Discover our Research: Meet the academics

As part of Birkbeck’s Discover our research activity, Dr Suzannah Biernoff, senior Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Visual Culture in the Department of History of Art writes about her current research activity.

Dr Suzannah Biernoff

Dr Suzannah Biernoff

Hi Suzannah. What was your route to Birkbeck?

I moved to London from Sydney in 1998, after finishing my PhD. Before taking up a lectureship at Birkbeck in 2007 I taught on the Visual Culture programme at Middlesex University and at Chelsea College of Art and Design.

What’s your current topic of research?

My most recent publications have examined attitudes towards disability and disfigurement during and after the First World War. My book, Portraits of Violence: War and the Aesthetics of Disfigurement, is due out with the University of Michigan Press early next year. Wellcome funding has made it possible to publish open access articles in journals including Social History of Medicine, Visual Culture in Britain and Photographies.

I wanted to use visual sources as much as possible – from medical photographs and life drawings to prosthetic masks, photo albums and images in the illustrated press – sources that complicate and at times contradict the written record. As a historian of visual culture I am also interested in how people viewed the disfigured face. Cultural prohibitions against staring, expressions of pity or disgust, and later in the century the visual thrill of the horror movie: all of these ‘ways of seeing’ are part of the story, as much as the material evidence of injury, masking and repair.

I have recently been awarded a Birkbeck Wellcome Trust ISSF mid-career fellowship to begin a new project on images of facial difference within European and North American popular culture, film and visual art in the 20th and 21st centuries. I am interested in how people have responded to unusual or extraordinary faces; the cultural mechanisms of normalisation; and strategies of defiance and re-interpretation (for example, where the damaged face is re-imagined as beautiful, or where artists use disfigurement as a creative or symbolic device). As well as artistic representations of the face, my sources include public health images, advertisements, medical photographs, coffee table books, film and fashion photography.

Why did you choose this topic? What inspired you?

In autumn 2002 I went to the Strang Print Room at UCL to see a small exhibition of Henry Tonks’ drawings of WWI servicemen with facial injuries. In western art, the face is a primary marker of identity and humanity, and its violation or absence often represents the limits of the human. Tonks’ portraits are almost unbearably intimate studies. They record men before and after reconstructive surgery: almost certainly in pain, physically and emotionally exposed, but stoical. A surgeon himself, as well as a professor of anatomy and drawing at the Slade School of Art, Tonks managed to reveal something new about the depths of the human face and the ways in which images – and institutions – can shape the way we see. He once wrote that he wondered what the body must look like to someone without his knowledge of anatomy. I wonder if his ability to look without horror or embarrassment at the men he drew allows us to see them differently as well.

What excites you about this topic?

I’ve always liked the idea that the things we take most for granted, the things that feel inevitable and personal – our bodies, emotions or sensations – have a history. My current project focuses on the human face, which has tended to be overlooked in histories of the body.

Each chapter of Portraits of Violence revolves around a particular image or set of images:

  • Nina Berman’s 2006 World Press Photo winning portrait Marine Wedding is discussed alongside Stuart Griffiths’ photographs of British veterans of the Iraq War;
  • Henry Tonks’ drawings of WWI facial casualties are compared to the medical photographs of the same men in the Gillies Archives; the production of portrait masks for the severely disfigured is approached through the lens of documentary film and photography;
  • and in the final chapter the haunting image of one of Tonks’ patients at the Queen’s Hospital reappears in the first-person shooter game BioShock, provoking an exchange on a players’ discussion forum about the ethical limits of realism.

What is challenging about the research?

Photograph of Henry Tonks in his room at the Queen's Hospital, Sidcup, 1917

Photograph of Henry Tonks in his room at the Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup, 1917

Like most researchers working on issues of stigma and appearance within the humanities, my approach is informed by a social model of disability, according to which beauty, normality, acceptability and ugliness are in the eye (and cultural imagination) of the beholder. One of the strange things about disfigurement as a topic is that people (both experts and popular writers) have tended to assume that the object of study is self-evident. We think we know what we’re talking about when we refer to disfigurement. In fact there are no sources – historical or contemporary – that define this problematic term. The sociologist Heather Laine Talley observes in her book Disfigurement and the Politics of Appearance that the concept of disfigurement has ‘no static intelligibility, no objective point of reference, no stable shared meaning’ (2014, p. 14).

This problem with definitions presents a challenge for historians. If we understand ‘disfigurement’ – and stigma generally – as negotiated and context specific, then the idea of a history of disfigurement is a bit misleading. Really, one would need to ask why and how facial or bodily difference becomes disfigurement within particular social interactions and cultural contexts. In the early twentieth century – the period I’ve looked most closely at – these contexts include the fear and censorship of facial war injuries, and the lingering stigma of syphilis, but the symbiotic relationship between war and medicine had a role to play as well. Thanks to the large number of facial casualties returning home from the battlefields of WWI, plastic surgery – described by the pioneering surgeon Harold Gilles as a ‘strange new art’ – became a recognized medical specialism, and disfigurement a treatable condition.

What are the potential impacts of your research on everyday life?

Appearance plays a crucial role within social hierarchies. Like gender, class and race, the way we look is a powerful determinant of social mobility and physical capital. In this respect, there are clear parallels between the civil rights and feminist movements, and more recent developments in disability rights and ‘face equality’.

Despite the inclusion of serious disfigurement in the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) in 1995, there is a widespread perception among disability scholars and campaigners that the norms of acceptability are becoming narrower: that society (at least in the developed and increasingly globalised world) is becoming less tolerant of people who look different from a prevailing idea of normality.

Although disfigurement is not an illness – or even, in most cases, a functional impairment – it is widely perceived as having and requiring a medical solution. Understanding the social, political and historical contexts of ‘disfigurement’ is important both from the perspective of the medical humanities, and for scholars, artists, activists and policy makers working in the field of disability studies and advocacy.

What kind of a research environment is Birkbeck to work in?

One of the things I love about working at Birkbeck is that I teach students with such diverse interests and backgrounds. Each year I run an MA option called Exhibiting the Body, on medical museums and the historical intersections between art and medicine. Over the years my students have included nurses, GPs, painters and performance artists, a game developer, a medical photographer, and the curator of Barts Pathology Museum. There have been some memorable debates along the way on topics ranging from 19th-century freak shows to the ethics of displaying human remains.

As a teacher, being able to draw on a wide spectrum of personal and professional perspectives makes for an incredibly rich classroom experience. In the humanities we talk a lot about the value of interdisciplinarity at the level of research, but often overlook the benefits of teaching students in a multidisciplinary environment.

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Birkbeck’s Published Alumni Series: Nadim Safdar

This post was contributed by Valeria Melchioretto. This summer the Birkbeck Creative Writing department launched its new website The Mechanics’ Institute Review Online. This year marks a huge success for the Creative Writing MA as ten alumni have novels coming out this year.

To celebrate these achievements we are profiling a selection of the authors and extracts from their upcoming novels will appear on MIROnline. Here, Valeria speaks with alumnus Nadim Safdar, about his debut novel, Akram’s War (Atlantic, May 2016)

Read an extract of the book at MIROnline

VM: Firstly, congratulations on your debut novel Akram’s War which has just been published by Atlantic and thanks for taking part in this interview. We are keen to learn about your career so far. If you had to pick the most significant learning experience from your entire MA, what would it be?

NS: I feel fortunate that I come from a scientific background in which what we were taught was empirical and fact. It is not so different in the Creative Arts – the idea of form, structure, characterization and whether or not a situation or scene or phrase has been earned – these things I had to be taught. I listened carefully and writing the book, I built a shed in the rear of the garden and having sacrificed the day-job, I thought of little else for over four years. My day would begin around 10 at night when (my now wife) would go to bed and I’d work through.

Image credit: Sahar Afzal

Image credit: Sahar Afzal

Debut novels are famously thought to be, at least in parts, autobiographical. How much inspiration have you drawn from firsthand experience and how much is down to research or fiction?

It is surprising how you live within the character and indeed, how much of your character(s) live in you. There are two main characters in the book, Akram and Grace and during the four years of writing them, I often found myself (in real life) at a point of decision-making and wondered – what would Akram or Grace have done?

It won’t come as a surprise to me that readers’ might ask what I have in common with Akram (a Pakistani male). We men think we know how to fight but there are some battles we are not equipped for.

I therefore had to find the character Grace – and through her express the story of someone at the mercy of a system she is not equipped to deal with. I had to make the story of losing one’s child (or even the ever-present day-to-day threat of that loss) acceptable to the reader and for that to be believable it could only be expressed through the eyes of a woman.

We all have lived experience: have loved, fought, wounded others and scarred ourselves. You might want to but you can’t just blurt it out – writing is about finding a form in which to put it.

Your book has a strong message about the radicalisation of British Muslims. Over the last couple of years the topic has become ever more pressing, with the rise of ISIS etc. Could you see it coming?

Although no one could see it coming, I don’t think anyone could say, in retrospect, that the unfolding events weren’t inevitable.

The first Muslim has been sworn in as London’s new Mayor. Do you think he might be a role model for young British Muslims and could this event mark a turning point for radicalisation? Or what do you think it all means?

I think it means that the majority of Londoner’s are relatively poor and prefer the socialist candidate.

There is a whole genre of novels based on politically and socially urgent topics. I am sure you are familiar with the work of Lionel Shriver and so on. There is often talk about writers having an obligation to make social comments. How important is it for a writer to pick a relevant subject that features in the media or do you think that topics pick their writers and it’s about following one’s hunch whatever the subject matter?

Lionel Shriver talks about writing about people who ‘are hard to love,’ and with a protagonist who is something of a loner and an outsider there is much more to explore and say. To me, such people are far more interesting. In terms of social commentary, why would a writer like myself want to be between two intractably opposed sides murdering each other with any means at their disposal. The book is a complete work of fiction and has to exist all by itself.

Nadim Safdar (Image credit: Sahar Afzal)

Nadim Safdar (Image credit: Sahar Afzal)

How do you know when you are onto something big? Moreover, when do you know the novel you are writing is finished?

I wrote down one single phrase, printed it out large and posted it to the wall. After that, I had to invent the character and somehow, through 80,000 or so words, make him earn that phrase. It might sound arrogant but knew I had it in that first phrase.

The end point was more prosaic, the character Akram had simply run his course and had nothing more meaningful to say.

Was there much more work that needed to be done on the novel after finding an agent?

I was fortunate in finding an excellent agent and publisher who really seemed to understand what I was getting at, but also and importantly, they represented the reader. Through their direction the published book is far better than the one I originally submitted. For me, from first submission to an acceptable draft took about a year.

The opening sentence of chapter one is an absolute classic and has the sharp directness that instantly engages a reader. Given that your book has such a serious content how did you find the right form for it?

The opening phrase that I posted on my wall was set in the present. To earn it I had to take my protagonist right back to childhood and, through twenty or so years of his life, work back up to it. Although the past was told in a sort of flashback narrative, those scenes originally started as a series of short story’s linked through inter-connected characters. Once I had those, I had to find a form or framework and so I set the entire novel over one night and discovered Grace, someone my protagonist could tell his story to.

Getting a book deal is any MA student’s ultimate dream. Do you now write on a full-time basis?

You don’t get paid enough to write on a full-time basis – or at least I don’t! Indeed, writing on a full-time basis almost drove me mad. A writer needs something else, whether it’s travel or family or teaching or a part time job. You need also to be out in the world.

Rumours have it that you are already working on your next novel The Journeyman which is about a boxer. Could you tell us a bit more about it?  

A journeyman is a boxer who’s prone to losing and fights weekly for a living wage. A journeyman can’t afford to getting knocked out or injured as he then has to lay off for a month or more. So a journeyman is a master in defense and evasion and if he is that good, what does it take for him to win?

Barely a quarter through the new book, I already feel like I’m sitting at the bar at the Hailstone in Rowley Regis with my characters and for that feeling, a sort of writers-magic that signals I’m on to something, I’m very grateful.

Akram’s War by Nadim Safdar (Atlantic) is available now for £ 12.99

Nadim Safdar was born to Pakistani parents and grew up in the Black Country. He is married with three young children and lives in London. His first novel, AKRAM’S WAR, was published by Atlantic in May 2016.

Valeria Melchioretto

Valeria Melchioretto

Valeria Melchioretto is the author of Podding Peas and The End of Limbo. She received a bursary from the Arts Council. In 2012 she represented Switzerland at the Poetry Olympics at the South Bank and won the ‘New Writing Ventures’. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck and a MA in Fine Art.

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Handbook on Gender and Health

This post was contributed by Dr Jasmine Gideon, senior lecturer in Development Studies at Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies. Here, Dr Gideon offers an insight into her new book: The Handbook on Gender and Health

My monograph ‘Gender, Globalization and Health in a Latin American Context’ develops the idea of a gendered political economy of health and uses this framework to consider health reform in Chile. Compiling the Handbook on Gender and Health offered me an opportunity to develop my ideas further through directly engaging with a wide range of

Dr Gideon's book cover features an piece by Gambian artist Suelle Nachif titled 'Faj' ('heal')

Dr Gideon’s book cover features a piece by Gambian artist Suelle Nachif titled ‘Faj’ (‘heal’)

academics and policy makers working in this area.

The Handbook offered an opportunity to highlight empirical examples from across the globe and draw attention to case study analysis of specific issues that I was not able to include in my own book. Working on the Handbook was also a chance to think about what my ‘dream team’ of authors would look like and bring together a wide range of writers working on a variety of health-related issues, ranging from the historical development of health systems and how women and men are located within this to more ‘contemporary’ debates around migration, climate change and low paid labour which all have critical implications for health, particularly when viewed through a gender lens.

The Handbook brings together a wide range of disciplinary perspectives to consider four overarching themes, all constituting distinct but over-lapping elements of a broader gendered political economy of health. These are:

Gender equity vs gender equality

The first theme is the tension between ideas of gender equity and gender equality and how these translate in practice when applied to the health sector. Chapters explore the difference between ‘reductionist’ approaches where categories of women and men are not sufficiently explored, for example by failing to address how other axes of inequality (e.g. race/age/ class) can affect people’s ability to engage with health systems. In contrast a gender equality approach seeks to promote gender justice.

According to UN Women (2010), this entails ending the inequalities between women and men that are produced and reproduced in the family, the community, the market and the state. However, at the same time it requires that mainstream institutions are more accountable and transparent and points to the second theme discussed in the book.

Dr Jasmine Gideon

Dr Jasmine Gideon

The gendered nature of health systems

Several of the chapters reflect on the need to uncover the gendered nature of the health system itself and shed light on the diverse ways in which women’s interests are frequently marginalised or health policies work to reinforce women’s gendered roles and responsibilities.

Including marginalised voices

The third theme that is examined is the importance of incorporating the voices of excluded groups in policy processes as several chapters highlight the health costs of failing to engage with marginalised sectors of society.

Challenging ‘one size fits all’

Finally the fourth theme that emerges from a number of the chapters is the importance of appropriate policy responses and a move away from the ‘one size fits all’ approach, often espoused by international donors and global health discourses.

Within the Handbook authors from the Global North and South highlight how many of these challenges have wider relevance to all of our lives and that ‘gender’ remains central to any analysis of health, regardless of the level of development within the health system or wider economy.

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Birkbeck’s Published Alumni Series: Elizabeth Fremantle

This post was contributed by Valeria Melchioretto. This summer the Birkbeck Creative Writing department launched its new website The Mechanics’ Institute Review Online. This year marks a huge success for the Creative Writing MA as ten alumni have novels coming out this year.

To celebrate these achievements we are profiling a selection of the authors and extracts from their upcoming novels will appear on MIROnline. Here, Valeria speaks with alumnus Elizabeth Fremantle, about her novel, The Girl in the Glass Tower (Penguin, June 2016)

Read an extract of the book at MIROnline

VM: Congratulations on your latest novel The Girl In The Glass Towerwhich is due out in June and thanks very much for taking the time to answer a few questions. All your novels are set in the Tudor era and focus on remarkable women who actually lived at that time. What made you write about these heroines in the first place?

TheGirlInGlassTowerEF: I became interested in early modern women when I was studying for my BA in English at Birkbeck. A course that explored women’s writing from the renaissance period opened my eyes to some of the first English women to publish their own original work. This helped me to understand the ways in which women were able to find their voices in a wholly misogynistic culture that expected female silence and obedience.

Katherine Parr, the protagonist of my first Tudor novel, was one of these women and I wanted to bust the notion of her as the dull nursemaid of popular Protestant myth and show her as the intelligent, courageous and dynamic woman she really was. All the women I write about lived remarkable lives that have been altered, or overlooked by a history that privileges male narratives and it has been my aim to, at least in some small way, redress that balance by reimagining their stories.

You must be a very prolific writer as this is your fourth published novel within just over two years. How did this extraordinary magnum opus come about? Did you approach an agent with all four novels ready to go or did you have one novel and wrote the other three as part of a publishing deal?

It’s misleading really, as it makes it seem as if I write two books a year. This is not actually the case. Queen’s Gambit was already finished when I signed my first three-book deal with Michael Joseph/Penguin in 2012 and by the time that was published a year later I had finished work on the next. My pattern is to write a book a year and The Girl in the Glass Tower is the first of a new four-book deal with the same publishers.

I already had an agent when I decided to work on the historical novels and had been, unsuccessfully, writing contemporary fiction. The change of focus helped me finally find my voice and I benefitted from a good deal of support and encouragement from my agent.

There is a huge demand on novels about the great and the good of the Tudor era, from the works of Sansom to Gregory and of course Mantel. Why do you think readers seem so keen to engross themselves into the lives of a well known elite from so long ago, or to put it differently, do you ever feel the pressure of having to fulfil readers’ expectations?

Why the Tudors continue to fascinate is a question people ask all the time and there is no single answer. The period marked the beginning of our modern world; it was a time of great upheaval, the Reformation forced people to reconsider beliefs that had gone unquestioned for hundreds of years and it marked a fundamental societal change. It was a time of great cultural flourishing in poetry and drama, which still resonates to this day, and also saw the first explorations to the New World.

As someone who is preoccupied with women’s stories I have found great inspiration from being able to listen in to authentic women’s voices from the first writings by women I mentioned above. For a writer it is a world in which the stakes are stratospherically high which creates a constant tension in any narrative.

There are of course the constraints of accuracy as the narrative arch is fixed by history itself. How do you manage to reclaim these characters and make them your own?

Elizabeth Fremantle

Elizabeth Fremantle

I don’t really think about that when I set out to write. I do a great deal of research and then set it all aside so I can build my characters from the inside out. Character is, after all, formed from inaccessible inner worlds. I may know some of the actions of the real life counterparts of my characters and the way they responded to others’ actions, or I may have read a line in a letter that sparks something in my mind, which in turn transforms into a trait that can be built on. But these people derive as much from my imagination as the historical record. I aim for accuracy in the overarching narrative but for me the historical facts are a framework on which to hang my characters.

How do you get so much writing done? Do you set yourself a daily word target or is it about having an ideal working environment? What’s your secret?

My secret is a very dull one: it’s nothing more mysterious than discipline. I work all the time and rarely take time off. There is nothing I’d rather be doing. I do find that a daily word count helps with my tight writing schedule. My absolute minimum is 1,000 words but if I haven’t written 1,500 in a day I’m not happy. I edit as I go along, reviewing the previous days’ work on the following morning and absolutely must be at my own desk, surrounded by all my reference books.

In which way do you think the MA has prepared you for your career as a writer?

I think one of the key things I derived from the MA was an understanding of the difficulty of the path I had chosen but also to take myself seriously as a writer. The truth is though, that it was only the beginning. The only way to develop ones craft is to practice it ceaselessly and that I did, for some time before I finally found my voice.

What has been the most challenging step on your way towards publication?

The decade of perpetual rejection, when I was writing but couldn’t find a home for my work. In hindsight I realize this period was an important part of my development as a writer but I could have done with it being less prolonged.

Your list of forthcoming events seems very busy at the moment. What is it like to come face to face with your readers?

It’s always a pleasure to meet the people who have read your work, though I get very nervous about public speaking.

Can you tell us about your forthcoming writing project(s)?

I’m working on a Jacobean thriller at the moment called The Poison Bed. It is set around the circumstances of a notorious murder in the Tower of London, which scandalized England and remains, to this day, something of a legal mystery. It will be my first crime novel. It is a new process for me as the structure and pace, as much as character, are key to making it work. Usually character is the cornerstone of my work, so this is different, though it has many of the characteristics of my other novels. I’m very excited about it and am thoroughly enjoying exploring a new genre and stretching myself creatively.

Also by Elizabeth Fremantle ‘Watch the Lady’, ‘Sisters of Treason’ and ‘Queen’s Gambit’ all published by Penguin.

Elizabeth Fremantle is the author of four novels all published by Penguin. She has a BA in English and an MA in creative writing from Birkbeck, University of London and has contributed to various publications including The Sunday Times, Vogue, Vanity Fair, The Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal. She also reviews fiction for The Sunday Express. She lives in London.

Valeria Melchioretto

Valeria Melchioretto

Valeria Melchioretto is the author of Podding Peas and The End of Limbo. She received a bursary from the Arts Council. In 2012 she represented Switzerland at the Poetry Olympics at the South Bank and won the ‘New Writing Ventures’. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck and a MA in Fine Art.

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