Conference looks at role of literature in post-conflict societies

Banksy artwork 

What is the role of literature in the aftermath of political conflict? How might literary texts inform the broader process of transitional justice, and can a work of fiction function as a form of therapeutic storytelling, in which a traumatic history might be articulated and exorcised?

These questions will be discussed at an international conference held at the University of Western Sydney's Writing and Society Research Centre.

The conference will pose these questions in various national contexts, with papers on works set in countries including Northern Ireland, South Africa, Germany and Brazil. Key authors in this area include the Nobel Prize winning J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer and Seamus Heaney. 

While remaining attentive to deep historical and cultural differences, the conference will explore possibilities for the comparative study of literatures written in the wake of political violence.

"Students study classic writers such as Wilfred Owen and Seigfried Sassoon, which tells us literature is crucial to the ways that people think about war and conflict," says Conference Convener Dr Matthew McGuire.

"But what is the role of literature in the aftermath of political conflict, and can it help with peace building and dealing with legacies of trauma?"

Dr McGuire says literature can be read as a form of rehearsal space, a unique laboratory in which people might meaningfully come to terms with the traumatic memories of the past.

"Fiction can act as a form of therapeutic storytelling, a way of dealing with the past, or ordering and making sense of distressing experiences," says Dr McGuire.

"It also functions as an archive, a form of witnessing, drawing attention to atrocities and encouraging us to both remember the past and to begin the process of forgetting and moving on."

"Given the upsurge in ethno-religious conflict, the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East, and the tensions in Ukraine-Russia and Israel-Palestine, such issues are of vital global significance."

Speakers at the conference include:

  • Eamonn Hughes (Queen's University Belfast) Metaphors and Metonyms: Culture and Education in the Good Friday Agreement. Reading the Belfast Agreement (1998) by way of Seamus Heaney and formalist theories of metonym and metaphor, Dr Hughes will consider what the term 'cultural rights' might mean in the wake of the Northern Irish Troubles. He will note a very strong tendency of culture in Ireland to rely on the metonymic. In contrast, the post-Agreement era contains an implicit challenge to rethink such outmoded forms of cultural engagement and to re imagine the ways in which both education and culture function within a post-conflict society.
  • Idelber Avelar (Tulane University) The Brazilian dictatorship and the Amazon: Persistence of a colonial model. Professor Avelar will argue the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964-1985) had a distinct policy for the Amazon, understanding it as a space to be colonized for its energy resources. Analysing novels, short stories, and testimonies that deal with this understudied aspect of the Brazilian dictatorship — its unique relation to the world's greatest reservoir of biodiversity — Professor Avelar will address the persistence of the dictatorship's policies toward the Amazon in the current democratic period.
  • Matt McGuire (University of Western Sydney) Hope, History and Rhyme: Poetry and the Legacy of the Troubles. Internationally recognized for their representation of the Troubles, how have Northern Irish poets used the genre to explore both the end of the conflict and its legacies within the North? Dr McGuire will compare the works of established poets (Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley) with that of a younger generation, represented by Alan Gillis.
  • Dorothy Driver (University of Adelaide) Truth, Power and the Role of Literature in Post-Apartheid South Africa. Recent South African literature shows an increasing interest in a more complex conception of both the individual and the communal subject, and the relationship between writing and society.  Focusing on Nadine Gordimer, Njabulo Ndebele, Ivan Vladislavić and Zoë Wicomb, Professor Driver will assess their vision of the role of literature, considering the prevailing critical assumptions current in post-apartheid South Africa.

The UWS Writing & Society Research Centre Symposium on Literature, Truth and Transitional Justice will be held October 1 and 2 at the UWS Bankstown campus.


26 September 2014

Mark Smith, Senior Media Officer

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