Category Archives: Uncategorized

Reading to Write

By Patricia Skalka, originally published on Buried Under Books
 

The first time I visited the Door County peninsula, I was sure I’d followed the wrong map. This was Wisconsin? Quaint villages and cherry orchards. White sails on blue water and fishing boats dotting the far horizon. Cliffs and caves. Fudge shops and cool, quiet forests. The Wisconsin I knew was dairy country: small, family-run farms, the kind of place where you quite literally made hay while the sun shone (I drove the tractor) and arranged the daily activities around the milking schedule.

I didn’t grow up on a farm; but my mother did, and as a girl I spent many summer weeks and months helping my grandmother and uncle who ran the operation. I was one of the city cousins who counted the days to the end of the school year, eager to pack my suitcase and head north from Chicago. I thought of the farm experience as my summer vacation but in reality it was an introduction to a way of life that centered on hard work.

Patricia Skalka Beach 3This was my Wisconsin until I discovered Door County. Stepping out on the peninsula – the “Cape Cod of the Midwest” – I was transfixed. The land is stunningly beautiful; the people welcoming; the pace relaxed. The county’s tourist attractions are impressive: three hundred miles of shoreline, five state parks, eleven lighthouses, a mecca for visual artists, writers and musicians.

But for me Door County is so much more than all the statistics suggest. It is where some twenty years ago pure luck handed my family ownership of a rustic cottage filled with handmade furniture and memories passed on by the previous owner. For me, having the cottage was a dream come true. By then the old farm had been sold and while I still had my childhood farm summers to treasure, I worried about how to provide such memorable experiences for my daughters. The cottage with the beach at its doorstep and summers in Door County answered that question.

The cottage never disappointed. Here on the beach my daughters discovered the freedom of doing as much or as little as they wanted. Here there was no schedule, no planned activities ─ just the simple joy of one day after another unrolling in a seamless parade of sunny mornings and moonlit evenings. Here they learned to make their own fun.

Patricia Skalka Beach 2The cottage provided a bonus for me as well: for here I read. For hours, for days on end. Packing for a visit, no matter the duration, I crammed a canvas bag full of books, almost always fiction but sometimes poetry as well. Some were for me to read quietly, others to share with my family, reading aloud in the evening. The cottage was not insulated and the times I came up alone in the chilly spring to write, I’d drape wool blankets over the doors to keep out the drafts, build a fire and then pull up a chair as close to the flames as I dared and sit and read.

Reading did more than entertain and enlighten. Reading shaped me as a writer. As I transitioned from nonfiction to fiction, from magazine articles to the novel, I followed the prescribed steps to learn the craft. I signed up for classes and attended conferences and workshops. I joined a critique group and took in lectures and seminars. But beyond writing itself, the most important activity I embraced was the simple act of reading.

I always preferred mysteries and literary fiction, but it really didn’t matter what I read — historical fiction, thrillers, travelogues – as long as the writing had depth and feeling, the result was the same. Reading the words and sentences, the paragraphs and pages that others had composed made me a better writer. Something about the flow of words moving from the printed page into my brain vanquished doubt and set my imagination free. Reading was like eating; words became the vitamins that energized my writing and nurtured my thoughts. Reading dispensed courage; it cured writer’s block. The more I read, the more I wrote.

Patricia Skalka Beach 1My debut novel Death Stalks Door County was spawned in the cottage overlooking the inland sea we call Lake Michigan. Chapters were written sitting before the fireplace or out on the small screened porch. The second book in the series was started there. The ideas for books three and four bubbled to life as I lounged and read in an old Adirondack chair set in the sand near the water’s edge.

There’s probably a scientific explanation, something about synapses and electrical connections between brain cells to explain how reading helps me write, how the thoughts and ideas expressed by other authors spark my own thoughts and ideas and send them flying to the page.

I think of the process as magic.

I try to read every day. When life interferes and pulls me away from books, I feel drained and grow listless. My work stagnates. In my world, writing without reading is akin to breathing without air.

It simply can’t be done.

 

Patricia Skalka Beach 4

 

A lifelong Chicagoan, Patricia Skalka is a former Reader’s Digest Staff Writer and award-winning freelancer, as well as one-time magazine editor, ghost writer and writing instructor. Her nonfiction book credits include Nurses On Our Own, the true-story of two pioneering, local nurse practitioners. Death Stalks Door County, released in  May 2014, marks her fiction debut.

A Stronger Presidency Is Not The Solution

By Chris Edelson

When op-ed writers take on the problem of dysfunction in Washington by asking the hackneyed “why is Washington broken?” question, they run the risk of offering a “solution” that merely creates new problems. David Brooks’ recent op-ed, “Strengthen the Presidency, is a case in point. Brooks overlooks the root causes of political dysfunction in the U.S. and prescribes a dangerous remedy.

Brooks argues that the solution to legislative gridlock is simple: “[m]ake the executive branch more powerful.” Brooks’ argument depends on generalizations and overlooks the historical record, as well as the foundational principles of American constitutional democracy. The drafters of the Constitution created a document with many flaws, but their work also reflected important pieces of wisdom. Among their most central insights, they rightly understood that concentrating power in any one branch of government was, in James Madison’s words, “the very definition of tyranny.”

By contrast, Brooks cheerfully embraces the idea of concentrating power in a president-led executive branch, declaring that “[w]e need more unified authority” and advising Americans to “be tolerant of executive branch power grabs” (what does that mean–more Watergates, please?). His remedy seems to imagine an empowered executive branch that could take unilateral action on domestic policy matters like “immigration reform, tax reform, entitlement reform, and gun legislation” (though he is not very specific about precisely what actions he’d like to see a more powerful president take, or how this would be done).

There are at least two problems here. First, one person’s energized executive is another’s dangerous autocrat. How can something as vague as “entitlement reform” be an unalloyed good? It depends, of course, on how a president capable of acting unilaterally would change Social Security or the tax code. Second — and for me, this is an even greater concern — Brooks completely ignores what expanded executive power means, and has meant, in the context of national security.

History teaches us (as the framers themselves well understood) that it is often dangerous when presidents act unilaterally — unchecked by other branches of government, the press, or the public. As I have discussed in my new book, Emergency Presidential Power: From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror, the historical record offers numerous cautionary tales: Roosevelt and the mass internment of Japanese Americans during World War II (Congress and the Supreme Court acted essentially as rubber stamps), Truman’s unilateral decision to make war in Korea, Johnson’s deceptions in Vietnam, Nixon’s nearly successful attempt to turn the presidency into a criminal enterprise operating above the law and Reagan’s involvement in the Iran-Contra affair.

Presidential action since 9/11 should make us even more wary. The Bush-Cheney years brought us the unholy flowering of the “unitary executive theory,” which was relied on to claim essentially unchecked executive power over anything related to national security (this was the justification for the detention system at Guantanamo, torture and warrantless surveillance). In many ways, the Obama administration has followed the Bush approach — though without relying on the extreme rhetoric associated with the unitary executive theory. The Obama administration has brought us a targeted killing program for U.S. citizens suspected — but not proven — to be senior terrorist leaders planning attacks against the United States, as well as a rationale for unilateral presidential war power that disdains constitutional and statutory checks.

The lesson to be taken from history, especially the incipient history of this century, is that there are compelling reasons to set meaningful limits on executive power. None of this means presidents can never act alone — when faced with a real emergency that does not allow time for consultation with Congress (like the secession crisis that Lincoln confronted when he took office in 1861), presidents can act unilaterally, seeking congressional approval after the fact, as Lincoln did. The framers understood that presidents would need the authority to “repel sudden attacks” without waiting for congressional authorization. But, when there is time to consult Congress, unilateral presidential action in much harder to justify.

Recently, there has been at least one hopeful sign for critics of unrestrained presidential power: the Obama administration’s decision to forego unilateral military action in Syria. That decision is evidence that it can often be better for presidents to wait and consult Congress before acting on their own. In this case, putting off unilateral action allowed time for diplomacy to work instead of a military strike.

Brooks’ piece, of course, considers none of this. He argues as a general proposition for increasing executive power without considering the possible dangers of doing so—without even considering, in fact, what the implications are, in the national security context, for concentrating power in the hands of the executive. There is a case to be made for limited unilateral presidential action in the context of a genuine emergency, subject to retroactive congressional approval. But, if we follow Brooks’s advice to “energize the executive,” history warns us that the results may be far from benign.

Chris Edelson is an assistant professor of government in American University’s School of Public Affairs, where he teaches classes on the Constitution and presidential power. He is the author of Emergency Presidential Power: From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror, which was published in fall 2013 by the University of Wisconsin Press.

Stefanie Zweig, Author Who Fled Nazis to Kenya, Dies at 81

Stefanie Zweig

From the NYT obituary: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/01/books/stefanie-zweig-author-who-fled-nazis-to-kenya-dies-at-81.html?_r=0
 

Stefanie Zweig, the author of Nowhere in Africa, a best-selling autobiographical novel about the life of a Jewish family in Kenya after their escape from Nazi Germany and the inspiration for an Oscar-winning film, died on Friday in Frankfurt. She was 81.

Her publisher in the United States, the University of Wisconsin Press, confirmed her death.

Nowhere in Africa, published in 1995, hewed closely to the story of her parents’ escape from Frankfurt with their 6-year-old daughter in 1938, and the family’s adjustment to life as farmers in British colonial Africa. The parents endured grinding work and bouts of depression. Stefanie, who had been withdrawn, blossomed into a venturesome, Swahili-speaking teenager.

The novel, the first of a dozen by Ms. Zweig, sold about 5 million copies. A German film adaptation with the same title, directed by Caroline Link, won the Academy Award for best foreign language film in 2003. Ms. Zweig and Ms. Link wrote the screenplay.

In a sequel novel, Somewhere in Germany, published in 1996, Ms. Zweig described the reverse adjustment the family had to make when, in 1947, her father, a lawyer, was appointed a judge in Frankfurt. As her father explained it to her at the time, she wrote, his credentials as a German lawyer with no Nazi affiliations made him one of the few people qualified for such a position after World War II.

In fact, she wrote, he missed “the sounds and memories of home,” which everyone except her oddly naïve father seemed to know were beyond recovery.

Returning to bombed-out Frankfurt in 1947, the family joined a hungry, traumatized population in rebuilding the country. Scores of their German relatives were missing. None had been heard from since the start of the war in 1939, except a grandmother, who got a letter out in 1941 with the help of the Red Cross.

“They were only allowed to write 20 words,” Ms. Zweig told an interviewer in 2003. “My grandmother wrote — ‘We are very excited. We are going to Poland tomorrow.’ ” Reading that, she continued, “my father said Poland meant Auschwitz.”

But her father cautioned her against indiscriminate hatred, she wrote in an essay in The Guardian in 2003. As a child she was not allowed to hate all Germans, she said, “only the Nazis.”

For a year after returning to Frankfurt, the family lived in one room at the city’s former Jewish hospital. She wrote, “We spent our days hunting for food and our evenings wondering why nearly every German we talked to told us that they had always hated Hitler and had felt pity for the persecuted Jews.”

Stefanie Zweig was born on Sept. 19, 1932, in Leobschütz, a German-speaking town in disputed territory belonging to Germany at the time and to Poland since the end of the war. Her family moved to Frankfurt when she was a toddler. After a decade of speaking English (and some Swahili) in Kenya, she had to relearn German on returning to Frankfurt at 15, she wrote.

Ms. Zweig was for many years the arts editor and film reviewer for a Frankfurt newspaper, Abendpost Nachtausgabe. She wrote children’s books in her spare time and began writing novels only after the newspaper closed in 1988. She lived for many years with a companion, Wolfgang Hafele, who died in 2013. She had no known survivors.

Ms. Zweig wrote Nowhere in Africa in German, as she did all her books, but admitted to remaining unsure throughout her life whether English or German was her true native language.

“I count in English, adore Alice in Wonderland, am best friends with Winnie-the-Pooh,” she wrote in her Guardian essay, “and I am still hunting for the humor in German jokes.”

A version of this article appears in print on May 1, 2014, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: “Stefanie Zweig, 81, Author Who Fled Nazis to Kenya.”

 

A writer’s quest for balance in a spinning world – literally.

By Floyd Skloot, author of Revertigo.
 

In 2009, out of nowhere, I had an attack of unrelenting vertigo. It began on the morning of March 27, 2009, and ended 138 days later on the evening of August 12, 2009, as suddenly as it had begun.

There was no explanation. Or rather, there were several explanations, none of which turned out to be correct. I was first diagnosed with Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV), small deposits of calcium carbonate in the inner ear. It’s the most common cause of vertigo. But I didn’t have BPPV and ten weeks later I was diagnosed with endolymphatic hydrops, a fluid imbalance in the inner ear, which I also didn’t have. After the vertigo vanished, my neurologist retroactively diagnosed me with intracranial hypertension, a buildup of pressure inside the skull. I’m pretty sure I didn’t have that either.

Eight months post-vertigo I began to think I was going to be all right. I was walking fine. No cane anymore, no stumbling or grabbing onto stationary objects for balance, no neck-and-shoulder-locked gait. Very little swooning. Swooning only occurred when–as happens to many people–I did something like look up at the clouds while walking. Yes, I was back to almost normal. Except there were maybe a few oddities, such as getting dizzy when I merely thought about riding on Portland’s aerial tram, swaying as it rises five hundred feet during its three-minute trip from the south waterfront up to Oregon Health and Science University’s main campus. Or when I saw a still photograph of lions veering in pursuit of a zebra. Or that one time when a light bulb flickered. Odd, okay, but truly I was back in balance. Recovered. No longer vertiginous.

So it never crossed my mind to worry about going to look at riverfront condo units that were set for auction in early April. Beverly and I had decided to sell our home, abandon stairs and roof maintenance and yard work and tree trimming, all the things I’d be unable to do again if vertigo recurred. Simplify, keep level.

The first building we were looking at was a thirty-one story, elliptical-shaped glass tower looming 325 feet above the Willamette River. This was going to be great. And it was, as we got off the elevator on the twenty-seventh floor and entered the unit being used as a temporary auction office. Then I encountered the view and began reeling, trying to brace myself against a desk, a kitchen island, an interior wall. I seemed more like a lush than a prospective buyer.

It took us a subsequent month to determine that I was all right, was comfortable and stable, only up to the sixth floor of a condo. Provided I didn’t go outside on the balcony. As long as I held on to something when I stood against the interior glass walls and looked down. So now we live on the sixth floor of a twenty-one story building at the river’s edge, and I can sit by the window and watch boats, even speedboats, race by. I’m post-vertigo, except when I’m not, for three years, six months, and twenty-three days.

Floyd Skloot is the recipient of many awards, including three Pushcart Prizes and the PEN USA Literary Award for Creative Nonfiction. He is the author of Revertigo: An Off-Kilter Memoir, and will be speaking at Barnes & Noble West (7433 Mineral Point Rd, Madison, WI) on Thursday, May 8th at 7:00 pm. The event is free and open to the public; hope to see you there!

The Best of Trout Fishing Times …

In celebration of Earth Day, by guest author Steve Born

Thanks to dedicated stewardship of trout habitat, magazine stories, flyfishing film festivals, and word-of-mouth among anglers fueled by the Internet revolution, Wisconsin is no longer just flyover country.

A growing legion of admirers has made the state and its 13,000 miles of trout waters a destination.

So, the “good old days” of trout fishing are NOW. These are the best of times for trout anglers based on fish populations, size of the trout, and increasing opportunities.

One of the reasons is Wisconsin’s leadership in natural resource management and protection—and its great influence on the national conservation movement. It is this historical and continuing commitment to conservation that is key to the future sustainability of our coldwater trout streams—more in need of protection than ever. Trout require year-round cold water to survive, and in many parts of the state nutrient-rich creeks fed mostly by cool spring water provide some of the most treasured haunts for trout and anglers.

If past is prologue, conservation heroes will emerge to protect the resource. The legendary John Muir walked through Wisconsin long before he discovered the vistas of California’s Yosemite Valley. Aldo Leopold researched the state’s wonderful land and water resources and formulated a comprehensive way of thinking about the earth’s riches long before the term “ecologist” came into everyday use. Gaylord Nelson was governor and created a trend-setting land and water protection program here years before he became the father of Earth Day while serving in the U. S. Senate in 1970. Dedicated university and government researchers have contributed many ideas and discoveries that have played major roles in understanding, preserving, and protecting a trout resource enjoyed by more than 140,000 people who buy fishing licenses and inland trout stamps each year.

Avid anglers enjoy rich “limestoners” in the unglaciated Driftless area of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa that rival those in England and central Pennsylvania. They survey miles and miles of remote brook trout water in the glaciated and heavily forested northern part of the state. They pursue remnant populations of the great native Lake Superior brook trout, hanging onto a niche in the largest of the Great Lakes. They wade big, tumbling freestone rivers like the Namekagon in northwest Wisconsin or float natural spring ponds in northern Wisconsin reminiscent of beaver ponds in New England. They hope brook trout streams in the central part of the state.

Happily, the good news is that all of this fishing is very accessible. Wisconsin, because of its strong Public Trust doctrine that ensures public access to all navigable waters, is a place where you don’t have to belong to a private club to catch the big one, or simply have a quality fishing experience. All the streams and rivers we feature in the 2nd edition of Exploring Wisconsin Trout Streams have numerous access points. The best water can be yours—as long as you have the required fishing license and trout stamp, and obey the regulations that help maintain healthy fisheries.

Trout fishing has never been better in the Badger state. Since our first edition over a decade ago, DNR fisheries biologists have aggressively continued the wild trout program, using the offspring of naturally reproducing trout for repopulating streams. The wild trout have flourished. Stocking has its place—for urban fisheries where natural reproduction is limited or impossible because of warm water or lack of habitat, for example—but Nature’s way is better and more cost efficient.

Good land management and land use, along with habitat and water quality improvement, are key to the future of trout populations. U.S. Geological Survey studies, particularly in southwestern Wisconsin, have documented significant improvements in baseflow to streams, and some decrease in flood peaks. These positive changes are attributed in part to changing farming practices and land use—the decline in grazing on steep slopes subject to erosion, for example.

But old threats—agricultural runoff, habitat loss, mining impacts, sprawl development, non-sustainable use of aquifers—along with newer ones like invasive species, fish diseases, and climate change are cause for concern.

These are the best of times for trout anglers. Whether that can be said 50 years from now to some degree depends on us—what we do individually, as members of conservation organizations, as citizens and shapers of governmental decisions, and as leaders in our communities.

—Born is a co-author of the 2nd edition of  Exploring Wisconsin Trout Streams, available now at University of Wisconsin Press.

Using Conferences to Find a Publisher for Your Next Book Project

By Gwen Walker, Editorial Director

Updated 12/26/14

In the weeks preceding an academic conference, many acquisitions editors comb the program for titles or abstracts of papers on topics of possible interest for their lists. To learn more, editors may Google an author’s name for a sense of his or her work. Is the author working on a book? Does s/he write well? Is the manuscript already committed to another press, or might the project still be available?

To help editors discover you, I suggest that you title your conference papers, write your abstracts, and fashion your online identity in a way that’s likely to attract the right publishers. Make sure that the bio on your departmental webpage summarizes your current book project and includes your email address. (For an example of a model webpage, see here.) Provide links to any open-access pieces that you have published, so that prospecting editors can sample your prose (but do not post other articles or book chapters without permission from the journals or presses that published them).

Before the conference, seek appointments with acquiring editors at presses that publish books in your area. To find out which editor covers your subject area, go to the publisher’s website and look for a page that says “For Authors,” “Submission Guidelines,” or something similar. Unless the submission guidelines say otherwise, it’s usually okay to contact an editor by email before a conference. In your introductory message you should include a brief description of your book. Limit that description to a paragraph or two, ideally to include the book’s thesis. (For more on what a thesis is, see this page on my personal website.) If you have a proposal ready to share, ask the editor if s/he would like to see it.

If an editor agrees to meet with you, think carefully about how to make the best use of the interaction. Be able to articulate your book’s thesis (or, if you’re at an earlier stage, its hypothesis) and to describe its audience. Be prepared to give a rough estimate of the final word count, including notes, bibliography, and any other matter to be set in type. Try to speak naturally, but realize that even if you are nervous, what matters most to publishers is what and how you write.

Presses often send only the editor to a conference, with no backup staff. So your meeting may have to happen in the press’s booth in the exhibit hall, and the editor may need to interrupt the conversation from time to time to sell books or answer questions. In neighboring booths, editors from other presses—including, perhaps, someone you just met with about the same project—may well overhear snatches of your conversation. The editors will probably take it all in stride; it’s normal to meet with multiple editors when you’re just beginning to explore your publishing options. And try to get over any awkwardness you might feel about discussing your future book in a semi-public setting. After all, by the time you approach editors to measure their interest in a proposed book, you should be able to articulate its contribution to people in your field, and ideally beyond it.

While you’re in the exhibit hall, stroll around the book exhibit hall and meet with as many editors as possible at presses that publish in your field. Remember that the person in the booth where you stop could be anyone at that press: an editor, an editor’s assistant, the marketing manager, the sales manager, an intern, or even the director. Be prepared to provide as much information about your project as the person seems to want. Measure their interest, and see what questions they have. But don’t read too much into these interactions. An editor might be quite intrigued by your project but too busy to discuss it in depth at that moment. Or an editor may not be very interested at all but may feel compelled, under the circumstances, to ask a few polite questions.

If an editor expresses interest, ask the next step. Would s/he like to read your book proposal? Often editors will decline your offer of a printed copy at the conference, as they fear losing it–or simply don’t want to carry all that paper home in their luggage. Others may agree to accept a short printed proposal on the spot. In that case, however, I strongly suggest that you also follow up immediately after the conference and send the proposal to the editor according to the specifications on that publisher’s website, just in case your proposal gets lost in post-conference transit.

While you are in the booth, check out the publisher’s recent releases to decide if your book would be in good company there. Note their prices and production values. When the press seems like a possible fit, ask whatever questions you might have about the publication process. Remember, this is a two-way process. Both sides, you and the editor, are looking for the right fit between project and publisher.

Landscape Journal’s editorial office moves to University of GA

Check it out! Landscape Journal has a new editorial team and got a nice write-up in the University of Georgia’s The Red and Black:

… Landscape Journal, has chosen a new location to house its editorial offices the University of Georgia’s College of Environment and Design.

See the full article here.

12 Days of Christmas Reading List

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me essays about Hungarian partridge, grouse, quail, woodcock, and other waterfowl in Wingbeats and Heartbeats: Essays on Game Birds, Gun Dogs, and Days Afield

Wingbeats

On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me two turtle doves and Lessons from the Northern Ireland Peace ProcessLessons

On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me a tribute to hens, whether the breed is French, Jersey Giant, or Silver Frizzle Polish, in Cluck: From Jungle Fowl to City Chicks.

On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me ideas for bringing calling birds to my yard: Birdscaping in the Midwest: A Guide to Gardening with Native Plants to Attract Birds.

On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me The Archaeology of the Olympics: The Olympics and Other Festivals in Antiquity.  (Five wreaths of olive leaves!)Raschke

On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me Midwest Ramblin’, a CD of old-time songs and tunes by the Goose Island Ramblers.Goose Island Ramblers

On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me Writings on Ballet and Music by Fedor Lopukhov, the choreographer who staged the first post-revolutionary productions in the Soviet Union of traditional ballets like Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty as well as avant-garde and experimental works.

On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me the result of eight maids a Cheesemakersmilking—a nice eight-year-old cheddar made by The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin

On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me the lowdown on some inspiring ladies dancing—Urban Bush Women: Twenty Years of African American Dance Theater, Community Engagement, and Working It Out.Urban Bush Women

On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me ten collegians boxing in Lords of the Ring: The Triumph and Tragedy of College Boxing’s Greatest Team

Thimmig

On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me the CD Les Thimmig Solo, on which Professor Thimmig plays nearly eleven kinds of flutes, clarinets, and other such piping.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me recordings of Ojibwe drummers and other Upper Midwestern traditional and ethnic music, including Norwegian fiddles, polka, salsa, gospel choirs, and Asian-American rock in Down Home Dairyland Recordings and its companion book, Down Home Dairyland: A Listener’s Guide.

Happy New Year!

Books are Great Gifts!

In preparation for the holidays, we’ve put up our web page of books that we think make especially nice gifts. You can check it out here: http://uwpress.wisc.edu/bagg.html. Or, check out these videos where some of your favorite authors, such as Dan Brown, Neil Gaiman, and Alec Baldwin (Alec Baldwin?) discuss why they think Books Are Great Gifts.

 

Enjoy!

Antecedents to Modern Rwanda

Reclaiming the “unknowable” history of Africa

University Press Week 2013

It’s University Press Week! We’ve just launched our blog, and we’re excited to be participating in the UP Week Blog Tour, where presses will be blogging each day about a different theme that relates to scholarly publishing. For the full Blog Tour schedule, click here.

For today’s theme of The Global Reach of University PressesSheila Leary, director of the University of Wisconsin Press, interviews Jan Vansina.

Oral Tradition as History Jan Vansina, one of the world’s foremost historians of Africa who literally wrote the book on using Oral Tradition as History, is about to publish his eighth book with the University of Wisconsin Press. He recently had occasion to look back at how, over nearly fifty years, his seven prior books published by UWP have influenced the study of Africa’s history, both within Africa and around the world.

“My own case shows that the kind of specialized scholarly books published by university presses typically lead to further research by others and do so for a whole generation or longer. In a field that is new, such as African history was when I began, university presses publish specialized works of scholarship that commercial publishers take no interest in. And I have found that just placing research findings in archives is not enough: publication is absolutely essential to the advancement of research. Indeed, I would argue that university presses are as essential for research in the humanities and social sciences around the globe as are laboratories for research scientists.

Vansina is considered one of the founders of the field of African history in the 1950s and 1960s, a time not so long ago when there was still a widely held view that cultures without written texts had no history, or that their history was unknowable. Up to that point, “African” historiography focused entirely on the history of European colonizers in Africa, not on the history of Africans.

As a young employee of a Belgian research agency sent to the Congo in 1952, Vansina discovered that he could analyze the oral tradition stories he heard from Kuba informants by using the same methods he had learned for extracting historical information from European medieval dirges. This was a historiographical breakthrough that gave the study of pre-colonial African history both the scholarly justification and the self-confidence it had been lacking.

Vansina recalls the impact of his first book with UW Press in 1966, Kingdoms of the Savanna.

“It was a preliminary historical overview of an area and period in Africa that was little known in academic circles at that point. It was quickly translated into French and published in Kinshasa, and it won the Herskovits Prize for best book from the African Studies Association.” Although historians at the time were accustomed to studying kingdoms, the book used a very innovative mix of oral and written sources to provide a history of pre-colonial kingdoms in central Africa.

“Over the next twenty-five years or so,” Vansina remembers, “several scholars were inspired by the book to pursue their own research in the past of the various kingdoms I wrote about, so that by the year 2000 individual monographs had been written about nearly all the major kingdoms of the southern savannas (at least five in RD Congo, three in Zambia, and three in Angola).

The impact of Kingdoms outside academia was rather colorful, Vansina recalls. “In Central Africa many in the Congo read it, and it became coveted underground reading for those in the Angolan insurrection against their Portuguese overlords. Its popular impact was especially strong in the lower Democratic Republic of Congo (or RD Congo), where local demand has been strong enough to produce a translation in Kikongo around 1990 and another one in Lingala. In the 1970s there was even a local church calling itself ‘The Church of the Kingdoms of the Savanna.’ ”

In 1978, Vansina published a scholarly monograph, Children of Woot, on the history of a single kingdom in RD Congo. He comments, “The one completely new feature for a history book was the inclusion of its long lexical appendix, as essential to the argument. A monograph like this is not expected to have a host of readers when it is published but it is expected to attract small numbers of researchers for many years thereafter. Thus even today this book and especially its data have not been superseded by anything else.”

Oral Tradition as History, a methodological work published in 1985, is Vansina’s book that is most widely known and used in other scholarly disciplines and area studies beyond African history. “It is a manual about how to handle a certain kind of oral history worldwide, not just in Africa. Some twenty-five years earlier as a young man, what I had written about oral tradition had made a splash and led to extensive debates. This new book was a complete reworking that took into account valid observations made by critics, but still showed the extent to which oral histories of this sort could be relied upon. It has had an active life. For example, just this year it was translated into Indonesian Malay.”

Vansina continued to innovate with his book Paths in the Rainforests (1990), a historical overview built primarily on linguistic and archaeological data reaching more than two thousand years into the past. It attempted a history of the peoples in the Central African rainforests, a large area that had been written off as “without history.”

“But I wrote it as history, introducing new concepts, and included a very large appendix showing the results of comparative linguistic data. No one had ever attempted anything similar, certainly not on that scale, and this book was therefore a bit of a gamble, but it convinced most social anthropologists and archaeologists. I am gratified that from that time onward it has served as an incentive for much further research by others. This year an archaeologist wrote me to say that his discoveries conformed to the predictions the book had made. The most important results of Paths in the Rainforests, though, have been in the field of history, where others have now used similar techniques in their own work, including very deep historical research on the Great Lakes region of East Africa.”

As the field of African history matured, Vansina was one of the first to look back at it in a combination historiography and memoir, 1994’s Living with Africa. That same year, the horrific violence and mass killings in Rwanda returned Vansina’s attention to research he had done in Rwanda from 1957 to 1961. The rich and extensive documentation he had collected was available in an archive there, but no one had made use of it for publications.

Antecedents to Modern Rwanda“I knew from that research that Rwanda’s past, and historical memories of that past, were quite relevant to a fuller understanding of the genocide and people’s motivations. I also felt that knowledge of Rwanda’s pre-colonial history could contribute to political choices about its future. So, I first wrote a book in French about the main social and political developments of the country, directed as much towards Rwanda’s governing elite as towards historians. But the new elite came mostly from Uganda and used English, not French. So I translated the work into English and UW Press published it as Antecedents to Modern Rwanda in 2004.”

“Though its narrative and its major interpretations have been accepted by most academics, and also led to the publication of two academic debates about its significance, in Rwanda there is official silence about the book. It has not been formally banned in Rwanda, but the history I present runs counter to the official ideology and now also to the official history the government promulgates. But I know that actually the book has been widely read in Rwanda, even discussed, but no one will publicly admit to this. I hope that it will eventually be recognized and lead to further research in Rwanda.”

Most recently, in 2010, Vansina experimented with another new approach to African history. “Being Colonized: The Kuba Experience in Rural Congo, 1880–1960, was my deliberate attempt to write a book for undergraduates. It presents the history of a colony through the eyes of a colonized people. I used sidebars and illustrations, a format still rather uncommon in works of African history. I resisted reducing the historical complexity of the period to simple formulas. The anecdotal evidence so far has it that while most students like it, many find all those names and the very complexity of the history a bit overwhelming as well. But I hope it will inspire others to experiment further with approaches for undergraduates that will open new perspectives to them.”

Jan Vansina’s legacy also includes an extraordinary impact beyond academia. When the journalist Alex Haley was researching the family history that would become his famous book Roots, a powerful and groundbreaking story of enslaved African Americans, he could find no written documents that directed him to a point of origin in Africa. Eventually, someone suggested that he contact Jan Vansina, who had been doing innovative research on African oral traditions. Vansina suggested that the few words, names, and stories that had been passed down to Haley from an enslaved African ancestor named Kunta Kinte might be from the Mandingo people in Gambia, a culture with a very rich oral tradition recited by trained griots. Eventually Haley’s quest led him to a griot in a remote Gambian village who had memorized the history of a large, extended Kinte family. Two hours into the recitation, the griot mentioned a young man, Kunta, who went away from his village to chop wood and was never seen again. This astonishing connection was the beginning of a great movement of reclamation of African heritage by African Americans.

Jan Vansina.  Photo by Catherine A. Reiland / African Studies Program, UW-Madison. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Jan Vansina. Photo by Catherine A. Reiland / African Studies Program, UW-Madison. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Now 84 years old and professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Jan Vansina was an early recipient of the “Distinguished Africanist” award by the African Studies Association of the United States and in 2000 was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society. His next book, to be published in Spring 2014 by the University of Wisconsin Press, is a memoir of his youth: Through the Day, Through the Night: A Flemish Belgian Boyhood and World War II.

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