Fall Interview: Q & A with Sarah Cornish and Julie Vandivere
Sarah Cornish is an Assistant Professor of English, Film Studies, and Digital Humanities at the University of Northern Colorado. She is co-founder of the Feminist inter/Modernist Association, and her research on the modern city and urban subjectivity in interwar novels and film focuses particularly on women writers and culture-makers. Her articles and reviews have been published in Feminist Modernist Studies, Virginia Woolf Miscellany, Woolf Studies Annual, and The Rocky Mountain Review. She co-edited Woolf and the City: Selected Papers from the Nineteenth Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf (Clemson UP, 2010). You can find her on Twitter @secornish. Julie Vandivere, Director of Honors and Professor of English at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, has published articles, editions, and collected essays on many modernist women writers including H. D., Bryher, Virginia Woolf, Peggy Guggenheim, Emily Coleman, Emilia Pardo Bazán, and Rosa Chacel. She is presently finishing a monograph on changing definitions of infant life at the beginning of the twentieth-century entitled “Fetal Wars: Birth Registration, Bastardy, and the Rise of Modernism.” This interview was conducted over email in September 2017 by Janine Utell, Editor of The Space Between. Previous interviews are archived here.
Let’s begin with the very exciting news that this year’s annual meeting of The Space Between Society will be held jointly with the inaugural conference of the new Feminist inter/Modernist Association. Can you tell us the story of FiMA, say a bit about its mission and purpose, and why it makes sense to hold a joint conference with The Space Between?
Thank you so much for the opportunity to talk about FiMA’s evolution, which has given us a moment to take stock of how far we’ve come. In early 2014, Sarah, along with friend and graduate school colleague Peter Murray, organized and ran a three day ACLA conference seminar on understudied women writers. Sarah and Peter had a full house and were surprised at the amount of time the conversation focused on 1) how to make bold arguments about women culture makers that went beyond recuperation and recovery and 2) how hard it was to get scholarship on these women published in top journals on modernism. Julie attended that seminar where she met Sarah for the first time and the seed that would become FiMA was planted. That summer, at The Space Between’s conference in London, Julie and Sarah had an energetic couple of conversations in hallways after panels and during the wine and cheese receptions about how to start and, more importantly, sustain a professional organization that would support scholars working on women writers and culture makers who were consistently pushed to the fringes and forgotten. Julie, having been asked to host the 2015 Virginia Woolf conference, had a unique opportunity to put our budding mission into practice, and called for papers that actively engaged with Woolf’s female contemporaries. In the meantime, Cassandra Laity was working tirelessly on finding a publisher for her journal Feminist Modernist Studies. She met much of the same resistance that Sarah and Julie had been experiencing and hearing about the challenges scholars were facing with getting their work out there, so when Routledge took on FMS, it was a really exciting moment for all. Furthermore, when Routledge requested that the journal needed to have an attending professional organization, Cassandra decided that FiMA was the perfect fit. At Julie’s Woolf conference, we launched FiMA alongside Cassandra’s announcement about the new journal at a plenary session. After that session, Sarah ended up with eight pages of notebook paper full of names, emails, and offers to volunteer in any way to help make FiMA strong. The enthusiasm we felt from our fellow Woolfians and Space Between-ers at that conference gave us the determination to offer a FiMA conference soon, and that opportunity presented itself when the Space Between board asked Sarah to host the 2018 conference at the University of Northern Colorado.
Our partnership with The Space Between, to us, seems really organic. Much of our early brainstorming happened because we were both accepted to present our work on understudied, lesser-known women writers at a Space Between conference. For Sarah, who began attending The Space Between conference the year she started her tenure-track job at UNC, the Society has provided a home base where she’s received meaningful mentoring during her early career years on publishing, teaching, and life balance. For Julie, it had felt like The Space Between was the ground where people really cared about the wide menu of artistic production in the early twentieth-century. She loved the focus on everything from middlebrow and folk art to high modernism and the impact of the visual arts. As an inclusive and non-hierarchical space, it seemed like the ideal group to partner with for the inaugural conference.
Turning to the larger question of feminism and modernist studies—or what it means to create and work in a feminist modernist studies—how would you account for the lack of a sustained and visible presence for feminism and feminist scholarship, even as modernist studies purports to expand and extend vertically, globally, temporally, etc.? As Urmila Seshagiri states in her introduction to the recent Modernism/modernity cluster “Mind the Gap! Modernism and Feminist Praxis,” there is an “aporia between feminism’s vitality for modernism, on one hand, and the scholarly neglect of that vitality, on the other.” How does a feminist modernist studies have the potential to exert force on the “new modernist studies”?
Creating and sustaining a professional home for scholars working on these figures will help to shift the field to be more inclusive. New Modernist Studies has done wonderful things to widen the areas of inquiry, it’s true, but in so doing, there’s an implicit forgetting of women culture makers who may have been part of what we consider mainstream modernism, by virtue of their friend group, or to whom they were married. Such a big problem that we see and are trying to figure out how to draw attention to and fix is that white women get racialized as white in a way that white men do not. Throwing out white women, inadvertently or not, is a way to deal with whiteness as a category without having to implicate white men. No one has to defend a choice to write on James Joyce or T.S. Eliot or Wyndham Lewis or W.H. Auden. But there is an apologetic undercurrent in much scholarship we hear presented at conference about white women writers, in particular, that justifies them as serious subjects for study. Some of this justification is necessary, especially when we are presenting on women that no one in the room has ever heard of—we need to introduce and position these figures within a timeline, a geographic region etc... But, we also want to see these figures taken on their own terms instead of being legitimized by their famous male contemporaries. We want to be able to explore the ways these women present their stories without always contextualizing them alongside or against the backdrop of patriarchal narratives. And, there are women culture makers of all backgrounds who just don’t fit into some of the categories our own profession has established for itself, so Kristin Bluemel’s introduction of the term intermodernism and the turn toward cultural materialism, for example, has helped us bridge some of these figures into the field.
But making changes that last, we think, happens in the classroom. Both of us have the luxury of teaching at universities where we can build courses that privilege women writers. Both of us have had numerous students say they’ve never read a book in an undergraduate literature course written by a woman. This is crazy, and this can be corrected.
Julie’s students tell her that the dynamic of their undergraduate classroom dramatically changes when they are discussing women writers. They feel that most undergraduate education is still about male writers. As one of her students wrote to her, “I felt like I was finally reading a narrative I could relate to. I found the discussions much more meaningful and became a much more active reader. It felt there there was just so much more room for discovery.” They felt that being able to relate to the writing allowed for a more intimate and personal discussion. Julie says that it astounds her that in the 21st century, our students have still read so few women writers that they feel like the study of these writers is a new ground and that they get to be some of the first to disseminate the work. Sarah has many future teachers in her courses and she has observed that introducing students to women writers, filmmakers, and artists grants them the power to introduce and teach them to their own students; one of her students taught a wartime story by Mollie Panter-Downs to a high school class while he was student-teaching and he reported that the kids were highly receptive and asked where they could find Panter-Downes’s work. They had never read anything like this simple story about an elderly lady sharing tea with a Canadian soldier because her house had been turned into a military post. Sarah also builds use of Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present into much of her teaching and assignments so that students become aware of how databases and archives are built and who chooses what goes into them. Ultimately, we both believe that teaching books by women creates an explosion of visibility for writers that haven’t had their due.
Julie remains hopeful because she has recently been thinking about the financial impetus of modernism and what it has produced. Perhaps women writers succeeded in the Victorian period because their work was readable; it sold and therefore had an initial push of dissemination. Modernism, however, as people like Paul Delaney have discussed, worked on a model of investment to produce art and literature for a small audience. That small audience seeded the market and produced canonicity. It feels like the trajectory is different for modernist women writers than for men. While some did have the financial backing to produce work, the initial avenues of dissemination were much narrower and the paths to canonicity might rely on a longer, more circuitous route that must always be cleared by scholars who insist on the presence of women writers.
How do you envision a feminist modernist studies deploying the work of recovery in new ways, and possibly going beyond? In that same M/m cluster, Madelyn Detloff in a piece entitled “Metics, Methods, and Modernism” details the various “methodologies” that might emerge from a feminist modernist studies. How do you envision a feminist praxis in the study of modernism opening paths to new methodologies, new texts, new ways of reading?
This is such an important question and returns us to the classroom and changing the field through teaching. A problem that many of us encounter and want to fix is directly impacted by the marketplace. Numerous works by women that we want to teach are out of print, like Olive Moore’s Spleen. So, it’s up to us to put pressure on the market to bring back runs of certain texts (Persephone Press brings back much needed texts, mostly authored by British writers), propose critical editions (Broadview is an excellent publisher of critical editions), or make digital editions of texts ourselves, like Ella Ophir has done with Notebooks of a Woman Alone (1935) and Pamela L. Caughie, Sabine Meyer, and Nikolaus Wasmoen at Loyola are doing with Man into Woman, Lili Elbe’s story. Collaborating on digital editions with each other is one way that we envision being able to go beyond recovery and widen the interdisciplinarity of feminist scholarship. Digital editions are often accessible without a paywall and, therefore, more teachable. Digital Humanities practitioners are definitely widening the scope to include more work on and by women and minority populations, and many institutions are becoming willing to fund digital projects, large and small, especially when they involve student research assistants and programmers who can learn skills to take onto the job market.
One of the most inspiring lines Julie read during her graduate career was Barbara Johnson’s claim that ignorance is not simply a gap in our knowledge. Rather, ignorance is the potential to prove everything we have previously known as wrong. We believe that what modernist women writers have to tell us don’t fill in the gaps of our knowledge about modernism but persistently upend our assumptions about the period. This upending is especially important because the period is such a pivotal one in terms of what is human and what is not. What is fascism and how does one resist its rise. How does one make an ethical and effective movement against violence and war. We both are deeply committed to this big picture concern that, we think, should motivate our everyday actions in the classroom and in our research agendas. It should motivate what we choose to present at conferences. For now, we may have to keep justifying and defending our choices about our research, but we have so much hope that someday no one will have to explain their decisions about whom they are reading and researching and why.
Are there ways to think about other aspects of our discipline from a feminist perspective? For instance, can we have a feminist peer review? Can a conference be a feminist space? Is feminist textual scholarship or scholarly editing possible? What might these things look like?
We find this question to be really difficult because we’d like to think about how not to silo our work by always differentiating things as “feminist,” but at the same time, that seems to be so necessary to right now. We don’t want work on women to become so diffuse that no one is noticing new and exciting research and teaching on women writers before real changes have been made to these institutional practices. So, one of the goals of FiMA is to help build alliances and help us better our interdisciplinary networks. This is also in part why it’s so important for us to partner with The Space Between.
We are both inspired by the possibility of affirmative critique. Julie has been working with Erica Delsandro on a collection of essays on women writers that tries to answer Rita Felski’s charge to move away from the “hermeneutics of suspicion” and offer readings that instead open, offer, and amplify the positions, voices, and concerns of modernist women writers. We know that sounds vague, but work like Rita Felski’s Limits of Critique or Caroline Levine’s Forms offer readings that demonstrate how scholars can function as assemblers rather than as detectives and thereby escape the tired tyrannies of exclusion and hierarchy. Maybe this way of reading can lead us into making feminist spaces through conferences, peer review, and other scholarly activity.
Julie, at the MSA conference in Pasadena you spoke movingly and powerfully about the place of feminism in our current moment. What role do you see for the work of feminist modernist studies now, even beyond the academy?
The election of Donald Trump has forced me to change my thoughts about writing in general and more specifically, about publishing on modernist women writers. Before his ascension, I naively believed that finally, a hundred years after women had won the vote, and after modernism had produced the flowering of a large generation of educated women we had moved forward and would elected a female president. Instead, I find myself facing many of the frightening scenarios the modernist women encountered in the first decades of the twentieth-century: the rise of fascism, bitter racial apartheid, and unabashed chauvinism. Their writing resonates now, more than ever, for it consistently links war, tyranny, and chauvinism and reminds us that we must write and speak because, as Woolf reminds us in “Thoughts on Peace During an Air Raid,” articulating our resistance, writing drags “up into the consciousness, the subconscious Hitlerism that holds us down.”
Julie’s MSA talk is available on Modernism/modernity’s Print Plus: “Modernist Memories of Fascism: Women’s Writing in the Age of Trump”
Let’s conclude by returning to the conference and future work: what currents are exciting you right now? what issues and questions do you hope to see raised?
Cassandra Laity, who has just finished editing the first issue of Feminist Modernist Studies, has shared some of her thoughts on this question, as she’s been able to see what immediate work can be done through her experiences of reading the newest feminist scholarship. She tells us that the overall aim of FMS is “to re-enter diverse, open-ended definitions of modernism through a feminist/gendered lens and to recover lost or under explored women writers (as well as culture-makers and artists).” Some of the journal’s aims are to be dedicated to entering into “‘new modernist’ expansions from a feminist/gendered lens, while being alert to how these new vantages might change current definitions of modernism” including “the new expansions into global/transnational studies, cultural studies, interdisciplinarity.” Another central objective will be to explore African-American feminist modernism, which has been given a short-shrift. FMS will also be dedicated to drawing on “intermodernist approaches, including attention to women and gender in late modernism; and intermodernism's engagement in the feminist politics of World War II and the Cold War. And to explore the ways in which intermodern women writer's forms and genres—whether politically driven or more ‘traditional’— redefine the ‘new modernisms.’”
We are excited about the launch of FMS as the journal secures a space for field-shifting approaches, and we look forward to seeing, in the long-term, what linkages are possible among different things that we haven’t yet thought about. However, Julie’s response to the previous question is central: we are most interested right now in how current political climates will motivate feminist scholarship and teaching to reconnect with women’s writing and cultural production as a way to engage with the tricky concept of resistance. Our conference theme is “Intersections of Resistance,” which we hope will offer participants the space to think through new approaches and configurations for their research areas that take into consideration how writing and culture engage with oppressive systems and ideologies. We look forward to the conference in June whose participants will reveal many of these new directions.