Writing Postcolonial Histories – A Conversation with Dr. Julie Gibbings

Retrospect’s Editor in Chief sat down with Dr. Julie Gibbings to discuss her book, Our Time is Now: Race and Modernity in Postcolonial Guatemala. Dr. Gibbings discusses the research behind the book and some of its key ideas.  

What brought you to the book? What brought you to Guatemala? And why did you decide to focus on Alta Verapaz and the Q’eqchi’ Maya? 

Like many scholars, it was a roundabout process, not linear in any way. As an undergraduate, I was really interested in environmental and social justice, which led me to a study abroad program in Costa Rica. When I finished my degree, I had an opportunity to work in Guatemala on a study abroad programme, which sparked my interest in Guatemala. As a result, I completed a Masters degree with a thesis on the history of the Maya biosphere reserve. The reserve was formed in the wake of Guatemala’s thirty-six year civil war and genocide. I wanted to learn more about this, specifically the racial dynamics of this violence.  

While working on my Masters project, I came across this genocidal military general who was married to a mixed-race Q’eqchi’ Maya-German women. She had been a beauty queen and represented indigenous people on the international stage. She seemed to be this right-wing counterpart to the more famous Rigoberta Menchú (winner of the Nobel Peace prize in 1992). I was totally fascinated by this history of racial mixing and ideas of racial whiteness, which took me to Alta Verapaz, a region that had been settled by Germans in the nineteenth century. I wanted to learn about the historical processes that could lead a Q’eqchi’ Maya-German woman to marry a genocidal military officer. 

This interest in racial whitening and eugenics led me away from the political violence of the later twentieth century and into the nineteenth century. I was interested in searching for the origins of the Guatemalan genocide, but not in a deterministic way. I began to trace historical legacies that replicated themselves and erupted at different moments in distinct ways. Drawing from Dipesh Chakrabarty, I refer to these moments as “time knots”. This was, of course, the topic of my doctoral dissertation and then, eventually, this book.  

You book centres ideas about “race” and “time”. Could you talk a little bit about how you use and understand these concepts? 

The way that race functions in Latin America is quite distinct in comparison to US and British contexts. This has a lot to do with the complexity of these multi-racial societies, where inter-racial mixing was the norm, and their respective intellectual traditions.  

In nineteenth-century Latin America, race was never really clearly defined – there was a lot of racial mixing and passing between different racial categories. For example, upwardly mobile people defined as mestizo or “mixed-race” could “racially whiten” and pass into a different, racially white category. Among intellectuals, Lamarckian ideas about racial improvability held weight over more deterministic Mendellian ones, thus there was an emphasis on the ability of education and sanitation campaigns to lead to racial improvement over time. Race, in other words, was less clearly defined by biological markers and more about sentiment, cultural performance, and class.  

In my work, I relate the flexibility of racial categories to questions of historical time. That is, I was interested in examining how racial classifications were not just about biological difference, but about degrees of civilization and thus about categorizing different people on a temporal scale from barbarism to civilization. This was particularly relevant in Latin America, where newly independent states were anxious about the degree of civilisation among African-descended and indigenous populations and thus their capacity to participate in civic life. They responded to these anxieties by limiting citizenship of racialized others who were deemed not yet civilized enough. In this way, indigenous peoples were understood as anachronistic in the nation; they were considered a lingering presence with beliefs and customs that belonged in the past.  

Time was central to the management of difference, with certain racialized groups considered uncivilised and incapable of exercising citizenship. These temporal metaphors became crucial to how political power was exercised. Among postcolonial theorists, this is what has been termed “the great not yet” or the ways in which rights are limited by discourses of backwardness. From a Latin American perspective, this is extraordinarily racialised.  

Could you talk a little bit about the research you conducted in Guatemala? 

Like many scholars, a core part of the work was interacting with Guatemalans. I spent a fair amount of time in Cobán, the regional centre of Alta Verapaz, and met a variety of indigenous peoples and leaders. One of these leaders was Carlos Albino Choc, a leader of a cofradía (religious confraternity) and he really took me in. We spent many afternoons hanging out at his shop chatting about the history of the region. These interactions helped me to interpret the archival sources differently, providing a depth that allowed me to read against the grain from indigenous perspectives. For example, I came across a court case from 1886 that described a devastating frost. People testified that the frost had been released by a mountain deity as an act of revenge against coffee production encouraged by pilgrims. By reading the case from the angle of indigenous customs and experiences, I could resituate the entire event from a different temporality that wasn’t progressive or stadial but moral and spiritual – a “world out of order”. For me, this changed the meanings of the frost’s aftermath – the flight to the countryside, coerced labour, and the militarisation of labour recruitment.  

A lot of the archival work was done in the municipal archives of Cobán and San Pedro Carchá and the Archivo General de Centro América (AGCA). At the time, the AGCA was under the directorship of Anna Carla Ericastilla and she was absolutely fundamental. Anna Carla has been an important advocate for the AGCA and archives in general. When I was doing the research, the government made strides towards debates securing freedom of information and archival access. However, unfortunately, due to changing political circumstances, particularly the politicization of archives and human rights trials, there has been a degree of backsliding: the National Police Archive is now closed and Anna Carla is now longer director of the AGCA. We’re at a point when Guatemalan researchers are going to face greater difficulties.  

The municipal archives proved most important to this project. If you want to understand indigenous politics, you need to look at municipal archives because this is where you can see how local governance, including coerced labour and indigenous governance operated. These archives were in bad shape. When I first went to Cobán to conduct initial research and asked about the archive, no one in the municipality knew what I was talking about. I kept going back, day after day, asking about an archive. Eventually, I asked if they had any “papeles viejos” (old papers) and they understood immediately. They took me straight down to the basement, the custodial staff’s lunchroom, where there were all of these documents, dating from the nineteenth century, on this dirt floor. It was amazing!  

When I came back to the dissertation research, I managed to get the municipality on board for an archival project. I hired an archivist and local researchers and we moved the archive to a safer location and began this project. That project took an immense amount of time, which is one thing about working in Guatemala – archival research takes time, especially if you want to work in municipal archives.  

Your book is very theoretical but immensely readable. How did you manage the breadth of theory and pull it together in the writing? 

I have always been a bit theoretically promiscuous. I’ve always enjoyed thinking broadly and reading this type of work. For me, I’ve long taken the approach of holding irreconcilable theoretical positions in tension. In the book, I think about Marx and racial capitalism alongside various indigenous ontologies, frameworks that cannot be theoretically resolved. As a historian, I hold these two frameworks together in productive tension and allow them to sit alongside one another. By just letting the tensions be there, it allows a reader to see different ways of interpreting the past. The task of making theory accessible is also crucial. As a historian, I have sought to use historical material and examples to illustrate the theory, this makes it less abstract. 

In some parts of the book, you make parallels to Caribbean history and post-slave societies. Would you be able to talk a little bit more about why you took this approach?  

Part of this is linked to my historical training at University of Wisconsin-Madison and one of my advisors, Francisco Scarano who works on Puerto Rico. I was trained in Latin American and Caribbean history. 

About the time I finished the dissertation, I came to understand that the heart of the story was coerced labour and plantations. I wanted to take seriously the ways in which indigenous people referenced their experiences as a kind of slavery. It was not simply a metaphor. This happened in conversation with Carlos Albino Choc and his experiences of plantation labour in mid-twentieth-century Alta Verapaz. I wanted to take his experiences seriously. 

As I mentioned, the book is immensely readable, how did you approach writing?  

My book uses multiple voices and I don’t draw on a single perspective. This makes the writing hard. It’s a challenge and something you have to work out and play with. When I wrote the dissertation, I used chapters to centre different voices and this didn’t work. When I put the book together, I folded these voices into an overall narrative, which took a lot of rewriting and editing. I’m not always sure I succeeded and there may be times when a reader feels like it’s imbalanced in one direction. 

Through a writing group, I developed new strategies to writing, that emphasize how our minds can only focus well on one kind of task at a time. I start with a very shitty first draft. Barely paying attention to sentence structure, I just get my ideas onto the page. I then conduct multiple edits. First, I structure my ideas and then make sure the argument and evidence are developed. I then turn to the microstructure of each individual paragraph. Lastly, I edit the prose. At each stage, I try not to think about the next one. I think of writing as a really long and layered process that involves particular interventions on the page. This makes the process a lot smoother and less stressful.   

When I’m really frustrated and feeling unmotivated, I pick up a book that I love and read ten pages of it to help me get re-inspired. For me, that’s always been Ann Laura Stoler. She writes in a very sharp, articulate, and powerful way. When I’m having a bad day, I pick up some Ann Stoler, read a little to get inspired, and start writing.  

Finally, what was the most interesting thing that you were unable to include? 

There are three things – you asked for one and I’ll give you three.  

The one that is already out and published is on how German settlers used ethnographies to better understand and govern the indigenous peoples, who were their plantation laborers. There’s a whisper of that in the book, but I have gone on to examine the ways in which this ethnographic knowledge was used to construct the plantation. I think it’s super fascinating and it reveals a lot about nineteenth-century German ethnography that hasn’t previously been thought about.  

Secondly, I am working on an article on eugenics and the ways lower class women under the dictatorship of Jorge Ubico took up ideas of responsible motherhoood. I have some great material about how indigenous and ladino lower class women appropriated eugenics to challenge masculine authority and participate in populist dictatorship. In many ways, these women counter traditional ideas about both eugenics and populist dictatorship.  

Thirdly, I am working on an article about the interfamilial conflicts at the hearts of the Guatemalan Revolution. In Alta Verapaz, the revolution opened-up conflicts between descendants of Germans, who lost their properties after World War II, and coffee plantation labourers on those lands. This microhistory of interfamilial conflict shows the Guatemalan revolution, and the Cold War, from below. This gives insights into the affective politics of revolution and the ways in which family dynamics were restructured and then shaped by Cold War political ideologies. 

Dr. Julie Gibbings is Lecturer in the History of the Americas and Director of the Centre for the Study of Modern and Contemporary History at the University of Edinburgh. She is author of Our Time is Now: Race and Modernity in Postcolonial Guatemala (Cambridge University Press) and co-editor of Out of the Shadow: Revisiting Revolution from Post-Peace Guatemala (University of Texas Press). 

Transcribed and edited by Jamie Gemmell 

Cover Image: “Painting of Two Maya Sacerdotes”, Nan Cuz

One response to “Writing Postcolonial Histories – A Conversation with Dr. Julie Gibbings”

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