Guest Blog: Stitching Everyday Resistance: Feminist Politics and Practices of Needlework (Katja May)

Ahead of our Protest and Activism workshop we’re delighted to share a guest blog from one of our speakers- Katja May. Katja  is a third-year PhD candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant at the University of Kent. Her interdisciplinary research project examines practices of needlework as a form of politics within feminist activism. To hear more about her research, please join us on Wednesday 7 November from 2-4.30pm in the Gannochy Seminar Room at the University of Glasgow!

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Textiles have always been deeply connected to the Transatlantic. For black slaves shipped to the new world to toil on the cotton plantations of the American South, the passage resembled one of the first (and for many also the last) horrors of slavery. The cotton these slaves and their descendants then planted, harvested and ginned would often also embark on the transatlantic crossing as either raw or processed goods, but also in the form of passengers’ clothes. Likewise, different textile practices, from dressmaking to embroidery and quilting, went back and forth between both sides of the Atlantic as practitioners moved between the two spheres. This is still very much the case today and the process has become heightened through technological developments that allow online exchange between practitioners and those interested in textile arts and practices of needlework. Think, for example, of the pussy hats that were conceptualized in the autumn of 2016 by Kristah Suh and Jayna Zweiman in the United States as a “symbol of support and solidarity for women’s rights and political resistance” (Pussyhat Project). The knitting and crochet pattern travelled across the Atlantic and beyond and became the iconic object of the Women’s Marches that took place in January of 2017 across the world in protest of the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States.

My PhD research is inspired by this ubiquitous nature of textiles that threads it to global politics and economics while also being closely connected to the individual.  My own passion for textiles was inspired during my high school exchange year in the US, which was to mark my first encounter with traditional patchwork quilts. Back in Germany, it took another three years before I learned how to sew and quilt myself, and it didn’t take long for me to become (slightly) obsessed about anything related to quilting and textiles more generally. This was eight years ago, at a time that the so-called modern quilting movement and its attendant aesthetic was gaining in popularity in the US and had also found its way across the Atlantic to Europe. Age-old discourses about the connection between needlework and femininity were revived, reproduced and sometimes reworked as a result of the revival of the craft. Besides the question of active participation in the craft as an act of conformity or subversion to traditional norms of femininity, practices of needlework are repeatedly discussed as alternative forms of production that supposedly counteract mass produced textiles. However, none of these things are as clear-cut as they are often made out to be. For example, one can make a pussyhat out of cheap acrylic wool bought in a Pound store that is likely to employ its employees (many of which are probably women) on no more than minimum wage and in a precarious contract. Likewise, I could wear a pussyhat made from high-end organic wool in combination with an outfit bought from high street retailers well known for unethical and dangerous manufacturing processes in their South Asian clothing factories. How then, can we attempt to disentangle the ways that practices of needlework are closely knit to other areas of everyday life through their historic legacy, modes of production, and connotations with femininity? I think that the key is in moving away from those popular areas of focus because they will always lead to a dead-end or rather some type of standoff between two opposing sides of a binary rather than investigating what it means for practitioners to be involved in a practice with such contested meanings.

My interdisciplinary research project Everyday Textures: Practices of Needlework, Meaning-Making and Social Transformation examines practices of needlework, for example quilting, dressmaking, embroidery and knitting, as a form of politics within feminist anti-racist and anti-capitalist activism. Drawing on the work of Margaret Wetherell and Ann Cvetkovich, I conceptualize these crafts as affective social practices of meaning-makingin order to attend to their texture in the context of their everyday performance. As a result, I hope to gain further insight into the relationship between personal and social transformation, social movements, politics and the role of everyday practices on the level of affect, knowledge and the phenomenology of making. My sample of case studies is necessarily eclectic because neither the everyday nor practices of needlework can be neatly fitted into disciplinary or methodological boundaries as they bridge that which is ordinary but also exceptional, forms of repetition, moments of disorientation and breakdown as well as potentiality. As such, I critically engage with a number of text(ures) from women’s writing to textile artefacts to the works of the US based youth organization the Social Justice Sewing Academy and the Afghan-European embroidery initiative Guldusi to the contemporary craftivism movement. Through this attention to texture on the level of everyday affective social practices of creative making I follow different trajectories of meaning-making across the textured web of everyday life lines situated not in an abstract realm but in concrete material and affective experiences.

Katja May, University of Kent

K.L.May@kent.ac.uk

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Protest and Activism Workshop, Wednesday 7th November (co-organised with Hook Centre for American Studies).

Wednesday 7 November, 2-4.30pm, Gannochy Seminar Room, Wolfson Medical Building, University Avenue, Glasgow University.

We’re thrilled to announce that, following the success of our Modernisms Workshop and our Wharton Workshop, we’re teaming up with the Hook Centre for American Studies to run a workshop on the theme Protest and Activism. Given that 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of partial women’s suffrage in the UK, and the 50th anniversary of the social unrest and protests in 1968, this theme felt timelier than ever. This is a relaxed, informal event. You can join us for part of the workshop or for the whole afternoon.

We’re now delighted to tell you a bit more about our three speakers:

Katja May (University of Kent): “Legacies of Resistance: From Womanist Writers to Radical Quilters”

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Katja May is a third-year PhD candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant at the University of Kent. Her interdisciplinary research project examines practices of needlework as a form of politics within feminist activism. This research aims to gain further insight into the relationship between personal and social transformation, social movements, politics and the role of everyday practices on the level of affect, knowledge and the phenomenology of making. Katja is a passionate quilter and has organized multiple feminist craftivism workshops and the interdisciplinary conference ‘Emotional Politics – The Role of Affect in Social Movements and Organizing’.

Kate Ballantyne (University of Birmingham): “Beyond a Rise and Fall: Tennessee Student Activism, 1954-1975”

Dr Kate Ballantyne is a Teaching Fellow in United States History at the University of Birmingham.  She received her PhD from the University of Cambridge in October 2017, and is revising her dissertation into a book manuscript on the subject she will discuss today.

 

Nick Batho (University of Edinburgh): “Ocean Hill Be-In: Children’s Books and
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Nick Batho is a third year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. His interdisciplinary work examines children’s books amidst the educational upheavals and Black Power movement in New York City. His work looks at the impact of children’s books in schools and the ways in which they were used. He is also a research assistant for the ‘Our Bondage and Our Freedom’ project at the National Library.

Janine Bradbury, “Racial Passing and Its Transatlantic Contexts”, 5.15pm, Tuesday 20th November, Room 101, 5 University Gardens

The Transatlantic Literary Women are excited to be welcoming Dr Janine Bradbury to Glasgow to give a paper titled: “Racial Passing and Its Transatlantic Contexts”. The talk takes place in room 101, 5 University Gardens at 5.15pm on Tuesday 20th November with drinks and refreshments available from 5. This is a social, friendly gathering. As always, everyone is welcome. Hope to see you there!

Racial Passing and its Transatlantic Contexts

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an entire literary genre emerged in the United States that revolved around light skinned, mixed race African Americans who ‘fraudulently’ pretended to be or passed for white in order to ‘evade’ racism, prejudice, and segregation. Films like Imitation of Lifebrought the topic to a national audience and writers as diverse as William Faulkner, Mark Twain, and Langston Hughes featured passing in their works.

Given that the United States has a distinct history of race relations, how do stories about passing ‘work’ beyond these regional and national contexts? And do American stories about passing inspire and hold relevance for writers across the black Atlantic? How is gender and nationhood represented in these works? And what role do women writers play in the history of the passing genre?

This talk explores the phenomenon of ‘passing-for-white’ as represented in the work of transatlantic literary women ranging from Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen to contemporary British writer Helen Oyeyemi and asks why passing continues to inspire women writers across the West.

Bio: Janine Bradbury is a Senior Lecturer in Literature at York St John University where she is also the Acting Subject Director of American Studies. Her work on passing has appeared in the Guardian and her forthcoming book Contemporary African American Women Writers and Passing will be published with Palgrave Macmillan.

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Jennifer Haytock, “Writing for France: American Women Writers and the Great War”, Wednesday 17 October, 5.15pm,

 

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The Transatlantic Literary Women are excited to be welcoming US academic Professor Jennifer Haytock to Glasgow on Wednesday 17 October.

Jennifer will be talking about American women writers in France during the First World War. Gertrude Stein, Alice Toklas, Mildred Aldrich, Edith Wharton, Gertrude Atherton, and Dorothy Canfield Fisher will all be present! The talk takes place in room 202, 4 University Gardens at 5.15 on Wednesday 17 October, with drinks and refreshments available from 5. This is a social, friendly gathering. As always, everyone is welcome. Hope to see you there!

Writing for France: American Women Writers and the Great War

Looking back in her unpublished autobiography, the American journalist Mildred Aldrich wrote how “strange” it was that during the war “I . . . should suddenly find myself more alive than I had ever been, and possessed with but one idea—a wish to try and make everyone see the situation from my point of view.” Aldrich and other American women writers, including Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Edith Wharton, Gertrude Atherton, and Dorothy Canfield Fisher, were either already living in France when the Great War began or came to France in order to contribute to the war effort. With the exception of the more domestic Toklas, all were professional women and many were well-known public figures before the start of the war, and they turned their skills and reputations to the work of educating Americans about why the invasion of France and Belgium mattered. While American men too worked behind the lines and wrote about the plight of France and Belgium, these women were able to write about the war without the baggage of masculinity, so often tied to martial prowess, thus opening up the ways in which war could be written about. In reportage, memoir, short stories, and poems, these writers showed Americans the suffering of refugees and the wounded, the physical devastation of the war, and the efforts of the French to take care of their own problems, all with an eye for engaging American sympathy and calling them to action. As we prepare to mark the centenary of the Armistice, we’ll examine the ways that American women writers sought to invest their fellow citizens in the plight of France.

Jennifer Haytock is professor of English at The College at Brockport, SUNY. She has published The Routledge Introduction to American War Literature, The Middle Class in the Great Depression: Popular Women Writers in the 1930s, Edith Wharton and the Conversations of Literary Modernism, and At Home, At War: World War I and Domesticity in American Literature.

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TLW/CAS Event: Conniving and Surviving: Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, and 1930s Movies (Sept 26th,University of Glasgow)

Please join us for a joint Centre for American Studies/TLW talk on Wednesday 26 September 2018 at 5.15 at the University of Glasgow.

Our speaker is Professor Donna M. Campbell (Washington State University) who will be discussing “conniving and surviving” women in 1930s movies. Full details below. The talk will take place in room 202, 4 University Gardens at 5.15, with wine, soft drinks and snacks available from 5. This is a free event, generously supported by a BAAS/US Embassy Small Programme Grant. Everyone welcome!

Conniving and Surviving: Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, and 1930s Movies

Donna M. Campbell (Washington State University)

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Since their beginnings in the early 1900s, mainstream Hollywood movies have been a perennially faithful barometer of gender norms and expectations for women, both reflecting and shaping the attitudes of U. S. culture as a whole. By the early 1930s, the vamps, flappers, and vixens of the 1920s began to fade from the screen along with the cult of youth and exuberant sexuality that pervaded movies such as It, Flaming Youth, and Our Dancing Daughters. In their place were women, no longer “girls,” whose response to the catastrophic economic times of the Great Depression was to seize control of their lives and bodies by any means necessary, from the canny conniving, played for humor, of the golddigger to the intense, driven women fighting for survival played by two leading actresses at Warner Brothers, Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis.

Stanwyck’s and Davis’s careers spanned the early years of sound film through the television miniseries, yet in their career peak of the 1930s and 1940s, they epitomized women who would do whatever it took to survive in films such asBaby Face, Jezebel, and Double Indemnity as well as adaptations of fiction by writers such as Edna Ferber (So Big), Edith Wharton (The Old Maid), and Willa Cather (A Lost Lady). Their characters operating in survival mode mirrored the desperation of the real women who flocked to see the movies of Stanwyck and Davis, offering extreme solutions but also a sense of self-worth that countered cultural anxieties during the worst economic era of the twentieth century.

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Donna M. Campbell is a professor of English at Washington State University. Her most recent book is Bitter Tastes: Literary Naturalism and Early Cinema in American Women’s Writing (University of Georgia Press, 2016), and her work on women writers and on film has appeared in Legacy, Journal of Popular Culture, Studies in American Fiction, American Literary Realism, Edith Wharton in Context, Edith Wharton and Cosmopolitanism, and The Cambridge History of the American Novel. Her current projects include a critical edition of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth in the 30-volume Oxford University Press edition of the Complete Works of Edith Wharton, a series for which she is associate editor.

 

Guest Blog: Deborah Snow Molloy and her New York Gals

Hello everyone,

It’s lovely to be here, thanks very much to the team for welcoming me in a guest spot. I’m a part time, distance scholar writing from a very warm corner of Kent, and proud to be doing my PhD at the University of Glasgow under Laura’s steerage.  My project focusses on female mental illness in New York fiction of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, with a particular interest in the relationship between the city and female distress.

On first glance there wouldn’t appear to be much transatlanticism contained within my project, but as I sat and wondered how I could write this blog I realised just how many of my texts include a journey across the Atlantic. New York City is a liminal space, situated as it is on an archipelago at the edge of a continent, a place where fact and fiction blur.  It was a site of both entrance and exit as people came and went through the harbour, before air travel was possible, following a dream or escaping a nightmare.

Djuna Barnes describes Manhattan in a wonderfully evocative piece written in 1917 about a boat trip round the island;

“New York rose out of the water like a great wave that found it impossible to return again and so remained there in horror, peering out of the million windows men had caged it with.[1]

She goes on to recount her dismay at the amount of refuse the city dumped on the wharf and the proximity between the rotting waste, an insane asylum and a home for old men. As she tells it, the waifs and strays of the city are lumped together in one unsightly mass on Randall Island, on the opposite side to the luxurious cruise liners docked in Chelsea. It is perhaps not surprising that Barnes left New York in 1921 to become one of the Lost Generation writers in Paris, though she continued to write about the city of her youth, and ultimately did return.

Edith Wharton, a TWL favourite, similarly left the Big Apple behind her in favour of a continental existence but could not escape the lure of New York in her writing. The extended Wyant/Manford clan run away from New York in Wharton’s Twilight Sleep (1927)and Kate Cleophane makes a brave return to the city in A Mother’s Recompense (1925), only to flee again from “the Babylonian New York which seemed to sway and totter toward her menacingly[2]. Wharton wrote the blurb for Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925)in which we follow Lorelei Lee from New York over to Europe and back again on her increasingly sociopathic adventures. Helga Crane’s internal divisions are externalised as she shuttles between Harlem and Copenhagen in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand (1928) whilst Angela Mory seeks to leave the strain of prejudice and pretence behind her as she leaves the city for Paris in Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun(1928). These ladies flee the verticality of the city for the horizontal space of the liner deck and the wide, blue ocean, looking to escape from their troubles but often coming right back to them.

Sonya Vrunsky in Anzia Yezierska’s Salome of the Tenements(1923) makes the crossing from Europe as a child, full of potential and hope for a new life, only to find clinging poverty and disillusionment in the East Village,

“on the ship to America, the sea, the sky called to me ‘Fly, fly, free, like the sea-gulls!’ But I was roped off, herded, like cattle, in the steerage, choked with bundles and rags and sea-sick humanity.”[3]

Her struggles to reconcile her Russian, Jewish heritage with her love for her American, Protestant husband forms the transatlantic heart of the novel. Betty Smith offers a similar vignette within A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1944), as Aunt Sissy satisfies her baby-craving by adopting the illegitimate child of a young immigrant girl, who returns to Sicily with her parents after the failure of their American Dream.

Fannie Hurst is one of my more forgotten authors, though she was a best-seller for years.  She captures both the beauty and the terror of New York in her short story “The Vertical City” (1922).

“All who would see the sky must gaze upward between these rockets of frenzied architecture, which are as beautiful as the terrific can ever be beautiful.”[4]

Literary New York is an uneasy place, full of noises and motion that unsettle its inhabitants. The population ebbs and flows with the tide, and whilst characters do seek to escape it is hard to break free from the shadow of Lady Liberty.   Its many contradictions result in a disorienting map of broken lives, where only the toughest can survive, but there is also an undenial allure to the City by the sea.

As a final thought, I would like to recommend Lauren Elkin’s book Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London(2016) to anyone looking for a slightly different literary read. In it she documents her own transatlantic travails through several major global cities, set against a back drop of insightful literary criticism.  A native New Yorker, she considers the ways that women interact with unfamiliar urban spaces in a self-deprecating and witty manner, retracing her own footsteps via the works of Jean Rhys, George Sands, Martha Gellhorn and more.  To give her the last word:

People move to New York from all over the world, drawn to what it stands for: work, success, freedom, acceptance, glamour…To approach the city from somewhere else amplifies it’s power. There are so many viewpoints on the city that ‘New York’ – the idea – is filtered in the imagination through millions of tiny windowpanes.”[5]

[1]Djuna Barnes, “’The Hem of Manhattan’ [New York Morning Telegraph Sunday Magazine, July 29, 1917]”, pp285 – 295 in New York: Djuna Barnes, edited with commentary by Alyce Barry, 1989, (Sun & Moon Press: Los Angeles),

[2]Edith Wharton, The Mother’s Recompense, 1986, (Virago Press Ltd: London), p36

[3]Anzia Yezierska, Salome of the Tenements, 1995, (University of Illinois Press: Urbana and Chicago), 34

[4]Fannie Hurst, “The Vertical City”, 48-62 in The Vertical City,2015, (Jefferson Publication: USA)

[5]Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London,2016, (Vintage: London)

Get to know the TLW team: Kari and the Hollywood Novel

Hello everyone! Over the summer, each member of the TLW team will be writing a post to tell you a little bit about what they’re reading and researching at the moment. Today it’s our resident film buff, Kari Sund!

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I hope you’re all having a great summer and that everyone has had the chance to enjoy the rare Scottish sunshine! My reading is strictly taking place outdoors now (even in rain – I’m stubborn!) so I thought I would focus this blog post on one of the novels I’ve been reading over the last few weeks, Dorothy B. Hughes’ In A Lonely Place (1949). I’ve just re-read this thrilling American crime novel, and I’m hoping that a small taster will convince anyone who hasn’t encountered it before to give it a read.

In a Lonely Place is both a fitting and an unconventional summer read. It’s set in sunny Los Angeles in the 1940s, and the location plays an important role as we follow the main character, Dix Steele, driving around Hollywood, Beverley Hills, and other well-known West Coast locations. We find out very early in the novel, however, that Dix is a serial killer, and many of these routes are the same ones which he uses at night to stalk his victims before raping and murdering them. What might initially be perceived as a sunny and glamorous setting for a novel quickly becomes an extremely dark and disturbing place.

Dix Steele is an ex-World War II fighter pilot. He is originally from the East coast, was based in England during the war, and now lives in Los Angeles. The opening chapter sets the scene for the rest of the novel: Dix reconnects with Brub, his wartime best friend who is now a detective in the LAPD, and he stalks two girls through the dark streets of the city, murdering one of them. He also bumps into his stunning neighbour Laurel Gray, for the first time, immediately falling for her. The rest of the novel follows Dix’s inner narrative as he juggles his secret life as a serial killer, with the seemingly normal persona of a young man falling in love with a girl, and socialising with his best friend.

What seems like love to the outsider, is arguably a desire to possess and control a woman who commands more respect than him. This is obvious from the first time Dix meets Laurel;

“The girl didn’t move for a moment. She stood in his way and looked him over slowly, from crown to toe. The way a man looked over a woman, not the reverse. Her eyes were slant, her lashes curved long and golden dark. She had red-gold hair, flaming hair, flung back from her amber face, falling to her shoulders. Her mouth was too heavy with lipstick, a copper-red mouth, a sultry mouth painted to call attention to its promise.” (21)

It is evident that gender roles are being reversed in this encounter with Laurel, and Dix’s overbearing need to possess her after this is akin to his urge to kill. It is this element of Hughes’ writing which lead to it being interpreted as a feminist story.

Hughes makes no secret throughout the novel that Dix and “the strangler” are one and the same. Many critics have remarked on the nature of the novel as “less a “whodunit” than what we might term a “whydunnit”” (Telotte). I found, rather, that the pleasure in reading this novel came from the experience of piecing together Dix’s history of murder as he gradually unfolds past events to us. It’s like being in a police interview room and hearing a confession, not necessarily of why a man has killed – because Dix never directly reveals this – but of when and how he has killed, and then being able to draw our own conclusions about why.

Some readers may be familiar with the 1950 film-adaptation of the novel, which diverges from Hughes’ storyline in interesting ways. In Nicholas Ray’s film, the viewer is left in suspense about whether Dix is the serial-killer until the very last scene. Though the movie-version of Dix (appropriately played by Humphrey Bogart) is a flawed man with severe anger issues, he is ultimately **!spoiler warning!** innocent of murder. On first watching the film, I assumed that the reason for this change was due to the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code. The Hays Code laid out industry moral guidelines which American-produced movies had to adhere to. These guidelines dictated what could and could not be depicted on screen. Amongst the many topics prohibited were miscegenation, sex, drug use, and it was also not permitted to show or encourage sympathy for a criminal. This meant that the hero of a film could not be allowed to get away with a crime, especially not murder! The impact that the Hays Code had on scriptwriting, adaptation, and film production during this era was huge, so it was surprising to learn that this plot divergence was completely unrelated, and a directorial preference. In Film Noir, Alain Silver advises that the original script saw Dix trying to strangle Laurel, and claims that it was Ray’s decision to change this, with Ray allegedly saying “I just can’t do it. Romances don’t have to end that way . . . They don’t have to end in violence” (474).

I’m not going to try and argue that this novel is overly transatlantic, but there are definitely aspects of relevance which struck me. The war preoccupies much of Dix’s thoughts and memories, and Hughes juxtaposes the overseas experiences of men like Dix and Brub, who have both killed in a way which was accepted and unquestioned by society, with the difficulty that they often experienced trying to integrate back into “normal” society and behaviour. Furthermore, as we see with Dix, many men experienced a completely different quality of life during the war. Dix reminisces about the days when he was a well-dressed hero who commanded respect regardless of what his social background was. When he returns home, he struggles to move back into the social class he belongs to. Though he is not poor, he is also not wealthy, and is required to work for a living. As an alternative to this, Dix prefers to scrounge off a comfortable uncle under the pretence that he writing a book, all the while longing to have the leisure-class lifestyle which he constantly sees promoted around him in California. By basing Dix in England during the war, Hughes makes the chasm between these two lives even more pronounced. The men’s time in the air force seems completely disconnected from their lives at home in America, and they know very little about each other.

If you have an interest in crime, detective, Los Angeles, or Hollywood fiction then I would highly recommend In A Lonely Place. Not only was it a gripping page-turner on the first reading, but like all my favourite works of literature, it was even better on a second reading. When we think of American crime fiction, we tend to automatically think of authors such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and the hard-boiled style. It’s certainly not a genre often associated with women writers, but Hughes’ work stands at the top for me.

Though quite different from the novel, the film adaptation is also fantastic, and now regarded as a classic film noir. If you are interested in seeing it on the big screen, then the Glasgow Film Theatre have screened it around November-time for the last two years, so do keep your eyes peeled if you think it’s something you might enjoy!

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Next week we’ll be introducing one of our new committee members, so stay tuned!

 

Additional reading:

You can read a free excerpt from In A Lonely Place here.

I also enjoyed this take on the novel as a feminist story, from Glasgow Women’s Library.

 References:

Telotte, J. P., ‘The Displaced Voice of “In A Lonely Place”’ in South Atlantic Review, Vol. 54, No. 1 (Jan 1989), pp. 1-12.

Silver, Alain, James Ursini et al. Film Noir. Ed. Paul Duncan & Jürgen Müller. Taschen, 2012.