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The Surf Zone in West Africa and Hawaii

By Jasmine Marshall Armstrong

Does the surf zone—where sea and shore meet—provide coastal peoples with a more liminal space to transcend white hegemony regarding the body, sensuality and cultural exchange?

Kevin Dawson, an assistant professor of History at UC Merced, explored these questions during his Merced Seminar in the Humanities Talk: “Surfing and Waterscapes in Africa and Hawaii: Redefining Race and White Womanhood.”

Dawson noted that historians have been increasingly interested in coastal zones as sites of study, and have begun to consider “water people,” or those whose lives, rituals work and leisure take place not only on land, but close to the surf zone. For both Hawaiians and West Africans, such zones were “liquid and infinite,” Dawson said.

While western culture treated waterscapes as dangerous voids representing chaos as defined by Judeo-Christian texts such as the Book of Genesis, the early modern people of West Africa experienced the surf zone as a space of sport, play, and spirituality. West African parents were observed by Europeans teaching their children surfing techniques from an early age.

Swimming was revered in both Hawaii and West Africa, with both cultures teaching children to swim as toddlers. Although Europeans had once enjoyed swimming in the Greco-Roman period, the nudity associated with it led those in the early modern to Victorian period to view the activity with suspicion. When European ships arrived in Hawaii in the 18th Century, they were amazed to see Hawaiian men and women swim a mile out from the shore to their ships. In Hawaii, women surfed alongside men, and were honored as powerful warriors for their engagement with the waves. This included a royal Maui princess, whose prowess riding the waves was described as “the most graceful and daring surfer.”

When Europeans and Americans encountered the water people of Hawaii engaged in surfing and swimming, they conceptualized the activities as “primitive” and “savage”—but also exhibited a desire to assert white supremacy by mastering the sports. The descriptions used by California writer Jack London to describe Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku a native Hawaiian Olympic champion swimmer and popularizer of surfing in the early 20th century as “a young God, bronzed.” In the next sentence, London urged Anglo-Saxon whites to master surfing, and best Hawaiians at their own sport.

For white women, the surfing craze in the early 20th century offered an opportunity to escape from traditionally repressive structures regarding display of their body, sensuality and interracial romance. Dawson noted that trips to Hawaii were popular for the daughters of wealthy Americans, and young divorcees. They often were taught to surf by native Hawaiian men working at resort hotels.

One woman who visited Hawaii as a young adolescent in the 1930s, described her encounter with her Hawaiian surf instructor as awakening her sexuality. Dawson noted that biracial children sometimes resulted from interracial romances—adding to the cosmopolitan makeup of the Hawaiian population.

Women—both native Hawaiian and white—were just as well-known for surfing on the beaches of Hawaii as men prior to World War II. After the war, as Hawaiian culture was increasingly whitewashed by mainland acts such as The Beach Boys, women were more often depicted as beach bunnies. It is only in the present era, Dawson said, that women are once again rising to the same level of prominence and importance as men in the costal zone’s sports.

Water Rights and the National Land for People Movement in the West Valley

By Jasmine Marshall Armstrong

Can water laws meant to protect small family farms be used to give Latinx farmworkers a stake in land ownership in the Central Valley?

This question was central to Mario Sifuentez’s presentation “Land, Food Security and Water Rights in the Central Valley: Farmworkers, the Westlands, and the National Land for People” on Oct. 7, at the UC Merced Center for the Humanities seminar.

Sifuentez, a Center for the Humanities Fellow and assistant professor who specializes in labor, immigration, food and agriculture at UC Merced, said that during the 1970s, The National Land for  People movement, based in Fresno, attempted to use a 1902 law on the books limiting farms that received federal irrigation to 160 acres.

The 1902 Reclamation law, passed during the Progressive Era, was intended to prevent federally funded irrigation projects from being used by robber barons and large corporations, including railroads, in land grabs.

Enforcement of this law on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley proved difficult, Sifuentez said, as family farming corporations would add to their ownership of land by having the title of farm land put in the names of employees, friends or neighbors to skirt the law.

A populist movement connected to the United Farm Workers was founded in 1964 by George Ballis, a populist activist. He envisioned enforcement of the Reclamation Act allowing those who worked the land as farm workers to be able to buy land and become small-scale farmers themselves.

The west side of the San Joaquin Valley is the site of some of the largest farms, Sifuentez noted. This has created vast wealth for family corporations who benefit from Federal water reclamation projects, but has also left Latinix farm workers living in conditions where they do not always have access to clean drinking water.

National Land for People focused their efforts on confronting the Westlands Water District, which stretches from Kettleman City in the south to land north of Mendota. Although National Land for People were successful in winning lawsuits to enforce the Reclamation Act, that progress came to a halt in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan. The 1902 law was gutted by his administration, and land owners using federal reclamation water were subsequently allowed to own over 900 acres, and were no longer required to reside on the land.

Sifuentez plans to write his next academic book  on National Land for People and its quest to empower and give property to the people who actually planted, harvested and processed the crops on the west side of the valley. His first book, Of Forests and Fields: Mexican Labor in the Pacific Northwestwas published this year by Rutgers University Press.

Native Hawaiian Music and Cultural Capital in 19th Century Whaling

By Jasmine Marshall Armstrong

When men went to sea in the nineteenth century whaling industry, they entered a working environment which was not only dangerous, demanding, and dirty, but also a space of cosmopolitan exchange with other sailors, according to Dr. James Revell Carr, an ethnomusicologist from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Carr recently presented “‘Selamoku Hula’: Native Hawaiian Music and Dance at Sea in the 19th Century” as part of the Merced Seminar in the Humanities. As part of his presentation, Carr taught those in attendance a chantey entitled “John Kanaka,” whose title refers to Native Pacific Islanders working on American whaling ships. “Kanaka” is a Hawaiian term for “human being.” Research into the origins of “John Kanaka,” which was used by sailors when hauling up the sails, led Carr to speculate that the song’s Hawaiian lyrics which included the term “stand your ground,” were in part instructions to keep one’s feet firmly on the decking in order to maintain safety standards.

Today, “John Kanaka” is learned by numerous school children, and is sung by park rangers and volunteers from the San Francisco Martime National Historical Park, where Carr previously worked as an interpretive specialist. The original meaning and context of the song did not begin to become apparent to Carr until an elderly woman approached him after a performance and introduced herself as a Native Hawaiian. In his book, “Hawaiian Music in Motion: Mariners, Missionaries and Minstrels,” Carr writes that the woman told him her father was a stevedore in Honolulu, who sang songs combining Hawaiian words with English sailors’ expressions such as “by gum” and “ahoy.” This piqued Carr’s interest, and was the impetus for the research project which lead to his book.

Beyond a means of inclusion within the whaling work space, Native Hawaiian music became an important part of cultural circulation and exchange on the seas. Carr said that whaling ships would often meet up in the waling grounds, during which sailors would trade scrimshaw, books, and music. One mariner’s diary he read an excerpt from noted that during an occasion in which his ship met up with several others, mariners sang songs representing their nationalities and  ethnicities, including Hawaiians. Another sailor, from New England, used his personal copy book to record in Hawaiian a song he learned from Native Hawaiian whalers. The sailors noted that they looked forward to impressing others with their knowledge of a Hawaiian song, reflecting the concept of cultural capital.

While Native Hawaiians were looked down upon by missionaries and those in the sugar plantation trade, in whaling, the working class masculine culture was based around mutual respect for hard work among sailors. “It mattered less if you were American or Hawaiian or English,” Carr said. “What mattered was if you worked hard, and had skills in seamanship, and bravery when facing the whale.” American missionaries attempted to keep Native Hawaiians working on the sugar plantations in Hawaii, but journals and letters Carr has found indicate that most preferred working at sea, where they were treated with more respect, and their culture was appreciated.

Although the cosmopolitan age of the whaling ships ended in the latter half of the nineteenth century, elements of native Hawaiian songs sung at sea continue to appear, whether reinterpreted as music for children or as a popular wedding song. Few Americans today are aware that Hawaiian music has a long history of popularity and inclusion in the repertoire of American popular music, Carr noted. Yet it was Hawaiians who “gave the world a unique combination of sliding steel guitar, driving ukulele, falsetto yodels, and loping, syncopated rhythms that have influenced America since the 1890s at least,” he wrote.

Vanesha Pravin: A Poet Explores the Transnational

By Jasmine Marshall Armstrong

Recently, The Center for the Humanities at UC Merced hosted a poetry reading and book signing for Merritt Writing Program faculty member Vanesha Pravin, whose book Disorder was published in 2015 and won the American Academy of Arts & Sciences Sarton Poetry Prize.  We spoke with Pravin about her training as a poet, her love of writing about everyday objects, and the influence of a transnational family with roots in Asia, Europe, Africa and North America:

In press for your award, Robert Pinsky noted, “a central challenge for American art has been the confluence of immigrant histories. Rising above the conventional approaches to that material, urgent and severe, Vanesha Pravin’s Disorder attains a global and historical perspective uniquely personal yet wide-ranging.” Could you discuss whether concepts of transnational or cosmopolitan identities have played a role in your development as a writer? If so, how?

The poems span four continents – North America, Asia, Africa, and Europe. My mother went through four citizenships, my father went through three, and I also have two passports. Since I spent half of my childhood in England and the other half on the East Coast with parents who were mostly raised in Uganda and Tanzania, I feel like I’m a hybrid of different identities. These European, Indian, American Southern, and New England sensibilities all shape the way I interpret the world and capture this interpretation through language. Partly from the influence of different languages, but also having had, at one point, a British accent, and at another point a Southern accent, I’m sensitized to sound, rhythm, and cadence, and attuned to the sound patterns of language.

Several of the poems in Disorder take readers into the past based upon everyday objects the speaker in the poems encounters, such as the trading cards from boxers from 1910 in The Pharmacist’s House. Can you discuss the role objects have in your writing? Do they seem to have a life of their own?

Many objects have longer lifespans than humans. When the speaker finds the trading cards, she is thinking about their origin, too. Who bought these cards? The boy who spent hours sifting through them and then, in time, abandoned them, moved away, forgot about them, aged and died. When you hold vintage objects, you’re reminded of your own mortality because when you think about the objects in their original settings, you’re aware that they have outlived their owners. So yes, the objects do seem to have a life of their own. When you’re dusting an object like the wooden elephant in the opening poem, you have a whole range of associations that that particular object triggers for you, but the object also exists independently of your own associations. It usually means something very different for another observer who projects a different set of associations onto it. In that respect, the object can be like a talisman for the different people who possess it.

How long have you been writing poetry and when did you first consider yourself a poet?

I’ve been writing poetry since I was a child (with long breaks since then), but I didn’t commit to it as a vocation until I was a young adult.

What kind of training do you have as a poet? Did you study under particular poets? How did they influence you?

I learned a lot from reading widely and studying books on prosody throughout my formative years. I also took creative writing workshops and classes, and attended readings by poets like Adrienne Rich, Margaret Atwood, and Louise Glück. Later I took poetry workshops with David St. John and Holly Prado, and worked one-on-one with the poet Laurel Ann Bogan. Then I went to grad school at Boston University, where the training was rigorous and I was able to study under Robert Pinsky, Maggie Dietz, and Louise Glück.

Each writer has taught me something invaluable that has shaped me as a poet. Laurel Ann Bogen taught me how to “find the poem.” Sometimes the poem gets buried and you have to dig it out from the mass of text. You might have written a page and a half, but the poem only comes alive in the 3rd stanza and the rest is superfluous, so you have to ruthlessly cut. At BU I was pleasantly surprised, shocked even, at how generous my professors were with their time, giving us extensive feedback and critiquing our revisions. Robert Pinsky was wonderful – an incredibly supportive mentor. I’ll never forget a long letter he sent me with spot-on feedback, which was instrumental in helping me think through the blocks in my work. He advised me to go Zen with certain poems because he thought the readers needed a break between the more intense poems, and that turned out to be essential in figuring out the organization for my book. Robert also introduced me to the work of poets I’d never heard of, like Fulke Greville. Maggie Dietz was also a great teacher. She led workshops on topics like meter and publication, and through those workshops I became much more aware of the subtleties of craft. She also taught me the value of exercising restraint, which really influenced me when I was shaping Disorder. Louise Glück was a force and terrifyingly psychic when it came to dissecting the work. She once spent 50 minutes critiquing one of my poems — I felt like I was going to pass out by the end, but I absorbed it all and internalized the feedback in such a way that the poem took a radical new turn during revision. Louise would also conference with grad students on weekends, spending an hour with each of us. She was also very supportive of my thesis. You hold on to those words of encouragement after you leave BU, during the long droughts where nothing happens and you process rejection after rejection.

In the back of Disorder is an appendix: a family tree. Why did you decide to include this element in your book?

The book has so many characters that it would have been difficult for most readers to map out the relationships without the tree. I struggled for a long time trying to find the right order for the poems. It didn’t work well to have the poems arranged chronologically. So the poems jump back and forth in time – the juxtapositions of past and present turned out to be essential in creating both momentum and highlighting the constant intrusion of the past into the present. So, since the reader already has to do some work figuring out the timeline, I wanted the tree there to at least provide some clarity about who the characters are.

Several poems in Disorder discuss first and second wives in the family history of the speaker. Could you comment on writing about the complicated relationships among women in families depicted in your book?

Well, we’re talking about a time and a culture where you did what you had to do to survive. As a descendent, I was born in a time when I was able to take a Women’s Studies class at 16, so I had to be careful not to write exclusively and patronizingly from the perspective of a 21st century, educated woman. The second wife is also 16-years-old, the daughter of a poor farmer who can’t afford to keep her, and he arranges a marriage for her. From a young age, she is made aware that, as a girl, she is a burden to the father who must find another home for her. She is expected to develop the coping mechanisms and adapt to this awkward situation, and also to respect the first wife, her elder. Poverty doesn’t grant you the luxury of stewing in your feelings. The first wife is also forced to face the reality of her situation – since she can’t bear children, she understands that she must find an alternative and accept the new family dynamic. She knows the second wife will finally bring children into the family. Obviously, there weren’t many options for women in that era, so these women developed the means to acclimate and minimize the drama. There weren’t the daily catfights that you might see in a contemporary reality TV show.

In the case of the two wives in Disorder, after the children come, there is also the daily grind of survival with the additional pressure of young children, so it was imperative that they find a way to make it work and get on with the business of living. The second wife, by nature, was levelheaded and not a complainer, and any resentment harbored by the first wife did not interfere with their joint efforts to run the household. So the challenge for me was to write from their perspectives, and not to turn it into an ethnographic study.

In several poems, including “Sleep, Wake, Sleep,” you write about the Central Valley. How does the local landscape and its peoples influence your poetry?

I spent a lot of time walking through fields and orchards, and taking country drives just to clear my mind. It’s meditative — observing the things of the world that go unnoticed. I love the stimulation of cities, but I also love being refreshed by a space where there isn’t a single human being in sight. Although the Central Valley landscape is the backbone of that poem, it’s not really about the Central Valley – and with any mention of people, I was referring to humans in general. Writing “Sleep, Wake, Sleep,” I was thinking of those drives out in the middle of nowhere where the sky overtakes the land and you can successfully, almost effortlessly, distance yourself from the network of humans. You see maybe a town on the horizon, and you feel insulated from the sort of madness that comes from rampant over-sharing, which has become a poor substitute for authentic connection. That madness in our culture is muted by time spent in the natural world.

What are you working on now as a writer?

I’ve got a few projects that I’m working on, but I’m focused on revising another collection of poems. It’s a very different animal from Disorder, so I’m not applying the same writing strategies and criteria that I relied on for that book. This means I have to be somewhat ruthless with my own work, discarding what I would have gladly preserved in the past. This is simultaneously an invigorating and unnerving experience, to acknowledge that I’m right back at the beginning, hunting for meaning and sense.

Flood Management in Late Imperial China

By Jasmine Marshall Armstrong

How are people impacted by living beside water, and what impact do they exert upon water? What counts as disaster? Ruth Mostern explored these questions in a talk for the Center for the Humanities this fall, “Engineering Empire: The Theory and Practice of Yellow River Flood Management in Late Imperial China.” She noted that for people living near the river, who sometimes lost everything, flooding was a disaster. Yet for a water course, flooding is not a disaster, but rather is a part of the natural cycle and response to change.

Mostern described the Yellow River as “the most sediment laden river in the world,” and explained that erosion from the Loess Plateau on the watercourse leads to heavy silting, which eventually leads to flooding. People exacerbated this problem when they set out to build a series of fortifications and supporting settlements in the lower reaches of the Yellow River. “Human activity can have a very rapid and profound effect,” Mostern noted.

Mostern presented digital mapping of the Yellow River and its floodplain, which is part of her ongoing research into historical archives kept by bureaucrats in states along the Yellow River. She noted that the excellent record keeping of Chinese Imperial Officials makes it possible to study the Yellow River in this way.

A lively discussion followed on ecology, imperialism and how legends relating to water mastery persist today in China. The “legendary” Chinese figure of Yu the Great, who purportedly lived from 2200-2101 B.C., was famed for channeling all the rivers of China and establishing its first state in primordial times, supposedly devising a dredging system used on the Yellow River and other great watercourses in China. So important was Yu’s accomplishment that he was known in history as “Yu the Great Controls the Waters.”

Mostern responded to questions about highly visible research made public this summer in the New York Times indicating possible archeological evidence for the Chinese mythology of Yu and the first Dynasties.

For Mostern, interdisciplinary work in crucial to her project—her primary field is history but she also relies on the work of geographers, hydrologists and soil scientists.

We’d like to hear from other scholars and students who bridge the sciences and humanities: What has bridging fields meant to you in your own work? What have been the challenges and benefits?

France Turned Upside Down

by Susan Amussen

I have been following the coverage of the shootings in Paris at Charlie Hebdo and the aftermath somewhat obsessively. But The New York Times headline jumped out at me.[1] We have spent the last year and a half in our seminar examining the idea of the world upside down in multiple forms. A few times we have approached the pain and grief that caused this exclamation, but as in most academic contexts, we tend to distance ourselves from it. It also stood out because when weighing whether to choose this focus for our first two-year cycle, I made the decision when I heard a reporter after another tragedy – the shootings of school children at Newtown, CT, in December 2012 – say, “The world is upside down.”

In sixteenth and seventeenth century England, the period I study, the phrase and concept of a world upside down has many uses. It’s used in comedy, in lawsuits, in politics. The idea of inversion, a world upside down, is everywhere. It happens when women boss their husbands around, when inferiors challenge their betters. Witches turn the world upside down, but it is not used for the impact of war, or natural disaster: these are visitations of God. The death of a loved one is a source of grief, but it is not evidence of an upside down world. An upside down world is, instead, the result of human beings who disrupt the natural order.

The two recent uses I’ve highlighted suggest that we don’t use it now for everyday life, but to respond to tragedies and disasters. An upside down world comes from crisis – events that turn our lives upside down. We may not have the same vision of a hierarchical society that made the world upside down so potent an idea in the seventeenth century, but we do have a sense of how life ought to go. The first page of the google books search for the term includes a book on children in war zones;[2] another on “the global battle over God, truth and power;”[3] one on the work of William Golding;[4] and one on globalization.[5] Globalization and war are turning things upside down. The last year of results for the phrase from The New York Times includes a book review that notes that Primo Levi “said that the concentration camp was ‘a world turned upside down,’” but also trailers for movies where love turns someone’s life upside down. [6]

It appears that we have come – at least in advanced industrial societies – to be insulated from certain kinds of tragedy. We don’t expect people to die young, or terrorists to shoot things up. We even seem to think that war is an anomaly. And those things now upend our understanding of the world, and force us to see things in a new way.

But the movie trailers which talk about people’s lives being turned upside down by love remind us that it is not only disasters that change how we see the world. And it raises a question for each of us to ponder: what have been the events, experiences, or maybe ideas that have changed the way we see the world?

[1] Erlanger, Steven. “Days of Sirens, Fear and Blood: ‘France is Turned Upside Down.’” The New York Times. 9 Jan. 2015. Web. 9 Jan. 2015.

[2] Neil Boothby, Alison Strang, and Michael Wessells, Eds. A World Turned Upside Down: Social Ecological Approaches to Children in War Zones. (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, 2006).

[3] Phillips, Melanie. The World Turned Upside Down: The Global Battle over God, Truth, and Power. (New York: Encounter Books, 2010).

[4] Crawford, Paul. Politics and History in the Work of William Golding: The World Turned Upside Down. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002).

[5] Jones, R. J. Barry. The World Turned Upside Down? Globalization and the Future of the State. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000).

[6] accessed Jan. 15 2015: other references included a discussion of the Hunger Games, the Syrian war, and film reviews.