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Activist Writing / Activist Reading

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Organizer: Leila Essa

Co-Organizer: Marta-Laura Cenedese

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In popular reception and particularly in the age of social media, the attribute “activist” is frequently attached to writers without too much further explanation. The act of reading, on the other hand, is very rarely apprehended as activism. This seminar critically probes expressions of activist literary production – and reception – across global contexts.

Is an author’s activism expressed through the work they do beyond the page, can it be their politically engaged writing itself, must it be both? In their study on creative writing projects in Uganda, Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire and Madhu Krishnan locate literary activist work in the direct “democratisation of the literary landscape” as much as in “a form of public intellectualism that views literary creation not as occurring in some idealised autonomous zone of the aesthetic, cleaved off from the equally mystified autonomous realm of politics, but as rooted in lived experience [and] struggle”. Taking on a similarly multi-focal approach, this seminar examines the strategies of activist authors through simultaneous attention to interventions at the level of the literary text, in the structures of literary production and distribution, and through their non-literary organising.

We are particularly interested in discussing how activist writers’ work relates to – anticipates, involves, and attempts to agitate – readers. Rather than positioning authorial intention and readerly interpretation as alternative lenses, we welcome papers that rethink their theoretical relationship in contexts of political activism. Activist reading practices, like authorial ones, operate across practical and textual realms alike, ranging from communal reading circles and resulting action to the intimate act of intersectional analysis. Both overlap in cases of readers and writers co-rallying for change in the public and/or specifically the publishing sphere. Grappling with writerly and readerly activism demands attention to the author-reader relationship that goes beyond intended/interpreted meanings and scrutinises suggested/responded political practices.

Contributions could address, but are not limited to, questions such as:

How do literary depictions of political activism and protest address or implicate the reader?
How is “activism” used as a marketing tool in publishing or as a reason for aesthetic dismissal in reception? How do authors/texts/readers subvert such dynamics?
How do reading circles and book clubs serve as “activators” of ideas and affects? How does collective interpretation relate to collective action?
How have notions of activist authors or readers shifted across historical periods and social movements?
How do such notions compare across Global South and Global North and how does this come to the fore in cross-context solidarity activism?

The selected presenters will be invited to submit their papers to a joint special issue.

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