The Centre for the Study of Contemporary Women’s Writing, one of the six research centres affiliated to the Institute of Modern Languages Research, is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year with a series of events that show the variety of its work. Below, its directors recall what promoted the initiative and what they see the centre doing in the next ten years.
Tell us about the history of the centre for the Study of Contemporary Women’s Writing (CCWW) – why was it founded, and what sort of work does it do?
The Centre for the Study of Contemporary Women’s Writing has its origins in a seminar and research network founded by Professor Gill Rye, ‘Contemporary Women’s Writing in French’ (CCWF), at the Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies (IGRS). The initiative was prompted by a groundswell of interest in the explosion of exciting and controversial writings by women in the French-speaking world at the turn of the millennium.
From its opening conference in 2000, CCWF played an important role in drawing together researchers in the field, nationally and internationally. We were not surprised to see that it went from strength to strength. A logical next step was to expand the network into a more formalised cross-cultural centre – the CCWW – in order to promote and facilitate research on women’s writing in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and other languages. The comparative dimension of our work, a strategic priority for the IGRS and later the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR), gives scope for stimulating dialogue and we lead on a range of cross-cultural and single-language events each year.
What is meant by ‘contemporary women’s writing’, and what sorts of women’s voices have been explored by the centre?
We take ‘contemporary’ to mean writing that has been produced since the mid-20th century, although most of our research sticks close to what is being written right now, which means there is a sense of immediacy in our charting of evolutions in women’s writing. This is both fascinating and tricky, not least since the authors we write about are alive and can rapidly shift the terms on which they are understood.
The writers explored by the centre are very diverse, in terms of genre, subject matter and voice. A constant feature is the experimental nature of their writing: we are interested in new trends, shifts in form or subject matter, and original explorations of challenges relevant to women. We also explore works across different media. For example, for three years we have been running a series called ‘Sketching / Scripting Women’, dedicated to research on female-authored graphic novels and comic strips. These have included presentations by major practitioners who come to the centre to talk about their work.
One of your main conferences this year is on translingual women’s writing – what is translingual writing, and why is it particularly relevant today?
The term ‘translingual writing’, literally meaning ‘writing across languages’, indicates literature by authors who speak several languages, move between them and use them to enrich their texts. Integrating elements of different languages in a text can be a way of indicating hybrid or multi-layered identities by authors who have moved between cultures.
Translingual writing is of course not a new phenomenon, but with increased globalisation and migration, it is growing at a rapid pace and changing the face of (traditionally monolingual) national literatures. Mixing elements of two or more languages can be a means of voicing resistance against impositions of standardisation, narrow limitations of ‘correctness’ – and against expectations of certain identity discourses. Rather than deploring it as ‘incorrect language use’, we therefore recognise translingualism as a source of literary creativity.
How does exploring translingualism fit in with the centre’s wider work (eg on language and identity)?
The centre is concerned, first and foremost, with the analysis of literary texts by women in a cross-cultural context. This means that we are always asking questions about the strategies of writing, the techniques that enable the expression of different perspectives and modes of thinking, especially where these differ from the male-dominated canon of literary expression. As translingual writing is self-consciously ‘divergent’ from hegemonic norms, and can be seen as an emancipating force, it has the potential to support or combine with an expression of emancipation in the realm of gender.
Translingual writing, for instance, doesn’t always conform to the logical, linear exposition of thoughts. Instead, associative thinking, and creativity play a greater role. One word might sound like another in a different language and spark off a new way of looking at the world. This more fluid and open way of thinking is embraced by many women writers, among them Katja Petrowskaja, a Russian-born author writing in German, who will visit the centre on 30 May this year.
It’s the CCWW’s 10th anniversary this year – what do you see the centre doing over the next 10 years?
We are thrilled to be able to celebrate our 10th anniversary and to have such a strong story to tell not only about the centre, but about the vibrant and diverse research on contemporary women’s writing that we promote. Through our activities, events and publication outputs, we have become a major hub for scholars both nationally and internationally, and have helped to secure the robust reputation enjoyed by contemporary women’s writing as a field of study.
It is exciting to think of the coming decade. Although we don’t usually plan more than a year or two ahead, we can say with certainty that we will continue to promote discussion of major themes as they surface in women’s writing and to help set agendas for research in the field. Our emphasis on translingualism will be further pursued, as we shall continue our current collaboration with the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded OWRI project ‘Cross-Language Dynamics: Re-Shaping Community’, whose translingualism strand is based at the School of Advanced Study. Another major theme of contemporary significance that we are about to tackle is ageing and ageism.
How can people find out more about the CCWW’s work and get involved?
We are always looking for enthusiastic researchers to join us, and there are many opportunities for colleagues to attend, participate in or co-organise events, from small seminars to interactive workshops and major conferences. We have an especially strong record in helping post-doctoral and early career researchers to gain experience of organising seminars or workshops around their research interests.
Women and power in French Francophone cultures and societies (17–19 May)
Across languages: translingual women’s writing conference (30–31 May)
Author – translator conversation: Katja Petrowskaja and Shelley Frisch (30 May)
Susana Chavez-Silverman: a bilingual reading and Q&A (1 June)
Translating women: breaking borders and building bridges in the English-language book industry (31 October)
Contemporary women’s writing: writing for change. A celebration of the work of Gill Rye (8 November)