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Report: BAAS Conference Bursary Winner, Sarah McCreedy

Sarah McCreedy (UCC) was the recipient of an IAAS bursary to attend and present at this year’s annual conference of the British Association for American Studies, held at Canterbury Christ Church University in April.

As a first year PhD student struggling to make ends meet, I was extremely grateful to receive a bursary from the IAAS which allowed me to present a paper, entitled ‘‘Rethinking decisions they’d already made’: New naturalism and Neoliberal identity in ZZ Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere’, at the BAAS annual conference. I would like to extend my thanks to the committee who reviewed my application, as the comments were helpful and constructive, and particularly valuable considering the early stage of my research. This year, the conference was held on a pleasantly sunny campus at Canterbury Christ Church University, from the 6th-8th April.

Conference registration included free entry to Canterbury Cathedral

On Thursday afternoon, a panel on American history and culture in cinema and video games attested to the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of American studies. Esther Wright (University of Warwick) delivered a fascinating paper on L.A. Noire (2011) and Red Dead Redemption (2010), video games produced by Rockstar Games, and set in the unique contexts of 1940’s Los Angeles and the declining American frontier in 1911, respectively. Esther persuasively argued that these games were more representative of film than reality. American cinema, rather than American history, was promoted as a mark of authenticity to the target audience. The first day was rounded off with a wine reception sponsored by the upcoming joint conference of the EAAS and BAAS, (EBAAS) to be held in London between KCL, UCL and the British Library in 2018.

On Friday, it was nice to see a familiar face in IAAS Secretary Jenny Daly, presenting on Jonathan Franzen in a fascinating panel on ‘Troubled and Troubling Masculinities in the 21st Century’, where cult classic Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000) was also discussed. Although I was apprehensive to present on the final day, the interesting discussion following this panel, surrounding white male privilege, the complexity of suffering and justified victimhood, added some perspective to ideas I had been grappling with regarding my own paper.

Commencing bright and early on Saturday morning, my own panel, ‘Gender, Race and Religious Difference in the Short Story’ included a paper from Anna Girling (University of Edinburgh), addressing casuistry and anti-Catholicism in Edith Wharton’s early career. Anna argued that in ‘That Good May Come’ (1894), Wharton refuses to offer moral guidance, consequently placing the reader as a protestant parishioner. The House of Mirth (1905) introduced me to my PhD topic, American literary naturalism, so I was interested to consider this new perspective on Wharton’s earlier works. Stefania Ciocia, a reader on her home turf, concluded the panel with an engaging paper on Junot Diaz and Julia Alvarez’s short story cycles. The parallels in the three papers were surprisingly striking: in addressing narrative construction and how intentionally cohesive short story collections are, as well as more broadly, in considering the complex issue of determinism. In the discussion following, our chair Jenny Terry from Durham University asked me how consciously naturalistic and intertextually relevant ZZ Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (2003) is. With other authors I explore in my thesis, which examines naturalism’s resurgence in the 21st century, the connection is more overt. Cormac McCarthy, who famously stated that ‘books are made out of other books’, invokes naturalist Jack London in The Road (2006), for example. But this conversation gave me a lot of new insight to go back to the drawing board with.

Having only ever studied on the island of Ireland, previously at Queen’s University Belfast and presently at University College Cork, it was exciting to meet new people working in American Studies from the U.K. and further afield. Conference participation offers a sense of community in an often isolating process, as well as an opportunity to discuss research in an accessible way that promotes further understanding. I left the conference feeling enthused and inspired, and I would like to reiterate my thanks to the IAAS for this productive and enjoyable experience.