Vernacular Formations of Sexuality in India

In October 2018 I spoke at a meeting organized by Hasratein (Desire), a queer collective in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. This meeting was soon after the landmark Supreme Court judgment in India on September 6, 2018 that read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), allowing for same-sex sexual acts between consenting adults in private. Pushing against the euphoria of the moment, my observations explored the non-linear trajectories of sexuality politics that cannot be plotted within the paradigms of rights, recognition, and individual autonomy. Drawing on the key interventions of my book Unruly Figures, I shared my thoughts on how regional idioms of activism and vernacular cultural practices, from different parts of India, disrupt a singular narrative of sexual progress and liberation.

Unruly Figures: Queerness, Sex Work and the Politics of Sexuality in Kerala, was conceptualized, researched, and written over a period of about ten years. The primary research for this book was done in 2007–2010 when the global AIDS prevention and awareness machinery played a crucial role in making sexual categories such as the Commercial Sex Worker (CSW) and Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) highly visible. Sexuality politics in different regions of India has undergone considerable shifts as I was completing this book. Identity categories, legal frameworks, the public health machinery, global and national patterns of funding, the status of sexuality as a field of study, the circuits of print and visual media—there are many sites through which we can track these changes.

While the struggle for reading down Section 377 is perceived as an overarching framework for this period—this book demonstrates that the rights bearing sexual subject cannot be the fulcrum to anchor the long, ruptured history of the politics of sexuality in India. So it seems apt that this book reaches its readers in the aftermath of the Supreme Court judgment hailed by international media with headlines such as: “India Backs Freedom – Others should Follow” (The Guardian, September 9, 2018), and “India’s Riotous Triumph of Equality” (New York Times, September 7, 2018). My explorations in this book function as a timely reminder about the dangers of celebrating a teleology of sexual progress with set moments of origin and arrival. It makes us acutely aware of the unresolvable contradictions that nestle in the same slice of history.

How do we address the fact that the Supreme Court judgment on Section 377 comes at a time when India has witnessed systemic violence against religious minorities and Dalits, massive unemployment and dismantling of social welfare structures, as well as increasing surveillance in public spaces? “Safe Spaces, Unsafe Times: Support Systems in a Suspended World,” was the title of a workshop held in Delhi on November 2018 that attempted to move beyond the mainstream narrative around the repeal of Section 377 and address the question of larger support systems for gay, lesbian, and transgender persons. The tentative and restless journeys in this book, its reflection on political subjectivity and dispossession, hopes to speak to these dilemmas of our present.

Public interventions such as the dual autobiographical project by Nalini Jameela and the report on lesbian suicides by the activist group, Sahayatrika (Co-traveler), are struggles staged in embattled settings. The forms of self-fashioning we encounter in Unruly Figures are marked by reiteration and failure. Yet the idioms to etch these everyday politics are drawn from the layered imaginations available within “small places.” Cultural practices such as watching soft-porn films and reading pulp fiction play a role in unsettling a disciplined ordering of gender and domesticity in Kerala.

The political is recast in this book for it is routed through unexpected sites, such as the wanderings of two schoolgirls on the run in a 1980s popular Malayalam film. The cover image of this book gives new life to an image from this film that is central to the book. There is much to learn and unlearn from struggles staged in unhomely places—places that bind us and yet they are too close to let go. This doubleness of marginalized subjects and their relation to their immediate surroundings has to be taken into account as we search for an elsewhere. The potential for transformation is kept alive by drawing on the unruly movements generated in the spaces that we inhabit. Thus to engage with the global trajectories of sexuality politics we need to pay heed to vernacular imaginations of sexuality.


Navaneetha Mokkil is assistant professor at the Centre for Women’s Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is the coeditor of Thinking Women: A Feminist Reader.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bringing Indigenous Artists to the Forefront

A student recently came by my office to talk about Atalie Unkalunt, a Cherokee vocal performer, lecturer, actor, and writer of the early twentieth century. Reading too quickly through an introductory email, I thought that the student perhaps meant Mary Ataloa McClenden, the legendary Chickasaw singer and teacher. While I’d never heard of Atalie, I’d run across Ataloa while researching American Indian concert vocalists for my 2004 book, Indians in Unexpected Places. There were a lot of these singers—Tsianina Redfeather, Princess Watawaso, Irene Eastman, Oskenonton, Yolachie, Falling Water, Sausa Carey, Kiutus Tecumseh, Carlisle Kawbawgam, to name just a few. Somehow, though, I’d missed Atalie Unkalunt, who was (despite sharing four out of six letters in her stage name) not Ataloa.

The moment reminded me of two issues central to my new book, Becoming Mary Sully: Toward an American Indian Abstract. First, no matter how well we think we understand our pasts, there are always individuals hidden to us, human footnotes in the flow of our narratives who are so deeply buried as to be invisible. I thought I knew the world of early twentieth-century Native vocal performers. But Atalie Unkalunt reminds me just how fragmentary my knowledge—our knowledge—really is. I have no doubt that more and more such performers will emerge, claiming space in the stories we tell.

Mary Sully—the professional name used by my great aunt Susan Deloria—may well offer the definitive example of such an invisible footnote of a person. Between the late 1920s and the mid-1940s, she made ravishingly beautiful, highly intelligent art that was shown to the world on perhaps four or five occasions. Her medium was colored pencil—the tools of an artist struggling with poverty—and her work followed a form that she called the “personality print,” a three-panel triptych that developed themes and iconographies across distinct styles—modernist abstraction, geometrical design patterns, and Native-influenced imagery and design. The personality print was quite literally meant to capture the essence of an individual, and Mary Sully focused her attention on an archive of popular culture celebrities—Babe Ruth, Helen Keller, Betty Boop, Bing Crosby, and 131 others. Like Atalie Unkalunt and Mary Sully herself, many of these people have now faded into deep-footnote obscurity. Who remembers Alice Fazende, the last Confederate widow, or Jesse Crawford, the “poet of the organ”?

The second issue Atalie Unkalunt pressed on me was that when we move people from the footnotes to the main text, there’s a good chance we change the very nature of the story. Here, too, I’ve found that Mary Sully matters. Indeed, in Becoming Mary Sully, I suggest the ways in which she’s a game-changing artist.

The story of early-mid-twentieth century Native American art has had a story not unlike the one I once told about Native musicians performing operatic arias and Indigenous melodies while garbed as Indian princesses and chiefs. In that story, in the first half of the twentieth century, Native crossover artists, supported by patrons, teachers, art markets, and schools, created new forms of art in New Mexico, Oklahoma, and elsewhere. Their work was brilliantly creative and technically excellent—but it was also circumscribed by the desire of non-Native supporters for a brand of primitivism that emphasized Indigenous pasts, “traditional” subject matter, flat perspectives, and featureless, timeless backgrounds.

Put Mary Sully’s work into this story and watch the narrative change. Her work reversed anti-modern primitivism (indeed, one might call it instead “anti-primitivist modernism!). In that sense, Sully asks us to rethink not simply a story about Native American art, but about the far more intimidating category “American Art” itself. For all its anonymity, Sully’s work sought out dialogue with artists we more easily place in the “American” canon: Aaron Douglas, Diego Rivera, Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley. And when Mary Sully is read as something other than a footnote, we find ourselves contemplating a significant cohort of Indian women who made similar efforts to engage the wider world of American art: Edmonia Lewis, Angel De Cora, Wa Wa Cha, Tonita Pena, and many others.

These arguments might ring a familiar echo for those fortunate to have seen the recent Hilma auf Klint exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City: a previously obscure artist, lifted from the footnotes and, on the strength of the work, elevated into the main narrative of the invention of modernism, utterly transforming that story in the process. I’m not an art historian—but it seems to me that the world of art scholarship and appreciation is caught up in an amazing moment of footnote rescues and returns of the repressed. It’s a moment when Atalie Unkalunts and Mary Sullys have a chance to leap out of the past and take a second shot at the main texts and the master narratives that evaded them in life.


Philip J. Deloria (Dakota descent) is professor of history at Harvard University and the author of Indians in Unexpected Places and Playing Indian. His most recent book, coauthored with Alexander I. Olson, is American Studies: A User’s Guide. He is a trustee of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, where he chairs the Repatriation Committee; a former president of the American Studies Association; and an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Debunking Ten Arguments from the Anti-Vaccine Movement

Author of Staying Healthy Abroad, Dr. Christopher Sanford debunks ten common arguments used by anti-vaccine activists.

The purpose of this article is educational. For medical advice for any health condition, please consult your physician. To learn more about the measles outbreak, read this recent blog post.


In January of this year the WHO (World Health Organization) released a list, “Ten Threats to Global Health in 2019.” One of the ten threats listed was vaccine hesitancy: “the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines.”

For a variety of reasons, a significant number of people choose to forego vaccines for themselves and/or their children. Anti-vaccine sentiment has swelled in recent years to a vehement political movement, and declining vaccine rates have led to a resurgence of a number of infectious diseases. Measles has seen a 30% increase in global cases in recent years. There are now measles outbreaks in 22 US states.

The evidence for the benefit and safety of vaccines is voluminous and consistent. Dr. William H. Foege, a public health physician who was instrumental in the global eradication of smallpox, wrote, “Vaccines are the tugboats of preventive health.”

There are myriad arguments used by anti-vaccine activists. Below are ten common arguments that arise.

  1. Vaccines don’t work.
  2. Vaccines only give partial protection.
  3. Protection from vaccines is inferior to that from natural infection.
  4. Vaccines contain mercury, a toxic heavy metal, and antifreeze, ether, and other toxic chemicals.
  5. Vaccines cause autism.
  6. Vaccines are no longer necessary.
  7. Vaccines overwhelm the body’s immune system.
  8. Vaccines are a plot by pharma (large pharmaceutical corporations) to generate profit.
  9. Vaccines are a plot by the CDC and/or US federal government, to attain any of a panoply of nefarious goals.
  10. Vaccines contain fetal cells.

Let’s address these one by one.

1. Vaccines don’t work.

This is a bizarre argument. Disease after disease has diminished markedly in prevalence immediately following the introduction of its respective vaccine. Tetanus in the US has been reduced by more than 98%; polio is almost eliminated worldwide; smallpox, which caused an average 48,000 cases per year in the United States during the 20th century, has been eliminated from the planet. The HPV (human papilloma virus) vaccine was introduced in the US in 2006; already we are seeing a significantly reduced level of cervical cancer in women. The incidence of multiple other infectious diseases, including mumps, rubella, and pertussis, have been markedly reduced in recent years—all because of vaccination.

2. Vaccines only give partial protection.

This is true but is not a reason to avoid vaccines. And often the protection level is very high. At one extreme, vaccines such as yellow fever and hepatitis A (in those under age 40) offer over 99% protection. At the other extreme, influenza often offers about 50% protection; this can be even lower if the vaccine and circulating strains are a poor match. Many vaccines are about 90% protective. If vaccine levels are sufficiently high as to prevent easy transmission in a population (“herd immunity”), there may be sporadic cases but outbreaks are effectively prevented. The level of immunity necessary to attain herd immunity differs for different infections. For polio, this level is 80% of the population; for measles, which is more infectious, about 95% of a population needs to be protected, either by vaccine or prior infection, to prevent outbreaks.

3. Protection from vaccines is inferior to that from natural infection.

Untrue! Protection from either is equally protective. Vaccines provide protection without causing illness, or exposing people to the risk of death from their respective diseases.

4. Vaccines contain mercury, a toxic heavy metal, and aluminum, antifreeze, ether, and other toxic chemicals.

Thimerosol, a preservative which contains ethyl mercury, has been removed from all vaccines except multi-dose vials of influenza vaccine. There are thimerosol-free preparations of flu vaccine.

And thimerosol is not harmful. Ethyl mercury is quickly excreted from the body; it does not bioaccumulate. The form of mercury that bioaccumulates is methyl mercury; this is the form that is found is some seafood, such as tuna. Thus if you eat vast amounts of tuna, mercury toxicity may be an issue.

No vaccine contains ether or antifreeze. These are bizarre, invented assertions. Vaccines do contain miniscule amounts of aluminum, but this is without any health consequence. Melody Butler, founder of Nurses Who Vaccinate, correctly notes that a baby gets more aluminum from breast milk than from vaccines.

5. Vaccines cause autism.

Dr. William Wakefield, a British physician, published a single report in Lancet in 1996 stating that there is a possible link between the measles vaccine and autism. His report has since been retracted by Lancet; his license to practice medicine in the UK was subsequently revoked by the General Medical Council (GMC).

Every study—and there have been at least twelve—on the measles vaccine and autism show that there is no relationship between the two. The most recent study on this is a large one, on over 650,000 children in Denmark, published this year in Annals of Internal Medicine. It found that “…MMR vaccination does not increase the risk for autism, does not trigger autism in susceptible children, and is not associated with clustering of autism cases after vaccination.”

We do not know what causes autism, but we do know that it is unrelated to vaccines.

6. Vaccines are no longer necessary.

Au contraire. The only disease that has been eradicated from the planet is smallpox. All other infectious disease are still circulating, some common, some rare. All vaccine-preventable illnesses will become more common if vaccination rates drop.

7. Vaccines overwhelm the body’s immune system.

Not true. The human immune system can deal with hundreds of thousands of antigens (foreign substances that stimulate an immune response.) Whether one, or eight, vaccines are given on a single day, the immune response is equally strong to each.

8. Vaccines are a plot by pharma to generate profit.

Pharma—pharmaceutical corporations—making a profit on vaccines does not prove that vaccines are harmful. If all this were driven by pharma, it is unlikely that they would convince physicians, the CDC, public health officials, etc.

9. Vaccines are a plot by the CDC and/or US federal government, to attain any of a panoply of nefarious goals.

It takes a more paranoid mind than mine to think that the 15,000 people who work for the CDC are plotting to do you harm. The idea that that many health professionals would conspire to harm the American public—and that that doctors, nurses, etc., would be complicit—is preposterous.

10. Vaccines contain fetal cells.

A few vaccines (specifically: varicella [chickenpox], rubella [the R in MMR], hepatitis A, the older shingles vaccine [Zostavax, not Shingrix], and one preparation of rabies vaccine [Sanofi-Pasteur’s Imovax]) are made by growing the viruses, which are attenuated (non-disease causing) in fetal embryo fibroblast cells. These fibroblast cells were obtained from two elective terminations of pregnancies in the early 1960s, and continue to grow in laboratories today. No additional sources of fetal cells are needed to make these vaccines.


This is an emotional topic for many. Ethan Linderberger was raised in an Ohio family that did not believe in vaccines. When he recently turned eighteen, he decided to receive all recommended vaccines. His mother, Jill Wheeler, described this decision as “insulting” and a “slap in the face.”

With respect to infectious diseases, there is no zero-risk option. Your choices are the smaller risk from vaccines, or markedly larger risk from infectious diseases.

The bottom line is that the evidence for the benefits of vaccine is massive and consistent.

I concur with Jackson County (OR) Health Officer Jim Shames, who states, “From a medical standpoint, vaccines are probably the most powerful and effective public health intervention of all time.”

Given the vehemence and organization of anti-vaxxers, their battle with traditional medical providers will probably continue for the foreseeable future. It is important that those of us who believe in the benefits of vaccines speak our minds. If the pro-vaccine majority are passive, the anti-vaccine minority will determine the national and international tone and policy.


Christopher Sanford, MD, MPH is associate professor in the Departments of Family Medicine and Global Health at the University of Washington, and a family medicine physician who specializes in tropical medicine and travelers’ health. His research interests include medical education in low-resource settings and health risks of urban centers in low-income nations.

To hear more from Christopher Sanford, come to his book talk at the University Bookstore on Tuesday, June 11th. To learn more about how to keep yourself healthy while traveling, buy his book.

What You Need to Know About the Measles Outbreak

In light of the current measles outbreak in the United States, we asked Dr. Christopher Sanford, author of Staying Healthy Abroad, to break down the statistics on measles nationally and globally for travelers across the country. He also answers some commonly asked questions about immunity and vaccinations.

The purpose of this article is educational. For medical advice for any health condition, please consult your physician.


Over 700 people in 22 US states have been infected with measles this year—the biggest measles outbreak in the US since 1994. Sixty-six of these people have required hospitalization. Most of those with measles had not been vaccinated for measles.

Per the WHO (World Health Organization), global measles deaths have decreased significantly in recent years, from 550,000 deaths in 2000 to 90,000 deaths in 2016 (an 84% reduction), but measles remains common in many low-income nations, particularly in Africa and Asia. An estimated 7 million people were infected with measles in 2016.

People immunized before 1989 may have only received one dose of measles vaccine. This provides partial protection, but better protection is provided by receiving a booster dose, that is, two doses of MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) total.

International travelers should receive a total of two doses of MMR vaccine. If travelers are uncertain as to their vaccine status, they may request serology (a blood test) from their medical provider to look for immunity. Those born before 1957 in the US are assumed to be immune to measles, mumps, and rubella from prior natural infection; vaccination with MMR is not advised.

Almost all US and Canadian universities and colleges began to require evidence of two prior doses of MMR vaccine (or proof of immunity) in about 1994.

Background

Measles is a serious viral infection that is transmitted by coughing and sneezing. The virus can live for up to two hours in an airspace or on a surface. Usual symptoms are fever, cough, rash, runny nose, and conjunctivitis (pinkeye). Although most people fully recover, complications include encephalitis—swelling of the brain which can result in permanent brain damage or death—and pneumonia.

The usual case-fatality rate in measles is 1-2/1,000 (0.1-0.2%). However, in malnourished populations, the case-fatality rate can approach one in ten.

In order to prevent sustained transmission of measles, 95% of the population needs to be immune, either from vaccination or natural infection (“herd immunity”).

In the US, in the decade 1912-1922, measles caused an average of 6,000 deaths per year. Prior to 1963, when measles vaccination became available, measles caused 4,800 hospitalizations, 1,000 cases of encephalitis, and 400-500 deaths each year in the US.

Washington State

In the current measles outbreak in Washington State, there have been 71 cases in Clark County (in southwest Washington, adjacent to Portland, OR) and one case in King County. The majority of these cases were in unimmunized people.

United States

There are currently measles outbreaks in 22 US states.

There were 372 cases of measles in the US in 2018. Between January 1 and April 26 of this year, 704 cases have occurred.

Most US cases are in children. Per a April 9 article in the Wall Street Journal:

New York City officials declared a public-health emergency as authorities elsewhere in the state announced new measures to halt the spread of measles, stepping up their responses after a recent surge in cases. The city on Tuesday ordered mandatory measles-mumps-rubella vaccination and fines for noncompliance in certain ZIP Codes in Brooklyn.

The current US vaccine schedule for measles: two doses; first at 12-15 months, second at 4-6 years. Boosters after initial series of two are not advised.

Global Picture

The dramatic decline in global measles is primarily due to increased vaccine coverage in low-income nations. However, should vaccine efforts wane, measles cases and deaths would inevitably markedly increase.

Many countries in Europe have seen a large uptick in measles cases in recent years. There are currently outbreaks in Germany, Ireland, Italy, France, and other European countries. Countries outside of Europe with current outbreaks include Israel, Ukraine, and Australia.


What’s the difference between elimination and eradication?

Eradication is the complete and permanent worldwide reduction to zero new cases of a disease through deliberate efforts. Smallpox has been eradicated from the planet. Elimination is the reduction to zero, or a very low defined target rate, new cases of a disease in a specified geographical areas. Measles was declared to be eliminated from the US in 2000.

How effective is measles vaccine?

Very. The two-dose series provides 97% protection.

What is herd immunity?

If a certain threshold level of a community is immune to a disease, either through infection or immunization, that infection cannot be propagated within that community. The threshold for different infections varies. For example, the level of resistance for polio in a community necessary to prevent an epidemic is 80%. Measles is more infectious; about 95% of a community needs to be resistant to measles to prevent epidemics.

What is the current measles vaccine rate in the US?

Fairly high. Currently, per the CDC, 94.3% of kindergartners were current for measles vaccine in the 2017-18 school year. However, this rate is markedly lower in some communities, e.g., the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, NY, and Clark County, WA, in which measles epidemics are currently occurring.

How can I tell if I’m immune to measles?

If you’ve received the two-dose series of MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine, it is reasonable to assume that you’re immune. If your vaccine history is uncertain, options include a blood test to check immunity, or receiving the two-dose series.


Christopher Sanford, MD, MPH is associate professor in the Departments of Family Medicine and Global Health at the University of Washington, and a family medicine physician who specializes in tropical medicine and travelers’ health. His research interests include medical education in low-resource settings and health risks of urban centers in low-income nations.

To hear more from Christopher Sanford, come to his book talk at the University Bookstore on Tuesday, June 11th. To learn more about how to keep yourself healthy while traveling, buy his book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Q&A with Poet David Biespiel

For National Poetry Month, we are pleased to share a conversation with poet David Biespiel, author of Republic Cafe.


It’s Monday, 10am. Would you tell us your motto for writing poems?

My motto would be, writing poems is impossible. That’s my motto. It’s impossible for me to do anything else, first of all, but to write poems. But, to write a poem? What is that? What is a poem? Every effort to write a poem is as much a soaring success as it is a terrible flub. It’s impossible to write in the direction I want to write, because as soon as I get close to that point on the horizon I’ve been aiming toward, what I’ve been trying to write appears different to me. Everything I’ve been doing, therefore, is wrong. A failure. In a catalogue essay from the 1960s of a MOMA exhibition of Alberto Giacometti’s work, there’s this opening paragraph in Peter Selz’s introduction:

‘To render what the eye sees is impossible,’ Giacometti repeated one evening while we were seated at dinner at the inn at Stampa. He explained that he could really not see me as I sat next to him—I was a conglomeration of vague and disconnected details—but that each member of the family sitting across the room was clearly visible, though diminutive, thin, surrounded by enormous slices of space. Everyone before him in the whole history of art, he continued, had always represented the figure as it is; his task now was to break down tradition and come to grips with the optical phenomenon of reality. What is the relationship of the figure to the enveloping space, of man to the void, even of being to nothingness?

That about covers it—for writing. It’s impossible. And, that’s exactly what makes it so freeing, so enticing.

What led you to become a writer? And, specifically a poet?

I recently published a book on this subject, The Education of a Young Poet. I think I became a writer because I liked messing around with words, with sentences. I liked the feel of moving a verb from the front of a sentence to the end. I liked feeling curious about whether I should end a sentence on a noun, or start with a noun. I liked seeing the figure of ideas and images form, from one word to the next, one phrase and one clause to the next, one sentence and one paragraph to the next. That’s what I liked and what I still like at the most tactile/DNA level of writing. Writing a poem is all of that on steroids. Now, with a poem, too, you have lines to enhance even more new relationships between adjective and noun, for instance. It’s mind-blowing.

As for why I became a poet? Writing poems, for me—because I write poems and nonfiction—I find that poetry offers greater velocity than prose and also poetry dwells more deeply in metaphor. Speed plus associative feeling. That’s two things that draw me to write poems. Underneath all that is an interest in asking questions that, perhaps, poetry can reflect upon. Writing Republic Cafe I was interested in the importance of forgetting, as opposed to the more traditional interest in the importance of remembering. So I was writing the poem—the long poem that’s the centerpiece of the book—to reflect upon that question. And yet, that’s the paradox. The close I got to dramatizing what I was forgotten, I began to see it, or remember  it, differently. So the book is trying to figure out what to make of that enigma.

Did you write the book in Portland?

Mostly, yes. In late 2012, during the production period for Charming Gardeners, which UW Press published in 2014, I began taking notes and studying the patterns of Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour in Portland. Then, in the fall of 2014, I went to West Texas and wrote for a month without interruption. That’s where I drafted the book. I worked on it for several years after that, and then, in late 2017, I put the book through a big revision after Linda Bierds read it. I did that revision in my house here in Portland over several weeks.

Many writers begin their career with teachers and models. Republic Cafe is your sixth book of poems since 1996. Did you have a model when you first started to write? Do you now?

When I first started to write, I was mostly alone. Not alone in the world—well, not entirely alone in the world, I mean—but alone with my books, with paper and pen. No teachers. I had no guidance. Later I studied with several wonderful poets. At the University of Maryland I studied with Stanley Plumly, Michael Collier, and Phillis Levin. At Stanford, when I was a Stegner fellow, I studied with W.S. Di Piero and Ken Fields. Because Stan Plumly introduced my first book, I suppose I’m most identified with him, and I’m extremely grateful to have studied with him. Truth be told I still learn things from him. From him personally—we’ve remained close for thirty years. And especially through his poems, which are remarkable for their warmth and tenderness. Before those teachers came along, and ever since, I would say Walt Whitman has been a model for me. I don’t mean the man so much—not to dismiss the man, that is, but I mean the writing. His engagement as a poet with language and life. The nexus of self and society that is the hallmark of his poetry. I’ve learned from Whitman that while images never become out-of-fashion or obsolete, blow-hardedness does. Commentaries do. Explaining or psychoanalyzing kills invention. Kills metaphor. Kills freshness. What’s so great about Whitman is he still feels contemporary. It’s the 200th anniversary of his birth this year, and he still feels in touch with our own time. Whitman doesn’t try to explain his motivations. Instead he conveys a consciousness. That’s the thing I’ve most tried to learn from Whitman. To write a poem is to invent a consciousness. But, of course, it’s impossible.


Biespiel photo 2David Biespiel is a poet, critic, memoirist, and contributing to writer to American Poetry Review, New Republic, the New York Times, Poetry, Politico, The Rumpus, and Slate. He is poet-in-residence at Oregon State University, faculty member in the Rainier Writers Workshop, and president of the Attic Institute of Arts and Letters. He has received NEA and Lannan fellowships and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Balakian Award. He has previously published The Education of a Young Poet, Wild Civility, The Book of Men and Women, and Charming Gardeners. You can buy his most recent collection, Republic Cafe by clicking here.

Re-envisioning Shanghai’s Architectural History

The roots of Improvised City trace back to my first visit to Shanghai in August 1997. I was a college undergraduate majoring in architectural studies, and I had arrived in China for the first time six months earlier to study in Xi’an. I spent June and July in Hong Kong as an intern for an international architectural office before taking the train to Beijing and then Shanghai, from where I would eventually fly home. None of my experiences in China up to that point in time prepared me for the place. Shanghai overwhelmed me—its scale, its pace, the collage-like quality of the urban fabric. It made a lasting impression that would stay with me for years, when as a graduate student I began to delve more deeply into the architectural and urban history of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century China.

I was traveling with a friend at the time, and we stayed at the Astor House Hotel—now a four-star hotel, but then a shabby youth hostel known for its convenient location at the confluence of the Huangpu River and Suzhou Creek. We were given an airless dormitory room tucked away down a dimly lit hallway with wide, creaky floorboards. There was a specific, spectral quality to the building’s spaces I’ve never quite forgotten. Although I did not know the extent of its history at the time, it was clear that the many political, economic, social, and cultural shifts in China’s past over the preceding century had become inscribed upon the architecture in consequential and identifiable ways.

In the mornings, my friend and I woke up early and walked over the Waibaidu (Garden) Bridge toward Nanjing Road. It was a hot, humid August in Shanghai; we encountered elderly couples out for some early morning air and exercise in their pajamas. I also recall watching, mesmerized, as a man sat out on the street gutting live eels using a narrow wooden plank through which protruded a strategically placed, upturned nail. From Nanjing Road we’d walk around People’s Square, and out into any number of adjacent streets, finding our way from the former International Settlement down through the French Concession into the former walled Chinese city. We spent entire days walking tirelessly around the city in search of vestiges of its historical architecture and urbanity.

 

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Years later, my memories of that trip helped to inspire my research on Shanghai’s architectural and urban past. I have lived in Shanghai and made many trips to the city since then, but my initial experience there remains formative to my curiosity concerning its architectural past. Throughout my investigation of Shanghai’s architectural history, I have sought to learn how architectural objects and urban spaces in the city served to demarcate control and project authority amid the various power struggles for municipal administration that took place between foreign and Chinese officials over the course of the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. Shanghai’s uniqueness was shaped, in part, by the legal machinations that took place around its re-definition as an international treaty port and whether foreign residents would be subject to Qing laws—questions that rapidly materialized in the design and construction of architecture and urban space throughout the city. For example, the book’s title, Improvised City, was inspired by a letter written by a group of foreign residents to the British envoy and minister plenipotentiary to the Qing court in 1863. In the letter, the group declared that Shanghai had become “an improvised city” in which routine municipal architectural activity had taken on particular meaning due to the city’s abrupt redefinition as an international treaty port, the odd spatial qualities that emerged as a result, and the unruly cosmopolitanism generated by these changes.

The idea that architecture could be used to transform or somehow “improvise” a city into being was fascinating to me, and it inspired me to rethink Shanghai’s architectural history. We often define and study architecture based on certain aesthetic or stylistic qualities; in Shanghai, for example, the Bund is celebrated for its visual display of different kinds of architectural expression. Yet architecture offers a tool with a range of distinctive material, spatial, and scalar qualities that reveal lessons about how we live and, by extension, who we are. Architectural artifacts prompt us to interpret and confront a city’s physical present and its past through spaces that shape daily practices and beliefs.

One can still find traces of these dynamics and the complex history that resulted in built objects and urban spaces throughout the city despite the significant physical redevelopment that has occurred there in the past 40 years. It’s also a history that is revealed through unbuilt or long-forgotten work captured in drawings, photographs, and documents found in archives all over the world, including Shanghai, Hong Kong, London, Paris, and Washington, D.C., among other places. Discovering and re-constructing these fragments into a book has been a long journey, but one I am excited to be able to share.


Cole Roskam is associate professor of architectural history at the University of Hong Kong. To learn more about what Shanghai’s architectural history reveals about the relationship between built environments and extraterritoriality, buy his new book Improvised City: Architecture and Governance in Shanghai, 1843-1937!

Inside the Publishing Process: An Interview with Series Editor Paul Sutter

This year marks the 25th anniversary of our series Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books. It also marks Paul S. Sutter’s fifth year as series editor.

Here, Sutter talks with our Senior Acquisitions Editor Andrew Berzanskis about his goals for the series, how he sees environmental history changing, and offers some practical tips for authors.

Sutter is professor of history at the University of Colorado Boulder. His five books include Driven Wild: How the Fight Against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement (University of Washington Press) and Let Us Now Praise Famous Gullies: Providence Canyon and the Soils of the South (University of Georgia Press).

For those interested in the origins of the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books series, here is an account by founding series editor William Cronon.


In 2002, you published your first book, Driven Wild, in the Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books (WEB) series. William Cronon, the founding editor of the series, was editor then. How did Cronon help shape your book?  

Bill was a huge influence on my decision to choose the series. His famous wilderness essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature” had just come out, and it was a piece that refined my argument in important ways. I sent an initial email inquiry to Bill—we had met once or twice, but I’m not sure he knew who I was—and he wrote a lengthy response that quickly convinced me that working with him would be the right thing to do. The series was quite new at that point, and Bill put a lot of energy into reading and commenting on my manuscript. Driven Wild mediated the wilderness debate in a ways that I think Bill appreciated, but he also pushed me in ways that made my argument better.

2019 marks the 25th anniversary of the series. As a discipline, environmental history has blossomed. More scholars, more students, and many more publishers. What keeps Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books—a series launched in 1994—unique in 2019?

During the early years of Bill’s editorship, environmental history was a much smaller field, and one that seemed overwhelmingly U.S.-focused. In that context, the series sat at the center of a series of nature/culture debates that largely defined the second generation of environmental historiography. In the last decade or so, the field has changed in dramatic ways. Environmental history is much more international, the number of programs training graduate students has grown geometrically, and the subfields within and around the edges of environmental history have multiplied. Environmental history is a large and crowded room with many conversations going on. The series has changed with the field.

We still publish books that critically assess the historical and cultural dimensions of our current environmental crises and commitments. But the qualities that keep the series unique have more to do with how we work with authors: our commitment to careful developmental editing, our desire for books that are clearly and accessibly written and intended for a crossover audience, our commitment to producing beautiful and well-illustrated books, the work we do with authors to help them to market their books, and our author community. Perhaps nothing better symbolizes that approach than the time we spend with authors and prospective authors at the annual American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) meeting.

Why is publishing with a series different than publishing as part of a press’s regular publishing program?

In the simplest sense, publishing a book in a series helps to define the book by the company it keeps. It also helps to get the book in front of the eyes of those who pay attention to that particular book series and the field it helps to define. But perhaps the biggest advantage to a book series is the chance to work with an academic series editor who can help to shepherd the book manuscript through the publication process. Not all editors put in the effort that Bill and I have at WEB, and so even among other series I think we are unique in the editorial energy we put into the books in our series. Having an engaged series editor can also be helpful in navigating peer review.

As a series editor, how do you like to work with authors?  

Because of the energy we put into developmental editing, we usually like to work with advance contracts, which confirm our partnership with the author. I then like to work with authors on matters of big argument and framing. It is a truism that most dissertations are written to a narrow audience of specialists, and so I push authors to figure out how their book can speak to thousands of interested readers rather than dozens. That often means working with authors on their introductions first, and then the overall organization and narrative arc of their manuscripts. When the author has a fully revised manuscript ready for peer review, I will read it along with the peer reviewers and provide a thorough report that both synthesizes the external reviews and offers comments of my own. We spend a lot of time with authors, on the phone and in person.

What do you get out of serving as a series editor? What makes it personally and/or professionally rewarding?

Being the series editor at WEB is a lot of work. But I love helping authors do what Bill did for me with my first book—transforming promising manuscripts into the books that their authors want them to be. I have seen quite a few authors transform their manuscripts through careful and thoughtful revision, and I take great pride in the role that I play in those transformations. (Mine is a small role. The authors do most of the work!) I take great pride when a beautiful series book arrives in my mailbox—and even more pride when the authors feel like the results are better as a result of working with us.

You write a foreword for each book. Why is that important?

Bill described the foreword as an extended blurb, and I have tried to follow that model. The foreword is a pitch to readers and reviewers to buy or review or assign the book.

You are entering your fifth year as editor and putting your own distinctive imprint on the series. What series books are you particularly proud of and why?

This feels like asking me which of my children is my favorite. I am proud of all of the books we have published for different reasons. But I will provide an example of why I am proud of one book. A year or so ago I received an email from a legal scholar who had just reviewed Jakobina Arch’s Bringing Whales Ashore: Oceans and the Environment of Early Modern Japan. This particular scholar is an expert on contemporary legal frameworks for managing international whaling, and he found Arch’s history of whaling in Tokugawa Japan (1603-1868) as critical to contextualizing Japan’s contemporary claims that its whaling practices are traditional. Bina had worked hard to transform a masterful but somewhat narrow study into one that mattered to today’s whaling policy, and this reviewer made it clear that she succeeded.

What are the most common mistakes you see when people put together a book proposal?

I think there are several. One is the proposal that suggests that the book in question is the most important and innovative thing to come along in ages. A good proposal is humble and realistic about what it will accomplish, and respectful of the field in which it will sit. I also often read proposals that are too topical and not sufficiently thesis-driven. More than that, though, I increasingly urge authors to define not just the argument but the research problem that their book will address. A well-defined and expansive research problem will get my attention. Defining the research problem is a way of explaining why we need your book, which is a different issue than what it is about or what it will argue. Finally, I often find prospective authors to be overly optimistic about the popular appeal of their books. To reach a crossover audience, I think authors need to think deeply about which specific non-academic audiences they might realistically reach.

You see many manuscripts go through peer review. What are the most common problems identified in peer review, and how can authors avoid those same mistakes?

The most common problem, particularly for first-time authors, is that they don’t have a clear enough sense of what their book is about. That might be a strange thing to say, but often authors want their books to be about too many things. What’s the big idea/argument? How do the chapters contribute to and build towards that big idea/argument? The big idea is what disciplines a manuscript and helps to create a hierarchy of arguments, and it is not something that emerges organically. Rather, it is usually a matter of authors making tough choices.

What advice do you have for scholars trying to reach a broader audience?

First, figure out specifically who that broader audience is. Know who else might be interested in the book and speak to them. Second, get comfortable imagining your reader as an intelligent non-expert and explaining why scholars argue over the things that they do. An accessible book elegantly explains significance, constantly circling back to it. Third, develop characters if you can, and tell good stories.

I constantly urge authors to tell me the biography of their project. This forces them to go back to the moment when they decided to pursue the topic, to explain what made them passionate about it, and what it was like to know little about the book they were embarking upon. It requires them to imagine the reader opening their book for the first time and deciding whether to buy or devote their time to reading it. If you can go back to that point of initial ignorance and then explain how you proceeded to a deeper and more satisfying understanding of a topic, you can better convince your reader to want to follow along. A book that can explain the process of coming to understand a topic—rather than merely presenting the results of a deep understanding—is a book that will be more accessible.

Tell me about the first time you went to an American Society for Environmental History conference. How was it different then?

I first attended ASEH in 1993 in Pittsburgh. That was only the sixth ASEH conference ever held, and back then the conferences were biennial and much smaller. I was still a graduate student at the University of Kansas and did not have enough travel funding to afford both the flight and the hotel room. So four of us pooled our funds, rented a white Cadillac Seville, and made the 13-hour drive in style. I think the conference was at a Days Inn, and I’m not even sure if there was a book exhibit. It was tiny. I have been to every ASEH meeting since.

Where do you see the field of environmental history developing in the next 20 years? 

I will answer this in two ways. The first is that our field must directly address the big environmental problems of our moment, and many scholars are busy doing that. Where the second generation of environmental history was largely engaged with a critical assessment of nature as our field’s category of analysis, I think the current generation of scholarship will be defined by its critical engagement with the Anthropocene concept and the material environmental challenges that it encompasses.

The second is that I wouldn’t be surprised if a singular field of environmental history no longer really exists in 2040. Rather, we may see a proliferation of subfields and sub-conversations in fields such as animal history, energy history, climate history, evolutionary history, environmental justice, etc. The field of environmental history that I matured with was fundamentally shaped by the national environmental movement of the 1960s-1980s; the current generation is being shaped by global concerns about climate change and the great acceleration of human impact on the natural world.


Andrew and Paul will both be attending the American Society for Environmental History annual meeting April 10-13 in Columbus, OH. Stop by the University of Washington Press booth (#21) to meet them and to learn more about this series!