Contemporary Womxn’s Writing and the Medical Humanities

Rebecca Rosenberg and Benjamin Dalton introduce a ten-day takeover of The Polyphony  by Contemporary Womxn’s Writing and the Medical Humanities.

From September 2020 to April 2021, we – Rebecca Rosenberg and Benjamin Dalton – organised the online seminar series ‘Contemporary Women’s Writing and the Medical Humanities’ with the support of the Institute for Modern Languages Research (IMLR) and Centre for Contemporary Women’s Writing (CCWW) in London. Initially aiming for three seminars, we received such a wide range of fascinating and significant paper proposals that we organised 13 seminars with themes ranging from narratives of disability to psychiatric (mis)treatment. Our aim in organising this seminar series was to explore the rich landscape of innovation that contemporary women’s writing—across fiction, theatre, poetry, autobiography, auto-fiction, comics, and many other genres—brings to the fast-evolving field of medical humanities. Foregrounding gendered experiences of illness, disease and healthcare, the range of presentations demonstrated the full diversity of voices that want and need to be heard. Many of our speakers were writing and researching from personal experience, thereby underscoring a particular and significant element of medical humanities research.

Wanting to expand further on the dialogue arising from the seminar series, we have organised the 3-day international online conference ‘Contemporary Womxn’s Writing and the Medical Humanities’. This conference will take place from the 29th to 31st July 2021. See here for further details of the program.

In anticipation of the conference, ‘Contemporary Womxn’s Writing and the Medical Humanities’ is conducting a takeover of The Polyphony this week, showcasing articles and paper summaries from selected speakers from the seminar series. Ranging from end-of-life and ageing research to obstetrics and FGM activism, all the research is ongoing, vital and bears upon not only the respective researchers’ fields of study but also on wider societal and political issues concerning female experiences of illness and healthcare.

In addition to these articles, the seminars themselves are available as recordings online. The architecture and dynamics of the Francophone clinic was explored in Week 1. This seminar was complemented by two consecutive weeks on mental illness held at the end of the series: Week 12 saw papers on women, ‘madness’ and identity as well as the therapeutic potentiality of writing, and Week 13 continued these themes through the lenses of psychiatry and mental pain. We also saw a particular interest in death studies with death and mourning examined in week 3, and end-of-life care and narratives in week 8. Representing pain and suffering prove to be important themes running throughout the seminar series: Week 4 combined qualitative research on sexual pain alongside information about NHS and NGO education initiatives on sexual pleasure, and Week 7 returned to pain with research on narratives of chronic pain in texts and visual art. Many of the themes regarding narrativization and life-writing followed on from week 2 in which creative practice (in writing and photography) was posited as a vital tool of testimony, activism and therapy. Autopathography in prose and poetry returned as a significant form of activism and information in week 6, which addressed disability narratives. Week 5 on female genital mutilation similarly explored the intersection of writing and activism with a particular focus on spreading information and awareness through other forms of media such as radio. Week 9 also saw a transdisciplinary seminar on narratives of pregnancy and childbirth with literary studies research sitting alongside medical care initiatives. The two remaining yet-to-be mentioned weeks focused on seemingly discrete topics: wellbeing in medical care and narratives that break taboos in the types of heretofore under-represented health issues of women. However, with women’s pain, illness and care narratives and stories still being ignored and underrepresented, wellbeing becomes a potential tool to silence female pain and suffering in our ever-optimising world, while it also embodies an equilibrium that many of the female writers, artists and/or patients studied during the seminar series, as well as the researchers themselves, are striving for.

Many of the authors featured in this week’s takeover will be taking part in our follow-up conference Contemporary Womxn’s Writing and the Medical Humanities, 29-31 July 2021. Follow the articles being published online this week to not only see what the seminar series showcased and the exciting research the conference will feature, but also to see the significant and vital research being undertaken around the world and how it is shaping future directions for medical humanities research.


Rebecca Rosenberg is a doctoral candidate in French studies at King’s College London. Her thesis examines autofictions of psychological suffering by Nelly Arcan, Chloé Delaume, Linda Lê and Chahdortt Djavann. Her research interests extend to autopathography, bibliotherapy and graphic medicine in bande dessinée having had a chapter published on these themes in the edited collected Narratives of the Therapeutic Encounter: Psychoanalysis, Talking Therapies and Creative Practice (2020). Rebecca tweets @rhrosenberg

Benjamin Dalton is a researcher in contemporary French thought and culture. He recently received his PhD in French from King’s College London. He currently teaches English language and literature at Paris Nanterre University and the New Sorbonne University in Paris, where he is also coordinator of a masters class in contemporary queer philosophy, literature and film. His research is now turning to the question of the clinic in contemporary French hospitals, and in particular is looking at how contemporary French philosophy can imagine new non-normative, queer modes of healthcare and healthcare spaces. Benjamin tweets @BenBGDalton

The conference ‘Contemporary Womxn’s Writing and the Medical Humanities’ will take place online from 29th to 31st July 2021. See here for further details of the program.

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