Women in Transition – Crossing Borders, Crossing Boundaries
Written by Deirdre Byrnes (NUI Galway and Visiting Fellow IMLR) and Rosa Churcher Clarke (Lisbon)
Deirdre Byrnes (NUI Galway/IMLR) reports on Day One (Panels 1, 2 & 3), and Rosa Churcher Clarke (Lisbon) provides an overview, of this three day conference held on 20-22 September 2018
The conference “Women in Transition” attracted a truly multilingual and interdisciplinary group of scholars, sociologists, psychotherapists, clinicians, writers and creative practitioners who came together at King’s College London and St. Peter’s College, Oxford over a three-day period (20-22 September 2018) to discuss the themes of crossing borders and of crossing boundaries. In a world where the desire to restrict entry and even to close geographical borders altogether is growing at an alarming rate, this conference offered a timely intervention by highlighting the creative possibilities and emancipatory potential that the crossing of biological and geopolitical borders and of emotional, sexual, cultural and linguistic boundaries can bring.
The organisers Maria-José Blanco (SPLAS; CCWW) and Clare Williams (Portuguese, University of Oxford; CCWW) extended a warm welcome to all delegates who had travelled to the Strand Campus of King’s College London for the first day of the conference. The opening panel was devoted to the body/mind theme. In her paper “Deep time: Thinking between the corporeal, the mineral and the metallic with Marie-Claire Bancquart”, Emily McLaughlin (Wadham College, Oxford) explored how Bancquart’s poems defamiliarise our perception of bodily events and processes by contrasting everyday images of the human body with microscopic or macroscopic visions. She then widened the scope of her paper in order to consider how the intra-active corporeal processes described in Bancquart’s poetry can offer a productive way of thinking about geophysical and planetary transformation.
Monica Varese’s paper “Beyond ʻChloe liked Oliviaʼ” traced the development in the portrayal of lesbian characters in Kate O’Brien’s oeuvre. There is a veiled epiphany moment regarding lesbian sexual awakening in The Land of Spices (1941), a novel widely acknowledged to contain autobiographical elements. Although the relatively minor character of Agatha Conlon considers herself to be doomed in Mary Lavelle (1936), her sympathetic portrayal in the novel constitutes, Varese argued, the beginning of an acceptance of lesbianism. This development culminates in the protagonist Clare’s full acceptance of – and joy in – her sexuality, as well as her complete rejection of ecclesiastical authority and condemnation, in O’Brien’s last published novel As Music and Splendour (1958).
In her presentation “Creating a liminal space of transition for women with chronic pain”, psychotherapist Elizabeth McCrory (University College Dublin) described the process and the results of a contemplative psychotherapeutic intervention with a group of twelve women, aged between 31 and 69, all of whom were suffering from non-malignant, treatment-resistant chronic pain. The participants undertook ten one-to-one sessions over a 25-week period in a process involving authentic dialogue recordings, journalling and reflective exercises. McCrory’s study, which began life as a PhD, hypothesized that resistant chronic pain compels the sufferer to confront the True Self. Drawing on the spiritual writer Richard Rohr’s description of liminality as being between one’s comfort zone and any new possible answer as well as on the anthropologist Victor Turner’s “betwixt and between” definition, McCrory showed how the creation of a liminal space through contemplative psychotherapeutic intervention enabled the process of pain and suffering to be experienced in a new way, leading to a deeper experience of the True Self.
Day One of the conference featured two panels on motherhood. In “Motherhood beyond the body”, Indrani Karmakar (University of York) examined the portrayal of non-biological motherhood in Anita Desai’s novel Clear Light of Day and in Nandita Bagchi’s short story “Bilkisu Becomes a Mother”. She highlighted the sharp contrast in Desai’s novel between the indifferent biological mother and the loving, but childless Aunt Mira. In Bagchi’s short story, it is a local Nigerian woman Bilkisu who saves the little boy from a poisonous snake in his biological mother’s presence. What demarcates the line between mother and employed care-giver in mother-work?, Karmakar asked, concluding that the uneasy question of sacrificial, altruistic motherhood remains unresolved in both texts.
While Sandra Daroczi (University of Bath) focused primarily on the novel Meurtre à Byzance (2004) in her paper “Crossing the border between theory and practice: Motherhood and maternity in Julia Kristeva’s fiction”, she also made reference to Les Samouraïs (1990), to Thérèse mon amour and to “Stabat Mater”, Kristeva’s 1977 essay which highlighted the need for new discourses of motherhood. Daroczi argued that the character of Christine represented one of the most positive depictions of motherhood in Meurtre à Byzance, foregrounding, in particular, her use of silence as a constitutive element of her enabling motherhood: “Son silence complice […] laissait toute la place à nous autres”.
The first panel of the afternoon also focused on motherhood. In her paper “Cascading transitions and maternal experience”, Anna Johnson described two transitions precipitated by motherhood – becoming a writer and being assessed for Asperger’s Syndrome. She offered a powerful reflection on what she termed the strangeness of her experience of motherhood. Her paper demonstrated the creative potential of such periods of transition – Johnson began writing a year after her son’s birth as a response to a deep-seated need to find an outlet for her creativity. She is about to embark upon a PhD in Creative Writing on the subject of motherhood and performativity.
Continuing in equally candid mode, Anna Maratos and Clare Sandling spoke about their own experiences of motherhood during the presentation “Parenthood as mutative crisis: Balancing the masculine with the feminine when society forces a rift”. (The third contributor, Alex Mankowitz, was unable to attend due to illness.) Framing her analysis within Heidegger’s distinction between calculative and medidative thought, Maratos argued that society needs to value both equally. Clare Sandling spoke movingly about her experience of serious illness after becoming a mother. Drawing on her research as Women in Work policy lead at the UK Government Equalities Office, she noted that the gender pay gap is still at a very dispiriting 18%, before going on to present some images from the “Share the joy” campaign. This campaign, which promotes shared parental leave, is one example of the more merged and blended modes of being that society must allow for both parents, Maratos and Sandling argued, if the rift caused by parenthood is to be overcome.
The Women in Transition: Crossing Borders, Crossing Boundaries conference took place across three autumnal days in September (20th-22nd), with some very changeable weather reminding participants of the seasons’ own transition-in-progress. Firstly at King’s College London, and then in St Peter’s College, Oxford, academics, artists and professionals from various different sectors came together from all over the world to discuss and reflect on the immensely broad and varied notion of transition, and, more specifically, how this is and has been experienced by women.
Presentations of twenty-six academic papers were interspersed with: a film screening by Catalan film-maker Mònica Rovira; an interactive performance piece by the Istanbul Queer Art Collective; the inauguration of a temporary exhibition – Representatives – showing work by London-based Brazilian women artists; readings and conversations with Spanish author Marta Sanz and English author Joanna Walsh; and the launch of a collection of short-stories by contemporary Portuguese women writers, translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa.
The transitions explored during these three days of exchange and discussion ranged from the corporeal and psychological – puberty and the menopause, motherhood, confrontations with pain and health diagnoses – to geographical, cultural and linguistic dislocations, as well as sexual, romantic and relational transitions, and also an exploration of the frontiers between various different art-forms and genres. With the conference’s rich and powerful theme serving as a description of not only its academic focus but also many of its participants’ own identities as women in transition (between countries, languages, life-stages, professional quarters, etc), the atmosphere which developed across the course of the three days was one of refreshingly open and engaged dialogue, in which the personal and professional came together to academically and artistically fruitful, thought-provoking and greatly enjoyable effect.
It remains to be seen whether the meeting of frontiers – between different institutions, disciplines and fields of study – which took place during Women in Transition: Crossing Borders, Crossing Boundaries, will prompt further interaction and future collaborations – an extension of the conference’s own temporal and spatial limits such as this deeply creative and constructive event deserves.