Gender and the Body

Author: Sally Barr Ebest (Universtiy of Missouri – St. Louis)


A decade ago, I could not have written a review of gender-related panels. Although there has been a gradual increase, 2015 was the first national conference with panels on gender and/or the body in almost every slot—topics so avant garde that they have yet to attract the mainstream. Although ACIS featured 82 male and 83 female speakers and over 200 attendees, in these sessions, the average attendance was 12, 80% of them female. Here’s what the 20% missed:

In "Destabilizing the Nation, Society, and the Body,” Colleen Taylor, Nancy Marck Cantwell, and Kathryn Conrad examined literature featuring female characters with mutable identities that question gender binaries. Likewise, in “Transnational Irish Literature,” Bisi Adigun, Ed Madden, Andrew Kinkaid, and Amanda Tucker argued not only that the field should move beyond the diaspora toward transnational literature, but also that this paradigm shift should include nontraditional topics such as sexuality, racism, even piracy. Sexuality was also an element of Michael Kinneally’s discussion of Kevin Barry’s short stories in “Transforming Form and Altering Genre in the Contemporary Short Story and Crime Fiction.” 

Crime fiction is a recent entrée at ACIS. In the above panel, Kersti Tarien Powell linked the rise of detective novels—termed "Celtic Noir"—to the demise of the Celtic Tiger, end of the Troubles, decline of the Catholic Church, and rise of gangs. Similarly, in “Speculations on Contemporary Detective Fiction,” Shirley Peterson noted that Irish crime novels capture Irish history as trauma spawned, in part, from the crash but played out against the traumas of colonialism, globalization, culture clash, and resultant fears of powerlessness. Fiona Coffy, Elizabeth Mannion, and Nancy Marck Cantwell examined the Irish roots of police procedurals, tracing the birth of the first female detective to the Sister Fidelma novels and argued that Dalaigh uses these novels to critique the political status of contemporary Irish women.

Trauma is not new to Irish literature; however, in “Trauma, Performativity, and Engendering Silence,” Chu He noted that the topic has finally moved beyond Northern Ireland. Recent novels have addressed PTSD in women’s lives due to death, depression, infertility, and good old Catholic guilt. Such topics are rarely explored, argued Mollie Kervick, because of the tendency of (male) Irish writers to erase mothers from most narratives; Laura Farrell-Wortman expanded on this in her discussion of the performance of widowhood.

Keynote speaker Moynagh Sullivan touched on all of these themes in her presentation on Emma Donoghue's Room. This talk was notable for many reasons: it was the first keynote I can recall by a woman about a contemporary woman writer—which may explain why the audience was primarily female. Room, the story of Ma, a young woman kidnapped, raped, impregnated, and imprisoned by an older man, questions the Irish patriarchal family structure as well as the paternalism that helps maintain and contain a culture of rape and incest. Although the female Bildungsroman is considered outside traditional Irish literary history, in Room, Ma emerges as a survivor with a voice. I hope to hear more women’s voices at future conferences.