Interviews Editor Angelos Sofocleous, talks to Mairi O’Brien, Third year Physics student and Co-President of Durham University Women in STEM society.
Durham University Women In STEM (previously Durham WISE) is a student-run society consisting of a mix of undergraduate and postgraduate students, across a range of STEM subjects.
What does your society do to support women in STEM?
Our society focuses on showing the women currently studying STEM subjects at Durham that there are many career options available to them within STEM and provides them with an opportunity to listen and talk to employers and Durham alumni about their careers. It also provides a community for women to get to know each other using our social events.
Which do you think are the reasons that women are underrepresented in STEM fields?
I believe that this problem begins in as young as primary school children. From the toys we are given to play with to the TV and films we watch, we are being shown that there is an expectation for girls to enjoy certain things. We are shown through the media and in real life that men dominate STEM fields, and this reinforces the idea that this is not something we would succeed at as women. Once we reach sixth form age, many girls will not choose to study A-Level subjects like physics and computer science. According to the Institute of Physics, only 22.2% of physics A-Level students in 2017 were female. From those, even fewer continue to study STEM subjects at university. Some subjects, like biology, are female dominated at undergraduate level, but this is not the case higher up in the department.
Which are the biggest barriers that women in STEM face at Durham University?
As a physics student, I personally feel outnumbered in my lectures, and sometimes out of place. I have no female lecturers this year at all, and for many other STEM subjects there are very few female lecturers and professors too. It is difficult not seeing many people like yourself being successful in your field, and sometimes students can feel excluded. With a lack of role models available, it is the case that many female STEM students do not choose to pursue a career in STEM.
What do you think should be done to solve these issues?
There is little that can immediately be done about the fact that there are few female lecturers and professors, it will take years for this to balance out. I believe it would be good for the female professors and department staff to make themselves visible. I am the undergraduate rep for the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion committee in physics, and I believe that committees like these should promote the work they are doing to students, to show what is being done in the different departments across the university.
How can men in STEM support women in STEM?
Come to our events! It is always great to see men at our events, as we want to make sure we are not cutting ourselves off further by making our events exclusive to women. It gives people a chance to see successful women in their respective fields and may change people’s perceptions of what a STEM graduate looks like. It is also good for everyone to have awareness of how women are outnumbered in certain subjects, so if you study a very male-dominated subject, take a second to look at how many women are in your lectures, and become aware of how they may feel.
What can one gain from joining your society?
Our society membership is free, and events are open to all genders. We offer the opportunity to interact with graduate recruiters and women (and men) from a variety of STEM fields, to ask them questions about what they do and understand what is available after university. We also have a de-stress event and other socials planned for second term, which are all free to attend!
By Angelos Sofocleous
Sometimes you don’t have much choice. And that’s okay.
For a student enrolled on a Modern Languages degree, often the year abroad is a non-negotiable requirement of the course, rather than an optional extra. I lived abroad because I had to; I made new friends because I had to; I practiced the language because I had to. This turned out to be a good thing. My year abroad was an amazing experience, and I am grateful to have had no choice but to embrace it.
Sometimes you don’t have much choice. And that can be unfair.
When considering the year abroad, students tend to be presented with a variety of options, ranging from volunteering and studying to an internship or British Council Language Assistantship. In reality, however, options can be limited depending on budget, the number of months you are able to commit to a certain location, and what you want to get out of the year abroad itself.
Sometimes you have a fair amount of choice, but not the final say.
As part of my year abroad, I spent around seven months working as a Language Assistant in France through the British Council. While applicants have the opportunity to state preferences in terms of preferred age-group to work with and city to teach in, the final say isn’t your own. Furthermore, even if assigned your first choice of city, you may end up located in its outskirts. I was assigned to a Lycée in a small town in the North of France. This turned out to be extremely beneficial for my French, as very few people in the town spoke English. When you have limited say and go into the process knowing you have limited say, you have to accept things as they are and make the situation work for you.
Oftentimes you have more choice than you think.
Though I may have had the impression of spending a year abroad because I was obliged to do so, ultimately, it was my own decision to enrol on a Modern Languages course in the first place. It was also my own decision to make ‘restrictions’ work in my favour. I made the most of small-town life, getting to know the locals, frequenting the local bar and cafés and improving my language skills in the process. The friends I made, and the knowledge and skills I acquired were all down to my own determination to make the year abroad a success as per my own aspirations and expectations. I was also fortunate enough to have the opportunity to spend time in Spain, meaning what was lacking in France I could actively strive to compensate for in Madrid.
Though sometimes it may seem that decisions are made for you, it is never quite so simple. You are free to set your own goals and, importantly, to decide how to use the experience to your own advantage.
There’s something about Swing (and DUSS)
Imagine the famous La La Land hit ‘A lovely night’ but with hectic improvisations and a whole room rhythmically clapping at a jazz solo dancer. These and other fantastic scenes I have witnessed since I joined the Durham University Swing Society (or DUSS), and I am now madly, and desperately, in love with it. So here for you Garance Zinzen, founder of the society, to find out why you should absolutely get involved.
Why do you think people should choose swing over other forms of dancing?
There are scientific reasons (e.g. improvised partner dancing helps with physical and brain health), but those are a bit boring and can easily be found on Google so I’ll talk about the non-scientific reasons instead.
Swing is an African-American vernacular jazz dance which emerged in the 1920s in Harlem, New York. As such, it is based on traditions of African dances which focus on rhythm and community dancing. Community is therefore built into the core of the dance and since swing is a social dance, its improvisational nature means that you don’t have to stress about doing the right step. Being involved in the swing community also helps you to become a better person – the more you learn about the dance and its roots, the more you learn about race, gender, and politics. Particularly, at DUSS, we try to emphasise things like the importance of the history of the dance and cultural awareness.
The swing community is unlike any other dance community in the world. If you’re looking for an incredibly social society to join, then a swing dance society is the way to go! There’s a story of a girl who spent a year travelling the world and never had to pay for accommodation: she would stand at the airport she had arrived in holding up a sign which read ‘lindy hop?’ and another dancer would always come up and offer to help her out!
Why do you think this is the moment to join the society?
Oh my gosh, we have so many plans! We’ve already run a beginner-friendly weekend festival and we have plans for two more (Wear Shagging All Weekend in February and Summer Swing in June). Every December, we have our annual Weekend Away, where we hire out a whole hostel in the middle of nowhere and do activities together – beyond just dancing! On a more regular basis though, we have weekly Sunday classes and fortnightly Tuesday classes, and we have our regular Tuesday social, Library Stomp! We also regularly travel to other festivals and events around the UK.
What kind of environment do you strive to create for members?
An environment in which everyone feels welcome and able to express themselves through dancing. One of our mantras is ‘there is no such thing as a mistake, it’s all a variation’, and I feel that sums up nicely what our classes are like. We do a lot of work on safe spaces and ensuring that everyone feels comfortable the whole time they are at DUSS.
Do new members need dancing experience to join?
Absolutely not! Most of our members had never done any kind of dance before joining. We’ve had so many people claim they have two left feet, then they come along to a class and they’re able to social dance by the end.
What is your advice for people wanting to try it out?
Don’t be scared to come along! All of our beginners classes are run as drop-ins so if you are worried you’ve missed content – don’t be! We also pride ourselves on being a super welcoming society and run fortnightly socials, so if you’re not sure about whether you want to join, come to The Library Bar on Tuesdays every fortnight.
By Claudia Sterbini
Encounters with strangers are always unpredictable, sometimes awkward, most of the times stressful. This is especially the case in interviews, where, you, the interviewer find yourself in a unique situation: After doing substantial research on your interviewee, you sit in front of them and you just have one task: ask them questions.
Interviews differ significantly from how we usually interact with people in our everyday lives. The uniqueness of interviews in terms of style and their dynamic, implies that interviews include special rules which it is advised that you follow if you would like to conduct successful interviews.
The Interviews section of The Definite Article presents to you some useful tips on conducting successful and engaging interviews.
Organize the interview well. That means contacting the potential interviewee well ahead of the day you would like to interview them and give them flexibility on the dates you would like to conduct the interview. It is important that you think of the place you would like to conduct the interview at well. If you are interviewing a person with whom you disagree on certain issues and the conversation is likely to get heated, then it would not be a good idea to conduct the interview at their place. Their sense of being ‘at home’ might give them an unfair advantage in your disagreement. In such a case, find a neutral place which will let you conduct the interview free from any external influences.
Of course, at the beginning of the interview, you don’t want to make the interviewee feel uncomfortable in any way. Be polite, courteous, on time, and thank them for the opportunity to interview them. Make them feel at ease by making some small talk or an informal conversation before the interview starts. They will not give you what you want if you come out as hostile to them or if you are just looking for an opportunity to damage their reputation.
Know your interviewee better than you know yourself. They might had been a stranger a few days before the interview, but at the time of the interview you need to have a clear grasp of who they are, their personal lives, their ideas, their strong and weak points. In this way, you are able to focus on the right things during the interview and maybe push them a little to reveal aspects of their lives or expand on ideas you know they hold.
No matter how much research you do beforehand, however, in an interview you have the opportunity to get the fullest picture of a person. And this is because in an interview you have the opportunity to ask the right questions, of course, but also to observe how the interviewee behaves, how they sit, how they talk, how they treat you and other people, how their house or office is decorated. A good interviewer does more than listen. A good interviewer observes.
Try to engage into conversation with the other person. Forget what traditional and orthodox interviews look like and do not just read one question after the other. This ensures that you can ask follow-up questions and tells the other person that you have been listening to what they are saying. If you just read the questions you have on paper in robotic-style interviews then it seems that you are dismissing what they are saying and you are just interested in reaching the end of your list of questions. Instead, let the interview take its natural course.
Conducting an interview is a unique opportunity to have a face-to-face interaction with another person for an extended period of time in which you control and set the rules of the conversation. Following the above advice is crucial in managing to get the most out of your interviewee and having a successful interview.
Angelos Sofocoleus- Interviews Editor
Does public speaking give you nightmares? Have you been learning a language for several years but the cat gets your tongue every time you encounter a native speaker? Hyper-polyglot and three time TED-Talk speaker Sébastien Roger de Nuñez would like to share his simple but effective advice with you.
Sébastien grew up in France with an Argentinean mother, and has travelled and worked in several countries such as Argentina and Romania. Sébastien is a linguistic mastermind. He speaks 12 languages including fluent French, Spanish and English and managed his own language school for several years. However, what makes this polyglot really stand out is how he allies his language skills with other forms of communication. Sébastien applies his skillset as an improv actor to his current position as a communication coach; offering one-to-one classes and organising workshops which are the key to success for business people hoping to get their voices heard amongst the crowds of competition.
Amongst his language studies, acting and public speaking pursuits, Sébastien directed an award-winning documentary film, What music do you speak?, in which he embarks on a road trip from Buenos Aires to the north of Argentina. Sébastien’s work is organic and authentic. His documentary film allows ordinary local people whom he encounters at village festivals and local bars the chance to share their remarkable stories with the unimposing camera. Sébastien’s approach as a director is to listen, follow and weave together a logical sequence of events; whilst equally reflecting the spontaneous beauty of the trip. This endeavour would broaden Sébastien’s understanding of the art of communication. In his film, he demonstrates that music is a language which transverses all linguistic and cultural borders. It unifies us whilst celebrating our differences. Embodying the universal nature of music in Argentina, Sébastien shows us that in Argentina, you do not need a fancy piano, nor a qualification, nor even an ounce of natural talent to pick up an instrument.
One of Sébastien's striking abilities is his positive energy and a can-do attitude which has inspired his 223,000 TED-talk viewers to take up language learning. In his talk ‘Un polyglotte sommeille en vous’ (‘The Multilingual in You’, in French with English subtitles), Sébastien explains that he was never born with a natural gift for language acquisition. He struggled to make any progress learning Japanese in the classroom environment. The real turning point was when he decided to start to speak the language from Day 1, focusing on what he already knew from languages that he had previously acquired. Sébastien’s no-frills approach is all centred around communication; if you are understood, he says, you have succeeded in your mission.
By reading Sébastien’s advice, you may well be able to turn a corner in your journey as an MLAC student. After all, learning to become a great communicator goes far beyond hitting the grammar books and reciting endless lists of vocabulary!
Hi, Sébastien. Thank you so much for offering to share your experiences with The Definite Article today. First, tell me a little bit more about your background and your studies.
Hi, it’s a pleasure to be here. So, I grew up in France and my father is French but my mother is Argentine. Since my father’s Spanish is very limited, French was the main language in my household growing up. Although I did understand some Spanish, I certainly did not speak the language perfectly. In terms of my studies, I actually completed an engineering degree but as soon as I graduated, I knew that it was not the right career for me.
Well, an engineer doesn’t really exchange with other people and I had a thirst for a career which would enable me to socialise and communicate with others. I had already started to learn English and Japanese whilst I was at engineering school before I went to live in Argentina for 2 years. By this point, I had got the bug for language learning!
Why are languages so important to you?
For me, languages open the door to understanding diversity. Human beings speak multiple languages simultaneously; not only on a linguistic level but also an emotional, logical, physical, spiritual, visual and auditory level.
The French and the UK education systems both have very poor reputations when it comes to language learning. Why do you believe that so many students never succeed in obtaining a reasonable level of second language acquisition by the time that they leave school?
In France, I would say that it isn’t the teachers’ fault, as they are very qualified. The problem is that the main objective which the school system is geared around is getting good grades on a piece of paper. The school system focuses on what you ‘must’ do; you ‘must’ get good grades, you ‘must’ learn a certain way, etc. and students conform to these rules out of fear. In contrast, in order to succeed in language learning, you must first encourage the learner to want to learn the language. You cannot force the student to be enthusiastic. Instead, you must create situations that will gently encourage them: for example, by setting up a debate in the classroom.
This is interesting because there is a common belief that children under eight years old are a lot more capable of naturally picking up other languages. Do you believe this to be true?
I don’t think so as I can learn a new language in three weeks! The more languages you speak, the easier it becomes to pick up new ones and that’s why I was able to start to understand and form some basic sentences in Dutch and Polish very quickly. I saw that my mother had reached fluency in a foreign language after just five years. This taught me that it was possible to learn a new language, which fed my positive mentality. I disagree that children learn languages very quickly; a child is completely immersed in a native speaker environment and is forced to learn the language in order to interact with the world around them. Even then, it takes them three years to start to maintain basic conversations in their mother tongue; compared to the three weeks that it takes me to start to speak a foreign language! The moment that you decide that learning the language is a priority, you are able to quickly make progress. When I was at university, I learnt two foreign languages without ever having the intention of going to the countries. Of course, I ended up giving up because if the idea does not seem rewarding, you will never have the motivation to persevere with your language studies.
How did you eventually manage to motivate yourself?
It was travelling which really inspired me to learn languages. You see, when you close your eyes and imagine your end achievement and you can’t help getting really excited, then you know that you have the motivation that you need to succeed! I absolutely fell in love with travelling and working abroad. For me, learning a foreign language is ultimately acting; broadening the horizons of who you can be and how you are. It is a road of self discovery in which you embrace unfamiliar things along the way and embed yourself in another culture and an alternative perspective on life. This ultimately broadens your own vision of yourself and the world around you.
Surely not just anyone can speak multiple languages like you! Where does natural talent come into play?
I truly believe that anyone can do anything. This doesn’t mean, however, that your upbringing isn’t important. For example, if your parents never really spoke to you, then you are bound to experience some setbacks when learning to communicate yourself. Not everyone has the talent to be excellent at something. For example, anyone can play a musical instrument but very few people can play like Mozart. Languages are exactly the same but this certainly doesn’t mean that we should let others down by refusing to try to communicate with them.
I’m sure that I am not the only Durham student who has found that when I make an effort to speak with natives in the target language, they instantly switch to English as they are keen to practise! How would you act in this situation?
One of the very first phrases that I absolutely master when I learn a new language is ‘I don’t speak English.’ So when someone starts to speak to me in English, I put on this really confused face (lowers eyebrows and looks around) but you have to really use your tone of voice and your body language to make them think that you are totally lost! You can also fake your nationality, you (pointing at me) could say that you were Dutch, for example. You also have to be really, really stubborn. If they start to try to speak to you in your native language, continue to speak in the target language and don’t give in! Although this depends on the situation, of course. For example, if I meet a German person in France, I know that they are going to really persist in order to be able to practise their French with me. On the other hand, when I’m in Germany, I make an effort to exclusively speak in German.
Beyond language learning, it is often said that the new generation has appalling communication skills in general because they are constantly glued to their smartphones. Do you agree?
For me, the fact that the new generation is addicted to their smartphones is the symptom; not the cause. Actually, technology has allowed us to communicate more. The problem with today’s society is that we are too afraid to look at ourselves in the mirror. In the Middle Ages, it was only the king who was granted the authority to speak but nowadays, everybody has a microphone, everybody has the power to project their voice on social media. However, we cannot shift that lump in our throats knowing that an invisible audience lies behind our computer screen.
What is it about public speaking then that sends shivers down our spines?
It all comes down to human instincts. Our biggest fear is to be rejected by the rest of the group as in the forest, rejection meant inevitable death. When you start to speak in front of a crowd, you are asking the audience to judge you, which we naturally consider to represent a threat to our survival. However, we no longer live in the forest! If one group rejects us, so what? We can just stroll over to the next group! We must remember that it is not about us, but rather it is about them, our audience. We, the speakers, are just there to serve. All you need to imagine is that you are standing around a campfire and it is your turn to get up on stage and share your story.
So many incredibly intelligent scientists and mathematicians, for example, really struggle to get their message across and share their knowledge with others. Why is this such a problem for them?
A lot of people wear a mask to fool people into thinking that they are not afraid of judgement. For many people, this mask is the PowerPoint which is their way of saying ‘don’t look at me, look over there at the slide’. Their shield is their suit and their tone of voice which all help to put on a professional front. Even if their presentation is boring, this isn’t a problem for them as they are simply providing the audience with what is expected of them. After all, the audience cannot criticise what the scientist or mathematician is saying, as they are supported by the figures projected on the screen.
So, how can you prepare yourself before facing the audience?
A master doesn’t need to prepare! You see, there are several stages to mastering. First of all, there is ‘unconscious incompetence’: when you don’t realise that you’re not good at something, for example, children fall into this category. Then comes ‘conscious incompetence’: when you realise that you are really bad at something. Next comes ‘conscious competence’: when you can do something really well but it takes effort. The final stage is ‘unconscious competence’: when you would still be able to do it perfectly even if you were woken up during the middle of the night to do it. For example, musicians and athletes are so good at what they do that they make it look easy. It is quite simply a myth when people tell you that you won’t be judged by the audience when you go up on stage. You must prepare to be judged; people will naturally question if what you are saying is worth their time and trust. The ball is in your court if you are happy with where you are standing and you understand that the audience is there to help you to grow.
How can the audience help the speaker to develop?
Well, you need to listen to the audience’s feedback and opinions in order to reflect on your own performance. This doesn’t mean that you have to apply what they are saying, but you need to at least be open and listen. This means that you need to be able to accept compliments (rather than resorting to the default ‘no biggy’ response) and take on criticism (without blaming the fact that you were tired or anything else). Dare to face resistance head on, start off by recognising that people have different points of view and you will then earn their trust. This will clear the way for you to share your own opinion.
Finally, what direction do you think that your career will take in the future?
My journey as a communicator has now moved on beyond pure language learning. Now, my mission is centred around helping people to deal with resistance, own their own lives, love their jobs and make money. I aim to combine my expertise as a communicator with the general life skills which I have developed in order to help people to ask themselves ‘how can I shine the brightest?’
Thank you so much, Sébastien, for talking to The Definite Article today. I am sure that many budding linguists at Durham University will really appreciate your help!
Find out more about Sébastien’s work by clicking on the links below
Speaker reel: youtu.be/b7xanl6KUJs
TEDx Langues: youtu.be/vdImQveEI0c
Film trailer: https://vimeo.com/151503011
FREE full film in English: https://vimeo.com/154847574
Purchase DVD: www.whatmusicdoyouspeak.com
(Interview conducted in both French and English on 22nd March 2019. Sections translated from original French to English by Clorrie Yeomans).
Durham Russian student Alex Haigh speaks to Katie Condon about his adventures on Russian national television!
Katie: Hey Alex, Hope you’re well! I heard that you were on Russian national television? Would you mind explaining to that happened?
Alex: Hello! Haha it’s a bit of of a mystery to me as well I'm afraid! Olga Zabotkina (in Durham) used to live here in Kostroma, and mentioned to an old friend of hers, a newspaper journalist, about my time here. This woman came and did an interview with me, which was published in a national newspaper. After that, I suppose, these 3 TV channels saw the article and decided it would be a good idea to interview me as well, although why they were particularly drawn to me I have no clue!
K: Omg that’s so random… Was the interview in English or Russian? What kind of questions did they ask you?
A: Tell me about it! The first was in English with a bit of Russian thrown in, the other two were all Russian!
K: Did they want to know about your experiences in Russia specifically or was it more about your life in general? What kind of things did you discuss with them?
A: It was a mixture of the two, they were especially keen to know about my life here, but they also wanted to know what stereotypes British people have of Russia. In the first interview we went to a dacha, a summer cottage, to talk about life there, and in the third one we went ice fishing with my host family's Dad!
K: That's so cool !! Were you nervous before? Has anyone approached you since?
A: I wouldn't say nervous exactly, more just a bit confused haha! Yes, a local journalist is doing a radio interview with me tomorrow actually, although he seems to want to talk more about the media attention I've had, rather than why I'm here in the first place, ironically!
K: And what did you say to them re British stereotypes of Russia?
A: Vodka, bears and people quite unfriendly, I said the first two seemed true but the last one was absolutely incorrect, the people are (by and large) friendly and helpful to me if I don't understand something
K: And how is your year abroad going otherwise?
A: Generally very well, I am currently at the airport waiting to fly home for Christmas, then back to Russia for another month. It has been very rewarding, enjoyable work, both the studying and the teaching, and it will be a shame to leave at the end of February!
An interview with Renata Flores Rivera: The Queen of Quechua-Pop who is fighting against discrimination
Clorrie Yeomans, Third Year MLAC Student, Hild Bede
Scrolling through YouTube videos, I came across Renata Flores Rivera, a 17 year-old Peruvian artist of indigenous descent with a striking look and a velvety sound. However, her claim to fame is that she posts covers on YouTube of Western pop songs performed in Quechua: the language originally spoken by the Incas over 800 years ago. Quechua remains the most spoken indigenous language in Latin America, with over 8 million speakers mainly found in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. In spite of this, today the living language of the Incas is endangered largely because young people feel too ashamed to speak it for fear of being stigmatised as poor mountain dwellers. Thus, in her early years, Renata grew up in a Quechua-speaking environment but under the influence of social pressures, her parents later began to only speak to her in Spanish. Despite losing her maternal language, Renata remains connected to her roots and through her art, she aspires to challenge attitudes. This issue lies close to the singer’s heart after having witnessed her grandmother’s adversity as a victim of linguistic discrimination.
During our Skype interview, the singer radiated warmth, positivity and down-to-earthiness. On the other hand, for Renata, fearlessness and tenacity have been the two fundamental pillars of building and maintaining a successful artistic career at such a young age. The release of her cover on YouTube of the Michael Jackson song, ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’, sung in Quechua catapulted her to fame in 2015. Now, the video has an extraordinary 1.7 million hits and counting. Renata has also made several TV appearances as a participant in La Voz Kids (The Voice Kids) in 2014 and Los Cuatro Finalistas (The 4 Finalists) in 2018. In the meantime, at 16 years old, the singer took an artistic leap from exclusively releasing covers to making her own original tracks in Quechua, too. This led to the release of her debut single 'Qawachkanchik chay Killallata’ ‘Mirando La Misma Luna’ (‘Gazing at the Same Moon’), combining traditional Peruvian instruments with an electro-pop sound.
Needless to say that interviewing Renata was an incredibly eye-opening experience:
Hi, Renata, thank you so much for giving up your time for the interview today. I saw on your social media that you were at a very special event the day before yesterday, can you tell me more, please?
Renata: (beaming and glowing with excitement) Yes, I was at an awards ceremony at the Gran Teatro Nacional organised by the Ministry of Culture of Peru for artists helping to bring about social change. There were 68 different contestants divided into numerous artistic categories including cinema, visual arts, music and literature. I am over the moon to have been chosen as the winner!
Congratulations, that must be a really significant achievement in your career…
Renata: Yes, definitely.
As we already know, you are a YouTube star. I would like to know, how significant a role do social media and technology play in your career?
Renata: Social media is definitely really important, not just for me, but for everybody nowadays. However, of course, you need to be able to know how to use it! In terms of the music industry, you don’t need to work with a big record company anymore. Thanks to social media and YouTube, there’s a lot more artistic freedom which enables the individual to make the kind of music that they want to make, instead of being controlled by a record label.
Your covers in Quechua have attracted a lot of social media attention, but how do young people actually feel about speaking Quechua in general?
Renata: Discrimination against Quechua-speakers has existed since long before I was born. Some young people are in contact with the language through their parents, in the street or even through social media. However, when I was at school, they used to make fun of the language and call other students ‘Inca’, which was seen as an insult. They were not even really aware that they were hurting somebody’s feelings. ‘Inca’ should not be an insult; we should be proud of our roots! Our language, Quechua, is part of our culture and our identity and we should be proud of this. Now, young people listen to my music and they take Quechua more seriously: they realise that they should not make fun of the language anymore.
Your song, ‘Tijeras ft. Kayfex’, talks about femicide and violence against women. The lyrics, ‘don’t be afraid of speaking out’ and ‘women, we are united’, along with the fusion of Trap and traditional musical influences, are definitely very powerful. Can you tell me a bit more about what inspired the song?
Renata: My music speaks directly to women and encourages them to speak out if they have been abused. The problem is that sometimes the authorities cannot understand the woman if she only speaks Quechua and there is a lot of corruption in Peru, and in other countries, too. Even when the offenders are sent to prison, there is no justice.
Do you feel strong singing in Quechua? Is the language a symbol of strength for women?
Renata: Yes, I do because the language teaches you to love the land and nature. Quechua women who speak two languages are so impressive and strong! However, other women who only speak Quechua are still very powerful.
I have read that you work closely with several cultural associations including SURCA and The Kallpac Association. How do these associations support you artistically?
Renata: The project ‘Pitaq Kani’, ‘¿Quien eres?’ (‘Who are you?’) (originally ‘Los jóvenes tambien hablamos Quechua’, ‘The youth also speaks Quechua’), has enabled us to create a more professional project which is more detail-oriented. At these national contests, I have met a lot of different artists. SURCA helps with the production of the videos but we are all a team together. However, I really couldn’t do it without my mum, she is at the forefront of the project. We incorporate a fusion of different instruments and different genres to show that our culture can be commercial, too.
But by commercialising your culture, are you perhaps at the same time degrading it?
Renata: No, I consider this to be part of the development of a culture which is necessary to prevent it from being lost. For example, K-Pop takes on western influences and some words in English, but the music is still very much Korean. Now, everybody is listening to K-Pop, including Koreans and international fans, and everybody wants to collaborate with the artists.
This is really interesting as often in the Western world at school we are led to imagine indigenous communities in Latin America as ‘frozen in time’...
Renata: … Yes, but we have evolved. We have adopted some parts of Spanish culture, for example, Peruvians are really religious. There are many Catholic churches in my city. We are a fusion, including our religion, clothing and music.
Now for a technical question… How do you go about making your covers in Quechua?
Renata: Good question... Well, if the song is originally in English, first we translate it into Spanish. Then, we translate the song from Spanish into Quechua with the help of my grandparents. However, it is hard as we are losing a lot of words in Quechua from speaking Spanish, so we are left with lots of ‘Quechañol’! This is not a proper term, but we use it in my family. We also have a Quechua teacher who helps us.
What about translating some modern words linked to technology? Do these words exist in Quechua?
Renata: No, there are no words for technology. We are hoping that they make a modern dictionary for Quechua as they have already written one for Aymara: another indigenous Andean language.
How has your life changed since rising to fame? Can you still lead a pretty ‘normal life’?
Renata: Now, I feel that my life has a purpose and a very beautiful one, indeed. I was 13 years old when I first came on La Voz Kids and that is when it all really began. It was a very beautiful experience. I was eventually eliminated but my mum encouraged me to not give up on my dream and to collaborate with SURCA. However, before then, I had already participated in several projects since I was 8 years old. It was the project ‘Pitaq Kani’ that has really changed my life as well as Los Cuatro Finalistas, where I met a lot of amazing people.
It can be difficult at times; I can imagine...
Renata: Yes, it was a great change when I first uploaded that Michael Jackson video. There have been some difficult moments but these are all part of learning. I have always loved dancing, singing and art since my childhood and this has always been my dream. Quite a few years have gone by now since I first came under the public eye and I no longer feel shocked or overwhelmed; I have learnt to adapt. I still lead a ‘normal life’ when I come back to my beloved city, Ayacucho, where I still go out with my friends but at the same time as going on the TV and doing interviews! I have learnt to organise my time.
You have already achieved so much and it seems that there will be no stopping you, Renata! What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
Renata: My dream is that my project will spread throughout the whole of Peru and the world. My project will be imaginative and adapted to modern life. I also dream that there will be no more discrimination. I don’t want to fight this alone, I hope that more Peruvians will come and fight alongside me.
What are you working on now?
Renata: I am currently working on my album, there is already a single out. I am hoping that the album will be released by March next year digitally. We are also thinking about bringing out CDs but you will be able to listen to the music via YouTube, download, everywhere!
Finally, I heard that you are studying English. Could you say a short message in English for your British fans?
Renata: Through my music and my project, I am revitalising my maternal language. I wanna reach out to teenagers and children and I wanna change people’s minds about Quechua and Peruvian culture.
The Definite Article would like to thank Renata Flores Rivera for taking the time to share her art and her experiences with readers in Durham and beyond.
Support Renata’s projects by following her social media accounts and subscribing to her YouTube channel:
Music available to download on Spotify, ITunes, Amazon Music and Google Play, as well as on YouTube:
Interview conducted on Thursday 13th December via Skype. Translated into English from original Spanish.
Dr Adam Talib joined the MLAC department in 2017 as Assistant Professor of Arabic Literature. In this interview, he talks to Katie Condon about his research, Orientalism, and adapting to life in Durham.
What were you doing before you came to Durham and how did you end up here?
I went to UCLA and studied medieval French and medieval Arabic. I studied Comparative Literature, which doesn’t exist in the UK, and as part of comparative literature you study three languages, so my languages were English, French and Arabic. At UCLA, I took a couple of classes which convinced me that I wanted to be a medievalist. Also, there were only a couple of Arabists at UCLA, and the one that I worked with was a medievalist. So, I essentially became a medievalist for lack of a better option, even though I always thought I was going to do modern literature. When I spoke to people in the comparative literature department at UCLA, I was told that comparative literature doesn’t really have much room for medievalists, so their advice to me was to go into Area Studies, which is when you get a degree from the department of French or the department of Spanish or whatever, so that’s what I did. I graduated from UCLA and I moved to Cairo for the first time when I was 22 and did a Masters there, I lived there for 2 years…
Was that your first time going to the Middle East?
That was my first time going to the Middle East, yes. I had gone to Pakistan, which is not really the Middle East, a couple of times as a child, but yes that was my first time in the Middle East. So yes, I went there, I lived there for two years. Then I came to this country, I went to do my PhD at Oxford, that was my first time living in Europe; I was in Oxford for three years plus, I had a year in Germany, and then shortly before I was finished I was offered this job in Cairo, so I went to Cairo for five years and I taught there, and then I made this decision to come to Durham and I’m still…I’m still processing that decision.
Was it a shock? Coming from Egypt to Europe?
Yeah, it’s very quiet here. It’s very quiet, the people are very quiet… In addition, there’s just not very much going on and the weather is horrible. So, it is a shock, it’s a very different place. It’s also like, I mean, I went from studying classical Arabic literature in the most populous Arab city to studying classical Arab literature in the North East of England. The professional dislocation is profound because I was a specialist, handling the prestige material of that society… even if the society didn’t care about classical Arabic literature, like they don’t actually want to read it, but they’re glad that someone is looking after it, in a professional capacity. Whereas here, I don’t think that Durham has ever had a medievalist, I mean, recently. So, there’s been this professional dislocation, since I’ve gone from being at the centre of the conversation to like the farthest periphery of the conversation, which is interesting. But one thing that I’ve gained is that now I’m back in a comparative literature department. I haven’t been in a department like this since I was an undergraduate. This is my first attempt at actually working with colleagues who work on a variety of different languages and literatures. That’s been interesting, that’s been a big positive. But otherwise I’ve experienced the move as a profound shock, and you know, there are lots of benefits to being here but there are also drawbacks.
Did you always want to go into academic research?
I mean, growing up I didn’t know a single person with a PhD. My college girlfriend’s dad, her dad was a professor at Berkeley, I think he was the first person I knew outside of a professional context who made his living by doing teaching and research. By the second year of university, I think by then I was already kind of [aware that] academic life is appealing to me. I don’t have to wake up early, I don’t have to wear a suit, I’m my own boss, I don’t have to work with other people, like those four things were the most important things. The lifestyle really appeals to me… I love all the kind of structural aspects of the thing, and I think when you’re younger that’s all you see. You see there’s an academic discipline, its rich, it has ideas, I can think and write, and it has these other benefits. The thing you’re less aware of as a student is that you know, you don’t get paid very much and you don’t get to decide where you live. I mean the pay is one thing, like I don’t care so much about that, but you don’t actually decide where you want to live, so you have to kind of follow the job to where it takes you, and it takes you funny places, like the north east of England. So yeah, I don’t know if I always wanted to do it…
It just kind of happened?
Well I wasn’t a big reader, like I didn’t read until I was 14 or something. I would never sit down and read a novel until I was 14, I’ve been an obsessive reader ever since. I wasn’t that bookish until I was 14 and then I was very bookish. Now I can’t imagine doing anything else. But then, here’s my little bit of life advice for you, you have to be really careful about this. Most of us, in this intellectual field, we like being good at things. I’m not in this job because I like a challenge, I’m in this job because I don’t like risk. What happened was at some point when I was a kid, I was good at reading and I was good at languages and somebody said to me, “Oh, you’re good at reading and languages and writing” and I sort of said to myself, “Oh, well that validation feels really nice, so I’m just going to keep doing this thing that I’m good at because I can get validation for doing it” and I’m still on that reward structure. The corridor is not full of risk-takers, its actually full of very risk averse people, who are good at one thing when they were very young and are hooked on the validation, if that makes sense.
And so, what’s the advice that we should take from that?
Just to be aware of it. Just because you’re good at something and you like being told you’re good at it doesn’t mean that that’s what you should do for the rest of your life. Does that make sense? It’s a very hard conversation to have with yourself because you have to say: I’m good at this thing: am I doing it because I like being told that I’m good at it, or because I actually enjoy it. And in my case, I do enjoy it, but I have met a lot of people, like colleagues, and classmates, who didn’t…
And so, what are you currently working on?
So, I’m currently working on a million things but none of those things are particularly interesting…. I’m trying to write a book about representations of sexual violence in classical Arabic literature. That’s my current intellectual question.
What drew you to that subject area?
I don’t know, lots of different things, I’m very interested in gender and sexuality in the premodern Muslim world, I’m interested in the history of slavery, I’m also interested in obscenity, so I have an interest in these subjects in general… but essentially I had a fight with my partner about the interpretation of a poem, in which, I was doing the traditional scholarly thing of saying, what’s important here is not the content of the poem, but rather the expression of it. And she was like no you idiot…this is a depiction of sexual violence or coercion… why can’t you see it? That fight was in 2013 or 2014 or something, and I’ve just been thinking about it since. It’s been a while, you can’t write a book about a fight but essentially that argument has precipitated a lot of research and thinking about the subject. I’m finally now getting to the point where I can actually write it.
So, you have your research, but you also do translation as well?
I have done translation, yeah. I do translation, but I haven’t done a book since I started teaching essentially.
How did you choose the books you translated?
The first one I read it and I liked it. So, essentially, I finished my Masters and I read a novel, I mean I read several novels, but I happened to find a novel that I liked during my Masters degree and then between finishing my Masters degree and starting my PhD I made a proposal to translate, so I translated that book… So the first one I chose it and the last three I was offered them.
Do you enjoy translation more than research or do you see them as kind of the same?
I enjoy coffee or chocolate... I think of “enjoy” as visceral pleasure, I don’t derive pleasure from any of that. They’re both interesting they’re both different. Translation is not as interesting as research, for me personally. But its fun… no fun’s not the right word… its creative… in a way that research can be creative but often isn’t.
In class we talked about concepts that maybe exist in Arabic that don’t exist in English for example… how do you do get around that?
That’s something that seems like a big issue but in practice it’s never a big issue. There is this phase where everything is a bit exotic and you think to yourself, “How do I translate this exotic concept from one language to another?” But then if you think to yourself, in this society there’s some really exotic stuff happening all the time that we don’t think about; you wouldn’t need to translate it so you don’t think about it. What you might think of as intercultural mediation that you do in translation, you could be doing it here if you were asked to do it… Occasionally I’ll have something a bit funny, like something related to religion or something related to like family practices or domestic practices that I’ll have to find a way to express, but that’s just part of it.
Do you have to be aware of Orientalism in your field of work?
Yeah, all the time. You know this idea of foundation myths?
A foundation myth is an idea that communities have a belief about their origins… like people essentially… we narrate to ourselves a thing. Like you and I have a story of our lives we tell ourselves and that’s how we form our identity, you know like, on any given Tuesday or whatever you’re not you until you’ve sat down and told yourself the story of your life. Does that make sense? That’s how we make sense of the world. So… communities have foundation myths. Communities sort of say to themselves like: the thing that holds us together is this, and they tell a story. In my field the foundation taboo is orientalism. Since 1973, orientalism [has been] the foundational taboo of the field. Everyone practicing, whether or not they actually believe the argument of orientalism, is constantly interacting with that taboo. That affects you on an ideological level and on a practical level, like any taboo. Any Arabist who tells you that they’re not engaging with orientalism is lying. It’s so fundamental to how we see ourselves. And then some people make it explicit or they don’t make it explicit. But one of the really funny things about this place, for example, is that the only place in the MLAC Faculty handbook where orientalism is mentioned is in my first year Introduction to Middle Eastern cultures module. Orientalism is an intellectual and cultural movement of Europe. It is fundamental to British identity construction, it’s fundamental to French identity construction, Spanish identity construction, Italian identity construction, its present in British literature, French visual art, Spanish cinema – its key. It’s a very, very foundational, intellectual and cultural movement in the history of Europe. None of my Europeanist colleagues thought it was worthwhile to mention Orientalism in their module descriptions. So, Orientalism becomes the burden of people who work on the Middle East but actually you know, I work on the medieval Middle East, Orientalism was not an issue for me and the people I study… it’s a European product. But this is the problem its kind of like the myopia of Europe… Europeans and people who study Europe don’t have as deep an appreciation of their complex history as people who have been the victims of Europe. And its just weird, like yeah, that I engage with Orientalism on a daily basis in work and I just find it weird that my colleagues that study Europe don’t.
I’d never thought of that before…
Yeah, it’s crazy! I tell them that all the time…
What were the most important works to you when you were a student?
So, at that age when I was like 20 or whatever and I didn’t really know Arabic yet, the films of Elia Suleiman were extremely important to me, The Time that Remains, and Divine Intervention, and stuff like that, those had a huge impact on me. Seasons of Migration to the North, had a huge impact on me. Midaq Alley had a big impact on me. Also, I mean, its not Arabic but Enfant de Sable by Tahar Ben Jelloun, who’s this Moroccan writer who writes in French, had a big impact on me. Orhan Pamuk, had a big impact on me, again that’s not Arabic. Those were the kinds of things I got into before I could really read Arabic. And then in terms of works of scholarship the work that probably impacted me most as a student is the Crusades Through Arab Eyes. That was really important. In the Eye of the Sun had a big impact on me, which was originally written in English, but that was very good. I mean I’m interested in a particular set of topics that not all students would be interested in… like who knows what Durham students are interested in? No, really like, do you guys like listen to music? Do you watch films? What do you guys do?...
Tracy undertook her undergraduate studies in German Literature, Politics and Sociology at the Humboldt University, Berlin. She has an MA and PhD in German from Durham. Her research and scholarship interests focus on aspects of German history, literature and culture from the mid nineteenth-century onwards, including: colonialism, travel writing, nationalism, cultural memory and protest movements. She also supervises undergraduate dissertations and undergraduate research projects on study abroad in the above areas. She also teach modules in language, interpreting, literature and culture.