Review: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

Written by Tessa Rodrigues.

How We Disappeared is a profound tale told by Jing-Jing Lee which gives a voice to a forgotten generation of Singapore after the Second World War.

The narrative is split into three different focalisations: Wang Di in first person at the age of seventeen as Singapore surrenders to the Japanese in 1942; Wang Di in the year 2000, observed by a semi-omniscient narrator; and lastly eleven-year old Kevin who discovers an earth-shattering confession from his ailing grandmother the same year. Each story is interwoven into the other to showcase the deep scar left in Singapore following the Japanese Occupation, and the way in which so many were forgotten as the city developed into a bustling first-world metropolis. 

Wang Di’s story begins with an idyllic picture of kampong life in Singapore; however, we are additionally presented with the underlying patriarchal values that stifle her self-esteem. During the Fall of Singapore in 1942, she is stolen from her home and brought to a brothel where she lives for the remainder of the occupation. Her account of a Japanese ‘comfort house’ illustrates the atrocities the women captured experienced by the Japanese soldiers. Lee chooses to present this experience from a first-person point of view to truly reveal the pain, struggle, and subsequent humiliation thrust upon these women when they returned to a home that no longer welcomed them. Wang Di’s courage during her abuse is made clear to the readers, and we feel infuriated when her resilience is met with a silencing sense of shame from the family she yearned for. Her story resonates heavily with a modern-day audience, as #MeToo and other movements against sexual assault are becoming more prevalent. Lee provides a thought-provoking criticism of the way in which post-war Asian cultural norms silenced victims with humiliation and marginalisation, instead of demonstrating empathy towards the sexually abused.

This is made even clearer as we flash forward fifty-eight years later. Wang Di is now seventy-five years old and mourning her late husband. She is illiterate, quiet and slowly fading into the background as she has no family left to remember her. Her primary income comes from collecting old cardboard, a profession that her new neighbours turn their noses up at. Singapore has grown rapidly around her, and the stifling of her once vibrant personality her experiences during and following the war caused her to internalise her shame and humiliation. This leaves her with a lingering regret that she never let her late husband share about his own struggles during the war, and a longing to understand his hidden past. In an aged Wang Di, we are shown the struggles of the ‘Silent Generation’ of the elderly within society today as they begin to disappear into the shadows. We are called to take a step back and examine the way in which we treat not just the older generations within our families, but those who are a part of our collective community and Singapore’s national identity.

Alternatively, Kevin’s narrative serves as a representation of a younger but equally unseen generation. He is only eleven years old, but he is extremely perceptive of his father’s struggles with depression and his mother’s attempts to maintain the illusion that there is nothing to worry about. He manages to evade his parents’ infrequent gaze and investigates his Ah Ma’s secretive past. While his parents aren’t negligent, there is still a premature independence that is thrust upon Kevin as an only child in a household with two working parents. He is the new questioning generation in Singapore who pushes against the perceived norms to find the truth.

All in all, Jing-Jing Lee provides a stunning historical narrative that incorporates the heart-breaking, forgotten story of those who were forced to disappear; however, she also reveals the way in which modern society, not only in Singapore, must strive to remember a past we cannot escape. How We Disappeared pays tribute to those left behind and those who were not able to speak up, and in doing so brings them back to life.

Review: ‘The Five’

Written by Mhairi Ferrier.

The Five, by social historian Hallie Rubenhold, tells the untold stories of Jack the Ripper’s victims – the Canonical Five. Painstakingly researched, The Five provides the reader with a view into nineteenth-century society’s attitudes and norms. Traditionally the widely accepted narrative has been that Jack the Ripper, whoever he may have been, was a killer of prostitutes. Rubenhold distinguishes that only two of the victims, Elizabeth and Mary Jane, appeared to have engaged in sex work during their lives. Of Polly, Annie and Catherine, Rubenhold notes from her research that there is no evidence to say they ever undertook any form of sex work. As is suggested in the book, this narrative made such horrific murders more palatable for the public – the idea that they were just prostitutes, seemingly acted as a justification for such killings. What The Five reminds the reader is that these women had their own stories, which deserve to be told. These women had lives, they had families, they had anecdotes and adventures which deserve to be shared rather than the tales of their vicious murders. 

“It is only by bringing these women back to life that we can silence the Ripper and what he represents.” 

Jack the Ripper has developed into an industry in its own right. The name is so entrenched into popular culture, that few would be unfamiliar with the term. This industry has people flocking to Whitechapel to observe the murder sights, buying Ripper themed souvenirs, and so much more. This is done at the expense of the victims and, as Rubenhold points out, hints largely at the misogyny that exists in our society today. Barely a thought is given to the victims, when the public are engaging in this rather unsettling, and quite inappropriate, Ripper culture. One just has to look at the negative reviews of this work, to find that people are disappointed that the accounts of each of the women stops before recounting the details of the murders themselves. Or other reviewers who cannot accept that these women were simply “not just prostitutes,” disregarding the fact that this does not make such killings any less terrible or any more acceptable. Rather, it just highlights why a book of this type is still necessary in order to improve the accepted narratives and views of women. What The Five does so well is that it truly lets the reader engage with the lives of these women. We get an insight into the highs and the lows they faced before their untimely deaths. We gain an understanding of what led them to end up in Whitechapel in the first place. We understand the attitudes which led to them being branded prostitutes in newspaper report after newspaper report. What these women had to endure in their lives – deaths of their children, family suicides, illness, poverty, addiction – makes for heart-breaking, and at times somewhat difficult, reading. But what it does do well is reinsert the human aspect back into their stories. These women were grieved, they were mourned, and they should not be forgotten while the figure who murdered them has become so immortalised. “He” will never be forgotten, so why should they? It is likely to make you feel a mix of anger and sadness – but it truly is a worthwhile read which will hopefully encourage you to reassess your beliefs about Jack the Ripper and his victims. 

Rubenhold, H. The Five. London: Penguin, 2019.

Netflix’s ‘Troy: Fall of a City’

Written by Justin Biggi.

Released in 2018, the BBC-Netflix adaptation of Homer’s Iliad was met with mixed reviews, both from Classicists and internet trolls alike. The former had gripes with the characterisations, plot inconsistencies and (unsurprising) historical inaccuracies, while the latter were mostly angry that David Gyasi and Lemogang Tsipa, two black actors, had been cast in the roles of Achilles and Patroclus, respectively, and that they were shown as having an explicit sexual relationship on screen.

But there are things, despite the criticisms, that Troy: Fall of a City does differently and arguably better than other Iliad adaptations. In addition to a solid “colorblind” cast, which, alongside Gyasi and Tsipa, includes Alfie Enoch as Aeneas and Hakeem Kae-Kazim as Zeus, Fall of a City attempts to bring to the forefront not just the complexities of human interactions, but the inherent awe and terror that the gods carry in the epic.

This isn’t to say, however, that, in its attempts at complexity, the show doesn’t encounter a number of pitfalls. The show misunderstands who the true protagonists of the Iliad are, and more generally speaking, does not trust that the plot, characters, and events portrayed in the Iliad, and the surrounding corpus, will be enough to captivate a modern audience, often inventing plotlines or dramatically changing characters. 

The show casts Paris as its entry-point character: a poor pig farmer, he is taunted by the princes of Troy and goaded into participating in a contest of strength, where he is recognised as the lost son of Priam and Hecuba by a birthmark. His elevation to prince is what leads to his meeting of Helen while on a diplomatic mission. The rest, of course, is history. 

Unfortunately, Paris’ plotline in the show is, by far, the least interesting, and the show’s insistence on having him as the protagonist doesn’t do it any favours. The goddess he is seen interacting with the most is Aphrodite, who is portrayed as entirely benign – a far cry from the capricious goddess of the Iliad

During a conversation between Paris and his adoptive father, Aphrodite and Zeus stand aside, unseen, and discuss what’s happening. Aphrodite asks Zeus to leave Paris alone, as the boy has “suffered enough.” Zeus refuses, claiming that “forgiveness isn’t [their] way.” This is not the only instance where Aphrodite is portrayed as overwhelmingly positive towards Paris, her protégé. She weeps when he dies. She often tries to intervene in his favour, speaking to gods and mortals to help him.

In the epic, Helen attempts to refuse Aphrodite’s order to go and sleep with Paris, whom the goddess has just spirited away from a fight he would have otherwise lost. Enraged, the goddess drags her there by force, berating and threatening her: “Don’t provoke me: as much as I love you, I can hate you just as much, and leave you to your fate”. The relationship shown between the two is far from the smooth sailing of Paris and Aphrodite’s’ in the show, and, in good hands, may have made the show interesting, giving Helen a complexity that most adaptations do not allow her. Perhaps, she could have even been the protagonist. 

Conversely, the show is at its strongest when it chooses to portray mortal and divine relationships which are already in the book and surrounding mythos. Arguably the most intense, gut-wrenching scene in the show is when Agamemnon, aided by Odysseus, tricks his wife Clytaemnestra and his daughter Iphigenia into believing the girl is to marry Achilles. Instead, the goddess Artemis has decreed Iphigenia must be sacrificed in order for the Achean fleet to reach the city of Troy. 

The episode features some of the best acting on the show, mostly thanks to Johnny Harris’ performance as the Greek king and general, transformed into a grieving father when placed face-to-face with the cruelty of his gods. Once his daughter is dead, killed by his own hand, he howls, asking the wind that has just risen and, it is implied, the gods, if this was enough. Artemis, of course, does not answer. 

Had Fall of a City been written and directed by braver minds, the potential of a largely unimpressive show may have been fully realised, delivering a modern, intelligent retelling of the epic, more aware of the strengths of its source material. 

Teach-Out Review: Indigenous Politics and Revolutionary Movements in Latin America

Written by Anna Nicol.

In solidarity with the UCU strikes, there have been a number of organised Teach-outs which aim to create new spaces for learning and to explore alternative subject matters. In doing so they deconstruct traditional formats of learning and show that learning can take place at any time, in any format. On Tuesday 3 March, Dr Emile Chabal, the Director of the Centre for the Study of Modern and Contemporary History, organised a Teach-out led by Dr Julie Gibbings (University of Edinburgh) and Dr Nathaniel Morris (University College London). Focusing on Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua, Dr Gibbings and Dr Morris aimed to provide a short overview of indigenous participation in these revolutions over the twentieth century, highlighting various similarities and differences across borders and dissecting indigenous identity and affiliation within each. 

Having decided to discuss the revolutions chronologically, Dr Morris began with the Mexican Revolution which spanned from 1910 to 1920. Here, Dr Morris highlighted an important element of discussing indigenous history: historians come into contact with differing, and occasionally competing, definitions of “indigeneity”. While 80%-90% of the population in Mexico had indigenous ancestry, only 40-50% continued engaging with indigenous social structures, histories, languages, and interrogating their position in the world; therefore, focussing on indigenous revolutionary participation already presents obstacles in how we engage with and define indigenous identity itself. He argued that indigenous groups initially supported the revolution, in part as a result from pressure from landowners and the desire to reclaim their lands as well as with the aim to increase power and respect for their communities. However, Dr Morris noted that the leaders of the revolution perpetuated similar ideas and values of the old state in that they did not factor indigenous people into the “new Mexico”; instead, they aimed to solidify a population of mestizos (an individual with both Hispanic and indigenous heritage) which created fertile ground for indigenous uprisings against mestizo national versions of the revolution until 1940, when the revolution became less radical. Throughout the revolutionary transformation of Mexico, the concept of “indigeneity” closely followed the values of indigenismo, which prioritised maintaining the “traditional” and performative aspects of indigenous identity, such as native dress, while eradicating cultural values and practices which defined their “otherness” within Mexican society.

Dr Gibbings continued on from Dr Morris by describing how there were frequent intellectual exchanges across the Guatemala-Mexico border; for example, Miguel A. Asturias noted Mexico’s process of mestizaje after his visit in the 1920s but did not believe it could be applied to Guatemalan society, instead encouraging European immigration to Europeanise Guatemalan society. She then explained that after becoming independent in the nineteenth century, the western part of Guatemala became the political and economic heart of the country because of the growth of the coffee economy in the highlands. The growing economy resulted in widespread migration into indigenous highlands and mobilised indigenous communities as a labour force for coffee planting. Similarly to Mexico, the 1944 to 1954 revolution was largely led by the middle class and urban students which aimed to go to the countryside and “civilise” indigenous groups through education indicating, Dr Gibbings argued, that it was a revolution from above. The contentious issue in Guatemala was the unequal distribution of land – such as these coffee-plantations, which moderates believed could be tackled by redistribution amongst the campesinos. This process would be headed by the elites as top-down agrarian reform; this change provoked revolution from below as it encouraged indigenous labourers to petition for land. Dr Gibbings argued that these petitions became a vehicle for historic restitution, because completing the required sections of the petitions allowed for indigenous groups to write about how the land had historically belonged to them before it was stolen and colonised. These petitions posed a threat to the landed elite and companies like the United Fruit Company thereby leading to a CIA-supported military coup in 1954 to overthrow the revolution. 

Dr Morris concluded the presentation by describing the Nicaraguan Revolution of the 1980s. Similar to Guatemala, the Somoza dictatorship was backed by the United States and oversaw the unequal division of land, of which a small elite owned 90% that was frequently leased to American companies in industries such as mining, fishing etcetera. A guerrilla movement emerged during the 1970s and successfully overthrew the Somosa dynasty in 1979. The revolution was seen as a “beacon of hope” by many who hoped it would be an anti-imperialist, left-wing (but not authoritarian) revolution that would end socioeconomic and political disparities and institute social reform. In order to understand the reception of the revolution, Dr Morris took time to note the geographical divides within Nicaragua, outlining htat the Caribbean coast was never fully conquered by the Spanish, and so the coastline became known as the Miskitu territories, where the Miskitu and Mayangna communities lived. While the Miskitu and Mayangna were not entirely opposed to the revolution when it initially reached the Caribbean coast, they soon believed that the dictatorship, although oppressive, had generally allowed for their ethnic and cultural differences to continue undisturbed. Therefore, as the revolutionaries attempted to assimilate Miskitu groups into the “new nation” through education, similar to policies in Mexico at the beginning of the century, the Miskitu found their cultural autonomy challenged and attempted to resist. The disturbance led to rumours that the Miskitu were separatists and wanted to break away to form their own state. The tension between the revolutionaries and indigenous population culminated in the former forcing the latter to leave their villages and into camps in the jungle, further alienating the communities. As indigenous people escaped these camps, they often fled to Honduras where the Contra army was organised and supported by the CIA, who were providing arms to counterrevolutionaries – the Sandinistas did not see a difference between distinct indigenous groups and so everyone was treated as pro-American counterrevolutionary subversives. The civil war continued through the 1980s into the early 1990s when the Sandinistas were defeated at the ballot box by centrist-right wing liberals. 

Having provided a brief yet comprehensive overview of the three revolutionary countries, the floor was open to a discussion which cannot be justly reproduced here. The discussion allowed for the speakers to further develop earlier points and for other members of the Teach-out to ask questions. Themes covered included the failure of left-wing revolutionaries to successfully incorporate indigenous movements into their cause, without they themselves denying indigenous rights to autonomy, and also explored the gendered dimension of the revolutions, which saw the inclusion of women but no substantial launch of a women’s liberation movement. However, for me the most interesting part of the discussion was circling back to the concept of “indigeneity.” Dr Chabal asked how the development of indigenous identity has challenged neoliberal ideas, such as multiculturalism. In response to this question Dr Gibbings referenced Charles Hale’s argument on the indio permitido, or “permissible Indian”. Indio permitido is a term borrowed from Bolivian sociologist Silvia River Cusicanqui who argued that society needs a way to discuss and challenge governments that use cultural rights to divide and domesticate indigenous movements. Hale therefore concluded that indigenous communities are allowed to build rights and establish platforms of culture so long as they do not hinder or challenge government schemes. Indigenous communities thereby become “permissible” if they act within the economic framework that the government establishes, but are then discredited if they disagree or attempt to act outside of those state frameworks. He writes “governance now takes place instead through distinction…between good ethnicity, which builds social capital, and dysfunctional ethnicity, which incited conflict.” Understanding “permissible” and “impermissible” notions of indigeneity can therefore help us to better understand indigenous participation within these revolutions: indigenous groups were accounted for within the “new nations” when they adapted to the values of the forming nation-state, be it conforming to the national education system, learning Spanish or allowing for a top-down redistribution of land. If indigenous communities resisted or attempted to construct a communal identity outside these values they were then deemed counterrevolutionary or “subversive”. Dr Morris closed by connecting neoliberal ideas of indigeneity at the end of the twentieth century to the perception of indigeneity at the beginning of the century; he argued that neo-liberal recognition of indigenous groups is not that dissimilar to indigenismo in that indigenous “traditional” practices, such as dress, dances etc. are seen as acceptable but there is no space made for linguistic difference or political representation. 

Grappling with the notion of “indigeneity” and representation left me challenging my own perceptions of indigenous identity. Discussing indigenous narratives within history and competing perceptions of indigeneity urges us to interrogate our own approach to talking and writing about indigenous history, and understanding how we incorporate an indigenous perspective into the narrative of revolution. Perhaps this final thought is the most productive part of a Teach-out: to have individuals leave examining their own approach to research and education with the hope that new spaces will continue to form to re-evaluate and develop multiple narratives and perspectives.

Teach-Out Review: How Slavery Changed a City: Edinburgh’s Slave History

Written by Lewis Twiby.

As part of the teach-outs currently happening in solidarity with the UCU Strike, the History Society and the African and Caribbean Society hosted a very informative talk on Edinburgh’s connection to the slave trade. Chaired by two History undergraduates, Jamie Gemmell and Isobel Oliver, three experts – Sir Geoff Palmer, professor emeritus at Heriot-Watt, Lisa Williams, the director of the Edinburgh Caribbean Association, and Professor Diana Paton, our own specialist in Caribbean slavery in HCA – gave short speeches, and then answered, questions about Edinburgh’s slavery connections. In keeping with the ideals of the strike, of resistance and hope for a future, the speakers aimed to move away from traditional narratives of subjugation, instead focusing more on rehumanising enslaves peoples, discussing resistance, and how we can educate others on slavery.

     Sir Geoff Palmer was first to speak, beginning his talk on how he moved to London from Jamaica, and eventually up to Edinburgh in 1964. He discussed how, where Potterrow is now, was where the Caribbean Student Association was located, and how this talk would never have happened in 1964. Sir Palmer then went on to discuss the economic and ideological ties Edinburgh had to slavery. This included how David Hume used slavery as evidence for Africans being of lower intelligence, which, in turn, became a justification for the enslavement of Africans. He further highlighted how the literal structure of Edinburgh is partially built upon slavery. Scots owned 30% of Jamaican plantations, amassing to around 300,000 people, and the staggering wealth which was made through slavery helped built the city. 24 Fort Street, 13 Gilmore Street, York Place, and Rodney Street all had slave owners living there – Rodney Street is even named after an admiral who defended Jamaica from the French. The person who received the largest government compensation following the abolishment of slavery in 1834, John Gladstone, lived in Leith and received £83 million in today’s money. Despite the dark history of exploitation, Sir Palmer had some hope. He emphasised how having these talks was a step towards a brighter future, and stated ‘We can’t change the past, but we can change the consequences’.

     Professor Diana Paton continued after Sir Palmer, and wanted to look at the everyday aspects of slavery, and the rehumanisation of those enslaved. She explained that many of those who had plantations in Edinburgh actually inherited them – the horrors of slavery meant that plantation owners had biological children, but they were fathered by on enslaved women in an exploitative system, and many were barred from inheritance. As a result, inheritance subtly spread the influence of slavery in Edinburgh. For example, the Royal Infirmary in the 1740s received £500 from Jamaican slaveholders as a donation, and in 1749 was left in a will a 128-acre plantation with 49 enslaved people. Margareta McDonald married David Robertson, the son of HCA’s ‘founder’ William Robertson, and then inherited a plantation from her uncle, Donald McDonald. The callous attitudes they held towards people showed the dehumanisation of slaves, according to Professor Paton. The infirmary, a place of healing, rented out slaves earning £20,000 a year in today’s money, and a letter in the 1790s from Margareta asked whether she would get money from selling her slaves. However, Professor Paton also wished to rehumanise those enslaved and try to piece parts of their lives back together. For example, using the inventory of the McDonald’s, she found out about the life of Bella, born in Nigeria she was around 30 in 1795, and tragically passed away in 1832 – just two years before emancipation. Professor Paton stressed that by looking for people like Bella we can remind the public that those enslaved were not just nameless masses, but real, breathing people.

     Lisa Williams then began her speech, stating that her own Grenadian heritage, and the works of figures like Sir Palmer, inspired her to create the Edinburgh Caribbean Association. Williams wanted to break the exploitation of black historical trauma by creating the Black History Walks – specifically it was not a walking tour of slavery, although slavery is covered. Instead, it traces the forgotten history of Edinburgh’s Caribbean and African population since the sixteenth-century. In the 1740s, where the Writer’s Museum is today, a black boy worked as a servant and was baptised; Malvina Wells from Carriacou was buried in St John’s Kirkyard during the 1887; and how the mixed-race Shaw family even inherited slaves. Williams further emphasised the ideological impact of slavery, both in the past and today. Some white abolitionists, including William Wilberforce, exposed racist beliefs, so non-white abolitionists, like the Robert Wedderburn, challenged slavery and racial bigotry. Meanwhile, John Edmonstone from Guyana taught Darwin taxidermy and biology, something now believed to inspire him to go on his journey where he began developing the theory of evolution. She then discussed how the impact of slavery in Scotland today impacts education. Pride in the Scottish Enlightenment, a lack of teaching in the past, and racism in present society, a by-product of slavery, meant that this has been forgotten by society. However, she further argued that shifts in public opinion over reparations, including Glasgow University’s recent announcement that they would start looking at reparations, opens the doors for new educational opportunities. She concluded saying that the first look at African history and slavery should not be through the slave trade, instead it should be with African civilisations being taught in schools and the events of the Haitian Revolution.

     The question section, split into two with set one by the hosts and set two from the audience, cannot be adequately summarised here. This section of the teach-out allowed the speakers to elaborate on ideas they had wanted to discuss earlier, and the intellectual and emotional impact from this cannot be accurately represented here. Instead two themes cropped up throughout the discussion: education and decolonisation. Even then, these two themes were interconnected and can be best described as education through decolonisation. Sir Palmer, for example, spoke of how more research was needed to trace the economic and intellectual connections institutions had to slavery. Old College was partially funded through plantation profits, and how graduates from the medical school went to work on slave ships and plantations. This was echoed by Williams and Professor Paton – Williams cited how UncoverEd literally uncovers the forgotten history of the university, and how this was needed to be done elsewhere, not just in universities. Professor Paton echoed that the study of the Scottish Enlightenment had to be radically challenged, how their views on race helped justify slavery and the emergence of racism how we know it today. This further raises the question of should we even be naming buildings and raising statues of these people? The passion of the speakers is one thing to take away from this – Williams’ drive to challenge heritage sites in Scotland to acknowledge slavery and abolition, and Professor Paton’s description of education and public memory in Scotland about slavery as ‘insulting’ highlighted their desire for change. A direct quote from Sir Palmer remains with me, and shows why we need to study the past and decolonise, we have to ‘find out what is right, not do what is wrong’.

The Pianist from Syria by Aeham Ahmad

Written by: Kvitka Perehinets.

Written by a second-generation Palestinian refugee, The Pianist from Syria offers a detailed account of the life of a musician growing up in an unofficial refugee camp in Yarmouk before and after the outbreak of the Syrian war. 

The first half of the book takes the reader on a journey through Ahmad’s childhood growing up in a Palestinian refugee camp of 160,000. With his father a blind violinist, carpenter, and craftsman of musical instruments, much of the author’s youth was strongly influenced by music. Aeham’s recollection of his rebelliousness, often demonstrated in his tendency to skip school only to lock himself away in the back of his father’s shop to practice piano, is intricately intertwined with narrative on Yarmouk life. Ahmad successfully paints a colourful picture of the neighborhood, its residents, and the culture and traditions that make Yarmouk feel like a bustling, tight-knit community. Throughout the book, it is often referred to as a “camp,” despite it having long been part of Damascus. Many settled there purely because they had nowhere else to go, although many had not been granted Syrian citizenship. The description Ahmad provides of his life before the war makes the second part of the book all the more tragic: picturing the siege of Yarmouk, families living off water with cinnamon and children being shot in the streets against the backdrop of the happy, relatively untroubled childhood described several pages before leaves the reader with a sense of hopelessness. 

Ahmad does not spare details: when Yarmouk becomes a pivotal location for fighting between the Syrian government and rebel forces, the reader is fully immersed in the despair and anguish of the situation. Descriptive accounts of people lining up to receive aid packages, life under the constant danger of sniper fire and the anxiety surrounding the process of going through checkpoints where young men were picked out at random and arrested at any time also show this. Yet, despite the complicated nature of the politics at hand, Ahmad does a brilliant job at making it understandable for the reader while effectively communicating the sheer brutality of the Assad regime and the historical background of the developing conflict. 

The Pianist from Syria is a story of heartbreak, survivors’ guilt and anger, but it is also a story of hope, strength and faith. It is a reminder that daily life can quickly change dramatically: buildings to rubble, feasts to cinnamon water, families to individuals – reduced and changed all within a couple of months, regardless of whether you are rich or poor. One might say that the ease with which things have changed, stands in stark contrast to how complicated the situation had truly become at the end. 

Aeham Ahmad’s voice provides a most sobering read for those who seek a more personal, intimate account of one of the world’s most devastating conflicts, while receiving a share of historical background to it at the same time.

‘Out of the Barbershop and into the Future’: Modern Medicine of New York City in 1900

Written by: Jack Bennett.

Having recently watched the period medical drama The Knick, from Academy Award winning director Steven Soderbergh, set during the Gilded Age of American history, the series encompasses the medical advancements, contemporary racial tensions found in both medical treatment and wider society, and the tumultuous political climate of America. Providing a window through which the harsh reality of illness and incurability on the wards of The Knick is revealed, mirroring the trichotomous nature of corruption, consumption and capitalism in the tension ridden socio-political environment of New York City and the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. This article will explore the historical depiction of medicine and the socio-political landscape of the USA in 1900 through a synthesis of historical criticism. 

Set within a fictionalised Knickerbocker Hospital in Lower Manhattan in 1900, Dr John Thackery (Clive Owen), the main protagonist of the show, becomes a tragic hero, plagued by his own cocaine addiction and amidst the noble pursuit of developing medical practices to save lives across society is loosely inspired by the drug-addict, medical pioneer Dr William Stewart Halstead. While, Dr Algernon Edwards (André Holland) is another fictional character who is possibly an amalgam of two notable doctors – Daniel Hale Williams and Louis T. Wright. Williams set up Chicago’s first non-segregated hospital and was the first African American to be admitted to the American College of Surgeons. Wright, a Harvard graduate, was the first African American doctor to work as a surgeon in a non-segregated hospital, at Harlem Hospital in New York City. Critically, the show conveys the sense of immediacy and rapidity of medical development at this time. For example, between 1880 and 1890, approximately 100 new types of operations were conceived, made possible by progress in anaesthetics and antisepsis, discovered in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, through the shows creation of 1900 Manhattan, combining the narratives of corrupt political officials, criminals, academics, and exploited immigrants, women and African Americans, The Knick assumes greater intentions through the creation of a rich tapestry of cultural characters, placing agency in the individuals and communities ordinarily subjugated during this period. 

The dimly lit interiors provide the backdrop to the domestic tensions and relations which reflect the wider developments within New York at the dawn of a new century. Foremost amongst these central themes is the shows depiction of racial injustices and relations at the nadir of racial policies in America at this time. Like its television counterpart, the Knickerbocker hospital had a policy of refusing to treat African Americans at the beginning of the twentieth century. revealing both implicit and explicit forms of discrimination, along with the dichotomy between the boundaries and limitations to African American social mobility as well as increasing degrees of interracial communication, collaboration and acceptance throughout society. Moreover, the position of multivariate immigrant populations in the United States during this period is expertly handled by Soderbergh throughout the two seasons of the show. Major shifts in the sources of immigration during the 1890s occurred, with 3.5 million newcomers entered the USA during this decade despite the onset of economic depression from 1892. Over 50% of which were from new immigration sources in Southern and Eastern Europe, such as Catholics from Italy and Jewish populations from Poland, residing alongside nativist communities with Irish, German and British decent. This produced an inherently global nation and melting pot of culture, along with resulting conflicts. With this influx, The Knick illuminates the reality of fin de siècle New York, as one in which immigrants come believing the promises but far too many do not survive the realities long. Constructing this reality was a political machine system beset by corruption and challenges for authority between established sources of wealth and power and the emergence of a Progressive era, with greater Democratic Political support and an increase in the pace of social development. For example, The Knick constructs a range of female characters, such as the hospital’s reform-minded patron, Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance), illustrating the increasing socio-political mobility of women at the turn of the century, assuming roles as medical practitioners, nurses and socio-political reformers within New York City. 

Medical historians, however, such as Howard Markel and Peter Kernahan have raised the issue of historical inaccuracies in The Knick. Markel, for instance, argues that the series conflated the medical historical developments which took place from the 1870s and into the early decades of the twentieth century, akin to ‘conflating the Middle Ages to colonial America to the Civil War’. While Kernahan determined a multitude of historical inaccuracies, in particular, the trade of cadavers for medical experimentation within the hospital, which would have unlikely taken place in New York in 1900. Anatomy Acts were passed in the mid-eighteenth century, preventing the practice of grave robbing for dissection. Despite these historical flaws, The Knick achieves an intricately written narrative of historical change through Soderberg’s uniquely active and engaging cinematographic form.

Nevertheless, The Knick reveals the perils of progress, straddling both medical modernity and static tradition. Whilst also depicting the vices and iniquities of early twentieth century society, it demonstrates a sense of unforgiving anti-romanticism. It creates a graphic, vividly detailed depiction of a shocking house of horror in the pursuit of modern ascendancy, despite the obvious side effects and creation of inequalities along this journey. Particularly, the elevation within the period drama of the surgeons as almost deified figures, balancing innocent with the suspenseful and graphically portrayed progressive and experimental medical procedures. But these individuals must experience their peripeteia, whether through hubris or dualism, pursuing the unsustainable double lives and moral compromises. This relates to Charles Rosenberg’s 1971 call for a “new emphasis” in the history of medicine, moving beyond the focus on the intellectual life of physicians to their activities as healers and as members of a profession. Medical historians, Rosenberg attested, were required to place medicine in its socio-cultural context and to explore the ways in which socio-economic factors might have influenced medical developments. This brought into the historical framework the increased authoritative roles of both African Americans and women at the time of widespread disenfranchisement, segregation and the propagation of second-class citizenship across the United States. By delving into an often-overlooked period of history, the medical drama experiences a fresh revitalisation. Arguably, however, the show is instilled with a historically revisionist approach and agenda, by exploring a field shaped and dominated by white men, adding contributions by African-Americans and women.

The Knick, by blending both seemingly gothic elements and unflinching medical realism, attempts to achieve dramatic historical accuracy, but is best appreciated and viewed as a pastiche of fact and fiction. Therefore, it allows for the reality of progressiveness and the sense of a new age dawning to be explored through the character developments of intriguing and complicated individuals and communities. Revealing the direct and intimate interplay between medical science and its social environment, becoming co-dependent of one another consequently during this transformative period. What The Knick fundamentally captures in its exquisite visual form, aesthetic and historical context is the fraught, unequal and transformative birth of modern medicine in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. 


Image Source: 

Stanley B. Burns, MD/Burns Archive, found in ‘The Cocaine, the Blood, the Body Count’, The New York Times, August 1, 2014, Accessed on 11 January 2020. 

The Knick (Series 1 and 2). Directed by Steven Soderbergh. 2014–15. HBO Cinemax

Adams, Peter. ‘Modern Medicine Had to Start Somewhere’. Health and History 18, no. 1 (2016): 174-79.

Deng, Boer. ‘How Accurate Is The Knick’s Take on Medical History?’, Slate, August 08, 2014, Accessed on 11 January 2020. 

James, Nick. ‘Further notes on The Knick’, Sight and Sound Magazine, 29 January 2015, Accessed on 14 January 2020

Kernahan, Peter J. ‘“A Condition of Development”: Muckrakers, Surgeons, and Hospitals, 1890−1920’, Journal of the American College of Surgeons, 206, 2, (2008): 376 – 384

Labuza, Peter. ‘Shock treatment: The Knick’, Sight and Sound Magazine, 29 January 2015, Accessed on 14 January 2020

Schuessler, Jennifer. ‘The Cocaine, the Blood, the Body Count’, The New York Times, August 1, 2014 Accessed on 11 January 2020.
Stanley, Alessandra. ‘No Leeches, No Rusty Saw, But Hell Nonetheless’, The New York Times, August 7, 2014, Accessed on 11 January 2020.

Review: A Tale of Two Cities by Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof

Written by: Lewis Twiby.

New York City remains one of the most culturally diverse cities in the United States having seen immigration from across the world for centuries. One of the many communities to call New York home is the Dominican community which Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof looks at in his 2008 book A Tale of Two Cities: Santo Domingo and New York after 1950. Hoffnung-Garskof offers an interesting insight into how diasporas and culture are formed. He is also keen to stress that diasporas do not exist in a vacuum – they interact with both the ‘homeland’ and other diasporas.

As expected, Hoffnung-Garskof begins his book in the capital of the Dominican Republic – Santo Domingo. Here he explores the twin ideas which would shape Dominican history: progreso and cultura. Progreso, the idea that Dominicans were moving to an improved life, and cultura, the concept that Dominicans had to exhibit certain cultural tropes to achieve progreso, would shape both Santo Domingo and New York. A recurrent theme throughout the book is how progreso and cultura evolved in the context of migration. Rural Dominicans saw Santo Domingo as being one of the most important places contributing to cultura, but New York was seen as the pinnacle of cultura. These ideas were also in flux thanks to the turbulent politics of the republic – the genocidal rule of Rafael Trujillo lasted until his assassination in 1961, followed by the dictatorship of Joaquin Balaguer, US occupation, and a turbulent revolution. In Santo Domingo, Hoffnung-Garskof, relies heavily on oral testimony: emerging barrios (which became shantytowns) saw an explosion of grassroots culture and political activism giving ample opportunity to hear subaltern voices. For example, Hoffnung-Garskof shows how cultura was seen as being Catholic, speaking Spanish, and, unfortunately, racialised against Haitians where those in the barrios turned cultura on its head. Political radicals would have their meetings at church services, and young men would play loud music in Spanish as a way to rebel without being attacked by the police.

Moving away from Santo Domingo, Hoffnung-Garskof then takes us to Washington Heights, Manhattan where the Dominican diaspora emerged. Originally, the diaspora was made up of radicals exiled by either Trujillo or Balaguer, but as air costs became cheaper, more and more Dominicans moved to the land of ‘progeso y cultura.’ In what is perhaps the most interesting section of the book Hoffnung-Garskof looks at how the newly arrived Dominicans became racialised in Manhattan. These Dominicans were from a middle-class background back in the Dominican Republic but found themselves in a working-class situation; this caused a paradoxical situation when returning home to visit family members. Dominicans would engage in American consumerism which their family would take as signs of wealth, but domínicanes de Nueva York had to try to explain that they were not wealthy. Meanwhile, they were forced into the racialised world of American society. For generations, Dominicans had considered themselves ‘white’ against ‘black’ Haitians, which caused Trujillo to massacre thousands of Haitians to ‘whiten’ the country, but they were not seen this way in Washington Heights. The area had large Irish, Jewish, African-American, and Puerto Rican communities, so Dominicans were forced to reinvent their identity based on the ever-changing categories of class, race, and culture in Manhattan. Hoffnung-Garskof effectively shows this with his wide range of oral testimony from various community members in Manhattan – easily the strongest aspect of the book is his ample usage of first-hand testimony. However, he could have expanded Manhattan’s history of immigration here a lot more. Jewish and Irish communities are mentioned, but are somewhat overlooked, and the city’s vibrant East Asian, Cuban, Arabic, South Asian, and African diasporas are entirely ignored. It would have been interesting to see how they factored into the Dominican experience in shaping their identity.

Hoffnung-Garskof in the early 1990s worked as a social worker for Dominican families in the Washington Heights schools, and his lengthy discussion of diasporas in schools is his most detailed section. Again, using interviews he manages to recreate, in detail, the various lives of Dominican students, and how they forged their own lives. We see some using their wealth to become doctors, others joining African-American rights groups like Umoja to fight for rights, or clash with African-Americans and Puerto Ricans over racial animosities. Reading it you can tell this has been a passion of his for a long time, and how deeply he cares about the community. This is especially visible when he discusses the crack epidemic of the 1990s – Washington Heights became synonymous with drug crime in the US media. He rebukes many of the common motives associated with Dominicans during the time, showing it was a crisis of capital rather than a moral failing. My favourite point was his criticism of leading attorney, and later New York mayor and Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani for targeting Dominican youths in his exposé on crack, but entirely ignoring the crack epidemic of the Wall Street elite. However, as Hoffnung-Garskof is so invested in the lives of the people of Washington Heights, it does break the flow of the entire narrative. He was so eager to show us the entirety of Washington Heights that we read biography after biography in just two chapters making it, at times, hard to read. If anything, and hopefully he might do this in the future, these narratives could become their very own piece of historical writing.

Finally, I just want to quickly discuss how Hoffnung-Garskof links diasporas to the ‘homeland.’ As mentioned earlier, the diaspora was not cut-off from the Dominican Republic – ranging from family visits ‘home’ at Christmas to exiled leftists waiting for the fall of the US-backed regime. Here the twin ideas of cultura and progreso come into play. On the one hand, the New York based community were seen with a sense of pride back in Santo Domingo. The regular Dominican Day parades, growing affluence of the community, and even Dominicans partaking in beauty pageants were viewed as Dominicans achieving progreso – they had become the immigrant community to be emulated. However, they were simultaneously degraded as going against cultura. Women going out of the home, children engaging in American consumerism, and the adoption of American fashions were viewed as Dominicans becoming too Americanised. Domínicannewyork was invented to lambast a diaspora deemed too American. Nevertheless, American-based Dominicans still viewed themselves as ‘Dominican’ and not ‘Dominican-American.’ Newspapers like Ahora! reported on events in both New York and Santo Domingo, and the right to vote in Dominican elections was eventually granted to the diaspora. Hoffnung-Garskof ensures that the themes of cultura and progreso are never forgotten in the narrative.

For anyone interested in the histories of immigration, the formation of identity, and diasporas then A Tale of Two Cities is a must read. Almost, at times, needing a smoother narrative, Hoffnung-Garskof’s investment in the diaspora makes it an engaging read, and the abundancy of oral testimony turns the names on the pages into living, breathing people. He has recently released a book about Cubans and Puerto Ricans in New York, so hopefully we can see more of his writing soon.

‘Chernobyl’ on HBO

Written by: Kvitka Perehinets

NB: This review contains spoilers for HBO’s show Chernobyl

Rating: 4.9/5

Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) thoughtfully listens to a recording of his own voice while leaning over the table in the kitchen of his Moscow apartment. He stops the recorder, takes a sip of a clear liquid out of a glass, presses a button and continues. “You see, to them, a just world is a sane world… There was nothing sane about Chernobyl. What happened there, what happened after, even the good we did, all of it… Madness.”

The opening scene of HBO’s Chernobyl takes place exactly two years after the city of Pripyat became enveloped in a radioactive cloud. The scene sets an intrigue: first, the audience watches a man record a series of tapes and sneak past the secret police to dispose of them in a discrete location. Then, they watch him hang himself. As Legasov’s feet are shown dangling in the air, a question lingers: why?

What follows is an unapologetically raw and intense tale of bureaucracy, sacrifice, and tragedy – with subtle notes of despair and anger intrinsically woven throughout. Based on an “untold story”, the five-hour miniseries set out on achieving a difficult task – shedding light on a period of history that many attempted to keep hidden. Naturally, the show bears some drawbacks in its attempt at being historically accurate: students are shown as wearing traditional festive pioneer attire on a regular day during the evacuation and the way in which radiation burns are depicted has been critiqued as not entirely truthful. However, it does not really matter.

What the creators of Chernobyl succeeded in doing was not only portraying the intricacy of the Soviet government’s efforts to keep its constituents in the dark about the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, but also demonstrating how a desire for maintaining its dominance on the global political arena, which translated into negligence on safety matters, made the disaster, ultimately, the government’s fault. Following the opening scene and Legasov’s suicide, the audience is taken two years and one minute back in time to April 26, 1986, where they watch the explosion happen at Chernobyl’s Unit 4 reactor as seen from an apartment just a few kilometers away. The subsequent developments – scenes of unprotected and unaware fire brigades digging through the radioactive rubble; people standing on a bridge and watching the fire at the plant as children try to catch the radioactive ash falling from the sky; the selection of volunteers to go inside the reactor with the knowledge of potentially not coming out; and a show trial meant to diverge the attention from the government’s wrongdoings and put all of the blame on the engineers carrying out the orders that fateful night – strike a chord with the audience, because they call for sympathy with the most basic emotive responses to being in an environment as the one nourished in the Soviet Union: one of fear, despair, disorientation and hopelessness. This is why some historical inaccuracies of the show can be forgiven – because its goal is to first and foremost establish the cruelty of the regime as demonstrated in its blunt refusal to keep its citizens informed and protected, then to demonstrate the sequence of events as they truly happened.
The miniseries focuses on the two battles being fought at the same time: the first, with the effects of radiation – an enemy which cannot be seen, without an agenda, void of consciousness. The second, with the Soviet government’s lack of a moral compass, an equally seemingly unstoppable machine. Jared Harris (Valery Legasov) and Emily Watson (Ulyana Khomyuk) encompass the desperate efforts of Soviet scientists to influence the decision-making of the government, and subsequently save the lives of thousands of people in raw, emotional performances – where Harris plays Legasov, a member of the Academy of Sciences chosen to lead the commission investigating the Chernobyl disaster, Watson’s character is a symbolic representation of the whole scientific community, rather than based on real person. Stellan Skarsgård’s portrayal of Boris Shcherbina, the vice-chairman of the Council of Ministers at the time, gifts the audience with a brilliantly done character arc, making his transition from being skeptical of the true impact of the explosion to ultimately becoming the bridge between the scientific community and the Soviet government all the more admirable. Unapologetic, occasionally summoning the spirit of David Cronenberg with its elements of body horror, eye-opening and tragic – HBO’s Chernobyl is a must-see.

George Ciccariello-Maher on Revolutionary Venezuela

Written by: Josh Newmark

With mass demonstrations, a dramatic challenge to the Presidency, and the possibility of foreign intervention in the air, recent events in Venezuela have focused attention around the embattled strongman regime of Nicolas Maduro. This reinforces the tendency towards a ‘Great Man’ conception of Venezuela which has framed most common understandings of recent history around Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, and the regime he left behind. While Chávez was a complex and intriguing character (somewhat unfairly reduced to a one-dimensional tyrant in certain takes), this focus on the Bolivarian Revolution (the name given to the historical process of constitutional and socioeconomic change commenced by Chávez’s election in 1998) from above provides only half, or less, of the story. George Ciccariello-Maher’s work contextualises the Bolivarian Revolution and provides insight into how it was experienced by ordinary people. Although far from a non-partisan source, Ciccariello-Maher never claims to be one, and his knowledge of the Revolution from the bottom-up makes for fascinating reading.  

The title of his 2013 book We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution reflects Ciccariello-Maher’s crucial argument for a fluid distinction between the Revolutionary state and Revolutionary social movements. Ciccariello-Maher shows how the Revolution grew out of a long history of struggles against social and political exclusion in Venezuela’s post-1958 ‘pacted democracy’, and more generally within a global revolt against neo-liberalism. The latter saw Venezuela erupt in 1989 in the so-called Caracazo riots, initially sparked by a massive hike in bus fares, which saw poor inhabitants of Caracas streaming down from the hills and eventually being repressed by gunfire. For the author, Chávez was, and is, a product and symbol of the struggle rather than the prime mover. More a history of activism than a ‘people’s history’, the book uses memoirs as his source material and the author’s interviews with Venezuela’s Cuba-inspired guerrilla movement, and organisers for urban communities, students, women, labour, peasants, and Venezuelans of colour to show the different inputs that constitute the Revolution. This approach yields important insights: for example, the failure of Venezuela’s Cuba-inspired guerrilla movement due to its detachment from the masses; the conflict between ‘feminists’ and ‘Party women’, left-wing women’s activists who did not believe female emancipation could exist outside of the class struggle; and the origins of the armed urban militias, which commentators have pointed to as part of Maduro’s infrastructure of authoritarianism, as independent grassroots initiatives in working-class communities to stamp out the drug trade amid widespread police corruption.

At times, Ciccariello-Maher’s fervent support for the Revolution and reliance on radical activist sources precludes the critical analysis and objectivity that a social history requires. For example, the chapter on the student movement features some anecdotes from his own time teaching in Venezuela in which he boasts ‘without apology’ that his own students were ‘the most militant’ whilst pouring scorn on ‘opposition’ student activists, at the expense of more a concrete analysis. Indeed, the penultimate chapter, on Venezuela’s urban ‘informal proletariat’, who constitute a majority of Venezuelan society, is distinctive for its use of a more ethnographical account rather than a sole focus on activists. The author argues that vestiges of rural life foster a communitarian ‘barrio culture’, and that the sheer precarity and indignity of this class’ socio-economic experience, and their social, cultural, and political exclusion from national life, direct them to a political movement like Bolivarianism, rather than simply making economic demands.

Ciccariello-Maher’s 2016 work Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela is a fascinating, albeit brief, insight into the divisions within Venezuela that one must grasp in order to understand its current situation. The book expands on some of Venezuela’s dire social cleavages mentioned in his prior book, and shows the overlap between elements of political opposition, and hostility to social progress. For example, the author describes how opposition protests have sometimes targeted social housing built by the government, and health clinics for the poor staffed by Cuban doctors, or how opposition commentators have recycled racist tropes to describe Chávez and his supporters.  In some ways, this book is far more a ‘people’s history’ than the previous one, in that it describes ordinary people’s engagement with the Revolution rather than purely those who were already activists, through the process of developing communes (forms of local participatory democracy and common economic ownership). A pertinent example describes the Zancudo Commune in remote southern Venezuela, where one radical organiser helped the locals to start their own communally-run fish farm in ditches left behind by road construction, which (at the time of the author’s research) turns a profit for the community; when they formally became a commune under the auspices of the law, ‘some of the teenagers whose only political education had been the process of cultivating the fish were elected as its spokespeople’. These are far removed from the common stock images one has of contemporary Venezuela, which generally revolve around mass rallies and riot police in Caracas. But the communes are not an entirely grassroots endeavour, having been fostered by Chávez and the Left of his Party, and were posited by the former as the key to the future of the Revolution. In one tantalising passage, the curious overlap between the Chavista state and the Revolutionary social movements is made evident as the author asks veteran-activist-turned-cabinet-minister, Rosángela Orozco, if the communal state could displace the existing state: ‘Should I answer for the ministry, or as a militant?’ This raises the question of the legacy of Chavismo: Is the Revolution from above coming to an end? Indeed, having been published shortly after the Opposition victory in the 2015 National Assembly elections, Building the Commune engages more with the future of the Revolution. Drawing repeatedly on Chávez’s last major speech before his death, the so-called Golpe de Timón, ‘changing course,’ which attacked the corruption and bureaucratisation resulting from a separation of the Party elite from the base, Ciccariello-Maher continues with the theme of his previous book on the Revolution’s essential independence from the regime. For Ciccariello-Maher, the communes are the essence of the Bolivarian Revolution’s politicisation and mobilisation of Venezuela’s marginalised peoples.

It remains to be seen what will come to pass in Venezuela in the months and years ahead, with all attention focused on a regime delegitimised by the West and backed by Moscow and Beijing, but Ciccariello-Maher’s work opens our eyes to the political questions – aside from the question of who occupies the presidency. While the doubling down of Maduro’s authoritarianism appears to render nuance as mere complicity, and the onset of hyperinflation and mass, levelling impoverishment seems to render social inequality a moot point, a political movement as potent as a Revolution is unlikely to simply disappear, and we should aim to understand its causes and content. Both those desperate to use Venezuela as a mere polemical stick to bash the Left, and Left-wingers eager to disavow our blatant admiration for the Venezuelan Revolution during its better years, are in danger of missing its lessons.

Image: Front cover of George Ciccariello-Maher’s We Created Chávez

Review: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Written by Luke Neill

Rohinton Mistry’s 1995 novel A Fine Balance is set in 1970s India and follows four characters who come to interact with each other over a period of around 15 years. There is Dina, the struggling landlady whose husband was run over and killed whilst cycling to buy ice cream for a family gathering; Ishvar and Omprakash, tailors whose families had been brutalised by the destructive legacy of the caste system; and Maneck, a refrigeration and air conditioning student whose best friend is tortured and killed by the government.

Central to the plotline is The Emergency of 1975-1977, in which the Prime Minister was given the power to rule by decree, creating an effective dictatorship in response to threats of ‘internal disturbance’. This Emergency, under the leadership of Indira Gandhi, proved to be one of the most intensely controversial moments of independent India’s history. Forced mass-sterilisation, censorship of the press, mass political arrests, and a ‘national beautification’ program in which thousands of slums were destroyed, created an atmosphere of political and social upheaval which the four characters are forced to navigate (and experience first-hand) throughout the course of the novel.

To try to explain the characters’ individual stories in one short paragraph is an injustice to the unimaginable picture of pain and suffering that Mistry paints. However, the curious beauty of the book is that in a story so saturated with pain, fear, torture, death and castration, there emerges unmistakable moments of joy. Mistry makes it abundantly clear that even the darkest horrors cannot suffocate the fundamental faculty of the human condition – to laugh in the face of adversity. This in itself, however, is by no means part of a neat and contrived narrative in which good trumps evil, and to settle with that would be a disservice to Mistry’s far more nuanced depiction of life and hardship.

In fact, by the end of the book, one begins to question the title. The overwhelming impression is that there seems to be no ‘Fine Balance’ whatsoever, and it would be understandable to conclude that all the joy and desire of the characters in the novel, all their intermittent yet powerful glimmers of hope, are quashed with a disturbing, catastrophic finality in its closing pages. It is certainly a sobering narrative. Without giving anything away, a future reader should not expect a happy ending. However, as The Atlantic puts it:

What makes the final pages of A Fine Balance heart-breaking is not that we see the protagonists’ lives so hideously diminished but that in spite of it all they are still laughing.

This sums up what seems the most important aspect of the book. It becomes clear that Mistry’s ‘Fine Balance’ is not the balancing of justice and injustice, of good and evil, or of love and hatred. It does not attempt to portray life as an equitable state in which these opposites weigh against each other into a precarious but enduring ‘Balance’. We learn instead that this balance is a state of mind, of measuring positivity and optimism against despair. If joy can manifest itself in the most abhorrent of circumstances, then personal suffering can always be balanced against acceptance – and eventually defiance – of one’s own condition.

I would recommend anyone to read A Fine Balance, whether to learn something about the period, to share in the fascinating stories of the characters, or to understand a culture and time in which the scales are tipped in the wrong direction.
Image: Cover image of A Fine Balance


Allen, Brooke. “Loss and Endurance: Rohinton Mistry’s tragic and triumphant vision”. Accessed 02/02/19:


Research Seminar Review: “Potatoes and the Pursuit of Happiness”

Written by: Carissa Chew

On Wednesday 30 January, the Global and Transnational History Research Group welcomed Professor Rebecca Earle from the University of Warwick to present her research on ‘Potatoes and the Pursuit of Happiness’. In this seminar, Earle explored the potato as a foodstuff that came to be imbued with a distinct political significance in eighteenth-century Enlightenment Europe, challenging the typical historiographical assumption that imbuing foods with political meaning is a phenomenon associated with the first half of the twentieth century.

Through a discussion of food history, Earle’s research sets out to explore the shifting relationship between the individual and the state in the eighteenth century. In looking at the changing discourse on potatoes, Earle suggests, we can trace the point at which the state began to express interest in the dietary habits of ordinary civilians. As Earle remarked, the state has always been concerned that its citizens are eating, but until the eighteenth century, there was little interest in exactly what the diet of the masses consisted of. Stemming from Enlightenment ideas about individualism and free choice, this period witnessed the individual diet becoming a fundamental concern of numerous governments across Europe.

Earle’s research brings to light the unprecedented popularity of potatoes in the 1700s. As the eighteenth century progressed, potatoes came to be held as a ‘marvelous’ source of nourishment, establishing an almost undisputed reputation as an Enlightenment super-food. Monarchs issued various edicts encouraging the growth and consumption of more potatoes; John Howard remarked that potatoes would help the labouring poor; and numerous patriotic institutions offered prizes for the biggest and best potatoes and held competitions for the most nourishing potato soup recipes.

The pan-European promotion of the potato in this era, however, has often mistakenly been associated with the predominance of famines. Yet, as Earle astutely remarked, famines had also plagued the 1600s and, if anything, they were decreasing in their frequency. Hence, famines do not account for the sudden interest in potatoes that occurs in the 1700s, and Earle instead suggested that an explanation for the potato’s newfound popularity can be located in the broader context of Enlightenment thought and principles.

The eighteenth century gave rise to new ideas about national strength, in which the health and vigour of the population came to be linked to the wealth and power of the state: an individual’s healthy dietary choices were understood to produce a healthy body politic. Adam Smith, for example, proposed that economic success depended on the population being content, noting that the strongest men (i.e. Irish coal-heavers) and the most beautiful women (i.e. Irish prostitutes) survived on potatoes. Along these lines, the consumption of the potato was encouraged in accordance with the Enlightenment slogan of ‘the pursuit of happiness’.

Samuel Engel, for instance, associated happiness with the feeding of people. Likewise, William Buchan associated the encouragement of agriculture with the happiness of the English people, the eradication of poverty, and the strengthening of the body politic as a whole. Similarly, Italian thinker Pietro Maria Bignami associated increased potato consumption with commercial prowess, and by extension, population growth, riches, and happiness. Moreover, in 1767, one commenter remarked that the potato was ‘a source of happiness and opulence’. Benjamin Thompson, or Count Rumford, who was renowned for his nourishing potato soup recipe, placed emphasis on the tastiness of the soup and the chewing of croutons as a way of extending the pleasure of eating. Soup kitchens also took pains to ensure that their soup recipes were approved by the poor themselves. In other words, the dominant discourse on potatoes in this era emphasized that the poor were entitled to happiness, and that the feeding of the poor would lead to the happiness of the nation.

Furthermore, this political discourse on potatoes was interwoven with Enlightenment ideas about the importance of free choice. It was repeatedly emphasized that the government would not force people to either grow or consume potatoes – something John Sinclair termed ‘infinite mischief’. Instead, it was believed that farmers and the poor should select potatoes based on their own free will. The government maintained that their role was to inform the public as best they could about the nourishing and superior qualities of the potato. Earle remarked that this showed a shift toward responsibilisation: ‘the process in which subjects are rendered individually responsible for a task that would have previously been the task of another’.

Earle’s seminar thus shed light on the new models of eating and governance that emerged in eighteenth-century Enlightenment Europe. Food history, and the history of the potato specifically, reveals the intertwined relationship between ordinary people’s lives, individualism, political economy, and the state. Tied up with the Enlightenment discourse about ‘happiness’, the potato became an important symbol associated with the strength, wealth, and growth of European nations, and a means through which the state displayed regard for the lives of the poor.


Image: Unknown provenance, c.1820.