9 9
Apr Apr
2016 2016

St Hilda's Writers' Day at the Oxford Literary Festival

12:00 to 19:00

Read more about the authors's fascinating talks below, catch up on how the story of the day unfolded on social media, or take a look at our photo gallery.

What happened at the event

For the seventh year running, St Hilda’s Writers’ Day was part of Oxford Literary Festival. Led by Programme Director Nicolette Jones, St Hilda’s Media Network convened four impressive talks by speakers who are all alumnae of the College.

The day started with ‘Bound Feed Blues: A Life Told in Stories’. Author Yang-May Ooi spoke about her book and one-woman West End show on the history of women’s lives in China. She told of how she grew from shy student to performing artist - starting by removing her own shoes! Yang-May explained that she sees ‘bound feet’ as a metaphor for her own life and for what it means to be a woman. Yang-May made a connection with her heritage through stories and she wanted to tell her own stories aloud, as her parents had done. Having no children or grandchildren, she turned to performance. When a one-hour show was not long enough for all the stories, Yang-Mai wrote her book.

In Chinese tradition, femininity was linked to small feet. Having tiny feet - and maimed - feet was linked to being a perfect wife – you could never run away from your husband. Not so in the case of Yang-Mai’s great grandmother, who escaped from her unhappy life despite her bound feet. Binding of feet was commonplace when she was born in the late 1880s and the practice continued into the 1940s and 1950s in some areas of China. The images of the irreparable damage done to women’s feet were shocking – as was the revelation that foot binding works on the same principal as stiletto heels.

Next up, Guardian Literary Editor Claire Armistead chaired a discussion on the ‘Art of the Short Story’ with Frances Leviston, author of poetry collections ‘Public Dream’ and ‘Disinformation’ and short story ‘Broderie Anglaise’, and Helen Simpson, author of five collections of short stories, including 'Cockfosters'. We wondered how short stories differ from other genres? A natural short story writer will shear away detail whereas a natural novel writer must retain it, as the ‘gossip’ is often integral to the story.

The authors debated what makes a good short story. The agreed that it needs to have the right level of detail that chimes with its audience, which ‘Broderie Anglaise, read by Frances, certainly did. Is there such a thing as a perfect short story? 'Yes, there is', said our authors, as a short story can completely realise the possibilities of its point of view and narrative structure. An astute member of the audience noted that the perfect short story does indeed exist, as Helen has written it, in ‘Cockfosters’.

Our third author, Hannah Rothchild, Chair of the Board of the National Gallery, discussed how people have used art as a social elevator since it became portable, and how and why its price is pushed up. A ‘masterpiece’ might express something that many identify with, such as a symbol of love. More practically, it can also be somewhere safe to put your money. This is a central theme of ‘The Improbability of Love’, which takes a 300-year-old lost Watteau painting as its central character. The painting, found in a junk shop, tells part of the story, capturing the idea, ‘if only a picture could speak’.

Watteau is one of the more obscure artists of his time. The question of how to research the life of someone about whom very little is known was also explored by our final author, Daisy Dunn. Her biography, ‘ Catullus’s Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s most Erotic Poet’, tells his life through his poems. Daisy also used historical sources to bring out what is in the lines of Catullus's verse, such as those dedicated to brother, who died in 57BC. There was some negativity in Catullus’s lifetime about his erotic poems and he himself referred to them as ‘trifles’. Epics such as those by Homer were seen as the pinnacle of what could be achieved but after Catullus’s early (and mysterious) death, Ovid and others were keen to be compared with him. An influencer of much of what came later, Catullus was indeed one of Rome’s greatest poets.

St Hilda’s College has much to be proud of in its multi-talented former students. To learn more about their time at St Hilda's College and how it helped them in their chosen careers, take a look at our 'St Hilda's and Me' interviews with Dr Daisy Dunn and Yang-May Ooi.

We hope to see you on 1 April 2017, at the eighth Oxford Literary Festival St Hilda’s Writers’ Day.

Frances Leviston and Helen Simpson signing books at St Hilda's Writers' Day, Oxford Literary Festival
Hannah Rothchild and Nicolette Jones at St Hilda's Writers' Day, Oxford Literary Festival
Yang Mai Ooi signing books at St Hilda's Writers' Day, Oxford Literary Festival
Daisy Dunn signing books at St Hilda's Writers' Day, Oxford Literary Festival
Hannah Rothchild signing books at St Hilda's Writers' Day, Oxford Literary Festival