Author Archives: Morgan Reardon

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.