Tag Archives: Guest Post

Can Everyday Body Hair Practices Have Revolutionary Implications?

Breanne Fahs on Unshaved

Though body diversity, body acceptance, and embodied revolt have long informed feminist politics, women’s body hair removal nevertheless occurs at rates I would classify as extraordinary compliance.100Between 92 and 99 percent of women in the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and much of western Europe regularly remove their leg and underarm hair, while from 50 to 98 percent of women report that they removed some or all of their pubic hair. Women also remove their body hair at great cost: American women who shave spend in their lifetimes more than $10,000 and two months of their lives managing unwanted hair; that number increases to a full $23,000 for women who wax once or twice per month. Women throughout the world have seen increases in the mandate for women’s body hair removal. Chinese women have become targets of advertising campaigns that teach them to feel shame about their bodies, while Japanese women have become huge proponents of laser hair removal. Hair removal in India has become ubiquitous, with increased use of depilatories and laser hair removal for the chin, upper lip, underarms, cheeks, and bikini area. For German women, who were once averse to removal, 69 percent now remove their body hair. Given what is known about the influence of American television on body shaming and eating disorders in women throughout the world, one can surmise that norms of hairlessness are also being exported with equal intensity.  

Though I have studied the social norm of body hair removal for nearly fifteen years, I continue to find it remarkable that women have been so wholly convinced to adhere to a norm that is purely social and aesthetic, with no notable health or hygiene benefits.101 In fact, doctors have recently begun to urge women to reconsider removing body hair, especially pubic hair, due to the link between hair removal and adverse medical risks, including shaving injuries, lacerations, rashes, abscesses, and abrasions. They also caution about the risk of unnecessary and risky hospitalizations due to uncontrollable staph infections due to body hair removal. And yet, women who removed their body hair reported feeling cleaner, more hygienic, sexier, more attractive, smoother, and more “normal.” Most women remove their body hair not because someone else tells them to but because they want to. Most women argue that removing their body hair is their personal choice, that they enjoy it, and that they would feel “dirty” or “gross” by not removing it.

But, of course, that isn’t really the story. People do not typically make informed and rational choices about grooming, beauty, and aesthetics based on logical outcomes or careful personal analysis, and choices are not all equally choose-able. Body hair removal has become compulsory. Those nonconformists who choose to go against the grain often face great social penalties and find themselves in a condition of, at minimum, exerting effort just to be themselves. At times, they face even more severe forms of social punishment, including derogatory comments, discrimination, social isolation, harassment, threats, and assault. These are the conditions to which we subject women who defy social norms and expectations, who delineate the boundaries of their own bodies on their own terms rather than someone else’s. These are also the conditions within which people make routine, everyday choices about their bodies, as the expectations of rejection, disapproval, and social punishment become possibilities.

The story of women’s body hair removal connects at its core to the story of women’s oppression, to the insidious ways that women’s bodies are controlled, managed, shaped, restricted, constrained, and dictated by outside forces.  Hair is tangled up with a wide variety of powerful institutions that shape the choices women make about their bodies—cultural practices, institutions, formal organizations, families, workplaces, relationships, the beauty and fashion industries, governments, and capitalism, to name a few. Cultural stories about hair—particularly women’s body hair—have their roots in the fundamental belief in the gendering of subject/object relations, where women are told (and then internalize) the story that their bodies are fundamentally wrong in their natural state, and, in tandem with this, that they must alter their bodies in order to be seen as attractive, worthy of love, and inoffensive. 

Body hair is an emotional subject. In every interview I have done and in every piece I have written on this subject, my overwhelming impression is that body hair incites fervor. People feel strongly about their own hair choices and often react badly when women use body hair as a form of rebellion against the status quo. Body hair is also a tool, something that peels away the layers of the culture people live in, revealing its deeply held beliefs about rigid gender roles and normative body choices. Ultimately, body hair is also a place of possibility. It is the perfect site for exposing readers to the allure of social norms, the invisible workings of power, and the possibilities of resistance. Because everyone can relate to the subject of body hair—as we all negotiate the tiny daily choices around managing and grooming our body hair—this work serves as a springboard for more serious conversations about oppression, social identity, patriarchy, biopolitics, and power. Small aspects of our bodies have wide reverberations in the political and social landscape; more importantly, decisions about bodies matter not just to us as individuals but also to the wider political landscape. The workings of how gender operates, how the deep imprint of culture is felt in the individual’s experience of the body, and how cultural stories are made and remade, become visible when looking closely at the story of women’s body hair. And maybe, though this work is never complete, by seeing these stories more clearly, we can render them fragile and vulnerable, and we can see how easily they break apart and are remade anew. 


[100] Merran Toerien, Sue Wilkinson, and Precilla YL Choi, “Body Hair Removal: The ‘Mundane’ Production of Normative Femininity,” Sex Roles 52, no. 5-6 (2005): 399-406.

 “Women Spend up to $23,000 to Remove Hair,” UPI.com, June 24, 2008, https://www.upi.com/Health_News/2008/06/24/Women-spend-up-to-23000-to-remove-hair/64771214351618/?hsFormKey=6c236b2fe21f331cdf53ce23f1415097&ur3=1.

[101] Allison S. Glass, Herman S. Bagga, Gregory E. Tasian, Patrick B. Fisher et al., “Pubic Hair Grooming Injuries Presenting to U.S. Emergency Departments,” Urology 80, no. 6 (2012): 1187-1191.


Breanne Fahs is professor of women and gender studies at Arizona State University. She is the editor of Burn It Down!: Feminist Manifestos for the Revolution and author of Firebrand Feminism, Out for Blood: Essays on Menstruation and ResistanceWomen, Sex, and Madness: Notes from the Edge, and several other works. Her latest book, Unshaved: Resistance and Revolution in Women’s Body Hair Politics, is available now.

The Hauntings of Local History: Peter Boag on “Pioneering Death”

Admittedly, I see the world in terms of darkness rather than light, and in history as in life, I am drawn more to stories of human pathos than to tales of human triumph. I am bemused by “rosy retrospection”—the penchant of many to reflect on the positives of the past rather than on the negatives and to also, therefore, see the past as somehow better than the present.

Darkness, pathos, and the folly of rosy retrospection comprise the foundation of Pioneering Death. It tells the story of Loyd Montgomery, an impoverished eighteen-year-old who shot and killed his parents and a visiting neighbor on his family’s farm near the western Oregon town of Brownsville late on the fair autumn day of November 19, 1895. Little more than two months later, on a cool morning and just as the rising sun gilded the eastern sky above the Cascade Range, Loyd met his own end on gallows erected adjacent to the Linn County jail in the county seat of Albany.

I first became aware of the Montgomery murders when, back in the early 1980s, I began researching my own family’s history as connected to Brownsville, a community whose origins are rooted in the arrival there in the 1840s of its first white American settlers who came by way of wagons on the overland trails. When I began my work, local historians, the librarian, and museum docents who befriended me mentioned the murders. Given that the Montgomerys were among the most esteemed early American settlers of the area, when these local authorities spoke of that past tragedy, they did so more in hushed tones and as an aside to the official, celebratory “pioneer” history of that community. Clearly, Loyd’s grim tale haunted Brownsville long after it had happened. It took me close to four decades of intermittent research and unremitting reflection to figure out why.

My own digging, so-called, into the Montgomery murders began by accident on January 10, 1987. It was a dreary and rainy Saturday morning when I appeared at the Linn County Historical Museum in Brownsville to conduct research in its collections for my doctoral dissertation. That project later became my first book, and it focused on the environmental history of the southern Willamette Valley. (The reader will detect a clear pattern by now: my preoccupation with history—my need to make sense of its shadows—has taken me back time and again to Brownsville.) The gloominess of that January day and the relative darkness of the room in which I labored provided an atmosphere fitting for what I chanced upon—a photocopy of the special edition of the Brownsville Times for November 20, 1895. Its sole article is entitled “A TRIPPLE MURDER.” It was the first account of that crime to appear anywhere. It was also the one written closest to the event and by someone whose very eyes beheld the aftermath of the tragedy within hours of its commission. Sadly, only random issues from the 1890s of that newspaper are preserved. No issue among those, other than this fragment, comes from the period when the Montgomery murders otherwise lit up the headlines of papers in communities up and down the West Coast.

Albert Cavender, its writer, was the editor of the Brownsville paper. It took some time for word of the violent killings to make its way to his offices. By then, night had already fallen. But the resourceful newsman reached out to local boys—similar in age to the murderer—who, on horseback and with lanterns they must have grasped as tightly as anxiety gripped them, illuminated the way for the journalist as he headed up the country lane into this local heart of darkness. Cavender’s description of the landscape of death that he found there beguiled me—the bodies and the blood; desiccated hop vines in surrounding fields yet clinging to their poles long since the late summer harvest had ended; the Montgomery family’s forlorn and weathered house sitting beneath the sprawling limbs of an immense maple tree; and the canine companion of the neighbor-victim that took up vigil at his slaughtered master’s side, refusing to be lured from it. Those forbidding images and so many others in that two-page document bespoke the poverty, tragedy, darkness, and pathos not just of the victims and the boy murderer but of their community, the larger region, and even the nation.

Cavender’s story had nothing to do with my dissertation’s subject. But it so haunted me that I took a copy of it, promising myself that one day I would do something with it. For the next three decades and more, Loyd Montgomery became an unwelcome companion to me as I struggled to piece together who he was, what he did, how he and his violent actions fit into history, and how to craft a coherent story from it all. As it turned out, I needed those years—time spent at four universities, countless hours in the classroom, and intervals for producing three other books on quite different topics—to collect the research and, more, come to comprehend why Loyd haunted me as much as he did the community that he was more a part of than he was apart from.

Apart from rather than a part of community history is how local memory preferred it. The vast literature that exists on matricide and patricide, moreover, fortifies that construction. That is, psychology, criminology, and other social sciences that dominate parricide studies are by nature disciplines that, with rare exception, are disinterested in the larger, historical forces that I have come to understand contribute mightily to why children have more than occasionally killed their parents. Local tradition and the traditional approaches to explaining parricide had worked together—intentionally, defensively, or both—to bury the truth so deeply about Loyd that I simply needed the time and the education that time affords to unearth it.

As I excavated Loyd’s life, slowly peeling back the accumulated layers of historical and disciplinary sediments and sentiments, a much darker tale revealed itself than simply that of an isolated, though horribly gruesome anecdote. His story is really the underbelly of so many a local Oregon history (and local histories elsewhere in North America) that celebrate the “pioneer” foundations of community, state, and nation. Constructing these histories involved willfully burying the truth about the brutal, murderous, and even genocidal nature of them. But more, the violent expressions within Oregon “pioneer” families were in reality and are in the very wanton act of trying to forget them, an integral part of the story of American-settler violence against Indigenous people. The messy, unresolved, and troubling tension between the darkness of reality and the human need for rosy reflection in all this is just one of the many stories that Pioneering Death exhumes from our haunting past.


Peter Boag is professor and Columbia Chair in the History of the American West at Washington State University. He is author of Re-Dressing America’s Frontier PastSame-Sex Affairs: Constructing and Controlling Homosexuality in the Pacific Northwest, and Environment and Experience: Settlement Culture in Nineteenth-Century Oregon. His latest book, Pioneering Death: The Violence of Boyhood in Turn-of-the-Century Oregon is available now.

The Borders of AIDS by Karma Chávez

In 1983 Richard Berkowitz and Michael Callen, two gay men in their twenties, published a manual called How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach, under the guidance of Dr. Joseph Sonnabend. At this early point in the AIDS epidemic, it was unclear exactly how the disease spread—whether from a single agent or a confluence of multiple factors. Because the disease hit already-maligned groups like gay men and drug users the hardest, there wasn’t a widespread rush among medical or public health professionals to find the cause or a cure.

Sentiment among many people in the United States ranged from prejudice to rage to fear. Widespread calls to quarantine people living with AIDS first came from the evangelical right but eventually seemed like a commonsense response to some lawyers, physicians, politicians, and ordinary people, as I detail in my new book, The Borders of AIDS: Race, Quarantine, and Resistance. Gay men like Berkowitz and Callen found themselves in a situation where they alone would be tasked with helping their communities figure out how to relate to one another within the confines of this new and deadly epidemic. Although Berkowitz and Callen got some things wrong, they also got some things right. Perhaps most important, their manual was the first to recommend the use of condoms to men who had sex with other men.

As in the early years of the AIDS pandemic, the past eighteen months living with the COVID-19 pandemic have left people trying to figure out how to safely relate to others. And also like the early years of AIDS, a mix of misinformation and conflicting and constantly changing information has made navigating the social realm feel confusing and risky for many. For those who took pandemic precautions seriously and are now fully vaccinated, having the permission—at least from the CDC—to move about virtually mask-free feels strange.

Over the past several weeks, dozens if not hundreds of reports and advice columns have been published suggesting healthy ways to reenter our communities and how to reduce anxiety when heading back into the world. Such suggestions have become all the more vexing as recent reports cite preliminary research indicating that those who are immunosuppressed, including people with HIV/AIDS, cancer, organ transplants, and autoimmune diseases may not be protected by any of the existing vaccines. As one of my friends with lupus, a chronic autoimmune illness largely impacting women and especially women of color, put it, first they hoarded our hydroxychloroquine, and now the vaccines won’t protect us.

Although AIDS analogies have proliferated during the COVID-19 pandemic, at the fortieth anniversary of the medical and public recognition of AIDS, the most important lessons to learn from those early years of the AIDS pandemic in the United States have to do with how people who were most at risk and who were sick chose to protect and care for themselves and each other. In June 1983, when scientists had still not identified the cause of AIDS, a group of a dozen gay men living with AIDS at the Fifth Annual Gay and Lesbian Health Conference formed a People with AIDS advisory committee and wrote a manifesto known as “The Denver Principles.” The principles include recommendations for health professionals, all people, and people living with AIDS, and they insisted upon the rights of people living with AIDS. Several years before the formation of the famed group ACT UP—the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power—the authors of the principles insisted that people living with AIDS take the following actions:

“1. Form caucuses to choose their own representatives, to deal with the media, to choose their own agenda, and to plan their own strategies.

2. Be involved at every level of decision-making and specifically serve on the boards of directors of provider organizations.

3. Be included in all AIDS forums with equal credibility as other participants, to share their own experiences and knowledge.

4. Substitute low-risk sexual behaviors for those which could endanger themselves or their partners; we feel people with AIDS have an ethical responsibility to inform their potential sexual partners of their health status.”

Although the context differs significantly, those who are most at risk for suffering the consequences of a widespread reopening amid the still-ongoing COVID-19 pandemic would be well served taking a cue from these early AIDS activists. Moreover, in the present day, we have the benefit of decades of organizing by disability justice advocates who insist on putting those most impacted in leadership roles in decision-making, as well as demanding principles such as intersectionality, a critique of capitalism, and cross-movement organizing. Reentering society and being “open for business” are not experienced in the same way by all of us, as some of us will experience severe consequences. Listening to the most impacted people may seem an inconvenience to some, but failing to do so will likely have dire results for many.


Karma R. Chávez is associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Queer Migration Politics: Activist Rhetoric and Coalitional Possibilities. Her latest book, The Borders of AIDS: Race, Quarantine, and Resistance, is available now.

The Changes that Led to Taiwan’s “Global Moment”: Ryan Dunch and Ashley Esarey on “Taiwan in Dynamic Transition”

The Covid-19 death toll in the United States exceeds 148,000; in Taiwan this statistic is seven. Taiwan has done a better job of fighting the pandemic than South Korea, Japan, or New Zealand. Taiwan adjusted the teaching protocol for schools but never closed them. Restaurants lost business but largely remained open. Taiwan’s economy has continued to grow, as other nations face the sinking prospect of a recession.

Taiwan is having its global moment, but few can tell the tale of how this island country arrived where it is. This is unfortunate but unsurprising: Taiwan is seldom mentioned in global media reports beyond articles about its disputed sovereignty, or histrionic outbursts from Chinese diplomats seeking to bar Taiwan from observer status in the World Health Organization and other international bodies.

During five decades of Japanese colonial rule (1895–1945), Taiwan began to experience what we call the “twin transformations” of nation building and democratization. Nation building commenced during Japanese rule, when Taiwanese were united by their common culture yet marginalized as second-class citizens in their homeland. Democratization, including early forays into local electoral politics under Japan, gradually introduced new rights and freedoms for Taiwanese to campaign in local and national elections.

Nation building and democratization became interrelated concerns as Taiwan emerged in the 1980s from four decades of one-party rule under martial law. The pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, founded in 1986 in defiance of a ban on opposition parties, would eventually become one of two main political parties that have alternated in power since the first direct presidential election in 1996. Nation building and democratization changed the way Taiwanese saw their society, leading to overwhelming support for democratic life and broad recognition that their nation was Taiwan, not China.

One important reason for Taiwan’s resilience during the current pandemic is that Taiwan’s twin transformations did not occur in isolation. They proceeded alongside a public hunger for broader reforms in a range of related areas, including women’s rights, freedom of speech and association, indigenous rights, environmental justice, animal rights, abolition of the death penalty, and gay marriage, to mention but a few examples.

All of these movements involved increasingly sophisticated activism amid growing trust in government as a willing and capable partner in reshaping the country’s course. This was in part due to the pivotal leadership of recently deceased President Lee Teng-hui, who pardoned political prisoners and worked to forge consensus over reforms that converted a political system designed to rule China in the 1940s into a democratic system suited to govern Taiwan.

Over time, Taiwanese society experienced what might be called a “normalization” of non-violent contestation that touched nearly every corner of society. Consider, for example, the 2014 occupation of parliament by students opposing a Taiwan-China free trade pact. The movement won widespread public support, prompted the tabling of the agreement, and elevated the fortunes of the Democratic Progressive Party, which had supported the demonstration. In Hong Kong, by comparison, pro-democracy demonstrators have been treated as criminals, traitors, and repressed by the police. Taiwanese “Sunflower activists” were cleared of criminal charges after occupying the national legislature for over three weeks. In her May 2020 inaugural address, President Tsai Ing-wen underscored the role of Taiwan’s “mobilization culture”: She noted that “people’s dissatisfaction provides motivation for reform” and that Taiwan’s ability to overcome its many challenges wasn’t because of “one or two heroes” but because of “nameless heroes” who together “turned the great wheel of history.”

Ironically, such views of Taiwanese society seem entirely foreign in China. Politicians and military figures in Beijing ignore Tsai Ing-wen’s soaring approval ratings and belittle her political record: they have accused her government of “unilaterally” destabilizing relations by failing to express commitment to unification; urged Taiwanese to refrain from commenting on national security legislation for Hong Kong; and warned that Taiwan independence is “a road of death.”

Our book Taiwan in Dynamic Transition: Nation Building and Democratization traces how this remarkable country emerged as a resilient democratic nation, despite the absence of widespread agreement on sovereignty or democratic norms after World War II and within a political system designed to govern a different place (China). The contributors to the volume, many of them Taiwan-based academics, consider several dimensions of Taiwan’s experience of nation building and democratization, including constitutional reform, grassroots elections and social movements, and defense spending and national security.

Speaking to her compatriots at her inauguration in 2020, President Tsai argued that Taiwan’s story “pertains to everyone and requires everyone.” Taiwan in Dynamic Transition helps readers to understand the background to Taiwan’s extraordinary success during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the future security of Taiwan is uncertain, not due to internal failings but the threat of a Chinese invasion. During these uncertain and dangerous times, perhaps Tsai’s words are also true for all who respect freedom and human dignity and wish to see them flourish?


Ryan Dunch is professor of history at the University of Alberta. Ashley Esarey is assistant professor of political science at the University of Alberta. Their book Taiwan in Dynamic Transition: Nation Building and Democratization is available now.

Five Tips for Better Science Communication: Susan Hough on “The Great Quake Debate”

How can scientists best talk about the risks of natural hazards with the general public? And how can a lay reader assess debates among scientists? Susan Hough offers useful tips for both, drawing on her new book, The Great Quake Debate: The Crusader, the Skeptic, and the Rise of Modern Seismology.


Through spring of 2020, the publication process moved forward apace for The Great Quake Debate. In a sense, it might be considered a coming of age story, focusing on the chapter in time when a major metropolitan region, Los Angeles, first came to grips with a seemingly existential peril: earthquake hazard. Could the rapidly growing city—one of the leading oil-producing regions in the world—really be hit by a massive earthquake like the one that had left San Francisco in ashes not too many years earlier? The Great Quake Debate is a story complete with (putative) heroes and villains, drama and intrigue.

It is also a story with lessons for our times, in particular now that the entire world struggles to come to grips with a different mortal peril. In the early 20th century, many people had the luxury of viewing earthquake hazard as somebody else’s problem. Later science would prove them only partly right, but, indeed, earthquakes pose a real and present dangerin some places than in others. Microbes, on the other hand, do not concentrate along narrow fault lines. Potentially they reach us all. The realization dawns, that some of the lessons of The Great Quake Debate are especially relevant for our tumultuous times, including lessons for both scientists and the public regarding the business of science communication. Let me pull out five of them, three for consumers of scientific information, and two for those who disseminate it.

  1. If you want information, go to the source. As directly as possible, go to the source. When parts of The Great Quake Debate have been told before, renowned geologist Robert T. Hill has been painted as the villain, a “tool” used by local city boosters to advance their agenda. A generally well-researched earlier biography focused on the extent to which Hill was manipulated by city boosters, describing him as a victim of their machinations. The personal papers that he and others left behind tell a far more nuanced, complex story.
  2. When you are looking for scientific information, know that science has limitations. There are truths in science, and as the saying goes, science doesn’t care what you believe. But in a rapidly developing field, science can be messy. The answers might not be black-and-white, and even well-respected scientists can be wrong. In his crusade to convince the public to take earthquake hazard seriously, in 1926 protagonist Bailey Willis made public statements that southern California would likely be wrenched by a great earthquake within three to 10 years of 1926. Although many saw the 1933 Long Beach earthquake as vindication of Willis’ prophesy, the magnitude-6.4 earthquake was not the major temblor that he had predicted. Hill’s refutation of the prediction, on the other hand, drew from sound science.
  3. Listen to scientists. Wait, what? Why should anyone listen to scientists, if they might themselves be wrong? The thing is, scientists might not be right, but at any given time, their understanding is as good as it gets. Had people listened carefully to either Willis or Hill, they would have heard a debate on some key questions, but also very similar messages from both, delivered with no small degree of passion, regarding the importance of understanding earthquake hazard and taking steps to reduce earthquake risk.
  4. For those of us who are ourselves scientists, beware the perils of over-stepping what science allows us to say. Willis based his prediction on analysis of early surveying data that he should have known to be highly uncertain. Hill correctly debunked the prediction, but did make statements downplaying the severity of earthquake hazard in Los Angeles. His reassuring statements, while never dismissing hazard entirely, were based on some misperceptions of his day, for example concerning the potential severity of shaking caused by moderately large earthquakes. He, too, should have known that such statements were not well-supported by available data. The media may have amplified the message, but scientists themselves set the tone. Where science collides with public welfare and public fears, missteps in one direction can assuage fears, while missteps in the other direction can fan flames. Neither serves the public good.
  5. Sooner or later, the natural world will have the last word. Scientists can debate the severity of the perils that we face, and the need to take risk mitigation seriously. People and policy-makers can choose to heed warnings, or not. Depending on the nature of the risk, it can be expensive to heed warnings, or personally uncomfortable, or inconvenient. If worst fears are borne out, what will you wish you had done yesterday? Do it today.

 

Susan Hough is a research seismologist in Pasadena, California. Her popular-science books include Earthshaking Science: What We Know (and Don’t Know) about Earthquakes and Richter’s Scale: Measure of an Earthquake, Measure of a Man. Her latest book The Great Quake Debate: The Crusader, the Skeptic, and the Rise of Modern Seismology is available now.

 

 

 

While Making Other Plans: Ellen Waterston on “Walking the High Desert”

 

In 2012 the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) pieced together a 750-mile trail that starts at the Oregon Badlands Wilderness outside of Bend and continues to the southeastern Oregon canyonlands that flank the Owyhee River. I moved from New England to the high desert of central Oregon four decades ago. Though I now live in Bend, my love of this hardscrabble outback still informs me every day. So it’s no surprise that this new trail spoke to me, lured me back into the desert. No longer actively ranching, I decided I’d walk sections of the trail to bring attention to the ONDA’s Oregon Desert Trail especially as it underscored public and private land use issues. I would make a point of evenly and fairly presenting the conflicting points of view about repurposing open areas of public land. I prided myself that in so many ways I already knew the players: ranchers; Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, and Fish and Wildlife employees; schoolteachers in rural schoolhouses; merchants in remote outposts; American Indians on reservations in the high desert; law enforcement officials who, some years back, were kind enough to wave me on, despite my excessive speed, as I made my way along desolate Highway 20 back to the ranch with a station wagon full of fussy infants and sacks of groceries.

In 2015, I began researching and writing this A to Z examination of land use issues in the high desert. But the January 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters by an armed group of far-right extremists changed all that. Life and writing projects are what happen while you are busy making other plans. The occupation was an invitation I couldn’t refuse to broaden the scope of the book, to examine how each section of the trail, in its own unique way, underscored issues that weren’t only regional but also national, if not international, seen through the optic of the high desert—issues such as water resources, climate change, protection of environmental habitat, recreational demands on open spaces, the rural-urban divide, economic inequities, and racism in the rural West.

Writing this book has led me to love the desert even more and to deeply apprehend how fragile it is socially and environmentally. With so many new people moving into this high and dry region, just as I did before them—there needs to be a commensurate commitment to care for it. I hope this book inspires people to engage in important conversations not only about the high desert but also about how these broader and seemingly unresolvable issues manifest where each of us live. As I encountered those issues, I confess I didn’t see any chance for resolution, but by the end of the book… well, I won’t be a spoiler.

 


Ellen Waterston is author of Where the Crooked Desert Rises: A High Desert Home, a memoir, four poetry collections, and four poetry collections including a verse novel. She is the founder and president of the Waterston Desert Writing Prize and the founder of the Writing Ranch in Bend, Oregon.

Spring Dawn at Su Causeway: Xiaolin Duan on “The Rise of West Lake”

I never expected that 2020 would be shadowed by COVID-19 in both my home country and the one I am currently living in. Like many of my friends and colleagues, I have been spending more time online, joining Zoom meetings, sending messages, and reading every piece of information about this unfolding crisis.

Two news articles grabbed my attention as they mentioned the cultural site I wrote about in the book The Rise of West Lake: A Cultural Landmark in the Song Dynasty. On March 13, when the situation had somewhat stabilized in China, China Daily published an article “Hangzhou’s West Lake an idyllic spring destination.” Photos in this article show not only the willow trees that start sprouting but also sightseers strolling along the lake, all maintaining social distance measures and wearing masks (which is considered a necessary form of protection).

March has always been one of the best seasons for an outing to West Lake and long been extolled by poets and rendered by painters with emotionally charged brushes. The scenery is not much different from past years—not even from almost a thousand years ago. The willow and peach trees were planted along the causeway by the local governor Su Shi after an eleventh-century dredging project, and the Leifeng Pagoda in one photo has guarded the south end of the lake since the tenth century (the current one was rebuilt in 2002). Such scenery, however, becomes particularly precious this year. Hangzhou, like other cities in China, experienced a “stay-at-home” quarantine for the entire month of February, and major scenic sites were all closed to the public. It is not surprising that this article uses West Lake in the spring to symbolically convey the message that this is a long-awaited stabilized time; the masks in the image reveal just how much people miss the fresh air after four-weeks of self-quarantine. The lake indicates that it is now safe to go outdoors to embrace nature and represents the hope of going back to normal life. The emotion conveyed by springtime also enhances such hope. Literature and images about the lake love to portray the theme “Spring Dawn at Su Causeway,” one of the Ten Views that formed in the thirteenth century. At this moment, there is no better term than “spring dawn” to describe what people have desired during their long struggle in the dark.

Another article is about a bus that passed along the street next to West Lake that was painted with the three colors of Italy’s national flag, offering moral support for Hangzhou’s sister city, Verona. The bus exterior features both the painting of the Colosseum and the image of “Three Stupas and the Reflecting Moon,” another one of the Ten Views. The three pagodas in the middle of the lake were built by Su Shi to mark the boundary allowed for diked paddies. The practical function of these pagodas later disappeared while the scenic beauty they added to the lake became a popular theme for artistic creation. This scene also appears on the back of the one-yuan bill. Using this scenic site side-by-side with the Colosseum offers reassurance that the lake and its cultural sites are still considered as symbols for the city and Chinese culture.

Hangzhou and West Lake have long served as icons of Chinese landscape appreciation, literary and artistic expression, and tourism. During this difficult time, when people are living in fear, uncertainly, and isolation, the lake had become especially attractive and idealized. The fact that the lake welcomes visitors eases feelings of insecurity, and the iconic landscape symbolizes rapprochement with people in another country. The natural beauty of West Lake, as it has done many times throughout history, again has functioned as something comforting. Over time, writings on West Lake constructed it as a prominent landscape, consisting of stable elements such as the willow trees that always turn green in the spring and pagodas that silently yet firmly stand on the lakeshore. The “eternal” cultural tradition it conveys allows the lake to function as an anchor for identity, through which visitors and commentators have expressed their affection and a sense of hope for the country during such a scary and unknown time.

West Lake has dried up several times in history, and at times its beauty was shadowed by war and disasters. However, it could always resume its prosperity thanks to the endeavor, courage, and emotional attachment of people. Just as the lake has revived, I hope we can soon return to a time when people—in China, in the United States, and all other places—can enjoy and celebrate the natural scenery together with families and friends without worrying about social distancing.


Xiaolin Duan is assistant professor of history at North Carolina State University. The Rise of West Lake: A Cultural Landmark in the Song Dynasty is available now.

Navigating India’s Complex Legal Landscape: Jeffrey A. Redding on “A Secular Need”

Just three months ago, the novel coronavirus was a distant issue for many in India. Instead, independent India’s perennial problem of communal violence was front and center. Indeed, in late February, members of India’s ruling political party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), again engaged in communally-charged politicking, bringing their taunts and threats to the streets of India’s capital. Unsurprisingly, Muslims were the targets of these actors’ brazen bigotry, and Muslim neighborhoods and citizens were marked for death and destruction over the course of the next several days; at last count, over 50 people ended up dying in this Delhi mayhem at the beginning of 2020.

Scenes like these provide an unfortunate backdrop for my new book, A Secular Need: Islamic Law and State Governance in Contemporary India, concerning the complex and multi-sited operations of a network of non-state Muslim “courts” that has functioned in India for almost 100 years now. I put the term “courts” in scare quotes here because—as with so much concerning Muslims and Islamic legal life in contemporary India—there is a politics to this terminology. And, indeed, this is not just a book about a longstanding network of non-state Islamic legal institutions and the upstart secular state with which they interact—and sometimes supersede—but also a book about the politics of this fraught and often terrifying legal landscape. Ultimately, as I argue in my book, one has to understand the anti-Muslim discussions occurring nearly daily in India’s formal legal institutions to be on a continuum with the anti-Muslim mayhem recently witnessed on the streets of Delhi, as well as the devastating state-sponsored Muslim poverty that has been a longstanding feature of secular life in independent India.

More than an indictment, however, my book offers a sobering diagnosis of the anti-Muslim malady that consumes contemporary India. Indeed, what is often overlooked about anti-Muslim sentiment in India is that this feeling—and there is so much feeling here—is not simply about “otherizing” Muslims, but is also about “absorbing” Muslims, too. Indeed, Hindu nationalist-cum-secular thinking has, for some time now, seen Muslims as both outsiders to the Indian project, but also part of the larger “super-tolerant” Hindu fold. For example, the recent targeting of the uniquely Muslim-majority state of Kashmir by the central BJP government did not result in the expulsion of Kashmir but, rather, its radical absorption and transmutation from being a relatively autonomous State to being a centrally-administered Union territory. Here, and in many other instances too, India’s secular state has not just targeted Muslims for adverse treatment, but also drawn them in—albeit in peculiar and radical ways.

As I explain in my book, then, Indian secularism is not just a “hate project,” but is also a “love project,” and we need to bring complex tools of analysis to bear on this kind of affect-laden governance. Moreover, we have to account for how the secular state’s hate and love of—or, in other words, efforts to radically exclude and radically include—Muslims manage to simultaneously manifest. My book suggests that “secular need” is what underlies the coexistence of these discordant emotions and that, in effect, Indian secularism is in a complicated relationship of hate, love, and need with Indian Islam. Put another way, that it is the secular state’s dependence in India on non-state Islamic actors that generates this same state’s hate and love of Islam.

Across my book’s several chapters, I use a number of case studies to demonstrate the different kinds of dependencies that Indian secularism has on non-state Islamic legal actors. These various dependencies are both ideological and material in nature. To quickly preview them, they include Indian secularism’s need for non-state Islamic law and legal institutions because of a fear that this secularism may otherwise not be genuine in its tolerance. Second, Indian secularism needs non-state Islamic legal providers because of its ambivalent attachment to feminism. Put succinctly, for reasons of both internal and external legitimacy, Indian secularism needs women (and perhaps especially Muslim women) to have robust divorce options, yet Indian state courts are themselves unwilling to provide these divorce options. The “Muslim court” network focused on in my book can and does perform divorces for Muslim women. Third, Indian secularism needs non-state Islamic legal actors and institutions to intervene with disputing parties where the Indian state cannot because of the state’s alien secular qualities and, simultaneously, its fundamental anxieties about the state’s popular (il)legitimacy. Finally, the secular state needs Islamic legal actors and institutions to provide legal services because of how the Indian state is already consumed by overwhelming caseloads; these non-state legal actors help disperse dispute resolution across a broader range of capable legal actors.

This is both an exciting and perilous time to be writing on Indian secularism, and my hope is that A Secular Need can help both sustain and enrich important debates across scholars, social actors, and borders about secularism and its multiple effects, affects, and antecedents.


Jeffrey A. Redding is senior research fellow at Melbourne Law School and a New Generation Network scholar at the University of Melbourne’s Australia India Institute. A Secular Need: Islamic Law and State Governance in Contemporary India is available now.

On Stories to Which the Ending Is Already Known: Eric Wagner on “After the Blast”

In 2018, I published a book about some penguins in Argentina that are near and dear to my heart, and as a result I did a number of book talks hither and yon. Once people had run out of questions about the penguins during the Q&As, someone would often ask what else I was working on.

“I’m writing a book about Mount St. Helens,” I would say.

“Oh, interesting,” the person would say, and then they would pause. “So what are you going to say about it that’s new?”

“Umm…” I would say. At that point I was two years into my research for the book that ultimately became After the Blast: The Ecological Recovery of Mount St. Helens. I was driving out to Mount St. Helens as often as I could, talking to the hordes of scientists who either worked there or had worked there in the past, reading dozens of their books and papers about the ways life around the mountain had responded to the 1980 eruption. All the information was new, at least to me, and I was struggling to wrap my head around it. As such, it was all I could do not to shoot a dirty look at the questioner and say something tart.

But I also understood where they were coming from. Truth be told, I had asked the same question myself. I grew up in Oregon a few hours from Mount St. Helens, and was familiar with the standard tale of the eruption, which went something like: Mount St. Helens erupted and left a moonscape behind, but then life came back more quickly than anyone expected. All of this had made me a little hesitant at first to pursue the project. I wondered whether I had anything new to say about a space already so well known.

Once I started reading and talking to folks, though, it was soon clear to me just how mistaken I had been to assume everything worth knowing about Mount St. Helens was known. Yes, life had come back more quickly than anyone expected. But just how it came back was fascinating, and full of fun, quirky details—of spiders ballooning into the blast area within hours of the eruption, of toads and fish that survived because they were drifting in icebound lakes, of a deep snowpack that was a savior for plants in one area but a killer in another, of flowers that showed up in the middle of desolate plains, giving them color. I loved learning all those little stories embedded within the one larger tale.

Exploring the relationship between people and Mount St. Helens was eye-opening as well; for notice how people are kind of left out of that standard tale. But our fingerprints are all over the landscape. Within weeks of the eruption, people were clamoring to replant large swaths of the landscape with thousands of fir seedlings. In other places, people scattered tons of flower and grass seed from helicopters in an effort to prevent erosion. (It didn’t really work, for what it’s worth.) Everyone was doing what they thought was best—some trying to reassert the human hand over the land, others arguing to let life find its own way. All those actions would help shape the biological community that thousands of visitors see when they go to the mountain. The blast area today is a reflection of those competing desires: to intervene and sculpt, to step back and watch.

Overall, the main thing I learned while writing this book was the degree to which the landscape at Mount St. Helens is still very much alive. I feel lucky to have been able to spend so much time on the mountain, hiking all over it with scientists who could reveal its beauty to me and explain it. They could not stop talking about how dynamic the environment was. Even now, forty years after the 1980 eruption—as I am writing these words—the landscape is continuing to change in unexpected ways. So what’s new at Mount St. Helens? Read the book and find out just how much!


Eric Wagner earned a PhD in biology from the University of Washington, writes regularly about animals and the environment, and is author of Penguins in the Desert and coauthor of Once and Future River: Reclaiming the Duwamish. He climbs Mount St. Helens annually. After the Blast: The Ecological Recovery of Mount St. Helens is available now. Now through May 15th, all University of Washington Press titles are 40% off on our website.

Guest Post: Mark Stuart Ong on His Mother Jade Snow Wong’s Legacy

The new edition of Fifth Chinese Daughter by Jade Snow Wong includes a new introduction by Leslie Bow, Professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of ‘Partly Colored’: Asian Americans and Racial Anomaly in the Segregated South. Prior to the book’s publication in the fall of 2019, Jade’s son Mark Stuart Ong sent Professor Bow a letter that gave more insight into his mother, especially in the context of Leslie’s introduction and the legacy of Jade Snow Wong’s book. The following is a reproduction of Mark’s letter, with permission from its author.


Dear Leslie,

Your introduction reminded me of Rashomon. Nothing remains of that Kyoto gate except for a stone marker. The site reveals nothing about the story. In the same way, it’s hard to find a single narrative about Jade Snow Wong. However, her book is a gate and it still stands.

My mother grew beyond the young woman in Fifth Chinese Daughter. Over a sixty-year career, she balanced service to her parents and mother-in-law, her role as a wife and mother, her artistic goals, and her multi-pronged career. She also had to face how Chinatown and the world changed decade by decade.

The response to Fifth Chinese Daughter and her pottery may have been tainted with murky issues—racial stereotyping, fascination with Asia in the mid-twentieth-century, the reception of Asian American women (as opposed to the men), and the popularity of the memoir. You described scholars who felt that Jade Snow Wong packaged Chinatown and her family for white America. They accused her editor, Elizabeth Lawrence, of fostering a book that supported white stereotypes. Those opinions weren’t based on any facts of my mother’s life. Fifth Chinese Daughter expresses its author’s truth.

I’d especially like to address three areas: the authenticity of her name, the complex meaning of Chinatown, and the role her husband played.

The Name Jade Snow Wong

My mother’s given name was Jade Snow Wong ( 黃玉雪). Each of her ceramic bowls was incised with the ideograph jade, 玉, when the clay was still soft. Her name was an indelible part of her work.

Some have portrayed her use of the third-person as false modesty, but they are not looking at the dilemmas of a second-generation Chinese woman born in 1922 to a nineteenth-century father. The curtain she drew over many aspects of her family life—such as the existence of the first wife (a woman she never knew and who likely wasn’t mentioned often)—was a necessary decision for her. Her Chinese name was her passage between a Chinese home and an American arena. It enabled her to talk about the hermetic world of Chinatown without bringing embarrassment or shame, and it allowed her to be modest before her parents and glamorous before her audience. She steadfastly maintained a distinction between public and private all her life.

San Francisco Chinatown

Chinatown is not homogeneous, its residents depend on the outer world for income, and much of Chinatown functions as a tourist attraction. Grant Avenue could mean the glamor of the Imperial Palace Restaurant that hosted Hollywood and political celebrities. It could be the street where Jade Snow Wong went shopping on a nearly daily basis, saying hello to various people to whom she was distantly related. It could be the place of gang shootings. Fifth Chinese Daughter was Jade Snow Wong’s view of her own home community.

My mother was keenly interested in the differences between Chinese and American culture. She habitually tried to parse those differences during conversations. As much as people might imagine her as a guide to Chinese culture, she also performed the opposite role. She took my grandmothers to medical appointments, interceded when relatives had trouble interacting with the American world, and helped immigrant Chinese get established in the United States. She was an intermediary on both sides of Chinatown’s borders.

Woodrow Ong

My father was born in 1916. His Chinese name was Deng Huazhan (鄧華湛). I live with his ceramics and his silversmithing, and I wonder what happened in the years before I was born. At first, he tried to be an artist along with my mother. If he had intended to make a career as a craftsperson, it didn’t happen. He gradually sublimated himself to my mother—mastering metal spinning to make the copper forms she enameled, keeping the books and managing the business, and acting as a salesperson. When my parents were offered the chance to become travel agents and lead tours to Asia, my mother hoped that might allow my father to have his own role in business. The denouement of that came in the last month of my father’s life. He demanded that my mother learn all the aspects of the business—the accounting and banking, getting accreditation with the airlines, and writing plane tickets. It was overwhelming and it added to her grief. When you met her in 1987, my father had been dead a mere two years. As I wrote to you before, she said: “Every day since Woody has died has been drudgery.”

Some part of Jade Snow Wong’s success was due to the way Chinese American women are seen in American society. Some part of Woody Ong’s disappointment was due to the way Chinese American men are torn down in American society. My father long endured being called “Mr. Jade Snow Wong.” I cannot gauge how much he suppressed his own ambitions or swallowed his own disappointment. I look at his ceramics and his silver pieces and wonder what he would have been if his hopes had also been rewarded.

What’s Worth Saving?

From childhood, every authority figure—parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, ministers, teachers, and shop owners—declared the same rule to me: “You are forever Chinese. Don’t bring shame to your people. Preserve Chinese culture. Don’t try to change it.”

What do we keep of our Chinese American heritage? We may not be able to preserve Chinatown as a distinct neighborhood. Most of the people mentioned in Fifth Chinese Daughter, as well as its author, are dead. China itself has modernized and Chinese immigration to the United States is drastically different from the 1950s. In the ensuing years, I hope that readers realize that Jade Snow Wong is her true name and identity, that Chinatown is a living community, and that it often takes loyalty and support for a person to be successful.

Jade Snow Wong’s bowls remain and her book will be here for future readers. They will still find a deeply human story in Fifth Chinese Daughter. In the Rashomon din, we should especially give room to Jade Snow Wong’s own voice. I appreciate your effort to preserve her work.

Yours,

Mark


Mark Stuart Ong is Jade Snow Wong’s eldest son. He is a book designer, art director, and publishing consultant living in San Francisco.