Blind Entry, Bittersweet Exit

Today’s guest blogger is Lee Zacharias, author of the book Across the Great Lake, a haunting novel of nautical adventure, love, ghosts, and tragedy.

I’ve never written from an outline. My first novel, Lessons, began as a short story about a sixth grader whose mother signs her up for the school band.  But as the story grew so did my sixth grader. The adult Jane Hurdle becomes a classical clarinetist, and to research the novel I audited a year of music theory and attended a summer’s worth of orchestra rehearsals at the Eastern Music Festival, where each day I lunched with the musicians, immersing myself so completely in their world that when I finished I was shocked to realize I can’t play a note.

My new novel, Across the Great Lake, grew out of research for an essay about Frankfort, Michigan, which still bills itself as the home port of the Ann Arbor railroad car ferries, though the ferries stopped running long ago. As a girl I had visited Frankfort once. Coming as I did from the industrial Calumet Region at the bottom of Lake Michigan, I thought it was the most beautiful place I’d ever been.

Though at twelve I thought my life would be perfect if I could only live there, more than forty years would pass before I visited again, a short detour on my way from my mother’s house in Hammond to Traverse City, where my husband’s cousins were holding a reunion. There was the beach, just as I remembered, the house where we had stayed, the restaurant where my family had eaten breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The only thing missing was deep, evocative call of the foghorn. I bought a copy of Ninety Years, the history of the Ann Arbor railroad car ferries, and was plunged into a world of tricky currents, fierce storms, and ice, so much ice. Soon I was reading everything I could find about the lake, the ferries, the history of the area. I finished my essay but couldn’t let the material go.

The first sentence of the novel, “We went to the ice,” came to me without a clear sense of who was speaking or when. In the first chapter I learned it was a five-year-old girl whose father was thecaptain of a railroad car ferry and that he was taking her with him because her mother was dying, but I didn’t know her name, which I found as I sat on the porch at Wildacres Retreat in North Carolina tossing names back and forth with a friend until we both said, “That’s it!”

I chose this adventurous little girl, Fern, because everything aboard would be new to her. The narrator couldn’t be one of the crew because I didn’t know what his story would be, and I panicked when I realized I had no idea how sailors talked among themselves. “Just have them tell Ole and Lena jokes,” a former student from Wisconsin suggested, and as soon as Axel began a joke I’d found online, his voice—their voices—seemed as natural as if I’d been listening to them my whole life. I settled on 1936 because it was one of the coldest winters on record. No radar. Things came together. I finished the book. But the world I’d lived in for the last three years wasn’t mine, and I felt its loss nearly as acutely as Fern feels the loss of her childhood home. To write a novel is to create a country for yourself that you will one day leave with the homesick backward glance of an exile.

 

Lee Zacharias is the author of four previous books, including The Only Sounds We Make and Lessons, a Book of the Month Club selection. Her work has appeared in the Best American Essays series. Born in Chicago and raised in Hammond, Indiana, she is professor emerita of English at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. Read more about Lee Zacharias at www.leezacharias.com.

 

 

Six Great Things to Know about Your Favorite Lake

Our guest blogger for the day is Ted J. Rulseh, author of the new book A Lakeside Companion, an accessible guide that helps readers understand the magic of inland lakes—the life in, on, above, and around the water.

When you look out on your favorite lake, what do you see? Beautiful blue water? A place for a refreshing dip on a summer day? A surface on which to paddle a canoe or kayak? Favored spots to catch fish for sport or dinner?

Your lake is all this, but also much more. A lake is a fascinating living system, full of mysteries and things to discover, if you look closely. Here are six things you may not know about the world beneath the waves.

It all starts with the sun. That’s right, the walleye you fry up for supper owes its existence, first and foremost, to the sun. It’s sunlight that enables plants and algae in the lake to manufacture food through photosynthesis. The food these primary producers make forms the base of the lake’s food chain.

Your lake’s water is a thin soup. The water is the broth; the meat and vegetables consist of tiny organisms called plankton. The vegetables are the cells of algae that float freely in the water; they’re called phytoplankton. The meat is made up of small creatures, called zooplankton, that swim through the water, feeding as they go. They feed on the algae and in turn become food for fish in the very early stages of their lives.

Your lake has layers. The water is not a pool with a uniform temperature, at least not in the warm months of the year. As spring turns to summer, the lake separates into layers. Cold water lies at the bottom. Warmer water, being less dense, floats on top. The zone where warm water meets cold is called the thermocline. You can experience the thermocline by swimming out into fairly deep water, then doing a feet-first surface dive. When your feet reach a depth of about 12 to 15 feet, you will feel a sudden change from warm to cool. You’ve penetrated the thermocline. Click here to watch a video where you can learn more about lake stratification.

The waters are all connected. There are lakes, rivers, and the vast resource known as groundwater. These are not really separate entities. They are all part of the same system. The top of the groundwater is called the water table. In an important sense, a lake is a depression in the land that intersects and exposes the water table.

Your lake has a “skin.” You’ve seen the rounded shape of water droplets on a lakeside leaf. What gives that droplet its shape is something called surface tension—it’s as if the water had a very thin, invisible skin. That’s why the insects called water striders can skim across your lake’s surface on their long, spindly legs: The surface tension keeps them from sinking.

Making ice is hard work. Your lake can take a long time to freeze, even with a number of cold and wintry days and nights. Because of a property of water called the heat of fusion, it is eighty times harder to freeze a given volume of water than to lower its temperature by one Celsius degree. Put another way, a drop of water has to give as much energy to freeze as it would give up to lower its temperature by 80 Celsius degrees.

The closer you look at your lake, the more you’ll discover, and the more you will treasure and want to protect that natural wonder.

 

Ted J. Rulseh writes the newspaper column “The Lake Where You Live.” An advocate for lake improvement and protection, he lives in the lake-rich region of northern Wisconsin.

The Story of Tommy Thompson

Today’s guest blogger is Doug Moe, coauthor of the book Tommy: My Journey of a Lifetime. He penned it alongside the subject of the memoir, Tommy G. Thompson, Wisconsin’s longest-serving governor.

I suspect many readers will come to former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson’s new autobiography, Tommy: My Journey of Lifetime, which I coauthored, looking for details on major policies he helped initiate, like BadgerCare in Wisconsin, and, on the national level, Medicare Part D.

The details are in there, and they are often fascinating. When Thompson, as Secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush, helped push through the Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage, it took a call to the White House from the House floor at 4:30 a.m. Sec. Thompson was there advocating for the bill, and one congressman insisted on talking to President Bush. Every vote mattered, and Thompson put the congressman on the phone with the president. The bill passed narrowly. At nine the next morning, President Bush called Thompson.

“Two things, Tommy,” Bush said. “You did excellent work. Congratulations. But never, ever call me again at 4:30 in the morning.”

I think my favorite passages in the book may be the humorous moments when quirks of human nature are revealed. For instance, during the first campaign for governor in 1986, the Democratic mayor of Kenosha, John Bilotti, let it be known he might consider backing the Republican Thompson for governor in the race against Democrat Tony Earl. The only problem was, Bilotti didn’t want anyone to see him talking to Thompson in case he decided to back Earl, as everyone expected. He insisted Thompson park behind City Hall in Kenosha. Bilotti emerged out a back door, his collar pulled up, trying to be incognito.

“I’m going to go back inside,” Bilotti said. “I will leave the side door open, and I want you to come up the stairs. Don’t talk to anybody.”

Relating this story to me years later, Gov. Thompson said, “See what I had to put up with?” Still, he eventually gave Bilotti a job in his administration.

Then there was the 1988 meeting in Washington D.C. between Gov. Thompson and his top aide, Jim Klauser, and Lee Iacocca, head of Chrysler. The auto giant had recently purchased a large share of American Motors, which operated a big plant in Kenosha but had plans to close it. Talking to a reporter in the days before the meeting, Klauser remarked that Iacocca was “a strange man.” The meeting did not go well. Gov. Thompson felt Iacocca had assured him the plant would not close. Iacocca denied ever doing that. After only a few minutes, Iacocca exploded, and lunged across the table at Klauser, hollering: “I am not a strange man!” American Motors left, but Chrysler agreed to pay $25 million, much of it for job training for displaced workers.

As HHS secretary in Washington, Thompson lost 15 pounds and encouraged everyone in his department to get healthier. He would police the grounds outside the Humphrey Building and occasionally take cigarettes out of people’s mouths. At one point, Sec. Thompson recalled rounding a corner and seeing a man he recognized, a longtime HHS employee, with a lighted cigarette in his mouth. The man was so unnerved seeing the secretary that he took the cigarette out of his mouth and stuffed it in his shirt pocket. The man retired a year or so later, and the day he left, he thanked Thompson and told him he’d changed his life.

“How so?” Thompson said.

“After that day I set my shirt on fire, I never smoked another cigarette.”

Often these humorous stories would emerge while I was interviewing Gov. Thompson – we did more than 30 hours of interviews – about more serious matters. They lightened our conversations, and I hope they lighten the narrative of “Tommy.” It was, in any case, a privilege to help Tommy Thompson tell his life story.

 

Doug Moe is a longtime Wisconsin journalist and biographer. His numerous books include The World of Mike Royko and Lords of the Ring: The Triumph and Tragedy of College Boxing’s Greatest Team.

 

Landscape Journal Welcomes New Editor

Landscape Journal volume 36.2Landscape Journal vol. 36.2 features the first introduction by new editor Brian Lee, Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Kentucky. Lee takes over for previous co-editors David Pitt (University of Minnesota) and Daniel Nadenicek (University of Georgia), and this most recent volume of Landscape Journal is the result of a collaboration between the two editorial teams, with Pitt and Nadenicek selecting the content and Lee moving the issue into production with UW Press staff.

While Landscape Journal’s scholarly focus will remain largely similar to the original aim and scope, Lee plans to introduce new sections to the publication, and wants to expand the number of book reviews as well as articles centered on teaching/learning scholarship. Lee has also updated the journal’s submission guidelines to take advantage of new publishing opportunities as well as efficiencies in the peer-review process. The guidelines can be found on the Landscape Journal website.

Dr. Brian Lee

Dr. Brian Lee. Photo: Matt Barton.

Lee’s own scholarship focuses on service-learning, geospatial education, community watershed organizations, urban sprawl, and interior forest change. He is co-editor of the book Water in Kentucky: Natural History, Communities, and Conservation, published by the University Press of Kentucky (2017). He has received recognition for teaching excellence from the North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture and the Council of Educators in Landscape Architecture.

To conclude his editor’s introduction, Lee calls on landscape architects to reflect on the state of the profession, creating “words or images that capture the essence of what landscape architecture is, could be, or should be to move the field forward.” By encouraging such content, Landscape Journal will continue to serve as a forum for scholars and practitioners of landscape architecture to analyze the discipline and chart new directions.

Detritus from The Round Barn

 Today’s guest blogger is Jacqueline Dougan Jackson, author of The Round Barn: A Biography of an American Farm, Volume Four.

At 14, I told my grandfather that I was going to write him a book— and call it, “The Round Barn.” Now, at 90, with the book(s!) finished, I’ve been gathering up the materials I’ve collected over the years, and going over them one final time in preparation for archiving them at the University of Wisconsin. Whitewater will expect the letters, ledgers, and photographs from the farm, operating from 1906-1972, documenting its history as an innovative dairy. Not so much (but are accepting nonetheless) such equipment and objects as:

1. Original stanchion, surcingle, and cow cups from the Round Barn. Grampa wrote in a letter, how milk production had increased dramatically after he installed drinking cups in the barn. (Before, they had just the creek in the pasture, and the cow tank in the barnyard.) We kids liked to push down the lips of the cups, shaped for a cow’s nose, when the barn was empty! I saved two of these heavy cups, the pole and all, and sent one to UW. I couldn’t find the stanchion I saved, until my daughter said she’d seen it behind all the coats in the downstairs closet. Sure enough–so that went to the Archives, too.

As to the surcingle– “What’s a surcingle?” I explained:
It’s a harness to hold the milking machine under the cow. Nobody remembered seeing the surcingle. But finally I recalled an upstairs closet where we kept the dress-up clothes, and there it was, on a hook, along with shorter belts and sashes. It never could have been used for a costume, but was a good place for it. So that’s gone off, too, marked “surcingle” though I think the canny, farm-bred archivist will probably recognize it! I also found (with both triumph and dismay) various odds and ends that could have made a story. Too late now! But let me share some here:

__

My Pet
I have a pet pig. I named him Jacky after myself. He was born an our farm and is quite a big pig now. I’m sad because he soon will be butchered.
My pig was very clever when he was a baby, but now all he does is lie in the mud and eat.
One day I came to the pig pen. Jacky was going with the other pigs to another pen. I picked Jacky up by his tail. You should have heard him squeal!
He is smart too. He found out a way to get the most corn. Jacky is very greedy. He can also run quickly, and can dodge very well. I think my pig is very nice.

(I was a practical farm kid.)

A photo of the unique cream-catcher bottle we used for a few years, before homogenization — provided a procedure for pouring the cream without disturbing the milk. I’ve described the technique in Vol 1, but didn’t have the photo. Here it is, that’s me holding the bottle, with my sister Jo and brother-in-law Karl. Do you like my dress?
A quick conversation recorded shortly after Jo and Karl’s Catholic wedding. Jo, a new convert to Catholicism, and Dad (Ron), a Methodist, were driving along a country road and came across a crow consuming roadkill.
Dad: That must be a Methodist crow.
Jo (indignantly): Why, what do you mean?!
Dad: Well, It’s not Catholic anyway…. it’s Friday!

I think I’m going to find more juicy bits to crow about! _____
More information and stories at http://roundbarnstories.com


Jacqueline Dougan Jackson
 is the author of fourteen books, including Stories from the Round Barn, More Stories from the Round Barn, and the first three volumes of The Round Barn, A Biography of an American Farm. She is a founding faculty member of Sangamon State University, now the University of Illinois–Springfield, and her books have been featured on Wisconsin Public Radio.

 

 

University of Wisconsin Press
Welcomes New Publicity Manager

Kaitlin Svabek.

Kaitlin Svabek.

The University of Wisconsin Press is pleased to announce that Kaitlin Svabek will join our staff as Publicity Manager, effective Tuesday, September 4.

Svabek, most recently a communications and engagement specialist with the Wisconsin Network for Research Support (WINRS), will oversee publicity efforts for the University of Wisconsin Press books division. She previously held roles with the UW–Madison iSchool Laboratory Library and SLIS Department. Svabek earned a BA in English Creative Nonfiction Writing and Psychology at Northwestern University and an MA in Management of Information Innovation and Change at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She also cofounded and served as communications and marketing coordinator for Community Read Rock County (CRRC), a community reading project that organizes events, contests, and book discussions with libraries, schools, community organizations, and local businesses in Rock County. Svabek’s publishing experience includes positions at Agate Publishing and the Daily Northwestern.

“In addition to her experience connecting authors, books, and audiences, Kaitlin also brings an impressive range of social media, marketing design, and technical skills to the press,” says sales and marketing manager Casey LaVela. “I am tremendously excited to work alongside Kaitlin as she applies her creativity and abilities to our books publicity program.”

Svabek says, “I am so delighted to have the opportunity to build new and grow existing relationships at the University of Wisconsin Press. I’m looking forward to engaging more people in the exciting work coming from UWP and collaborating with such a creative and knowledgeable team.”

About the University of Wisconsin Press
The University of Wisconsin Press, one of the research and service centers housed within the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a not-for-profit publisher of books and journals. With nearly 1,500 titles in print, its mission embodies the Wisconsin Idea by publishing work of distinction that serves the people of Wisconsin and the world.

Daytime Stars: A poet’s memoir of the Revolution, the Siege of Leningrad, and the Thaw

Today’s guest blogger is Lisa A. Kirschenbaum, translator of Olga Berggolts’s memoir Daytime Stars.

Olga Berggolts was a prominent, often outspoken Soviet poet, who is hardly known in the English-speaking world. A citizen of passionate Soviet loyalty, she was arrested and tormented during the purges of the late 1930s. During the World War II siege of Leningrad, the former prisoner became the beloved voice of Radio Leningrad, an official figure whose moving poems, grounded in her own devastating losses, resonated with her fellow citizens and brought her literary fame. In the wake of Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, she was among the first writers to challenge the orthodoxies of Socialist Realism.

Berggolts began her memoir Daytime Stars immediately after the dictator’s death. In lyrical, often deeply personal prose, she expresses both idealistic enthusiasm for the Soviet project and doubt, even despair, about its outcomes. For Anglophone readers of Soviet literature, it is, I think a revelation, undermining our cold war inflected tendency to divide Soviet writers into official party hacks and heroic truth tellers persecuted by the regime.

Central to Berggolts’s Soviet identity was her self-conscious effort to speak not as an individual, but as representative of her generation — the generation born in the early 1900s that came of age along with the Revolution. The “daytime stars” of the title stand as a metaphor for her own efforts to speak her generation’s truth, to tell of its triumphs and its sorrows. She writes that as a child she learned about daytime stars. Outshined by the sun, they could be seen reflected in the still waters of deep wells. Try as she might, she never managed to see them. Still, she believed in them, and sought as a poet to make visible what was hidden: “I want my soul, my books, that is my soul open to all, to be such a well that reflects and holds within itself daytime stars — people’s souls, lives, and destinies.”

Completed in 1800, the Kalyazin Bell Tower was partially submerged in 1939 under the reservoir created by the Uglich dam. Berggolts saw the tower on her 1953 trip to Uglich. (Photo by author)

To tell the story of her generation, she returned just after Stalin’s death to Uglich, the Volga town where she lived in evacuation during the famine years of the civil war (1918-21) and which she associated with the purest idealism of the Revolution. Her return took her through the Moscow-Volga Canal. Opened in 1937 to much fanfare, the canal was a product of Stalinism’s commitment to modernization and a monument to its brutality. Berggolts could not acknowledge — perhaps did not know — that some twenty thousand of the convict laborers who dug the canal died during its construction. But she lamented the project’s devastation of the landscape: The rising waters of the reservoirs constructed along the canal and the Volga submerged the “fairy-tale beauty” of the region’s ancient Russian towns.

Entering the Volga through the last lock of the Moscow-Volga Canal (Photo by author)

Traveling the canal and visiting Uglich today, the Stalinist past is almost invisible. The cathedral of the Epiphany Monastery, where Berggolts lived during the civil war, and which in 1953 she found in a state of disrepair, its blue domes turned black, its stars rusted, now gleams in its former glory. But the living past remains visible in Berggolts’s luminous memoir. Its story of the generation that grew up under Lenin and fought and suffered in World War II still resonates in contemporary Russia.

Cathedral of the Epiphany Monastery, Uglich (2018, photo by author)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lisa A. Kirschenbaum is a professor of history at West Chester University and the author of International Communism and the Spanish Civil War, Small Comrades, and The Legacy of the Siege of Leningrad, 1941–1995.

 

Staging the Forgotten

Today’s guest blogger is Alisa Lin, an assistant professor at Ohio State University who worked with us to publish a translation of Krzhizhanovsky’s That Third Guy.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky is a name that stands out to most English-language ears. Seemingly long and convoluted, thrice studded with that uncommon “z,” it is memorable for its unusualness, with its odd spelling betraying the Russianization of an originally Polish name. For a few decades at the end of the 20th century, though, the name was a forgotten one. The writer who bore it was not remembered, and his life’s work of stories, plays, and essays largely remained unpublished.

And yet, Krzhizhanovsky’s writings, most of which weren’t published in their own day out of bad luck or misalignment with Soviet priorities, can be powerfully captivating to today’s English-language reader. I’ve seen this repeatedly in my Russian literature students who respond to his texts with wonder and enthusiasm. His tale of the room that expands infinitely, the one about the frog from the River Styx, the story of the tiny reflections of ourselves that live on in others’ pupils—these and many more offer richly imaginative worlds in which philosophically driven whimsy butts up against starvation, poverty, and death. Krzhizhanovsky, who was born in 1887 and died of alcoholism in 1950, drew such harshness from his own experiences.

Thus far, Krzhizhanovsky has been known in English only for his fiction (in award-winning translations by Joanne Turnbull for New York Review Books). But professionally he was a man of the theater, serving the eminent Moscow Kamerny Theater as a lecturer and consultant for over two decades. His many essays in theatrical theory and dramatic criticism convey the core of his creative worldview. Selections from these essays, along with Krzhizhanovsky’s unstaged comedic play That Third Guy (1937) will be published this week by University of Wisconsin Press in my translation.

The first actors to explore Krzhizhanovsky’s theater texts in English were a spirited group of students I co-taught at Princeton in 2015 together with director Tim Vasen and Slavic professor Caryl Emerson (who contributed a foreword and critical essay to this volume). With projections, film, finger puppets, dance, music, creative lighting, and an abundance of metaphor (including the Eiffel Tower reimagined as a coquettish pair of work boots), they designed and embodied the highly visual world of Krzhizhanovsky’s stories as informed by his theater essays.

That Third Guy, which I gave the class in draft translation, felt different to them at first. The play has a long literary heritage: the plot responds to Pushkin’s mythic poem about Cleopatra and the style parodies the Cleopatra plays of Shakespeare and Bernard Shaw. The play’s comedy draws on the low-brow culture of farce and sensational detective-adventure tales. Yet the dark side of Stalinism, from Krzhizhanovsky’s own reality, looms in the background. As the students experimented with staging scenes from the play, this mixture of styles and tones found their place, and the play’s layers of metatheatricality, reminding of Pirandello or Stoppard, emerged.

As the students observed, That Third Guy offers much to the reader—and spectator—of today. It champions the “little guy” trapped by a bureaucracy whose allegiances invert with little notice. It’s about power and the gendering of forms of power. It considers the meaning of fame and legacy, and the frustrations of their arbitrariness. Heroism and the dramatic canon are turned on their heads as the play marginalizes Cleopatra and Antony to foreground the Third, a thoroughly ordinary, unnamed poet. Theatrically, the play engages in Krzhizhanovsky’s modernist, phenomenological conception of what the theater does best: inventing something fresh, full of potential, self-aware of its own devices, and utterly unlike the everyday.

 

Alisa Ballard Lin is an assistant professor in the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures at the Ohio State University.

New Books & New Paperbacks, August 2018

We are pleased to announce the following books being published this month.

August 7, 2018
That Third Guy: A Comedy from the Stalinist 1930s with Essays on Theater
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Translated and edited by Alisa Ballard Lin, Foreword by Caryl Emerson

“This charming volume makes a notable contribution to the growing English-language literature by and about Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, one of the rediscovered gems of twentieth-century Russian literature.”
—Thomas Seifrid, author of The Word Made Self

 

August 14, 2018
Expressions of Sufi Culture in Tajikistan
Benjamin Gatling

Folklore Studies in a Multicultural World

“Drawing on tradition, poetry, and Sufi practice, Gatling shows how the present—and the nostalgia it facilitates—is always produced within a political context that tries to manage cultural expression. A lasting contribution to Central Eurasian studies and Islamic studies that deserves to be widely read.”
—David Montgomery, author of Practicing Islam: Knowledge, Experience, and Social Navigation in Kyrgyzstan

“Offers important insights into Islam, and Sufism more particularly, in Tajikistan, as well as to more general debates about tradition, social memory, temporality, and expressive forms.”
—Maria Louw, author of Everyday Islam in Post-Soviet Central Asia

August 21, 2018
Daytime Stars: A Poet’s Memoir of the Revolution, the Siege of Leningrad, and the Thaw
Olga Berggolts, Translated and edited by Lisa A. Kirschenbaum; Foreword by Katharine Hodgson

“A lyrical memoir steeped in the world of the Russian/Soviet intelligentsia. Berggolts opens up to her readers the gray zones of Soviet life.”
—Benjamin Nathans, author of Beyond the Pale

“A compelling work and an interesting window onto a Soviet life, extending from a childhood during the civil war to the youthful revolutionary in Petrograd/Leningrad, from the terror of the 1930s and the siege of Leningrad to the present of the text, 1953–62.”
—Emily van Buskirk

August 31, 2018
Russian Performances: Word, Object, Action
Edited by Julie A. Buckler, Julie A. Cassiday, and Boris Wolfson

“A milestone in Russian studies. Offers rich, diverse insights into the performative dimension of Russian society through the centuries, demonstrating that artistic forms and social formations not only mean something but do something.”
—Andreas Schönle, Queen Mary University of London

“This important collection restores Russian thought, theater, and dance to the disciplinary conversation about performance. The result is revelatory: a new form of performance studies emerges, one more philosophical, theatrical, and literary than what we have known. A welcome addition to a changing field.”
—Martin Puchner, author of The Drama of Ideas

August 31, 2018
Farming and Famine: Landscape Vulnerability in Northeast Ethiopia, 1889-1991

Donald E. Crummey; Edited by James C. McCann

Africa and the Diaspora: History, Politics, Culture

“Scholarship of the highest quality. Ethiopia is often taken as a prime example of a society made susceptible to famine by environmental degradation. Crummey provides an immensely valuable and meticulous reassessment.”
—James L. Giblin, author of A History of the Excluded

“Has relevance extending well beyond the Wallo region itself or even Africa, to the analysis and understanding of famine worldwide. It will stand as a fitting final monument to one of the great scholars in the field.”
—Christopher Clapham, author of The Horn of Africa

Expressions of Sufi Culture in Tajikistan

Our guest blogger today is Benjamin Gatling, author of the new book Expressions of Sufi Culture in Tajikistan, which is part of the Folklore Studies in a Multicultural World series.

If Central Asia conjures more than obscurity in popular imagination, it’s likely as a restive region, possibly teetering on collapse, misruled by authoritarian regimes, bubbling with oil, gas, and other natural resources, or a bulwark against religious fanatics. The anthropologist Morgan Liu has written that “Central Asia is a curiously overdetermined yet understudied region of the world.” What he meant was that the region’s relevancy in US minds most often comes in its similarity or proximity to somewhere else; it is Muslim like the Middle East, a vector of Great Power competition, or a spillover for the global “War on Terror,” for instance.

Fixations on dictators, hydrocarbons, and violent Islamism share a common emphasis on security. It’s not that security concerns don’t exist in Central Asia. But whatever their salience, they get filtered through a distorted prism. That’s partly because, as Sarah Kendzior noted in the Atlantic, Central Asia isn’t America’s “Other,” but Russia’s, making Central Asia in some ways our Other’s Other. What’s most troubling is that security-centric framing plays into the agendas of the region’s autocrats. With respect to Muslim life in particular, it legitimates repression and the tight regulation of public piety.

When I first went to Tajikistan in 2010, everyday believers with whom I interacted walked a fine line between accommodating, what they saw as, unreasonable demands on religious expression and charting the course that their piety required. For Sufis, in particular, Muslims that had taken on special initiations and trace different genealogies of Muslim history, such concerns took on a special valence because the public practices they were obliged to perform easily ran afoul of a hostile state security service. As the Sufis I knew lived their lives, the securitization of Islam always lurked in the background, even as what was most important to their daily existence, what they talked about the most—the price of foodstuffs, jobs, crumbling rural infrastructure, dependence on labor remittances sent from Russia, etc.—seemed mostly absent from the concerns of the governing elite.

The Sufis I knew did their best to construct alternatives: alternative ways of living, alternative ways of talking, alternative times, alternative ways of dress even. Their everyday ways of living told a remarkably different story than the official one proffered by organs of the state. It was folklore, expressive culture, art, humor, memories, rituals, poetry, and dress that allowed the men I knew to create alternative selves. Sufi stories weren’t so much resistant as transcendent, taking their tellers and hearers beyond the state’s hostile interference.

In a world seemingly obsessed with the alleged political resonances of Islam, especially in Central Asia, expressive culture offers a key vantage point for seeing how everyday people act, think, respond, and negotiate their worlds. For Sufis in Tajikistan, it’s how they construct what it means to be Muslim in 21st-century Central Asia.

                                                 

 

 

Benjamin Gatling is an assistant professor of folklore at George Mason University.