Thursday, 30 May 2013


Wow! What a busy period. I sent off my POWS Prize submission a couple of weeks ago and then began work on my paper for the neo-Victorian Villainy Symposium, which was last weekend. The symposium was fantastic, and really inspired me to spend a little more time looking at the neo-Victorian texts that I tend to ignore in favour of Victorian ones! 

I've added some more content to this site, and will be uploading my POWS Prize paper shortly. I will also edit and upload my papers from the Villainy symposium and the Victorian Asylum conference from way back in 2011. 

Finally, I'm preparing to send off two abstracts for conferences which sound absolutely brilliant. 

Then I have a month to do some relaxing and reading, which will be my semblance of a Summer break!

I hope the weather perks up a little and that you all enjoy the beginning of the Summer.


Minaret (2005) - Leila Aboulela

Minaret by Leila Aboulela is not my usual kind of novel. I was introduced to it by the CWWA Book Group, who chose it as their second book. I found the book enjoyable, though in parts it was frustrating; the central character’s passive approach to her life is somewhat irritating. She is a strong woman in the sense of carrying on with her life despite great upheaval and emotional problems, but yet she is very willing to go along with whatever direction she is pushed in by others; be it her family, friends, employer or romantic partner. 

Set during a twenty year period, Minaret follows Najwa from her life as a privileged member of the [unwittingly] corrupt upper class of the Sudan, to her gradual social and economic descent after her family’s downfall. Presented as a fragmented narrative, moving between 1984-5, 1989-90, 1991 and 2003-4 in a non-linear pattern, the novel also charts Najwa’s spiritual awakening and exploration of life through the frame of Islam. 

The movement back and forth in time is something that, I feel, detracts from the novel. The initial juxtaposition between Najwa going for a job as a domestic servant, and her privileged life in Khartoum is very powerful, but after that the fractured narrative seems to serve little purpose. Noticably, Najwa's writing style alters as she develops as a woman. She is initially is a teenager, greatly preoccupied with popstars and Western films, but as the novel develops and she matures, the writing style alters to reflect this; as Najwa experiences her religious awakening, she begins to write in a more eloquent and refined way. 

Identity, its concept and meaning, is the central theme of Minaret. Najwa is forced to examine her own identity as a Sudanese woman when she finds herself in exile in London. Constantly reminded that she is a ‘modern’ woman, Najwa is increasing drawn towards the Islamic identity she has previously shunned. Ultimately, the discipline and security of the religion that Najwa has skirted around for her entire life is what she finds salvation in, following her twin brother’s imprisonment for the violent assault of a policeman during his arrest for drugs-related offences, and her mother’s death from Leukaemia.

The narrative, through Najwa’s self-discovery, questions whether one’s identity lies in one’s origins (e.g. Najwa’s Sudanese origins) or one’s religion. Najwa slowly falls in love with the younger brother of the woman she acts as a domestic servant to when the novel moves forward to 2003. This young man (Tamer) strongly identifies as a Muslim; his family refer to him as being devout. For him, identity is found in religion 
because it has been more of a constant in his life than any sense of belonging or a ‘home’; the family spent time in various countries including those in the Middle East and Sudan itself.

Najwa clearly initially identifies as a Sudanese woman, but her displacement in London and the break-down of her familial unit pushes her towards re-identifying as a Muslim woman. Najwa’s shame at her father’s trial for corruption causes her to avoid any contact with the London Sudanese community, further alienating her from her Sudanese identity. She has moments of clearly being lost between these two identities, including when she reluctantly agrees to sleep with her boyfriend, Anwar, which leads her to a brief personal crisis.

Anwar represents both consistency and great disruption in Najwa’s life. They initially meet in Sudan and engage in a respectable relationship. Anwar hurts Najwa deeply by referring to her father by name in a political speech at the Khartoum University they both attend. Their paths cross again when Anwar is also exiled to London following a military coup. He has also experienced a fall from grace after the decline of the political party he worked for. 

Ultimately, Najwa chooses to turn to religion and, in doing so, turns her back on Anwar. Despite being presented as somewhat of an antagonist in Najwa’s life, the novel ends with Najwa experiencing yet another period of tumult and change, whilst we learn that Anwar has settled down and been able to return to Sudan.

Aside from identity, a principal theme is duty. Najwa’s life is constantly steered by both her sense of duty and the imposition of her duties by other people. As a young woman in Sudan, she is reminded of her duties towards her parents and as a Muslim woman; despite not being devout, she fulfils the role expected of her. Later in life, Najwa takes on the role of domestic servant, and dutifully attends classes at her local mosque. 

Throughout her life she clearly envies those with a clear sense of duty; she is more aware of their servants than anyone else whilst living in Khartoum, and tells the reader outright that she feels jealousy towards the girls who are devout enough to pray at University, although she only seems to accept and acknowledge this jealousy when looking on the situation with hindsight. As the book reaches its resolution, Najwa succumbs to her duty as a Muslim and chooses to go on a religious pilgrimage over being with her new love, Tamer.

Associated with these themes of identity and duty is the hugely significant side plot of Najwa’s decision to wear the hijab, or Islamic headscarf. Najwa initially dresses in a way appropriate for a woman of her faith, class and Sudanese origins, but the pressure to be a modernised and indeed Westernised woman overcome this, and she yearns for nights at the American Club of Khartoum where she can dress like the other young people there. Najwa is influenced by the Western pop stars she listens to, and her family holidays to London.

When she moves to London, Najwa makes the natural progression away from the constraints of the Islamic Sudanese society and towards the free lifestyle that living in London brings. As her life begins to unravel, Najwa yearns for the anonymity and protection brought by being veiled. She presents her newly veiled and modestly dressed self to Anwar as a way of severing their relationship for good; Najwa shows Anwar that she has chosen a religious existence over him. Anwar is very clear in expression his opinion on the ‘backward’ nature of the Islamic doctrine and its treatment of women.

Najwa describes a particularly distressing scene in which she is fearful on her way home from the mosque because of wearing her hijab, and the racial abuse she incurs as a result. Despite this, she is clearly more comfortable with her new modest attire. Her narrative is littered with references to beauty, in both herself and the women around her. In her youth she considers herself and her mother beautiful. After her religious conversion, she takes great delight in seeing her friends from the mosque when they are not wearing their veils. This again relates to the issue of identity. Najwa initially self-identifies as beautiful, but later is more open to seeing beauty in others.

Minaret is exceptionally detailed and maintains high verisimilitude in its depiction of the Muslim religion, informed by the writer’s own religious experiences in Sudan and the UK. Various aspects of the daily practices of Muslims are presented in an accessible but non-patronising way. The representations are both detailed and convincing, especially to the uninitiated. Najwa attends the mosque on a daily basis for prayer, and also attends classes for women there. Her ultimate goal is to go on religious pilgrimage to Mecca. One could argue that Najwa is rewarded, in a religious sense, by finally being able to go on pilgrimage when she agrees to end her relationship with Tamer; her trip is funded by the money his family gives her to leave them alone. 

Despite descriptions of the day-to-day experience of being a Muslim, there is a lacking in descriptions regarding being a Muslim in London, and interactions with Western people whilst Najwa undertakes her exploration of faith; the only interactions with white Western people are negative, with the exception of one white Islamic convert. 

The CWWA Book Club posed the following question, which I would like to briefly discuss: Leila Aboulela has sometimes been described as a ‘halal novelist’, or a writer who stays within religiously permissible topics. Would you agree with this definition? I would absolutely agree with this. Najwa's story is one of religious awakening and discovery, and shows Islam to be both a natural choice for her, and the 'right' choice. Through her exploration of Islam, Najwa finds fulfilment in her life. She appears to view her religious pilgrimage as a chance to be reborn and cleansed of all previous sins, including those of her family. 

To conclude, Minaret is an interesting text, particularly for the way it presents the daily experience of being a woman belonging to the Islamic faith. The narrative is interesting as it shows Najwa fall from grace and begin to build a new life for herself, albeit one far from her privileged existence in the Sudan. I found Najwa to be a frustrating character in the way she is so passive and allows her life to be shaped by those in it, rather than by taking an active stance herself. I enjoyed the text as a whole, but dislike the fractured narrative. I would definitely be interested to read the other novel by Leila Aboulela, and someone at the CWWA Book Club recommended it. The Book Club provided some fascinating discussion on the text, and it was brilliant to hear other people's opinion on Najwa's story.

If you have read Minaret, I would love to discuss it with you


CWWA Book Group - Minaret

Yesterday I travelled to Leeds for the second meeting of the CWWA Book Club, where we discussed the book Minaret (2005) by Leila Aboulela. My journey was pretty frustrating and difficult, but I made it to the Leeds Met University Library and thoroughly enjoyed the Book Club. 

The discussion was fantastic, which was perfect as it was my first book club experience. The discussion was also recorded and will go online as a podcast; I'll post a link to it when it becomes available. I now need to finish off my notes on Minaret and then these will be added to the 'Book Review' section of the website. 

Thank you to everyone who attended the the CWWA Book Club; you all made it a very interesting evening, and well worth the trip to Leeds!


Sunday, 26 May 2013

neo-Victorian Villainy Symposium

Yesterday (Saturday 25th) I attended the utterly fantastic neo-Victorian Villainy Symposium at the University of York. The conference was brilliant and I shall be writing up a more comprehensive report as soon as I can.

My own paper went well, and I was lucky enough to be part of a very enjoyable panel.


Wednesday, 22 May 2013

University of Hull Annual Victorian Lecture 2013

On Thursday 16th May, I had the pleasure of attending the University of Hull Centre for Victorian Studies's Annual Victorian Lecture. The lecture was titled 'Victorian Studies in the Context of World Literatures and Globalization Studies' and was delivered by Professor Regenia Gagnier (University of Exeter), and was absolutely enthralling from beginning to end. 

Professor Gagnier discussed the filtration of British Victorian literature throughout the world, and provided interesting statistics on the most commonly translated British Victorian authors. Her engaging lecture was informed by her current research into the global circulation of Victorian literature, focusing on literature of the decadence movement. 

I have recently been very much cocooned with my studies, focusing on literature by Victorian women writers with a 'psychiatric' focus, a rather niche area, so it was particularly nice to hear about the aspects of Victorian studies which have transcended the globe. 

Unfortunately, I forgot my notepad, so my memories of the lecture are all I have to base this blog report on; my bad! I absolutely recommend to anyone the Annual Victorian Lecture held at the University of Hull. Previous lectures have been given by Elaine Showalter and Margaret Stetz. I hope to report to you again from next year's lecture.


Tuesday, 21 May 2013


Firstly, thank you very much for taking the time to read my blog. If you're unsure what you're doing here, I recommend reading the 'About' section, which you can access via the menu bar (to the left) or by clicking here.

Well! It has been a busy old time of late. As you can see, this website is now up and running, for which I have my wonderful designer extraordinaire (Hannah) to thank. You can contact her via her website, which I highly recommend doing if you require designing services or the like. The website has a few tweaks left to go, so please keep checking back.

Now for a brief update. It is that deadline-laden time of year, hence the blog being a little bare bones at the moment. Soon enough it will be summer, and then hopefully things will change. My summer will be spent completing a couple of pieces of work I have outstanding, preparing research for my dissertation, and then I have a conference paper to deliver in July. I also have plenty of planning to do for the next Academic year.

Last Thursday (16th May) I submitted my 3,000 word essay for the BPS POWS Undergraduate Prize 2013, which I was shortlisted for earlier this year (you can read about that here). I'm very pleased with how my essay turned out. Whilst it may not have drawn upon the extent of psychological theory that a Psychology student may be privy to, I felt it met the POWS Prize brief. It certainly raised some interesting points, and I hope to explore these further in my Undergraduate dissertation, which is due for completion this time next year. 

The Annual Victorian Lecture, organised by Hull University's Victorian Studies Centre, was also last Thursday. It was a fantastic lecture, maintaining the precedent set by the Centre so far for attracting top Victorian Studies academics. A blog post focusing on the lecture is under preparation. I love the way that, each year, the Annual Lecture introduces me to a new area of research or approach to Victorian studies. It was also nice to see all the Hull University Victorianists before everyone disperses for the summer vacation. 

This coming Saturday (25th) is the neo-Victorian Villainy symposium at the University of York. I'm very excited about the event, despite having been ill for a few days, and cannot wait to give my paper titled: 'Come on, you little bitch,' she said to me, 'sing out!'' - Villainous Doctors & Cruel [neo-] Victorian Nurses. As the conference is being organised by the Department of Theatre, Film and Television, I am currently preparing a multi-media visual delight of a presentation... if I can figure out how to insert video clips into Powerpoint. 

I highly recommend that, if you are in the area, you visit the conference. The confirmed papers all sound fascinating, and it promises to be a great day. You can find out more about the event by searching for it on Facebook (search for Neo-Victorian Villainy). Obviously, I shall be reporting back from the symposium!


Book Reviews

Reading is such a big and important part of my life. It seemed only right that I should write about what I read and what thoughts develop around the subject.

This is my first post on book reviews, but it is just to give you the link to keep an eye on. At the bottom of this blog, you can see it is labelled; the label 'book reviews' will send you to a page that will be automatically updated whenever I add a new post or document on book reviews. Alternatively, you will find all my book reviews by clicking the the 'Book Review' tab on the left. I have compiled a content-type page that will detail all the different reviews I've written.

Feel free to explore this blog fully, it's comprehensive. I've tried to ensure that all aspects of my academic life are on here, but if you feel that you could do with knowing more about what happens in my literature fuelled mind or my life, then send me a quick email. I'm always open to feedback and comments, especially if you can recommend a new book to me.


Friday, 10 May 2013

Shortlisted for the POWS Undergraduate Prize 2013

A few months ago I submitted an abstract to the British Psychological Society Psychology of Women Section (POWS), for consideration for their Undergraduate Prize 2013. Psychology is an interest, not my principal field, but the literature I focus on tends to have psychiatric/psychological themes. The abstract I submitted was a (slight) reworking of the abstract from my first conference paper (given in 2011); "Staying here will be good for you": Amalie Skram and the [un]willing female psychiatric patient.

My submission was really a bit of a whim after I heard about the award via an email newsletter; I can't even remember which one! Imagine then, my surprise, when I received an email on the 11th of April to inform me that my abstract had been shortlisted. I was absolutely delighted, and even more so with the comments passed on to me from the reviewers:

I think that this could make an extremely interesting paper, but the author would have to be clear about the original findings and contributions to theory or practice in their paper. There is scope to further show how application of the interpretation of the books will be developed and if this is carried out well could be a very interesting extension of knowledge. I expect this will be a piece of value and interest.

Naturally, the shortlisting has filled me with inspiration and enthusiasm. I have been toiling over the paper ever since and hope, as the reviewers suggested, to present them with a paper which incorporates original findings and theoretical knowledge, along with interpretations of the literature. I am thrilled to have been shortlisted and, as Psychology is not my specific subject per se, I do not expect that my paper will move beyond this stage, though it goes without saying that if it were to progress I would be extremely pleased. 

The submission deadline (for a 3,000 word paper) is the 16th of May. The prize for the winning paper is awarded at the POWS Annual Conference, and comprises of £200, the opportunity to present the paper at the conference, fees and travel for the conference, and publication in the POWS Review.