Category Archives: Guest Post

Continuity of Expression: Guest Post by John Keeble

It’s hard to pinpoint how a subject becomes important to a writer’s work, sometimes more difficult for the writer to see than it is for a careful and astute reader. Just how the writer decides what to focus on is evasive, always on the move. Maybe it’s not a decision at all. Maybe by a writer’s nature and the nature of the lived-in world, the writer unconsciously falls into subjects. There is the writer’s background, which produces certain influences and fascinations, even obsessions. There are the barely grasped elements. Then there is the attraction of what is called “literary weather.” Here, issues of little consequence in one time period unexpectedly emerge as riveting topics in another. How are they to be addressed? What network of consciousness makes meaning? Consider the fairly recent, transformative changes in the place of gay and transgender people in our culture, of male dominance, of the nature of white supremacism, and of the regard for people of different races.

My father was a preacher. As a preacher’s kid I was taught that there are important things to say and that a person is obliged to say them when called upon, even when they are difficult. I am from Canada, an immigrant brought to the United States by my parents. From early boyhood through college I lived all over California. I came of age during the sixties and grew up surrounded by anti-gay bias, the misogynist treatment of women, and the assumed dominance by heterosexual men at the portals of power. These were accepted as givens in what seems now my pre-cognizant life; they were woven into the fabric of everything around me, including my mother’s attempts to broaden her role as a “minister’s wife.” I would later see that it caused her great pain. 

Also, during my early teenage years, I learned about “Indian lore” from an amateur archeologist. On Saturdays his family and mine traveled into the California desert in search of artifacts, focusing on burial grounds. We were stocking a San Bernardino museum. Although I learned something about desert Indians in the process, I was in a state of complete ignorance about what we were actually doing. I had utterly no conception of how our taking possession of the artifacts and spiriting them off—arrow straighteners, matates, heavily ornamented stone arrow points and hatchets, even bones—might be seen as white raids on past lives.

My father studied in Berkeley at the Pacific School of Religion with the Christian existentialist and Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich. He then joined the American Congregationalists (now the United Church of Christ) and came to be known for his commitment to integrating inner-city churches. He was “called” by several San Diego–area churches, the chief among which was in National City, one of three “American” communities south of San Diego, the others being Chula Vista, where we had also lived for a year, and San Ysidro. 

Before we moved there, National City had experienced white flight to San Diego suburbs, leaving the church in decline yet still under the control of the few whites who returned to National City for Sunday services. At the time, I am told, San Diego County was second only to Orange County in California for the presence of arch-conservatives. During the very early sixties, the John Birch Society became a force. My father knew his calling was to redefine the church, to allow it to speak for the community, but these outsiders harassed him for installing a Japanese choir director and a Black soprano soloist and for welcoming Mexican Americans to church events. Awkward though he may have been at times, my father was a staunch believer in ecumenical religion. On Sundays after his own services, he gave over the space of the church to a congregation of Samoans, who had no church of their own. Above all, I remember them for their mesmerizing hymn-singing, which I eavesdropped on from the church’s narthex. Unlike our own congregation, this congregation sang in harmony as if it in its entirety were a well-practiced choir, the men with booming bass lines and the women with eerily penetrating melodies.

National City was a navy town. Its high school had a marginal white student majority, yet the closest thing to a nonwhite faculty member was an Iraqi immigrant who taught civics. Nearly equal in numbers to the white students were Mexican Americans, followed by Samoans. There were fewer Black students and fewer still Asian students. I knew of no Native Americans, probably because of my own ignorance, or their quietude, but I counted Mexican Americans among my friends, including a couple of baseball teammates, one of whom went on to play professionally. 

When I left home for my first year at the University of Redlands, two out-of-town church members, John Birchers, took to harassing my mother. My father was often away during this period, and the two men had apparently learned his schedule. They badgered my mother with phone calls, filling them with accusations about the race mixing that was being wrought in the church by her husband. She attempted suicide by slitting her wrists in the bathtub. I don’t believe she ever fully recovered from this scenario, even though she and my father soon moved far away, to Albany, New York. 

*

In 1980 I published my third novel, Yellowfish, and in it refined two topics to which I would return again and again: racism, in this case represented by a group of illegal Chinese immigrants, and white supremacy, represented by a coterie from northern Idaho’s Aryan Nations. Ruby, the wife of the novel’s protagonist, was conceived as a forceful and independent character. Some thirty years after that book, another novel, The Shadows of Owls, had a full-blown treatment of the Aryan Nations and of an heroic woman scientist victimized by them. This book was intended to partner with a book of short stories, published in 2005, and my latest work, an historical novel entitled The Appointment: The Tale of Adaline Carson. This latter book has a male narrator who recounts the life of a woman who is half Arapaho and explores the roots of American white supremacy. To true believers, this seems to mean the hoped for waning and ultimate disappearance of minority cultures in America and the renewed domination of white men.

I’ve been writing long enough—over fifty years—to look back and see an evolving shape to such subjects, particularly the attraction of this twin obsession—white supremacy and the experience of minorities in the face of it. A major thread includes Native American experience. I have always believed that a part of the writer’s duty is to imagine the world through other eyes. How else is the meaning of interconnections to be understood? I suspect that my old friend and colleague Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, a member of the Crow Creek Sioux tribe, would feel that a white man has no business writing from the perspective of Natives, that it’s an appropriation and falsification of history. I know she has a point. Still, I persist in investigating my own role and the role of others through these durable fascinations. It’s a fine line between the appropriation of a culture, with salient features unlike my own, and the practice of caring for and having a clear-headed acknowledgment and appreciation of the alien in that other culture.              


John Keeble is the author of eight books, including Yellowfish, Broken Ground (both reprinted by UW Press), The Shadows of Owls (a UW Press original), and The Appointment (Lynx House Press, distributed by UW Press). He is also author of Out of the Channel, the definitive study of the Exxon Valdez disaster, and a collection of short stories. Keeble was co-founder of the graduate Creative Writing Program at Eastern Washington University where he taught for more than thirty years, and has also taught at Grinnell College and three times as the Coal Royalty Trust Chair at the University of Alabama. Most recently he served as Distinguished Visiting Writer at Boise State University. With his wife, Claire, he lives in a house of their own construction on a wooded hillside west of Spokane, Washington.  

Author Guest Post: Mike Gastineau

Mike Gastineau’s latest book is Fear No Man, which tells the story of the 1991 national championship football team at the University of Washington and the man who led that team to success, Don James. The 2021 UW team suffered through a disappointing 4–8 season that led to a coaching change. Here, Gastineau details five interesting stories involving new Husky coaches.

At any social gathering this winter attended by UW fans, the future of new Husky football coach Kalen DeBoer will be discussed. Some will predict wild success for the new boss, others will caution patience given the state of the program, and still others will offer grave predictions of doom. No matter how loud or confident anyone seems about their prediction, it’s good to remember that no one knows what’s going to happen.

Every story about the hiring of a new coach creates speculation among fans and contains at least a little drama. Some new coaches look good, and things go badly. Some look meh and subsequently become great. Some become exactly what many thought they would become. Here are five interesting stories about men hired to coach at UW.

Rick Neuheisel, 1999

This hire still generates a lot of conversation and speculation as to how things might have gone if UW had stayed within the Don James coaching family.

After the 1998 season, Athletic Director Barbara Hedges decided to dismiss Jim Lambright, who had replaced James after he abruptly resigned in 1993, upset with what he perceived as a lack of support from UW president William Gerberding during an investigation by the then PAC-10 into the program.

Former James assistants Gary Pinkel and Chris Tormey were thought to be the front-runners for the job. Both men had been part of UW’s run of success in the ’80s and early ’90s. Both were now successful head coaches, Pinkel at Toledo, and Tormey at Idaho. They interviewed with Hedges, and fans waited to see which one would get the job.

Desirous of a break from the past, Hedges shocked the college football world by grabbing Rick Neuheisel away from Colorado, making him the second highest-paid college coach in America in the process. Most fans were excited by the move, and Neuheisel’s charming personality won over many of the skeptics.

He had success early on at UW, including a Rose Bowl and near national championship team in 2000, but his stay in Seattle ended like a case of beer bottles being hurled down a stairwell. Caught in lies about his pursuit of the San Francisco 49ers job and his participation in a gambling pool, he was fired in 2003.

A messy lawsuit (eventually settled by a $4.5 million payout to Neuheisel) followed, and many Husky fans believe the fallout from the mess led to the program’s downturn over the next several seasons.

Tormey went on to a successful run at Nevada, while Pinkel built Missouri into a national powerhouse. “What if?” Husky fans wondered for years. “What if?”

Rick Neuheisel. Photo courtesy UW Athletics.

Tyrone Willingham, 2005

On paper, this hire looked good. Tyrone Willingham had enjoyed modest success at both Stanford and Notre Dame. The UW program was still reeling from Neuheisel’s departure and the subsequent lawsuit (which played out over two years) and craved the stability Willingham appeared to offer.

On the field, the hire fizzled like a wet sparkler. Willingham lost seven of his first eight games and ultimately presided over the worst four-year stretch in Husky football history. His tenure engendered so much anger that security was necessary at his radio show during his final season due to threats from fans.

Tyrone Willingham. Photo courtesy UW Magazine.

Chris Petersen, 2014

Here’s an example of a hire that looked good on paper and was great on the field. Chris Petersen came to Seattle after a successful run as head coach at Boise State. His UW teams posted six consecutive winning seasons, made the College Football Playoffs in 2016, and played in the 2019 Rose Bowl. Petersen surprised everyone in college football with his sudden retirement announcement after the 2019 season.

Petersen was popular among fans and boosters. At the age of fifty-five, he appeared to have several seasons left to captain the Husky ship. But he cited an inability to balance his life with the demands the job placed on him before stepping down. His fifty-five wins left him sixth all-time on the list of winningest UW coaches, and had he not left he would likely be third by now.

It was at the end of his run that he made the single second-guessable decision of his UW career when he proclaimed Jimmy Lake as being ready to step into the job as head coach. Maybe Lake would have enjoyed more success and a longer run at UW if his first season (2020) hadn’t been derailed by the COVID pandemic. But it was, and after just thirteen games he was dismissed and replaced by Kalen DeBoer.

Chris Petersen. Photo courtesy UW Athletics.

Gil Dobie, 1908

The general feeling of fans toward this hire is not known, but it’s easy to speculate how some would have reacted if Ye Olde Sportstalk Radio had been invented.

“Here’s Clarence, in a horse and buggy on the waterfront.”

“Thanks for taking my call. I don’t mean to be taken as scurrilous, but we need an Ivy League man. THAT’S where football was invented. What does a chap from North Dakota know about the game?”

Gil Dobie came to UW after two years at North Dakota Agricultural College in Fargo. He wasn’t a Seattle guy, and he didn’t have a fancy educational background. What he did have was an ability to coach football. In eight seasons at UW, he never lost a game. His teams were 58–0–3 and the Huskies became the biggest powerhouse on the West Coast.

After the 1916 season Dobie had a falling out with UW president Henry Suzzallo and was dismissed. He went on to great success at Navy, Cornell, and Boston College, and his .781 winning percentage is among the best in college football history.

Gil Dobie. Photo courtesy of UW Athletics.

Don James, 1975

The best example ever of a hire that didn’t move the excitement needle at all but ended up being a perfect fit. Don James wasn’t the school’s first choice to replace Jim Owens. That was Dan Devine, who turned down UW when the Notre Dame job suddenly opened.

The second choice thus became the new coach, and the Ohio native was so unknown in Seattle that one of the first things he remembered seeing upon his arrival was a giant sign outside Husky Stadium welcoming new head football coach “Don Jones.”

Fans almost didn’t have to learn his actual name. His first two teams went 6–5 and 5–6, and his third team started the season 1–3, leading to calls for a change. But that 1977 team rebounded to go 7–1 down the stretch, including a Rose Bowl win over Michigan.

Don James. Photo by Doug Glant.

Kalen DeBoer is the thirtieth football coach in UW history, and speculation on how he’ll do is well underway. His first game is Labor Day weekend against Kent State, coincidentally where James worked before coming to UW. James’s career began with his name being misspelled and ended with a statue built to recognize his achievements.

You never know.

Black Independence by Robin J. Hayes

“What, to the [enslaved and colonized], is your Fourth of July?”

— Frederick Douglass

On US Independence Day, for years it has been an African American custom to circulate the poignant speech—widely known as “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”—by self-emancipated abolitionist Frederick Douglass.* His iconic oratory points out the stark contrast between America’s exaltation of self-determination through words and its actions of violence, false imprisonment, cultural imperialism, and other human rights violations to block African Americans from having the power necessary to shape their own destinies. Since before Douglass’s time, Black people in the United States and Africa have rebelled against the infantilizing nature of White supremacy by fighting to claim a fair share of the wealth their labor and cultures produce. As revealed in my new book, Love for Liberation: African Independence, Black Power, and a Diaspora Underground, part of what unites Black communities on both sides of the Atlantic is a consensus that the key to protecting Black lives is Black autonomy.

In his speech to a predominately White audience in 1852, Douglass stated plainly that the “rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not me . . . I shall see this day from the [enslaved’s] point of view.” While slyly pointing out the intersection between patriarchy, capitalism, and racism in America, he also highlighted a recurring theme in Black cultures throughout the diaspora: authenticity’s valor versus hypocrisy’s disgrace. American, British, and French empires have all waved the flags of self-determination in public while, for example, turning a blind eye to the mass rape of Black women during slavery. Douglass’s assertion that a nation’s democratic self-image can only be validated by its most marginalized community members became a core belief of the Black freedom struggle in the United States and abroad. 

Just over a hundred years after Douglass confronted his audience, anti-colonial activist and former political prisoner Kwame Nkrumah celebrated the hard-won independence of his country, Ghana. During the festivities, which were attended by prominent African Americans, including Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Mrs. Coretta Scott King, Nkrumah encouraged the Ashanti, Ewe, and other tribes in his homeland to see themselves as a shining example of a new era in the diaspora: “From now on there is a new African in the world [who] is ready to fight his own battle and show that, after all, the Black man is capable of managing his own affairs.”

The wave of African independence in the mid-twentieth century—and its accompanying critique of the two-faced nature of colonizing White supremacist institutions—profoundly influenced an upstart generation of African American activists. Malcolm X, Kathleen Neal Cleaver, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Kwame Ture (formerly Stokely Carmichael) were just a few of the Black Power movement leaders who were frustrated by the slow pace of progress toward racial equality. At the heart of their exasperation was the glaring divergence between American institutions’ stated values of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and their willingness to enable the lynching, disenfranchisement, and economic exploitation of African Americans. As a result, Black Power activists began to seek alternatives to the changing hearts-and-minds strategy advanced by Dr. King.

Reaching out across borders, Black Power and African independence activists connected within a diaspora underground. A diaspora underground consists of the physical emancipated spaces in which activists engage and the shared understandings of the past, present, and future that are created in such spaces. This kind of international engagement helps Black activists dismantle dominant gaslighting myths about the benevolence of White supremacy and colonialism. In this diaspora underground, Black Power and African independence leaders were able to ground themselves in an authentic vision of paths toward autonomy and full enjoyment of human rights that they themselves could construct. They discovered a deeper understanding of their roots as well as routes toward liberation that did not depend on changing White hearts and minds.

During his speech, Douglass asked the rhetorical question, “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?” He responded, “A thin veil to cover up crimes.” Revealing the truth about White supremacist aggression has been part of the continuous work of the Black freedom struggle from Douglass, to African independence and Black Power, to Black Lives Matter. Through the affirmation of authenticity’s valor over hypocrisy’s disgrace, the Fourth of July has also become an opportunity to reflect on the rights Black communities have to assert autonomy over their own bodies, relationships, neighborhoods, and nations. This kind of Black self-determination, which can be nurtured from within, remains the true meaning of independence. 

*The original title of this speech is “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro.”


Robin J. Hayes, PhD, is a contributor to the Atlantic, writer and director of the award-winning documentary Black and Cuba, and creative director of Progressive Pupil.

Gifts from Their Grandmothers: Megan Smetzer on “Painful Beauty”

A common thread running through the contemporary artworks included in my book, Painful Beauty, is the deep respect for the tangible and intangible gifts received by the artists from their mothers and grandmothers through the beadwork they created. Two ephemeral fragments—a family snapshot of a mother and daughter beading moccasins and a paper beadwork pattern stored in a fruitcake tin—inspired the poignant and powerful artworks by Larry McNeil and Tanis S’eiltin that are critical to my own consideration of the histories of Tlingit beadwork.

Tlingit mothers and grandmothers in Southeast Alaska and elsewhere have known the power of beadwork to feed their families and also affirm thousands of years of connections to the land and its bountiful resources. Yet throughout the twentieth century, their beading has been dismissed by many scholars and collectors as derivative and inauthentic. Tlingit communities, however, have long recognized the strength and resilience of these women through the overt racism and discrimination brought to bear by the institutions of settler colonialism. Through the generosity of the descendants of these beaders, who are telling their stories through contemporary artistic production, the historical significance and impact of these powerful Indigenous women is being shared more widely with the public.

I was first drawn to Larry McNeil’s photographic collage, Once Upon a Time in America, because of the 1943 snapshot at its center depicting his mother Anita McNeil (kaajee seidee) and grandmother Mary Brown Betts (kah saa nák) holding and sewing beaded moccasins. Here was a beautiful illustration of the intangible intergenerational knowledge that fueled so much beading in the mid-twentieth century. I knew, from archival research, that around five hundred women had beaded moccasins and other work for sale through the Alaska Native Arts and Crafts Cooperative from the 1930s to the 1970s. Many contemporary artists I have spoken with shared memories of watching or helping their grandmothers with beaded work. In this print and in his writing, McNeil foregrounds the power of these women through a seemingly mundane activity, which, in fact, was central to their fight for equal education as well as perpetuating intangible Tlingit ways of knowing in a difficult and discriminatory era. I am deeply grateful to Larry McNeil and his sisters, Helen and Patty, for sharing stories of their mother and grandmother with me.

Larry McNeil, Once Upon a Time in America from Fly by Night Mythology series, 2002. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Over the years Tanis S’eiltin and I have discussed octopus bags—distinctive pouches with four pairs of “tentacles” made from wool and beaded with seaweed and floral designs—and how they express historical trade relationships with interior peoples as well as the ways in which Tlingit women transformed them aesthetically to better represent local knowledge. When I first saw photographs of S’eiltin’s untitled armor-like floor-length coat featuring an oversized beadwork pattern depicting an octopus, I was thrilled to see how she had transformed the idea of an octopus bag into a life-size work celebrating Tlingit women.

During my visit to see her coat, Tanis mentioned that she had a fruitcake tin filled with beadwork patterns that dated to her great-grandmother’s era. I was nearly brought to tears when she brought it out. I had been told of these tins filled with patterns, but this was the first time one was shared with me. We pulled out hundreds of delicate pieces of paper, cut from old envelopes and cookbooks, and Tanis shared stories of the women, including her great-grandmother Mary Barries and her mother Maria Ackerman Miller (Ldaneit), who filled the tin over the years. These patterns and others like them adorned hundreds, if not thousands of pairs of moccasins made for sale throughout the twentieth century. The oversize octopus pattern on the coat foregrounds those powerful Tlingit women and their centrality to trade in all its forms, including the relationships that brought octopus bags and other treasures to Southeast Alaska. S’eiltin has drawn inspiration from this battered “box of treasures” to create work for her own children and grandchildren to teach them about their matrilineal legacies. I am so grateful for the opportunity Tanis has given me to write about her work.

Tanis S’eiltin, Untitled, 2017. Photo courtesy of the author.

Tanis S’eiltin’s fruitcake tin holding three generations of beading patterns. Photo courtesy of the author.

Tanis S’eiltin, Untitled, 2017. Photo courtesy of the author.

I extend my gratitude to all Tlingit people, past and present, who have always expressed longstanding cultural practices through the incorporation of new ideas and materials in innovative and creative ways. The histories and stories shared in Painful Beauty are a testament to the power of their art and the strength of their resilience.


Megan A. Smetzer is lecturer of art history at Capilano University.

A Gift of Peace and Quiet: Judy Bentley on the West Seattle Greenbelt and “Hiking Washington’s History”

Armed with more than two hundred white plastic bags, neon-clad neighbors gather at the West Seattle Greenbelt trailhead on a cold, sunny morning in late February 2021. Their mission is to make a trail visible from more than five hundred feet above. At precisely 8:45 a.m., a helicopter will circle the greenbelt with Jean Sherrard’s camera peering out, photographing the bright white squares revealing the trail through the overhanging branches. Sherrard and Clay Eals are preparing a Now & Then column for the Seattle Times.

Photo by Christine Clark.

The bags are the brainchild of Paul West, a member of the West Duwamish Greenbelt Trails group, who brings an ample supply from Puget Ridge Cohousing. (With only a few splotches of mud, the bags will be carefully collected and folded for reuse.) The volunteers start down the trail in small groups to drop their “bread crumbs” ten feet apart. As the temperature climbs above the mid-thirties, the white helicopter circles three times against a clear blue sky, above the waving Hansels and Gretels.

Looking south over part of the West Duwamish Greenbelt. Photo by Jean Sherrard.

In the resulting aerials, the people are mostly invisible and the bag trail is faint, but the views of the ridge on the highlands between the Duwamish Waterway and Puget Sound are stunning. The green fields of South Seattle College and the Riverview playfields frame the greenbelt. Industrial companies hug the river, colorful containers park at port terminals, the First Avenue South Bridge spans the river, and a belt of late-winter brown separates commerce from neighborhoods.

Looking west to the West Duwamish Greenbelt. Photo by Jean Sherrard.

Glacier action that left rocks resistant to erosion created the greenbelt ridge more than sixty thousand years ago. A conifer forest of Douglas fir, western red cedar, and Sitka spruce grew on its slopes.

The Duwamish people lived below the greenbelt along the Duwamish River and its tributaries for centuries; the earliest archaeological record places a village on the river as early as AD 500. As settlers and land developers moved in, the Duwamish were dispossessed, but the spirits (and bodies) of their ancestors live on in the soil and the trees.

A 1920 aerial photo shows the same ridge but with fewer trees. Puget Mill Company extracted what they wanted from the ridge before donating twenty acres to the City of Seattle in 1912 for a park at the north end. The same photo shows Boeing Plant 1 sitting at the foot of Highland Park Way. The newly straightened and dredged river is visible below the tip of an airplane wing. A streetcar line, which ran from the tip of the Duwamish Peninsula south to new communities, shows faintly on the ridge. The green line indicates trails in the 2021 greenbelt.

An aerial photo taken in 1920. Courtesy the Boeing Company.

In the decades after 1920, a brickyard dumped kiln dust on the hillside, neighbors dumped trash, a gravel company mined sand and gravel, and the Seattle Department of Engineering acquired property to build Soundway, a proposed freeway from the First Avenue South Bridge to suburban areas of Burien and southwest Seattle. The state located one of three Seattle community colleges at the top of the ridge in the late 1960s.

“There is no place in the city of Seattle where a buffer between industry and residences is more badly needed,” wrote the unnamed author of a 1970s report advocating the ridge’s preservation under the city’s Urban Greenbelt plan. “It should be left to the following generations as a gift of peace and quiet in our busy, noisy, polluted city.”

Through gradual property acquisitions and the activism of citizens, the greenbelt became that gift—at five hundred acres, it is the largest contiguous forest in the city. The Seattle Parks and Recreation Department and countless volunteers have replanted and restored the forest and created a few good trails and more than a few social trails pounded by hiking boots and running shoes.

Trailhead at Fourteenth Avenue SW and SW Holly Street. Photo by Judy Bentley.

One of those trails is featured in the expanded second edition of Hiking Washington’s History by Judy Bentley and Craig Romano. Although this trail was not in use as an indigenous trail for thousands of years, it crosses an ancient landscape in the industrial heart of the state’s largest city. That makes it historic.


Judy Bentley taught Pacific Northwest history at South Seattle College for more than twenty years and is an avid hiker and author of fifteen young adult books. Her latest book, co-authored with Craig Romano, is Hiking Washington’s History, Second Edition.

The Most Noble Estuary: David Williams on the Making of “Homewaters”

Homewaters began with a simple idea: Write a book about the human and natural history of Puget Sound. I didn’t know exactly what this would encompass but knew that I wanted to focus on the landscape where I have lived for most of my life. I had a few vague ideas: the three forts (Casey, Flagler, and Worden) at the Sound’s northern entrance; something about Albert Bierstadt’s ferocious painting of Puget Sound at the Seattle Art Museum; the ferry system and the mosquito fleet; and, of course, geoducks.

I knew that more stories were out there, so I began to reach out to friends and colleagues. Over the next six months I interviewed scientists, tribal members, and historians. My standard opening was that I was working on a book about the cultural and ecological history in Puget Sound, and I wanted to know what stories they thought were important.

What stood out for me in these interviews was the passion everyone expressed for this lovely body of water: It is a “beautifully complex ecosystem.” The Sound is a “unique waterbody whose beauty is hardly rivaled.” It is a “microcosm of ecological issues everywhere.” The abundance of the Sound made “us some of the most complex and wealthy people; we didn’t need to migrate.” I also learned that six-gill sharks will eat anything on the bottom, that as herring go so goes Puget Sound, that salmon are narcissistic, and that no one has a handle on kelp slime.

Based on these interviews and my interests, I put together a proposal to address people, plants, and animals and how history could help modern residents understand the present and think about how to pursue a future Puget Sound that is healthier for its human and more-than-human inhabitants. My interviews also impressed upon me the idea that I should focus on overlooked species, such as herring and kelp, which are critical to the ecosystem.

The press accepted my proposal, though they were less than enthusiastic about my title “The Most Noble Estuary.” Two and a half years later, in June 2019, I turned in my manuscript. It totaled 76,184 words with 14,054 words in endnotes. And it had a new title, “Breaking the Surface,” which once again was met with a less than enthusiastic response. Not until another round of editing did we come up with Homewaters.

The main highlight of working on Homewaters was the field time I spent with researchers, which resulted in me filling seven five-by-eight-inch notebooks, by far the most for any book I have written. During my writing journey, I was treated to five types of fresh oysters, some harvested just hours earlier, and given a geoduck pulled up from water sixty feet deep in Agate Passage. (The other geoducks harvested that day traveled more extensively, being overnighted to China.) I crisscrossed Admiralty Inlet, luckily on a calm-water day, in a fourteen-foot Zodiac searching for herring; tagged along as researchers pulled up invertebrates from the Sound’s deepest location (930 feet off of Point Jefferson); and rode all of the Sound’s ferry routes, including several I hadn’t known existed. I also dropped a notebook in the water, was brutally pinched by a mean old Dungeness crab, was confronted by machine-gun-toting nuclear-submarine-protecting Coast Guardsmen, and got stuck on a sandbar with three biologists for several hours when we failed to notice how rapidly the tide was ebbing. I enjoyed every moment.

The other exciting aspect of the book was my dive into history. The Sound has a relatively short written story; not until 1792 did Europeans reach the waterway. But the x̌ʷəlč, as it is known in Lushootseed (pronounced as whulge in English), has a very deep record of human habitation, which stretches back at least 12,500 years, only a couple thousand years after a great ice sheet had rewritten the landscape and then retreated to the north. One of my goals was to weave together these story lines and to explore how the different people who called this place home have responded to the landscape and the more-than-human inhabitants, as well as to each other. 

Of all the books I have written, I am most proud of Homewaters, in part because of its themes of connection and caring. My primary goal is always to write in ways that allow people to develop better connections and relationships to the place they call home. In Homewaters I added a call to act by writing in a manner that I hope encourages people to think more carefully about their actions and their impacts on the health of Puget Sound. I wouldn’t call the book an activist manifesto, but it sends a message that it is up to the residents of the Sound to continue working to improve the waterway for everyone. And based on the people I met and the stories I learned, I truly believe that we are ready to work toward this goal.


David B. Williams is a naturalist, author, and educator. His many books include the award-winning Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography and Seattle Walks: Discovering History and Nature in the City. Homewaters: A Human and Natural History of Puget Sound is available now.

A Short Discussion on the Zuo Reader with Editors Stephen Durrant, Wai-yee Li, and David Schaberg

To celebrate the recent release of the The Zuo Tradition / Zuozhuan Reader: Selections from China’s Earliest Narrative History, editors Stephen Durrant, Wai-yee Li, and David Schaberg had a virtual conversation about the guide to the study of early Chinese culture and thought. Below is their conversation.

Wai-yee Li: Our intention in putting together the Zuo Reader was to emphasize that Zuozhuan is not only a valuable source of historical understanding but also an indispensable source of information about early Chinese culture and thought. Consequently, rather than organize the passages selected for it in chronological order, we have organized them according to fifteen topics or themes. As we explain in the introduction, our selection of topics is somewhat arbitrary, although we do believe they cover issues that recur and illustrate the variety and richness of the full text.

David Schaberg: This topical organization of the reader is not meant to obscure Zuozhuan’s importance as a work of history. In fact, it can give modern students a keen sense of how important historical memory and historical writing were to the early Chinese and can convey some of what they aimed to accomplish in their historical writing. Beginning in the eighth century BCE, the work already shows a fascination with details of social and cultural change and the continuous unfolding of new challenges. The text also conveys a strong sense of how governing practices and rituals helped define the early Chinese world and laid the foundation for a broader set of East Asian political debates and institutions. The Zuo Reader can also convey a sense of China’s role as one of several historical cultures to have defined itself in part around an early set of texts and religious practices.

Stephen Durrant: Not only does the Zuo Reader convey an understanding of an ancient culture and history but it also reminds us how many problems and issues broached remain relevant. So often as we read about the past, even the deep past as in the case of Zuozhuan, we suddenly realize that we are also reading about ourselves. This was brought home to me just recently while reading papers written by men at the Oregon State Penitentiary who were using the Zuo Reader in a class on Chinese narrative. Their papers discussed such issues as the passages concerning “Succession Struggles” (ch. 2) and what they might tell us about the recent controversy over presidential succession here in the United States. They struggled with the complex personalities of Chong’er (ch. 4) and King Ling of Chu (ch. 10), comparing some of the character traits and life experience of those ancient Chinese personalities with their own problem-fraught pasts. And they argued as they read “Laws and Punishment” (ch. 9)—men who have all had direct experience with our legal system—whether or not Shuxiang was right in saying, “Why should there be any penal codes at all? When the people have learned how to contend over points of law, they will abandon ritual propriety and appeal to what is written.”

DS: These kinds of personal responses highlight the advantages of being able to read Chinese history through a translation like the reader rather than a summarized overview. A summarized overview would be effective in relating historical facts, but it would omit something that the materials in the Zuo Reader do exceptionally well: they convey historical actors’ individual responses to facts, often quoting conversations and long speeches. Both in reading quoted remarks and in reading the historical narratives themselves, students encounter the attitudes and emotions of the ancients and learn to experiment with seeing the world through the values that are written into the text. The difference is something like that between giving someone a fish and teaching them to fish. By reading the narratives gathered in the Zuo Reader, students will get a direct sense of the kinds of historical stories Confucius and other thinkers knew and took into account in their arguments.

SD: Moreover, a handy one-volume collection of these narratives facilitates using it in comparative courses. For example, a course on comparative early historiography would use it alongside portions of the Hebrew Bible and the writings of classical Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides. In fact, we believe from a pedagogical perspective, the Zuo Reader is highly serviceable.

DS: Not only might it be used in comparative courses but it also could be used as the main reading in a class on early Chinese historiography, paired with supplemental materials from other early Chinese texts, or it could be used in a course on the history of Chinese prose narrative. Moreover, the topical arrangement is particularly suitable to a course on early Chinese thought, perhaps by pairing chapters on subjects with especially relevant “Masters” texts: “Law and Punishment” with The Book of Lord Shang or Han Feizi, “Ritual” with Xunzi’s “Discourse on Ritual,” “Confucius” with Analects. Whatever the course, there are a variety of ways a teacher might use the Zuo Reader in the classroom: organize weekly discussions around one or two chapters, using the chapter topics to introduce the discussion and steadily building the interconnection of themes each week; break students up into small groups for close reading of narratives, then bring them back together to share their readings; have students identify a theme or character in it and investigate it further in the complete translations; have students examine the use of poetry citation and recitation in speeches; have students write a speech or narrative in the style of Zuozhuan; and so forth.

WY: The Zuo Reader is wonderful for the classroom also because the narratives are condensed and often provocative. Because of its long and complex process of formation, Zuozhuan often contains multiple perspectives on the same issue. For example, we find arguments both for and against the right of the people to protest unjust policies, both praise and suspicion of centralizing power, both idealistic and cynical views of ritual propriety, and so on. In our choice of passages, we have made sure to bring out these differences. In a classroom scenario, students can be easily organized to debate the different positions and processes of reasoning underwriting various passages. Those who have some knowledge of later Chinese history may be surprised by the more varied views of loyalty and political hierarchy in the Zuo Reader. Unlike the elevation of imperial authority and glorification of the subject’s absolute loyalty in some later materials, students will find in it lively debates on whether the expulsion or even assassination of a ruler can be justified or questions on the proper balance of power between the Zhou king and the lords. Some of the moral precepts readily associated with the “Chinese Tradition” take on different contours in the Reader. Also, because Zuozhuan is both interested in offering judgments and committed to “respecting the facts,” it ends up with stories of surprising moral complexity. Dissecting such nuances will be really fun in the classroom.


Stephen Durrant is professor emeritus of Chinese language and literature at the University of Oregon. Wai-yee Li is professor of Chinese literature at Harvard University. David Schaberg is professor of Asian languages and culture and dean of humanities at UCLA. Their joint translation of Zuo Tradition / Zuozhuan: Commentary on the “Spring and Autumn Annals” was awarded the Patrick D. Hanan Book Prize for Translation, sponsored by the Association for Asian Studies.

Opening Access to Scholarship: Stevan Harrell on the Studies on Ethnic Groups in China Series

UW Press books on ethnicity and ethnic relations in China are now open access—freely available online to anyone who can get on the internet. Cultural Encounters on China’s Ethnic Frontiers led off the UW Press series Studies on Ethnic Groups in China (SEGC) in 1995. At the time, it was among a few pioneering volumes in English covering the lives and history of China’s 120 million ethnic minority peoples. Since then we have published twenty-three more books—the newest offering is Jarmila Ptáčková’s Exile From the Grasslands (2020). Scholars now widely consider SEGC to be the most prestigious series concentrating on ethnic groups and ethnic relations in China. We’ve kept the books reasonably affordable, at least for North American and European professors, but as with most specialized academic books, those who can’t afford to buy them often can’t find them in their local library. This is particularly true for readers in China, where libraries often don’t have much of a budget for English-language books, as well as readers in countries where libraries have little budget for specialized monographs at all.

It was thus welcome news when in 2017 the University of Washington Libraries invited the press to participate in a pilot project to make some UW Press books open access, meaning that anyone anywhere with an internet connection could read them online. This joint project was funded by a grant from the Transformation Fund of the Kenneth S. and Faye G. Allen Library Endowment. I asked the series’ authors if they would be willing to participate, and nearly all of them replied enthusiastically, agreeing that any small amount of book royalties lost by people reading their books online rather than buying print copies would be more than balanced out by greater exposure to their scholarship.

There are a variety of formats for online books or digital editions (often called e-books), many of which can be used for either open access or restricted access. For example, there are a lot of books on the UW Libraries website that you can read if you have a UW NetID as a student, staff, or faculty member—reading these books online is like checking out a print copy from the library. Open access is different—anyone with internet access can read an open access book or article. This model of open access is also very different from the one certain journal publishers employ. A respected journal published by one of the big journal publishing houses recently accepted an article I had submitted, and they offered to make it open access if I would pay a modest fee of around $2,800. No thanks. Our model is not like that. It is, for now, grant-supported, meaning that authors contribute nothing other than, as my late aunt used to say, “applying of the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair” for the years it takes to make a book.

To host the books, UW Libraries and the press chose Manifold, an innovative platform developed by the University of Minnesota Press, the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, and Cast Iron Coding. Reading a book on Manifold is really a manifold literary experience. You can, of course, just read. But you can also do more. If you are the author, you can add all sorts of material that is not part of the physical book: updates, really geeky footnotes, color photos, even audio recordings or videos.

Resources are available for readers as well. Create a Manifold account, and after you’ve logged in, you can add annotations or comments for your own use, and if the author agrees, you can make those public. Otherwise you can just use them yourself, rather like marking up a print book with marginalia or a yellow highlighter, only not so naughty. You can even use the handy online yellow highlighter pencil, but on your own copy so it doesn’t bother other people.

For teachers, the possibilities are even greater. Use a book as a text for your class without requiring students to buy it. Annotate passages in the book, making them visible to students only, and ask students to make annotations as class assignments or to facilitate class discussions. Students can annotate for their own private use, or for the use of the class, at theirs or the instructor’s discretion. And it’s all free. We know that some of our books, like Jenny Chio’s A Landscape of Travel, have even been used in class projects by high school students.

Manifold is not the only way to find Studies on Ethnic Groups in China in open access format. The press has also worked with Project MUSE, a platform developed at Johns Hopkins University for e-book publication, and with JSTOR, the granddaddy of all online book and article publishing platforms, to make our books openly available there too. They are available from the UW Libraries’ ResearchWorks repository, HathiTrust, and other sites as well.

We now have exciting statistics on the actual usage of the JSTOR and MUSE online editions of the Studies on Ethnic Groups in China books. They are rather spectacular: in 2020, for example, our JSTOR editions were used by readers in 123 countries. We would of course expect a lot of readers in China, given the topics, and indeed our books were accessed by thousands of readers there. And we would also expect readers from European countries, since many of our authors are European. But who would have expected readers in (just to take the Es) Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, and Ethiopia? Or, to sample the Bs, in the Bahamas, Belarus, Belize, Bhutan, Bolivia, and Botswana? Clearly, there is global interest in our books.

Comparative research on use brought even more impressive results. Comparing “hits” or views and downloads of our books on Project MUSE during the period before and after they became open access, the press found that use increased dramatically. In a selected sample of twenty UW Press books on similar topics that are not open access but available as e-books through JSTOR and MUSE, in 2020, the open access books were used about thirteen times as often as books accessible only via library passwords.

Series authors were enthusiastic about the news. Emeritus Professor Thomas Heberer from the University of Duisburg in Germany, commented on the statistics for his Doing Business in Rural China:

I am really impressed about the wide online readership on a global scale as well as almost 100 readers from Germany! This is specifically important and helpful with regard to the visibility of both the books and the authors, and signifies the excellent position of the University of Washington Press in a globalized world! Congratulations!

Professor Susan McCarthy, from Providence College, was equally pleased about the global reach of the series:

I am gratified—and to be honest, a bit stunned—to discover that since being made open access, my book Communist Multiculturalism has been downloaded or read online in sixty-three countries, from Uganda to Ukraine, the Netherlands to Nepal. I am especially pleased that so much of the interest—55% of the “hits” in Project MUSE—appears to be coming from China. . . .  In a ten-month period after open access was enabled, hits on my ebook increased more than eighteen times over, compared to the prior year and half. Enabling open access has allowed my book, published in 2009, to continue to inform debates about the politics of ethnicity, religion, and national identity in China, at a time when such issues are increasingly, globally salient.

Fifteen years ago, e-books were the wave of the future, but now they are commonplace. Five years ago, open access was a radical idea, and whether it can become the norm in the next few years will depend on funding models. But projects like the pilot with Studies on Ethnic Groups in China are an important step toward that goal of equal access regardless of country or social class. We’re proud to be pioneers in this area.  


Stevan Harrell is UW professor emeritus of anthropology and of environmental and forest sciences, and editor of the Studies on Ethnic Groups in China series.

The open-access editions of the books in the series are available on the UW Press Manifold site, among other platforms.

Behind the Book: Robert Chaney on “The Grizzly in the Driveway”

I got to know grizzly bears from the wheelhouse of a fifty-seven-foot tour boat in Glacier National Park. While I had to learn about charismatic megafauna as a floating tour guide, I didn’t anticipate how much conning the ship would affect my writing.

The lesson came clear on July 8, 2020, as I was printing the final copyedited draft of The Grizzly in the Driveway, in which I’d poured thirty years of experience and reporting on North America’s biggest land predator. That morning the to-do list consisted of items like confirming the academic discipline of a biologist, rethinking the proper chapter for a favorite anecdote, and wondering if there was room on the acknowledgments page for a few more shout-outs.

And then the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals weighed in. In my day job as a newspaper reporter, the arrival of an appeals court opinion was a front page opportunity. It required a lot of close reading of twenty-five or thirty pages of legalese to glean who won and who lost and how extensive the result might be. Next came a flurry of phone calls to involved sources and knowledgeable observers. Then I’d boil the ingredients down to plain language and good grammar, hit Send, and see the published result online a few minutes later (and in the print version the following morning).

From my perspective as an author, everything in chapter 10—all seven thousand words—was suddenly suspect. The Grizzly in the Driveway explores how humans relate to wild animals both as living creatures (that weigh five hundred pounds, can outrun a horse, and occasionally eat us) and as features of our imaginations and policy. Chapter 10 was all about the latter—the legal world of Endangered Species Act wording, hunting rights, best available science, and standing to sue in court. Real-life grizzly bears were reduced to mortality trends, incident reports, and political action group mascots. And the Ninth Circuit judges had just announced a new version of reality for that abstract domain.

Journalists joke that they write the first draft of history. But when you’ve spent years writing a book chronicling decades or centuries of historical action and something historic happens right now, it’s the authorial version of an out-of-body experience. The world you constructed, with its precisely ordered constellations of logic and occurrence leading to well-fortified conclusions, suddenly wobbles on its axis.

I chose to write about the return of grizzly bears to a crowded American West in 2018 because the topic felt ripe. This keystone predator was reaching self-sustaining population numbers after a century of poisoning, trapping, and persecution. Its journey through the legal machinery of federal Endangered Species Act oversight was nearing a resolution, and the factors that would determine its future—growing recreational and industrial pressure on its habitat, climate change kinking their food supplies, and political and social divisions riling their human neighbors—stirred public conversation.

The risk of taking on a current-events subject is those events might get swept into a current you didn’t account for. The federal government had been trying for years to remove the grizzly bear from the Endangered Species List and celebrate the recovery of a threatened animal. But advocates for continued protection consistently found vulnerabilities in the government’s plans and derailed them in court. The most recent attempt at delisting had failed at the district court level, and I had bet it would stay dead on appeal. In my book I framed my closing arguments around the protection advocates’ strategy, assuming they had the stronger logic and evidence.

Back in 1982, while I was piloting the DeSmet around Glacier National Park’s Lake McDonald, a tourist asked me what kind of duck was floating in the water ahead of us. I looked at the black speck and realized it was the nub of a branch attached to a tree trunk floating below the water’s surface. A fifty-seven-foot boat has no brakes and takes a long time to turn; sudden action can send toddlers and their grandparents crashing to the deck, if not over the rail. Ramming a log below waterline at 10 knots doesn’t make a good alternative, and cursing like a sailor has no effect. All you can do is throttle down, adjust course, and warn your shipmates to brace for impact.

As it turned out the DeSmet thumped the log without spilling a single tourist’s soda. And my chapter on the grizzly bear’s legal fate got a last-minute update with little rewriting. Most of those edits went something like “the court of appeals ruled” instead of “the district court ruled.”

The double-vision of writing for a daily print newspaper and writing for a library bookshelf remains bewildering. I think back on how many news stories I filed that neglected the context of decades of social momentum and how many books I’ve laughed at for envisioning a future that failed to materialize.

Those summers I spent in the DeSmet’s wheelhouse served me well. It takes a long time to turn a big thing. Obstacles occur in real time. Cussing won’t help. Steer. 


Robert Chaney is a reporter for the Missoulian. A lifelong Montanan, he covers science and the environment. His new book The Grizzly in the Driveway: The Return of Bears to a Crowded American West is available now.

Holier Than Thou: Banu Subramaniam on Science and Democracy in COVID Times

COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. A new vocabulary for our daily lives has evolved. As people “self-isolate” in their homes, daily schedules have embodied disembodied living. In contrast are those who have no choice but to work because they are “frontline workers.” People practice “physical distancing” by “zooming” throughout the day, then exhibit “zoom fatigue” by the end of it. If anything, life has become decidedly surreal. The unprecedented onslaught of COVID-19 has also revealed striking global patterns, such as the stark differences in leadership styles, economic inequities, unequal power structures, poor social and health infrastructures, and social cohesion. Like many, I have become obsessed with tracking the global pandemic, and in the recent past, a stable pattern has emerged—first in the United States and second in India. Together these two countries are regarded as the world’s oldest and the largest democracies. And in both, COVID-19 numbers are rising at alarming rates.

My book Holy Science: The Biopolitics of Hindu Nationalism was published by the University of Washington Press in 2019, in the midst of the Indian national election. Results were announced on May 23, 2019. The elections were significant and served as an important test of the success of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its charismatic leader, Narendra Modi. Modi and the BJP’s success in 2014, when the BJP won enough votes, allowed them to form a majority government for the first time in the nation’s history. As some feared, the divisive politics of Hindu nationalism and its virulent anti-minority sentiments grew during its term. Additionally, due to various actions of the government, such as its failed demonetization scheme, the economy remained sluggish and job growth middling. Many wondered if the BJP would win again and, especially, if it would keep its majority. In 2019, the BJP not only won but expanded its majority, giving it a decided mandate.

One of my key arguments in the book is that at the heart of Hindu nationalism is the idea of Hindutva, or “Hinduness,” and the imagination of India as a Hindu nation. Characterizing previous governments as “minority” appeasers, Hindu nationalists boldly (re)claimed India as a Hindu nation. Much of Hindu nationalism is grounded in a politics of injury borne out of the memories of migration and colonial rule. With Hindu nationalists now at the helm, the politics of injury and grievance has been harnessed into a powerful political movement to reclaim India’s great Hindu civilization. Hindu nationalists invoked the grand Vedic past as a prelude to a future India as a Hindu nation, reclaiming its rightful place as a global superpower. More strikingly, Hindu nationalists have selectively, and strategically, used rhetoric from both science and Hinduism, modernity and orthodoxy, Western and Eastern thought to build a powerful and potentially dangerous vision of India as a Hindu nation, what I have called an “archaic modernity.” COVID-19 has acutely revealed how an archaic modernity functions—the movement has mobilized its Hindu majority with authoritarian decision-making and powerful rhetoric and slogans, but overall it has failed to launch an effective response to the global pandemic.

I was born and raised in India but now live in the United States, where I have been tracking the viral drama in both nations. It will be many years before the definitive history of the pandemic can be written, but here I offer some reflections as the pandemic continues to unfold. There are many theories on what characterizes the countries at the top of the list—authoritarian regimes, capricious leadership, ambivalence toward expertise and science, and an inadequately responsive health infrastructure. Both the United States and India fit the bill in this regard, and in both cases, there is much to fault in their leaders and their actions. Narendra Modi and Donald Trump were awarded the 2020 Ig Nobel Prize for Medical Education (along with seven other world leaders) for “using the COVID-19 pandemic to teach the world that politicians can have a more immediate effect on life and death than scientists and doctors can.”[1] While Trump remained unpopular through his presidency and lost the recent election, it is sobering to note that over seventy-four million people voted for him despite the alarming death toll and his seeming disregard for the suffering of Americans. Although he contracted the virus, his claim that the virus is a “hoax” continues to be chanted by his faithful followers. The experimental treatment he received is beyond the reach of most Americans, yet he seemed untouched by charges of elitism. In contrast to President Trump, Prime Minister Modi remains immensely popular, and in fact, his popularity has grown during the pandemic. It is striking that both leaders are supported by the majority of their communities (white Americans in the United States and upper-caste Hindus in India). Both leaders are charismatic figures who have great social media savvy and hold large public rallies. In discussing the large events the two have hosted for each other, a recent article summarized: “The events offered Trump and the Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi a chance to win political points domestically while cementing their bond as right-leaning nationalist leaders.”[2]

Something is hauntingly familiar in the unfolding patterns of these democracies, and yet they are very different. President Trump has no national plan to contain the virus and has continued to travel maskless and host large gatherings, while Prime Minister Modi has consulted medical experts and doubled down on Western protocols of lockdowns. President Trump has ignored science and expertise; Prime Minister Modi has embraced it.[3] Yet what is “science” in archaic modernity? The blurring boundaries of the contestations of “science” are all around India’s COVID-19 response. The government’s Ministry of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy) has issued various advisories during the pandemic that include dubious prevention measures and prophylactics to the virus, such as cow urine, ginger, and turmeric. And the melding of Vedic and modern sciences has led to some very anachronistic moments—from symbolic offerings and the drinking of gaumutra (sacred cow urine) by the All-India Hindu Mahasabha to the worship of new religious deities, such as Corona Mata.[4]

Prime Minister Modi has tried to present himself as a strong and decisive leader, often bordering on the imperious and autocratic.[5] For example, a particularly consequential action involved his imposition of a three-week national curfew in late March 2020 that was dramatically announced with four hours’ notice! This fateful action was particularly significant for millions of India’s migrant workers left stranded in cities and for India’s informal labor market (80 percent of India’s workforce). For many, physical distancing meant hunger, and in innumerable instances, the lockdown was enforced with great brutality.[6] Indians applauded this quick and brave action, and there was an upbeat and congratulatory tone in many newspapers in the early days of the virus. Of course, the rest is history. The three weeks that were meant to help put in place national and local plans to deal with the pandemic were squandered. As predicted by many epidemiologists, once the curfew regulations were lifted, COVID-19 numbers soared. Newspapers and television news chronicled the horrendous plight of the migrants who returned to their villages, many walking, hungry and dehydrated, some dying on the way. With migrants reaching home, the virus settled in every corner of India.

Mr. Modi’s speeches, while motivational, remained opaque and evasive on important details, such as the government’s preparedness and response.[7] In the meantime the government had turned a blind eye to violence against minorities and those speaking out against the government. To challenge the government in Indian democracy today is to be deemed “antinational,” and some individuals have been arrested and imprisoned. The submission of the media, civilian infrastructure, and the judiciary are striking. In sum, the pandemic has served as an important backdrop for a greater consolidation of Hindu nationalism.

But there are signs of resistance. In India, the nationwide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, by farmers against the neo-liberalization of agriculture, and against the state response to the rape of a Dalit girl by upper-caste men in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, are all heartening but small signs.[8] The United States, in some ways, presents a more heartening story. The Black Lives Matter protests that spontaneously arose across the country captivated the nation and the world. An engaged citizenry came out to vote in the largest numbers in recent history. Most importantly, President Trump was convincingly defeated. But the weeks after the election have proved sobering, dashing any hope that the United States has turned the page on its recent history. As the country faces its second impeachment proceedings, the future still remains unclear. What has been unleashed will have an enduring significance. What is resoundingly clear in both nations is that despite bold claims as the oldest and largest democracies, fundamental democratic institutions have proven to be far less robust than many imagined. Both leaders have unleashed a specter of majoritarian grievance that powerfully haunts public life and its citizens. We need to contend with the imagined victimhood of the majority, address the gross inequities that undergird that grievance, but, most importantly, mobilize around a vision of justice for all. It is no easy task, but all of our lives, quite literally, depends on it.


Banu Subramaniam is professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of Ghost Stories for Darwin: The Science of Variation and the Politics of Diversity, winner of the 2016 Ludwik Fleck Award from the Society for the Social Studies of Science. Her book Holy Science: The Biopolitics of Hindu Nationalism is available now.


[1] Sumit Arora, “PM Modi Awarded 2020 Ig Nobel Prize for Medical Education,” Current Affairs, September 22, 2020.

[2] Joanna Slater, “What the U.S Election Means for India,” Washington Post, October 29, 2020.

[3] Banu Subramaniam and Debjani Bhattacharyya. “A Viral Education: Scientific Lessons from India’s WhatsApp University,” Somatosphere, May 31, 2020.

[4] Nandini Sen, “Corona Mata and the Pandemic Goddesses,” Wire, September 25, 2020.

[5] Debjani Bhattacharyya and Banu Subramaniam, “Technofascism in India,” n+1 Magazine, May 13, 2020.

[6] Maria Abi-Habib and Samir Yasir. “For India’s Laborers, Coronavirus Lockdown Is an Order to Starve,” New York Times, March 30, 2020.

[7] Ruchi Kumar, “To Tackle a Virus, Indian Officials Peddle Pseudoscience,” Undark, April 19, 2020.

[8] Namit Arora, “Talk Less, Work More,” Baffler, November 23, 2020.