Author Archives: Morgan Reardon

A Cinema of Obsession

In honor of global celebrations for International Women’s Day, we share a guest post from Mariah Larsson. Her recent book, A Cinema of Obsession, is the first to focus on the life and career of notable Swedish director and auteur Mai Zetterling.

As representations of women in film have been heatedly debated, Mai Zetterling’s life and career provide important perspectives. When Zetterling’s first feature film, Loving Couples, premiered in 1964, she was one of very few women filmmakers in the world. After having worked as an actress for more than twenty years, she entered into the European art cinema scene and struggled to claim a space as an auteur, a film director who was also considered a great artist. During the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, she would break a long and winding path, beginning in the male-dominated art cinema institution, continuing into television and documentary, feminist film festivals and filmmaking, and commercial television as well as feature films, ending with ceaseless struggles to finance various projects during the final years of her life.

Provoking controversy and scandal on several occasions until her untimely death in 1994, Zetterling was prolific in her work on documentary, short film, feature fiction films, and television, while also writing novels and short stories. Politically, she claimed to belong within a leftist intellectual tradition, and she was for a while under investigation by the MI5 (the United Kingdom’s counterintelligence and security agency). Nevertheless, the ideology expressed in her films dealt with a deep romanticization of cultures on the margins of mainstream Western society. Her films are visually striking and their narratives often controversial, focusing on gender relations and alienation. Representations of sexuality and gender were both conservative and radical at the same time; paradoxical, often strongly symbolic.

Zetterling made many of her films in her native land of Sweden, though for the majority of her life she lived abroad. She is associated with the country of Ingmar Bergman and films with adult material. Her years as a film star in Sweden were brief, as she moved to England in 1947 shortly after a successful guest appearance playing the titular role in Basil Dearden’s Frieda (1947). In contrast to Ingmar Bergman, with whom Zetterling had worked (starring in Music in Darkness in 1948) and with whom she was often compared, there has been very little or even near to nothing written about her for an international audience.

One reason for Zetterling’s overlooked position in film history is that her work, to a large extent, seems to have fallen between the stools. It is no coincidence that the feature films she made within her native art cinema institution are the ones of her oeuvrebest recorded in film history: Loving Couples, Night Games (1966), The Girls (1968). Feature films were for a long time considered the highest form of moving image storytelling, and European art films were categorized in accordance to nationality. In addition, as the women’s movement in film began to highlight Zetterling’s work in the 1970s and 1980s, her films featuring female protagonists were the ones that were screened and remembered. However, Zetterling’s career was independent of national borders—as well as independent of genres and formats. She worked in Denmark, Greenland, the UK, France, and Canada. Her various productions focus alternately on male and female protagonists and Doctor Glas (1968), Vincent the Dutchman (1972), or her contribution to the 1972 Munich Olympics documentary, Visions of Eight (1973), are no less engaging than The Girls or Scrubbers (1983).

Zetterling navigated the changing industrial and contextual structures of the film and television industries during her career, sometimes successfully, at other times less so. Her path was, indeed, winding, but it mirrors the experiences of several other women directors, even today.

[Note: A collection of Mai Zetterling’s films with English subtitles is now available in a DVD box set: Mai Zetterling’s samlade verk, released by Swedish Studio S Entertainment (region 2).]

Mariah Larsson is a professor of film and literature at Linneaus University. She is the author of The Swedish Porn Scene: Exhibition Contexts, 8mm Pornography and the Sex Film, and the coeditor of Swedish Cinema and the Sexual Revolution: Critical Essays.

“Part group memoir, part something more magical”: Intern Book Club (February)

This month we read The Toni Morrison Book Club, a group memoir by Juda Bennett, Winnifred Brown-Glaude, Cassandra Jackson, and Piper Kendrix-Williams. Our book club consists of Alexis Paperman, Publicity Assistant and grad student studying library information science; and Morgan Reardon, Marketing Assistant studying English literature and American Indian studies.

Morgan’s Thoughts

Before reading this book, I already knew it was special. The cover was the first thing I noticed, its brilliant colors and gorgeous silhouette catching my eye. It is certainly different than what we’ve read for this club before, part group memoir and part something more magical. As a reader and admirer of Toni Morrison, I was very excited to dive into this. At first, I was a bit concerned about how all four authors would have their voices heard in the book, but the way it was structured was actually very compelling, and each person’s voice shone throughout. Each author got their own section that started out with a secret, a small introduction to their chapter that often featured the group’s memories of the writing process, which was really interesting to see. Through these secrets and the following chapters, I felt like I really got to know these authors, like they were sitting right beside me and telling me their stories. These authors shared some of their darkest times with me, and some of their best. I felt like and still feel like I know them, and that if I met them, we could just pick up our conversation. These stories were full of vulnerability and love, and I could feel the heartbreak and hope as it was spread across the pages. The way the authors’ memories and the words of Toni Morrison were woven together will stay with me for a long time. I have already recommended this book to many of my close friends, and it will definitely be sitting on my shelf among my favorites.

Alexis’s Thoughts

I’ve been looking forward to this book for nearly a year. By the time the book was actually in my hands I began to question myself. Could a book really live up to a yearlong anticipation period? Surprisingly, to me, this book surpassed this year of build-up. It’s shocking that such a small book, 196 pages, can be doing so many things. This book acts as memoir, literary criticism, and a continuation of conversations both old and new. As I read each of the authors’ sections, I felt as if I were beginning to make new friends. The secrets that are shared, the memories and emotions, allow you to begin to know each of the authors—glimpses into their lives, into the ways Toni Morrison speaks to each of them. There is an anticipation about the relevance of Morrison in each separate occasion of the authors’ journeys in life. No matter who you are or what stage of life you’re in, I truly believe you will take something from this book. I’m reading it now as a grad student and seeing reflections between this book and my studies on race. I’m making connections to theories and readings that I’d been struggling with. Already, I plan on rereading this book in the future.

Our Conclusion

When Morgan and Alexis discussed the book before writing this post, we decided that this is one of our top-tier books. It is a book we would place next to Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith and Citizen by Claudia Rankine.

Four Writers and a Funeral

On Toni Morrison’s birthday, we share a guest post from Cassandra Jackson. She is an author of The Toni Morrison Book Club along with Juda Bennett, Winnifred Brown-Glaude, and Piper Kendrix Williams. Uncle Bobbie’s will host the authors for a reading and signing tonight (2/18) at 7pm.

On June 25, 2018, I sent a group text to Piper, Winnie, and Juda: “My father needs to die. He is suffering and it is so terrible. If you pray, please ask for this part to end.”

I knew that my message had no business in a pop-up notification on a phone, that it would snatch my friends away from dinners, books, and children. Winnie would have to sit down, Juda would stand up, and Piper would cry. But it never occurred to me that I should not tell them what was happening in my world even though I was in Alabama and they were scattered along the line that divides Pennsylvania from New Jersey.

I had arrived in the South with my husband and children to visit my parents for a week. Over the course of those days, my father, who had lived with bone cancer for years, went from playing with his grandchildren to writhing in pain in his hospice bed. If I was to survive his transition from life to death, I needed the three of them to see me do it, to say it back to me, to let me know that the surreal was now real.

We call ourselves the Toni Morrison Book Club, but I am never sure if that name belies too much or too little of what we are. For those who have never been in a book club, the name just means people who talk about books. Those who have participated in a book club probably wonder at the deadly seriousness of one that focuses on a single author, and one of the most acclaimed and sophisticated at that. But our book club is probably not so different from theirs. We talk about human experience, gliding seamlessly between fictional characters and our lives.

As ordinary as it might sound, a book club where friends talk about books and themselves was a radical departure from the thing we had spent years learning to do. Three of us are scholars of literature and a fourth is a sociologist. We have been trained to cultivate scholarly distance and the veneer of objectivity. We say “the ways in which” rather than “how,” “meanings” rather than “the message,” and one of us (I won’t say who, but his name rhymes with Buddha) occasionally sprinkles a bit of French into everyday conversation. When our students judge characters, we remind them that characters are “constructions,” and we redirect them to think about what the character means rather than who the character is. If they tell us what the author meant to say, we tell them that the author (whether living or not) is dead because we do not have access to authors’ thoughts and even when we do, intentions are not art. In these ways, we do away with writers as people and thus kill off ourselves too.

When Juda knocked on my office door rambling and gesticulating about a book that would abandon all that, I thought, sure, why not. I have long been done with writing books of literary criticism that no one but a handful of specialists would read. But when he said the book would be about Toni Morrison, I said, “Have you lost your mind? Boy, if you don’t get away from my door—” But for him, Ms. Morrison’s work would make the perfect jumping-off point. Who more ideal for a book in which writers think about the relationship between literature and their own lives than the woman who, upon finding out that she had won the Nobel Prize for literature, told a committee member, “If you’re going to keep giving prizes to women—and I hope you do—you’re going to have to give us more warning. Men can rent tuxedos. I have to get shoes. I have to get a dress.” But after years of watching scholars argue over the meaning of Ms. Morrison’s work like she was the last cocktail at the Modern Language Association open bar, I had made a quiet pact with myself: Better to die of thirst than sit at that hot mess of a bar. I made Morrison my not-so-secret side-chick who I taught and loved on in class but refused to write about publicly.

In the end, Juda tricked me into it. You’ll have to read the book to find out how, but suffice it to say that he is one sneaky BFF, and I am forever grateful for his conniving.

We met, and talked, and wrote about Toni Morrison’s novels, ourselves, and the world. In one conversation over cupcakes and tears, we moved from Song of Solomon to the death of Philando Castile, a black motorist murdered by police, to Winnie’s son, who she had to warn to be careful, even though no amount of careful ever seems to be enough. Our fear and anger settled over Juda’s table like a thick fog until Juda spoke in a shaky voice, adding himself and Alton Sterling, also murdered by police, to the mix.

This is how our secret lives emerged—things that you think you can never talk about—your brother who hates black people, the gay boy you tried to turn, the white boys you hid from your mother, the tourist visa your family used to immigrate permanently to this country. We decided to center the book on this concept of secrets, the things that we had learned to say with each other’s help. And somewhere in the process, though I am not quite sure of the precise moment, we became something else—not simply friends or colleagues but something overlapping and converged—at once multiple and singular.

I cannot say precisely when we became the Toni Morrison Book Club. But for me, the signs of this merger coalesce around moments of shared grief. In 2017, I was cleaning my attic when my husband called to say that my brother—who was, as far as anyone knew, healthy—had died of a heart attack that morning. I made the necessary calls to my family, still unable to fully process his death. Then I texted TMBC to let them know that I couldn’t meet: “My brother died this morning. I have to go to Alabama. Not sure when I will be back.” They all wrote back immediately, their messages sounding like words one would direct to someone who has been shot. That’s when I realized that the words “Your brother died” had made me feel like I’d been shot—they had penetrated my body, cutting and burning before my mind could understand or accept what happened. I stared at my phone and to my surprise, I was no longer alone in the attic.

We never set out to be this to each other. It felt, instead, like we were just doing what Ms. Morrison would have wanted us to do, telling our own stories as if language was the only thing that could save us. So when we got word in the summer of 2019 that Ms. Morrison had read part of our manuscript and wanted to see more, we were thrilled and scared. Would she see the gift that she had given us? Would she understand that this book was our thank you? Or, would we be remembered as the four nitwits who needed to write a whole-ass book just to tick off the great Toni Morrison?

We would never find out what she thought of The Toni Morrison Book Club. On the morning of August 6, 2019, I sent the following text to TMBC: “Toni Morrison died last night.”

Cassandra Jackson is a professor of English at The College of New Jersey and the author of Violence, Visual Studies, and the Black Male Body and Barriers between Us: Interracial Sex in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction.

Which organization should you donate to?

As we consider the causes that matter to us around Giving Tuesday, author Megan Hershey discusses the value in supporting local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

We all want to help. We want to aid displaced Syrians in finding refuge, support Venezuelans in the face of hyperinflation, and assist Mozambican families rebuilding in the wake of Cyclone Idai’s devastation. We want to prevent these catastrophes by promoting democratization processes and supporting development efforts—to see health systems strengthened and disaster response teams trained and funded.

Yet, for most of us, figuring out how best to give to these efforts poses a challenge. Which organizations are trustworthy? What about overhead costs? Who is positioned to do the most good?

Then there are the debates over whether foreign aid is a life-saving good or a broken system that requires a drastic overhaul. Should we take a market-based approach or work to better weave political freedom into our understanding of development? It’s enough to exasperate even the most dedicated household philanthropist.

Yet, there is good news. While we’ve been asking how best to give, spirited, locally established, and deeply embedded nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have sprung up around the world and quietly gone to work on their communities’ toughest problems. Research on these NGOs spanning the last thirty-five years shows that they have had positive effects on development issues. These are the players that have embodied the injunction to “think globally, act locally.”

My recently published book, Whose Agency: The Politics and Practice of Kenya’s HIV-Prevention NGOs, offers a close look at the inner workings of these small, local organizations. Though they typically lack large advertising budgets and name recognition, they manage to achieve a great deal thanks to their local knowledge, community connections, and inherent adaptability.

When looking for an organization to support—whether in response to a humanitarian crisis or with an eye toward development—here’s why you should consider supporting a locally founded organization:

  • Access: Local NGOs operate in the areas where they were founded and often hire employees from their communities. They also usually do not need special permission to access an area in crisis. This means donations go directly to the people who need it most.
  • Embeddedness: They have relationships with local leaders and powerbrokers. While there can be tensions between NGOs and the people they reach, they are well placed to build trust, which facilitates service effectiveness.
  • Flexibility: This is a local NGO’s secret weapon. They may be constrained by donor requirements on how they can spend money; yet, when individuals give to these organizations directly, the NGOs can use those funds quickly, for the greatest needs, without dealing with too many restrictions.

You may have to do a bit more legwork to find these organizations. Read news stories and international NGO publications carefully to see what local NGOs are mentioned or ask friends who have traveled to those regions. Many governments also have NGO coordinating bodies that make NGO registries available. Do your due diligence, read up on the organizations you plan to support, ask questions, and build a relationship with someone at the organization if possible. But don’t be afraid to support local NGOs; you can be confident that your gifts will have a bigger impact, and you might even feel happier, too.

Photo of Megan HersheyMegan Hershey is an associate professor of political science at Whitworth University.

 

 

 

 

 

“It’s Haunted!”: Intern Book Club (October)

In honor of the spooky season, we read Haunted Heartland by Michael Norman, a compilation of chilling stories from around the Midwest. As a special addition to our monthly post, we are including two creepy tales from our new home, Memorial Library. Our book club consists of Alexis Paperman, Publicity Assistant and grad student studying library information science, and Morgan Reardon, Marketing Assistant studying English literature and American Indian studies.


You may have heard: UW Press moved this summer! Our new offices are now in Memorial Library. It is a fitting place for us—filled with books and great people. As we’ve begun to settle in, we’ve heard a few tales of the spooky quirks in the building. What better time to recount them than October?

Everyone who has been to Memorial Library knows that it is the only campus library that requires you show a student ID (Wiscard) or visitor’s pass to enter, but not everyone may know why. Late one night in May 1979, grad student Susan Oldenburg was packing up her things to head home after studying alone in one of the typing rooms. As she later told the Capital Times, “All of a sudden an arm came around my neck from behind. I screamed and the next thing I remember, whoever it was put their other hand in my mouth.” Oldenburg’s attacker, a man named Eugene Devoe who came to be known as the Library Stalker, then struck her with a fire axe and left her on the floor with a deep gash on her head and other minor injuries. As Devoe tried to escape, he was apprehended by two students who had heard screams. Oldenburg was found and taken to the hospital. She survived, but still deals with lasting effects  from the horror of that night. Since this frightening incident, Memorial Library requires all patrons to enter only through the main entrance and to show an ID upon entry, hoping to prevent any more creeps with axes from stalking the stacks. Now you know the reason behind it!

In Memorial Library, it is easy to get lost in the stacks. It feels like an unending maze of books: both a dream and nightmare. A popular spot for students, the library provides study carrels, nicknamed cages, and quiet spaces for studying. It is also allegedly haunted by the ghost of UW–Madison professor of English Helen C. White. Although she has a building named after her, her ghost is said to prefer Memorial’s third floor. since it was a favorite research haunt of White’s when she was living. Besides, the Helen C. White Building wasn’t completed until five years after her death. If you want to feel the chill of her spirit while you study, it does not take much to call her attention to you. Loud noises and littering seem to draw a response from the ghost. Those who are not studying in silence will often hear the nearby cage doors opening and closing. It is as if White is determined to be the only source of loud noise if it must exist.

As someone who has a lifetime of experience traveling to the Twin Cities, Morgan found the chilling story “A House on Summit Avenue” piqued her interest. This story takes place in St. Paul, Minnesota, in a grand stone house on one of the historic avenues in the city. Built in 1883 by wholesale grocery tycoon Chauncey W. Griggs, the house is said to be the most haunted residence in the Twin Cities, and for good reason. The house’s history is teeming with stories of encounters with the supernatural. Among the many accounts of spooky sightings Norman illustrates in this section is that of Jerry Dolan, a patrolman called to investigate a loud howling noise one night. Once inside, he and his partner discovered a man crouching in the basement, hiding from something that wasn’t there and claiming to have “seen death.” They never found the source of the howling. Other people have sensed the presence of other apparitions, including a maid who hanged herself on the fourth floor in 1913, a gardener who visits the library, and a piano-playing teenager named Amy. Though there is little proof, there is no lack of anecdotal evidence: “Footsteps resound on empty staircases. Doors mysteriously open and close. Rasping coughs come from behind closed doors of unoccupied rooms. Light bulbs shatter. Heavy drapes rustle when no one is near them” (190). Visitors have also reported seeing floating heads, ghosts disappearing into the walls, and feeling waves of distress. Norman does a great job of compiling the house’s many hauntings and creating a vivid image of a house so mysterious that readers may have to pay a visit to find out just what is lurking inside its walls for themselves.

Alexis is from the Pacific Northwest, a region that is home to many myths, murders, and hauntings. There was some doubt in her mind about the creepy aspects of cornfields compared with overgrown forests. Reading through Norman’s book helped to overturn that notion. One story that caught her attention is “Return of the Hanged Man.” It is not unusual for ghosts to be mischievous. But for this particular ghost, William Caffee, it seems inevitable. Hours before he was to be hanged for murder, it is said “Caffee sat astride his casket and beat out the rhythm of a funeral march with two empty beer bottles” (306). According to Norman, “No one who witnessed his execution would ever forget him” (306). The hotel in front of which he was hanged is still in operation. Over the years the staff have been subject to Caffee’s playfulness. He is not said to have done anything harmful or threatening in his afterlife. Instead he will play with people’s hair—often holding the ponytails of women up above their heads—or he will lock and unlock doors. Alexis admits, this is not so much a scary tale of a haunting but a humorous one. Then again, who knows how she’d react to having her hair pulled by a mischievous ghost?

Dancing Spirit, Love, and War

Today we present an interview with scholar and author Evadne Kelly, whose book Dancing Spirit, Love, and War is part of our Studies in Dance History series. In this piece she talks about what this book is about, how she acknowledges her role in researching this topic, and why this book needs to exist.

Why was there a need for this book?

Dance is often romanticized, tokenized, and overlooked as a source of knowledge.

I hope to show how the study of dance and movement can reveal a great deal about the world. Dance sheds light on how power operates and governs moving bodies while simultaneously emerging from the movements of bodies. Because of the ways in which bodies connect in time and space through movement, dance is a particularly important source of knowledge in the context of histories and legacies of British colonialism in Fiji and Canada.

In particular, the Fijian song-dance performance tradition, called meke, provides a uniquely embodied perspective on the postcolonial tensions embedded within relations between Indigenous and Western notions of reciprocity, responsiveness, and return. In this regard, meke reveals a great deal about shifts in power over time and space.

Why was it important to acknowledge your own implication in British colonial histories and legacies?

There is no legitimating or securing way forward that does not include messy and uneasy rhythms. But, as Nancy Peters wrote in “Learning Shame: Colonial Narratives as a Tool for Decolonization,” stories that unsettle colonial thinking are “animating” projects (In Visioning a Mi’kmaw Humanities: Indigenizing the Academy, edited by Marie Battiste 2017). Being uncomfortable and disoriented is a key part of the process for non-Indigenous people to move from being enemy to adversary to ally. This became clear over a long process of coming to terms with the ways in which I, as a white Canadian settler and granddaughter of a British colonial Fiji Civil Servant, am implicated in the history and legacy of colonization.

The process of researching and writing this book had the potential to build relations or create obstacles to relations. It all depended on how I listened and payed attention. It also depended on how I remembered the past, including all the stories my ancestors told about themselves. The project taught me to remember differently—to not romanticize the stories of the past but remember them from a new angle of the kinesthetic body, whereby visceral sensibilities, movements, rhythms, and sounds emerge in-between bodies implicated in uneven relations of power. As Nancy Peters explained, learners understand new viewpoints and become skeptical about single truths when they experience a collision of viewpoints (Peters 2017).

It took the research and writing of this book for me to finally understand and be ready to implicate my own body and the bodies of my ancestors in the stories and legacies of colonialism. I expose my own implication in colonialism in the hopes of creating dialogue about decolonizing processes and working towards an ethical space for engagement with communities impacted by British colonialism.

Why is the body and its movements important to ethical engagement?

The body and its movements are a site for governance and control as well as resistance to that control. A close look at the archives of the Colonial Secretaries Office, which was responsible for the administration of British colonial Fiji, shows that the British colonial administration sought to control the movements, behaviors, sensibilities, and comportment of Fijians as a way of eliminating difference and absorbing Fijians into the British Christian, colonial worldview.

I was also aware of the colonial history of extraction, ownership, and objectification of culture. Wanting to follow a decolonizing approach, I aimed for a visceral and relational engagement, involving cross-sensory perception, direct and indirect speech, non-verbal sounds, rhythms, and kinesthetic experiences, that co-constituted dialogue while acknowledging historical and contemporary inequities. Relations of dialogue and kinesthetic and performative exchange were spaces of encounter where uneven power was negotiated.

Why spirit, love, and war?

Spirit, love, and war are all notions that have been romanticized in writing about dance and performance. But they are also expressions that generate indeterminate relations of power between bodies. They disrupt and distribute normative values and are expressions by which power locally and translocally governs and organizes bodies. Christian colonial and postcolonial restructuring of meke occurred through expression of spirit, love, and war.  But expressions of spirit, love, and war have to do with negotiating boundaries of inclusion and exclusion within new categories of citizenship in Fiji and in diaspora.

Why did you feel it was important to discuss meke as a translocal performance practice?

My choice to focus on performances of meke in multiple sites helped me to gain a clearer sense of how and why Fijians were performing meke in differing ways and in resonance with local and national politics in Fiji and Fiji’s diaspora. In addition, the long-term and long-distance connections fostered by meke spanned over a crucial period of change in Fiji and enabled me to see the effects of these changes translocally—across time and space.

But the translocal aspects of meke also brought attention to the privileges and barriers to global movements and migrations, including my own, and who gets to move, where, when, and how. In addition, this book has always been implicated within a postcolonial story about local and translocal responsiveness and transmission between bodies. The whole project is a reminder of the complexities of global, postcolonial networks of identification and exchange.

Evadne Kelly is an independent artist-scholar. Her research focuses on the political and social dimensions of dance traditions and her publications appear in Pacific Arts JournalThe Dance CurrentPerformance Matters, and Fiji Times

“What if we’re all ‘underground women’?”: Intern Book Club (July)

This is the first in a series of monthly blog posts detailing the discussion of the marketing intern book club started this summer. This month we read Underground Women, a collection of short stories by Jesse Lee Kercheval. Our book club consists of Alexis Paperman, Publicity Assistant and grad student studying library information science; Morgan Reardon, Marketing Assistant studying English literature and American Indian studies; and Julia Knecht, Marketing Assistant studying English literature and digital studies. 

Alexis most enjoyed the titular story, “Underground Women,” though she was originally hesitant about it. The snapshot moments that make up the story are disorienting at first. However, as Alexis took the time to reflect on the story of a young photographer apprenticing under a hotelier, it became clear these disorienting moments were intentional. Kercheval weaves together the narrative and the structure to allow the reader to feel closer to the shock, fatigue, and other emotions present in the characters in the small fragments the reader sees. Like a photograph, the moments that make up the story are rich despite only being able to capture a moment. There is an understanding between reader and author that these are only moments. The complexity of Kercheval’s writing⁠—here and throughout the collection⁠—is her ability to present the lives of women as they are and as they are ignored. Overall, the story captured Alexis’ attention because of how strong Kercheval’s writing is while expounding on the idea of the hidden moments of women engaging with other women.

Morgan enjoyed “A Story Set In Germany,” the third story featured in the book. This one focuses on a young woman telling the readers about her experience in Germany, but the twist is that she tells it twice—the first “how I wish it to be” and the second where she gives us the story as it actually happened. She details her time in the picturesque German mountains, where she stays with a parental couple in their farmhouse and builds a friendship with another of their guests. After a happy ending, the narrator goes on, taking quotes from what has just been told and revealing the real story behind them, one that is less than perfect. The way Kercheval played with structure to tell this story adds to the reader’s experience, and makes the piece a unique addition to this collection.

Julia loved “Civil Service,” a story about a young woman named Janet Nedermacher starting her career as a government bureaucrat in the Check Claims Division. Janet is intelligent, ambitious, and, in many ways, ruthless. Julia appreciated the way this story creates complex female characters, who expand beyond their first impressions as Janet learns more about the new office she is working in and learns more about her place in it. While the setting and plot of the story are fairly mundane, Kercheval’s attention to detail and careful consideration of the roles and internal struggles of the various characters makes “Civil Service” feel real and important.

The first half of the stories are rooted in realism, showing complex women with a variety of traits. The second half is told from primarily male perspectives, portraying women abstractly in more surrealist situations. Many of the stories lack clean conclusions, much like the reality underground women face. Kercheval resists the impulse to fulfill the fantasy of a happy ending where realistically there would not be one. Instead, she shows the ongoing conflict many women experience and forces the reader to sit in that conflict, even after they have stopped reading. 

Kercheval’s writing is strongest when she explores female perspective through various narrative styles and structures. For instance, the title story is written in snapshots, each set of prose directly tied to a picture the narrator took. “A Story Set In Germany” is divided between two realities: one in which the narrator describes their time in Germany as they wish it would have been, and another where they acknowledge the uncomfortable reality behind the fairytale. By varying the structures that she writes with, Kercheval shows that each of her narrators’ perspectives are unique; they are different people who see things differently, even if they are all ‘underground women.’

Overall, we enjoyed reading this book, and would highly recommend it to readers interested in exploring narrative structures and unique perspectives. This collection of short stories is enjoyable to read casually, but readers will probably gain the most from structured discussion where you can more fully dive into the complex themes Kercheval sets out. 

Civic Virtue and Women’s Political Activism

9780299322908Today we are featuring a piece by Goshen College professor and author Jan Bender Shetler, whose book Claiming Civic Virtue is part of our series Women in Africa and the Diaspora.

When we think about women’s activism we imagine protest marches, banners and pink hats. But women have claimed their voice, their right to speak, in public discourse in so many different and unexpected ways over time. One thinks of The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina during the “Dirty War,” who in 1977 began showing up in the plaza everyday to demand information about their “disappeared” children.  Another example was older women in Nigeria during the anti-colonial “Igbo Women’s War” of 1929 reclaiming their space of authority by showing up in the thousands to enact the traditional practice of “sitting on a man” which involved chanting and dancing to shame the men. In less obviously public ways, elite women in Qing China wrote and published poetry that asserted their moral authority as wives and mothers who controlled the household economy where boys were first educated and men found retreat after their travels. These are all stories of women who claimed their right as public intellectuals to contribute to civic debates based on an assertion of their virtue as responsible citizens.

But, because of the tendency to universalize our own cultural assumptions, we often miss these claims of civic virtue and see women confined to the home and domestic labor, uninvolved in public affairs.  The quintessential African grandmother telling stories to her grandchildren at night figures into popular, and even academic, culture as a quaint, but a politically innocuous, figure who entertains with animal tales.  My research in the Mara Region, Tanzania, to explore women’s historical knowledge, however, showed that here their narratives asserted a claim of recognition for the value of their own civic contribution.  They told very different kinds of stories about the past than men, who were recognized as the legitimate historians of the ethnic group.  Women’s stories, by contrast, were about the value to the community of the cross-ethnic networks they formed across the region.

During the late nineteenth century East Africa experienced a series of El Niño droughts that resulted in famine, displacement and the spread of epidemic disease from the caravan trade. In the Mara Region young women and girls were often “sold” or pawned to wealthier families for food that would allow the rest of the family to survive.  While some ended up in the slave trade, many more remained in the region and were incorporated into new families as daughters, or wives, becoming part of the family.  The interests of men’s public stories was to forget where these women came from and sever their ties to their original families.  However, the interests of grandmothers who told their stories to grandchildren at night was to preserve their honor as women with kinship ties in distant places that should not be forgotten. The distant networks preserved in grandmothers’ memories proved useful for getting help in times of trouble or finding marriage partners. Women’s counter-memory asserted their virtuous past and ongoing value to the community, precisely because of their network memory.

Does this work of elderly women telling their own versions of history qualify as activism? In order to demand change in the public arena one has to first assert the authority to speak at all. In the case of Mara women they may speak their concerns for the public good in the private spaces of grandmothers sleeping with their granddaughters or around cooking pots but they are heard in the larger public arena because of the moral authority that they claim. The dominant account remains that of elderly men who hold responsibility for “history.”  But women’s alternative narratives of the past crossed ethnic groups in building durable networks of security.  Even though hard to read in our cultural vernacular, women’s assertion of voice in the public sphere is sometimes as close as the stories they tell in defining an alternative version of the past.

Jan Bender Shetler is a professor of history at Goshen College. Her books include Telling Our Own StoriesImagining Serengeti, and Gendering Ethnicity in African Women’s Lives.

Uncovering Hellenistic Sardis

Today’s piece is written by editors Andrea M. Berlin and Paul J. Kosmin, whose book Spear-Won Land , a collection of essays on the city of Sardis during the early Hellenistic period, is featured in our series Wisconsin Studies in Classics.

For most of archaic and classical Greek history (from about the seventh to the fourth centuries BCE), the richest and most important city in the Aegean world was not even in Greece. It was an Anatolian capital famed for luxurious living, cavalry horses, and rivers of gold—Sardis. As the royal capital first of the Kingdom of Lydia and then as the primary “satrapal” center of the Persian Empire in the west, Sardis was a political and cultural center of renown. The city in its Lydian and Persian periods is well known, thanks to lengthy accounts in the Histories of Herodotus and Thucydides as well as a half-century of excavation.

But when it comes to the city’s history in the years following Alexander the Great’s overthrow of the Persians, it is as if the lights go out. Historical sources are much fewer, and archaeological remains more scattered and difficult to piece together. Yet these were pivotal years, both for Sardis and for the wider interconnected worlds of Greece and the East. In the century after Alexander, Sardis was transformed into a true Hellenistic city, acquiring a vast stone temple to the goddess Artemis, a theater and gymnasium, and the institutions and status of a Greek polis. At the same time, the city was re-made as yet another imperial capital, this time as the western center of the vast new Seleucid Empire, the greatest of Alexander’s successor kingdoms, home to bureaucrats, royal archives, and Indian elephants.

Spear-Won Land: Sardis from the King’s Peace to the Peace of Apamea, offers a comprehensive, interconnected understanding of the transformations and effects of these centuries. A multidisciplinary research team – with expertise ranging from urban archaeology and history to numismatics and field-survey – here present up-to-date analyses of Sardis’ urban form, political history, interactions with neighbors, religious life, and foodways. It is a thrilling story that significantly enlarges and fundamentally changes what we know of Hellenistic western Asia Minor.

Andrea M. Berlin holds the James R. Wiseman Chair in Classical Archaeology at Boston University. She has written extensively on a broad variety of topics in classical archaeology, including six volumes reporting and interpreting excavations. 

Paul J. Kosmin is the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. He is the author of The Land of the Elephant Kings: Space, Territory, and Ideology in the Seleucid Empire, and Time and Its Adversaries in the Seleucid Empire.

Flamenco Nation

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Today we present a piece from author Sandie Holguín. Her recently released book Flamenco Nation explores how Flamenco dance became tied to Spain’s national identity. In this personal essay, Sandie details her journey of writing and researching the book, and the challenges of writing about a topic distant in regard to both geography and time.

If, as L.P. Hartley once said and historians like to quote, “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” what happens when a scholar grapples with the history of a foreign country? Can an outsider twice-removed by time and place contribute meaningfully to a discussion of that place’s past? These are questions I have wrestled with over the years while trying to write about the history of Spain, especially about ephemeral cultural phenomena. My questions are really no different from those that underrepresented communities ask when mainstream historians write about marginalized groups, and yet as a historian, I have to believe that one can engage in historical analysis about people, places, and times far removed from one’s own experience—otherwise, why does anybody practice history? Still, there seem to be greater barriers to understanding a culture and its past when the country, society, and language are not part of your cultural patrimony. Overcoming those barriers, or at least recognizing how to maneuver around them, requires experience in historical practice, patience, a willingness to listen, and the help of insiders.

When I began to imagine a cultural history of flamenco in Spain, I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount that had been written on the subject, especially by people who were experts on the art form. Many scholars and flamenco aficionados could easily rattle off the names of performers, songs, rhythmic styles, and situate them in their places of origin. What could I, a North American with no background in music, have to say about something that seemed ubiquitous in Spanish culture (or at least in the culture that was presented to the world outside of Spain)? The only way for me to enter this study was to think in structural terms. How did cultural forms in various countries come to be dominant? For example, were there similar processes that made the tango popular in Argentina, the samba in Brazil, jazz in the United states, and flamenco in Spain? The answer was yes. Of course how those processes differed from country to country is what makes for engaging historical analysis. My grounding in nationalism studies and cultural history made it possible for me to begin to write something meaningful about flamenco and its role in Spanish history, despite the challenges present when speaking about a culture that is not one’s own.

The work of writing a history about a foreign country is fraught with danger, however.  Language might be the primary one. If one is not a native speaker, then one cannot always attend to the nuances of humor, metaphor, or slang. And although a place’s culture (or multiple cultures) may have changed over time, one imagines—wrongly, no doubt—that one’s own historical culture is accessible in a way that a foreign country’s historical culture might not be. Immersing oneself in the country’s native scholarship and culture helps to soften these barriers, but having friends and colleagues from that place help even more because they aid in cross-cultural translation and, sometimes, just literal translation.

I have begun to view the distance in time and space as an advantage to understand Spanish history.  Outsider status has granted me certain insights that might be harder to gain by those immersed within Spain’s many cultures, only because I am less personally invested in the national narratives that unfold in my research and writing and because I am at a remove from  such horrors as Spain’s civil war and dictatorship. The anxiety I feel about “not getting it right” is mitigated by the knowledge that I am trying to listen both analytically and empathetically to the voices of the past to make sense of them. It is this  journey toward cross-cultural, cross-temporal understanding that guides my work and gives me hope—however misguided—that the study of history can be used to understand our shared humanity, despite our many cultural differences.

Sandie Holguín is a Professor of History at the University of Oklahoma, where she teaches European cultural and intellectual history and European feminist thought and gender studies. She specializes in Spanish history and is the author of Creating Spaniards: Culture and National Identity in Republican Spain.