Wednesday, January 24, 2018

History of histories we'll never read

Chris Raible recently shared a link to this Guardian story arguing that historians need to step up and explain things to the rest of the world:
Social scientists find themselves publicly confronting the social dynamics and technological disruptions that have led to our changing politics and society.
But historians are almost entirely absent from this conversation [...] This irrelevance is largely self-inflicted. Too many historians still think that engaging with the public means they’re compromising the integrity of the discipline.
I guess, yeah, maybe.

I was struck recently by the wide press coverage of Sharon Bala's first novel The Boat People, a drawn-from-the-headlines imagining of the experience of those who occasionally arrive off Canadian shores in some rusty ship crowded with escaped migrants of some disfavoured refugee community.  What really struck me was how much reviewers and interviewees wanted the novel to be reportage, to be history, want it to explain what was going on.  In this Sunday Edition radio interview, Bala had to insist, no, she had written a novel; it would have been too hard to write nonfiction on this subject.

But wouldn't it be good if some historian of immigration would do that hard work, and write a researched and contextualized account built around the Sun Sea passengers and their encounter with Canada?  It started me imagining all the other books we don't have, books between history and journalism, between research and narrative, on subjects of historical importance and public interest.

In the current Canada's History, I regret in passing the thinness of the historical literature on thirty years of free trade and NAFTA. And it has often occurred to me that there is still no substantial readable historical analysis of the October Crisis of 1970. And I cannot think of one big accessible history of Alberta's oil and what has done to and for Canada since the Leduc find of 1947.  Even the big social/cultural history topics -- history of medicare, history of feminism, history of treaties and indigenous dispossession -- where there actually is quite a bit of good solid scholarship available, have not been spinning off trade market books capable of starting the kind of buzz that Bala's novel seemed to ignite recently.

I'm not blaming anyone; I haven't written these books either! The conventions of academic career building and the economic realities of trade market publishing in Canada both work against anyone being encouraged to write them.  But there is room, you know, there is room. 

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