HOTB2020 Panel 1.1: Reading on the Brink



Panel 1.1: Reading on the Brink

“The Ship of This World on Its Voyage to Eternity’: Allegories of Ecological Apocalypse in Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools”

Lydia Nixon (Angelo State University)

“Re-thinking Home in Refugee Picturebooks and Graphic Novels”

Katie Reschenhofer (University of Vienna)

“Observation and Conversation: Post-Apocalyptic Literature and the Young Adult Audience”

Octavia Cade (Massey University)

“Contemporary Literature: The Politics of Aesthetics in The Handmaid’s Tale”

Beatriz Revelles-Benavente (University of Granada)



Q & A

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13 replies
  1. Bart Welling, University of North Florida says:

    Thanks, Lydia, for letting us all know about the novel. I haven’t read it yet and was wondering if you’ve tried teaching it. It strikes me that one of our tasks as “emergency humanists” could be, like Rebecca Solnit in her brilliant book *A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster,* to try to work *against* narratives of innate human evil such as the one Porter offers in the book. But it sounds like the kind of book that could spark a great discussion in the classroom about human nature–how it gets framed in literature and politics, how it is framed so as to justify injustice, etc.

    • Lydia Nixon, Angelo State University says:

      Thanks for your question, Bart. I haven’t tried teaching it yet, but I agree that it could spark a good discussion, particularly if it were paired with another novel that offers a less overwhelmingly pessimistic view of humanity. A weakness of Porter’s allegory is simply that she uses the individual characters to represent the people groups, stereotypes, nationalistic ideals, etc. that her novel critiqued, when in reality, “hope” can often be found in the actions of individual people and their efforts to break the mold. Also, one topic I would love to explore further is how our spatial and temporal proximity to catastrophe impacts our reaction to it. Because Porter wrote her novel during and immediately after WWII, perhaps it was more difficult for her to see the glimpses of innate human good within the overwhelming evil. As you observed, this book certainly offers many opportunities for thought-provoking discussion!

  2. Judith Wakeman says:

    Thankyou Olivia.
    Your presentation was very interesting and relevant to my particular interests as well.
    I look forward to investigating some of the books you mentioned.
    I would also like to follow up on the tumbler sites For YA fiction…

  3. Lydia Nixon, Angelo State University says:

    Katie, Octavia, and Beatriz – thank you for sharing your presentations; I enjoyed them immensely. I particularly appreciated how this panel explores different ways in which fiction can act as a bridge between the humanities and those who may not be comfortable with academic language, even in such significant political and scientific conversations as you each addressed. This panel has given me much to think about, especially as I prepare my teaching materials for the upcoming semester.

    • Beatriz Revelles Benavente says:

      Dear Lydia, dear Katie, dear Octavia, I have enjoyed a lot listening to your presentations. I agree with you Lydia, they have given me a lot to think. Particularly, the conception of place, space and the continuum between it, or rather how they break with each other. I work a lot with Barad’s concept of “spacetime” but I had never seen so well situated differences between space and place. Another author who makes this distinction is Aarun Shaldhana. Also, I found that Lydia and Katie would connect a lot in defining place as security and pause; while, at the same time, Katie responds challenging home and safety. Would home be space? Rather than place?
      Also, when it comes to Octavia’s critical approximation to our language and how young adults read, I need to say that my experience when teaching The Handmaid’s was exactly the same. Young adults are critical of the space that surrounds them and they are alert and want to know exactly what is going on. When I presented the results of what I called our “teaching experiment” at another conference in Barcelona, they wrote the conclusions of the paper and I offered to my class to participate in the conference connecting them via skype, so they were asking the questions themselves. It was a truly engaging experience.
      All that said, thank you all for your wonderful speeches and also, to the conference organizers for allowing us to share conversations in these difficult times.

      • Katie Reschenhofer says:

        Thank you Lydia, thank you Beatriz!

        @ Lydia: I really learned a lot from your discussion of place and space and will definitely read up on this some more. So many thanks for the inspiration! 🙂

        @ Beatriz: Great question – As I was watching Lydia’s presentation, I asked myself the same thing. For my research and my attempts to re-define and re-think “home” in the context of refugee picturebooks, the notions of “place and space” will definitely help me put my ideas into words. My first instinct was also to think of “home” as a space, however, through reading up on theories of home from Migration Studies, I have learned that -in the context for displacement- home (especially when it is involuntarily left behind) can become a lot more concrete and “fixed” than we may first assume!

      • Lydia Nixon, Angelo State University says:

        Beatriz and Katie – thank you for your responses! I have not yet read Shaldhana, and I am only slightly familiar with Barad, so I appreciate you pointing me toward these useful sources. My (limited) research has primarily focused on people traveling or voluntarily leaving home, so, unlike Katie’s answer regarding refugees or those who are involuntarily displaced, I would agree with Beatriz that people who voluntarily displace themselves are, in a sense, choosing “space” as their home. In my presentation I suggested that this redefinition of home can be useful in reducing place-related conflicts (by this I mean cultural, ideological, etc. conflicts), but Katie’s presentation and response has me wondering what this would look like in the long-term. Can we redefine our sense of home in this way and still maintain our sense of identity over time? I’ll certainly be thinking about this as I continue my studies.

  4. Massih Zekavat says:

    Katie, thank you very much for your intriguing presentation. I wonder if environment/war remains a central bipolarity when the perspective of the author-illustrator changes. Were the writers and illustrators of the examples you discuss directly affected by the ‘crisis’? How far does the representation and narrative formed through their creative work correspond to the actual asylum seeker experience?

    • Katie Reschenhofer says:

      Thank you so much for this great question!
      Amongst the texts I have studied so far, the ratio between authors/ illustrators with flight experience to authors/ illustrators who have never had to flee war has been about 40:60, I’d say. However, nature / the environment does play a role in almost every single picturebook in one way or another.
      Because these multimodal texts condense such complex issues into child-friendly narratives, of course there is a limit to their accuracy, compared to the very real and diverse, lived experiences. I can recommend reading “Forced to Flee: Refugee Children Drawing on their Experiences”, written in association with the UNHCR. This book features pictures drawn by children who have experience flight (and these pictures are mostly extremely graphic in their portrayal or violence – which the texts I study never are).

  5. Kristen Brown says:

    Thank you for your thought-provoking presentations! I have general comments/questions for Lydia.

    I am not familiar with the novel, but your presentation has inspired me to read it! I have been aware, however, of the general allegory and its history ever since I became a fan of the song “Ship of Fools,” written by Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia (first performed by the Grateful Dead in 1974). The song is a mournful ballad that focuses on mutiny. I am wondering if/how mutiny factors into Porter’s allegorical representation and, more broadly, our own sense as passengers on the global (or perhaps, national) ship. I am also fascinated by concepts of space and place, particularly within the context of settler colonialism. In my own research (19th c. Indigenous Studies), I have been intrigued by Julianne Newmark’s concept of Indigenous “emplacement” as a counter-nativist (in the Anglo sense)strategy by author-activists like Gertrude Bonnine (Zitkala Sa). In what ways can place-attachment (in a trans- or pre-national usage) be radically resistant to dispossessive frames of settler governance?

    • Lydia Nixon, Angelo State University says:

      Thank you for your response!

      Surprisingly, Porter’s plot does not involve mutiny (at least not that I remember; it is a very long novel, so I may be missing some hints of unrest among the crew). My guess is that her main focus was on the passengers, so the actual crew members on the ship figure almost in the same way as the ship’s architecture: their primary role is to help establish a sense of place for the passengers by quickly resolving (or at least covering up) any conflict or distress. Your question has me thinking now, though; I’ll have to reread the novel and pay closer attention to the crew members in the background.

      Your second question actually aligns closely with what I hope to study more over the next few years (I am just beginning my PhD this fall), so, while I don’t have any sort of answer, I appreciate the question! I have not read Newmark yet, so thank you for pointing me in a useful direction, and I would welcome any other thoughts or comments you have!

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