Challenging the male canon means recognising that women’s writing is not a genre reserved for women readers, and that there are no ‘women’s topics’, says Dr Godela Weiss-Sussex, co-director of the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Women’s Writing (CCWW).

Choose to challenge the (male) canon! That’s a key message for International Women’s Day. This is what we do at the CCWW, one of the six research centres affiliated to the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR). It focuses on writing by women in French, German Italian Portuguese and Spanish (including Catalan and Galician).

We’ve been joining forces for 12 years now with academics, writers and translators across the world to explore, discuss and make visible contemporary writing by women authors. And no, this does not mean focusing on a minority or a niche subject area, but rather, it means promoting a rich – though still at times underestimated – body of literature on to mainstream research agendas.

Showcasing women’s writing in all its variety across cultures and languages allows us to explore difference but also to recognise surprising parallels, correspondences and touching points. The study of gendered experience in literary form reveals the diversity as well as the kinship of lives lived across borders and it unveils the aesthetic multiplicity of modes of expression in a body of writing that all too long has been marginalised in curricula and literary histories.

Challenging the male canon means recognising that women’s writing is not a genre reserved for women readers, and that there are no ‘women’s topics’. It means to be alert to and promote understanding of the fact that there may well be different perspectives and preferences for formal expression that complement the literary articulation of male gendered experience and authorship.

Our forthcoming symposium Covid and the Woman Writer (30 April), co-organised with Dr Caragh Wells (Bristol), explores just one area of very recent writing that highlights experiential and aesthetic particularity. As research by the Office for National Statistics and by charities such as Theirworld has started to reveal over the last months and weeks, the lockdown measures imposed during the current pandemic have impacted on women’s lives to a greater extent than those of men.

We will be asking about the nature and quality of this impact and about the creative choices for representing changed lives and practices, private and professional. Complementing academic reflection and discussion of published literary work of the last year with creative responses by women authors, we shall be giving equal weight to the different kinds of knowledge to be acquired through the academic and the creative modes of thinking and writing. In fact, this is another challenge we choose to make. To take issue with the hierarchies of knowledge production – and to promote creative enunciation to the same rank we accord to academic analysis.

Challenging the male canon is not confined to expanding the parameters of content and form, moreover. It also means to examine the contexts and conditions of literary production, and to call out traditional structures that might impede circulation and reception of women’s writing.

On 26 March, we are hosting a seminar organised by Dr Alberica Bazzoni (ICI Berlin) and Dr Caterina Paoli (Warwick) that focuses on Gender and transnational reception of women’s writings. In this seminar we will investigate the gendered structures of literature promotion. We will challenge assumptions of the concept of ‘national literature’, of outdated notions of ‘artistic value’ and explore structures of circulation that support the transnational distribution and shared appreciation of women’s writing. All welcome. We hope to see you there.

Do look out, also, for the upcoming online CCWW events series ‘Precarious homes – narratives and practices of home-making in turbulent times’, which includes: a reading group looking at refugee writing – theoretical and literary – (16 and 23 April); German novelist Dörte Hansen and her translator Anne Stokes discussing Dörte’s bestselling novel Altes Land [This House Is Mine], in which several generations of refugees struggle to make an old North German farmhouse their home (11 May); the symposium ‘Stories of Home, the Road, and the Host Country: Narrating Migration in Morocco’, organised by Keltouma Guerch (Oujda) (11 June), and much, much more.

Dr Godela Weiss-Sussex is a Reader in modern German literature at the Institute of Modern Languages Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London. Her current research projects focus on German-Jewish women’s writing in the 20th and 21st centuries as ‘minor literature’; post-migrant imaginaries of belonging; translingual writing.

Cover image: Dr Godela Weiss-Sussex