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Archive for the 'Author Interview' Category

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

Interview with Rebecca Walkowitz, author of Born Translated

Born Translated, by Rebecca Walkowitz

“For a long time, we’ve assumed that all books begin in one language, often called a ‘native language,’ and then travel out to other languages. This is how we’ve expected ‘world literature’ to work. But today, many books begin in several languages—they start as world literature…”—Rebecca Walkowitz

In Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature, Rebecca L. Walkowitz argues that translation should be understood as the engine rather than the caboose of literary history. She analyzes the ways in which contemporary novelists such as J. M. Coetzee and Jamaica Kincaid incorporate the themes, forms, structure, and visual devices of translation in their works to tell this story.

Question: What is a “born-translated” novel?

Rebecca Walkowitz: I call some contemporary novels “born-translated” because they have been published simultaneously, or almost simultaneously (within a few weeks or months), in several different languages. For a long time, we’ve assumed that all books begin in one language, often called a “native language,” and then travel out to other languages. This is how we’ve expected “world literature” to work. But today, many books begin in several languages—they start as world literature—and this is especially true for novels that are written in English. In my book, I am interested in how Anglophone novels have begun to reflect on this situation, embedding their existence as translated works into the stories they tell and even into their structure and style.

Q: How does this affect the way contemporary novels are written?

RW: From the perspective of fiction-writing, the fact that novels will appear in translation right away has changed the way writers use language. Kazuo Ishiguro has talked about his efforts to design his books around structure and narrative architecture rather than around individual phrases or puns. David Mitchell’s novels often tell us about the presence of foreign languages on the page rather than representing them directly (through direct quotation or inflected dialogue). We can see in Ishiguro’s and Mitchell’s novels a focus on narrating languages—describing their relationship to other languages, explaining how they circulate and who can use them, observing which characters understand them and which don’t—rather than a focus on playing with them or reproducing their characteristics on the page. Ben Lerner has noted that his novel Leaving the Atocha Station, about a young American’s experience of learning Spanish in Madrid, emphasizes the encounter with a language one does not understand rather than the “surface effects” of that language. In Jamaica Kincaid’s work, the reader is asked to think about the words they are not reading, because they have been spoken or thought by someone who does not have access to literacy or publication. These novels represent the different ways that characters speak English and other languages by explaining those differences, by telling us about the historical and political conditions of language education, and by developing generic, syntactical, and visual cues that can communicate multilingualism in multiple languages.

(more…)

Thursday, July 16th, 2015

Women’s Rights Around the World

The Hillary Doctrine

“Decades of research reveal that the subjugation of women is directly linked with state and non-state armed violence. When women are left out of peace building—as in Iraq, Afghanistan and South Sudan—the likelihood of a country sliding back into armed violence increases dramatically.” — Valerie M. Hudson and Patricia Leidl

This week our featured book is The Hillary Doctrine: Sex and American Foreign Policy, by Valerie M. Hudson and Patricia Leidl, with a foreword by Swanee Hunt. In this post, we have excerpted parts from two pieces that have recently appeared in the World Politics Review: first, an interview with Patricia Leidl about government responses to crime against women in Latin America; and second, an article by Leidl and Valerie M. Hudson on the status of women’s rights in Yemen.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of The Hillary Doctrine!

Latin America: “Latin America’s Uneven Response to Growing Violence Against Women”
An interview with Patricia Leidl

WPR: What has prompted the recent public outcry against violence against women in Latin America?

Patricia Leidl: The “recent” outcry over violence against Latin American women is in fact not recent at all. Since the early 1990s, human and women’s rights defenders have been raising the alarm over steadily climbing rates of gender-based violence in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, with the sharpest increases beginning in 2006 and escalating by as much as 21 percent each year. In South America, human rights observatories have likewise reported steadily rising rates of violence against women—but most particularly in Brazil, Bolivia and Colombia. According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, of the 25 countries that are home to the highest femicide rates in the world, more than half are located in Latin America.

It is perhaps no coincidence that many of these Latin American countries were embroiled in the “dirty wars” of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. These wars were characterized by the proliferation of small arms and extreme and systematic violence against women, which many scholars now believe set the stage for today’s epidemic of femicide. Human rights activists also speculate that women’s greater economic independence—in the form of low-paying and unskilled factory jobs in the wake of free trade agreements with North America, Asia and Europe—could be contributing to a climate of violence against women in a region whose culture of “machismo” traditionally relegates women to the domestic sphere. (more…)

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

Interview with Matthew Smith, author of Another Person’s Poison: A History of Food Allergy

“Do we really need to eat peanuts at AC/DC concerts? Of course not. We accommodate our society to be more livable for other vulnerable people, so I don’t see why we can’t for the severely allergic.”—Matthew Smith

The following is an interview with Matthew Smith, author of Another Person’s Poison: A History of Food Allergy

Question: What is a food allergy?

Matthew Smith: Well, that depends on who you ask. Allergy was originally defined in 1906 by Austrian pediatrician as “any form of altered reactivity,” a broad definition if there ever was. Early food allergists—and many still today—embraced this definition and described a wide variety of reactions to food, ranging from asthma and eczema to migraine headaches and hyperactivity, as allergy. More conservative allergists, however, chose to limit their definition of allergy to instances in which evidence of the immune system reacting against a foreign substance could be proven definitively. Since this is difficult to do for many food allergies, they believed that food allergy was much less common than their food allergists colleagues. Debates about this precise definition have fueled debates about food allergy for over a century.

Q: Do you have any food allergies?

MS: No, not a one. My children seem to get hives if they eat too many strawberries and my wife is allergic to penicillin, but I am, thankfully, food allergy-free. Unlike my previous books on hyperactivity, where I had a strong, personal connection to the topic, I was drawn to the history of food allergy primarily because it is so fascinating. I loved learning about immunology, not least because it is such a deeply personal facet of human physiology. On the surface, we all have immune systems that protect us from the same sorts of pathogens that we encounter in the environment. But at a deeper level, immunology is all about how the body distinguishes self from non-self, as Nobel Laureate Frank Macfarlane Burnet put it. For most people, the immune system sees food as “self” and takes no interest. But for the allergic, food is perceived as “non-self,” a threat that must be countered at all costs. The meaning of it all is bemusing, but also compelling.

Q: Why are rates of food allergy, and especially peanut allergy, increasing?

MS: No one knows. Many hypotheses have been put forth, but none have been conclusively proven, let alone explored in much depth, unfortunately. A few seem more plausible than others. If you think of when von Pirquet defined allergy, this was a time when children were getting vaccinated against once endemic infectious diseases and when improvements in water quality and sanitation mean that people weren’t habitually infected with helminthic parasites (worms). Perhaps with less to cope with, immune systems turned to something else. Similarly, the hygiene hypothesis speculates that children grow up in overly hygienic environments, meaning that their immune systems aren’t exposed to as many pathogens as before. More controversial theories implicate the peanut oil found in some vaccines and environmental pollutants. Of course, genetics play a role, too. I suspect that many factors are at play, as they are in other chronic conditions, but also believe that we need to spend more time investigating them.

(more…)

Monday, June 1st, 2015

Jeffrey Sachs Discusses “The Age of Sustainable Development” on Charlie Rose

Last week, Jeffrey Sachs appeared on Charlie Rose to discuss his new book The Age of Sustainable Development and the urgent need for global action on climate change:

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

An interview with Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, Author of Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett

Theatre and Evolution, Kirsten Shepherd-Barr

The following is an interview with Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, author of Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett:

Question: What initially struck the connection between the theatrical arts and evolutionary theory? What specifically drew you to evolutionary theory as a lens?

Kirsten Shepherd-Barr: I had written about it before for my book Science on Stage in 2006, where I devoted each chapter to an area of science, such as physics, evolution, math, medicine, etc. After I finished it, the chapter I really wanted to pursue in a lot more depth was the one on evolution. Then around 2009 everyone was gearing up for the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species and Darwin’s 200th birthday so there was this massive worldwide interest in Darwin. I was asked to do a panel on “Darwin and the Theater” for the International Darwin Festival in Cambridge. I brought together two playwrights and a neuroscientist who had been a theater director earlier in his career. I did a lot of research for the panel and it revealed to me how much there was to still delve into. And the other piece of the puzzle was that I had come across fantastically interesting books on Darwin and the novel, but nothing on Darwin and drama. It struck me that there was so much to say about theater and evolution and it became very clear to me that it was going to go way beyond Darwin. It’s not just a 19th century phenomenon, either; it’s looking over the past 200 years at evolutionary theory’s development.

At the festival in Cambridge, there was a wonderful exhibition on Darwin and the visual arts. They had mounted these huge canvases by famous painters of wildlife and scenes of survival and great drama in the natural world. There was a kind of underlying message there, a more oblique engagement with Darwin, not necessarily obvious, but doing it in a more subtle way. You have to sniff it out. It’s not necessarily going to be this overt reference to Darwin. It’s about the texture of the play rather than the direct references.

Q: What does theatre specifically ask from evolution that establishes a relationship different from other art forms?

KSB: The number one thing that struck me in the broader field in literature and science is that generally there is a sense that George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and other novelists of the time had a real understanding of Darwin’s work and incorporated it in a more or less positive way. There is almost the opposite reaction in theater. The plays I was studying tended to be questioning. There was much more probing skepticism going on. Why would that be? Theater is a live art form. And the potential there in terms of evolution is just so great. You’re putting a human body on stage, a physical signifier of evolution. When you stick an actor on stage you’re signaling physiological processes that all humans have in common. You have an evolutionary process in front of you. Evolution is such a long-term 19th century spectacle, you have these huge dramatic scenes, waterfalls on stage even, and they are all part of a larger process.

In many ways my real starting point is the discoveries of Lyell, whose work Darwin was reading during his voyage on the Beagle, seeing the things he’s reading about. He is absorbing this concept of deep time and is then incorporating that as he formulates his own evolutionary ideas. The connection is this idea of the spectacle, particularly seen in British theaters in the mid-19th century, where effects, machinery, sophisticated and ambitious stagings, displaying natural settings like waterfalls, are pointing to what’s going on in the sciences, telling us the earth is much older than we thought. There really has to be a connection there, it’s not a coincidence.

(more…)

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

An Interview with Nessa Carey, Author of “Junk DNA”

Junk DNA, Nessa Carey

The following is an interview with Nessa Carey, author of Junk DNA: A Journey Through the Dark Matter of the Genome:

Question: Junk DNA explores the massive amount of excess DNA that do not directly create genes and make up proteins. Your last book, The Epigenetics Revolution focused on all of the different influences that can affect our genome as it is being written. Would you say you have a fascination with the imperfectness or the vulnerability of our own biology?

Nessa Carey: I think what I am drawn to are the areas of biology that are ambiguous. The ambiguity is both in terms of the biology itself, but also in how we view it. So I love that epigenetics is a discipline that takes us aware from genetic determinism and into situations where the genome can be affected by the environment but also by random fluctuations. With junk DNA I like that there is a vast network of subtly interacting factors that work together but are very hard to predict. But I am also drawn to what these areas tell us about the way scientists think—particularly how we create terms to describe things of which we have a very incomplete understanding, and then we get trapped in defending these inappropriate terms.

Q: In Junk DNA, you write that only 2% of our DNA is devoted to coding amino acids while the rest is “junk.” You ask the question, “What on earth is the other 98% doing?” Is this question and its prospect of the unknown ever terrifying to you? Or is it one that simply fuels more curiosity?

NC: That’s the fun bit. When I was choosing what to specialize in for my degree—biochemistry, microbiology or immunology—I chose immunology because it was the topic where my questions most often got the response of “we don’t know”.

(more…)

Monday, April 20th, 2015

A Post for 4/20: Peter Maguire and Mike Ritter Discuss Pot Smuggling

In recognition of 4/20, we are re-posting Peter Maguire and Mike Ritter’s appearance on HuffPost Live to discuss their book Thai Stick: Surfers, Scammers, and the Untold Story of the Marijuana Trade In the interview, Maguire and Ritter discuss drug smuggling in Thailand in the 1960s and 1970s. Also joining them was Jim Conklin, the DEA agent who busted Mike Ritter for smuggling.

As the three explained, surfers began smuggling marijuana from Thailand but in relatively small quantities, driven by a spirit of adventure as much as a thirst for profit. Initially, neither Thai or U.S. officials paid much attention to the smugglers, who were generally nonviolent and “laid-back”. It was only later in the 1970s when professional criminals became involved and the amounts began to grow that the drug crackdown began.

After discussing this fascinating history, the three consider current drug policy and the dangers of synthetic opiates:

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

Interview with Phyllis Birnbaum, author of “Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy,” Part 2

Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy

The following is part one of our interview with Phyllis Birnbaum, author of Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: The Story of Kawashima Yoshiko, the Cross-Dressing Spy Who Commanded Her Own Army:

Q: Why begin with Yoshiko’s execution?

Phyllis Birnbaum: I didn’t want to tell Yoshiko’s story chronologically, that is, I didn’t want to write she was born, she went to school, she grew up, she died etc. I wanted to be able to jump back and forth in time, and also wanted to digress to other side issues–about what was happening in Manchuria at the time; about Emperor Puyi; about Saga Hiro, the Japanese woman married to Puyi’s brother. So telling readers about Yoshiko’s death at the very beginning is a kind of announcement that the biography is not going to be told in a “this happened, then this happened” style.

Also, as a beginning to a book, her execution is dramatic and, hopefully, catches the reader’s attention!

Q: What was Yoshiko’s attitude towards her own fame? (more…)

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

Interview with Phyllis Birnbaum, author of “Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy,” Part 1

Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy

The following is part one of our interview with Phyllis Birnbaum, author of Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy: The Story of Kawashima Yoshiko, the Cross-Dressing Spy Who Commanded Her Own Army:

Q: How does Yoshiko Kawashima’s life inspire such divergent, polarizing views?

Phyllis Birnbaum: Yoshiko spent her life shuttling between China and Japan, and even now her reputation is very different in these two countries; this is all the result of Yoshiko’s activities during the Second Sino-Japanese War. For the Chinese, she is still held up as a case of all-purpose evil, a traitor who schemed against China and caused damage that can never be forgotten. To this day, they blame her for starting a war in Shanghai and for otherwise assisting the Japanese occupation. They emphasize the lurid sides of her biography, pointing to the alleged childhood rape by her adoptive father as the cause of an unquenchable sexual thirst and full-scale perversion.

For Japanese, her story takes on another look entirely. In Japan, she is accepted as almost one of their own since she spent much of her youth in the country. Therefore, in Japan, they take a more wistful view of Yoshiko’s escapades. The Japanese emphasize her psychological problems—childhood woes, abandonment, solitude. The Japanese tend to forgive her wartime activities and don’t dwell on the rape rumors. They see Yoshiko as a pitiable character, wronged over and over, by her birth father, her adoptive father, the entire Japanese military establishment, and other males who took advantage of her beauty and her daring.

Q: Part of the difficulty of portraying Yoshiko seems to lie in her own affinity for toying with the truth and fabricating myths. Which traits did she tend to emphasize?

PB: Yoshiko made up different stories about herself at different times of her life. Her disregard for the truth must bring despair to the heart of any biographer. In one particularly outrageous interview, she showed such a stupendous disregard for the facts that she called into question every word she had ever uttered about her personal history. Gall unremitting, falsehoods pouring forth, Yoshiko told about how she was the daughter of the last emperor of China and had been “disguised as a boy to save her from Chinese revolutionists who went to Japan to seek her life.” She was shot three times in the Shanghai Incident and “was carried away as dead, but miraculously recovered.” Her parents were killed in the Chinese revolution of 1911, and her brothers drowned or were poisoned or stabbed. She added that she piloted airplanes, was an ace with a pistol and rifle, could write magazine articles, played musical instruments, sewed, painted, and composed Japanese poetry. Also, she was ready to assume leadership of China, if summoned.

Yoshiko’s embellishments, taken together with the wild newspaper accounts about her during her lifetime, would make the work of tracking down the facts hard enough, but there’s also the 1933 best-selling Japanese novel based on her life that many people—including the judges at her trial for treason—took as her real life story. In many people’s minds, the fictional heroine was the real-life Yoshiko. To make matters worse, Yoshiko also liked to promote this idea that she and her fictional self were identical, putting more distance between herself and the truth.

Since I wanted to write a biography, not a novel, I wanted to stick to the hard facts when available, and when these were impossible to find, I tried to show what was known, what was a fabrication, and what was somewhere in between. That way, readers, along with me, could try to figure what belonged to myth and what really happened.

(more…)

Thursday, March 26th, 2015

Kimerer LaMothe on Why We Dance

Why We Dance

The following is an interview with Kimerer LaMothe, author of Why We Dance: A Philosophy of Bodily Becoming:

Why did you write this book?

Kimerer LaMothe: I love to dance, every day. It is vital for my wellbeing. And when I scan the landscape of human life, I see dance everywhere—in the earliest human art, the oldest forms of culture, and in every culture around the world into the present. Yet in the maps of and for human life that comprise the philosophy, theology, and religious studies of the modern west, dance occupies a surprisingly small space. Rarely do authors consider dancing as vital to human life, especially to a human’s religious life. I wanted to change that.

How did you decide to approach this problem?

KLL: Before beginning this book, I spent years delving into written works of the western canon, trying to identify the intellectual moves that make it nearly impossible for a given philosopher or theologian to affirm dance as a medium of religious experience and expression. I looked for exceptions. I looked for thinkers who were willing to consider dance as more than just a metaphor, or more than just a crude alternative to the “finer” arts or “higher,” more cerebral forms of religion.

The problem went deeper than I thought. The bias against dance in the western tradition is not simply evidence of a mind/body problem, a fear of sexuality, or a patriarchal devaluing of the feminine per se. Rather, the challenge for dance is rooted in the fact that that the tradition’s dominant structures and patterns of thinking express and reinforce the lived experience of people who have spent years training themselves to read and write. Much of western thought is an apology for the life of a book-bound mind.

While this trajectory of cultural development has enabled tremendous advances in numerous realms, it is less helpful when it comes to making sense of why humans always have and continue to dance.

In order to show how dance is vital to our humanity, I realized that I would have to retell the story of what it means to be a human being from the lived experience of dancing. I would have to tell a story in which bodily movement appears as the source and telos of human life.

Fortunately, across disciplines, researchers and scientists are discovering what many dancers have known and practiced for years: that bodily movement is essential to the biological, emotional, spiritual, and ecological development of human persons. Thus, when I set out to write this book, I had a lot of material on which to draw in making my case.

(more…)

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

Sandra Fahy on North Korea and the Impact of Famine

Sandra Fahy, Marching Through Suffering

“This fact, that they use humor and wordplay, directly challenges the notion that [North Koreans] are all brainwashed victims.”—Sandra Fahy

Earlier this Fall, North Korea News interviewed Sandra Fahy about her book Marching Through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea, which we just published. It’s a fascinating interview in which Fahy describes some of the challenges of studying North Korea, particularly given her background in anthropology. Obviously not able to talk to people living in North Korea, Fahy spoke with recent defectors to learn about how North Koreans make sense of their world.

Fahy points out that the famine in North Korea has not produced the kind of social upheaval some policymakers thought might happen. She argues that famine rarely does cause these kinds of monumental change, however, she was surprised by the lack of anger on the part of North Koreans:

When I was conducting the research I was surprised by something: I had expected North Koreans would have been angry, annoyed, judging of the state for failing to provide food for them (as it promised to do).

They were angry after the fact, in South Korea and China, but when I asked them to recollect their lives in North Korea they did not have anger toward the state then. They did not see the triage of resources toward the military, toward the capital, as unfair. Rather “that’s just the way it was”—this kind of banal rationalization that was unusual to me.

I believe my most important findings are these: first of all, we should not presume that those who defect are always and necessarily the worst off. Many still hold the memory of Kim Il Sung highly, while demonizing Kim Jong Il.

(more…)

Wednesday, March 25th, 2015

Interview with Michael Glover Smith, Co-Author of “Flickering Empire (Part 2)

Flickering Empire, Michael Glover Smith and Adam Selzer

The following is the second part of our interview with Michael Glover Smith, co-author of Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry. (You can read part 1 here.)

Question: Oscar Micheaux also was part of Chicago’s film history. In what ways was Chicago important for the development of African-American or “race” movies?

Michael Glover Smith: A lot of the early films dealing with race offer “comical” racial stereotypes that are offensive. Even the first Essanay film, An Awful Skate, features a white actor in blackface makeup. William Foster, an enterprising African-American theater manager, founded the first black-owned film production company in 1910. Foster has been quoted as saying, “Nothing has been done so much to awaken race consciousness of the colored man in the nation as the motion picture. It has made him hungry to see himself.” In addition to the earliest shorts by the Foster Photoplay Company, Chicago was home to many other early “race films,” including Peter P. Jones’s The Slacker in 1917 and Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates in 1919. The latter, which we discuss at length in our book’s post-script, is the earliest surviving feature film directed by an African American. It’s not only a great film, it’s a rare and invaluable document of black American culture from that era.

Q: As you mention in the book, Chicago played a role in the censorship of films. What was the legacy of Major M.L.C. Funkhouser in determining what Americans saw at the movies?

MGS: Learning about the role of Chicago’s censorship board in doing research for the book was really eye-opening. The local censorship board, under the auspices of Funkhouser, was actually stricter than the national censorship board. There are a lot of fascinating and funny stories about the board and so that ended up becoming an entire chapter in our book. Funkhouser was reactionary in harshly censoring sex, violence and political content deemed inflammatory but he was also a politically corrupt hypocrite who would throw parties and screen the naughty bits that he had ordered cut from the films. He also allowed the Chicago Tribune to print descriptions of scenes that had been censored, which resulted in him getting favorable publicity from that particular paper. He was quite a character.

Q: So, what happened? What explains the decline of the Chicago film industry?

MGS: There were a complex combination of factors that resulted in the decline of Chicago’s film empire. But, basically, it can be reduced to: 1) the two major Chicago studios were part of the Motion Picture Patents Corporation (or MPPC), a trust that Edison had established in an attempt to monopolize the industry; this trust was sued and forced to disband by the U.S. Justice Department in 1913, 2) most of the independent (i.e., non-MPPC) filmmakers had fled to southern California in order to make movies as far away from Edison and his patent-enforcing “Goon Squad” as possible and 3) the weather and geography of southern California were ultimately deemed more conducive to year-round shooting than Chicago.

(more…)

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015

Interview with Michael Smith, co-author of “Flickering Empire”

Interview with Michael Smith, co-author of

“A lot of innovations came out of Chicago. There were a lot of ‘famous firsts’ for the American film industry and for movies as an art form—including the first pseudo-documentaries, the first two-reeler, the first slapstick comedy to feature a ‘pie-in-the-face-gag….’”—Michael Glover Smith

The following is part 1 of our interview with Michael Glover Smith, co-author of Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry:

Question: Why does Chicago get left out of the history of early cinema in America?

Michael Glover Smith: The story of American film production begins in New York and New Jersey (where Thomas Edison was headquartered) in the late 19th century. Hollywood didn’t really become the nation’s film-producing capital until about 1915. All official histories are somewhat reductive and I think it’s been convenient for scholars and historians to just skip over the story of Chicago’s contributions to film history, which mainly occurred in in the late 1900s and early 1910s. Even though the contributions of Chicago filmmakers were enormous by any objective standard, it was a fairly narrow window of time when the film industry in Chicago was at its peak and, also, the vast majority of Chicago-made films of that era no longer exist. They’ve been destroyed or lost and it’s never been fashionable to write about films that people can’t see.

Q: How does Chicago’s role in the development change the way we think about the history of movies in America?

MGS: I think a lot of innovations came out of Chicago. There were a lot of “famous firsts” for the American film industry and for movies as an art form—including the first pseudo-documentaries, the first two-reeler, the first slapstick comedy to feature a “pie-in-the-face-gag,” the first films made by African-American directors, etc. We give a rundown in the introduction to the book. It’s entirely possible that movies as we now know them would look very different if not for the contributions of studios like Essanay and Selig-Polyscope and also the independent filmmakers (especially the aforementioned black directors).

Q: What was the role of the 1893 Columbia Exhibit in popularizing film in Chicago and the rest of the country?

MGS: The World’s Fair of 1893 had an enormous influence on the developing film industry. There were several important prototypical movie-exhibition devices that premiered there—including Eadweard Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope and Otto Anschutz’s Tachyscope. A lot of the early Chicago filmmakers went to the Fair and were inspired to start making films based on what they saw.

(more…)

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

Interview with James Davis, author of “Eric Walrond,” Part 2

James Davis, Eric Walrond

The following is the second half of our article with James Davis, author of Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean. You can read part 1 here.

Question: One of the more fascinating aspects of your biography are your descriptions of Walrond’s youth in Panama during the building of the canal. How did this episode shape Walrond and how does the Panama of this period fit in with the larger story of the Transatlantic Caribbean in the first half of the twentieth-century?

James Davis: Walrond described himself as “spiritually a native of Panama,” despite having spent his childhood in Guyana and Barbados. Panama during the construction of the Canal (1904-1914) was at once a new frontier for a United States eager to consolidate power in the hemisphere and an extraordinarily diverse contact zone in which laborers and their families from the entire Caribbean region converged. Panama attracted people from other parts of the world, to be sure, but economic precariousness in the Caribbean led to emigration in large numbers.

The U.S. occupation imported to the Canal Zone a Jim Crow form of racial segregation, which introduced an acute form of race consciousness many West Indians had not felt previously, despite living in European colonies with perceptible hierarchies of color. Walrond was among those for whom life in Panama compelled a new self-understanding as a West Indian (rather than, more parochially, a Barbadian, Jamaican, Trinidadian, etc.) and as a Negro. Recall that outside of the United States, the most successful branches of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association emerged in Panama, where the imprint of white command was stark, and in neighboring Costa Rica, where the United Fruit Corporation, a North American concern, effectively ran things. Despite segregation in the Canal Zone, however, Walrond was inspired by Panama’s tremendous ethnic diversity; it provoked the cultural tensions, collaborations, and hybridity that always intrigued him.

Q: Jumping ahead to later in Walrond’s life, is it fair to characterize his time in England as a letdown from the promise he showed as a writer during his time in Harlem?

JD: I struggled with this exact question while writing the biography. The record is clearly stacked against Walrond’s later career; he published much less after leaving the U.S. and didn’t publish another book, despite having composed several. It’s also hard to tell the story of someone who committed himself to a mental hospital for five years late in life as anything other than a tragedy. So from a certain empirical standpoint there’s no question that Walrond’s post-Harlem career was a letdown; he felt it acutely himself.

Nevertheless, the one-hit wonder label that affixed itself to Walrond distorts the real story. Very little of Walrond’s post-Harlem writing was available to readers until recently, with Louis Parascandola’s two collections, so any assessment of promise fulfilled or unfulfilled must attend to this work. Examining it closely, placing it in context, one realizes some things that complicate the idea that his career simply declined. First, although Tropic Death contains much of Walrond’s best fiction, some of the stories he wrote in England equal or surpass its quality, and some of his non-fiction prose in England definitely rivals his work for Negro World, Opportunity, and the mainstream publications for which he wrote in the mid-1920s. It just crackles with anti-colonial militancy and acerbic wit.

Second, we should recognize that while writing by non-white Americans was published in book form with increasing frequency after World War I, it would not be until the 1950s that writing by non-white Britons – or by colonial subjects in England – appeared in book form with any regularity. Exceptions occurred but they were few and far between. The real cultural action in black letters in England was in periodicals, and here Walrond was, if not prolific, then quite present. So I don’t dispute the idea that Walrond disappointed expectations, nor do I explain away his shortcomings, but I definitely revisit the criteria by which we judge matters of success and failure and offer a sustained analysis of what his later work represents when considered on its own terms.

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Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

An Interview with James Davis, Author of “Eric Walrond”

James Davis, author of Eric Walrond

The following is part 1 of our interview with James Davis, author of Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean

Question: As you describe in your book, Walrond was very much at the center of the Harlem Renaissance at the time but history has largely forgotten him at least until recently. What explains his disappearance?

James Davis: Walrond’s departure from the United States partly explains his disappearance. After 1929, he lived the rest of his life in France and England, and he did not make a great effort to maintain ties with the Harlem community. Several people who sought to contact him had trouble locating him, so there is a sense in which Walrond was responsible for his own obscurity.

He was also estranged from his family, so no one was taking care that papers and manuscripts were preserved. But there are other important factors. Remember, many writers we think of as prominent New Negroes were actually “rediscovered” after protracted neglect. The poet Countée Cullen was for much of the twentieth century not well known or admired, the novelist Nella Larsen sank into obscurity, the work of Claude McKay and Jean Toomer was neglected, as were the careers of several black women poets, and perhaps most famously, the extraordinary talent of Zora Neale Hurston was only recuperated through the efforts of Alice Walker and others. It was only a matter of time before someone reassessed Walrond’s career and writing, and in fact, that process really began in the 1980’s with Robert Bone, a scholar of African American literature. His efforts to collect Walrond’s essays, articles, and stories and to reconstruct his career led in turn to Louis Parascandola’s publication of two anthologies of Walrond’s writings.

Q: Likewise, why do you think there’s been a resurgence of interest evident not only by your book but by the recent reissue of Tropic Death?

JD: I think two overlapping developments contributed to the resurgence of interest. One is the so-called transnational turn in American studies, an effort to revise the way we talk about literary and cultural history by situating the U.S. in the context of the plural Americas. The effect of this shift has been pronounced with respect to accounts of the Harlem Renaissance, which by now everyone knows was never strictly a New York phenomenon anyway. U.S. scholars have written brilliantly in recent years on the Caribbean dimensions of the Harlem Renaissance, including Michelle Ann Stephens, Brent Edwards, Winston James, and Lara Putnam. As well, Caribbean literary studies has enjoyed a kind of renaissance of its own, not only in the U.S. but also and especially in the U.K. and the Caribbean itself. Because Walrond’s best-known work, Tropic Death, is set entirely in the Caribbean, where he was born and raised, an argument can be made for his place in the region’s rich literary history.

Q: How does Walrond’s life and writing change the way we think about the history and character of the Harlem Renaissance?

JD: Some of our conventional wisdom about the Harlem Renaissance is reinforced by Walrond’s life and writing, including the emphasis placed on racial pride and expressions of militancy and the faith in the arts as a vehicle for social change. But Walrond also challenges some received ideas about the era. His work reminds us, first of all, that nearly one-fourth of the population of black New York in the 1920s was foreign-born. This is a striking fact, since we tend to think of the Harlem Renaissance involving African American migration from the rural South to pursue economic opportunities up North, bringing their cultural practices to new urban contexts and transforming the race in the process.

Accurate as far as it goes, this is nevertheless an incomplete account of the people and forces that created black Harlem and shaped the “New Negro” movement. Even W.E.B. Du Bois, among the most astute chroniclers of black history, suppressed the Caribbean dimensions of the movement, not because he despised the foreign-born (in fact, he praised what he saw as the thrift and industry of West Indians), but because the political commitments of certain Caribbean newcomers were antithetical to the vision of race progress he formulated with the NAACP. These included Marcus Garvey, most famously, but also lesser-known Caribbean immigrants such as Hubert Harrison, W.A. Domingo, and Cyril Briggs, whose radical activism and writing departed from the ideals that Du Bois and others advocated. Both migrants and immigrants alike contributed to the “New Negro” movement, Walrond’s career reminds us, sometimes struggling over its principles and direction, but also yielding an extraordinary diversity of voices and political perspectives, some of which has been lost in the “domestication” of Harlem Renaissance history.

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Wednesday, March 4th, 2015

The Nation Interviews Jeffrey Sachs

Jeffrey Sachs, The Age of Sustainable Development

“I believe that a large majority of Americans know the score right now…. They know that we should move to renewables, but the Koch brothers have more power than all of them in the way that money moves our political system right now.”—Jeffrey Sachs

Below are excerpts from a recent interview with Jeffrey Sachs published in The Nation. In the interview, Sachs discusses many of the issues from his new book The Age of Sustainable Development, including the technical and and political challenges that must be addressed to ensure the success of capping carbon emissions and paving the way for sustainable development. He also focuses on the importance of the forthcoming summit in Paris of world leaders to negotiate a binding agreement to reduce global carbon emissions.

On the importance of China and the United States working together:

“It’s a real watershed in that the two big emitting countries said we’re going to sign an agreement next year in Paris. That’s very important. The substance of it is mixed. China, for example, said it will peak by 2030. It didn’t say peak at what level, and 2030 is, after all, sixteen years from now. That offer can and should be improved considerably. The US said that it will reduce emissions by around a quarter by 2025, also not a breakthrough. And the administration said that’s what can be done using EPA regulations, rather than trying to get something through this obstructionist Senate.

So is this sufficient? No. Is it an opening gambit? I hope so. If it’s the final story before Paris, it’s not good enough. But I don’t think it will be the final story.”

On the challenges for poorer, developing countries to be green:

“Poor countries need the incremental help to develop in a clean, green and resilient way. Those who can and should pay—because they’re so rich or because they’re emitting a lot of pollutants— should put up some of the resources that are absolutely vital for poor countries. Poor countries need to be able to manage both the ongoing changes of climate and to enable the mobilization of large-scale renewable energy. Climate finance, and the broader issue of development finance, is going to be on the table in Addis Ababa in July, and there are no shared concepts yet on this. It’s one of the most difficult and still unformed parts of the whole agenda.”

On the role of oil companies:

“I think at the end of the day, the world is going to want to save itself. And this kind of traditional behavior, which after all has been the way the oil industry has worked for the hundred forty years or so of the sector, has to change. And it will change, but how fast? Tobacco use is coming down, but so gradually that there’s huge loss of life and suffering that continues decades after the dangers were discovered. With fossil fuels, it is so slow it’s threatening the planet in fundamental ways, and the whole point is we’ve got to dramatically speed up.”

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Monday, March 2nd, 2015

Internet Literature in China — An Interview with Michel Hockx

Michel Hockx, Internet Literature in China

The following is an interview with Michel Hockx, author of Internet Literature in China. You can follow Michael Hockx on Twitter at @mhockx

Question: What in particular struck your interest in Chinese Internet literature that prompted you to begin researching for a book?

Michael Hockx: I was struck by the fact that there was a nationwide debate among scholars and critics in China in the year 2000 about the merits and demerits of Internet literature. The phenomenon was taken extremely seriously. Around the same time I also noticed that collections of online work were starting to come out in print. They often ended up in separate sections of bookstores marked “Internet literature.” I realized this was a new type of literature in the making and I got curious.

Q: You mention the “Great Firewall” and the misconceptions western countries have of Internet censorship in China. To what extent are Internet behaviors in China similar to, let’s say in the US? Are they as different, in terms of freedom, as Americans like to believe?

M: They are similar in the sense that the vast majority of Chinese people also use the Internet for entertainment, social media, and shopping. Most people are rarely confronted with censorship since they simply have no interest in using the Internet for politically sensitive purposes. What they do notice and what does annoy them is that the “Great Firewall” sometimes prevents them from accessing certain foreign sites, especially Facebook and Youtube. In the course of my research I once came across an official Chinese statistic showing that Youtube was in the Top 30 of most frequently visited sites in China—even though it is blocked! Lots of people go around the Firewall in order to access it.

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Thursday, February 26th, 2015

Thursday Fiction Corner: Interview with Ishmael Reed

In conjunction with Black History Month, this Thursday’s Fiction Corner features an interview of author and activist Ishmael Reed from the Dalkey “Review of Contemporary Fiction” archives. Reed is not one to mince words. The homepage of his website features blurbs from three different writers, James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Sam Tanenhaus, all praising him as, “Great,” “Great,” and “Great.”

Reed has published dozens of books, including the novels Juice!, The Free-Lance Pallbearers, The Terrible Threes, The Terrible Twos, Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down, The Last Days of Louisiana Red, and Reckless Eyeballing. He also wrote plays collected in Ishmael Reed: The Plays. See the available books here.

In this interview, Professor Reginald Martin speaks with Ishmael Reed, who excoriates a kind of “Eastern, Manhattan” intellectualism. In addition to his vociferous critique of the academic establishment, responsible, he argues, for the construction of “the black aesthetic,” their conversation veers into topics such as jazz, voodoo, and black feminism. Reed has faced backlash for his views. In a more recent interview with the Paris Review, Reed stated: “When Tupac mentioned me in a song, it compensated for all of the hostile responses to my nonfiction and fiction.” The song is ‘Still I Rise’.

The following interview was conducted July 1-7, 1983, in Emeryville, California, a suburb of Oakland and San Francisco.

REGINALD MARTIN: Camus wrote in “Neither Victims nor Executioners” that the only really committed artist is he who, without refusing to take part in the combat, at least refuses to join the regular armies and remains a freelance. In many respects, I see you that way, but many of your critics, Houston Baker, Jr., and Addison Gayle, Jr., for example, seem to throw out any possibility that issues they support may also be issues that you equally support.
ISHMAEL REED: I saw Houston Baker, Jr., recently in Los Angeles. I don’t bear any ill feelings toward him. In fact, he was very cordial toward me. I feel that the piece published in “Black American Literature Forum” that was edited by Joel Weixlmann was irresponsible, and my point is that they would never attack white writers the way they do black writers in that magazine, and I still maintain that. All these scurrilous charges that Baraka made against black writers—and I’ve discussed this with Baraka—those charges were outrageous—he called them traitors, capitulationists. (more…)

Wednesday, February 25th, 2015

Interview with Thomas Doherty, author of Hollywood and Hitler

Thomas Doherty, Hollywood and Hitler

“Up until 1938-1939, there were really no anti-Nazi films from the major Hollywood studios….For most of the 1930s, the major studios were missing in action.”—Thomas Doherty

The following interview with Thomas Doherty, author of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, which is now available in paperback:

Question: Hollywood celebrities today are associated with a variety of different social and political causes. How was the situation different then and how did it curtail film stars’ anti-Nazi activism?

Thomas Doherty: In the 1930s, motion picture stars were typically very timorous about expressing their political opinions in public, especially if the sentiments were in any way controversial or left of mainstream opinion. Why alienate a potential customer at the ticket window? For their part, the studio heads considered the stars their own personal property, not unlike the costumes and props in the studio warehouses. They didn’t want anything to deplete the value of their investments. At first, only the most stalwart and secure actors and actresses defied convention and broke ranks.

Q: What effect if any did their activism have on shaping American attitudes towards Hitler?

TD: It’s hard to say, but the anti-Nazi activism of popular stars like James Cagney, Melvyn Douglas, John Garfield, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford not only brought publicity to the cause but served to normalize the sentiments. The mere fact that movie stars—who more typically sold their faces for commercial endorsements—were now speaking out against Nazism, for free, made at least some people think about the reasons for the transition.

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Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

An Interview with Doug Rossinow, author of The Reagan Era

The Reagan Era, Doug Rossinow

“We still live in the world Reagan and Reaganites made.”—Doug Rossinow

The following is an interview with Doug Rossinow, author of The Reagan Era: A History of the 1980s.

Question: Were the 1980s really “the Reagan era”? Is it possible to exaggerate the significance of one individual leader?

Doug Rossinow: The only other leaders in twentieth-century America who compare to Reagan, in terms of being personally identified with the eras when they served as president, are Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, and maybe Teddy Roosevelt. I’d say that Reagan is more closely tied to our memories of the 1980s than Dwight Eisenhower is to those of the 1950s—and rightly so. Reagan is most like FDR: he helped shape as well as propel a political agenda and social vision that defined an era. Reagan really led a kind of movement, Reaganism, which captured the spirit of the age as well as a policy agenda.

Q: What were the characteristics or spirit of Reaganism?

DR: The key to that spirit—and to the agenda—was to elevate the status of wealth in America, and in policy terms to let the wealthy keep more of their money. A new celebration of wealth, and of capitalism, was pervasive in America during the 1980s—and, with a few hiccups along the way, it continued through the 1990s, really up until the Great Recession. Reaganism was a revitalized, energized conservative force in a very broad sense. There were Reaganite preachers and lawyers and even union leaders, not just senators and congressmen. Of course Reagan had a foreign policy agenda too. But since that agenda was driven by a newly aggressive anticommunist stance, the moral basis for Reaganism in domestic and international contexts was the same: upholding freedom, which Reaganites defined fundamentally in terms of the capacity to earn and keep wealth. In some ways we still live in the world Reagan and Reaganites made.

Q: Some people say that Reagan would have trouble getting nominated for president by today’s Republican Party, that he would seem moderate for today’s GOP, for example on an issue like immigration. Is this true? Has the Republican Party moved to the right of where Reagan was in the 1980s?

DR: Specifically on the issue of immigration, yes, Reagan’s policies would be out of step today in the Republican Party. He signed a 1986 bill that created an “amnesty” for about two million undocumented immigrants—he and others actually called it “amnesty,” which they could never do today. Reagan had a lot of sympathy with immigrants, perhaps tending to view them as people who believed in the bootstrap promise of American life in a way that many native-born Americans no longer did. He also was very libertarian at his core, and might have preferred, in a perfect world, to see open borders. So differences over immigration policy can be as much a question of which kind of conservative you are as of how conservative you are.

But more broadly, I’m not sure it’s true, in any meaningful sense, that Reagan and his GOP were more moderate than those of today. There were a larger number of moderate Republicans in Congress then, but their influence in their party was questionable. Most of them enthusiastically supported Reagan as their nominee in 1980, and when Reagan became president, the moderates went along with the essential items in his conservative agenda. The conservative agenda of today—or of George W. Bush in the 2000s—is only possible because of the conservative victories of Reaganism in the 1980s. I also think Reagan was a sufficiently skilled politician, with a keen enough sense of his own party, that if he were around today he would know how to pitch himself to Republican voters and activists.

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