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Early term inspiration

Our incoming students to the English programme were lucky enough on their very first day to have an inspirational talk from Siân Bevan. Siân works for Edinburgh City of Literature, which is just one of the ways she uses her many skills.  She talked to first years on the English and English & Film programmes about starting at university and careers in the Arts.

Siân wrote up her thoughts after the event on her own blog:

https://sianyb.com/2018/09/10/new-chapters-and-old-advice/

There are some useful thoughts here if you’re not a first year, too!

Teaching 9/11 Literature and Culture

Recently, travelling home on the train from Norwich where she had been visiting one of our children, a student at UEA, my wife started chatting to an elderly woman. “What does your son study?” the lady asked. When she learned that he is reading Geography she was very approving: “a very useful subject.” The conversation continued and eventually the friendly woman asked about me. She was interested to hear that I am a Lecturer in Contemporary Literature and she asked about my research. When she heard that I work on the literature of 9/11, however, her interest quickly turned to annoyance: “arggh, why are people still so bothered about 9/11?”

Perhaps she is right to be annoyed.

We all know that in terms of loss of human life, 9/11 pales in significance compared to any number of subsequent “events” or “catastrophes” that have taken place around the world. The grossly underreported genocide in Aleppo of last year, for example.

It is also the case that the idea of 9/11 as a singular, defining moment that came “out of the blue” and “changed everything” is problematic as it tends to remove the attacks from their pre-histories and actual causes. This has allowed for the advancement of unilateral agendas and policies as was the case with the launch of the War on Terror. As David Holloway has noted, “the notion that the attacks came out of the blue was the ideological lynchpin for the war on terror” (2007).

So when I heard about the lady on the train’s response, I could understand her sentiment. But, of course, the other way of looking at this is that an in-depth critical understanding of 9/11 is important so that we can understand just how it was and is still being used. I certainly hope that my work on the literary response to the attacks does just this by reflecting on the ways in which literature has both challenged and reinforced this singular vision of 9/11.

But yet in some ways, I will always be complicit in the disproportionate attention given to 9/11. This is one of the troubling aporias of my research area. It is dangerous to ascribe so much importance to 9/11 but equally vital to recognize that 9/11 did change the world in some significant ways and that it is important to unpack the roles of culture and literature in this history.

My students have been a huge help with this.

Most of my students inevitably see 9/11 from perspectives linked to the pressing issues of their own generation and bring fresh eyes and views to the texts (though of course my mature students have their own distinct and equally valued frames of reference) . Personally I still identify with Peter Boxall’s statement, from his excellent 2013 monograph, Twenty-First-Century Literature, that 9/11 remains “part of the living tissue of the present.” But while 9/11 still feels contemporary to me – just – my students see it as an historical event through the prisms of more recent disasters linked to climate change, to the rise of Trump and a disturbing new nationalism, of Brexit, of the refugee crisis, of “post-truth,” “fake news” and the “alt right.”

In fact, through talking to students about texts like Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007); Amy Waldman’s The Submission (2011), the television series Homeland (2010-) or Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge (2013), I have been able to draw more sophisticated lines of continuity between 9/11, the War on Terror and what I see as the rise of fascism in America and elsewhere

     

Long may these fruitful dialogues continue! I look forward to delivering my Year 4 ‘Fictions of Terror’ module again this year and launching our new Year 3 ‘C21 Literature: Writing the Unfolding Present’ module next week, where these kinds of discussions will, hopefully, keep flourishing.

 

Reading for Pleasure

There will be plenty on this blog about the research that the department is doing – understandably!  But I wanted to share with you a few things that I read (mostly) for pleasure over the summer while on holiday.  For me, it’s important to read widely, and not only in the area that I research.  Reading outside the area you’re most interested in can make you rethink productively things you already (think you) know.  Admittedly, I found reading for pleasure much harder when I was a student (both an undergrad and a research student), but remembering why you enjoy reading can also make studying easier, too.

Having scanned my non-work bookshelves at the beginning of the year, I’ve been reading lots of contemporary women writers in an effort to address an unconscious bias.  Two that I particularly enjoyed were by Irish authors.

Anne Enright’s The Gathering, which won the 2007 Man Booker Prize, deals with the tragically early loss of a sibling.  The narrator, Veronica, endeavours to make sense of Liam’s suicide by engaging with the complex, troubled and troubling history of her family.  Enright movingly depicts the peculiar closenesses and distances that characterise family life, those feelings as true in the same room as when living hundreds or thousands of miles apart.  I particularly enjoyed – if that’s the right word for this moving, tragic novel – the gradual unfolding of the family’s secrets, and the subtle but accessible style.

Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies, which won both the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Desmond Elliott Prize in 2016, is an altogether different kettle of fish.  Ryan Cusack is endeavouring to deal with the impact of his mother’s death, and his alcoholic father’s role as a low-level gangland pawn.  None of this is made any easier by an over-attentive older neighbour, a prostitute searching for her disappeared boyfriend, and his own sometime career as a drug dealer.  And none of that is helping his treasured relationship with his girlfriend Karine.  McInerney’s prose is earthily authentic, pulling no punches, and the brisk pace of the novel makes it a good read.

Finally, on a more work-y note, I really enjoyed Richard Burton’s long biography of the late modernist poet Basil Bunting – all 608 engaging pages of it.  Bunting led a remarkable life: a conscientious objector as he turned 18 at the end of the First World War, dissolute in Paris in the mid-1920s, a longstanding friend of Ezra Pound, a senior military diplomat in the middle east in the Second World War, and finally (re)discovered as a poet in the 1960s (and his sixties) thanks to the publication of his masterpiece Briggflatts (1965) and the patronage of the poets of the British Poetry Revival.

These were just the highlights.  I hope you’ve managed to make some time to read for pleasure yourselves, too.

Andrew Frayn