OCLW Lunch Seminar: Joanna Kavenna on 16 June 2015

In a wide-ranging lunchtime talk, novelist and travel writer Joanna Kavenna discussed the concepts that preoccupy nearly every writer of biography, memoir and indeed fiction. Through her thinking around the philosophical precepts of time, memory and the self, she considered the questions of how the writer relays the self in time, how the self changes and what constitutes the self. And building on these, then, she asked, how does a writer convey time in writing?

Kavenna explored the range of individual experiences of time. First she reminded us that we have objective ‘clock time’ versus the subjective individual time. We are inducted into ‘clock time’ at birth – we do not start out this way, but we gradually come to accept the conventions that are imposed upon us.

The way we experience time as adults, Kavenna outlined, citing William James and Henri Bergson, is in an eternal present – a perpetual experiential now.

To illustrate the point more lyrically, Kavenna turned to Philip Larkin (who is quoted in all her talks). She read from his poem, ‘Days’:

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
(Larkin, “Days” from Collected Poems (2001))

From Larkin Kavenna turned to the genre of the bildungsroman as the classic example of the novel of the formative self which impresses a formative self (i.e. is read by young readers). The self of childhood and youth is rapidly in flux, only later coming to form a more determined being. Kavenna identified types within this genre: where the self is defined in opposition to a force, defining what you don’t want to be, and reconciling many versions of the self. Looking even farther back to early childhood, Kavenna pointed to the mystery of ourselves and the times we cannot remember—the ‘embers of consciousness.’

But in all this strangeness, according to Kavenna, there is an incredible freedom for writers and individuals – each self is distinctive – there’s no such thing as the self. There are myriad selves with experiences resonating across time. Concluding with an apt quotation from Virginia Woolf on the elasticity of time, Kavenna reminded us again of the authorial control we have over the way we understand and represent time:

‘Time, unfortunately, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect on the mind of man. The mind of man moreover works with equal strangeness upon the body of time.’ (Virginia Woolf, Orlando)

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OCLW Seminar: Lyndsey Jenkins, ‘The Hunger Games: Constance Lytton, Jane Warton and the Suffragettes’

The Oxford Centre for Life Writing had the pleasure to host one of its own DPhil scholars, Lyndsey Jenkins, who gave a presentation on Lady Constance Lytton, the subject of her new book Lady Constance Lytton: Aristocrat, Suffragette and Martyr.

In 1910 a working class suffragette by the name of Jane Warton was arrested for throwing rocks at an MP’s car, but the police who took her into custody did not know that Jane Warton was actually Lady Constance Lytton in disguise. Lyndsey captured her audience with an excerpt from Warton’s account of being force-fed in jail to put an end to her hunger strike. The testimony detailed how a tube was forced down her throat, how she was slapped and left covered in her own vomit as she had to listen how a friend endured the same procedure next to her. After experiencing this eight times, Warton’s true identity was discovered and she was promptly released from jail. Lyndsey explained that the fundamental question she had set out to answer was why a woman of Lytton’s position and privilege would knowingly choose to put herself in such a dramatic situation.

Lyndsey gave us a brief overview of Lytton’s ancestors in an attempt to identify what it could have been like to be a Lytton. Showcasing various prominent individuals from late Victorian and early Edwardian society, Lyndsey emphasised that the Lytton family had long been made up of strong personalities. Lytton, by contrast shy and awkward, was unsuited for the public and social life of her surroundings, turning instead to book reviewing and caring for her mother. When she did not marry, her life became essentially a private one. Lyndsey explained Lytton’s self-denial by informing us of her favourite ‘pass time’: cleaning the toilet. While outwardly she appeared the model of the dutiful Edwardian daughter, inwardly it seems unlikely that she experienced life in that way.

Lytton had her first encounter with suffragettes while on holiday, meeting Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence and Annie Kenney. While she sympathized with their cause, Lyndsey argued that she became a militant for three main reasons: to establish friendships, to develop a sense of purpose, and for the ‘total excitement’ of the experience. It was also a way to connect her private frustrations to a broader problem. But public life was a challenge since she did not like being looked at or being listened to. It is striking that, in spite of this, her public acts were often radical. There are accounts that on her first day at Holloway Prison she carved a ‘V’ for Votes for Women on her own body. Determined to go to prison and experience force feeding, Lytton came up with a fake name knowing that they would not let such a well-known individual as herself be subjected to that kind of procedure. Lyndsey noted how this experience was also deeply spiritual for Lytton, who once saw a vision of Christ encouraging her to continue with her work. Lyndsey argued that her constructed identity as Jane Warton helped her perform her new leadership role. The brutality of force feeding and the stress and exertion of her activism took a toll on Lytton’s health, suffering a heart attack and then a stroke. But even while confined to her bed, she kept on helping in any way she could.

In her presentation Lyndsey introduced us to a fascinating individual, offering accounts of her strength and determination. We will now have to turn to Lyndsey’s book to continue discovering the life of such an exemplary woman.

More information about the book can be found at:

https://www.bitebackpublishing.com/books/lady-constance-lytton

OCLW event: Siddhartha Bose, ‘Memory as Imagination in a Globalised World’ on 14 May 2015

Poet and performer Siddhartha Bose delighted the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing on 14 May with readings and meditations on identity, collective memory, and space with readings from his books Kalgora and Digital Monsoon and video clips from his films and performance works.

In an introduction to his wide-ranging and captivating readings, Bose suggested that memory mutates constantly in relation to space, physical environment and the virtual world. Reading poems from Kalgora, he asked whether we live in a world where everyone, regardless of passport, is a foreigner. In a contemporary global environment, he suggested, you can’t write about just one city, but the reflection of cities upon each other and the multitude of things in cities.

Bose shared a range of media with the audience. In a journey for the audience, he began in India with clips from ‘Animal City’, his ethnographic film about Mumbai. A striking excerpt featured a voyeuristic scene: hundreds of people milling around an urban area while a camera hovers above them. The camera goes mostly unobserved: only a few look up at it, their eyes meeting the viewer’s.

Bose also showed a recording of his comic one-man play entitled ‘Thresholds’, depicting a border control gate at a New York airport. This was followed by a video called ‘The Shroud’ about trials of death and mourning, and a recording of live performance of poetry with musicians.

Transporting us back to England, Bose read from Digital Monsoon, a collection of dystopian poems about London. Describing the eerie urban atmosphere of ‘corporate rain,’ ‘paper-strewn streets’, and a ‘concrete island,’ the poetic speaker asks, ‘And who did we build this England for?’

Crossing thresholds of life and death, memory, alienation, distance, subject and other, Sid Bose tantalized his audience with poetic renderings of challenges to identity, subjectivity and genre.

You can read more about Sid Bose and watch clips and trailers for the works discussed here on Bose’ website: http://www.kalagora.com