By Peter Wood / Herwig Wandschneider
Editor’s note: Merriam Webster Online defines "Diaspora" as "the movement, migration, or scattering of a people away from an established or ancestral homeland". In the context of this conference it covers also the linguistic and cultural development of such people. (See alsohttp://www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/netdict?diaspora)
The Diaspora Conference, held at the University of Waterloo August 24-27, 2006. was initiated by the Waterloo Centre for German Studies (WCGS) and the University.
The aim of the conference was to explore commonalities and differences experienced by German-speaking immigrants and their descendants when living in geographical and linguistic settings other than those of their own ethnic origin. These can include individuals and groups on all continents of the world. The Conference focus was on history, linguistics, literature and film.
Invitations for participation were sent to as many different regions in the world as possible. The best proposals submitted by 114 submitters were selected by committee and it quickly became clear that only parallel sessions would make it possible to invite all speakers who had received a high ranking. 65 scholars from all parts of the globe were eventually selected to participate.
The conference was advertised within and outside academia to make the local German community, as well as German descendants from the wider area, part of the proceedings, not only to give their insight into the study of German diasporas, but also to create exchange and discussion between them and the academics. 172 people were registered as attendees. Prof. Hans Lemberg (Marburg), Prof. Jane Fuller (Southern Illinois) and the German-Irish author Hugo Hamilton delivered keynote talks.
50 papers and three keynote addresses were presented during the 4-day conference, the majority of which were in three parallel sessions. Although the majority of papers concentrated on historical aspects of the German diaspora there were also numerous presentations in the fields of linguistics and literature. The papers explored a wide variety of diverse topics, such as the German diaspora in Blumenau, Brazil, language maintenance in British Columbia, and the Swiss in Australia. After many talks, terms such as "German" and "Germanness" were discussed, and seemed to get continuously more difficult to define as the conference progressed. In these often lively discussions, both the scholars and members from the public participated actively and often contributed personal insights to the dialogue.
Professor Lemberg’s keynote speech traced the early German diasporas through history to the present day and in a separate session gave interested visitors the opportunity to talk about their own personal history. Prof. Fuller concentrated on the issue of language and identity in her well-received talk. The highlight of the conference was, however, as much of the feedback indicates, Hugo Hamilton’s reading from his autobiographical novels. He told of childhood experiences to which many visitors were able to relate, and in an entertaining way, and also raised political issues with regard to the name of the city of Kitchener, Ontario, the partner city of the conference venue.
The visitors were able to experience a local German diaspora during the banquet which was held at the Transylvania Club and included a performance by the Transylvania choir and the dance group. There was also an optional excursion to local points of interest after the concluding panel.
This was probably the biggest international conference on the topic of the German diasporas to date. The feedback from participants indicates that the conference’s interdisciplinary nature led to many interesting exchanges of ideas, and that the participation of the general public was very beneficial to the outcome of the event. People were impressed by the variety and quality of the presentations and rated the conference, venue, staff and program highly in the questionnaires that were distributed to all registered attendees. The organizers are now working on a conference volume which will contain a selection of related papers presented during the conference. It will probably be available in late 2007.
The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada made available a substantial grant. Other institutions and private donors also contributed generously. A large number of people planned the conference and performed various tasks during the event. All are named on the conference website atwww.wcgs.ca/conference. The site also offers a number of picture galleries of the conference, abstracts of papers presented and other useful information. Visitors also have the option to subscribe to the Waterloo Centre for German Studies mailing list to be informed about other upcoming events.
Editor’s note: Mr. Peter Wood is a PhD candidate in Computational Linguistics at the University of Waterloo in the Department of Germanic and Slavic Studies. He also provides a variety of support services for the Waterloo Centre for German Studies
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