Must Reads 1: Around the World in 5 Books
It wasn’t until my senior year of college that I realized just how phenomenal my education at Central Washington University was. I studied anthropology, history, and interdisciplinary studies over the course of my four years and learned so much about my place in the world as well as how others find meaning in life and make sense of the cultural and physical landscapes around them.
Getting inside the lives and stories of cultures and people far removed from either current day or my current location would have been impossible without the incredible books I was guided to read.
Although I’ve only left the PNW once for a trip to Disneyland in 2000, my mind has traversed the entirety of the globe. In one year of school alone, I followed the British during the scramble for Africa, recounted the history of the Irish from colonization to the creation of the Free State, marched behind the Caesar-led Romans to Celtic Britain, celebrated the vibrant gender spectrum with the Bugis of Indonesia, studied Islam’s spread across Africa, played magic baseball on the Trobriand Islands, raised children in Papua New Guinea, and walked in Esperanza’s Mexquitic shoes as she revealed the complexity of the female identity in Mexico.
Over the course of the next year I hope to share some of my favorite books with the MP readers. I have felt moments of joy and pangs of empathy; been emboldened and awakened; been filled with hope and equipped with compassion and would like everyone to have the chance to feel the same.
Without further ado, here is your first trip around the world in five books.
Ghana: Pierre, Jemima (2013). The Predicament of Blackness: Postcolonial Ghana and the Politics of Race. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Pierre’s ethnography is an unflinching account of how the deeply ingrained, yet rarely perceived, racial biases created in colonial Ghana shape the interactions and functioning of its culture, economy, and government. Her book seeks to understand how it is that a nation of black skin has come to operate within the harmful historical construct of white supremacy. Covering everything from skin bleaching in the beauty industry to how tourism affects the black diaspora, Pierre contributes to a conversation of racial influences on the continent at large. Her ethnography challenges readers to think about the increasingly globalized world we share and how history and race have shaped how we interpret our experiences and determine value. This book is a must read for everyone, especially Americans, as we seek to understand and dismantle our country’s systemic racism.
Burr, R. (2006). Vietnam’s Children in a Changing World. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Rachel Burr’s ethnography examines “whether the UNCRC [United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Children] offers Vietnam a relevant set of guidelines for the raising of its children.” As an experienced anthropologist and social worker, Burr knows a thing or two about the de facto policies of nonprofit and world organizations like the UN & UNICEF, World Bank, and IMF, as well as the de jure realities of how those policies help, hinder, or overlook the populations they seek to serve.
“Vietnam’s Children in a Changing World” highlights the specific gaps in communication and aid that create a space in which children begin working and are often punished for making the choice to survive. The study portrays the reality for Vietnam’s children (as of 2006) who choose to work to support their families, escape abusive or inadequate care, to find independence, and to pay for education. Children work as postcard vendors, shoe shiners, prostitutes, assistant cooks, wait staff, drug dealers, orphanage sitters, and more. Burr’s work presents a challenge to Western notions and ideals of childhood as idyllic, carefree, entertaining, sheltered, and easy, by showing the complex lives children are capable of leading. Her work neither endorses nor condemns the life of “street children,” it simply aims to show how NGOs and other world organizations can effectively make change.
This literature is particularly important for any burgeoning social scientists out there. As an anthropology graduate, I loved Burr’s commitment to what Nancy Scheper-Hughes called “militant anthropology.” This model of anthropology seeks to not only objectively display the workings of a culture (as best as we can from an outsider’s perspective, of course) and share tolerance-increasing knowledge with the world, but to call to action the organizations, groups, and individuals who would affect change. In Burr’s case, Vietnam needed inner city programs, subsidized schooling, and paid internships/apprenticeships for children who had found legal work under the supervision of local businesses.
Fox, K. (2004). Watching the English:. London: Hodder et Stoughton.
“Watching the English” was the first book I ever read for my introduction to cultural anthropology class in 2013, and it will forever be one of my favorites. Fox’s research was the catalyst in my decision to pursue cultural anthropology rather than archaeology as my major. At the time I did not realize the true weight of Fox’s work because I had no concept of what fieldwork and research composition actually entailed.
Fox’s work was an in-depth reflexive project requiring her to do the near impossible: separate her English self from her objective anthropologist self. She was able to step back and view her culture as an outsider, seeking to understand the roots of English behavior, mannerisms, idioms, customs, and fashion. Through her book, Watching the English, Fox allows the reader to see her country through an unbiased lens and understand the complex and firm class system of the English, the basis for seemingly innate over-politeness and sexual timidity, and why the Queen is the only true free-thinking fashion icon.
Watching the English is a quick and easy read for Anglophiles and curious audiences. The book is not jargon-heavy and reads like a personable account of day-to-day life in England. I highly recommend this book both on its merits and because of its fond place in my heart.
Ware, R. T. (2014). The Walking Qurʼan: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.
During my time at Central I was fortunate enough to take truly original courses, including a class on the history of Islam in Africa. In a time where the news is filled with the horrifying realities of ISIS, Al-Shabab, and Boko Haram, it can be hard to seek the humanity of groups, peoples, and religions we have deemed dangerous. Reading Rudolph Ware’s The Walking Qur’an provided an insight into Islam’s long-standing presence and integration across Western Africa. [Note that this book focuses on one region of Islam in Africa and is not necessarily representative of its presence across the Maghreb (N. Africa) or along East Africa.]
Aside from providing a fascinating history that counters much of the typical proselytizing you hear about, Ware manages to incorporate a great blend of ethnography in his approach. His use of religious text, personal accounts, interviews, and primary sources provides a full picture of the importance of integrated and internalized religion to the lives of everyday Muslims. For devout Muslims in this region, faith eventually becomes embodied knowledge through recitation of sacred texts and other practices. In the Islamic faith, this mastery held particular symbolic and protective meaning during the Atlantic Slave Trade and retains cultural and historical importance today.
Embodied knowledge is a crucial part of Islam in West Africa because it provides a host of benefits to students, the community, and the umma (or community of practicing Muslims) at large. The physical dedication of the body as well as the mind prove devoutness and help those practicing to lead a holier and richer life. Embodiment in West Africa may begin in the Qur’anic schools, but it does not end there. Students and community members participate in a cyclical and reciprocal system whereby children remind adults to fulfill the fourth pillar of Islam by being kind and generous (as with alms), while adults provide an example for children as they take on adult roles in society. The generational addition of walking Qur’ans serves to improve the protected status of all in the umma.
Ware (2014) quotes William Graham who best sums up embodiment as a personal quest for spiritual truth in a physical world, saying “What is crucial here is the fundamental presupposition that truth does not reside in documents, however authentic, ancient, or well-preserved, but in authentic human beings and their personal connections with one another” (55). In this perspective Islam is based on humanity, authenticity, connection, and experience.
McMahon, T. G. (2008). Grand Opportunity: The Gaelic Revival and Irish Society, 1893-1910. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
Timothy McMahon’s “Grand Opportunity” offers readers the chance to understand the politically and religiously tense era of pre-revolutionary Ireland’s history. Covering the span between the historic Rebellion and the eruption of World War I, McMahon offers an insight into the newly formed Gaelic League’s attempt to heal old wounds by reintroducing and reclaiming the cultural foundation of “Irish-Ireland’s” nationhood.
Although a historiography, “Grand Opportunity” is not a dry read, and is not written in a language above any non-history buff’s head. (Hell, I was able to read this 300 level book as part of my first college history class and kept up with the majors). McMahon presents his arguments clearly and fairly, supporting his notion that the Gaelic Revival — a cultural movement meant to unite the Protestant Irish and Catholic Irish on grounds of shared culture, history, and language — was a “successful failure.” McMahon works through tons of data including advertisements, articles in newspapers regarding festivals, sporting events, and seminars, class rosters for language classes, administrative records from Gaelic League executives, as well as first hand accounts from members of the League. His use of sources and easy-to-follow charts clearly highlights who was participating, how successful and engaged they were, and demonstrates the personal objectives of the people who joined.
By highlighting “underappreciated aspects” of the revival, McMahon clearly marks the new content he is bringing to the table, and creates an opportunity to utilize a semi-anthropological approach to his research so that he could “…interpret how people invested specific objects…with particular meanings” (8). McMahon presents the factual truth of dates, notable figures, and written sources from both sides of a particular dispute, but also values cultural truth through the eyes of the people making the League the “successful failure” it was.
I highly recommend this book for history nerds looking for great interdisciplinary methodology, general readers looking to learn more about the loveable Irish, and for people of Irish heritage looking to understand the lives of their ancestors as they sought to reclaim political and cultural freedom.
Stay tuned for your next trip around the world in five books. Happy reading!