Following on from a successful conference held in October 2015, Interpreting Communities: Minority Writing in European Literary Fields, this Institute of Modern Languages Research conference brought together scholars at the School of Advanced Study (University of London) for two days of systematic comparative study of the content, form, status, and reception of minor, minority and small literatures in Europe in the 20th and 21st centuries. Keynote lectures were presented by Peter Morgan, who explored national, international and global readings of Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, and Stefan Willer, on official and institutionalized efforts to revive and safeguard cultural production in Low German, both of which enlivened discussions on the central theme of the conference: unsettling linguistic, cultural and literary communities in Europe. The conference was opened by Godela Weiss-Sussex, who provided a summary of the aims and activities of the research group behind the project, which, as part of the Manchester-led ‘Cross-Language Dynamics: Re-Shaping Community’ project, is supported by an AHRC-funded Open World Research Initiative grant. She also outlined plans for a collaborative publication, before handing over to section subeditors, Christinna Hobbs, Kate Averis and Margaret Littler, who each introduced the three overarching themes of the conference and planned publication: ‘Mapping Europe’, ‘Circulation and Readership’ and ‘Acts of Unsettling’.

‘Mapping Europe’ panels

The first panel, Writing Europe’s Eastern Border, coincided with the interests of both ‘Mapping Europe’ and ‘Acts of Unsettling’. This panel consisted of two papers dealing with Ukrainian literature, both within and outside the Ukraine, and the unsettling use of language in stories of migration in English. This was followed by two further parallel sessions, on the theme of ‘Mapping Europe’, spread over the two days, with papers on topics from French banlieue literature and the plays of Turkish German Emine Sevgi Özdamer, to black and Asian writing on Bradford and rural Britain. Together the papers raised a number of themes and questions, such as the tension between national and international perspectives in minor, minority, and small literatures, and the power of small literatures to contest and unsettle established categories, which led to fruitful discussions throughout the two days.

‘Circulation and Readership’ panels

Two panels on Translation and Complicating Reception brought together papers which sparked discussion around the central tenet of the ‘Circulation and Readership’ strand, concerning literature’s aesthetic and political power to unsettle communities in the spaces of readership and circulation as much as in those of authorship and representation. In the first panel, experimental translations of modern Greek poetry of the financial crisis were considered alongside a case study of teaching ‘great books in little languages’, to raise questions about the marketing and branding of literature to targeted audiences, whether readers, students and/or consumers. The second panel examined the role of reception and translation in the construction and conservation of literary canons, from the perspective of Romanian literature read in Paris, migrant literature in post-war Germany, and Galician translations of Irish drama, thus furthering discussion around the relativity of minor, minority and small literatures.

‘Acts of Unsettling’ panels

The themes of ‘mapping’ and ‘unsettling’ overlapped in productive ways in the first panel of the conference, mentioned above, which offered means of understanding the linguistic complexities of Ukraine’s national literatures and their promotion, as well as of examining the unsettling linguistic acts of Ukrainian immigrants in the UK, as depicted in the fiction of Marina Lewycka. The second ‘Acts of Unsettling’ panel on 24 February concentrated on minor, bilingual/multilingual literatures in Greek and Turkish Cyprus, in post-Communist Poland, and in the border between Italy and Germany, with a particular focus on the unsettling linguistic power of poetry.

Seminars and Roundtable:

The final part of the symposium was dedicated to seminars for each theme: the conference was split into three groups that gave panellists an opportunity to discuss themes and methodologies and their contribution to the collaborative publication.

The seminars facilitated wide-ranging and varied discussions about the challenges and possibilities of studying minor literatures and were followed up by a roundtable, with the purpose of reflecting on key points raised by each thematic group. It became apparent during this final discussion that there were significant and encouraging overlaps reaching across the three sections of the project, whilst each retained the specificity of its approach to identifying ways in which minor and small literatures may unsettle communities. For ‘Mapping Europe’ the discussion focused on the tendency of minor and peripheral literatures to destabilise established boundaries, both geopolitical, canonical, formal and aesthetic, thereby contesting the idea of Europe as a homogeneous region or stable concept, while the ‘Circulation and Readership’ panels underlined the significant role of political, economic and social forces in the diversity of literary ecologies. Prominent ideas in the ‘Acts of Unsettling’ section included the definition of ‘minor’ literatures as anti-representational, and the mechanics of the literary or visual text as an aesthetic form of micropolitical unsettling. Fredric Jameson’s notion of ‘cognitive mapping’ was mentioned, with respect to the idea that minor cultural practitioners know where they might want to go but do not have a set of prescriptive parameters to arrive at their destination. It was stressed during the final roundtable how important it is that scholars remain attentive to the promises and the pitfalls of their methodologies, which should not impose a single theoretical framework on such a variegated body of literatures.

The almost cyclical themes of the event made us reflect on: how minorities carve their representational niches in nations whose contours are being challenged; the material and linguistic ways in which the circulation and promotion of literatures in small and minor languages are changing the various European literary landscapes; and the aesthetic means by which minor cultures make readers and viewers struggle to categorise texts, films and art, ultimately avoiding the finality of representation.

Report by Alberto Fernandez Carbajal (Leicester), Kate Averis (ULIP, Paris) and Christinna Hobbs (Liverpool).

Unsettling Communities: Minor, Minority and Small Literatures in Europe was hosted by the IMLR at Senate House on Thursday 23 and Friday 24 February. It formed part of the Translingual Minorities project, part of the IMLR/SAS Translingual strand of the Cross-Language Dynamics: Reshaping Community consortium.

You can download a full copy of the conference report here: Unsettling Communities Conference Report