Living Languages | The blog for the Institute of Modern Languages Research

Sexuality in Popular Culture


Ina Linge, Tom Smith and Monalesia Earle discuss a recent workshop held at the IMLR on ‘Sexuality in Popular Culture’:

On 15 February we organised a workshop on ‘Sexuality in Popular Culture’ at the School of Advanced Study in London. To us, this felt like a particularly topical and urgent point for discussion. Today, equal rights campaigns and queer communities across the world are experiencing unprecedented advances, and yet shockwaves from violence, war and political upheavals can be felt across the geographical and political spectrum both within and outside the queer community. Popular culture and media play an essential role in defining attitudes to gender and sexuality, but can also challenge assumptions and conventions. Our afternoon of workshops aimed to take a closer look at how sexuality is mediated through various forms of popular culture, including music, film and graphic narrative.

Ina Linge:

I kicked off with a workshop on the representation of LGBT people in popular film and TV. Today, sexual and gender diversity features on popular TV and film much more than even a decade ago. As someone who researches the history of sexuality, I am particularly interested in films and TV shows that explore the long history of gender and sexual diversity. I showed film clips from two contemporary examples, the film The Danish Girl (2015) and the TV series Transparent (2014-present). I was particularly excited to discuss these alongside a much older film called Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others), a German silent film from 1919, one of the first gay rights films ever to be made. Film offers such a rich medium to explore that the discussion immediately got off the ground. Participants were interested to see that science is often represented as a form of authority that can validate gender and sexual identity. It was great to be able to see the similarities between the contemporary and historical material, released almost 100 years apart!

Tom Smith:

I’ve been listening to Hamilton for months and it’s struck me: popular music can be a powerful way of redefining ourselves, our identities and histories. My workshop explored this from a queer perspective. We discussed ‘queer icons’ and how certain tracks or songs define our identities. The themes of confidence and performance kept coming up, but also the outsider perspective that so many queer icons present in their music. We asked how queer icons unsettle more mainstream ideas of gay icons, and how this translates into musical form? For some of us, it was four-on-the-floor beats and glossy electronic pop; for others, the defiant, grungy guitar sounds of punk; and to my delight, Hamilton’s playful fusion of rap, hip-hop and Broadway came up too! It’s sparked a project for me on identities in the contemporary German techno scene, so watch this space!

 Monalesia Earle:

The great thing about the Sexuality in Popular Culture event was being able to talk about comics. I mean, who in their right mind doesn’t think comics can change the world, or at least how we look at it? I enjoyed the chance to get delegates to draw a comic strip of themselves in ways that would challenge popular (and often stereotyped) notions of who they are. Some people framed (no pun intended) their sexuality in the context of ethnicity, race, spirituality, beliefs about the larger world in which they live, and also in terms of the increasingly conservative politics that threaten our basic freedoms. There was a lot of creativity in the drawings that I saw from the delegates, which made me smile and has given me plenty of new trope-busting ideas!

We ended the afternoon with drinks to the strains of our playlist from Tom’s event, drawing our own comics under Monalesia’s expert guidance. It was great to welcome so many undergraduates, postgraduates and researchers to Senate House for the event, and even better that we ended up chatting, debating and discussing each other’s views. Lectures and seminars are all very well, but we all found this sort of collaborative exchange of ideas much more productive for our work (and fantastic fun into the bargain!). Thanks to the IMLR and the SAS for their support, and here’s hoping we can bring more pop culture events to Senate House in the near future! For now, though, how about checking out our playlist from the event.

Ina Linge (Cambridge) @DrInaLinge

Tom Smith (Newcastle) – @TomSmithGerman

Monalesia Earle (London)

Exploring Transcultural Memory Studies in Tallin (Estonia)


Dr Claire Launchbury reports from a recent conference in Estonia exploring transcultural memory studies.

I recently attended a conference in Tallin University, Transcultural Memorial Forms: Contemporary Remembrance of War, Displacement and Political Rupture, which additionally marked the inauguration of a new research network on Memory Studies, bringing together colleagues predominantly from the Nordic and Baltic regions where the discipline is thriving. This network showcases the different borderlines and geographical areas of collaboration that are available to this part of Northern Europe. Even down to the food, Estonia’s position on the Scandinavian-Baltic frontier and neighbouring Russia leads to different combinations: Nordic cured fish, Russian dumplings, Armenian coleslaw with olives and pomegranates all appear on the same menu. The exotic sea resort is Odessa. Traces of former Soviet architecture co-exist with a number of large shopping malls with all the usual brands. A picture-postcard old town with museums of medieval torture, ecclesiastical history also throbs with the merry antics of the Helsinki Finns taking a booze cruise or the budget airline stag partiers. These passing observations reinforced several of the issues raised at the conference with its focus on transcultural forms.

Professor Ann Rigney

A fascinating and packed programme included keynotes by Michael Rothberg, Samuel Goetz Chair of Jewish Studies, UCLA and Ann Rigney, University of Utrecht, and a screening of Common Ground and a talk with filmmaker, Kristina Norman. Papers explored a diverse range of cultural and memorial production, from northern comedy to Althusser (and that was in just one paper) as well as providing a welcome opportunity to discuss the issues at stake in contemporary memory studies.

My panel on memorial forms showcased memorial projects such as the Museum on Wheels commemorating the lost Jews of Poland and their reception in different parts of the county in a paper by Aleksandra Kubica (KCL). Neringa Latvyte-Gustaitiene (Vilnius) examined the palimpsestic nature of Lithuanian memorials to the Jewish victim of the ‘Shoah par balles’ or the ‘Holocaust by bullets’ between 1941 and 1944. There are 250 sites of mass killing in Lithuania and the passage from Soviet power to contemporary Europe has left many conflicting, competing and problematic traces which have an urgency to them that Western Europe might have a tendency to neglect. Indeed, this highly unsteady transition of memory was a subject returned to often at the conference.

Ernest Morgan, Palestine Railways, & a Police Constable in the aftermath of a train derailment in 1937

My own paper ‘How am I supposed to talk to you, or with you or about you?’ explored the novel Gate of the Sun by Lebanese writer, Elias Khoury, through the lens of disruptive empathy, a term coined by Amos Goldberg and Bachir Bachir to think through co-remembering the Shoah and the Nakba of 1948. In addition to this I explored the potential of the text as a productive borderspace using Bracha Ettinger’s radical concept she terms the Matrixial. She uses this to argue for the possibility of co-wit(h)nessing, instead of being separated from the other, cut, split, castrated, the uterine model of the matrixial holds open the opportunity for connection and compassion. In this way, I explored different instances of seemingly impossible coexistences at events which are narrated in the novel. I reflected on the Arab revolt of 1936-39 which intersects with the experience of my great-grandfather being on board sabotaged trains as he worked for Palestine Railways, the problems of borders and their crossing at Allenby or Qaalandia, the checkpoint between Ramallah and East Jerusalem, my own experience in 2015;  the time in late 1975 when the PLO protected and fed the Jewish population of Wadi Abu Jamil in Beirut, however cynical the geopolitics, and, finally, a sculpture by Ginane Makki Bacho made from Israeli shells that destroyed her apartment and studio in 1982. A sculpture she named ‘uterus’.

Uterus, by Ginane Makki Bacho, 1983

In these volatile political times, considering different networks, of memory, solidarity, compassion; the other memoryscapes which we might share but nevertheless not pay sufficient attention to, offers, I like to hope, a sense of renewed dialogue and through that understanding.  I am very grateful to conference organisers, Eneken Laanes and Hanna Meretoja for their intellectual leadership, organisation and warm welcome and to the School of Advanced Study, University of London, conference grant fund for supporting my participation.


Elias Khoury [1998], Gate of the Sun [Bab el Shams] translated by H. Davies (London: Picador, 2007);

Bashir Bashir and Amos Goldberg (2014) ‘Deliberating the Holocaust and the Nakba: Disruptive Empathy and Binationalism in Israel/Palestine’ Journal of Genocide Research, 16.1, 77-99;

Bracha Ettinger (2006), The Matrixial Borderspace, with foreword by Judith Butler, introduction by Griselda Pollock and afterword by Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press).

Dr Claire Launchbury, Centre for Cultural Memory, Institute of Modern Languages Research


Nedim Gürsel: Free Speech in Turkey and the Medieval Forerunners of Islamophobia in France


The IMLR successfully hosted an event sponsored by the Cassal Trust on 11 March 2017 – the one-day workshop ‘Turkey and Islam in France and Europe’. Censored Turkish-French novelist Nedim Gürsel (The Daughters of Allah) met cultural memory studies fellow Matthew Mild (the workshop’s organiser), who here discusses the contribution of this multiple award-winning author.

Nedim Gürsel

While a second Muslim travel ban is effectively being challenged in the States and the anti-Islam party was recently defeated in the Netherlands following a row over campaigning/democracy in Turkey, as was its Austrian counterpart not long ago, our IMLR/Cassal Trust one-day workshop looked at a wide range of subjects, from Joseph Downing’s talk about Islamophobia in France and Jocelyn Wright’s contribution on French banlieue literature (the French elections will happen soon) to the Turkish-French film Mustang which we watched after our conversations. The public quickly began to interact spontaneously with Professor Howard Bowman during his engaging presentation about trauma and long-term memory, which we found refreshing and helpful in discussions of migrant trauma and nostalgia. It was an honour to welcome as our guest speaker the Turkish-French author Nedim Gürsel. I think that his contribution from a Turkish-French intellectual position was timely, in the present international climate.

Nedim Gürsel teaches Turkish literature at the Sorbonne, Paris, and is research director for Turkish literature at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). He is an author of novels, short stories, travelogues and essays that have been translated into several languages. His writing uses multiple forms, mixing lyricism, love songs, humor, the epic genre, eroticism, and fantasy. Gürsel’s awards include the 1977 Turkish Language Academy Award, the 1986 Abdi Ipekçi Award for his contribution to peaceful Greek-Turkish relations, the 1990 best international scenario award from Radio France Internationale, the 2004 Fernand Rouillon French-Turkish Literary Prize, and the 2013 Mediterranean award – the author was knighted by the French government for his services to art and literature in 2004.

While offering consecutive interpreting from French at our workshop, I couldn’t help but notice his enthusiasm addressing a London audience at the IMLR. Gürsel opened his talk by sharing his experience being censored and legally prosecuted in Turkey, where he faced a trial for publishing his novel The Daughters of Allah. He spoke about chroniclers of crusades and authors of chanson de gestes epic poems who first engaged in vitriolic attacks of Islam and the prophet Muhammad in medieval France and Europe. I was impressed by his whole-hearted commitment to fostering a nuanced and many-sided discussion of European-Islamic relations. I wondered what he thinks about Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and the affair of the Danish cartoons, and he surprised me on both issues.

Though he did not agree with my suggestion that the Danish cartoons attacked a vulnerable minority using a satirical medium typically reserved for corrupt politicians and businesspeople, as has been widely maintained in critical cultural studies literature, he said he thinks – like I do, too – that Rushdie’s irony was perfectly respectful and beneficial. Nedim Gürsel set the tone for our useful conversations throughout the day. His contribution was an ode to the witnessing that defeats silence.   

Matthew Mild, Fellow in Cultural Memory Studies, IMLR

The Tale of Januarie: language, music, performance


Professor Catherine Davies discusses the world premiere of the Guildhall School‘s production of The Tale of Januarie. This project received support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council through the ‘Cross-Language Dynamics’ OWRI Project at the School of Advanced Study, University of London

It’s not every day we have the chance to see a new opera and I had no idea what to expect in the Guildhall’s production of The Tale of Januarie. I knew the libretto, written in Middle English, was based on Chaucer’s unfinished The Merchant’s Tale, adapted by playwright Stephen Plaice. I knew the composer, Julian Philips, but I’d never heard his music. How would the opera be staged and performed? What would it look like, how would it sound? In the event, it was a gripping, sumptuous experience lasting three hours, a joy to hear and behold. The costumes, the lighting, the scenic effects, and above all the edgy music and singing, made this a memorable performance. Full credit is due to the director Martin Lloyd-Evans, conductor Dominic Wheeler, the orchestra and the singers, especially John Findon as old-man Januarie and Joanna Marie Skillett, his young bride, May. This is the story of a sex-obsessed Januarie who marries a pretty girl and is made a laughing stock when she deceives him with his handsome young servant. For the purposes of this blog, however, I want to draw attention to the complex interaction in the opera between music and text. What were the challenges and opportunities faced by Stephen Plaice when adapting Chaucer’s famous tale? How did Julian Philips match his music to a Late Middle English text? These questions form part of the AHRC’s Open World Research Initiative’s research project on modern languages, communities and translingual practices led by the IMLR.

In the opening Q&A, chaired by Cormac Newark, Guildhall’s Head of Research, Stephen and Julian shared their creative experience. They emphasised the strange familiarity of Middle English – seemingly English but not quite, with its obvious Anglo-Saxon and Norman French roots jarring on modern sensibilities. Middle English, said Stephen, is like a foreign language you know fairly well, and writing Middle English was like writing two or three languages at the same time. It was a treat for him to work on the libretto, to create a final act in an unfinished tale, and to recreate the sense of fizz produced by the collision of the old and the new. For Julian, every single word in the libretto had to be weighed for its sound and its meaning, so that accents would fall in the right place, alliterations stressed, and the sonorous and highly coloured quality of the language maintained by the music. Elisions were important, eliding vowels as in Italian or German texts. Words ending in consonants, so unhelpful for singers, retain their final vowels in Chaucer’s English – so sickness is sicknesse, which gives the composer and singer scope for triple rhythm, sound and emotion. The composer can mine the text for its rhythmic qualities, for metric flow and tempo.  For Stephen the challenge was how to keep the momentum of the strong narrative drive; for Julian the challenge was how to respond to the language in his music. Both agreed that Middle English had had a profound effect on the opera at every level: structure, rhythm, text and music all interacting in sympathetic dialogue.

To quote the programme notes, ‘Bringing Middle English to opera, a genre that didn’t exist when it was spoken, reveals how languages are never “dead”, that they still have unexplored colour and vibrancy’ and, I would add, can still communicate – especially when much can still be learned from Chaucer’s tales.

Catherine Davies, Professor of Hispanic and Latin American Studies
Director, Institute of Modern Languages Research

When Cultures Meet: Stories of Hope, Despair and Understanding


For the third year in a row the IMLR, in cooperation with the DAAD and supported by the Goethe Institut and the Swiss and German Embassies, successfully hosted the prize-giving ceremony of this year’s German writing competition on 1 March in Senate House. Here Stephan Ehrig talks about the competition and awards ceremony:

Ulrike Ulrich (l) & Anja Tuckermann (r)

At a time when the media has been full of heart-rending tales of human flight as well as heated debates on migration and the so-called refugee crisis, it seems all the more important to widen one’s perspective and empathise with the human destiny and personal stories behind the numbers. Consequently, for this year’s German writing competition the entrants were asked to continue storylines on themes of migration and flight, based on launchpad texts provided by German-speaking authors Anja Tuckermann (Berlin) and Ulrike Ulrich (Zürich).

Very much to the jury’s delight, the competition attracted a wide range of interest: of the 69 entries, 39 came from secondary school students and sixth-formers, and 16 from undergraduates, amongst several postgraduates, native speakers and others. The judges commented that submissions in all categories were surprising, touching, complex, and a joy to read.

Prize winners with authors Anja Tuckermann and Ulrike Ulrich

This became clear during the awards ceremony in Senate House on 1 March which provided a great opportunity for all prize winners not only to meet the two authors but most of all to present their endings to a wider audience. Having already spent the afternoon in writing workshops with both authors, reading out their own texts certainly was the highlight of the evening. The range of creativity and linguistic skills was most impressive, and each author found their very own personal way of approaching the difficult task of seeing the world from a migrant’s or refugee’s perspective – a perspective that mostly was very far from their own experience – and on top of that in German. All prize winners mastered this difficult undertaking gracefully. Some of the texts displayed a variety of hopes and fears at the immigration desk, while others set out to confront the audience with the impossible demands refugees face when meeting their new neighbours who want to discuss their traumatic experience with them, at a time where this is the only thing they try to escape. Some texts describe the overpowering feelings and the impossibility of communication when one is only left with the fading image of what used to be home, “where my son follows the streams into the mountains and the horizon promises all or nothing.”

The evening also gave the stage to Anja Tuckermann and Ulrike Ulrich who then read out their versions to the stories, and the surprising new endings to the plot left everyone excited that they had taken part in this literary and cultural endeavour. At the end of the evening, all participants were awarded various books for future encounters, and all organisers and supporters shared the uplifting sense of seeing so many (young) talents in Britain engaged in writing texts on such a difficult topic, and in a foreign language.


Stephan Ehrig, Fellow in Modern Languages (Germanic/Central European), IMLR


Chivalry, Academy and Cultural Dialogues: the Italian contribution to European modernity


Stefano Jossa and Katia Pizzi talk about the Festschrift celebrating the recent retirement of Professor Jane E Everson (Royal Holloway University of London)

‘Academic’, in daily conversation, tends to mean ‘of no consequence, irrelevant’; and yet, to disprove conversational language, there are people who, more traditionally, think of ‘Academic’ as synonymous with ‘concerned with the pursuit of research, education, and scholarship’, to the extent that they devote their lives to Academy and the study of its historical background and social meaning. ‘Chivalrous’ is similarly not a more fortunate idiom, since it has generally come to mean ‘ridiculously old-fashioned’; and yet there are people who think of chivalry as an aristocratic ideal, referred to a time when women and men were more generous and courteous.

Professor Jane Everson

Among those who still value academy and chivalry, a prominent place has to be given to Professor Jane E. Everson, who has devoted most of her scholarly career to understand the dynamics of Italian chivalric poetry and was the recipient of the AHRC-funded Italian Academies project (2010-14). Professor Everson has been serving the field of Italian Studies loyally for more than forty years and has recently retired after teaching at the Universities of Oxford, Reading, Leicester and London, Royal Holloway. To pay homage to her honourable career, two colleagues at Royal Holloway, Stefano Jossa and Giuliana Pieri, gathered a collection of essays for a Festschrift, entitled Chivalry, Academy, and Cultural Dialogues : The Italian Contribution to European Modernity (Legenda).

The book was launched at the IMLR on 15 February 2017, with talks given by Professors Corinna Salvadori (Trinity College Dublin), Diego Zancani (Oxford) and Martin McLaughlin (Oxford), introduced by Katia Pizzi, in the presence of Professor Everson. The event combined scholarly engagement and personal tribute in a way that it would be impossible to discern whether the main focus was the dedicatee or the book itself. Far from being a collection of scattered essays, the book aims to mirror Professor Everson’s scholarly interests in chivalric poetry, the Italian academies and Anglo-Italian relations, often explored in an archaeological manner (in Foucaultian terms) to ascertain their legacy in our time.

In a brief introduction, Stefano Jossa explained the genesis, both professional and emotional, of the book, bridging between Italian early modernity and European modernity to pay homage to a scholar who always worked on the ‘success of the unsuccessful’ as a means to contrast pop drifts of University culture in the contemporary media-dominated world. Admonishing that we learn more from diversity than homogeneity, Professor Salvadori tantalisingly explored the first section of the book, highlighting the presence of a chapter on Professor Everson’s lifelong scholarly interest, Il Mambriano by Francesco Cieco, as well as on Ludovico Ariosto’s masterpiece, the five-hundred-year-old Orlando Furioso (three chapters), Francesco’s Berni’s Rifacimento of Matteo Maria Boiardo’s Inamoramento de Orlando, and some fifteenth-century cantari.

Following on from this, Professor Zancani stressed in an illuminated way the connection between Professor Everson’s work on the Italian Academies and the six essays included in section 2, exploring a number of personalities, academies, works and fine-art practices, from Giulio Camillo, Marcantonio Piccolomini and Angelo Ingegneri to Galileo and from the Thesoro politico to copper engraving. Finally, Prof McLaughlin affectionately recalled his friendship with the dedicatee, taking it as symptomatic of the route of Italian Studies in the UK, in order to introduce the third and final section on cultural communities and Anglo-Italian relations, including essays on oral Petrarchism, Machiavelli’s use of jokes, Sebastiano del Piombo’s hieroglyphs in the portrait of Andrea Doria, Shelley and Dante, Gramsci and Kipling and Soldati and music.

This was a most successful event: best wishes to Professor Everson to carry on and go further in her research. The plus ultra reproduced on the frontispiece of the book, from the original Atlante Veneto (1691–97) by Vincenzo Coronelli, is a reference to the Argonauts’ journey and an appropriate motto of Professor Everson’s life and works.

Dr Katia Pizzi, Senior Lecturer in Italian Studies, IMLR

Dr Stefano Jossa, Reader in Italian, Royal Holloway University of London

An Anatolian Bluebeard & Migrant Neuromemory


Trauma and nostalgia are displaced migrants’ common everyday experiences, particularly in these recent years of EU refugee and security crisis, says cultural memory studies fellow Dr Matthew Mild, who will look at neurological and intertextual memory on 23 March, 4pm-6pm, and at French-Turkish-Muslim exchanges on 11 March, 11am-6pm.  

Grande Mosque, Paris

About a month ago I had to switch off the radio for a few days to reduce my daily intake of comments on the – to everyone’s relief – overruled Muslim travel ban across the pond. Meanwhile, on our side of the ocean, a young Turkish-French film director has been widely acclaimed for her debut, which is a brilliant addition to the impressively long list of highly successful migrant European films made by film directors who are originally from the same Muslim-majority country.

Motion pictures have the potential to transform cultural memory into a cathartic journey. Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s 2015 film Mustang keeps this promise. This dark parable on trauma and self-overcoming has won the César awards for Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Original Music, and Best First Feature Film. With its cinematic rewriting of classical tropes from the French fairytale Bluebeard in rural Turkey, the film raises the issues of women’s rights, faith, identity, family, and trauma on the screen.

Perhaps post-traumatic stress is an area of study whose liminality between neurological and cultural memory can play a part in fostering an aesthetic estrangement from othering ideologies – a critical re-engagement with a piece of the French/European self in its non-Christian neighbour. Everyday radical thinking and the social reinvestment in interfaith understanding give rise to multiple lieux de mémoire beyond established definitions of identity and belonging. This rebuilding of cultural memory is represented by neuroplasticity in political, literary, and filmic discussions of racism and sexism, in which learned fears and cultural traumas/nostalgias give way to a rewiring of perceptions and experiences. Such neuroscientists as Eric Kandel, Vilayanur Ramachandran, and Norman Doidge have found evidence of the key function played by the so-called neuroplastic rewiring of memory and learning for the brain’s activity. In such cases as the treatment of obsessive compulsive disorder, learned fears stored in the brain’s cingulate gyrus and reflected in the orbitofrontal cortex are unlearned by activating the gearshift supplied in the brain’s caudate nucleus. In this and other instances, new neuronal networks replace old ones thanks to the neuroplastic property of neurons and synapses processing information.

We’ll be looking at neurological and intertextual memory on 23 March, and (with the Cassal-Staunton Trust’s generous support) at French-Turkish-Muslim exchanges in Senate House on 11 March. From Muslims in French banlieue cultural memory and in medieval chronicles of the crusades to Barbe-bleue-like visions of trauma vs. belonging in the film Mustang, our discussion will span several centuries of French/European relations with Turkey and Islam. The film screening will crown the day.

Both events endeavour to question existing demarcations between disciplines, media, and cultures. I hope that numerous fellow questioners will take this chance to challenge intangible walls.

Dr Matthew Mild is a fellow in cultural memory studies at the Institute of Modern Languages Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London. Dr Mild previously lectured in Italian and European history in Northwest England and Wales. He has published in the field of contemporary history of fiction and performing arts from France, Italy, and Germany. His current research deals with migrant cultural memory in cinema and literature.

A conversation with Barbara Honigmann


Margaret May is studying for the Master of Research in Modern Languages at the IMLR. Here Margaret discusses a fascinating talk given by the writer Barbara Honigmann in February 2017:

Barbara Honigmann
© Peter-Andreas Hassiepen, Munich (2014)

On Thursday 23 February, in an event linked to the theme of an IMLR/OWRI conference entitled ‘Unsettling Communities: Minor, Minority and Small Literatures in Europe’, we were privileged to hear the writer Barbara Honigmann, currently writer-in-residence at the Centre for Ango-German Cultural Relations at QMUL, in conversation with Dr Robert Gillett, Reader in German and Comparative Cultural Studies at QMUL.

Famously, Barbara Honigmann does not like to be defined – as she often is – as a ‘German-Jewish’ writer, or as a ‘GDR writer’ or an ‘emigrant writer’ (though born in Berlin, she now lives in Strasbourg). She herself declared during the conversation that she preferred to be asked about her texts, rather than what for her were now ‘boring’ details about her life or status as a writer – tellingly, she felt this might clarify things for her too. Robert Gillett responded to this invitation through the format of the conversation, which developed in the main from readings in both English and German of excerpts from her recent book Chronik meiner Straße.

 Her powerful sense of both displacement and familiarity, in both Berlin and Strasbourg, is striking in her writing as well as in the way in which she describes her everyday experience – as a confusing state where places transform themselves while essentially remaining the same. This sense of confusion, she admitted, might entail a fear of confronting the contradictions in herself over the complex subject of her Jewishness and her rootedness in German language and literature, as well as her life in France.

Some of these issues were explored in the initial discussion of her early essay on three female Jewish writers – Glückel von Hameln in the late seventeenth century, Rahel Varnhagen in the early nineteenth, and Anne Frank. All three were interestingly characterised as ‘not really writers’ who were ‘not really writing in German’, and in this context a reference was also made to the Dutch essayist and diarist Etty Hillesum.

Despite her biographical caveat, the author mentioned in passing fascinating details about her background (for example, her remarkable, elusive mother’s second husband was Kim Philby) and her own early life (such as the ambivalent relationship between the intellectual and cultural – and often Jewish – elite and the East German authorities). As she described it, it was relatively easy to lead a kind of parallel, Brechtian artistic life in the GDR, but the bubble burst with the forced exile of Wolf Biermann in 1976, and she was among those who decided to leave rather than make the necessary compromises in order to further their careers. We also touched on the influence of her theatrical background and her work as an artist in creating vivid, memorable images and focusing on the significance of everyday domestic objects, which sometimes take on a life of their own.

Chronik meiner Straße is a meditation on time passing, as revealed in series of anecdotes linked by the perspective of the writer seated, over a period of more than thirty years, at her desk in front of her balcony, perceptively observing her gradually changing, varied and mainly immigrant neighbourhood while also playing an active role in the lives of these neighbours, and reflecting the wider changes in society. This small-scale but incredibly vivid historical montage of unforgettable characters and scenes is the author’s response to the daunting ‘big history’ lived by her parents in the twentieth century. As she put it, the composition of the population in this area, so close to the German border, changed from ‘melting-pot’ to ‘salad bowl’, with the complementary flavours of different ethnicities, but it was a form of ‘de-territorialisation’ rather than homogenisation – not an easy situation for immigrants in France where assimilation is seen as a requirement for successful social integration. Yet her book suggests that the small cosmos of her street still manages to live in peace and the melting-pot had never been a reality.

Overall, the most powerful impression I gained from this rewarding event was of a thoughtful, gently humorous, compassionate observer of humanity. Barbara Honigmann’s deceptively simple, calm, conversational prose matches her public persona of warmth and sincerity to an extraordinary degree.

Margaret May, IMLR MRes student 2016/17

A citizen of the world in an interesting intellectual world


Clara Rachel Eybalin Casséus is a visiting fellow at the IMLR during the academic year 2016/17. She talks here about her experience at the IMLR

When I joined the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR) as a visiting fellow in the fall of 2016, my intent was to find the right place to work on my manuscript with the provisional title ‘Geopolitics of Memory and Transnational Citizenship. Thinking Local Development in a Global South‘. I take memory as a powerful dynamic engine to deconstruct citizenship while connecting beyond borders. I am currently at the end of a chapter about diaspora politics and the particular involvement of Haitian-Americans in the past US election.

clara-rachelFor the past few months, I realised how well this interesting intellectual place fits my career project as an independent researcher eager to explore many facets of the institute and beyond. The Institute of Commonwealth Studies  or the Centre for Post-Colonial Studies (CPS) or the Institute of Latin American Studies (ILAS), all carry activities that overlap my research interest: the interaction between mobility, citizenship and state politics. This is the case with the Centre for Integrated Caribbean Research (CICR) where I presented last December ‘The Geopolitics of Going South for the Caribbean: Moving Away from NGOs?’ This paper critically engaged with the geopolitical spaces of the Anglophone and Francophone Caribbean and questioned the pertinence of memory.

I quickly immersed in this dynamic and friendly academic environment, host of several centres of particular interest to me such as the Centre for the Study of Cultural Memory. I attended a one-day workshop titled ‘Reconfiguring Black Europe’ where I challenged the many categories too reductionist to grasp human complexity. I also participated for the first time in the two-day conference of the Society of Postcolonial Studies. It was a great opportunity to interact with scholars with whom I shared my positionality as an independent researcher originally from Haiti. It was a great opportunity to introduce my first monograph along with the re-editing of my late dad’s Geographical Dictionary of Haiti. At the School of Advanced Study, the Institute of Modern Languages Research offers a great site to make interesting contacts through the rich events it organises and sponsors. On March 31 2017, I’ll present a paper entitled ‘Circularity, Creolization and the Spatial Practices of Belonging’ where I aim to uncover how the interdependence of territories from both Commonwealth and Francophone Caribbean collide to meaningfully expand a creolized world.

 After being awarded my PhD in Political Geography at the University of Poitiers (France) in 2013 and living for about four years in the Gulf, I was looking for a multicultural environment where I felt at ease with an interdisciplinary background which encompasses migration and environment studies, civil society and south-south cooperation. Today, I am quite enthused with the progress of my manuscript given the precious help I got in proofreading. IMLR is truly an ideal site of cutting-edge interdisciplinary research for a citizen of the world whose research interest spans from the Caribbean to the Gulf passing through Europe.

Clara Rachel Eybalin Casséus, IMLR Visiting Fellow, 2016/17

The next call for applications for both funded and non-funded Visiting Fellowships is now open! Full details of application procedures are available online. The deadline for applications is 31 March 2017, for the fellowship to be taken up between September 2017 and June 2018.


Thinking of a Visiting Fellowship at the IMLR? A personal perspective


Kate Willman is a Visiting Fellow at the IMLR during the academic year 2016/17. Here, she gives a personal insight into being awarded a Visiting Fellowship and the benefits gained, both to her research and to the IMLR.

After being awarded my PhD in Italian Studies at the University of Warwick about a year ago, I was looking for an academic home while I prepared my doctoral thesis for publication and embarked on a new research project, so the fellowship at the Institute of Modern Languages Research was the perfect fit. My forthcoming book based on my doctoral research addresses the recent literary phenomenon known as the New Italian Epic, a label used to describe a corpus of hybrid texts mainly published after the year 2000 in Italy, which merge genres, styles and media, and whose writers aim to effect change in society by depicting and re-assessing the past and present. My new comparative project draws on the New Italian Epic texts that employ what has been called autofiction, blurring the boundaries between the author’s real-life experiences and fictional elements, but I am now interested in looking beyond Italy to examine the explosion in popularity of this mode of life-writing in the 21st century, with a focus on work in Italian, French and English. My fellowship at the Institute is attached to the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Women’s Writing, as I’m particularly interested in how women have employed autofiction in recent years. Like many research projects, this interest sprang from a sense of annoyance, in this case after reading a blogpost on The Guardian website that asked ‘Is auto-fiction strictly a boy’s game?’, in which the author observed that, despite ‘a surge in popularity of late’, those authors who insert a character bearing their name into a work tend to be men. On the contrary, a huge number of women writers have employed autofiction in innovative and experimental ways to explore subjectivity and selfhood.

Senate_House_UoLI don’t think I realised just how useful the fellowship at the Institute would be, not only from the point of view of the shared office space and access to Senate House Library, but also in terms of having a range of experts on hand for friendly and practical advice and discussions about research. Being a fellow at the Institute means coming into contact with researchers from across the different institutes housed at the School of Advanced Study and from beyond, as well as having access to a wide variety of academic and public engagement events. The Institute is truly interdisciplinary, so it’s a great place to look beyond the confines of a national culture or to find out about a new discipline to incorporate into your research. Since starting here in September, I’ve not only attended a number of diverse events, but I’ve also made friends and contacts with whom I am already planning future collaborations.

Part of the fellowship is the opportunity to organise an event, but I’m actually organising two, as fellows can book a room and invite speakers on a subject that interests them. My event as part of my fellowship is a half-day workshop on Friday 10 March 2017 entitled ‘Women’s Self-Representation in the Digital Age’, when the other speakers and I will be looking at autofiction not only in terms of books, but also across platforms, from online videos to social media to images, exploring how the advent of the internet and the growth of celebrity culture has influenced representations of the self in the 21st century. On Tuesday 14 February 2017, I’m organising an event entitled ‘What Is A Modern Author? Evolutions in Authorship from the 19th Century to the Present’, when there will be five speakers offering snapshots from different points in the modern period that examine the impact of developments in the book market on how writers have portrayed themselves in their texts, negotiated their role as public figures and been perceived by the reading public. Preparing these workshops has given me more experience of organising events and brought me into contact with researchers working on comparable topics, as well as helping me to take a significant step forward with my new postdoctoral research project.

Kate Willman, IMLR Visiting Fellow, 2016/17


The next call for applications for Visiting Fellowships is now open! Full details of application procedures are available online. The deadline for applications is 31 March 2017, for the fellowship to be taken up between September 2017 and June 2018.


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