Amgueddfa Blog: Community Engagement

The next steps in a Professional Training Year

It’s been a little while since my last blog post and since then there has been a lot of exciting things happening! The scientific paper I have been working on that describes a new species of marine shovelhead worm (Magelonidae) with my training year supervisor Katie Mortimer-Jones and American colleague James Blake is finished and has been submitted for publication in a scientific journal. The opportunity to become a published author is not something I expected coming into this placement and I cannot believe how lucky I am to soon have a published paper while I am still an undergraduate.

There are thousands of scientific journals out there, all specialising in different areas. Ours will be going in the capstone edition of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, a journal which covers systematics in biological sciences, so perfect for our paper. Every journal has its own specifications to abide by in order to be published in them. These rules cover everything from the way you cite and reference other papers, how headings and subheadings are set out, the font style and size, and how large images should be. A significant part of writing a paper that many people might not consider is ensuring you follow the specifications of the journal. It’s very easy to forget or just write in the style you always have!

Once you have checked and doubled checked your paper and have submitted  to the journal you wish to be published in, the process of peer reviewing begins. This is where your paper is given to other scientists, typically 2 or 3, that are specialists in the field. These peer-reviewers read through your paper and determine if what you have written has good, meaningful science in it and is notable enough to be published. They also act as extra proof-readers, finding mistakes you may have missed and suggesting altered phrasing to make things easier to understand.

I must admit it is a little nerve wracking to know that peer reviewers have the option to reject all your hard work if they don’t think it is good enough. However, the two reviewers have been nothing but kind and exceptionally helpful. They have both accepted our paper for publication. Having fresh sets of eyes look at your work is always better at finding mistakes than just reading it over and over again, especially if those eyes are specialists in the field that you are writing in.

As you would expect, the process of peer-reviewing takes some time. So, while we have been waiting for the reviews to come back, I have already made great progress on starting a second scientific paper based around marine shovelhead worms with my supervisor. While the story of the paper isn’t far along enough yet to talk about here, I can talk about the fantastic opportunity I had to visit the Natural History Museum, London!

We are currently investigating a potentially new European species of shovelhead worm which is similar to a UK species described by an Amgueddfa Cymru scientist and German colleagues. Most of the type specimens of the latter species are held at the Natural History Museum in London. Type material is scientifically priceless, they are the individual specimens from which a new species is first described and given a scientific name. Therefore, they are the first port of call, if we want to determine if our specimens are a new species or not.

The volume of material that the London Natural History Museum possesses of the species we are interested in is very large and we had no idea what we wanted to loan from them. So, in order to make sure we requested the most useful specimens for our paper, we travelled to London to look through all of the specimens there. We were kindly showed around the facilities by one of the museum’s curators and allowed to make use of one of the labs in order to view all of the specimens. The trip was certainly worth it. We took a lot of notes and found out some very interesting things, but most importantly we had a clear idea of the specific specimens that we wanted to borrow to take photos of and analyse closer back in Cardiff. 

Overall, I can say with confidence that the long drive was certainly more than worth it! I’m very excited to continue with this new paper and even more excited to soon be able to share the results of our first completed and published paper, watch this space…

Thank you once again to both National Museum Cardiff and Natural History Museum, London for making this trip possible.

As part of our Swansea PRIDE Celebrations this year, we'll be delving into the fascinating history of the novelist and successful industrialist, Amy Dillwyn, and presenting a performance piece about her life on 16th July. Here's Prof. Kirsti Bohata of Swansea University to tell us more about her. To find out more about this and all our Swansea PRIDE events, visit museum.wales

Amy Dillwyn was a pioneer. That was, in fact, her nickname amongst friends: ‘The Pioneer’. A writer, feminist campaigner and successful industrialist (a very rare thing for a woman in the 1890s) she made the most of her public platform to advocate for women’s rights.  Through her writing and her public persona she showed women could be resilient, adventurous and clever.  She rejected feminine norms, eschewing any interest in the restrictive frills of women’s fashion (except for casting an appreciative eye over the female form). Instead she cultivated a genderqueer identity (in her diaries she once wondered if she might be ‘half a man’) and her Trilby hat, thick boots, practical skirt and her ‘man’s cigar’ became iconic symbols of her claim to autonomy.

Portrait of Amy Dillwyn. Image courtesy of the Morris family.

Though she described herself as a ‘man of business’, and held prominent public roles including Chairman of the Hospital Board, she found her entrance to centres of economic power (like the Swansea Harbour Trust) barred by those who objected to her gender and, one suspects, those who had been on the receiving end of her plain-speaking.  She did not suffer fools. Calling out hypocrisy, inefficiency and incompetence where she found it amongst the all-male committees on which she served won her respect in some quarters but inevitably made enemies in others. She was ousted from the Hospital Board just as she had raised the money for a new convalescent hospital, a debacle  given blow by blow coverage over several issues in the press[i].

As a feminist campaigner, she wasn’t only interested in gaining the vote for herself – though she gave generously to the militant Women’s Freedom League and became president of Swansea’s branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) – she spoke up for fair pay and conditions for working-class women.  In March 1911 she shared a platform with trade unionists Mary MacArthur (1880-1921) and Margaret Bondfield (1873-1953), who later became a Labour MP, in protest against ‘sweated labour’. To an audience of striking dressmakers and the general public, Dillwyn argued that ‘Employers have no right to ... grind [poor people] down to take unfair wages or to make them accept unfair conditions of labour’ and called on Swansea to boycott the department store, Ben Evans. The campaign (which exposed illegal as well as unethical practices) was discussed in the House of Commons.

Trailblazer though she was as an industrialist and an iconoclastic woman who refused to have her behaviour (or dress) dictated by Victorian convention, Dillwyn’s most enduring legacy is her fiction and its importance to lesbian literary history.  Vigorous, feminist and bearing frequent touches of her dry humour, Dillwyn’s novels satirise the hypocrisy of her own class and she writes about social injustice from the perspective of the labouring classes.  Her abiding theme, however, is same-sex love and desire.  Sometimes this is overt: in A Burglary (1883) and Jill (1884) a young woman develops a ‘strange fascination’ and attraction to a woman just a little bit older (and richer).  Sometimes her plots are more coded, often involving disguise or cross-dressing: in The Rebecca Rioter she has a working-class man (based partly on Dillwyn herself[ii]) fall in love with an upper-class woman (while also fancying another man!) which suggests all sorts of queer, trans and bi-sexual readings.[iii] 

Olive Talbot with her father C. R. M Talbot of Margam Castle. From NMGW collection

The recurring subject or women loving women, and her interest in unrequited love between all sorts of people, can be traced to Dillwyn’s own life and love.  Aged 15, Amy Dillwyn fell in love with the 17-year old Olive Talbot (1843-1894), daughter of local millionaire, C. R. M Talbot of Margam Castle.  Amy and Olive were close friends, exchanged gifts, and stayed together in various houses and resorts. Though Amy laments that her ‘romantic… passionate… foolish’ love for Olive was met only with ‘ordinary’ affection, by 1872 Dillwyn referred to Olive in her diaries as ‘my wife’.  Olive remained the centre of Amy’s emotional and erotic world for at least the next 15 years (as detailed in her unique diaries which unfortunately stop in 1875 when Dillwyn underwent an operation) and probably much longer if the evidence of her novels (published during the 1880s) is taken into account. 

Though we don’t know exactly how their relationship progressed or ended – Olive spent the last years of her short life in London while Dillwyn was a semi-invalid in Swansea – the legacy of Dillwyn’s love and creative exploration of same-sex desire makes a remarkable contribution to queer Victorian literature. Her novels,[iv] along with her unusually frank diaries (held at Swansea University and currently being edited for publication), offer a compelling insight into queer life in nineteenth-century Wales. 

 

For more on Amy Dillwyn visit the Dictionary of Welsh Biography: https://biography.wales/article/s12-DILL-AMY-1845

Photographs of Olive Talbot are included in a collection of photographs by John Dillwyn Llewelyn, that are part of the National Museum of Wales' collection. Mark Etheridge, NMGW Curator: Industry and Transport provides an introduction to the collection here: John Dillwyn Llewelyn — Welsh Pioneer Photographer | National Museum Wales

You may access this and other photographic collections in our care here: Photographic Collections | National Museum Wales

 

The forced and thoughtless partition of India in 1947 created a unique rupture between the once coexisting communities of Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus as well as the spaces (home) inhabited by them. Hence, drawing the borders of the 1947 Partition resulted in the subcontinent inheriting ‘‘a geography of trauma’’ (Jennifer Yusin 2009: The silence of partition). Notwithstanding the almost 75 years that have elapsed, the South Asian subcontinent has been struggling to deal with this event. The trauma of this forceful sundering of geographies, communities and cultures resurfaces socially and politically not only between the partitioned nations—India, Pakistan and Bangladesh-- but has led to other upheavals even within the nations themselves, in the form of wars, terrorist attacks, communal riots and the million types of microaggressions between identity groups. 

The loss of home, land and community caused by the partition has been expressed through literary and cultural works throughout the last seven decades. These expressions of trauma and recording of memory, though specific to this partition and borders, are universal in that they represent the trauma and erasure caused by the drawing of every border, whether physical or socio-cultural. Hence, one could use the phrase “every border is a geography of trauma” to all borders that need crossing in order to construct an identity that liberates one from the patriarchal, nationalist forces, and limitations that restrict individuals and communities.

Our current project, Refugee Wales, which collects the stories of Sri Lankan Tamils and Syrian refugees in Wales, too, resonates with the issues raised by the 1947 partition and both of these topics are part of my research projects for my PhD and my post-doctoral work.  When I had the opportunity to chair a session named South Asian Transcultures at the 17th ECALALS Triennial Conference (28 – 30 June 2021) I focussed specifically on two papers, Devika Karnad’s “Identity Across Borders: Tracing a South Asian 'Transcultural' in Indo-Anglian Women's Fiction and Susan Rajendran’s “Challenging Aesthetic Borders: Postcolonial Narratives and Literary Innovation in Sri-Lankan Writing”. In them I found resemblances to my previously mentioned projects.  

Among the two papers, Devika Karnad covered the issue of trauma caused by borders (between India and Pakistan), and the literary imaginary that allows the characters to think beyond borders and inhabit spaces that were once common heritage of all communities that have now been rendered inaccessible due to national and international politics that emerged from the partition.

Devika discussed two Indian English novels by two Indian female authors. They are, Difficult Daughters (1998) by Manju Kapur and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017) by Arundhati Roy. Both the novels represent a ‘transcultural’ conception of identity that spans across borders in South Asia, geographically as well as socio-culturally. These literary imaginaries explore the “capacity for embodying the transitory through its ability to move fluidly between the past and the present” and between the borders created by multiple identities, at a time when identities have been rigidified through decades of ‘partition-wars-terrorism-communal riots’ discourses and rendered further impregnable through the majoritarian discourses that rule these nations today. Devika’s discussion of these two novels, while laying bare the aberrant situation of the partitioned South Asia and the socio-political turn these nations have taken, also exposes the shallowness of the politics of “identity harvesting” (Manuel Castell: The Power of Identity, 2011) by the ideologies and demagogues who rule South Asian nations today. Devika’s presentation was a critique of the politics that feeds on borders, identities and the apparatuses that sustain them.

In a similar vein to Devika’s choice of texts that focus on the transgression of borders despite the current trends of majoritarian identity politics, Susan Rajendran also examined “how early to mid-twentieth century writers in Sri-Lanka aspired to construct a Sinhala identity through artistic and literary production” that defy the majoritarian identity politics. Covering the works of two authors: Martin Wickramasinghe (1890-1976) and Ediriweera Sarachchandra (1914-1996), Susan tries to prove that these two authors used disparate literary traditions “to explore the commonalities of human experience in a manner geared to local sensibilities”. While the authors used Buddhist themes and Sinhala folklore to construct a Sinhala identity they also guarded against nativist attitudes and tried to foster a transcultural approach. 

As the Refugee Wales project progresses, we realise that in Sri Lanka, the postcolonial effort at nation building has focussed predominantly on political and ideological discourses about “preserving the ‘purity’ of Sinhala Buddhist culture from Western influence as well as perceived threats from the Muslim and Tamil minorities” as Susan has argued. This was a majoritarian ethno-religious-linguistic project where the minorities and their culture(s) were to be downgraded, then erased. This was an exercise at guarding and harvesting identities for political power by excluding other stakeholders. We know what it produced: ethnic strife that resulted in a civil war which lasted of and on for over five decades, rendering a huge population into refugees. Against such a dominant cultural and political discourse Wickramasinghe and Sarachchandra, through their art and literature, try to construct alternate responses to the vexed question of national identity and highlight the possibility of a transcultural/transnational identity. Given Sri Lanka’s fractured national identity caused by majoritarian politics and ethnic conflict, if any national reconciliation must happen, a new national imaginary is essential. This could be found especially through works such as the ones produced by Wickramasinghe and Sarachchandra. 

South Asian identity politics is as much a legacy of the colonial rule as it is the outcome of ethno-religious-linguistic ideologies’ identity harvesting power game. When the power transferred from the British to the native elites there were efforts at building multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual nation states. Struggle for power and resources eventually gave way to majoritarian rule that discriminated against minorities resulting in conflicts. In Sri Lanka, the conflicts morphed into civil war. In India, Hindu majoritarianism is on full display today where discrimination and the persecution of minorities and Dalits have become systemic. It is only a matter of time before this could morph into violence and a war of secession as happened during pre-partition days. At such times focus on cultural works that can offer a counter narrative that helps people imagine transcultural/transnational identities is a valuable effort.

These two papers, as they try to offer a transcultural imaginary, also help us with insights into what line of exploration in our interview process could shed light on the area of our research in the Refugee Wales project.

On the 30th June 2021, I chaired a session entitled “Identities in the Muslim Diaspora” for the 17th EACLALS Triennial Conference at Cardiff University 28th-30th June 2021. The session included presentations by PhD researchers from UK universities at different stages of their research. In line with the conference’s theme of Transcultural Mo(ve)ments, the papers topics ranged from Palestinian diaspora fiction, the cultural productions of “Home” in contemporary diasporic fiction and the concept of third-spacing in the narratives of the female Arab-American writers. Despite the uniqueness of the approaches to the fictional texts the researchers analysed, they all hit upon themes relating to cultural dislocation, diasporic experiences, and the clashes of the encounter between the Western and Eastern worlds. In their analyses, the presenters examined how the authors/characters’ ethnic, bi-cultural and individual identities, in the texts they analyse, are shaped by political, ethnic, cultural and gendered factors.

These topics raised a question about the role of fiction writers as historians and in our case, at the Refugee Wales Project, as oral historians who respond to and who present a record to the future generations about a history of displacement and violence that led to issues of belonging, identity, race, memory, and trauma. I was particularly interested in two papers: Haleema Alaydi’s “Rethinking Palestinian Diaspora Fiction” and Anas Alhaisony’s “Forging British Asian Identites: Interrogating Cultural Productions of Home” as I found them closely related to our approach at the Refugee Wales Project.                                      

Having lived in the refugee camps in Jordan as a Palestinian refugee, Haleema Alaydiexamines the role fiction plays in producing new understandings of the Palestinian’s refugee identity and of shifting the refugee narrative from the trauma story to that of strength and resilience. These questions resonate with the issues we, in the Refugee Wales Project, are trying to respond to as they have been emerging from our interviews with both the Syrian and the Sri Lankan refugees. Haleema’s previous position as a Palestinian refugee and her current research on Palestinian fiction, amid a critical period in Palestine’s political history resembles my previous situation as a PhD researcher of the Iraqi Fiction of War in the aftermath of the US occupation to Iraq. Also Haleema’s involvement with interviewing refugees, as part of her research, is similar to mine, as a previous asylum seeker myself now interviewing Syrian refugees for the Refugee Wales Project. This synergy brings about questions that concern empathy and the subjective/objective position of the researcher in dealing with the research subjects who are witnessing an ongoing political upheaval back home. 

I was also interested in Anas Alhaisony’s examination of Susheila Nasta’s definition of home not as that ‘where one belongs [to], but [as] the place where one starts from’ (2002). This concept of home made me reflect on the way Khalid, one of my Syrian interviewees, refers to his new life and that of his family in Wales as: “This is our society now” (Refugee Wales Interview, 2021). The idea of “home as the place where one starts from” brings a series of related ideas in terms of the “two-way approach to integration” which, Noor, another Syrian participant suggested while reflecting on her experience of resettlement in Cardiff in 2016 (Refugee Wales Interview, 2021).  I believe that such an approach would facilitate resettlement and makes refugees feel more welcomed, accepted, and less isolated and would pave the way for Wales to be a true Nation of Sanctuary.

Remote interviewing for Refugee Wales project

Remote interviewing for Refugee Wales project

 

لو  كنتُ في سجن حقيقي.. وكان هناك خمسون سجين سيكون عندي مالايقل عن خمسة أصدقاء… ولكن أنظري الى حالتي هنا… لايوجد أحد حولي…

If I was in a real prison… say there are fifty prisoners in one room, you would at least make friends with five of them… But here, look at my situation. There is no one around.

Salih, Cardiff, 2020

Short quote from Salih, a Syrian refugee in Cardiff. Copyright: Cardiff University/Amgueddfa Cymru


Towards the end of 2019, I began working as a Research Associate at the AHRC funded project “Refugee Wales: The Aftermath of Violence”. The project is a partnership between Cardiff University and Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales. Its aim is to record the stories of refugees in Wales, inform Welsh government of what we’ve learnt from them, and archive them as part of the national collections. My role is to record interviews with Syrian refugees who have settled in Wales since 2011.

I am an Arabic-speaking Iraqi and new to Wales myself, so my first challenge was finding willing participants from the Syrian community. Once I had been introduced via a gatekeeper, I started meeting potential participants to gain their trust and confidence and to explain the project further. Establishing a relationship of trust with people whose lives have been in turmoil is not straightforward. My days were ebbing and flowing between positive and negative responses, encouraging and disappointing reactions, scheduling and rescheduling of appointments, rejections and last-minute cancellations. I succeeded in completing my first interviews in February 2020 and had others planned. Then came the COVID-19 lockdown on 23rd March. 

When it became obvious that this situation would last some time, we decided reluctantly to experiment with remote interviewing. One of our team, Beth Thomas, is an OHS trainer who advised us, after discussion with her colleagues, on the options available. Our choice of method was decided on the following principle: that it should be as simple and secure as possible for the interviewees. We used a mobile phone connected to one channel of a Zoom H5 recorder, with the other channel recording the interviewer via a clip-on mike.

It seemed straightforward. Nevertheless, I struggled with the number of wired connections. I experimented with family and friends.  I wondered what kind of interview it would be if I was unable to see my participants. I also wondered how my interviewees would feel about not seeing me. How could I expect the participants to be at ease telling their life stories to someone they are unable to see?

The other option was to connect the Zoom H5 in the same way to the audio output of a computer, to record the audio only of a Zoom video interview. This made more sense to me as it would enable me and the interviewees to see one another. However, most of my participants were unhappy with this option because they either didn’t have a computer, had no access to Zoom, or they had problems with WiFi. 

It quickly became clear that almost all my participants were happier using WhatsApp on their smartphones, as this was how they normally connected with their families overseas. WhatsApp allowed us to conduct video interviews while recording audio locally on the Zoom H5, using the same setup as before. The only drawback was bandwidth and WiFi reception. I had some remote WhatsApp interviews which went well, with reasonable sound quality, and a disastrous one because I was unaware of how bad the WiFi was at the interviewee’s end. Other challenges ranged from dealing with the noise of children at the interviewee’s house, street noise, postmen and deliveries at my door or their door, my next-door neighbour’s loud music and my smoke alarm going off whenever my daughter burnt her eggs! 

In some ways, the pandemic strangely helped strengthen my relationship with interviewees. I have even developed strong bonds with some of my participants which transcended social distancing rules and highlighted our common vulnerability as human beings. They were more than mere research subjects but persons who need to be listened to and be supported in a very difficult stage of their resettlement. However, that involvement occasionally made it difficult to draw the line between supporting others and protecting yourself.

Salih was introduced to me as a Syrian refugee who met my requirements for project participants. All I knew about Salih was that he was a Syrian-Kurd who was resettled in Cardiff a few months before the first lockdown. I introduced myself over the phone and asked if he was interested in an initial remote meeting. Salih interrupted me saying: “I wish you could visit me and my wife in our house. I am in a wheelchair and my wife has some health problems. We only have one person who comes to check on us and brings us groceries… When our Home Office Caseworker comes for a visit, he talks to us through the living room window, hands us documents to sign, asks a couple of questions and leaves… We barely talk to people.” He became very emotional and asked me to help him reunite with the rest of his family who had been relocated in Germany. I explained to Salih that I was a researcher with no hand in policy making. Despite this, he was determined to be part of the project and have his voice heard.  

The phone call upset me. My inability to improve his situation made me ashamed of asking someone like Salih, who was painfully lonely, to narrate his personal story of suffering and survival remotely. Next morning, I called Salih and asked if he and his wife were happy for me to visit them wearing a facemask and maintaining social distance. We agreed to meet the following day. 

After taking all the necessary precautions; wipes, a facemask, Covid-19 declaration forms etc. I went to Salih’s house.  Salih opened the door while leaning on his walking frames. He greeted me in his Arabic-Kurdish accent and led me into a dark first -floor flat, with one small window being their opening to the outside world. Salih’s wife sat on a small mattress on the floor. She had hardly any Arabic but could understand some of what I was saying as I saw her nodding at times. She made us a tasty Syrian coffee and uttered few words in Kurdish which Salih translated to me as: “I am so pleased to have a guest for whom I can offer coffee again as I used to!”

It was a short, emotional and tiring interview. I have kept in touch with them and have promised to revisit once lockdown is lifted. But I feel heavily burdened with helplessness, sorrow, and anger at their situation. 

We are talking through virtual windows, barely touching the lives of those beyond the pane.