Earlier this year I travelled to Belgium for the inaugural “Global Transformations” conference on “Spaces and Places” after my research attracted a grant through the Association for the Study of Australian Literature’s 2018 Seed Funding Scheme. Hosted by Progressive Connexions – an non-profit organisation that seeks to build international communities of change by bringing scholars, writers, and artists from all over the world together for round-table-style events – the conference was held in the city of Bruges, a place The Lonely Planet Guide describes as “a medieval time capsule” with a “preserved charm” but “forlorn air.”
A sense of melancholy does indeed linger beneath the tourist buzz of Bruges. Walking along the canals at night, I often found myself wondering why the majority of the windows of these charming “old” buildings were dark (I place the word “old” in quotation marks to show that I was alert to the possibility of being duped, especially because, as Catherine Brien warns in her analysis of the film In Bruges, “the unsuspecting tourist” is often “fooled by outside appearances when trying to discern the authenticity of Bruges’s edifices”). These shadowy windows led me to query whether these buildings were actually “authentic” dwellings (that just happened to be vacant) or living-history facades, structures that had been abandoned by design to evoke Bruges’ romantic history as “the city that slept for 400 hundred years.”
Bruges’ palpable sense of spatial incongruity rendered it an ideal location for a conference that explored interdisciplinary conceptions of space and place. Throughout the two day event, papers examining physical sites of democratisation and scenes of protest sat alongside those which discussed the multiple ways in which narratives “author” our social environments, or how people, through story and performance, actively create our social worlds (for the full list of the conference abstracts, including some full papers, click here). As the conference convenors asked that presenters refrain from using PowerPoint, a number of delegates made creative interventions into the surrounding space.
Aileen Strickland McGee, for example, began her paper by asking everyone to draw pictures of themselves which were then stuck onto the surrounding walls, an exercise which highlighted how “we” are all implicated in bringing a sense of “insideness” to our interior environments. While Layla Mrozowski and Kyla Gardiner – through their mock-interview at “The Space Bar,” a “pop up bar at the end of the universe” – evoked a sense of how we are all, through language, constantly implicated in creating “invisible landscapes.” Alongside these creative interventions, the proceedings were imbued with an awareness of how the conference itself was creating a “new space” for global discussion. This ethos was advanced specifically by the event leader, Teresa Cutler-Broyes, who endeavoured to not only bring out the links between the various papers but also finished the program with a brain-storming session designed to consolidate the various threads that had emerged.
Coming from a literary studies perspective, I was particularly interested in the papers that drew their inspiration from how our perceptions of space and place – specifically the spaces and places we associate with conceptions of “home” – are formed through modes of storytelling. Caroline Porter, for example, in her paper “A Fortress of Privilege: Toxic White Masculinity in Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home,” considered how texts can be conceived as spatial and thereby complicit in maintaining or dismantling sites of privilege. Similarly, Nishievita Jayendran explored whether “novelistic space” creates a “site to contest dominant discourses” and “mediate agentivity” in her paper: “Set me Free”: Politics of Creativity in Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed.” Elizabeth Ho took this conceptual idea one step further in her reading of “cramped spaces” in contemporary young adult literature, by situating her literary analysis of the map-ability of cramped spaces within broader discussions of affordable housing and the “micro apartments in urban centres across Asia.” And Clint Abrahams explored how narrative can function as an “architectural tool” which reconnects students with community in his fantastic paper: “Socio-Spatial Identity: Intersecting Community Activism and Design Build as a Form of Restorative Practice.”
My own paper, “Reshaping Spaces of Home and Nation: Reading Postcolonial Literary Adaptations as Social Justice Pedagogy,” analysed the reconfiguration of sites that traditionally pertain to “home” in two works of literary adaptation by Indigenous Australian writers: Melissa Lucashenko’s short ficto-critical work, “Country: Being and Belonging on Aboriginal Lands,” and Leah Purcell’s play, The Drover’s Wife. While my paper was, primarily, interested in analysing the tenets, tropes and symbols of western dwelling that are unsettled by these Indigenous writers in their adaptations of seminal Australian texts, it was also keen to gauge the real-world impact of this process, the affect these re-visions may have upon reader conceptions of home and nation. In 2018, I created “The Drover’s Wife Reading Group” to track and analyse undergraduate student responses to Leah Purcell’s version of Australia’s most adapted short story, Henry Lawson’s “The Drover’s Wife.” I finished my conference paper by showcasing some of the initial responses I had had from the participants in the study so far and discussing the themes that have begun to emerge (click here to learn more about this project).
As a result of the conference’s particular focus on building international connections and creating global communities of change, Nishievita Jayendran, Clint Abrahams, and I have gone on to establish a working group with the aim of producing a comparative study that examines the potential for restorative narratives to decolonise classroom environments.
My conference paper is to be published in the second book of Emerald Publishing’s forthcoming “Progressive Connexions Series,” entitled Spaces and Places: Shaping Them & Shaping Ourselves (edited by Beitske Boonstra, Stefano Rozzoni, and Teresa Cutler-Broyles).