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Archive for the 'Author Interview' Category

Friday, June 10th, 2016

A Media Roundup for “Black Gods of the Asphalt”

Black Gods of the Asphalt

“Black men’s bodies are overdetermined by racism and poverty on the court, but to stop there is to strip ballplayers of agency and to overlook their lived experiences of the games. In a twist of irony that rivals the sleight of hand of a crossover dribble, social scientists have attempted to explain black basketball by setting aside the subjective experiences the players have of it. In their desire to remain objective and to adhere to disciplinary boundaries, scholars have reduced basketball to a set of rules predetermined by external conditions.” — Onaje X. O. Woodbine

This week, our featured book is Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball, by Onaje X. O. Woodbine. For our final post of the week, we’ve collected a number of the best articles and interviews on and with Onaje X. O. Woodbine looking at his new book.

First, at Killing the Buddha, read an excerpt on the 2013 Fathers Are Champions Too basketball tournament and other streetball tournaments from Black Gods of the Asphalt:

Black men’s bodies are overdetermined by racism and poverty on the court, but to stop there is to strip ballplayers of agency and to overlook their lived experiences of the games. In a twist of irony that rivals the sleight of hand of a crossover dribble, social scientists have attempted to explain black basketball by setting aside the subjective experiences the players have of it. In their desire to remain objective and to adhere to disciplinary boundaries, scholars have reduced basketball to a set of rules predetermined by external conditions. The powerful socioeconomic forces of poverty, racism, and mascu­line role constrain black male bodies, push­ing them toward limited definitions of self as ballplayers, gang­sters, and hustlers. This “symbolic violence,” as Bourdieu refers to it, is often embodied and internalized by the players. But to stop there is to leave us with only a thin sense for the human and lived dimensions of these games. The experience of the court as a vehicle of self-emancipation is stripped away. The living dimension of this urban religion is lost.

Woodbine was interviewed twice at WBUR, Boston’s NPR news station. First, listen to Woodbine discuss how his desire to tell the stories that come up in his book led him to take Black Gods of the Asphalt to the stage.

“It was storytelling,” Woodbine says. “This was inner-city, street-level storytelling. And I thought, ‘Why not actually, consciously, do this on the stage and create a conscious, ritual space in the theater? And so, I wrote a script with my father and my wife to try to tell these stories in a way that can impact audience beyond the streets.”

(more…)

Thursday, June 9th, 2016

The Creation of “Black Gods of the Asphalt”

Black Gods of the Asphalt

“I want the book to elevate the conversation on black masculinity and sports…. I want people to recognize that you can find religion in strange places, that this community has its own innate healers, its own innate capacity to heal, that these young men have agency, and that there is freedom within this community in places you wouldn’t normally expect to find it.” — Onaje X. O. Woodbine

This week, our featured book is Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball, by Onaje X. O. Woodbine. Today, we have excerpted part of an interview with Onaje X. O. Woodbine, conducted by Matthew Reed Baker, that originally appeared in Boston Magazine, in which Woodbine discusses his creative process and what he hopes the book will achieve.

At any point did you think that nobody could’ve written this book but you? It seems like the perfect match of author and book.

Howard Thurman, one of my favorite scholars and thinkers, has this phrase that we all have a “working paper.” The best scholarship is autobiographical. I’ve always viewed scholarship as a deeply personal project. In some ways, I do agree with you that only I could have written this particular project, but in other ways, part of the insight I learned from writing the book is that my self is made up of other selves. And so, if you dig deep enough within, you come out on the other side, you recognize the social world. Some of the best scholarship recognizes that society and the person are not mutually exclusive.

I think the experiences that are happening in Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan are happening across other cities because the social context is very similar. There may be some changes in style and variation in the way that it is expressed, but they’re dealing with societal challenges and poverty, and these basketball courts are spaces of refuge, especially for young black men who don’t have access to traditional buffers against structural violence. They don’t go to church as much anymore, they don’t have access to quality therapy, and as you can see in the book, the family is largely fragmented.

Black men have always been linked to the physical, so the myth has been that black men are bound in body but not in mind. Sports dramatize that myth in such a powerful way that many black men in inner cities are attracted to it. They may be attracted to it because they’re pushed by race or poverty or social narrative, but when they get on the court, the lived experience of running up and down the court, rubbing your body next to your brother, and expressing your pain…it transcends the reasons why you got there in the first place. It’s deeply personal and deeply social at the same time.

There’s such a weaving of style and form in this book. What was your approach?

I wanted to mirror the culture in my scholarship, but I didn’t want to strip the community of its language. In the history of African American culture, different genres of self-expression have always been complementary. During the Harlem Renaissance, jazz and basketball often were performed on the same stage on the same night. In the hip-hop generation, it was b-boy/b-girl dancing and rap music, while basketball was performed in the same park at the same time, and you’d have the boombox out there. So it was a confluence of different forms of African American self expression.

It was a labor of love, and I wanted it to be in a language that the academy and general public could understand, but also that the community would recognize as authentic. That required an interdisciplinary approach. On one hand I had to use social theory, the theory of masculinity and race to recognize the objectifications of the black male body. On the other hand I needed poetry. I needed religious studies. I needed the first-person account to call into question those things. You need all of those tools. That as the hardest obstacle I faced. It took a few years to really find the tools, understand how to apply them, and there was a lot of grappling in the dark.

When a book mixes ideas and genres well, it’s seamless. How do you do it?

When I read it for the first time in full after all those years of work, you know what was the metaphor I had in my head? A basketball. [Laughs] It really felt round. The book itself, it felt like there were no corners, nothing stuck out. It felt like a cohesive unit. I kept thinking of a ball, a basketball. I kid you not.

You mention in the book that you had to leave your community in order to write about it.

This book was also born out of personal trauma of experiencing the violence of the inner city. I myself embody the pain of living in a racialized and poverty-stricken community, and with growing up, I constantly felt as if my life was in danger. I’d walk out of my house, and there was a gang right on the corner in front of my door. I went through this. I was depressed for a while growing up. I had very low self-esteem. I wondered—because I was in the METCO program—why the students I went to school with out in the suburbs had nice homes and we didn’t. I also wondered about my past. I wondered if I really was just a slave or a descendent of a slave, if there was nothing prior to that.

When we’re born into that kind of world, you internalize it, you take it for granted, and often you turn the pain inward. You blame yourself or the people around you. And you can’t necessarily prove how the larger society, mainstream society, and dominant culture has created a society in which you are meant to feel that way. I needed to leave that environment to heal. I needed to see other people who looked like me, who weren’t angry all the time, or weren’t part of a gang, or weren’t depressed, or weren’t smoking drugs because something had happened in their life. I needed to see that I could be something else.

But at the same time, once I got to Yale and into university culture, I also didn’t fit in there. I realized there was a tremendous loss associated with being out there. On the one hand, I was safe, I wasn’t constantly worried about violence. But on the other hand, I had to leave all the people I cared for behind, and my culture. Living in two worlds and being in that middle space, in some ways, was a privilege. I see myself as a bridge and I’m very thankful. And yet you feel like you’re always an exile, you’re always homeless.

What do you want this book to achieve once it comes out?

I want the book to elevate the conversation on black masculinity and sports. I think that the old messages of trying to solve structural racism are important, but need to be expanded upon. Particularly unconscious bias, and the kind of racism and bias that lives in our bodies. My question is: How do you transform people’s consciousness, that both they and others are human beings? I think that requires getting into your body and recognizing the trauma and the history that lives within us. I want people to recognize that you can find religion in strange places, that this community has its own innate healers, its own innate capacity to heal, that these young men have agency, and that there is freedom within this community in places you wouldn’t normally expect to find it. The standard view in literature on sports and race is that these young men are determined by a desire for social mobility and socioeconomic status, and that’s why they’re on the court. Part of what I want to do is challenge that narrative and say, “No, there are deeper human reasons why they are on the court in predominant numbers.”

Read the interview and accompanying article at the Boston Magazine website.

Wednesday, June 8th, 2016

Listen to Onaje X. O. Woodbine on All Things Considered

Black Gods of the Asphalt

“What [often] gets missed is the level of meaning and feeling that is experienced in the game itself. And the feeling of freedom and transcendence can’t be really captured in social scientific language. You need religious studies, you need poetry, you need music to really understand how these young men are creating meaning in this space.” — Onaje X. O. Woodbine

This week, our featured book is Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball, by Onaje X. O. Woodbine. Today. we are happy to present a fantastic interview with Onaje X. O. Woodbine on NPR’s All Things Considered on the new book, Woodbine’s history, and why we need religious studies, poetry, and music to understand how young black men create meaning through basketball and other sports.

Tuesday, May 24th, 2016

An Interview with Daniel Callahan, author of “The Five Horsemen of the Modern World”

The Five Horsemen of the Modern World, Daniel Callahan

“At the heart of the progress problem is that we usually do not want to stop progress, and don’t know how to do so even when we need to try.”—Daniel Callahan

The following is an interview with Daniel Callahan, author of The Five Horsemen of the Modern World: Climate, Food, Water, Disease, and Obesity

Question: Why did you write this book?

Daniel Callahan: Most people write books because they have something to say: a careful analysis, a heated conviction, or a message to spread. Most scholarly savants usually spend years thinking through a topic and then put it all in a book. I don’t seem to fall easily into any of those categories. I wrote The Five Horsemen out of sheer curiosity, knowing something about some of my five horsemen but almost nothing about others; and not knowing where it would lead me. My curiosity was stimulated by what seemed to me a troubling similarity: a rare group of global problems, each seemingly different, that were all getting worse not better. How has that happened, and could it be that they do share some traits

Q: Do you offer solutions to the global threats posed by the five horsemen?

DC: My flat, candid answer to that question is: no! Initially, I naively thought, I could, being the kind of smart guy who thinks he can solve all human problems if simply given the chance to do so. It soon became obvious that I could not do that, but was consoled to notice that no one else could either. I should have seen at once that problems festering for forty or more years, that had consumed billions of dollars in research and policy efforts, that evoke deep ideological and political differences, and that display a wide range of disparate convictions in public opinion, do not lend themselves to easy solutions. If you don’t believe that, read the book. That is not to say there is an absence of ideas. It is that most have not worked, and those that have are not sufficient.

Q: Why are they so hard to solve?

DC: At the root of each of the horsemen is the modern value of progress, but reaching back to the eighteenth century. At its core is the belief that through reason and science the human condition can be improved. There is no end of the possibilities. Global warming is the result of economic progress, bringing millions out of poverty and affluence to many more. It also pollutes our atmosphere. Food shortages are in great part due to population growth, a result of medical progress keeping people alive much longer. Waters shortages also result from population growth and great agricultural gains (70% of water consumption is for agriculture). Chronic illness is heavily due to aging populations, another fruit of medical progress. Obesity is a function of the availability of cheaper but less health foods. At the heart of the progress problem is that we usually do not want to stop progress, and don’t know how to do so even when we need to try.

(more…)

Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

When the Incident Occurred

The Lost Garden

“When the incident occurred, Zhu Yinghong was startled out of a deep sleep by a commotion somewhere in the house. The moment she opened her eyes she had a feeling that neither of her parents was in bed. As usual, she reached out to touch the thin blanket covering the plank bed, and felt nothing but a cold chill. Years later, she would piece together what little she remembered of that night with what she’d heard here and there, and concluded that it had happened sometime in April or May.” — Li Ang

Our World Literature Week celebration continues today with a focus on an inventive collection of short fiction from Ng Kim Chew: The Lost Garden: A Novel, translated by Sylvia Li-chun Lin with Howard Goldblatt. We are happy to present the video of a recent panel on The Lost Garden, featuring Li Ang herself, along with her translators and Columbia University Press Director and editor Jennifer Crewe, followed by an excerpt from the second chapter of Part 1 of the novel.

Li Ang and her “Lost Garden”

When the Incident Occurred

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

The Complexity and Individuality of Contemporary Chinese Experiences and Perspectives

The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan: More Stories of China, by Zhu Wen

Our World Literature Week celebration continues today with a focus on Zhu Wen’s The Matchmaker, the Apprentice, and the Football Fan: More Stories of China, translated by Julia Lovell, and newly released in paperback. We are happy to present part of an interview with Julia Lovell from the Los Angeles Review of Books, as well as the short story “The Apprentice,” excerpted in full from the book:

On Zhu Wen’s Stories and Other Works of Chinese Fiction: A Q & A with Julia Lovell

Jeffrey Wasserstrom: In an endorsement of the new collection, Jonathan Spence, who praised I Love Dollars in the London Review of Books, says that this “second volume of short stories” is “both darker and denser than the first.” Does that fit with your feeling about the new book or would you characterize the contrast differently?

Julia Lovell: I think that’s a perceptive comment by Jonathan Spence. There was plenty that was shocking and dark about the first collection – in particular, the kind of careless amorality that some of the stories diagnosed in 1990s China. But there was also, I think, a strand of humor, a strong appreciation of the farcical, running through some of the pieces. That’s less dominant in the new collection. Two of the stories that take a more conversational, absurdist take on life in the People’s Republic – “Da Ma’s Way of Talking” and “The Apprentice” – are also overtly tinged with sadness. The relaxed, humorous narration of the first story contrasts with its ending; in the second piece, the lightly sardonic tone blurs into the narrator’s sense of despairing melancholy as he feels increasingly trapped by his future in the socialist economy. At the same time though, I think that the new volume offers more thoughtful insights into human relationships, and into the impact of political pressures on day-to-day life.

But I’m still very drawn to work that showcases the more relaxed side of Chinese culture. At the moment, I’m working on a new abridgement of Journey to the West, a book from the imperial Chinese canon that fizzes with humorous irreverence. Stodgy Neo-Confucians, covetous Buddhists and libidinous Taoists – all are mocked in the novel; at one point, the book’s hero, the Monkey King, even urinates on the hand of the Buddha. (more…)

Monday, April 25th, 2016

An Interview with M. A. Orthofer, author of The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction

The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction

“There does seem to have been a definite move from larger publishers dominating publishing translations into English to smaller, more nimble independents and non-profits taking the lead in the field, and I think the future success of fiction in translation depends on their continued viability.”—M. A. Orthofer

The following is an interview with Michael Orthofer, author of The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction:

Question: Your site has become legendary in its ability to stay on top and find the most exciting new works in global fiction. How do you do it?

M. A. Orthofer: It all starts with reading as much as possible—though ironically, working on the site cuts into my reading-time (though I think I would complain about finding too little time to read, even if that’s all I did all day). I’ve also always read very widely—fiction in every category, from every corner of the world, from any language—and have always been eager to seek out new and different voices, approaches, stories. Many readers seem to find specific areas or periods or styles or genres they’re most comfortable with and concentrate much of their reading on these, but I’ll read pretty much anything, and I think that has made a big difference, as the site (and now the book) reflect that and offer something for everyone.

And while I’ve always tried to look beyond the merely local and familiar, the internet, with its easy access to information and writing from everywhere in the world, has obviously helped expand my own horizons tremendously.

Q: What are you seeing as some of the most noteworthy trends in global fiction?

MAO: One of the great things about international literature is that there is such incredible variety, and so not even hot trends like magical realism, “Da Vinci Code”-type thrillers, “Harry Potter”-like fantasy, or Nordic crime fiction can completely crowd out everything else. Success does breed a lot of imitation, locally and internationally, and there are certainly still too many instances of foreign writers trying to follow the formula of the biggest American and British best sellers, but I think there has been a distinct move back towards relying on local strengths—be that language, history, mythology, tradition—in foreign writing too. Crime fiction is probably where this is most visible, with other countries and cultures putting more of a local spin on stories again—which has certainly worked for writers from the Scandinavian countries.

A curious trend as far as books in translation in America (and the UK) goes does seem to be the rise of the short work of fiction, as I can’t remember ever seeing as many translated novels and even story-collections in the hundred-page range. There are still lots of big works being published—not least the multi-volume epics by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante—but the small, slim volume of fiction in translation has become much more common. I don’t think this is a real global trend—it seems limited to the US and Britain—and I assume one reason for it is simply that publishers are more willing to take on short works because they are considerably cheaper to translate.

Q: What is your sense of what and how much of international fiction is the English-speaking world missing? Are there many authors and books that English-language readers don’t have access to because of lack of translations

The number of books published in English translation is still so low—less than five hundred new works of fiction in 2015, according to the Three Percent database—that it’s impossible not to conclude that we are missing a tremendous amount. It looks to me very much like a tip-of-the-iceberg situation—compounded by an uneven distribution of what gets translated. BecauseAmerican publishers are so reliant on outside financial support for the additional cost of translating works, those countries that are able and willing to subsidize the translation of their literature are far-better represented in translation. As a result, fiction from many European countries, or South Korea and Japan, is much better-represented than that from countries and languages that haven’t invested in subsidizing translation—or aren’t able to.

(more…)

Monday, April 18th, 2016

Roy Harris on the Pulitzer Prize

Pulitzer's Gold, Roy Harris

With today’s announcement of the Pulitzer Prize winners, we are re-posting our interview with Roy Harris, author of Pulitzer’s Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism. Recently Roy Harris previewed some of the possible winners and was interviewed by WBUR’s All Things Considered on the 100th anniversary of the awards.

Question: 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize. In looking over the winners for public service journalism, what struck you most about what has changed in journalism during this period and what has stayed the same?

Roy J. Harris: What’s very clear is how the quality of the Pulitzer winners—the depth of the reporting and the powerful change they brought about—increased sharply after the first few years the prizes began to be awarded. That suggests that the very creation of a system for honoring top-notch journalism encouraged more great reporting to be done around the country. But also, the variety of the top journalism projects—a diversity greater in public service than any other category—began to expand during that century: another major change. What’s stayed the same is that the predominant characteristic of the winning reporting has been tenacity on the part of the journalists to tell a story that others don’t want told.

Q: In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about how changes in the news industry are threatening the kind of journalism that the public service journalism prize highlights. What is your sense of the future for investigative journalism of this kind?

RJH: First the positive view: A surprising number of young journalists continue to enter the profession; they’re learning quickly, and doing great work. They also seem to value the tradition of great reporting, as I learn from the students I speak with regularly. While the digital world makes it harder to determine real news from the chaff, budding reporters also find that the Internet greatly broadens their access to valuable, verifiable resources. On the negative side, the news infrastructure to support reporters financially is seriously failing. New structures—like those created by new online sites and by privately supported programs like ProPublica and California Watch—aren’t coming online quickly enough to make up for the deterioration of traditional newspapers. New sources of financial support must be found for public service journalism, which is often the most expensive kind, if these young reporters are to be kept on the job.

Q: Much like the justly celebrated new movie, Spotlight, your book tells the story behind the story—about how journalists do their jobs. What is the value for general readers of understanding the ways in which journalists and the news industry work?

RJH: Before Spotlight, I argued that the behind-the-story approach of the Watergate movie All the President’s Men was a great model. Both that great movie and Spotlight are realistic, and take an inspirational look at what the media can do for our citizenry. And both concentrate on projects that won the Public Service Pulitzer—the subject of my book. I found in my research that less-well-known winners offer the same kind of excitement, though perhaps on a local level rather than a national or global level. That applies to non-journalists as much as to journalists, although the result of the journalism may be more local or regional than the ousting of a U.S. president or the exposure of a global Church scandal. From researching the stories in Pulitzer’s Gold I also found that to trace these Pulitzer winners through the years is to expose readers to the twists and turns of American history over the decades. What happened historically is important as is the role of the First Amendment, which keeps our system strong, and our citizenry informed.

(more…)

Wednesday, March 9th, 2016

Interview with Hyun Ok Park, author of The Capitalist Unconscious: From Korean Unification to Transnational Korea

The Capitalist Unconscious, Hyun Ok Park

The following is an interview with Hyun Ok Park, author of The Capitalist Unconscious: From Korean Unification to Transnational Korea

Question: The concept of “the capitalist unconscious” in the book indicates that you take the unification question out of the familiar box of the nation-state system. Can you explain what you mean by “the capitalist unconscious” and how it figures in your book?

Hyun Ok Park: “The capitalist unconscious” provides a conceptual framework for my approach. It places the global capitalist system at the center of historicizing the national question. The capitalist unconscious concerns the sociocultural symbolization of the capitalist system and the historical character of such representation. This book expands the understanding of the unconscious from Frederic Jameson’s political unconscious and its focus on narrative to incorporate corporeal, sensorial, affective, and mnemonic symbolizations. I bring the body, senses, involuntary memory, performative ethnicity, and longing for a stateless nation to understanding experiences of transnational migrants. In fact, the disjuncture among what migrants say, how they say it, what they remember, and what their bodies tell demonstrates their commodified subjectivity as anything but total.

The capitalist unconscious is the historical unconscious that involves the fidelity of the political and the historical. The book shows that one’s experience of capitalism, democracy, and their linkage is organized by the interpretation of crisis (e.g., crisis of industrialism, of socialism, and of migrants and refugees as epochal changes (e.g., the transition from socialism to capitalism, from dictatorship to democracy, and from industrial to financial capitalism). I juxtapose the transition theses of history harbored in democratic politics with migrants’ own flashbacks into history and my accounts of Cold War industrialism—both socialist and capitalist.

Q: How can the understanding of the capitalist unconscious explain your thesis, “Korea is already unified in a transnational form by capital”? This statement will come as a surprise or even a provocation to those for whom the routine questions about Korean unification are whether and when the two Koreas will be unified.

HP: This book proposes a paradigm change on North Korea and Korean unification. I explore the ways that the capitalist unconscious encapsulates the currently unfolding and yet unobserved form of Korean unification that I call transnational Korea. Bringing capitalism into the analysis of the nation-state formation illumines the largely forgotten original and utopian ideal of national unification. It also enables us to historicize ethic national sovereignty. Only when we bring capitalism into the analysis can we discern the otherwise hidden shift of the mode of Korean unification from territorial and familial integration to transnational Korea. The chiasmus in this book is, therefore, not so much between ethnic national sovereignty and territorial integration as between modern sovereignty and global capitalism.

Accordingly, I consider the national unification question a social question, which is irreducible to the return to an undivided Korea or the establishment of a single nation-state. From the beginning, nation and national unification concern social relations of the people. Koreans’ quest for resolving the Japanese colonial legacy and becoming independent from American rule was never separate from transformation of social relations of land, labor, and tenancy. Popular sovereignty, decolonization, and ethnic-national independence were one and the same. Although the rivalry of the two Korean states during the Cold War tethered the matter of Korean unification to the task of creating a single nation-state, the South Korean democracy struggle of the 1980s saw the critique of global capitalism as integral to realizing national unification. In the post-Cold War era, the politics of unification is, in an unexpected turn, articulated with the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism and the war on terrorism.

As a critique of the old and new modes of Korean unification, this book presents various border-crossing interactions among Koreans during and after the Cold War era, including family unions of divided families and diaspora’s experiences, which fall through the cracks of all modes of unification politics since the division. I historicize Korean unification so that we distinguish its current form and envisage a new political possibility. When Koreans in different moments and in various Korean communities state their wishes for Korean unification, they are not to be taken as habitual slips into a received ideology. Instead these statements are harbingers of a utopia desire whose meaning and effect are decipherable only in reference to concrete social relations.

(more…)

Thursday, March 3rd, 2016

James Davis on the Life and Work of Harlem Renaissance Writer Eric Walrond

Eric Walrond

The always worthwhile New Books Network recently posted a fascinating interview with James Davis about his new book Eric Walrond: A Life in the Harlem Renaissance and the Transatlantic Caribbean.

In the interview with Alejandra Bronfman , Davis discusses the mystery of Eric Walrond as a writer who was very much in the thick of the Harlem Renaissance but had been somewhat forgotten by history. In addition to reinstating Walrond as a pivotal figure in the development of the Harlem Renaissance, Davis also discusses the transnational nature of his life and work as he worked and lived in Guyana, Barbados, Panama, Harlem, Paris, and London. Davis and Bronfman also consider the exceptional and distinctive nature of Walrond’s writing and its mixture of modernist techniques with Caribbean dialogue and locales.

Their discussion also provided a compelling look at the challenges of writing a biography and transforming an archive into a gripping narrative. Davis also considers the ways in which Walrond’s writing reveals aspects of his life.

You can listen to the full interview here and for more on the book, here is an excerpt from the book:

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

An Interview with David J. Helfand, author of “A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age”

A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age

The following is an interview with David J. Helfand, author of A Survival Guide to the Misinformation Age: Scientific Habits of Mind:

Question: Most people think we are living in the Information Age. Why the contrarian “Misinformation Age” in your title?

David J. Helfand: It is certainly true that the amount of information at our disposal is unprecedented, and the Internet democratizes access to this information in ways that are unique in human history. But we are now generating, worldwide, 2.5 quintillion bytes of data per day. If printed as standard characters, that represents the equivalent of 450,000 pages of text per person per day. Obviously, more than 99.99% of this “information” is not edited or vetted for accuracy. And the corollary of open access to the web for downloading information is that uploading information is equally unfiltered. The result? Unlimited opportunities for the propagation of misinformation, and unfettered access for individuals and organizations wishing to spread disinformation.

Q: Surely misinformation isn’t new, nor is the motivation of some to spread disinformation to advance vested interests. Why do you suppose the problem is greater today?

DJH: During the first 97% of the time members of the species homo sapiens have roamed the Earth, information was very limited but the important bits were generally of high quality. The member of the hunter-gatherer tribe who regularly led hunting parties toward the hungry lions instead of the zebras was quickly ignored (or eaten and eliminated from the gene pool; likewise with the one that gathered poisonous fruits). The sources of information—your clansmen—were unambiguous and there was an existential premium on good information.

Today the sources are anonymous, or at least often unknown to you, and their motivation for providing accurate information is negligible; there are no consequences for misinformation nearly as severe as the lions. Thus, if mis- or dis-information serves one’s purposes—either for accumulating money or power, or for the strong innate motivation of reinforcing group identity—there’s no barrier to broadcasting it. Couple this with the viral capacity of social media and the instant accessibility of nonsense for all, and you have what I think should rightly be called the Misinformation Age.

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Tuesday, February 23rd, 2016

An Interview with Tahneer Oksman, author of “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”

Tahneer Oksman,

“What’s interesting about comics is that you have artists drawing versions of themselves over and over on the same page. You can actually see their serial selves, their past, present, and future self-portraits in relation to one another.”—Tahneer Oksman

The following is an interview with Tahneer Oksman, author of “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”" Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs:

Question: The graphic memoirists you write about in your book have complicated relationships to Jewish identity. What are some of the ways they express or articulate their ambivalence?

Tahneer Oksman: For someone like Aline Kominsky Crumb, her reflections on Jewish identity read, at least initially, like a general distaste for the Jewish Long Island community that she grew up in. Her memoir is saturated with visual and verbal stereotypes about Jews, and Jewish women in particular. But the more closely you examine her work, the more you recognize its complex push-pull: she incorporates those stereotypes in order to fully explore her own sense of self. In a way, she is continually mocking her own mockery.

Some of the other cartoonists I write about tend to be more overtly ambivalent. Vanessa Davis, for instance, expresses a clear adoration for various tenets of her Jewish identity, many of these associated with childhood and family. But within images portraying precious memories—of her Bat Mitzvah, for example—she incorporates words or body language that contradict the celebratory, engaged atmosphere depicted around her. Other artists, like Lauren Weinstein, express ambivalence indirectly, as when her young persona writes a letter to Mattel, complaining about how “All your Barbies look like Aryans!,” and then later laments her own so-called Jewish looks (including her nose).

Q: How does this differ from the ways in which Jewish male graphic artists might grapple with these questions in their own work?

TO: I don’t believe there’s any essential difference in the ways that Jewish women and men—or women and men more generally—portray identity in comics. In the book, I selected seven memoirists who, to my mind, successfully model this ambivalent Jewish identity that I set out to explore. There are plenty of other Jewish cartoonists who didn’t make it into the book, not because they don’t fit into this model but because I had to set limitations in order to effectively develop my ideas. The book is meant to introduce a way to start thinking about how identity functions in comics, and not as any kind of end point.

To my mind, crucial differences emerge when it comes to how different kinds of comics (and artistic and literary works more generally) are perceived. Certain subjects and styles are still considered amateur or frivolous both in and out of academic contexts. It’s still a very male-dominated medium in this way, no matter how many women skillfully assert themselves in various forms of print and online. This reception ultimately influences the ways that comics get made. In other words, there’s going to be an awareness, for artists and writers who have been marginalized, of certain critical tones, and that will inevitably find its way into the work, for better or worse.

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Tuesday, February 16th, 2016

A conversation with Norton Reamer and Jesse Downing, authors of “Investment: A History”

Investment: A History

“[T]he basic principles of investing are timeless, even as the economic and social stakes grow higher. The challenge will be to harness all that increasing sophistication to further push the democratization of investment, and in that regard we are optimists.” — Norton Reamer and Jesse Downing

This week, our featured book is Investment: A History, by Norton Reamer and Jesse Downing. In the first post of the week’s feature, we are happy to present an interview with Reamer and Downing in which they discuss their goals for the book, important changes in the history of investing, and what the future holds for investors.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Investment: A History! You can also learn more about the book and its authors on the Investment: A History webpage and Youtube channel!

What will readers find in Investment: A History?

The book explains key elements in the long history of investment. Each chapter includes important stories and lessons that are intended to illustrate crucial dimensions of the investment world, as they have developed over the centuries. Our goal is to increase understanding of the investment practices and opportunities of today by understanding the history of investing.

In broad scope, what are the most important findings in the book?

Most people will be surprised to find out how remarkably uncomplicated it is to be a sensible investor, and in that regard we identified four basic investing principles. First, look at every investment as “real.” That is, when you invest, you own the underlying asset—e.g., with stocks you are buying a piece of a corporation. Don’t be distracted by the paper form of the investment. Understand the basics of whatever entity you are buying.

Second, it’s all about fundamental value, where “value” is determined by the value today of future cash flows that the investment may produce over its lifetime. Third, intelligent use of financial leverage is a legitimate tool for investors; in fact, it has helped build most of the great fortunes of history. Of course, excessive leverage can be extremely dangerous because all leverage will multiply returns—either positively or negatively. Finally, the most basic management skill is resource allocation: i.e., the effective allocation of capital and human resources.

Investing did not always exist in its current form. What were the precursors to the current investment landscape?

With ancient and pre-modern investment, we emphasize three areas: the basic investment vehicles of early history; the extreme inequality in the distribution of investment opportunity and benefit; and the surprising sophistication of some early investment vehicles, strategies, and purposes.

We believe that, to grasp the reality and significance of investment as a fundamental human activity, it’s necessary to begin in ancient times and understand the roles of agricultural land, lending and trade in the ancient world. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that by today’s standards, it took an astonishing amount of wealth and power to even qualify to be an ‘investor.’ Finally, we felt it was essential to understand that in some respects—despite a lack of investment diversity and the absence of equality—investment even in those early days had features that were remarkably sophisticated and prescient. (more…)

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

Reddit AMA With Richard W. Bulliet

The Wheel

The Wheel brings a fresh perspective to an old and extremely important subject. Among other things Richard Bulliet shows how the invention of the wheel and its many applications to transportation occurred over thousands of years and was influenced by socio-cultural and psychological as well as economic and political factors. In doing so, his revisionist history recasts our understanding of an invention that literally changed the world.” — Merritt Roe Smith

We continue today our weekly feature of Richard W. Bulliet’s The Wheel: Inventions and Reinventions with a Reddit AMA (“As Me Anything”) starring the author himself. In a real-time interaction between Professor Bulliet and the enthusiastic history community on Reddit, the author answers questions regarding his new book, his research, and of course the history of the wheel itself. Here’s a few excerpts from the thread:

One of the biggest things I always hear about the Aztecs and the Mayans are about how they did all their work and built their monuments ‘without ever having invented the wheel.’ It seems to me that this must be some sort of like the telephone game. Was it more that they had no need of it due to climate or was it a case where they simply didn’t think to use it for transportation?

Many people including Jared Diamond have argued that the lack of large domestic animals in the Western Hemisphere prevented wheeled vehicles from being invented. But humans can pull carts, and we have pictorial evidence for this in the Old World back to the third millennium BCE.

As for working on large monuments, wheels were never a crucial technology for this. The pyramids in Egypt and Stonehenge were built without wheels. The earliest wagons were not strong enough to carry really heavy stones, nor was the harnessing technology up to the task.

It is commonly argued that wheels evolved from rollers used to move heavy stones. But we don’t have any evidence for this. Skids rather than rollers were used to distribute the stone’s weight over a wide surface. If rollers had become worn enough for their ends to function as wheels, the wheel-like ends would have had to bear all the weight. Thus the advantage of the roller would have been lost. Inclined planes, skids, and large team of human pullers were more useful for monumental building with big stones than either rollers or wheels.

In terms of how we do history on something so seemingly pre-historic, can you outline some of the methodology you use to make assumptions about the earliest “appearances” of the wheel, and the delicate balance between empirical discovery and imaginative speculation/extrapolation?

For many historical questions, material evidence is better than textual evidence; but it is best when you have both. Nevertheless, the earliest wheel evidence is necessarily pre-textual because we have no writing that goes back far enough.

Evidence for the earliest use of the wheel consists of images on ancient artifacts, the artifacts themselves, particularly if their age and origin can be determined with some precision, and archaeological reconstructions of the relevant societies to determine what they might have used wheels for.

Conjecture comes in when you get all your ducks in a row, in terms of images, dates, and artifacts, and then try to make sense of them. The problem with the wheel is that homo sapiens sapiens carried their stuff around without using wheels for over 90,000 years, and then shifted them onto the backs of domestic animals. This means that they knew exactly how to divide their normal loads up so they could be carried. My conjecture here is that the wheel was invented when a new and challenging type of load was confronted. Many people think that challenge came from moving stones for pyramids, but the Egyptians and other pyramid builders didn’t use wheels.

My thought is that copper mining presented the challenge of moving large amounts of very heavy ore through a narrow mine corridor and out to the smelter. In many, perhaps most, early copper mines, the miners slid baskets and trays along the floor. But in the Carpathian Mountains someone thought of putting a basket on wheels.

The physical evidence for this consists of over 100 clay models of smallish four-wheeled cars, some of them clearly designed as drinking mugs. Carbon-14 dating of associated materials makes them the earliest depictions of wheeled vehicles (as opposed to wheeled toys). I believe that these models played an iconic role in rituals of some sort that celebrated the contribution of mining to the local society. That is a conjecture.

Conjectures work best when they line up with other factors and evidence. In this case, the fact that mine cars in Europe, and then America, remained fairly small and hand-pushed down to 1900 is one such factor. Another is the fact that these mine cars continued to use wheels that were fixed to the ends of their axles and thus could not be steered since the wheel-axle-wheel combination turned as a unit.

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Friday, January 22nd, 2016

Alexandra Lutnick on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Beyond Victims and Villains

Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking

Read excerpts from a Twitter Chat interview with Alexandra Lutnick, author of Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Beyond Victims and Villains, hosted by @DontSellBodies.

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

An Interview with Roy J. Harris, author of “Pulitzer’s Gold”

Pulitzer's Gold, Roy Harris

The following is an interview with Roy J. Harris, author of Pulitzer’s Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism

Question: 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize. In looking over the winners for public service journalism, what struck you most about what has changed in journalism during this period and what has stayed the same?

Roy J. Harris: What’s very clear is how the quality of the Pulitzer winners—the depth of the reporting and the powerful change they brought about—increased sharply after the first few years the prizes began to be awarded. That suggests that the very creation of a system for honoring top-notch journalism encouraged more great reporting to be done around the country. But also, the variety of the top journalism projects—a diversity greater in public service than any other category—began to expand during that century: another major change. What’s stayed the same is that the predominant characteristic of the winning reporting has been tenacity on the part of the journalists to tell a story that others don’t want told.

Q: In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about how changes in the news industry are threatening the kind of journalism that the public service journalism prize highlights. What is your sense of the future for investigative journalism of this kind?

RJH: First the positive view: A surprising number of young journalists continue to enter the profession; they’re learning quickly, and doing great work. They also seem to value the tradition of great reporting, as I learn from the students I speak with regularly. While the digital world makes it harder to determine real news from the chaff, budding reporters also find that the Internet greatly broadens their access to valuable, verifiable resources. On the negative side, the news infrastructure to support reporters financially is seriously failing. New structures—like those created by new online sites and by privately supported programs like ProPublica and California Watch—aren’t coming online quickly enough to make up for the deterioration of traditional newspapers. New sources of financial support must be found for public service journalism, which is often the most expensive kind, if these young reporters are to be kept on the job.

Q: Much like the justly celebrated new movie, Spotlight, your book tells the story behind the story—about how journalists do their jobs. What is the value for general readers of understanding the ways in which journalists and the news industry work?

RJH: Before Spotlight, I argued that the behind-the-story approach of the Watergate movie All the President’s Men was a great model. Both that great movie and Spotlight are realistic, and take an inspirational look at what the media can do for our citizenry. And both concentrate on projects that won the Public Service Pulitzer—the subject of my book. I found in my research that less-well-known winners offer the same kind of excitement, though perhaps on a local level rather than a national or global level. That applies to non-journalists as much as to journalists, although the result of the journalism may be more local or regional than the ousting of a U.S. president or the exposure of a global Church scandal. From researching the stories in Pulitzer’s Gold I also found that to trace these Pulitzer winners through the years is to expose readers to the twists and turns of American history over the decades. What happened historically is important as is the role of the First Amendment, which keeps our system strong, and our citizenry informed.

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Friday, January 8th, 2016

An Interview with Colin Dayan

With Dogs at the Edge of Life

“It’s the relation between humans and dogs that matters to me, and what that tells us over time about what we have become as a society.” — Colin Dayan

This week, our featured book is With Dogs at the Edge of Life, by Colin Dayan. In the first of two posts today, we are happy to present an interview with Colin Dayan recorded by Vanderbilt University, along with an excerpt from the article posted with the video.

Professor offers unsettling look at humanity with study of people and their dogs
By Ann Marie Deer Owens

A Vanderbilt University professor has researched true stories of people and their dogs—some tender and some disturbing—to make a compelling case for re-thinking our treatment of both of them.

Colin Dayan, the Robert Penn Warren Professor in the Humanities and professor of American studies in the College of Arts and Science, is the author of With Dogs at the Edge of Life (Columbia University Press, 2016).

Dayan, who is also a professor of law, emphasized that it’s the relationship between dogs and humans that is important to her research. The actions surrounding that relationship provide tremendous insight into what we have become as a society.

“The book is making a plea for us to think differently about our relationships because this is a time, as I see it, of extinctions,” Dayan said. “Certain groups of people and certain kinds of dogs are labeled and easily disposed of.”

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Tuesday, December 1st, 2015

Interview with Brian T. Edwards, author of “After the American Century”

Brian T. Edwards, After the American Century

“Culture jumps publics all the time in the digital age, and what it means and where it goes is completely unpredictable. Diplomats are well aware of the technologies by which to spread culture in the twentieth-first century, but they have not yet caught up with the logics of the circulation of culture in the digital age.”—Brian Edwards

The following is an interview with Brian T. Edwards, author of After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East

Question: Is that a real photo on the cover or is it photoshopped?

I took the cover photograph in Isfahan, about 200 miles south of Tehran. Isfahan was once one of the major cities of the world, twice the capital of Persia, and is filled with architectural masterpieces from the Safavid dynasty with a city square that is simply breathtaking in its scale. So when I turned a corner and came across this mural, with Mickey Mouse popping out of a jack-o-lantern and Walt Disney birds, it struck me that America was another empire that had left its mark on this city—part of the urban landscape now, with people passing by going about their daily business. Maybe it was the pumpkin, but there was something autumnal in that fading mural that hinted at the passing of the American empire.

I showed the photo to one of my Iranian students. He said it reminded him of the walls in the kindergartens and nursery schools when he was growing up, where pictures of Mickey Mouse were painted everywhere. The Simpsons were popular too, he said. It was expensive to buy notebooks and school supplies with these American cartoon characters, while the walls were free. Later in the book (page 117), I include a photo I took of a food court in a Tehran shopping mall, where you can see a similar phenomenon with Shrek, another American cartoon character who has had a profound impact in Iran.

Q: What does the book’s subtitle mean? Why “ends”? Do you mean to suggest that American culture is no longer present in the Middle East?

BE: Quite the opposite! By using the plural of the word “end,” I meant to evoke its multiple meanings—endpoints, uses, meanings, aims. I did also mean to nod at the meaning evoked by “end” in the singular (that something might come after the end of the American century). What I’m interested in discovering in this book is what it means that US culture is popular in the Middle East, almost part of the fabric of life, even while the United States as a political entity is increasingly unpopular. But unlike during the Cold War, or the so-called “American century,” when people like Henry Luce and the US State Department wanted to leverage the popularity of US culture, it now means a lot more than Coca Cola, jeans, or jazz music. Of course American culture still refers to Hollywood movies and hip hop, both of which are popular in the Middle East and have inspired local artists. But American cultural products in the digital age also include platforms like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, and cultural forms that are recognized by people in different parts of the world as “American”—say a movie formula, like the teen romance, or action-hero comic books, or cyberpunk. All of these end up in popular culture in the Middle East and North Africa, where they become new things, ultimately unrecognizable to American culture itself. So I’m really interested in what this all means, what the “ends” of these versions of American culture are, where they “end” up.

Q: What’s the deal with Shrek?

BE: Shrek makes two extended appearances in the book and shows different routes a particular cultural object can take in the digital age. In Tehran, I was startled to keep coming across images of the green ogre, from the food court at the shopping mall in the north part of the city to 2-by-3 foot Persian-language books retelling the Shrek story. Most interesting were the competing dubbed versions of the different Shrek movies—some of them more illegal than others—about which people had very strong feelings. I had come to Iran in part to try to understand the debate over the film director Abbas Kiarostami, but instead became obsessed with figuring out what one of my informants meant when she said that Shrek was really an Iranian movie.

I came across a very different Shrek in Morocco, where a hugely popular Moroccan video pirate artist used it in his most famous work. The video pirate, named Hamada, took a dance scene from Shrek and dubbed a popular Moroccan song over the soundtrack. The work that resulted, which became known as Miloudi after the singer whose work was dubbed over a clip of Donkey singing, started a phenomenon in Morocco in the mid 2000s and launched Hamada’s underground career.

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Monday, November 30th, 2015

Marx after Marx — An Interview with Harry Harootunian

Marx After Marx, Harry Harootunian

“The role Marxism plays today is the same critical vocation and practice Marx imagined at the start. It is still the best critical strategy we have available to understanding … and grasping what must be done.”—Harry Harootunian

The following is an interview with Harry Harootunian, author of Marx After Marx: History and Time in the Expansion of Capitalism:

Question: How does Marxism look different once it is taken out of the Western framework? What does it mean to “Deprovincialize Marx”?

Harry Harootunian: The question of how Marxism looked different once it was taken out of the Western framework, once it was deprovincialized and resituated in a context constituted of a different lived historico-cultural experience is, in many ways, the central problem of my book.

At one level it was obvious that the migration of Marxism acquired a different appearance when it landed in regions outside of Western Europe. In fact, its migration showed the multiple routes to the development of capitalism. Uno Kozo, the great Japanese political economist notedthat the development of capitalism in Japan was a local inflection of a global process similar to other late developing societies since it followed the same economic laws despite the mediating contaminations exercised by specific historical and cultural circumstances. However, it should be pointed out that this observation was made by a number of previous thinkers in Eastern Europe, Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky and even Georg Lukacs, the putative founder of ‘Western Marxism.”

All of these thinkers recognized that the penetration of capital in Eastern Europe dramatically contrasted with economic practices derived from previous modes of production and in some cases were metabolized to serve capital’s quest for surplus value. Marx put it simply in Grundrisse when he remarked that capital takes what it finds useful at hand from prior forms of economic activity and subordinates it to capitalism’s production process. Lukacs sought to show how the visible disparity between co-existing different forms of practice, the then and the now, could be overcome through the agency of ideology. The bourgeois mind was made to see in these residual appropriations not practices derived from pre-capitalist presuppositions but rather from capital’s own presuppositions. With thinkers from the margins of industrial capital and the colonies, the determining factor was the moment of encounter, time and circumstances in which capital appeared in a society. What I’m suggesting is that the reason why capital looked different derived from the convergence of two different forms of historical intervention: the conditions accounting for the timing of capital’s entry and the reasons prompting its adoption and the subsequent collision with a received, lived history and cultural experience.

The movement of Marxism could only result in a deprovincialization that took on the appearance of local historical and cultural color. When Marx announced in his famous Preface of the first edition of Capital I that “the country that is more developed industrially shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future,” he was not proposing that it would look like England or even France. What he was offering was the promise of development, knowing, at the same time, that the operation of formal subsumption, as the rule and logic of capitalist development, would inevitably involve a process of appropriation of what was at hand. Imitation of a “classic” example would have been simply impossible to maintain under the rule of formal subsumption. So I propose that in terms of theory, Marxism and its general laws, will always be mediated by local historical and cultural circumstances.

Q: Building upon that how does the history of Marxism and Marxist movements look different when you begin to look beyond the Euro-American context?

This question might be answered by suggesting that much of the concerns of Marxism outside of Europe-America, beginning with Lenin, was an effort to return to some of the more fundamental considerations of the founders, namely wage labor and the production process. In Western Marxism, The Frankfurt school was preoccupied with the role played by culture, consumption and the culture industry in the domination of everyday life. This program reflected the privilege accorded to the commodity form and ultimately value was released from its relationship to labor, whose importance was diminished. In a sense, this move to the structuring force of the commodity—value theory—exemplified thinkers like H-G Backhaus and Antonio Negri and to some extent Moishe Postone. The trouble with this orientation is that it was premised on the presumption that value had invaded every pore of the social formation. In this regard, the efforts of thinkers to return to some of the principal perspectives of the founders were an attempt to return to history and politics rather than philosophy. The move to philosophy signified a withdrawal from historical considerations related to labor and production, as suchand its importance for forms of contemporary political intervention. The preoccupation with philosophy separated lived culture from politics and history by subsuming their identities instead of reuniting value and history. In this regard, one should recall Marx’s own repudiation of philosophy and rejection of the “concept” for the sensuousness of the concrete commodity. If value trumped history, culture and consumption replaced history to signal in the West capital’s completion, that is, the accomplishment of real subsumption.

In contrast, the world beyond Europe remains at an earlier stage, still dominated by the bricolage of formal subsumption, incomplete, undeveloped, a history in the making aimed at “catching up.” Hence, the stage theory of an earlier Marxism was stretched to distinguish the West from the world beyond it, even though they shared the same contemporary moment. What I’m suggesting is that the presumed stagist movement from formal to real subsumption (absolute surplus value to relative surplus value) was another way of representing the difference between the advanced West and the backwardness of underdevelopment, maintaining the trajectory of an earlier and vulgate version of Marxism evolved from the Second and Third Internationals that would explain where societies were located in the historical route to socialism. Yet, on closer examination, it is possible to discern in this evolutionary scheme how the underdeveloped society is cast into another temporal register to reveal the distance it must travel to reach the true contemporaneity of modern capitalism. It is precisely this stagism that mandates the reproduction or replication of a singular model of development that excludes other, plural possibilities.

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Friday, November 20th, 2015

An interview with Sonja Arntzen

The Sarashina Diary

“[T]he advent in recent decades of ‘blogging’ makes Heian diaries and particularly The Sarashina Diary easier to appreciate as private texts directed toward a public audience. In the three years that our Sarashina Diary manuscript was experimentally shared in successive courses at the University of British Columbia, students kept mentioning that it had the feel of a blog. Although the content was personal and seemingly spontaneous as to choice of material, one could sense the author shaping her story to reach out to unspecified others who might choose to ‘tune in’ to her private world.” — Sonja Arntzen

The following is an interview with Sonja Arntzen who cotranslated and cowrote the introduction to The Sarashina Diary: A Woman’s Life in Eleventh-Century Japan, by Sugawara no Takasue no Musume.

Q. The jacket covers of both your translation of The Sarashina Diary and the 1971 translation by Ivan Morris use the same panel, Azumaya 1, from the mid-12th-Century Tale of Genji Scroll. Why is that?

Sonja Arntzen: That particular section of the scroll gestures to key elements of The Sarashina Diary. First of all, the diary bears witness to the author Sugawara Takasue no Musume’s lifelong fascination with fiction, which was centered on the great Tale of Genji. As the opening of the diary proclaims, “however it was that I first became enthralled with them, once I knew that such things as tales existed in the world, all I could think of…was how much I wanted to read them.” She goes on to relate how the oral retellings of tales by her sister and step-mother introduced her to fiction.

The scene in the Azumaya panel shows how monogatari “tales” were shared in a social context by women in the Heian period. It illustrates an episode in which Naka no Kimi, wife of Genji’s grandson Prince Niou, is meeting her half-sister Ukifune for the first time. Ukifune, having been raised in the distant Eastern province of Hitachi, has just come back to the capital seeking to make contact with distant kin. Naka no Kimi did not receive Ukifune immediately on her arrival because it turned out to be an auspicious day for Naka no Kimi to have her hair washed, a task of considerable effort when one’s hair was the length of one’s own height, the typical fashion for aristocratic women of the period. Naka no Kimi is shown in the lower left corner of the panel with a servant combing out her wet hair. While Ukifune was waiting to meet her sister, Prince Niou had happened upon this new woman in his wife’s apartment and immediately attempted to seduce her. (Prince Niou’s impetuous and lustful nature propels important plot-lines in the latter chapters of the Tale of Genji.) Ukifune is mortified; Naka no Kimi knows from her servants what has occurred, all of which makes this an awkward social moment. To smooth things over, Naka no Kimi has one of her attendants read from the text of a tale (see the figure immediately to Naka no Kimi’s right holding a book) while Ukifune (figure at the top right) peruses the illustrations. It was the 11th century equivalent of turning on the TV to defuse embarrassment. In short, this panel gives remarkable insight into the consumption of tale literature as part of women’s social interaction in the period and therefore why Takasue no Musume would choose addiction to fiction as one theme for her life. (more…)