Monday, February 22, 2021

this month at the LRC: moi! (and some others)


Much good material in the Literary Review of Canada for March, but I have to start off with myself.  They let me do a group review of the finalists for the 2020 Cundill Prize in History, a global prize for the best works in history published in English, Prize-giving was in December; review published in February! 

I get to write about: William Dalrymple's The Anarchy, about how the East India Company -- a "Walmart with armies" -- conquered and wrecked India in the late 18th century; and Camilla Townsend's Fifth Sun, an exploration of how indigenous annals, written in the western alphabet but using the Nahuatl language of the people we call the "Aztecs," recorded the Nahua's own history from a couple of centuries before Cortes's conquest to the century after; and Vincent Brown's Tacky's Revolt, an account of rebel slaves in 8th century Jamaica that draws on everything from cutting-edge historical techniques to graphic-arts treatments of cartography to turn the focus from the enslavers' accounts to the otherwise unrecorded rebels.

These are three histories of colonization, but also three histories about what historians do, or can do.  I recommend the review, if I may: (For the moment you may have to be an LRC subscriber; it's paywalled.) 

Dalrymple, from an aristocratic Scots family, evokes oppressed India. Townsend, a white professor raised in New York City, seeks the Nahuatl beneath the overpowering narratives of their conquerors. Brown, an African American scholar and filmmaker raised in San Diego, California, explores the intricate loyalties of eighteenth-century Africans enslaved in the Caribbean. In the twenty-first century, when many argue that no one from privilege can or should speak for the colonized and oppressed, some might ask if these are all case studies in appropriation.

Townsend gives the best reply. She emphasizes, even embraces, the difficulties of cross-cultural understanding. She suggests, in not quite so many words, that in writing history, what we call cultural appropriation is unavoidable and essential. Even one’s own ancestors of two hundred years past are almost unfathomably strange to anyone alive today. If historians will not make the effort to bridge the chasms, who will? History, Townsend does say, is exciting not in spite of these challenges but because of them. The Nahuatl annalists, she declares, wanted posterity to hear them, and they said so clearly in their writings: “Do we ourselves not become both wiser and stronger every time we grasp the perspective of people whom we once dismissed?”

Also in the March LRC: Jack Granatstein on Margaret Macmillan's War -- a terrific review, though I can't buy the initial special-pleading whine about how military history gets no respect, and Canadians hate their own history, and all that. Heather Menzies on a Metis poet's effort to find her ancestors in scraps and tags of evidence. Mark Lovewell on the recent dramas at Rideau Hall. Bruce Campbell looks into Alberta's current travails. John Lownsborough reads the diary of 19th Century CPR builder Dukesang Wong. And more...   


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