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We sat down with author, public historian, and PhD student Ross Caputi to discuss his first book, The Sacking of Fallujah: A People’s History, co-written with Richard Hil and Donna Mulhearn and coming out this year with the University of Massachusetts Press. The Sacking of Fallujah reveals how the people of Fallujah themselves experienced the U.S. sieges and sacking of the city, and the casualties, political destabilization, and infrastructure crises they faced in the aftermath. In this interview, Caputi discusses how the book came to be, and the reparations framework utilized by the Islah Reparations Project, which public historians can use to think about reparations and the forms they should take.

The Sacking of Fallujah is now available for pre-order on Amazon and from the UMass Press website. The book’s official release date is April 8, 2019.

Caputi’s next project focuses on the Italian village of Grumento Nova, and combines historical linguistics with oral history to document its distinctive language and how it has been shaped by modernization. You can find out more about his work here, and follow his Twitter @caputi_ross.

new coverThere I was looking through Google Images at spider after spider—and I an arachnophobe since early childhood. I was searching for an eight-legged creature that might plausibly be found in the rice paddies of Guangdong, China. In my academic writings on the history of agricultural science, I just note the significance of spiders for controlling insect pests and move on. But now the illustrator of the book I had written for children wanted to know what the spider in our story should look like. The hours I spent looking for a suitable spider served as a kind of exposure therapy. I’m less afraid of them now than I ever remember being. I’m also more aware of just how many things I don’t know in my area of expertise: the history of agricultural science in socialist China.

In fact, “exposure” makes a good overarching theme for my journey in writing Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean: Remembering Chinese Scientist Pu Zhelong’s Work for Sustainable Farming. The title itself—its absurd length and characteristic format—marks me inescapably as an academic. My name on the cover and photo on the back flap has also exposed something deep that my colleagues avoid discussing but many other people want to know: how does a white woman with a German last name, born and raised in the US, claim to speak about the experiences of Chinese people? Academics rarely question one another’s authority to speak on “our” subjects. Suddenly I have to confront just how much I depend on those three letters (Ph.D.) and how little they can mean outside academic circles.

In children’s book publishing, if the author does not have ethnic credibility, the illustrator needs to make up for it. (This is standard in the industry; my publisher did not make it up!) So the editor found and hired a talented new illustrator named Melanie Chan. As it turned out, Melanie was not Chinese either—her husband’s family was. Another exposure, this time of American assumptions about race and authenticity: Melanie’s authority exceeded mine by just one letter (C-h-a-n to my P-h-D).

And yet, Melanie is connected to China in ways that enriched the book tremendously, and her name was the clue to that connection. Her husband’s ancestral village is in a part of Guangdong not that far from where our story takes place, which meant she could draw on the knowledge of her in-laws and on her own visits to the area. Less tangibly, Melanie’s aesthetic sensibility appears satisfyingly “Chinese” not just to Americans, but to people in China as well. Academics might see this as evidence undermining essentialist views of culture: despite our different social positions and relations to political power, we each inherit a cultural heritage far more diverse than usually recognized. My non-academic Chinese friends would more likely point to yuanfen—the cosmic connection that brings people together, often against the odds. It’s what they often generously use to underscore the rightness of my being in China; maybe it’s also what brought Melanie and me together in this picture book on insect control in Guangdong.

One of my goals in the book is to share with children an example of Chinese people working for environmental sustainability, in contrast to the images of Chinese polluters that dominate Western media. I am also excited to introduce a way of thinking about scientific knowledge—as produced by scientists and farmers working together—that was characteristic of socialist-era China. But within the worlds of publishing and education, the most fundamental purpose of such a book is to “expose” young readers to China. To accomplish such exposure, the book has to look immediately and recognizably “Chinese,” which means clearly different from the worlds inhabited by the target audience.

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But what “looks Chinese”? The line between iconic and stereotypic proves troubling. Peasants in conical hats scream “China” to American audiences, but that is a stereotype—perhaps deriving from the history of the US war in Vietnam. The hats of farmers in Guangdong are too similar to our own straw hats to “look Chinese,” so we needed to find other visual cues for the cover. Meanwhile the design concept that Melanie originally chose for the borders (intricate, polished wood carvings) “looked Chinese” and reached the bar of cultural authenticity in a broad sense, but I felt the carvings represented too elite an aesthetic for 1970s rural China. In the end Melanie found a perfect alternative: the art of paper cutting is recognizably Chinese, “traditional,” and yet folksy enough that it was affordable for Chinese rural people and easily accommodated within revolutionary politics.

In truth, few picture book authors are allowed as much contact with illustrators as I had. An important part of the editor’s job is to prevent pushy authors from squashing the artist’s creativity. Contrary to what many people assume, picture book illustrators are not there to draw what the author dictates; they are full partners in the creative process. In our case, Melanie brought a whole new angle to the depiction of history: she conceived of the narrator actively curating his memories by painting pictures, tearing pages from his field notebooks, cutting out photographs, and assembling all of these, along with the paper cuttings, into a scrap book memorializing his mentor, Pu Zhelong. My respect for the contributions of both the illustrator and the editor grew every day we worked together, and I very much hope I succeeded in my efforts not to overstep my authority. That kind of restraint was something of a new experience for me in publishing. Whether or not we deserve it, academic publishers treat scholars with a deference we’re unlikely to find if we venture into the world of children’s literature. The exposure, in all senses, is worth it.

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 Sigrid Schmalzer, Moth and Wasp, Soil and Ocean: Remembering Chinese Scientist Pu Zhelong, (Tillbury House Publishers, 2018)

This summer, Professor Tore Olsson kindly accepted to answer few questions about his experience at UMass and his recent book Agrarian Crossings: Reformers and the Remaking of the US and Mexican Countryside. 

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-Adeline Broussan: First of all, could you tell us a bit about you?

Tore Olsson: Sure thing! I’m currently an assistant professor of history at the University of Tennessee, where I teach modern U.S. history. Considering my personal background that’s a rather unlikely career path – I was born and raised in Sweden and knew essentially nothing about the United States before my family and I emigrated to Brookline, MA, in 1990, at the tender age of eight. However, it wasn’t long before I began to take an interest in American history. I still remember my lovingly-worn trading cards of U.S. presidents from third grade (Franklin Roosevelt was my clear favorite!), and into high school, my favorite classes were always my history classes. But it was really during my years at UMass – 2000-2004 – that I was swallowed whole by history as a discipline and profession, not just a collection of stories. I left UMass with a burning desire to dedicate my life to the study of the past. From there it was on to graduate school at the University of Georgia, where I earned my Ph.D. in spring 2013, and that fall I began work at the University of Tennessee, where I’ve taught since. Coming to the United States as an immigrant, it was a career that few would have predicted!

– AB: What led you to study history at our department and what memories do you keep from your time here?

TO: I came to UMass undeclared, and was uncertain – really quite bewildered – about what sort of career I wanted to pursue. I knew I wasn’t a math or science type, but beyond that I had little clue. Then, during my very first semester, I took my first GenEd history class – Leonard Richards’ early American history survey – and was so enthralled by it. I’ll never forget our discussion of Shays’ Rebellion, the 1780s violent uprising against the new U.S. government right there in my new home of western Massachusetts – an episode that was entirely new to me and really opened my eyes to the messiness and unpredictability of the past.

But I was still reluctant about declaring a history major. I was under the impression that it brought limited career options, and I wasn’t certain I wanted to teach, especially at the high school level. (Having just escaped high school, I had no desire to return!) These are stereotypes that still live on, unfairly, today. But I’ll never forget a life-changing conversation I had in Spring 2001 with an older history major. He gave me the same advice that I now give to all of my students pondering a history major: that it’s a discipline that teaches you to read, write, do intensive research, digest vast amounts of information, make arguments, and communicate them effectively to others – in a nutshell, it prepares you for pretty much every career out there!

Having declared my major, I eagerly jumped into coursework. From the smorgasbord of classes offered, I ate a wide and varied diet. I delved deeper into early American history with Prof. Richards and Gerry McFarland. I think I took every course on modern Europe that Neal Shipley offered. Ann Jefferson gave me my first introduction to Latin American history, which was unlike anything I’d studied before. I took a wonderful honors seminar with Larry Owens on science and the state in modern America – a class that I wish I could retake now, considering my current research interests.

– AB: How did your training at UMass shape you as an educator?

TO: What I love most about my job as a history professor is the research – the painstaking but so incredibly exciting work of sifting through the past to find untold stories or new perspectives on why our world looks as it does. And without doubt, I got my taste for it at UMass! The most transformative experience for me came with my senior honors thesis, which I wrote under Gerry McFarland on the topic of “Bleeding Kansas” – the political violence that tore apart Kansas in the years before the outbreak of the Civil War. I was trying to tell the story of the New England Emigrant Aid Company, a group of antislavery activists who sent settlers to Kansas to vote against the extension of slavery into that territory. I followed the Company’s trail across many floors of the DuBois Library, into newly digitized archives online, and ultimately to the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester. Digging through dusty books and records and records might seem dull to some, but to me it was a thrilling detective adventure. I’ll never forget checking out a library book whose last check-out date was 1913! During that year, I learned the fundamentals of research that I’ve relied upon ever since.

But my years as a History major also made me who I am as a teacher. I was particularly inspired by the many lecturers who were able to captivate a large room with their wit, humor, and erudition. It is truly my lifelong ambition as a teacher to replicate the on-the-edge-of-your-seat lecturing style of Neal Shipley explaining Jeremy Bentham’s ideas on crime and punishment, or the subtle brilliance of how Larry Owens mediated a discussion of nuclear arms policy in post-1945 America. I still rely upon many of my old UMass syllabi when crafting my own courses, particularly in terms of assignments and projects that seek to stretch the thinking of students.

– AB: Could you tell us about your hot-off-the-press book “Agrarian Crossings: Reformers and the Remaking of the US and Mexican Countryside” (Princeton University Press, July 2017)?

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TO: Absolutely! In many ways my book grows from my personal background. As a Swede studying American history, I’ve always been bothered by studies of U.S. history that seem to think that it played out in a vacuum – as if our country existed on a different plane of existence from the world beyond its borders. I think too many folks draw artificial boundaries around American history that can hide what actually happened in the past.

My book explores how such artificial boundaries have hidden the deep entanglement of U.S. history with Mexican history. Today, I think many Americans consider their nation and Mexico as polar opposites – one rich, one poor, one stable, one chaotic – whose histories have entirely distinct trajectories. The rhetoric of our recent election only reinforced that sentiment. In my book I argue the complete opposite – that the histories of the United States and Mexico share far more than we realize. In particular, I look at the 1930s and 1940s, when rural reformers in the United States and Mexico waged unprecedented campaigns to remake their countrysides in the name of agrarian justice and agricultural productivity. In the U.S., this was pioneered by Franklin Roosevelt; in Mexico by its president Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940). My book basically tells the story of how these campaigns were conducted in dialogue with one another, as reformers in each nation came to exchange models, plans, and strategies with their equivalents across the border. It’s very much a book about how Mexican ideas influenced U.S. politics – a very important story to remember today, when the relationship of those two countries seems much more imbalanced.

–  AB: Thank you Professor Olsson!