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Interview: the six authors shortlisted for the 2019 Al-Rodhan Prize

Blog • Literature

Each year, the British Academy Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding recognises non-fiction books that contribute to public understanding of world cultures. In 2019, the six shortlisted authors have tackled ideas and issues as disparate as how the world thinks, how objects can unlock memories and how identities are formed. Here they explain their research and their writing, in their own words. 

Kwame Anthony AppiahKwame Anthony Appiah, author of The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity 

My whole life has prepared me to talk about identity
I was born to a Ghanaian father and a British mother, grew up in Ghana until I went to school in England, then moved to the United States in my late twenties. Although I’d read African American writers, the actual experience of living in America as a person of colour was different from what I’d expected. I had a job in a programme in African and African American studies, where the question was “what should a philosopher be doing?” It seemed to me that the concept of race was something a philosopher should be thinking about. Over the next few decades, I began to develop a view about different species of identity, and how they worked. In 2016, I put these into the Reith Lectures, under the title Mistaken Identities.  

It’s helpful to have a framework for thinking about identity
Although you could say that the task of the book is to destabilise identities, once you get the right picture of identities, it’s actually easier to live with the tensions and difficulties that come from having a complicated identity life. The ethical agenda of the book is to persuade people that some of the ways in which identities are harmful and dangerous in the world come from intellectual and moral misunderstandings about how they do and should work. It’s obvious once you start thinking about it that there are many ways in which identities are historically and socially shaped, they don’t just come into the world as a result of an act of god or nature: we make them. What we make in one way we can remake or unmake, if we decide to do so. It doesn’t mean that we will change it, that requires social movements and activism and lectures and conversations, but it’s the beginning.

Broad identities like gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and nationality contain multitudes
There are people who will get upset if you try to persuade them that this identity which they take very seriously is somehow a ‘made’ thing and could be made differently. They like to think that the way they think it is, is the correct way to think about it. My mother lived in Ghana most of her adult life and died there. She didn’t stop feeling English, but what her Englishness meant to her is very different from what it might mean to her sister, who lived in England all along. In challenging these identities you’re going to upset people, but the only way to get them to move beyond the upset is to recognise that the attitude that they have to their identities is one that people of their very own identity may not share, and that other people of other identities take their identities with equal seriousness. One task of the lectures and the book was to try and talk about these things in a tone that was least likely to upset people, with humility and gentleness, which goes a long way in conversations.

Julia Lovell FBA, author of Maoism: A Global History

Julia Lovell FBA

I was surprised that a history on the global impact of Mao hadn’t yet been written
This contrasts starkly with the quantities of books written about the global importance of Hitler and Stalin. There’s a broader Cold War context to the neglect of global Maoism. In Europe, many non-specialists have, I think, imagined that there was no need to engage seriously with Maoism because it had been rendered irrelevant after the fall of Soviet bloc states in 1989. The People’s Republic of China itself has also contributed to effacing the global history of Maoism; government publicity repeats that China has never interfered in the sovereign affairs of other countries. Under these circumstances, China doesn’t want to illuminate its desire for leadership of the world revolution during the Mao era, a time when China exported not only ideology, but also money, weapons and training for global insurgencies. Because this history raises so many sensitive political issues for the Chinese Communist Party today, many key archival histories and oral histories in China remain out of reach. There is much more to discover.   

The Chinese and international legacy of Maoism is complex and traumatic
I was anxious above all in writing this book to be sensitive to this history and to the many people it affected. It’s a fascinating topic, but it was very challenging and troubling to write about the level of turmoil and trauma that Mao’s ideas and practices generated – and also about the turbulence and suffering that came from state pushback against Maoist insurgencies. Maoism within China exacted a huge human cost from the Chinese people. The loss of human life in different episodes of global Maoism was often due not only to the political violence of Maoist insurrections, but also to very repressive, heavy-handed state responses; that’s particularly the case in Peru and Nepal. Bloodshed was generated on both sides in Maoism’s global travels.

Maoism is a set of ideas that has undergone some very surprising translations
I hope that readers will come away from the book understanding that Maoism doesn’t mean only one thing; it stands for a wide range of theory and practice attributed to Mao and his influence over the past 80 years. These ideas have been changed by their travels, they’ve been translated and mistranslated on their journeys around China and the world. One of the reasons why this thing that people call Maoism has been able to take root in very diverse places and moments is down to its multifaceted, contradictory, malleable nature. I’m drawing attention to the global influence and afterlives of Maoism not because of any partisan political position, but simply because these ideas have had a huge impact on the modern world. We need to understand that impact, to understand contemporary global as well as Chinese history, and also to interpret the present-day trajectories of states and regions affected by Mao’s ideas. 

Toby GreenToby Green, author of A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution

Almost all taught African history is either since colonialism, or a history of slavery
If you only look at one of the major continents of the world from when it became overrun by the bureaucracies and political structures of an outside force, you’re missing out an entire range of possibilities for understanding human society, which is quite a serious omission. The Hegelian idea that Africa is “without history” is still inscribed in the way in which a lot of African history is taught, so there are lots of reasons why more distant African history should be interesting to a curious person. A Fistful of Shells covers a vast topic, and quite a long period of time, so an economic lens became very important as the glue that helped structure the way in which I shaped the book as a whole. 

Fieldwork is hugely important for historians of West Africa
The problem with using just written materials, which is what most historians of this period would do for other parts of the world, is that in the end you will reproduce the perspectives of the authors. In this case, they were white male slave traders and that’s going to give you a very lopsided view – which is what traditionally has happened. For a slave trader, the slave trade is pretty important, but of course, daily life carried on. People were still looking at the latest fashions, wondering what they might eat the next day, looking at things to sell on the market – there were lots of other things going on and those you tend to find those oral histories. By reproducing that, you create a much more balanced, real and true reflection of the past. 

I hope the book generates discussion on why distant African history is not more widely taught
I helped to develop an A-Level option on pre-colonial African history, African Kingdoms, but it’s been hard to get schools to take it up, in spite of all the debates around decolonising the curriculum. That speaks to a lot of problems in the education system, but it also speaks to the fact that it’s hard to get people to take pre-colonial African history seriously. It should be included in national narratives and discourses, at a public level but also at schools and universities, because it’s part of our past. It’s part of the British past in a number of different ways, and the human past as well, so my hope for the book is that it can catalyse interest in making it more central. 

Julian BagginiJulian Baggini, author of How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy 

To do this kind of book, you can’t become an expert in every philosophy
It required a rather different set of skills: the ability to read the key texts, ask the right questions of the right people and bring that all together. It’s trying to capture what you need to understand in order to begin to understand. It’s like a doorway that you can walk through, to begin to get a grip on what’s interesting and different and potentially, take it further yourself. One of the important things I tried to convey was the sense that you can’t expect to nail global thinking simply by reading a short introduction. If you’re really trying to get inside another culture to any extent, you always have to acknowledge the fact that you’re only going to be partially successful in doing that. In a weird way, that makes you understand things better, because the worst mistake you can make is thinking that you’ve got it. That’s going to lead to misunderstanding, rather than understanding.   

You have to be aware of not trying to make things too clearcut and over-general
You can generalise, as long as you don’t over-generalise. A simple example is that if you say men are taller than women, that’s a perfectly reasonable generalisation – but of course, it doesn’t mean all men are taller than all women. Similarly, every time you’re making a comment about what tends to be the case in a tradition of thought, you’re only ever talking about what’s dominant or typical. You’re never saying everybody is like that. At the same time, you can be too afraid, not wanting to make any generalisations at all. It is evidently the case that there are certain ideas and ways of thinking which are and have been more dominant in some cultures than others. To deny that because you’re too afraid of generalising would be ridiculous. 

Knowing about the great philosophical traditions of the world tells you something about how people generally think.
Although philosophy seems to be something that is only ever done by a minority of a population, it has an interesting relationship with the wider culture, it both reflects it and helps to shape it. The book gives people a flavour of something that seems slightly paradoxical. On the one hand, people can think very differently to us in things we take for granted. On the other, it’s also understandable. You can always find something in your own culture’s way of thinking which has some analogue with it. In a world in which there seems to be more of a retreat to national boundaries, anything that helps people to get some grip on both the important differences and similarities is valuable.

Aanchal Malhotra, author of Remnants of Partition: 21 Objects from a Continent DividedAanchal Malhotra

I tried to look at the history of migration and division through the history of objects
Listening to my grandfather talking about how two objects had migrated from Lahore to Amritsar, I couldn’t believe the immediate transportation – not just across time, but across the very impenetrable border that India and Pakistan now share. Believe it or not, until then I had never heard anyone in my family comment on being from, or anything about, what is now Pakistan, despite all four of my grandparents being able to trace their lives to across the border. Through this encounter with two mundane objects, an 80-year-old man became this five-year-old child, talking about growing up in the streets of Lahore, riding his bicycle, what they used to eat. I had never seen him talk like that. I thought to myself, if one person is so affected by these commonplace objects, are other people equally affected? What did they bring and what do these objects represent for them?

The objects let me enter a conversation that would otherwise have been traumatic
To suddenly broach a subject as intimate and aged as Partition can be very intrusive and disrespectful. But with the object, something incredible happens, because you can enter the conversation in a gentler way. For example, if somebody brought a small ring from across the border, I would say, “So, why this ring? Who gave you this ring?” and they would start to talk about how their mother gave it to them... or they remembered her wearing it. So, through the object, one can learn about people’s homes, the lives they left behind, how they learnt about Partition and the access they had to information, why they chose those particular belongings, the things they wish they would’ve carried, the things they carried that ended up not being important. I learned that it was best if I listened to everything a person said. It is only when you spend the time, are genuinely interested, and commit to doing justice to someone’s story, that they will confer their trust upon you and you can enter the most intimate parts of their memory, because memory cannot be presented to you on demand. You need to allow people to excavate deeper into themselves, for many memories of Partition were often forcibly buried within. 

I chose the stories that showed the most empathy, not violence
I focused on the relationship between India and Pakistan, to show how similar we are, how different we were perceived to be, yet how effortlessly we are able to relate to one another, say through social media or other digital platforms. There is a sameness to our most intrinsic senses of being, for we are children of the same soil. I hope that young people who read this book will ask their grandparents for their stories, but maybe the larger aim is to be able to bridge as much of the gap between India and Pakistan as we can, through gentle conversation. For it is only conversation that can lead to any form of empathy. It’s very difficult to see how far we have come from an Undivided India, not just in our geography but in the divisions of our minds. If people on both sides read works like mine and others, that focused on the stories and predicaments and shared history of people, then they might think there is more to the other than what the media portrays. They might have the curiosity to have a conversation, to listen, to see the similarities in our language, our food, our features, our history. That’s the larger concern for me. 

Ed MoralesEd Morales, author of Latinx: The New Force in American Politics and Culture

The book chapter by chapter resembles the syllabus for one of my seminars
I was a full-time journalist until the 2000s, when a fellowship from Columbia led me back into academia. I began teaching courses based on a lot of my work as a journalist on ethnicity and racial identity. The book comes out of the efforts I made to constantly update the syllabus, the feedback that I got from some of the students, and wanting to put together all these ideas that I had been developing. There’s a lot of arguments around the implications of Latinx, in the sense that these kinds of ideas can be applied to many different cultures around the world where there is racial or cultural mixing

The word Latinx can look funny when you see it for the first time
Around 2014 or 2015, I started getting more students talking about this Latinx term. I wasn’t attracted to it at first, it seemed awkward, but I realised that being off-put by seeing it on the page was more than counterbalanced by the people using the word and I grew accustomed to it. Originally the book had a different title, but when I started to hear the term more and more, I decided I wanted to capture the energy of that movement. It’s another example of how the culture of Latin Americans has a pluralistic initiative that is about the gathering of many cultures. The term Latinx critiques the gender bias built into Spanish and Romance languages, where all nouns are identified as masculine or feminine. Some suggest that the X stands for the erased memories or contributions of people of African and indigenous descent. One reason I wanted to use the title is that I felt that it alluded to that idea of how the experience of transitioning to the US allowed Latin American-descended people to appreciate and make more prominent their African and Indigenous identity. It has more than one function; it’s not just the allusion to the gender non-binary.  

The theories in the book are trying to break new ground and have a practical effect on people in the long run.
One of the things that I talk a lot about is that distance between self and other and it’s something that’s really set up by the last 200 years of rationalism. If I can get people to think outside themselves, because they’re actually a part of what they often thought of as the other, that’s what the metaphor of mixed race society and mixed race culture is. Rather than saying I’m white and you’re black – I’m probably white and black, and maybe indigenous and Asian, at the same time. It’s important to look at hybrid identities like Nuyorican and Chicano as ways that national identities can expand. One of the problematics of the hybrid identity is that it can be hard to be accepted by the identity of the country or centre that you’re in, like New York or London, and at the same time you’re rejected by your home country because you’re tainted by the idea or practice of having lived in a place like New York or London. Within that in-between space, it’s possible to create a different kind of nationalism, that is not as limited by previous forms of nationalism. 

Blog • Literature