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Florence in Words

A Brief Visit to Taiwan

Misnamed: I didn’t “visit.” I attended and spoke at three-day conference in Taipei, joined a one-day bus tour, and went to a museum, the morning of my last day. Still, I learned two lessons. First, and something I really knew but ignored: never travel half-way around the world, where the time difference is 12 or 13 hours, for less than two weeks. Though I’ve been back for two weeks, jet lag and some form of exhaustion are still with me. Second, and much more important, women writers and the teacher/scholars they attract are more numerous than ever. While there was some attention to Toni Morrison and Doris Lessing, in general, the conference teemed, especially with young scholars who were reading and writing about writers new to me, sometimes across their own national borders, even across continents. And though I could go only to half the sessions, since there were two streams, I could add several dozen writers to my reading list.

Lunch with friendsBy a lake

In some ways, the conference illuminated brilliantly two points of the paper I read on the first day called “Lost and Found.” I described the work of The Feminist Press, begun more than 40 years ago, which made visible major “lost” women writers, whose appearance and history, I claimed, led directly to an increase in the numbers of women who have, over the past decades, become writers and professors of literature.

In the event that you’d like to know details, I attended The Fourth Biennial International Conference of The Contemporary Women’s Writing Association. Its formal title was “Contemporary Women’s Writing: (Wo)Man and the Body.” The conference organizer was Pen-chia Feng, Distinguished Professor, National Chiao Tung University, Taiwan. (The first two conferences were held in Britain, the third in South Korea, and the fifth is still to be decided upon.) If you go to the website, you will be able to join and to learn about the next conference.

In Taipei, there were some 150 participants, most of course from Taiwan and from South Korea. But there was a sizable group from Brazil, Great Britain, the U.S., Australia, and at least one scholar from Canada, South Africa, Singapore, France, the Netherlands, Finland, and Turkey.
Each of three days opened with a plenary, sometimes followed by one after lunch. In the morning there were three concurrent panels each of four or five scholars, and in the afternoon, another two sets of concurrent panels each of four or five scholars. So almost all who attended spoke, and there were Taiwanese students in the audience as well.

Eating lunch with conference attendeesTaiwanese students

Many papers were memorable, and I say this as someone who has often eschewed literary discussions in favor Charlie Rose’s Brain Series. Hence, the opening keynote easily caught my attention. Professor Clare Hanson, of the University of Southampton, Britain, read a paper called “Beyond the Gene: New Narratives of Inheritance.” She described “epigenetics,” a theory that emphasizes the dynamic interaction of all the contents of the body’s cells, which continues throughout one’s life, and which may be reversible. She aimed to make the science clear to a nonscientific audience, and then she applied ideas of “permeability,” for example, to adoption narratives by Jackie Kay, Red Dust Road, and The Adoption Papers. Similarly eye-opening was Susan Friedman’s talk on Elif Shafak’s The Bastard of Istanbul, and her suggestion that feminist literary criticism has all but ignored religion, despite its importance to the world’s women, including and perhaps especially Moslem women.

Florence Howe and Linda HoganConference attendees with Shirley Lim on the right

Four of the hour-long sessions, including mine, were given to writers rather than scholars. They included the Native American Linda Hogan, the scholar Shirley Geok-lin Lim, who has decided to leave academe in favor of writing full-time, and Weichen Su, a well-known and successful Taiwanese writer still not known in English.

Discussion panelSpeaker on a panel

I attended panels every day, choosing Asian writers over Western ones. Most interesting to me were the five young Koreans on a late afternoon panel, who read papers comparing five Korean women writers with five Japanese counterparts. Perhaps it was too early to say why this focus for comparison, although I suspected that the tense relationships between these two countries continued, at least about such issues as “comfort women.” I knew very few of the writers being discussed. Further, I found fascinating that the chair of the panel, Professor So-Hee Lee, of Hanyang Women’s University, chose to translate the questions at the end of the session into Korean, heard the panel member’s responses in Korean, and then spoke for them in English to the audience.

Yes, if you are interested in women writers, and if you prefer small conferences, I do recommend this one to you.
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