Oxford Called. We Answered.

Radcliffe Camera from Saint Marys Church

For years, if not decades, Oxford has been calling. The history, the mystique, and the recent unshakeable addiction to the murder mystery series Lewis, known as Inspector Lewis here in the States, have only fueled the impulse to visit this artistic and intellectual epicenter. So, yours truly finally got a chance when an abstract proposal was accepted for Interdisciplinary.net’s 7th Annual Diasporas Conference held at Mansfield College this summer, which inquiring minds can read about here, but this post is about pleasure not business though the two often bleed together for this literary devotee.

Arriving 1 July, with a thankfully uneventful trip across the U.S. and over the Atlantic, we stayed at the Royal Oxford Inn. Clean, cozy with wonderfully accommodating staff and a surprisingly spacious loo, the inn is just a hop, skip, and a jump from the train station, proving convenient when we ventured into London the evening of our first full day in the U.K., but we’ll get to that shortly.

All Souls founded by Henry VI and Henry Chichele in 1438

All Souls College from Saint Marys Church

The evening of our arrival had us sight-seeing at the University Church of Saint Mary the Virgin sandwiched between All Souls College and Brasenose College and right smack dab next to the iconic Radcliffe Camera of the Bodleian Library. Dusty and musty, we sneezed our way up the 127-step tower climb and took in the panoramic views of Oxfordshire, squeezing our way past other photogging vista-lovers and gawking at the hundreds of gargoyles who growled and grinned above us. The sights over head, below, and all around only affirmed we had arrived and were ready to conquer.

A gargoyle of Saint Marys Church

Our second day in Oxford couldn’t have started or ended better. First, a beautiful run along the Thames and then through Oxford Meadows, followed by lunch at The King’s Arms with good friend and great poet Dr. Gregory Leadbetter, who was one of the six fellow residents at Hawthornden Castle last June. Such a treat to catch up!

After our luncheon reunion, we boldly made the trip to London to catch Richard Armitage in The Crucible at the Old Vic, which was no small feat facing the frenzied chaos of Wednesday rush hour in the tube. We might as well have been in the seventh circle of hell, but Mr. Armitage proved worthy of every ounce of frustration and discomfort that included being squeezed into cars, pushed and pulled through the thick and throng of commuters, and getting lost in the tropically humid labyrinth that is The Underground.

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At the time of our visit, the production was still previewing to audiences, but performances were startlingly electric. I often found myself unable to breathe. Sarah Cooley deeply impressed with her debut as Abigail Williams and though many of the actors, including Mr. Armitage himself, fell back on yelling rather than emoting, Anna Madeley as Goody Proctor was able to command the house with just a whisper. The theater-in-the-round was also an unforgettable experience, being able to see the audience react as the story unfolded from so many angles. We didn’t return to Oxford until one in the morning, yet yours truly felt like she was floating on clouds from London.

The third day had us visiting the Bodleian, which featured an exhibit on World War I correspondence, The Great War: Personal Stories from Downing Street to the Trenches. A letter from Yeats protesting the violence gave reason enough to shudder at this recent history that tore our world apart only one hundred years ago.

Looking for Mad Eyed Moody at Magdalen College

New College later lifted the spirits once we entered the cloister where Mad Eyed Moody turned Draco into a ferret in The Goblet of Fire. More than 600 years old, the gardens are just as impressive as the cloister’s ancient statues that haunt the corners with their shadow-like, ghostly figures. Here you can follow the ancient wall of the city and hear time rustle centuries old legends and stories.

Tea, tasty fat scones, and a wicked lamb stew at the Vaults & Garden Cafe next to Saint Mary’s Church reminded us, to our misfortune, of Sergeant Hathaway’s misadventures in the Lewis episode “Wild Justice”, which you’ll just have to see yourself to understand. Still, we managed an afternoon at The Ashmolean where twenty minutes before closing yours truly happened to stumble on the exhibits of East meets West during and after the age of exploration when Asia and Europe began to trade. So despite missing the Tutenkhamun show, which opened 24 July many notes were dutifully scribbled in the travel journal for a current projekt in the mix.

A little California love at the Oxford Botanic Garden

On our third day, we made our own garden party at the Oxford Botanic Garden, one of the oldest gardens and the first scientific garden in Europe, but more notably for this telly junkie the sight of another favorite Lewis episode, where Sergeant Hathaway dallied with love and lost. Of course, this was where Lewis Carroll concocted many of his stories and just paces away from our picnic spot, two students tangled in heated debate over some professor and lecture. You can’t stop the brain power here.

one of the most diverse yet compact collections of plants in the world

Magdalen College across the street was the next jaunt. The chapel holds some of the most magnificent stained glass windows depicting Biblical images in smooth, velvety rich colors with Pre-Raphaelite attention to texture and movement. We took our time on these college grounds to amble a path following the River Cherwell, spy on deers in the deer park, and admire a Goliath plane tree. The weather for our entire stay was unexpectedly warm and welcoming. Our first few days greeted us with eighty degree heat, and we got soaked by rain showers only once, having packed jumpers and tights that only took up needless space in the luggage.

Magdalen College was founded in 1458 by William of Waynflete

The River Cherwell

The New Building was built across a large lawn to the north of the Great Quad beginning in 1733

Some of the best eats we had were at The Inklings’ favorite pub, The Eagle and Child, a pilgrim’s destination for fans of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. There were plenty shops to feast at The Covered Market, and we enjoyed the rare chance to dine at one of our favorite British Asian chains Wagamama with fellow colleague and Diasporas conference presenter Dr. Dana Herrera, her beautiful family joining us for an evening of fun. Dr. Herrera’s presentation was absolutely insightful and engaging on Overseas Filipino Workers and the use of social media. I look forward to reading more of her work and here’s hoping we can meet up again in California sooner rather than later.

The Eagle and Child home of the Inklings

Blackwell’s, Britain’s most beloved bookstore, pulled us in twice during our stay, and yours truly picked up a copy of Javier Marías All Souls to get more intimately acquainted with the university along with William Golding’s The Inheritors to read for later. Throughout our Oxford explorations, we were counseled by the good book The Pocket Guide to Oxford, a must for anyone curious about the history and the hidden gems of this sacred space.

We couldn’t help but take a peek at the Sheldonian Theatre, designed by Christoper Wren, where many of the graduation ceremonies are held, and where the dome offers yet another astonishing panoramic view of the city.

The Philosophers outside of Sheldonian Theatre

Before we knew it, our three days of soaking up the sights came to an end, and the three-day conference began. Pleasure soon turned to business, which means we didn’t get a chance to enjoy punting on the Thames, hire a bike to cover more ground, visit the Wolvercote & Trout–an old haunt of Inspector Morse–catch an evening of madrigals performed on punts, or see any one of the outdoor Shakespeare productions including As You Like It or A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Perhaps next time, fingers crossed.

If we had to go back in time for this trip, we really should have taken a double decker bus around Oxford on our first day since when we left we spotted all these sights we meant to visit but couldn’t find on the map or through the trusted but faulty inter-web. Those buses may be expensive and touristy but proved more reliable since there’s nothing like seeing the lay of the land with your own two eyes.

Every three years the Lord Mayor and Corporation of the City of Oxford take a walk along the Wall

Our fourth trip to the U.K. only fortified our love for these great isles, and yours truly is already anxious for the next visit. In the meantime, what we won’t be missing are: double tap faucets, weak hand dryers, sharing a bathroom in the dorm at Mansfield College, showers in a separate quarter from the toilets, no lifts, and baked beans for breakfast.

waiting to punt

What yours truly will be missing and eagerly waiting to enjoy again are: all the variations of accents, watching Lewis whilst in Oxford, Pret a Manger, the English countryside, Blackwells, tea and biscuits, ginger beer everywhere in all shapes and forms–not just Crabbies.

Looking for Lewis in Oxford

Should we find ourselves in Oxfordshire again, we’ll be referring to this New York Times travel article and The Oxford City Guide to help us plan our itinerary in the land of Radiohead and Stornoway. For now, I’ll be faithfully watching Lewis to savor the memories, ever grateful for the chance to set foot in such storied land.

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…