Challenging one’s ideas

A couple of weeks ago I attended a conference in my home turf in Glasgow. It was a great opportunity to meet new scholars, renew and update my connections with scholars I already knew, and enjoy the terrible weather that G-town was putting out for us (“no, no, it’s not a gale force wind, this is just your average morning air, I promise!”). This was also my last chance to hang out with fellow Catalan scholars before the big move to Australia – next year is looking like a Skype videoconference presentation for me.

This was a much different experience to the other two conferences I attended in Manchester and Cork. First of all because, despite the fact I was not necessarily involved in the organisation of the event, being the only presenter from Glasgow, I took up host duties, like ensuring that the IT was working, giving general directions, and being the chair to two panels, which forced me to do something I rarely do in presentations – ask insightful questions! Second, because my presentation was slightly different than last year. Last year everyone loved my paper and there were no critical comments, only encouragement to talk more about the subject. This gave me an unrealistic sense of self-worth that was to be shattered only several months after, when the review of the article on which my presentation was based came back with tones of petty commentaries and a rejection note. But the presentation in itself was great, only it was almost a bucolic scenario that it took a while to get out from.

My presentation this year went well again, but I included some stronger, challenging ideas, mostly the product of knowing my topic better and being able to have a stance on it, and I knew that the way in which I chose to portray my findings and arguments could be contentious. And bang, they were. At question time, the initial questions were like last year’s: non-offensive, tell-me-more style. Then someone asked a question that critiqued the basis of my argument. Which is fair enough, there is not one size fits all when it comes to studying culture and literature: you are forced to take a ‘partisan’ position, and I am aware of that. His views were confronting mine, of course, but it was good for my development to attempt to counterbalance his point. I had to admit to the audience that he was right – because he was, to a certain extent. I felt very much challenged, but within a positive environment: it wasn’t as if he had stood up just to destroy my presentation. I thanked him and we moved on.

Later at lunch, he came to apologise for having put me in the spot, his argument being that he finds that “some of these conferences ask very bland questions, and I wanted to spark some saucy debate”. I knew it was all done in good spirits, and I wasn’t expecting an apology, but I suppose this is good, just to make sure that I took the question and the challenge in the right way. It is also good to keep up the academic relationship, as he belongs to my institution and he is a likely candidate to be my internal examiner. I spoke to my supervisor at lunch, and I told her that I thought the challenge was very positive, on the basis that now I know where he is at, theory-wise, so I can build my methodology chapter more mindfully, making sure I do not take things for granted, and that my arguments are convincing. My supervisor even said “you could come up with a particular terminology for this field based on a critique of the current methodology, which will give additional impact to your thesis”. This is somehow what I plan on doing, although I seriously doubt my terminology will change the world of Translation Studies – but without this challenge, I wouldn’t have thought of coming up with different, more well-rounded methodology.

Since that conference, I have been immersed in writing a chapter of the thesis that has little to do with this terminology, but I am coming up towards the moment in which I need to build the theoretical background in which my argument is based. And I look forward to developing my new, challenged ideas in an environment in which they can grow. And I can then expose them to the public again, and get them challenged, and move on from then.

Ps. I survived #AcWriMo with a whooping 8,000 words. But that’s material for another post!

The nod of approval

And after a few weeks off and some really lazy Easter antics… I ‘resurrected’. I did it in the back of both good and bad news, but for today, I will only focus on the good stuff. The bad stuff, in the end, has not turned out to be so bad, and it has been positively embedded in the good news. Let me try to be more specific and clearer about what I mean.

Two weeks ago I was told I had been given a scholarship for a project I submitted a few weeks ago. The awarding body is essentially the agents of the polysystem I am currently working on, and it’s meant to take on the project I have been working on for months, and give it a financial push.

This is great news because the Mongrel PhD in me thinks that, at least, half of this year’s university fees will be paid within the next few months and I will be able to breathe out of my overdraft for a couple of months before taking one final plunge into the fee-paying/overdraft pool. I say this many times to my colleagues, but having experienced both sides of the coin, I prefer being short of time than being short of money – time can be expensive, but it definitely does not pay the bills. So getting this award/scholarship is great news from this particular point of view.

The most important thing, however, is not about my temporary exit of the red number balance club. This is an award given to researchers in the field of Catalan studies, about a very specific historical time, and normally involving a particular author, which up until recently, was the main author in my thesis. This is the second time I receive this funding. The project this time is even better than last time around, so I am hoping it will receive even better feedback. I have been assigned a tutor for this, someone who is, very obviously, an agent of the Catalan polysystem. A great authority in the field, who thought that my project was worth investing in. I cannot put into words how much that means to my research. In the last few months of the year (particularly after my first ever article was badly rejected), it became very obvious that my post-doctoral life was outside academia – within an HEI setting, but not as a researcher.

One of the reasons behind it was the lack of funding in Britain anyway. This award is important in many ways, but particularly in the sense that having two funded projects by the Institute of Catalan Studies can only mean that they trust me to deliver as a researcher and that I am good enough to be doing what I am doing, despite certain doubts around the edges.

I can see the irony in all this – perhaps if I was doing my research somewhere else, I would become an academic. The legitimization of my research, this nod of approval from those in a really high status withing my field, is a big deal. And if I was completely over the moon the first time around, this second time around is even better.

Going back to what I outlined at the beginning, the ‘bad news’ of the last month were that my chapter three was, after all the efforts, a piece of unreadable, dodgy research. I need to revisit some of the points and I have taken a completely different approach, an approach that my supervisors have blessed as the potential proof of ‘having found my own academic voice’. This is quite a painstaking process, particularly when my change of direction means that this will no longer be part of my final thesis. However, this is the project that has received the award, making it very much worthwhile to keep on working on it, and grinding through the process, never mind how hard I find it.

The award has provided clarity to my next few months – this project will be done then, and after that I can move into the reality of building the first chapter of my thesis. But at least I know that re-drafting this project for the third time in six months is not a wast of time, but an investment in money. And with those good news, I roll on and start preparing my Annual Progress Review and the defense of my new structure, which will see me put 40,000+ words into the shredder.

Wish me luck.

#stayresilient #alwaysamongrel

The little kingdom of unimportant research topics

Originally posted on May 17th, 2013

Only when you think that your research is getting to that point where no one will ever understand why it’s important, and when you doubt of its own relevance and interest, some magnificent things occur to make you change your perspective, or at least brighten your day.

Three things in particular have happened over the last two days, and all three have given a positive kick to my ultimate procrastinator mood. First, I was at a seminar yesterday. Well, it was in fact two seminars, but for me it felt like they were part of the same thing. They were organised by the University of Glasgow and Shinton Consulting. I had seminars by Shinton before, and they are really good, especially in the sense that they get you to interact with other people that, for one reason or another, might have encountered the same problems as you when doing research. At one point during the day, I was on the spot of explaining, as if presenting a poster, my whole research in 1 minute. It had to start with the hook of “why is it important, and why are you doing it?”. Whilst scrapping for words, I found myself explaining a part of my research that I have had inside but that has not yet developed into being: the reception of Russian 19th century classics into the Catalan context of the 1930s. It definitely seems easier and more attractive that having to mention an unknown “that author” (since people outside the Iberian studies have no clue of who Rodoreda is) and her connections with Russia. I guess it’s just a way of explaining it. All of a sudden, as I was done, one of the girls that was listening commented that it seemed like a really good yet very complex research, and asked how I was coping with the language interference (or something along those lines). My reaction was “well, I don’t really have a problem with that”. Which made me see that the problems I have or might have have nothing to do with what other people might think. And it was great to see that somebody thought that what I am doing is interesting. For a change.

Today, a completely random yet cheering story. As I was making this woman some coffee, she asked where I was from, and of course the chat went on and she said that she had been studying for a year in Catalonia, in an inland, very traditional and of course only Catalan speaking. We spoke for a while, and then she asked me if I go back to Barcelona often. I answered I had just been on a research break, and of course she was interested in knowing what I was researching. So I used the hook from the day before, and took 30 seconds to roughly explain what I am doing, which she deemed to be very interesting. That, again, cheered me up greatly. Straight after I had said this, the next customer, a nice American guy who I had spoken to previously, said out loud “Well that makes me feel better, welcome to the random topics of research” (or something along the lines). I felt his pain, and I thought it was funny yet very true, that some times we pick stuff and then we ourselves realise that those topics might seem of very little interest (or hard to explain why they are interesting) to other people. So he was my third “fan”.

This support comes with great timing, especially when things around my research are slightly shaky due to unforeseen personal (more like mental really) reasons. It has been hard going back to work after submission, especially considering the amount of hospitality work I have had, and the pushing stress of the new house. I have identified that I am stressed, and I am learning to cope with it. I know that I am procrastinising and avoiding work, but I think that I have perhaps found some ways to gain back the edge into the project. Certainly these small boosts of confidence help.

The Russo-Catalan connections – a short presentation

Originally posted on January 16th, 2013

Today has been an incredibly positive day for me. First of all, I have been awarded a modest yet key Student Research Award by the University of Glasgow to carry out some research in the following months in Barcelona, to investigate and complete my article. Secondly, I had the chance to present my work in progress in front of a rather remarkable amount of people, considering the time and the freezing conditions in the hall. I am very pleased with how the day turned out and I believe we all ended up with a satisfactory feeling, especially my colleagues Joe and Tom.

Here I reproduce the speech I gave today (the theoretical part only, of course).

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, and let me thank you for staying over and give us the chance to present our work in progress. I would especially like to thank Margaret (Dr Tejerizo) for giving us this opportunity and CRCEES for organising this event. I believe there is perhaps not a better scenario to have an improvised annual general review of our work than an audience with such a highly recognised selection of peers. You being here is important for us, so thank you.

As Margaret has kindly said, my name is Noemi Llamas-Gomez and I am a PhD student in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Glasgow. My research falls under the category of Hispanic Studies due to its main content in Catalan literature, however the best way to describe it is with the title “the Russo-Catalan connections”, as I am aiming to find the influences of Russian literature in the narrative of Catalan novelist Mercè Rodoreda. This is a very specific topic that tries to explain a phenomenon very common in the history of democratic Catalonia: the wish to look out, to “look abroad”, to seek for references of modernity, of progress and advanced ideas. The same way Catalans are looking out into Europe nowadays, we can find that the tradition started in the 1930s with the Spanish Second Republic, and perhaps even further back, with the renaissance of Catalan literature that slowly started halfway through the 19th century.

In a nutshell, my research will explore two distinguished époques of Mercè Rodoreda’s life and literary production. On the one hand, I will be looking into her development years, spent in Barcelona in the 1930s, when she learnt to write and to live, and she had the chance to make cultural acquaintances and to enjoy a fervent, lively atmosphere of Catalanity and literary production, one of the most splendorous periods in the history of Catalan culture. I believe some of her earlier works may have enjoyed the influence of some Russian classics such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky thanks to the translations made available by Catalan politician Andreu Nin.

On the other hand, I will be looking into one of Mercè Rodoreda’s masterpieces, Mirall Trencat [A broken mirror], the novel of a family in a large house with a Gothic garden, a novel of secrets, passions, tragedies and the inexorable footprint of time. With the unspoken reference to Anna Karenina in the shape of an unhappy family that can only be unhappy in its own particular way, I wish to thoroughly analyse the elements of this novel, and compare it to Lyudmilla Petrushevskaya’s Vremya Noch [The time: night]. I believe that the depiction of the strong female characters and the complex mother-daughter relationships have very interesting points in common that have never been previously considered. I am not opening the door by myself: there is an actual field of Russo-Catalan literary connections waiting to be discovered.

So let me just give you a brief introduction into the field. To start with, let me introduce you to Mercè Rodoreda. Mercè Rodoreda (Barcelona, 1908 – 1983) is considered, by both critical and popular acclamation, the best Catalan novelist of the 20th century, perhaps the best female writer in the history of Catalan language, and a symbol of Catalan literature. Her masterpiece novel, La plaça del diamant [Diamond Square, although published in English under The time of the doves], has been translated into more than 30 languages, and reprints and re-editions of her books have been published constantly since her death in 1983. The scholarly world around her figure is remarkable, especially in English-speaking countries, and despite the difficulties and the slow speed at which she obtained her literary prizes (La placa del diamant, for example, was published in 1962 and lost all the awards it was presented to, only to be named the best novel about the Spanish postwar in the 1980s), the experts and critics in Rodoreda’s literature are now abundant in Catalan language. Her novels are now finally part of the compulsory curriculum for secondary schools, for example, and I believe that is perhaps the highest recognition: her literature is being taught to the newer generations.

Rodoreda went into exile in 1939 after the end of the war and did not return to Catalonia until the late 1970s. Whilst in exile, she lived in Paris, Limoges and Geneva, and she had a publishing hiatus of 20 years, in which she only wrote poetry and short stories. She only wrote and published in Catalan throughout her entire life.

Merce Rodoreda witnessed and lived through very important periods of the history of Spain and Europe: the Spanish second republic and the Civil War, as well as World War two and postwar Europe. As I have previously mentioned, her beginnings as a writer coincide with the proclamation of the Spanish Second Republic in 1931, which was supposed to bring a new democratic dawn to a historically backwards country. The Catalonia of the 1930s, with its capital in Barcelona, was a land of cultural progress and economic prosperity, which would look abroad for references, influences, exchanges and ‘role models’. The Soviet revolution of 1917, and the development of the working and communist movements was closely followed by many working activists, both in Catalonia and in the rest of Spain. The introduction of Russian literature in the Barcelona cultural world was the next step of the ladder towards a “culturised” society.

The man behind these developments was Joan Puig i Ferreter, chief of Editorial Proa, who wanted to provide Catalonia and Catalan language with the solemnity and international importance it required to be a modern nation. Puig i Ferreter developed the Biblioteca A Tot Vent, with the intention to publish works of the higher standard in Catalan, as well as translations into Catalan from renowned classics. The collection included works by Dickens, Wilde, Stendhal, Zola, etc.

Following an idea from this first part of Rodoreda’s life, I am currently researching and writing my first article. I wish to explore the influence of the figure of Andreu Nin, Catalan politician and translator, in the early works and the literary development of Merce Rodoreda, in three main aspects: from the ideological point of view, from the argumentative and plot-development point of view, and from the perspective of his collaboration to the spread of Russian literature and culture.

But who was Andreu Nin? Andreu Nin was a good friend of Puig i Ferreter, chief of Editorial Proa, and he was one of the collaborators of his collection, as a translator and a social critic. Nin was originally a politician and had spent ten years of his life in Russia, working for the Red International of Labour Unions, the Profiterm, and he was held in great consideration by Lenin and Trotsky. However, after Lenin’s death he aligned with Trotsky’s ideas and was gradually isolated and lost his position of privilege under Stalin’s regime, until he was finally expelled from the USSR. When he returned to Catalonia in 1930 with his family, he had no means of income, so he started translating for Puig i Ferreter as a side job: his main interest was still politics. Thanks to his remarkable skill and craft in writing Catalan and understanding the Russian culture and language, Nin awarded Catalan literature with the full version of Anna Karenina, as well as Crime and punishment and The Village of Stepanchikovo, by Dostoevsky, and A shooting party, by Chekhov, as well as translating many books and pamphlets written by Trotsky about the labour struggle. Andreu Nin was sadly a victim of Stalinism: in 1937, amid a trade unions vs communists war within the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, he was arrested, executed and buried in Alcala de Henares, near Madrid, by NKVD officers, and his remains have never been found.

Years after Rodoreda’s death, her former confident Anna Muria, published a book in which she said that Rodoreda confessed to her that she had had a platonic love affair with Andreu Nin, and that she had a letter that he had written to her as a proof of their love, a proof she had the courage to show her husband to demand a separation. He, of course, torn up the letter – she picked it up and glued it together and confessed going around the world “with a torn letter”. This is all very well documented by Rodoreda’s biographers Casals, Ibarz and Pessarrodona. Beyond any overdetailed incident in her life, I believe that the work of Nin had an impact on Rodoreda’s early writings and her development as a novelist. To begin with, Rodoreda had a chance to read the Russian classics translated by Nin, and in this aspect, we can say that Nin influenced, or helped the “culturization” of an entire generation. Secondly, Nin’s revolutionary ideas were in tune with the Catalanist ideas that Rodoreda’s family, especially her grandfather, had passed on to her, and that she proudly displayed in the pages of Clarisme, the newspaper she co-edited. Finally, the affair with Nin provided Rodoreda with fantastic biographical material to turn into literary plots and books full of disenchanted characters, covered with a veil of sadness, and sudden, unexpected deaths. It is not surprising that her novels are abundant with secret passions, forbidden lovers, deceit and adultery. This is very significative: Rodoreda was very secretive and refused to speak about her own life but those who knew her have seen a strong biographical content in her books. In many ways, to read her was to know her.

To sum up, even though my research has barely just begun, I feel I have made very important progress in the last three and a half months, and I am really looking forward to completing this particular article and keep up the good work, and hopefully with more of these events to come in the future to give us the chance to broadcast our work. As a final note, I would just like to say that I am a self-funded student and I work part-time in the Hospitality Services at University to fund my doctoral course, so may kindly please ask you to eat all the biscuits that they may serve you with coffee as otherwise they’ll probably go in the bin, and it’s just such a waste. Thanks very much for listening.

Research who?

Originally published on Nov 12, 2012

Research, research, chop, chop…

Trivial as it may seem, I have plenty of things to say. But let me introduce myself. My name is Noemi Llamas and I am a PhD student at the University of Glasgow. I should perhaps underline that I am a first year… first two months to be more exact, PhD student. My research field is Hispanic Studies > Catalan Literature > 20th century > Mercè Rodoreda on the one side, then Slavonic Studies > Russian Literature > 20th century on the other. I am basically trying to find the influences that Russian literature had in Catalan literature and culture in the 1930s in the cultural and artistic circle of Barcelona, with especial emphasis on the figure of Rodoreda.

This space is an attempt to make my research more accessible, share my findings and promote my work and the ideas that come up in the scholarly field I belong to. You may want to say it’s a blog for literature nerds – well, yes, that is the whole point. My aim is also multilinguistic: you shall expect to find posts in Catalan and Spanish too. Since most of the literature I am reviewing at the moment is written mainly in those languages, I thought it would be natural to incorporate everything.

The main idea is to have something to get back to and attempt to write something everyday, which is one of the key points I want to push forward as a doctoral candidate.

Well, wish me luck!