York International Shakespeare Festival in an original collaboration with the Ivano-Frankivsk Theatre Company by Victoria Walpole

Victoria Walpole is one of our artist liaisons on the Literature at Work module. This week she has been working with our visiting performers from  the Ivano-Frankivsk Theatre Company in Ukraine. Victoria tells us more.

a young Ukrainian man lifts up his right hand. A group of people sit behind him.Saturday 20th April sees the world premiere of Working Title: a collaboration between York International Shakespeare Festival and the National Theatre of Ivano-Frankivsk (UKRAINE) in York St John University’s Creative Centre, at 2pm and 7.30pm This performance promises to be incredibly imaginative and powerful, so you will not want to miss it. The show will feature a blend of Ukrainian and English culture, creating a captivating and unique experience for all.

I hear that, despite the challenges of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Ivano-Frankivsk Theatre Company has continued to showcase plays and even created a humanitarian logistics centre called “Movement of Resistance – Movement of Help” to support those displaced by the war and soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

The Ivano-Frankivsk Theatre Company has a reputation for producing creative and innovative shows that have established its place in the Ukrainian cultural world, having always been acclaimed for its unprecedented creative “explosions”, highlighting its active artistic position in culture. 

This highly respected theatre company has an exceptional cast of star actors, including Ivan Blindar and Mariia Stopnyk, who have joined us this week on our campus. Ivan and Mariia  have been working closely with the York International Shakespeare Festival to create an original piece of work in collaboration with volunteer actors from and around York. These include Ukrainian performers who are currently living here.

For the past week, the actors have been hard at work in rehearsals, creating and practisingactors discuss their craft pieces to perform on the first weekend of the festival. The pieces they have created combine Shakespeare’s incredible plays with the contemporary. They blend Ukrainian and English culture to create compelling pieces that will astound audiences. Working alongside Ivan and Mariia has been a privilege and a fun experience for all involved. Their love and passion for their work is reflected in their performances, and it has been a pleasure to be alongside them during the creative process. Through the use of imaginative warm-up exercises and sonnet performances, Phillip Parr has been able to direct the creative process to mould a stunning performance that beautifully symbolises the collaboration between the Ivano-Frankivsk theatre and the festival. Part of this process is making sure everyone who volunteered has a voice in what they want to give and take from the final performance.

During the rehearsals, local artist Lynne O’Dowd has been diligently capturing the dedication and momentous efforts of everyone involved through her paintings. These paintings will be part of the final performance, highlighting the creativity and hard work that has gone into bringing this production to life.

This performance promises to be incredibly imaginative and powerful, so you will not want to miss this! Everyone involved has put their heart and soul into creating a beautiful piece to perform, making these performances even more special. Creating a performance in such a short amount of time is a real feat of skill and everyone involved worked incredibly hard to make this possible.

When and where?

The event will be performed on Saturday the 20th of April at 2 pm and 7.30pm in the York St John Creative Centre Auditorium as part of the York International Shakespeare Festival. Tickets are only £15 at full price, with students and concessions only paying £5.

When buying tickets also look out for and consider buying a Pass It On Ticket which we can offer to community members who may not otherwise be able to attend as we want to make it possible for as many members of the community to come to festival performances!

To buy tickets and or more information about the York International Shakespeare Festival you can go to its website.

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The Annual English Literature Research Showcase – 15th April 2024

English Literature Research Showcase – 15th April 5pm-7pm

The annual English Literature Research Showcase is an evening in which we learn about colleagues’ specialist projects. This is a chance to celebrate the rich and varied range of research that defines the department and shapes our teaching.

This year we will hear about Patti Smith’s punk queering of masculine spaces, Mark Lanegan’s destabilising of grunge myth, Medieval ghost stories, ‘good hating’ from Alexander Pope to Samuel Johnson, and critically controversial diagnoses of Charlotte Brontë’s pregnancy and death. 

Please join us in learning about the important work that Literature staff and research students are engaged with. There will some refreshments provided following the event and a chance for some informal conversation.

Please book your FREE ticket here

Dive into the York Shakespeare Festival as a Festival Volunteer!


Hey there, Shakespeare enthusiasts and creative minds of York! Are you ready to turn your passion for the Bard into a thrilling volunteering experience? The York International Shakespeare Festival is just around the corner, running from the 18th to the 27th of April, and we’ve got some exciting opportunities waiting for you! Whether you’re a die-hard Shakespeare fan or just looking to spice up your C.V., we’ve got a role for everyone.


Embrace the Excitement: Become a Festival Volunteer!

Whether you’re interested in ushering, marketing, event organisation, or social media and content creation, there’s a place for you in this exciting journey!


Why Volunteer, You Ask?


Free Access to Events

Picture this: not only do you get to be part of the magic behind the scenes, but you also get a ticket to some of the festival’s events – for free! As a Festival Volunteer, you’ll have the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of your labour by attending select shows and immersing yourself in the enchanting world of Shakespeare without spending a penny.


Festival Program Now Available: http://yorkshakes.co.uk/programme-2024/


Boost Your CV and Develop Your Graduate Attributes


Being a Festival Volunteer isn’t just about the joy of contributing to a cultural extravaganza; it’s also a fantastic addition to your CV. Employers love to see candidates who have actively participated in community events and taken on responsibilities beyond the classroom. Your volunteering stint will showcase your dedication, teamwork, and ability to take initiative – qualities that stand out in the professional world.


How to Get Involved

Fill out this form: https://form.jotform.com/240395509337057 and let the Shakespearean adventure begin! Any questions, contact Skylar at skylar@parrabbola.co.uk


Don’t miss this chance to immerse yourself in the world of Shakespeare, make lasting memories, and build a CV that shines as brightly as the stage lights. Become a Festival Volunteer and let the magic unfold!

LGBT History Month Events at YSJ

Non binary person in floral top looks at camera

Let’s celebrate LGBTQ+ History Month!

February is LGBTQ+ History Month!

We are very excited to celebrate and there’s a lot to get hyped about at YSJ:


Free Speech and Hate Speech: Analysing ‘anti-gender’ Discourse

7th February 2024, 4:30-5:30pm, Creative Centre Auditorium

This LGBTQ+ History Month talk focuses on what is commonly referred to as homophobic and transphobic ‘soft hate speech’ which (unlike ‘hard’ hate) operates within the limits of the law and may be perceived as ‘sayable’ in the public sphere. This makes it more difficult to recognize and challenge. This talk is being given by our very own Helen Sauntson (Professor of English Language and Linguistics) and is going to be a must-be-at event. Book your ticket here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/lgbtqhm-free-speech-and-hate-speech-analysing-anti-gender-discourse-tickets-756706679047?aff=oddtdtcreator

In Conversation with Dom&Ink

Tuesday 13th February, 6-8pm, Creative Centre Auditorium

Come along and listen to illustrator and author Dom&Ink talk about their work, from illustrating RuPaul’s Drag Race for the BBC to writing their new graphic novel. Dom will be interviewed by Lali from York’s own The Portal Bookshop, and the event will be followed by a book signing and drinks reception. Book your ticket here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/lgbtqhm-2024-in-conversation-with-domink-tickets-780078825767?aff=oddtdtcreator 

Can you Adam and Eve It? Queering Heterosexuality in Genesis

Wednesday 21st February, 4-6pm, Creative Centre

Join us at York St John University for this hybrid event to mark LGBT History Month 2024. Hosted by the Centre for Religion in Society, hear Dr Chris Greenough’s talk, ‘Can you Adam and Eve it? Queering Heterosexuality in the Genesis Narrative’, followed by Q+A and a drinks reception. Book your tickets here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/lgbtqhm-can-you-adam-and-eve-it-queering-heterosexuality-in-genesis-tickets-732646233607?aff=oddtdtcreator


“Thinking Big Thoughts: A Showcase of Trans and Non-binary Scholarship”- Call-out for participants!

Transgender flag in blue white pink and words Transgender Day of VisibilityOn Wednesday 13th March 2-4pm, in the run-up to Transgender Day of Visibility, the LGBTQ+ Staff Network and the Athena Swan Initiative are holding a hybrid event to celebrate trans and non-binary scholarship at York St John University. This will be an informal, supportive space where all members of staff and students who are trans, non-binary, gender-diverse or are creating work related to these communities are encouraged to take part and share their work. Whether you are a first-year undergrad with an essay you’d like to share or a seasoned academic, we want to hear from you!

We welcome our London staff and student scholars to join the event, as hybrid presentations are possible.

This is a supportive space for trans, non-binary or gender-diverse scholars and students to share their work. If you know of anyone (staff or students) at YSJ who would be interested in presenting their work, we want to celebrate your contribution to the YSJ community. For more information, please contact Naomi Orrell at LGBTQPlusStaff@yorksj.ac.uk.

Upcoming Event: Annual YSJ Words Matter Lecture, ‘Speculations on Embodiment’

Liesl King is a white woman with long red hair and a smileThis year’s YSJ Literature’s annual Words Matter Lecture  will be delivered by Dr Liesl King, speaking about ‘Speculations on Embodiment’ . This will take place on Thursday 7th December, starting at 6pm, with a drinks reception at 7pm. 

This year’s lecture will explore ways in which the word ‘embodiment’ has inspired Dr Liesl King’s teaching practice, university projects, and publications. She will consider the representation of embodied living in the fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin, the ‘tertium quid’ in Dr Angela Voss’ approach to classroom teaching, and the concept of ‘sensuous knowledge’ advanced by Minna Salami in her critical work of the same name published in 2020. The presentation will look at three ways in which Liesl, sometimes through hindsight, has drawn on the word ‘embodiment’ to inform her approach to academic practice: her online science fiction magazine, Terra Two: An Ark for Off World Survival, her upcoming co-written guidebook on Speculative Fiction (New Critical Idiom series, Routledge), and her nascent project on the ‘Embodied University’.

For more details and to sign up, please refer to the Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/wordsmatter-dr-liesl-king-tickets-732688941347?aff=oddtdtcreator

One writer leads you to another – discovering Lemn Sissay’s ‘Let the Light Pour In’ by Anna Brizzolara

Anna Brizzolara is a student on the YSJ Creative Writing MA who has recently been focussing on Critical Approaches to Creative Writing. This is Anna’s review of Lemn Sissay’s recent poetry reading at Manchester Literature Festival. Sissay’s adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis is coming to York Theatre Royal 10th-14th October 2023.

a man in a yellow suit performs on a large stage
Lemn Sissay performing at Home, Manchester (c) Anna Brizzolara

I wanted tickets to see Zadie Smith.

That’s how I found Lemn Sissay.

He shared the programme for the Manchester Literature Festival alongside Zadie’s sold-out event.

Lemn hosted an evening at ‘Home’. Home, a theatre, gallery, independent film screen and all-round centre of creativity and culture that had a cosy, community feel. It opened in 2015 in the heart of Manchester; relaxed, no fancy wine list, plenty of craft beer and pots of pic ‘n’ mix. Volunteers in printed T-shirts smiled, ushered you along brushed concrete corridors and showed you to your multi-coloured upholstered seats.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. Continue reading “One writer leads you to another – discovering Lemn Sissay’s ‘Let the Light Pour In’ by Anna Brizzolara”

ESEA Heritage Month 2023: Books to Read and Films to Watch

Dr Saffron Vickers Walkling introduces titles to look out for this ESEA Heritage Month and beyond.  Saffron lived and worked in China for five years, and their research area includes late twentieth century Chinese Shakespeare in performance.

September is East and South East Asian Heritage Month. Founded in 2021 by Britain’s East and South East Asian Network (besea.n), it commemorates “those who have contributed positively to British society” and celebrates “the richness of ESEA culture”, says Michelle Chan. 

In alphabetical order, East Asian and South East Asian countries include: Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Macau, Malaysia, Mongolia, North Korea, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines, Timor-Leste, and Vietnam. 

Besea.n say that their “vision is one where our communities are seen and supported in all spaces”. This includes the sold out ESEA Lit Fest at Foyles Bookshop in London, which started on 23rd September 2023.    

Here are some highlights from their Reading List: 

A Lover's DiscourseA Lover’s Discourse by Xiaolu Guo tells of a Chinese woman’s life in London, reflecting on the nature of cross-cultural love and language. The title references Roland Barthes’ book of the same name, and its Cantonese film adaptation. Novelist and filmmaker Guo came to YSJ in 2008 as part of our China Week to speak about her debut English-language novel A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, which our first years were studying on their Gender and Writing module. Although not a sequel, A Lover’s Discourse revisits and reframes many of the tropes of the earlier book. Her film She, A Chinese is also currently showing on Channel 4. 

Night Sky with Exit WoundsNight Sky with Exit Wounds is a collection of poetry by the Vietnamese-American writer and academic Ocean Vuong, reflecting on his refugee experience – both its horrors and its wonders.

Vuong’s novel On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous sustained us through the long holiday of 2021 as our Big Summer Read. See more here.


YellowfaceIf you want something that will shock and amuse you in equal measures, check out Yellowface by R. F. Kuang, a hilarious satire on the ultimate in literary cultural appropriation…

This bestseller combines big ideas with humour and is simultaneously thought-provoking and immensely readable! 



Never Let Me GoIf you’ve never read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, then now is the time to remedy this.

A firm A-level favourite for many years, Ishiguro’s novel about a group of young people at an English boarding school quickly reveals the dystopian side of its apparent idyllic setting. 



Ping Pong (1986 film) - WikipediaIf it’s film you are interested in, Channel 4 has a selection for ESEA, including the first ever British Chinese feature film, Ping Pong, which I’ve reviewed here. “Elaine Choi (Sheen), a trainee lawyer tasked with executing the will of local businessman Sam Wong, whose body has been found in a telephone box, receiver still in hand. The trouble is, she can’t read Chinese characters.”



You can find Film 4’s complete ESEA listings here:

#PRIDE2023: SHAKESPEARE? MORE LIKE SHAKESQUEER! RuPaul’s Drag Race by Roger Tomas Arques

Drag Queen RuPaul in Shakespeare inspired drag
Image via @RuPaulsDragRace

“To she, or not to she?” Spanish ERASMUS exchange student Roger Tomas Arques recently took our Shakespeare Perspectives module. For Pride Season 2023, he looks at the connections between Shakespeare’s theatre and Ru Paul’s Drag Race

Recently, I was watching RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars 8’s new episode as I do every Friday and then I thought something. Did you know that when watching RuPaul’s Drag Race you are seeing a Shakespearean thing? 

Image from the British Library collection: Mark Rylance getting into costume as Olivia for Shakespeare’s Globe’s all male production of Twelfth Night.

“Drag may trace its roots to the age of William Shakespeare, when female roles were performed by men”. In Shakespeare’s times, women were not allowed to be on stage, so men were playing women’s roles. During those days acting was not considered a very refined work, so if a woman acted, she would be considered a sex worker. As Shakespeare’s contemporary said, “Our Players are not as the players beyond sea, a sort of squirting baudie Comedians.” (Thomas Nashe) However, it was not just a costumes thing. The writer had to find men that could perfectly represent a woman with their gestures, movements, and so on.

Now drag has changed and everyone can do it.   Continue reading “#PRIDE2023: SHAKESPEARE? MORE LIKE SHAKESQUEER! RuPaul’s Drag Race by Roger Tomas Arques”

Tommy Parker on Ageing, Maturity and Embracing Change

Content warning: This personal reflection deals with issues of PTSD and suicidal thoughts. Links for support are provided at the bottom of the post. 

 Second Year Creative Writing student Tommy Parker reflects upon his own experiences as a mature student returning to York St John to begin a second degree course. 

Copyright York St John

Walking through the city, enjoying a 71% Ecuador hot chocolate with chilli and Captain Morgans, while listening to Alestorm has given me a rare chance for silent reflection. The theme of this years creative writing project, the Beyond the Wall’s anthology, is ageing, a subject that is often on my mind as a mature student. In particular, I often find myself dwelling on my perceived failings, feeling I have not accomplished enough in my late twenties to justify my continued existence on this planet. It is in rare moments such as now that give me the opportunity to escape my own head, allowing me clarity to see that life is not a line graph. Age does not equal maturity in itself, and you cannot simply look at a graph for it. Life is not as simple as AGE + MATURITY = STAGE IN LIFE. Over my time at York St John I have come to understand that the true determining factor of emotional maturity is life experience. Continue reading “Tommy Parker on Ageing, Maturity and Embracing Change”

Michael Colk: Macbeth Review for YISF

Flabbergast Macbeth (c) Mike Lynch

Michael is a second year Creative Writing and Media student at York St John and a volunteer blog reviewer for York International Shakespeare Festival. In this review, Michael looks at Flabbergast Theatre’s production of ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ performed in the York St John Creative Centre on the 26th of April 2023. 

Shakespeare gets a bad reputation in my opinion. From the time were born we are told that he was and is the greatest writer that has ever come from this country, that every work he’s ever written is a masterpiece. So we must diligently study his texts and analyse them, we must perform them with the utmost respect for the source material. This leads to a lot of people hating Shakespeare and condemning it as dry or boring or too difficult to understand or… you get the idea. But actually, Shakespeare can be fun. 

I’ve always loved Macbeth, I studied it in high school so it’s one of the few Shakespeare plays I actually know and understand. I’ve always loved Lady Macbeth as a character, the ideas of betrayal and guilt that get explored, the context in which the play itself was written, but I’ve never seen that many performances of it. I watched a few films that played with the setting but not in any way other than superficially and there was a touring group who performed a few fight scenes from it in my school assembly hall which was quite entertaining, but this was the first time I’d seen a full stage production of it and I really enjoyed it. 

The whole thing felt like watching a bunch of kids playing pretend in the muddy parts of some dense woods. It really hit me in the scene where Macbeth kills Duncan, the actors all pulled out small sticks for daggers and it reminded me of running through this forest near the top of the street of my childhood home. I’d brandish my own sticks as swords and duel with my sister or use them as ways of clearing my treacherous path on the long (short) journey it took to walk down to the corner shop to claim my reward (a pick a mix bag usually containing a jelly snake, my favourite). Despite the tragedy of the story, the performers all seemed to be so joyous and enthusiastic about what they were doing, they had the permission to run around, shout and scream just as kids do.

Macbeth and witches
Flabbergast Macbeth (c) Mike Lynch

It also brought back these ideas of the roots of storytelling sitting around a fire in the darkness, the primal and animalistic nature that is inherent in performance. At times, the whole show felt like one big ritual, the witches and supernatural being such a strong part of the original play definitely contributed to this but the rhythmic chanting and general atmosphere brought by the performers made it a much more intimate experience. At times it was almost psychedelic, with lights and shadows being cast everywhere, the only thing I think could have made it more intense would have been a fog machine.

The one thing I was anticipating the entire time throughout the show was the Porter’s scene that takes place just after Duncan’s murder. The Porter is there to add levity to the otherwise dark narrative and in my experience often goes overlooked when read or performed because as we all know ‘Shakespeare is a prestigious institution’. But I think a few lewd jokes after a murder has just taken place is quite necessary. I can honestly say that in this performance, the Porter’s scenes were some of my favourite moments. These scenes were the only point at which the script diverged from the original but it still captured the same humour of the source material. It again reminded me of a child, running about making jokes out of nothing and interjecting at inappropriate moments because they don’t know any better. 

So, despite the dark and tragic nature of Macbeth and the play itself I would have to say that this production did indeed make Shakespeare fun.

If you would like to read another review of ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’, check out Grace Laidler’s piece on the Words Matter Blog: Grace Laidler: Macbeth Review for YISF – Words Matter. (yorksj.ac.uk)

“Uncut Leaves”: On Literature and Its Uses – 2022 Words Matter Lecture on YouTube

The Annual Words Matter Lecture on YouTube

You might be interested to know that Dr Adam J Smith’s Words Matter lecture is available to view and listen on YouTube: click here!

Adam’s lecture in October last year considered the “uses” of literature as protest, propaganda and satire, and warned of the dangers of not reading the book. It was a fantastic event, so if you missed it, catch up – or if you’d like to relive the moment, watch again!

Grace Laidler: Macbeth Review for YISF

Grace is a first year Film and Television Production student at York St John and a volunteer blog reviewer for York International Shakespeare Festival. In this review, Grace looks at Flabbergast Theatre’s production of ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ performed in the York St John Creative Centre on the 26th of April 2023. 

Flabbergast Theatre’s ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ creates an unsettling yet powerful retelling of one of Shakespeare’s most violent tragedies, leaving you feeling unseam’d from the nave to the chops.

Flabbergast Theatre Macbeth (c) Mike Lynch

Before the audience are seated, the performers immediately plunge us into their unconventional methods, telling us the story of the tragedy through a series of interpretive dances and nonsensical sounds. Standouts from this prologue are the formation of hands used above Macbeth’s head to form a crown and the use of the long skirts pulled over the performers heads to create what looks like a ghost-like  being crawling eerily around the stage.

These long skirts are part of the barren, arresting aesthetic adopted by Flabbergast, reminiscent of Robert Eggers’ 2022 film ‘The Northman.’ The stage is dressed only with a stained white sheet on the floor. The simplicity of the set allows the performers to have a much creative freedom as possible to create a visceral show, as there is more than one instance when a wine-like substance is either spat onto the sheet or into the face of another performer.

Each cast member wears a pair of pants underneath the long skirts, allowing for them to effectively switch between characters seamlessly with minimal physical changes. As the performance only consisted of six performers, many performers doubled in roles. A standout for me was Briony O’Callaghan’s chilling performance as Lady Macbeth, but also as one of the Weird Sisters. Her demeanour when playing both roles did not differ too greatly, which I believe positively added to the notion of Lady Macbeth’s cruelty being witch-like. Her delivery of Lady Macbeth’s final soliloquy was impeccable, and I was holding my breath at the prospect of her holding a lit candle so close to a highly-flammable sheet.

Another standout performance was that of Dale Wylde, who transformed the tragedy into a pantomime with his performance as The Porter, the dreaded character of GCSE students everywhere. His take on The Porter saw him as a clown, who broke the fourth wall and brought us to tears of laughter by simply showing us an apple. However, one of the most profound and horrifying moments was when Wylde portrayed a soldier that had just brutally murdered Macduff’s wife, then immediately snaps back into becoming the joking Porter again. The apple was back, but the laughter was a lot shakier this time.

The performance incorporates plenty of horror elements, particularly with the lighting. There is a harsh front light that is used to brightly illuminate the faces of whoever is giving a monologue, making their faces look gaunt and hollow. It accentuates the madness seen in the eyes of Macbeth in particular, who is often lit by a bloody red lighting that makes him impossible to look away from. Alongside its effect on the performers, this front lighting creates a shadow on the black curtain behind the stage, creating a spooky, haunting element to the show that unsettles us even further.

The most horrifying element of all is the use of a wooden puppet boy, used to depict Banquo’s son Fleance. The prop has no head, which is instead depicted with a white mask, and is carried around the stage using a large wooden stick or is cradled in the arms of the performers. It is a fascinating choice to use such abstract puppetry and it certainly became a talking point for most audience members. The bottom line on that is that it needs to be seen to be believed.

The performance is accompanied by the use three large drums, a set of gongs and smaller chime instruments, which are all visibly noticeable on-stage. All of these instruments are utilised heavily, alongside an acapella-style score created by the performers. It is truly impressive how the performers can morph from actor to crew member, using their musical skills to make scenes more exciting and immersive.

Overall, Flabbergast’s ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ can take a while to get into due to its overwhelming nature, but once you are immersed, you will want to stay to the bloody end. It has everything you could want in a Shakespeare adaptation: enough fidelity to the original text so that you will understand the story and hear those wonderfully crafted lines; but also offers a fresh, modern twist through the use of horror elements, barren sets and highly unconventional props. I would recommend it, although you might sleep no more.

Works Cited

The Tragedy of Macbeth by W. Shakespeare (2023) Directed by H. Maynard [York St John University, York. 26 April].

The Northman (2022) Directed by R. Eggers. [Feature film]. Universal City, CA: Universal Pictures.

If you would like to read another review of ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’, check out Jenny-Rose Morrison’s piece on the York International Shakespeare Festival’s website: Life’s But A Walking Shadow: A Review of Flabbergast’s Macbeth by Jenny-Rose Morrison – York International Shakespeare Festival (yorkshakes.co.uk)

YSJ Lit Interview: Departmental Prizewinner Adam Kirkbride

Dr Saffron Vickers Walkling interviews Adam Kirkbride (he/they). Adam was the 2021 York St John Literature English Literature Undergraduate Dissertation Prize Winner AND the English Literature Undergraduate Programme Prize for achieving the highest degree classification marks in both categories on their programme. Adam has gone on to study on our MA in Contemporary Literature and is completing their second year of part-time study.

Graduates in their robes celebrate outside York Minster
Adam and his friends celebrate graduating with their BA degrees outside York Minster

Adam, tell us a bit about yourself, what you are studying with us and why?

I’ve been at York St John since 2018 when I started my BA in English Literature. Finishing my degree during the pandemic and a lot of personal turbulence meant that I was unsure about what the future would bring. I’d thought about doing an MA for a while and several of the YSJ literature staff encouraged me to do one here, so I applied, and the rest is history! Now I’m in my final year of my MA in Contemporary Literature and I cannot believe that it’s been nearly five years since I arrived here.

Can you tell us about your awards and what they mean to you?

The awards I received on graduation meant more to me than I can express. My final year of undergraduate study was incredibly difficult due to a range of personal circumstances and knowing that I still managed to do well was an amazing feeling.

You are doing your MA as a part-time student. What have been the challenges of part-time study? What have been the benefits?

Truly, the main challenge and benefit has been the same: I get to work full-time in a job that I love alongside my studies. Working for a charity is very demanding, and so is post-graduate study! I don’t think I anticipated how difficult juggling full-time work and part-time study would be in reality, especially around deadlines. Avoiding burn-out has been a challenge. On the other hand, the MA here at YSJ is timetabled so classes are later in the evenings, meaning I can be flexible in my study and get to commit my 9-5 hours to my job working for Foundation UK in their +Choices (Positive Choices) service, and my evenings and weekends to my study. Continue reading “YSJ Lit Interview: Departmental Prizewinner Adam Kirkbride”

10 First-Year Texts That Shook Me, by Michaela Bosman

I’ll be honest: I chose to study literature to learn more about culture. Yes, that’s a broad statement. But, thanks to my religious and censored upbringing, I didn’t know much about anything other than Bible stories and virtuous allegories when I applied for the course.

To give you an idea of my ignorance, I wasn’t allowed to read or watch Lord of the Rings, and certainly not Harry Potter. At this point, references to either of those texts are hackneyed and eyeroll-inducing. Now my opportunity to partake in those conversations is over. It’s all because my religious bubble said that the magic wielded isn’t God’s, so it must be Satan’s. But it isn’t just magic that the church folks scorn. Any comment on society, say from Joyce, Dickens, or Orwell, means that these authors have an active interest in the ways of sinners. 

So, the texts I encountered during my first year at YSJU really did shake me (as I suggest in the title). It wasn’t because the contents shocked me, but because the texts entered me into new labyrinths of thought and meaning. Each text we study carries, not just the story it tells, but also a story of the time and place of its birth. It captures a moment in time, and echoes the voices of that period. As Dr Anne-Marie Evans says, all texts are intertextual. The texts we covered last year, and the discussions we had about them, made me want to read to infinity – but I’ll stick to ten. So, here are my top ten first-year texts, ordered by the level of impact they have on me, because favourites are for Buzz Feed.

1. Hanif Kureishi’s Buddha of Suburbia

Irreverent, colourful, and multifaceted, to tell you just one thing this novel does would be to do it a disservice. It says a lot about a lot – without telling you those things directly (because it’s quality writing). With a flippant and humorous tone, it critiques depths of society that many are too cautious to tread. In my essay about it, I focussed on its attack on a Marxist account of ideology – specifically, the ideology that whiteness is a constituent of Englishness. But this text does more than just promote diversity in England. It comments on different people’s approaches to racism. It points to individuality in a way that illuminates the humanity in each character. It highlights the infinite variations of the intersections of classes and races. And more.

But I’ve only got so much space for this blog post. The text’s multifarious critique of society is submerged in the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll of the seventies – it’s alive. Kureishi’s commentary is driven by the distinctiveness of each character, each of whom creates (by their peculiar life-choices) their unique modes of living. The problem I have with this novel, from an academic standpoint, is having to focus on just one aspect of it. It just has so much to say, in such a stylish way.

2. Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet

This comic doesn’t hold back. It’s loud. It’s satirical. It’s feminist. Using the blueprint of exploitation cinema, it has at least three satirical targets, all of which are connected to feminism. It satirizes the insularity of the patriarchal hegemony, the women who follow the patriarchy’s prescription of femininity, and the comic book form which circulates mostly among boys, and encourages sexual objectification and voyeurism.

Its impact on me stems from the overt nature of its witty satire. The satire is in-your-face, but it’s intellectually stimulating too. Page after page, the text makes an adroit critique of the patriarchy that’s coded into the material structure of society and the way we think about our identities.

I’ll be honest, when it comes to visual satire, I’m used to seeing memes on Twitter. The bulk of Twitter memes have nothing on the wit of Bitch Planet, which makes it a compelling read. Yet, its attack is so acute that it boils my blood. I find myself disgusted by the depth from which women need to rise before we can reach true equality. Sure, Bitch Planet exaggerates, but I don’t think it’s inaccurate – and that’s the problem with (by which I mean success of) this text.

3. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

This novel is powerful. Its force lies in the imagery of the single communal spirit that captures whole crowds (different from groupthink), but also in its layered meaning. Its complex and nuanced message is gestured at by its simplistic style, devoid of any literary pomp. I read it as the reconciliation of two narratives – those of the Nigerian Igbo clan and the colonial missionaries. Achebe says himself, in his essay collection, Morning Yet on Creation Day, that he aims to

“teach [his] readers that their past – with all its imperfections – is not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them” (45).

 Achebe is writing in English while his intended readers are – judging by the above quotation – Nigerian, so he doesn’t dismiss all European practices. While he defends the Igbo culture against colonial notions of barbarism, found in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, he also employs his antihero to problematize traditionalism in the Igbo clan. With a feminist slant, his narrativity (which sometimes even his narrator is explicitly unaware of) urges us to dissect traditions and reconstruct them into more progressive structures – on either side of the cultural divide.

The narrative’s aim is to merge two people’s traditions, but it doesn’t reach that aim, alluding to the further work society needs to do. Things Fall Apart was published in 1958, and we’ve had sixty-four years to work out a way forward together. Yet circumstances in our current socio-political climate – from traditionalism to racism – are disappointingly similar to the ones in the novel.

4. John Fowles’s The Collector

I’d never understood the idea of a haunting text, because I’d never experienced a text that haunts me. That is, until I read The Collector. The text creates the feeling that there’s a supernatural presence hovering over me. It seems to live through all the characters, yet none of them. It certainly doesn’t die when I close the book. Perhaps this presence is the spectre of existentialism in excess. The text opens many doors of enquiry, without shutting them. I’d say this technique alludes to the unanswered questions of life’s meaning and purpose.

Miranda’s quest to define and become a real artist ends empty-handedly. Her hours of self-reflection that she writes in a diary, get buried in a chest and locked in an cellar by someone who’ll never read or understand them. But that’s a sub-plot which deals with individuals’ searches for meaning and purpose. There’s also a macro comment on the meaninglessness of classism. Fowles problematizes various ideological alliances as engendering hypocrisy and self-ignorance. Having sketched the problem with classist ideologies, The Collector also poses the question of whether it’s possible to become completely free of the identity we form as result of the class we are born into. It does all this, but I only realized that much later, because it still haunts me. The ghost takes shape over time as it hovers in the corner, insisting that it’s alive.

5. Poetry of Jonathan Swift and Lady Mary Montagu

Both of these figures are prominent satirists from the eighteenth century, and the poetry we looked at is a specific satirical exchange. It’s like today’s rap battles. Penning the scatological, as in earwax, snot, and excrement, Swift suggests that women are disgusting under their makeup and perfume, as if he’d got up close to a woman for the first time. In response, Montagu writes that the reason Swift wrote that poem is because he couldn’t get it up when he visited a prostitute and realized that she’s human. Montagu ends with a bang by having her character say, “I’m glad you’ll write. / You’ll furnish paper when I shite”. In other words, she says: yes, I do indeed defecate, and I’ll wipe my buttocks with your work. Well! that severed my ignorant assumption that all poetry is concerned with Romantic notions of elevated sensibility, nature, or sentiment.

So, is it any wonder that these poems take the fifth spot on my list by order of impact? I saw an eighteenth-century rap battle about poop and prostitution. It was so impactful that it spurred me to take the eighteenth-century module in second-year. In coming across these poems, I learned that – thanks to cheap print in the eighteenth-century which engendered wider public reading – this era was the birth of popular culture as we think of it today. Of course I wanted to learn the origin story of popular culture.

6. James Joyce’s, “The Dead”

This short story also haunts me. Not because it creates the feeling of a supernatural presence, but because the representation of the protagonist is imbedded in his every gesture and interaction with other characters – even the most minor ones. There are so many layers of meaning in each moment of the narrative, that unravelling it takes days. The discovery of its meaning is what haunts me. The fact that meaning lies in every action, every image, and every word choice, is what led me to see the formal mechanics of modernism. It draws attention to the wordy membrane through which meaning is expressed.

The wordy membrane in ‘The Dead’ also employs free indirect discourse that absorbs the voices of the characters while staying an objective narrator. This bolsters its status as a modernist text, because the free indirect discourse highlights the narrativity. Of course, the content of ‘The Dead’ critiques various socio-political issues, which is a feature of modernism. I’m more interested in its formal properties though. I suspect it’s because, thinking about the function of the diction opened me up to a way of reading that I’d never done before. Thinking about word choices isn’t just about thinking, ‘Ah, good word.’ It’s about looking at them in their context and considering the purpose they serve. Now, having seen modernism at work makes me think that I’m in on a little jargon. So, perhaps this short story haunts me because of the days’ worth of meaning it carries, or perhaps it haunts me because I’ll never forget my first.

7. Ursula Le Guin’s “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”

Just to be clear, everything on this list is a strong contender. It saddens me that this essay is only number seven. Le Guin makes a compelling argument in a deliciously satirical tone. The target of her hyperbolic portrayals is the patriarchal ideology that believes a battle to be the strongest metaphor for a novel. Instead, she suggests that a feminist and more inclusive metaphor for the novel is the carrier bag. Stay with me…

To do this, she starts by referencing the famous jump cut from Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The scene in reference depicts the first murder by Sapiens being committed using a bone. In this instance, the narrative told by men is that humankind’s first tool was a bone, with which they hunted and murdered. But Le Guin points out that this narrative ignores the mothers who stayed at home to nurse the baby. Instead of hunting, these women were gathering. Of course, they needed something to store their wild oats, so they invented the carrier bag, basket, or some sort of container. So, the battle and container being metaphors for novels, do two different things. The former is a story of conquering, which is typically a man’s story; while the latter is a bag full of human experiences that can belong to anyone, including a woman.

Being a woman myself, this essay is (for want of a less hackneyed word) empowering. Manly metaphors are so entrenched in our language, that I must often assume the identity of a man, to apply the metaphor (or another literary device) to myself. Le Guin’s essay reminds me that we can critique problematic metaphors and propose more inclusive ones, to achieve more harmonious modes of existing.

8. Charles Dickens’s Hard Times

Dickens’s caricatures of people who try to enforce utilitarianism animate this novel. While his exaggerated renderings of them foreground his critique (and are rather amusing), he drives his argument with the ironic logic of their rules. Almost every time they try to apply their utilitarian philosophy (which is constantly), they contradict themselves. It’s pitifully funny.

I say pitiful because these characters are victims of a societal structure – they’re just being good citizens. But their contradictions problematize the utilitarian need to quantify human nature and human problems. You just can’t. There are too many variables to any given human circumstance to accurately measure them.

Moreover, the variables in question can be drastically different: when each is approached from a different angle, the precedence one takes over the other changes. For instance, you might say that a straightforward way to quantify a human life is by its monetary contribution to society. How then, can you say that a fifty-five-year-old successful entrepreneur is more valuable to society than a jobless pregnant woman? Perhaps that unborn child will be a genius who finds the cure for cancer. Or not. But we won’t know if we discard her based on her job status, which might be a logical outcome of a utilitarian ideology.

These are my thoughts when reading Hard Times (and participating in the lecture and seminar accompanying it – which are great for guiding my thinking and expanding my perspective). And thinking about my thoughts, I’m starting to notice a trend in this list. These texts are impactful when they’re compelling to read, and the theory or history attached to them chugs a train of thought. I do like to think, which makes studying literature a pleasure.

9. John Gardner’s Grendel

The reception of this novel is a fascinating feat of irony. Critics praise its masterful existentialism, which is actually what Gardner tries to present as monstrous. Well, I’m on the critics’ side when I read this.

Grendel’s (the monster’s) absurdist visions persuade me of the poetic slant of an existential outlook. I get it when he says that the bard’s embellished tales of the king’s war victories are lies. The bard presents these wars as virtuous achievements, but what are wars really for? Greed and pride, is my answer. So it’s refreshing to find my sympathies with a monster. See, I didn’t know Gardner’s argument when I first read it. But when I found it out in the lecture, Grendel assumed an extra layer of meaning. Not to mention the meaning Gardner already gives it by giving a voice to the monster in Beowulf.

Gardner’s reimagining the aggrandized Anglo-Saxon poem with a warlike tone, in an existential novel from the viewpoint of Beowulf’s monster, is poetic in itself. For someone who, by force of habit, associates poetry with Romanticism, I sure see a lot of poetry in Grendel. Perhaps it’s because, when the Romantics wrote about nature, they often highlighted its sublime power, which diminishes the perceiver’s own sense of purpose. When confronted with the majesty of a gigantic waterfall, you begin to question what your life’s pursuits are really for.

This is the effect that Grendel has on me, which, funnily enough, is the opposite of what Gardner wanted (he says so himself).

10. Emma Rice’s production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

This lively production is, by The Globe’s standards, irreverent. I wouldn’t call it irreverent because I believe that it’s much closer to the style of productions that Shakespeare put on in his day, than the serious ‘comedies’ The Globe usually produces. Remember, Shakespeare was popular culture. His work is fraught with sexual innuendoes, when you look closely enough.

Emma Rice reimagines today’s equivalent of this Shakespeare comedy, with queer readings of characters, a racially diverse cast, and a narrator in drag. Of course, her actors also enacted the subtext – which is an ocean of sexual innuendoes. With this production, Emma Rice brings me to see the comedy in Shakespeare’s comedy. I’ll be honest, reading them, and trying to decipher them, draws the fun out of them.

So, this production – still in the original script – enlivens Twelfth Night and crams it with energy. Unfortunately, the board removed Emma Rice from The Globe theatre, on account of her tone, but luckily, she left us with this gold nugget.

There you have it: the cultural rollercoaster that YSJU put me on last year. I read and watched the widest array of texts I could have imagined.

Some notable texts that didn’t make it onto this list are the Medieval alliterative poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the Early Modern poetry of Lady Mary Wroth. While they’re rich with substance, I suspect the reason they didn’t make the cut because their perspectives are too insular for my taste. Before cheap print became available in the eighteenth century, literature was written by and for nobility and priests, who have a limited view of society. Self-interest in isolation (which includes love affairs and chivalrous knights’ quests to prove themselves honourable) just isn’t my game.

As you might have deduced from my list, I engage more with texts that critique socio-political issues in interesting ways. On that note, I hope these reviews gave you something to think about, even if it’s just to ponder the reason for having such an eclectic mix of literary taste.