Saturday, January 24, 2009

Jana K. Lipman

Jana K. Lipman is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Tulane University. Her new book is Guantánamo: A Working-Class History between Empire and Revolution.

Recently, I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
What am I reading?Thanks so much for asking – and the question makes me sit down and actually process the recent books I have read. And it makes me realize I wish I was reading more fiction.

Right now, I am starting a new research project, and my reading has focused on 19th century US empire. Most of these books have dealt with mapping and the geographies of America in the 19th century. They have made me re-think the “map” of the “United States” again – why is Hawaii a state? California? but not Panama or Puerto Rico? As borders continue to be disputed throughout the contemporary world, I’ve found it constructive to look back in time to re-remember how the areas we often take for granted as “American” have a much more violent and complex history.

Today I’m in the middle of Island World: A History of Hawaii and the United States by Gary Y. Okihiro. Although I still haven’t gotten to Barack Obama’s memoirs, I’m glad to be reading a book about Hawaii this week when the nation is celebrating the inauguration of the first president who grew up in Hawaii. So far, I’ve been intrigued by Okihiro’s descriptions of surfing and indigenous culture and the way in which it was appropriated by white men in California to demonstrate their strength and masculinity. Personally, I can’t surf, but Okihiro’s analysis will never allow me to look at surfing culture in quite the same way…. And it makes me want to read and learn more about Hawaii and its history vis a vis the United States and the Pacific.

I just finished Brian DeLay’s, War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the US-Mexican War. DeLay rewrites the history of the Mexican American War with what he calls independent Indians at the center. He analyzes how American Indians who saw themselves outside the authority of Mexico and the United States shaped the dynamics of the US-Mexican war in the mid-19th century. He doesn’t shy away from the violence of this time period and demonstrates the contingency that led to the US political expansion into the west. Plus, he is a beautiful writer and I kept being drawn back into the political and military drama.

I also read Aims McGuinness’s Path to Empire: Panama and the California Gold Rush. It was just fascinating to learn that the majority of travelers to California during the Gold Rush passed through Panama, because it was faster to take a ship to Panama, cross the isthmus, and sail to San Francisco, than to travel across the prairie states. And although McGuinness doesn’t make this argument explicitly, it’s also a subtle critique of modernization and technology being a panacea for the developing world. In fact, the first transcontinental railroad across Panama, hurt rather than stimulated Panama’s economy. Panamanians actually profited more from this international travel before the construction of a railroad, because the speculators/adventurers had to spend more time in Panama and engage with the local economy. Once the railroad was completed, the local tourist/travel economy dried up, and all of the potential dollars went straight to the railroad company and then left via ships on the Pacific Coast.

Finally, during Thanksgiving, I re-read Magnus Fiskesjo’s The Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon, the Death of the Teddy’s Bear, and the Sovereign Exception of Guantánamo. This is simply one of the best works I’ve read on the dangers of arbitrary power since September 11th. It’s a great Thanksgiving read, and it links together, turkeys, pardons, and the very real risk of authorities above the law.
Learn more about Guantánamo: A Working-Class History between Empire and Revolution at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue