11th International Conference on the Short Story in English

I just got back from Toronto and have had the first full night of sleep since I left Vienna on 15 June. The 11th International Conference on the Short Story in English – The Border as Fiction was amazing. All the little cogs in my head, the ones my dear husband often worries about, are still spinning like crazy with impressions and ideas. While I get my thoughts together, do check out what Nuala Ní Chonchúir wrote on her blog about the Conference, and also check out Madeleine D’Arcy´s take.

Where to start? The weather: one day of rain and the rest was hot, hot, hot. Many of us were all together at the Marriott Courtyard on Yonge while others were at the Schulich Business School where sessions, readings and panels took place at York University Campus. So many good things were going on at once and it was impossible to catch everything. I missed the first panel because I needed to prepare for my reading on the morning of the first day. I shared with Jane Rogers and Billie Travalini. Our stories ranged from losing keys and much more deeper insights (Jane) to murdering husbands – hubbies were victims – (Billie and me.) I was thrilled that my “Widow´s Peak” story went over so well, and in high spirits caught the plenary session with Clark Blaise, Alistair MacLeod and William H. New on The Canadian Short Story Today. But it wasn´t just Canadian. Some tidbits: Bill New – a story needs legs (good ones;)); Alistair MacLeod – it needs language and leisure, with a wink at Chesterton that style is the clothing of plot; Clark Blaise – write out of a specific place for the world.

Then followed a reading with Rishma Dunlop on lovers in Paris and all the allusions, literary and cultural, which that brings up, and Australian Paddy O´Reilly with an almost Regency encounter of the third kind in “Speak to Me”. I had the great fun of being Paddy´s room mate during the conference, so there were many giggly moments with aliens tucked in the underwear drawer writing in green Braille. But you read the story in The End of The World.

Day 2 started with a session called Sex and Love in the Modern Short Story with Marilyn Abildskov on adultery, Mauricio Aguilera-Linde on Gay Spaceships and Conspiracy (genre meets lit and lit feeds on the former, methinks), and Rishma Dunlop on Amy Bloom. Then I went to a session on Australian Literature and heard Victoria Kuttainen on short fiction in anthologies and Man magazine, Noela McNamara on cultural borders, and the vibrant Selina Samuels on Nam Le and Tim Winton. Then followed a session on Psychology, Ontology, and Formal Design with Robert Luscher on (Re)closure in the Short Story Sequence, Rute Júlia Beirante on reality and fiction in Melville´s “The Encantadas“, and Juani Guerra on language and culture in Latino stories, one of which by Sandra Cisneros. (I was to introduce Sandra Cisneros at her reading that evening, so the session was timely. My interest was not wholly innocent since I am playing with writing in “Germglish”, encoding experience in English and German as a way of expressing cultural dislocation.) I learned that language does not create culture, but expresses it and that for the Latina stories there was no possible back translation.

Then came the wonderful reading by Sandra Cisneros in the Bloor/Gladstone Library. I was very nervous at the honour of introducing her but remembered when I first heard Sandra speak at my first conference in New Orleans in 2002. Then she spoke of her button boxes and they have stayed with me. Now I could add the way bilingualism operates in her stories and was able to wink at borderlands with a phrase from her novel, Caramelo: “in a country I am homesick for, that doesn´t exist anymore. That never existed. A country I invented. Like all emigrants caught between here and there.” Needless to say, the theme of the Conference – The Border as Fiction – was fanning outwards. And to end a wonderful day, I was able to meet up with an old writing mate and had a great evening catching up on the years.

Friday allowed me to chill and catch up with friends old and new: Pat Jourdan, wonderful poetic aficionada from the Cork Conference, Juani Guerra from the Alcala de Henares one, Vijay Lakshmi from as far back as New Orleans, 2002. First there was a session on History, Memory and Nostalgia: nostalgia as a site of exile; the hug comforts and constricts; nostalgia shifting from the spatial to the temporal – memory with the pain removed; remembering the past and walking through melancholy to survival. In all, fascinating explorations by Lee Frew, Coby Stephenson and Cassidy McFadzean.

Then on to The Book Business, where I thought the publishers were not keen to hear that writers might be interested in a more direct route to their readers. Agent, Stuart Bernstein and Publisher/Nurturer Kadija George were refreshingly open to new routes of getting “out there”. But the bottom line, as always, was quality. And it was interesting to hear about novella publishing from John Calabro of Quattro Books, Canada and translations published by Ra Page of Comma Press, UK. But I got too wound up in all the discussion and the price I had to pay was missing the reading by Chang Ying-Tai from Taiwan and Billy O´Callaghan from Ireland. (Paddy had shown great generosity in reading Chang Ying-Tai´s work, so I´m sorry I missed this. I was lucky enough to catch up with these delightful writers and John in the extra-curricular over jugs of beer the next evening.) But I didn´t miss a great luncheon reading by Bharati Mukherjee. (Bharati was the first person I knew that I bumped in to when arriving at the hotel and her welcome hug was another high point.)

Then there was a great talk between Clark Blaise and Margaret Atwood and evening readings in the Toronto Public Library by Margaret Atwood, Li Ang, Alistair MacLeod and Robert Olen Butler. In the discussion that followed, Margaret Atwood´s almost deadpan interjections of “on the other hand” reminded of the various ways to see things, or was it the words in the spaces?

Saturday morning began with a reading by Licia Canton and Nuala Ní Chonchúir. Nuala read my favourite story from her collection, Nude: “Cowboy and Nelly” which got me ready for my paper in the session I was also moderating called The Body in Life and Death. The session had a paper on Margaret Atwood´s “Isis in Darkness” by Sharon Wilson. Paddy O´Reilly spoke of the value of the stare when linking Flannery O´Connor and disability theory. Paddy also spoke of a fear or trepidation I feel when moving between “academic” and “creative” writing – will the former harm the so fragile latter? My paper on olfactory imagery in the work of Janette Turner Hospital went over well, and I even managed the power point thanks to coaching from Bernie in Vienna.

The last panel of the day was on Cultural Identity in the Short Story. Writers Fleur Bourgonje, Vijay Lakshmi, Licia Canton, Madeleine D’Arcy, Velma Pollard, Kadija George and Helena Maria Viramontes all saw things from various perspectives – for some, their cultural identity was embraced, for others it seemed to be an impediment, but Vijay summed up with the writer starting off as a writer before a blank page writing and Maurice Lee drove things home: we have to live with our pain, just write.

Then a quick dash up Yonge to find something to wear for the banquet and reading. (I found a glam top at 17 CAD so was saved.) And then to table. And what a table it was with Ana from Portugal, Paddy, Lee and Fi from Australia, Billy from Ireland, Ying-Tai from Taiwan with interpreter, Tony, who sported hairdo and goggles similar to mine, just funkier. We were joined by a young man from Indiana who may not have known what hit him when I asked about Indians and filled up his glass. It was a wonderful borderless table! I don´t know if it was the wine or the sensations going round in my head at this conference of melting borders that made me a bit teary listening to Clark Blaise´s closing speech. So we all carried on till late back at the hotel with jugs of beer as a way around the exorbitant prices and the impending goodbyes.

Sunday morning, a shower, the last breakfast coupon, talking story with Ying-Tai, book swapping with Billy, hugs with great room mate Paddy, and it was off to the airport. Needless to say, I couldn´t sleep on the flight. Would I do it again? You bet! See you all in 2012 wherever you may be.

Thank you Maurice Lee, thank you Susan Lohafer, thank you Allan Weiss, thank you all for a terrific Conference!

ps. and here are some of my photo impressions from the Conference.