Many of the conferences and workshops held at the IMLR lead to publications, in particular to special issue of the Institute’s journal, the JRS. The conference below was held in September 2015 and, after a rigorous peer-review process, was published two years later as the special issue ‘Women’s Ageing in Contemporary Women’s Writing’, edited by Kate Averis and María-José Blanco. It includes six of the revised papers delivered at the conference plus an introduction. Here is the report of the original and very successful conference, written by Maria Tomlinson (Universities of Reading and Bristol) and Polly Galis (University of Leeds). You can see how a conference leads to a publication.
This conference, organised jointly by María-José Blanco (King’s College London) and Kate Averis (previously at the University of London Institute in Paris), explored the representation of women’s ageing in a variety of works by female authors from France, Spain, Algeria, Argentina, Mauritius, Germany, the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The event was supported by KCL, ULIP, the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Women’s Writing (CCWW) and the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR). Throughout the day the papers sparked lively, wide-ranging debates on the identity of older women and the ways in which they are viewed by society.
The first panel brought together three papers that examined the representation of dementia and Alzheimer’s in novels from France, Germany, and Argentina. Literary portrayal of the retirement home was a key theme explored in this panel, with the first paper discussing French society’s promulgation of derogatory labels such as ‘mouroir’ or ‘gagatorium’ when referring to a nursing home. The second paper considered the ways in which two German-language novels attempt to persuade readers to empathise with dementia sufferers and value them as people. The final paper analysed the endeavour of two characters to record their mothers’ life experiences before their memories faded away. In the discussion that followed, the attendees discussed the changing role of grandmothers and questioned how literature could challenge the negative medical discourse that surrounds elderly people.
The second panel brought together two papers that delved into literary depictions of the ageing female body as abject and undesirable. The first offered a cross-cultural comparison between two francophone novels, set in India and Algeria respectively, that both explored the shame of menopausal characters who are silenced by the societies in which they live. The second paper investigated three novels from France, providing an analysis of their depiction of the ageing woman’s body as monstrous yet docile. These papers engendered an animated discussion on Simone de Beauvoir’s ambiguous position on the menopause as well as the power of literature to fill the linguistic void surrounding the experiences of menopausal and postmenopausal women.
The third panel highlighted the paucity of discourse on women’s ageing available to older female authors. The papers presented drew attention to older women’s antithetical perspectives on mid-life and old age. Collectively, the panellists examined the works of US-born, Canadian, French and Spanish authors. The first theme that emerged from these papers centred on the position of the older woman as an asexual ‘Other’. Even though the Beauvoirian take on women’s ageing was shown to paint a negative portrayal of otherness, the notion of becoming an(Other) was also presented as a positive process. Similarly, while the climacteric and postmenopausal years were deemed a time of degeneration or stasis on the one hand, they were depicted as a transitive period of liminality on the other. This moment is a rite of passage during which the woman stands at life’s crossroads, awaiting her future. Central to this divide was the concept of grandmaternity, since becoming a grandmother is shown to signify both a potentially liberating and fruitful experience and an entrapment.
This paradox was emphasised in the fourth panel. Here too, old age was shown to embody both limits and possibilities. The corpus of works ranged from those of a Mexican artist, and an Argentinian-born French author. This panel rejected the conceptualization of old age as a stage of stagnation, and appealed instead to its transformative capacity. The transnational sources examined in this panel served to highlight how the fluidity of a multi-lingual and transnational identity dispels the stasis that is usually associated with old age. If the liminal space of old age was linked to grandmaternity in the previous panel, it was intimately yoked in this instance to the in-between space across languages, nations and temporal spaces.
The closing discussion aptly expanded on the recurring issues at work in each panel, beginning with the pour-soi, en-soidebate. In each panel a clear tension arose between the old woman as a figure of the other in itself (en-soi) and the subject for itself (pour-soi). This perspective challenged the notion of a moi permanent. Is it ever possible to speak of a permanent ‘I’ when our identity is multi-faceted to begin with, and when this is fragmented further through such developments as (grand)maternity, dementia, bodily changes and transnational movements? Or when, as Nora Levinton asserted, ‘we are memory’? The discussion then came onto a further fundamental question: how far is it possible to say that ‘we are our bodies’? As discussed throughout this conference, neglecting the importance of bodily experience can be limiting for narratives about women’s ageing, since the gendered body draws a definitive dividing line between the male and female experience of ageing. After all, women’s life stages are reinforced through corporal processes, such as menstruation, reproductive capacity and the menopause. In addition, the changes which affect the body inevitably come to affect the ways in which we experience the world mentally and emotionally. Yet, to focus too much on the body overlooks subjective agency. To insist on the Cartesian dualism that separates mind from body may actually facilitate our attempts to undermine a patriarchal discourse that reduces women of all ages to their body. Whether these dividing lines render a focus on the female body more or less liberating for female narratives on ageing was left as a subject for further debate, as was that of a moi permanent.
Nonetheless, this conference went a long way to fill in the gaps of existing discourse on women’s ageing by enabling a dialogue to emerge between antithetical perspectives, and by shedding light on creative responses to women’s ageing from older women themselves. In all cases, the panellists rejected a purely generational model of female identity, and a linear definition of what it means to be an ageing woman.