Mid-way through my PhD is proving to be an exciting, generative time. Not least for the opportunities to give papers at international conferences such as Finncon in Finland. My visit to Aalto University in Helsinki was supported by a College of Arts Research Support Award and Publishing Scotland’s Author International Travel Fund.
‘Hope and Resilience’ was the title for the 2022 Finncon speculative fiction conference, a theme which is key to my research. My PhD focuses on the possibility for integration and wholeness following trauma and complex loss – not to say that this changes the moral order of trauma, nor should suffering be silenced, nor a person compelled towards wholeness. My research is at the intersection of trauma studies, feminist trauma theology and contemplative faith as a holding place for paradox, combining these with contemporary poetics. I am writing a hybrid long-verse narrative novel set when contemplative faith developed in the Middle Ages.
Several works from the period are helping me create historicized characters and poetics. Piers Plowman, the medieval dream vision poem by William Langland, is itself a long verse narrative and a genus of contemporary speculative fiction. C.S. Lewis praised the poem for its ‘exceptional… intellectual imagination’. Author of Housekeeping and the Gilead quartet, Marilynne Robinson, said of Piers Plowman, ‘it’s extremely strange and beautiful… I read it over and over again… it sounds so much like a human voice after all this time’.
Using our ancestors’ language and ideas
My paper for Finncon’s academic strand was titled, “Imagining a new poetics of the fantastic and resilient through a medieval dream vision poem”. It gave examples of my methodology in developing poetics, not included here. It also explained how the poesis, the making, extends to the whole story.
Piers Plowman continually challenges poverty and corruption, ending with a criticism of an enchanted drowning in dreams. It critically engages with and grieves reality; an imagined alternate reality is implicit. The ability to engage while imagining otherwise lies at the heart of resilience, according to trauma theory. In grieving reality, the atmosphere in Piers Plowman is one of lament. Lament says that things not need be this way. Significantly, ‘lament itself is a form of hope’ says @blackliturgist Cole Arthur Riley in her New York Times bestseller, This Here Flesh.
‘Hope’ in the ancient wisdom tradition wasn’t seen in terms of affect, an emotion. Piers Plowman depicts the allegorical character of Hope as ‘Spes, a spy’. Spes is defined as: a scout, and a legal right given by Christ. So Spes scouts ahead for signs of the hope that God intends as the struggling person’s ‘legal right’.
This is an interesting re-framing of the concept of hope, regardless of whether someone has a faith or not. Here, hope is not remotely triumphal or easy. It is a subtle and yet visceral thing.
Author Carolyn Jess-Cooke, my Creative Writing supervisor, describes hope not as a ‘human urge’ but as the ‘soul’s last atom’ in her poem ‘Birdsong for a Breakdown’.
If hope is a legal right, what is the subject of that hope?
In Piers Plowman, Hope alone is wanting; Charity, Love in action, is shown to be ‘best’.
There’s something intrinsically interesting, useful and even helpful about using historicized poetics. A lens through which we see anew.
Professor Heather Walton, my lead supervisor, who runs the ground-breaking doctoral programme ‘Theology through Creative Practice’, argues that literature is a place where we can learn about the trauma in women’s experience, where those with stigmatized identities can gain a theological voice, where theology can be interrogated.
The above is a summary of a long paper on a sensitive subject – please forgive the nuances missed.
Time in Finland
I was delighted to share the paper with a room full of academics and readers of speculative fiction. My first novel Black Snow Falling (Scotland Street Press, 2018) features magical realism; I was at home.
I also contributed to a panel discussion as scholars and authors discussing the nature of hope and learned from ideas shared. Networking was limited due to feeling a bit unwell – turned out to be Covid. Despite this, Finland was a fantastic experience. And a dozen signed copies of Black Snow Falling were sold in the bookstore.
Many thanks again to the College of Arts and Publishing Scotland for supporting my trip.