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Château d'Angers

After a quick stop in Montreuil (near Paris), I headed for Angers.  Angers is fairly close to where I am from; however, I had not been there since I was a young kid and the only thing I could remember of the town was the famous castle (we used to pass it when driving from Nantes to Paris).  My expectations were not really high, but I was agreeably surprised.  Angers is a really pleasant town with a great atmosphere.

A small paved street near the cathedral

I was there for a conference, but arrived the evening before.  The sun was shining and it was warm and I was at leisure to explore this charming town.  I love small and disordered streets and I enjoyed wandering in them.

Saint Maurice Cathedral

There are many old stone buildings and a beautiful cathedral, as well as some maisons à colombage.  I decided to have my dinner on a terrace facing one of them.

La Maison d'Adam

We were treated like kings at the conference and maybe it is not such a myth that the French like their food and their wine; I just did not grow up in such a family.  On both days, two hours were allocated for the lunch break, and these were indeed spent eating and drinking.  We had three-course meals in both places.  The first was only the university cafeteria, but the food was delicious.  The second day, we went to a café-bistro where we were able to eat on the terrace and enjoy a leisurely lunch in the sun.

Les Caves de la Genevraie

You might notice that I am skipping a meal here.  For the conference dinner, we were bought by bus to a village, Louresse-Rochemier, where a table had been reserved for us in a troglodyte restaurant, Les Caves de la Genevraie.  Troglodytes are houses that are built in the rock.  The temperature there can be quite low, but a fire kept the restaurant room warm and cosy.  There, we were served a traditional and earthy meal.  Each course was accompanied with some fouace, a traditional bread, which was made on the premises and served hot.  We began with a fouace stuffed with some mushrooms (grown in some toglodyte houses), followed by some rillettes.  Then, the main course arrived and consisted of a dish of white beans and rillauds (little bits of lard), which you spread on your fouace.  Being in France, we couldn’t escape a plateau de fromage, to my delight, as well as a dessert.  A filling meal, but as we took our time, we were able to fit everything.  Through the meal, we actually took a break and went to visit another part of the restaurant where the baker makes the bread.  It was a most enjoyable evening and a great food experience.

Baking the fouaces

The conference itself was also a success.  The theme of the conference was The Figure of the Author in the Short Story (you can read the programme here), a topic that I find highly interesting.  It was a small conference and consequently very friendly.  The plenary speaker, Charles E. May (whose blog you can read here) delivered a paper highlighting why the short story is a more writerly genre than the novel.  There was also a roundtable led by Tim Struthers (whose first ever interview was of Magaret Atwood) on the topic of interviews.  The highlight of the conference was a reading by Toby Litt, followed by a series of questions and answers.

Toby Litt

Here is the complete set of photos:

Arriving in Birmingham: the air shuttle; very cool!

You might remember that I went away for a little while in April.  My first destination was Birmingham.  How exciting!  Not really, it was my second time there and I was still not impressed by the town.  However, the reason why I was there was a lot more exciting: the British Association for Canadian Studies annual conference.

The Bullring by night; 8pm and the streets are empty...

Clock tower, University of Birmingham


Luckily for us, the conference was taking place outside the city at the University of Birmingham and we were also staying on campus.  It was so much more pleasant than the city with birds, trees and flowers…

Thus, for three days, I listened to interesting papers on Canadian studies.  I mostly went to the literature panels, although I now regret having missed some of the other panels.  That’s the problem with big conferences like that: they have a few panels running at the same time and one has to make difficult choices.

As always, it was great to meet people with a similar interest and sit back to listen to them talk about their research.  I was part of a panel on Atwood and was pleased to see that the three of us were dealing with the “minor” genres: poetry and short fictions.  It was all the more surprising that the theme of the conference was “Peace and (In)Security: Canada’s Promise, Canada’s Problem?” and one would have expected some of Atwood’s latest novels to be discussed.

Panel on Atwood; drawing by Heather Spears

The keynote addresses were varied.  Professor Stephen Royle (Queen’s University) presented a lecture sponsored by the Eccles Centre (British Library), which was entitled “Insecurity in Canada’s past: James Douglas keeps the peace on Vancouver Island”.  Dr. Susan Hodgett (University of Ulster) gave a presidential address and delivered a presentation on her latest project, which involves the use of Sen’s capability approach to evaluate social attainment of immigrants in Canada.  I was not familiar with her work, but her lecture was interesting and really approachable.  Professor Claude Denis (University of Ottawa) gave a lecture entitled “Canada-US armour for a happy place?  Building ‘perimeter’ security withoutMexico”, which discussed North-American relations after 9/11.  Finally, Professor Louis Balthazar (University of Laval) also discussed Canada-US relations in his presentation, “Canada’s Continental Destiny and Quebec’s Americanité Confronted with American Security Obsession”.  He emphasised in particular why Quebecers felt less threatened by the US because of their distinctive culture.

There was also a presentation by the novelist Kate Pullinger entitled “(In)Security, and Belonging in The Mistress of Nothing and Flight Paths”.  After briefly discussing The Mistress of Nothing, for which she won the Governor General’s Award, and the research she did for the novel, Pullinger focused on the future of publishing and the new media available to writers.  She discussed new forms of literature, such as her digital novel Flight Paths, which is a community project associating writing to images and music and is hosted on a website.  Pullinger has espoused new forms of media for literature; you can see all she is involved in here.  However, she insisted that there is room for all kinds of forms in literature and that new media do not mean the end of the traditional book.

Our evenings were equally busy and on the first night there was a poetry reading.  Poetry is not my favourite genre, but I usually prefer to listen to it than read it and I really enjoyed the readings by Roz Goddard, Heather Spears and Kim Trusty. 

Roz Goddard

Roz Goddard, a local poet, read from her collection How to Dismantle a Hotel Room and had us in stitches; I couldn’t believe that poetry could be so fun! 

Heather Spears

Heather Spears, a Canadian artist living in Denmark, was more serious and her poems had you thinking.  One of the poem she read was especially poignant: it was about her experience of being asked to draw stillborn babies.  

Kim Trusty

I also connected with the poetry of Kim Trusty, a Canadian based in Birmingham.  She read poems that are quite ordinary and could be about you or me.  In one of them, the speaker tells us about her failure in relationships; how she falls in love but always ends up bruised and on her own with her cats.  It was humourous and sad at once, but then I realised in shock that it was about me!

The BACS conferences are also known for organising great book displays.  Indeed… a whole room filled with books connected to Canada and most of them actually coming from Canadian publishers.  I had a hard time choosing only a couple; I wanted to buy everything!  Next time, I might take an extra luggage!

New books

Overall, it was a great experience and I hope I will be able to assist to the 2012 edition, which will be on sustainability.  It will be hosted in Cambridge; I have never been there, so this is the perfect excuse!

University of Birmingham

As I have said, I have been busy lately.  Last week, I was lucky to be invited to a day seminar at the Canadian embassy in Dublin.  For me, it was the occasion to have the pleasure to meet other Irish scholars who share the same interest as mine.  We were spoiled with this seminar.  Not only were we offered food and drinks in abundance, but also some very interesting papers and a reading by Jane Urquhart.

There was first a reading by Patrick O’Connor, an Irish scholar and poet with a passion for Canada.  He read from his latest collection, Behold the Enchanted Country.  Each poem evokes a certain place in Canada and were actually inspired by his travels across Canada.  As he noted, it is at once a travel guide and a collection of poetry.

Then, André Lapierre from the University of Ottawa offered a talk on Canadian Aboriginal toponomy.  He explained the project in which he is involved to get the name of some places changed to their Aboriginal name, because, as he noted, if the language disappear we will still have a way of remembering it through these topographical names.  He explored the problems involved in this process and how they manage to resolve them by negotiating with the natives.  For instance, one of them was the length of the name, so they agreed that it could be divided to form words more easily pronounced by the non-natives  It was a lively and accessible talk, which I really enjoyed.

A few representatives from the Association of Canadian Studies in Ireland also discussed the state of Canadian studies at home and abroad.  They especially noted the decline of Canadian studies in Canada, but pointed out that they were thriving abroad.  In Ireland, it seems that Canadian studies have survived by being integrated to other programmes.

Finally, Jane Urquhart read from one of his novels, A Map of Glass, in which an Irish man emigrates to Canada.  The reading was followed by a series of question to which Urquhart gave considered and detailed answers.  I was a pleasure to listen to her witty and humourous comments.

She was asked about her relationship with the short story as she has published a collection, Storm Glass.  She explained how when she began writing, she was mostly writing piles and piles of poems, which were growing into narratives.  Her short stories were part of this experimentation with writing and she then discovered that she was destined to write novels.  She thus does not consider herself as a good short story writer and notes that most of her stories have later evolved into novels.

She was asked about her position on e-publishing and said that she was not drawn to it.  Moreover, she noted that it was a decision beyond her control and in the hands of her publishers.

When asked what is essential to write a novel, she answered that “unstructured time” is essential because it is that time in which you are able to think about your novel.

She also argued that it is important to ignore the voices after having written the first book and to continue writing.  By that, she meant especially the criticism that might impact on your writing.

Overall, it was an extremely enjoyable afternoon, well worth the trip to Dublin.

Jane Urquhart

After enjoying my time in Bergamo (see my posts here, here and here), I headed to Milan to participate to the 19th European Seminar for Graduate Students on Canadian Studies.

Milan Stazione Centrale

I arrived a bit late to be able to visit anything since the seminar was starting in the afternoon.  However, I took the time to get out of stazione centrale and stopped by for a panini on a terrace.  I was joined by two greedy pigeons who nearly went picking in my plate.  Ok, stazione centrale is not the Duomo, but I thought it was a nice building.  I was also able to see the local tramways (you might already be aware of my liking for foreign vehicles). 

As I stepped out of the station, I was submerged by an atmosphere.  It was busy, athough it does not seem so on the picture, and there was a stage with a DJ playing away.  It was really cool.  I love being a stranger in a city.  However, I did not regret to have decided to spend my free time in Bergamo rather than Milan; I have always preferred smaller towns.

The programme of the seminar was really interesting and I enjoyed many papers.  Many topics were covered from literature to law.  Of course, I found it difficult to follow the law papers despite the panelists’ efforts to make them accessible; however, they initiated interesting discussion.  Some of the literature papers were truly fascinating for me.  I was particularly impressed by Jacky Moore’s paper on Nuu’Chah’Nulth women.  She told us about how she spent some time with them and collected their stories.  I listened to the papers and discovered many things about Canada and its culture.  I love that about conferences: just sit back and discover the work of your peers.  It is most enlightening and an enjoyable way to learn.

One of the highlights of the seminar was a film presented by Aaraon Diaz from the Autonomous University of Mexico about Mexican temporary migrant workers in Canada.  The purpose of the film is to raise awareness on the too often deplorable working conditions of these temporary workers and the consequences ensued from employers’ carelessness (sometimes even causing death). 

The seminar was intense but it was great fun.  Everything was organised for us, including lunches and dinners, so we would get food for the stomach as well as food for the brain (in the words of one of the organisers).  The Italians love their food!  Even the lunch at the university cafeteria was lovely.  We went to different places for dinners, one of them being a traditional trattoria, in which food and environment were gorgeous!  And yes, they know how to make proper ice-cream!

This was the last day of this great conference.  It started with a session of readings.  I decided to go to see John Calabro and Helen Maria Viramontes.  I spent a lot of time through the conference chatting to John and I didn’t want to miss his reading. 

John Calabro is of Italian origins and Helen Maria Viramontes is of Mexican-American origins.  Both their reading reflected these and were thus a bit exotic.  Helen’s reading was tender, John’s was somewhat disturbing (you’ll understand better why if you read my review).  Both were enjoyable.  John read from The Cousin and I rushed to buy the book at the coffee break. 

Helen Maria Viramontes and John Calabro

Next, I went to see a great panel entitled “The Body in Life and Death” and heard three really interesting papers.  Sylvia Patter delivered a paper on olfactory imagery in Janet Turner Hospital’s stories.  I had never heard of this writer.  She was born in Australia and Patter’s paper focuses on how the imagery in her short stories evokes certain smells from that country.  I could nearly smell the flowers she was talking about.  Paddy O’Reilly presented a paper on the grotesque (and physical disability) in Flannery O’Connor’s stories.  I had not read anything by O’Connor (still have not; shame on me!) but her paper was quite fascinating.  Finally, Sharon Wilson talked about death in Atwood’s “Isis in Darkness” and “The Bog Man”.  She described those stories as “parodies of mythological quests”.  As you can imagine, I was delighted to listen to this paper.

I then had lunch with Sharon and we discussed Atwood a bit more.  Sharon is one of the most renowned Atwoodian (and one for  admiration) and I was glad to have this opportunity. 

I decided to skip the afternoon session and go to rest a little before the banquet.  The banquet was fun and it was nice to see everybody chill out.  There was a reading by Clark Blaise, which was preceded by a moving introduction from his wife, Bharati Mukherjee.

Those four days were great and very productive from my point of view.  I had a fantastic time and met wonderful people.  It was a bit sad parting (for me anyway), but I hope I’ll see some of these people again.  I don’t like endings, I always get a bit emotional; but new adventures were awaiting me.

This third day of the conference was a big day for me, for many reasons.  The day started with the panel in which I presented.  An early panel at the same time as a World Cup football match meant that not many attended.  As a result, my stress level went down as there was a very friendly atmosphere.  My presentation on Atwood’s “The Bog Man” and “Horatio’s Version” went well and I found the other presentations interesting, particularly Michelle Ryan-Sautour’s.  She delivered a paper on Angela Carter, an author I’ve wanted to read for quite a while.  The similarities between Carter and Atwood are striking and this is something I would like to look into.  Unfortunately, the session ran overtime and we were not able to receive questions.

I think I was a bit exhausted after that and did not pay much attention to the next session.  This was followed by a luncheon and reading.  When I walked into the dining room, my attention was caught by a small woman with blue eyes and curly hair.  This woman was Margaret Atwood, of course.  My heart started racing; I knew I would get to talk to her later on and I was a bit impressed.  There is something about meeting the author you admire the most and on whose works you spend most hours of the day working.  I was sitting at the table next to hers, chatting with scholars and discussing my earlier presentation.  Sharon Wilson was kind enough to call me over to the table and introduce me to Ms Atwood.  Well, I was not prepared and my English went all wrong!  We exchanged a few words and I went back to my table to listen to Bharati Mukherjee read one of her stories.

There was only one session programmed for the afternoon: “A Talk with Margaret Atwood”.  Clark Blaise was leading the talk.  They have known each other since their days teaching at university in Montreal and the tone was quite friendly.  I must admit that I did not learn much during that talk as I had already read interviews or essays mentioning many of the things Atwood said.  However, it was lovely to actually hear her telling her anecdotes.  She is a funny and witty person!  Much of the talk revolved around novels rather than short stories, but we were able to ask then a few questions…

Following this public talk was my interview with Atwood.  She was assailed by the public to sign books, so I waited a few minutes before going to her and bringing her to sit down in a quiet corner.  I had been granted ten minutes (although we ended up chatting for twenty).  It is a short time when you have so many questions to ask; particularly when the person you are interviewing is so chatty!  This was my first time interviewing someone, and I did not really know how to go about it.  I wanted to ask all my questions but was very conscious of the time.  As Atwood said at the talk earlier, it is easy to talk about novels than short stories or even the shorter fictions; I had thus to often gently bring back the topic onto the short stories.  Sometimes, I would have liked to delve further on her answers, but I also knew I had other questions I really wanted to ask; it was difficult to manage.  However, it was really pleasant to talk with her once my nervousness passed and I had a good laugh.  Before she left to take her taxi, I asked her to sign my copy of Bottle.  It is a limited edition (1000 copies) of a few stories, which were later published in the collection The Tent.  It is a pretty little book and, now, it has become a repository of the memories of my chat with Margaret Atwood.

Our next stop was the main Toronto Public Library.  We had a bit of time to grab some food and chill out before the readings for the evening started.  On the programme were readings by Margaret Atwood, Li Ang, Alistair MacLeod and Robert Olen Butler.  Here are a few moments of the evening.  I was hoping Salon would put the recordings online but they have not yet, so these are my own recordings (except for the reading of “Our Cat Enters Heaven”) and they are not very good (sorry!).

Maurice Lee introducing the event:

Ted Sheckels introducing Margaret Atwood:

Margaret Atwood introducing her reading:

Margaret Atwood reading “Our Cat Enters Heaven” from The Tent:

Margaret Atwood reading from “The Headless Horseman” from Moral Disorder (I love her giggles!):

Li Ang introducing her reading:

Alistair MacLeod introducing his reading:

The readings were then followed by a very entertaining series of questions and answers.  I had a good laugh listening to Alistair MacLeod and Margaret Atwood deploying their wit (and sarcasm).


Signing and smiling

To end the evening, the four authors had to go through a signing session.  I wanted Alistair MacLeod to sign the collection I had bought, but could not be bothered queuing and thought I would have another occasion during the conference.  I stood there, chatting with my friends and took a couple of pictures of Margaret Atwood being all smiles for her fans.  I was thinking that I would like to have a picture with her, but I am quite shy and have always thought it to be a bit cheesy.  Yet, I knew I would regret it.  I like photos and the memories they bring back, and, for me, this day had indeed been a big day.  My friends then made me stand behind her and took a picture; that was even more ridiculous than asking her! 

Shying away

Finally, I went for cheesy and asked her for a picture (thanks John and Ian for making me do it!).  One of my lecturers from my university days in France was around and absolutely wanted to take a picture, so I had to stand there quite a while as she was looking for her camera.  I thus ended up chatting with Margaret Atwood and this is the shot I prefer, natural and spontaneous!


After all the excitement of the first day of the conference, the second day seemed a bit quieter for me.

I started the day with a panel on flash fiction and was able to pick up of few pieces of information of that sub-genre.  Philip Coleman’s paper on Örkény Istvan’s One Minute Stories was particularly interesting and made me want to look closer at this author I had never heard of (which I have not done yet, shame!).

This was followed by a panel on “Place, Politics, and Postcolonialism”.  M. Y. Alam discussed the conditions of productions of his first story.  His argument was based on a statement that all writings depend on the condition of production and it was interesting to follow the process he underwent.  I hope what he said will come back to me when I will read his stories (you might expect a review of one of them at some stage as he is one of the authors collected in the book published by Route I was given).

The afternoon started with a plenary session on Alice Munro’s “Passion” and the participants included some of the leading names in short story theory: Charles E. May, Michael Trussler, Per Winther, Michael Toolan and Susan Lohafer.  Each of them presented their reading of this recent story by Munro.  Unfortunately, I had not read the story and did not fully appreciate the discussion.  I was a bit disappointed, but had only myself to blame for that.

The following panel I attended was again organised by the Margaret Atwood Society.  Alice Ridout presented a most interesting paper on Atwood’s latest collection, Moral Disorder.  There has not been much work published on this collection and it was great to be able to hear someone discussing it.  She focused on the relationship between time and space in the collection, noting that time is mapped onto places and that the collection represents a “cartography of Nell’s life”.  The ideas she foregrounded were most interesting and I hope she will some day publish an article on it.  Ted Sheckels presented a paper discussing how stories can be misread.  He focused on “The Man from Mars” and the representation of the ethnic other and explained how students might see the story as “condoning othering and racial rejection”.  It gave me much to think about: how we read and interpret texts, but also how Atwood’s writings tend to show in order to critique, rather than imposing views on the reader, thus running the risk to be misinterpreted.  Finally, Mairin Barney also gave a talk on “The Man from Mars”, in order to illustrate how Atwood’s stories are useful demagogic tools for First-Year English students.

In the evening, there was a reading by Sandra Cisneros.  However, I was unable to go as I had a paper to finalise.  I had decided to get a good night sleep, but, as always, it took me much longer than I had planned and I did not get back from the internet café to my hostel until late.  Moreover, when i got back a little surprise awaited me (you can read about it here), which delayed my sleeping time even further.  I was thus stressed and exhausted when I finally hit my bed on the eve of the big day…

One of the reasons for my trip to Canada was the 11th International Conference on the Short Story in English.  This is a biennial conference organised by the Society for the Study of the Short Story.  As I am doing my PhD thesis on Margaret Atwood’s short stories and fictions, this was a dream occasion for me.  I was even more excited at the idea of presenting there.  For the occasion, the Margaret Atwood Society had also organised two panels dedicated to Atwood, which meant that I would be able to meet and hear the scholars whose work I read and use in my research.

The conference programme was intense and it was sometimes difficult to choose which panel to go to see.  On top of that, events were organised in the evening , which enable the participants to meet in an unformal way.

On the first day, I went to see a couple of panels and heard papers about Raymond Carver, Stephen Millhauser and Stephen Dixon.  I had never heard of Dixon before, but Susan Rochette’s paper, which focused on 14 Stories (a collection of thirteen stories), really made me want to read the collection.  I also went to see the panel on Atwood and loved it, particularly the papers by Shuli Barzilai (she is so funny) and Reingard Nischik (I admire her work so much).

I went to introduce myself to a few Atwoodians, which was not easy as I am a bit shy.  I had actually met Sharon Wilson (any of you with an interest in criticism on Atwood will probably recognise the name) the day before in the library.  As I arrived to my desk, the woman sitting behind me called me over to apologise for having borrowed a folder from my trolley.  I told her it was not a problem and asked her about her research on Atwood.  When she told me who she was, my jaws dropped!  It was a bit strange to meet this person I read the work of.  I knew I would, but I was still impressed.

I also went to a reading by Christine Sneed, who read a story she had recently written, and Mark Anthony Jarman.  Both readings were enjoyable, unfortunately, the accoustic in the room was terrible, which ruined my pleasure.

I also met with some of the delegation of British publishers (smoking can be a very social habit): Ian Daley (who offered me a collection I will soon be reviewing from) and Isabel Galan from Route Publishing, Jim Hinks from Comma Press, who gave me so many suggestions I do not know when I will get time to read all those authors, and Joanne Brandon from Cadaverine Magazine, which is specialised in under 25 authors.  There was a big group of them from companies specialising mostly in short stories and they had come to discuss publishing aspects, etc.  I had great fun with them as they did not take themselves too seriously.  I encourage you to follow the links and check what they do, who might find something interesting!

In the evening, we were invited to a reception at Ben McNally bookshop, a perfect venue for people who love literature.  It was difficult to resist spending all my money in the books of authors I was talking to (and yes, they would tempt you).  I enjoyed the cheese and wine while chatting to academics and writers; the two worlds are apart, yet, they connect in their love for literature and it is interesting to hear both perspectives.  I had a nice conversation with John Calabro, author of short stories and two novellas, from Quattro Books, a publishing company dedicated to the novella.  We were the last two leaving the place and as we were walking in the section, John kindly gave me a mini guided visit of the area.

It was an enjoyable first day.  It was amazing to meet so many interesting people.  I had fun and heard fascinating papers, but was exhausted by the end of it and did not have the courage to revise my own paper!

Liverpool cathedral

Last saturday, I was in Liverpool to give a paper on Margaret Atwood at a conference on the urban gothic. It was the first ‘real’ conference I was going to and I really enjoyed it. It was a great day with very friendly people. I heard great papers and I also discovered two artists.

Gerry Gapinski, an artist born in New York and currently living in Edinburgh, gave a talk on what he is working on at the moment: a graphic novel entitled Three Colours: Black. It is actually a trilogy, each part representing a city: Edinburgh, Glasgow and New York. During his address, he showed us films and pictures of his work. Although his earlier work is not really my cup of tea, I must say that I find his later work admirable. His representations of the city are quite amazing and full of details. Someone to keep an eye on…

The other artist I discovered is Nicholas Royle, a writer from Manchester, who read us one of his short stories. To date, he has published five novels and a collection of short stories, Mortality. There is something nice about being read a story and I really enjoyed the one he read to us. ‘Weird’ is what I would say about it. It also had that typical effect of a good short story: the minute it is over, you want to read it again. I’ll definitely check out his collection.

I also had some time to visit a bit the city of Liverpool and I was agreably surprised. I thought it would be a grey city but I found a vibrant city with a good atmosphere and many beautiful or intriguing buildings.

Here are some photos: