global novel, examines how individuals gain agency in parallel to how ethnic minorities might pursue sovereignty in the face of national hegemony. Yes, a mouthful, but this is the stuff that revs my engine. With that said, here’s an excerpt:

3. Performing Identity
Our identities demonstrate our allegiance to certain traditions and our rejection of other traditions. We essentially perform our allegiances or denial through identity. How we act and who we act with is our show of moral, personal, spiritual and physical integration into specific communities and even our integration into our larger global society. Jopi Nyman speaks to this in “Performing Englishness”: “By rewriting the generic repertoire of the Bildungsroman, the novel does more than represent a post-colonial critique of a Western genre. Rather, by redefining the process of learning in the context of the nation as a way of learning how to be English, the novel addresses questions of (national) identity and stresses its performative character.”[1] Identity is performative demonstrating our membership or rejection of values and traditions, and we might see the parallels between how the shaping of an individual identity reflects the shaping of a community or even a nation as Benedict Anderson speaks to in his Imagined Community.


[1] Nyman, p 97.

And now what?

I’m eager to continue exploring how global writers explore issues of identity, transnationalism and politics through craft techniques. I’m also hoping to scheme up a panel+workshop with fellow literary artists to explore the following themes:
1. How does your literary work serve or shape your social action or your commitment to social justice?
2. How do we read AND write for craft versus culture (in terms of being a person of color writer)?
3. How can writing & reading chart a “living” map of culture, identity, self, and community?

Stay tuned to see what happens next…

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