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This is a guest post written by Jessica Sage and Kristina West, the founders of We the Humanities which went live today. A fantastic initiative, and in the week commencing 17th March I will be curating the account – yay! Follow @wethehumanities on twitter to join the discussion.

 

After seven weeks of preparation, curator-sourcing and generous support, We the Humanities launches today.  It’s the first rotation-curation Twitter account for the humanities, featuring a new guest editor every week who’ll be tweeting about their work or research in the humanities and their other areas of interest.  Set up by Jessica Sage and Kristina West, who are both part-time PhD researchers and sessional lecturers at the University of Reading, the hope is that it will offer a central platform for discussion and news of the humanities in all its forms.

From humble beginnings (a lightbulb moment whilst wearing pyjamas on a Sunday afternoon) the account now has more than 650 followers and 21 brave tweeters who’ve put themselves forward to curate for us.  Today’s launch sees the account being taken over by Louise Jackson, the Head of Learning Enhancement at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.  Future guest editors include a senior lecturer in English and Cultural Studies at the University of Wolverhampton, an Assistant Curator in the Sculpture department of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and researchers from Norway, New Zealand, Australia and the USA.  We are also looking forward to adding participants from the business world, primary and secondary education and any other disciplines associated with or interested in the humanities.

The account’s set-up has been juggled with teaching and finishing a thesis (Jess) and teaching, PhD research and parenting (Krissie) and so it’s with relief as well as excitement that our first curation is underway.  It has been great fun getting to know some of our followers in the last few weeks – and we’ve been overwhelmed by people’s generosity in sharing the initiative, suggesting avenues of publicity and hosting us on their blogs – but this is a project that’s bigger than two individuals.  It’s this spirit of collaboration and the diversity of contributors that we hope will grow the account to reach more people, from those who’ve dedicated their working lives to the humanities to people with a mild curiosity in one particular area.

Although it’s a modest project, we hope that @wethehumanities will contribute to debates about the importance of the discipline and provide entertaining and informative perspectives on an ever-expanding variety of research, interests and hobbies.

You can follow @wethehumanities on Twitter here and you’ll find the blog here.  If you would like to curate for a week the details and sign-up form can be found here.  You can also get in touch with Jess and Krissie with any suggestions or comments that you may have by emailing them at wethehumanities AT gmail DOT com.

LINKS:

We the Humanities: http://www.twitter.com/wethehumanities

Jessica Sage: http://www.twitter.com/jessisreading80

Kristina West: http://www.twitter.com/krisreadsbooks

Louise Jackson: http://wethehumanities.wordpress.com/2014/02/21/2402-02032014-louise-jackson/

Blog: http://wethehumanities.wordpress.com/

For curators: http://wethehumanities.wordpress.com/for-curators-2/

Not the tidiest, huh?

Not the tidiest, huh?

Because let’s face it: for those of us lower down the academic ladder, reviewing books is scary.

There are pros and cons. Of course there is the free book. That said, I have reviewed a book for which I’d already forked out a considerable amount of money, because the review request just came too late for me. But I said yes anyway. Why? Well, it is actually satisfying to give back to the academic community. I don’t intend that to sound trite. And yes, putting your name alongside your review gets your name known.

And the cons? It’s hard work. A wholly positive review is rarely good, or even justified. There is (almost) always room for improvement in (virtually) every book. Therefore, in agreeing to write a review, you also agree to make fair criticisms. There is a difference between a fair criticism and an enraged response. While differences in opinion are reasonably easy to justify, it can be very difficult to respectfully state why you simply did not enjoy a piece of writing. We all know that not every reader will enjoy every writing style. We all know that the writing style should not mask the message of the text, even for a reader who does not enjoy it. But sometimes, the writing style can be so against what I find pleasurable to read that the message of the text is lost. How much that is to do with a text being poorly written or with me being a poor reader is difficult to judge, and even harder to write about. Finally, you cannot write a review without reading the book thoroughly, every word. That means that you can’t just skip a boring paragraph. You can’t decide that one essay out of collection is so bad by the third page that you need to give up and move on to the next. No, you have to stick it out. And, if you’re going to be a purist (which I am), you need to read it in order. So no reading the most relevant or interesting sections first (because, when I do that, I don’t always read the rest). Start to finish, just as nature – or the editor, or author – intended. For this reason, I would be unwilling to review a book that I did not already intend to read cover to cover.

The books I have reviewed I have done so for a similar reason that I review conferences, or live-tweet conferences: it helps distill my thoughts. My book reviews have three versions on my hard drive. The first is my raw thoughts, a record of what I thought in the moment, before knowing what comes next. Then there is the first review, which is more than a first draft. In that, I make a first distillation of the raw thoughts, yet still allow some emotion through, because that is what gives the review a personal voice, honesty. Yet that first review is not suitable for publication. No, the first review is for sharing with close colleagues, those who might actually want to know your untempered thoughts on the book, yet who deserve the structure of a polished review (i.e. without the drivel of the raw-thoughts version). These same colleagues, if willing, are very helpful for the second review, the review for publication. They can help tone down severe criticism or effusive praise, and, if they have also read the book, can offer viewpoints which may or may not be incorporated into the final published version, but which are nevertheless interesting and useful to know about. (Here I would like to thank Peter Davies and Anna Zayaruznaya who have both filled this role at various points.) The second review, then, is for the journal. It is metered in both criticism and praise, it covers all the major chapters in the book within the word limit (no mean feat), it situates the book in relation to past, present and future scholarship, and it should be understandable to readers outside of the field.

The structure of the review will vary as to its destination. If you have been asked to review for a publication which is dedicated to book reviews, that review will be longer, more detailed, and more thorough than a review for a publication in which reviews are the mint sauce to the meaty scholarly articles. Additionally, if the book you have been asked to review is entitled Intricacies of Baroque Parasol Craftmanship your piece will be different if it is for Historical Umbrella Quarterly than it would be for Perspectives on History. (Yes, I made up those names.) Indeed, when I read a book for review, I actually read it with the future review audience in mind, and their invisible presence shapes the review in all of its various stages, from raw thoughts to polished version.

Finally, I try not to forget the virtue of silence. My grandmother always used to say ‘if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’. Following that to the letter might make for a very short book review. Putting it in a more scholarly perspective, the ‘feedback sandwich’ was drilled into me both in teacher training and in research training: whatever may need to be said in the middle, buffer it with two slices of good, positive bread. Here, dwell on the contribution the book makes for future scholarship – generating debate is a good thing, after all, even if that debate might be against the book (in the reviewer’s opinion). However piquant or pleasing your sandwich filling, the bread can cleanse the palate.

Two final nods. First, Pat Thomson’s blog post on writing a book review is a must-read: patter, 22 July 2011. Secondly, Elizabeth Eva Leach, professor of music at Oxford and winner of the 2013 Dent medal, recently tweeted (6 Aug 2013): ‘Really wish I were more often sent MSS before publication. I’d far rather be helpful than moan in post-publication reviews. #academiclife’ (@eeleach). Both of these got me thinking. One for being such a great tool (thanks Pat), the other about the (relative) finality of publication, and of the pre-publication process. Lengthy and stringent as it is, it is not infallible.

Reviewing a book is an opportunity to closely read a text, and to interact with it in a way not otherwise possible. It is not a competition; it is an engagement, a critique, a discourse (with all that entails). There is some room for creativity, and personality too. But you don’t have to accept every request. It is my opinion (and practice) that a few, well-thought-out reviews are better than a greater number with potentially lower quality thought and judgment, though I admit that there are doubtless many who are better – and faster – at reviewing books than I am. So feel the fear and have a go – and don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

Great news – the following has now been published: Manuscripts and Printed Books in Europe 1350-1550: Packaging, Presentation and Consumption edited by Emma Cayley and Susan Powell, Liverpool University Press, 2013.

Look, isn’t it pretty? Seriously though, there are some great articles. Mine is on the order of the lays in manuscript Paris, BnF fr 9221 (Machaut E), and it’s in very good company. Can’t wait for the hard copy to be in my hands.

Exeter book

I’ve been edited a few times, and this was certainly one of the most painless. The editors were helpful, courteous, efficient, and above all their work improved my article. (Sadly, that is not always the case; so it is doubly appreciated here.)

And of course, if you want to buy the book, you can get it here.

Caine Prize

The day has arrived. The five shortlistees are attending the award dinner in Oxford as I write this. The winner will be announced in a couple of hours.

Aside from wishing them all the very best – tonight and in the future – I also want to thank them. Thank them for five superb stories, for making me laugh and cry, and for making me write.

They carry a burden now, each of them. The renown that being on the shortlist has brought is a vote of confidence which they must live up to. I have no doubt that they will. Whether they like it or not they are now figureheads of African literature, its future lies in part on their shoulders. They have been wined and dined; their words have been listened to by those in power and those like me, at home on the sofa. They speak for more than just themselves.

From where I sit – the sofa, as I said, beneath a rainbow right now, in an Arctic landscape about as far removed as it is possible to be from Nigeria or Sierra Leone – it looks as if the nomination is at least as important as the prize. But what do I know? Yes, the prize will be an accolade. But personally, I would divide the money between them, even if the title can only go to one. Then again, I am a dreamer.

——

Before we find out the winner, I wanted to say a little about the poems I wrote in response to the stories. When I joined the blog carnival I didn’t intend to respond through poetry, but it seemed the only way I could do justice to the first story I read (Tope Folarin’s ‘Miracle’). Multimodal justice, perhaps, but still justice. And of course, the other stories were equally inspiring.

My responses, my poetic explorations, began with the unrhymed blank verse of my poem ‘Miracle’. The analyst in me wants to suggest that this reflects in proseful poetry the poetic prose of the text. With my response to Pede Hollist’s ‘Foreign Aid’, a story with a distinct rhythm and a protagonist who reminded me of a wannabe gangster, the poem took a definite rhythmic turn. It drives forward at first, halts with ‘But wait’, before concluding with a direct address to the protagonist, his tail between his legs.

‘Whispering Trees’ the poem also plays with rhythm, this time adding a refrain. In this story by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim I was struck by the three-fold rhythm of the action, which is why there are three stanzas and three refrains in the poem. While the poetic ‘I’ speaks to the protagonist in the stanzas, the refrain is a multitude of voices, tempting him away from his life, from his fate. These voices are inaudible to the poetic ‘I’, but in the story are almost deafening for the protagonist. Here, the reader hears both sides.

My untitled graphic poem in response to Elnathan John’s ‘Bayan Layi’ is another multimodal step. The image of the ‘good Muslim’, so prominent in the story, is overshadowed by the bloodied scythe, another of the story’s powerful symbols. It is also the symbol of death. The short lines rhyme, and while they all keep a steady rhythm, the number of syllables is important: three for the scythe; two for the lower part of the body, paralleled with the three for the part of the mat under the lower body; four for the upper part of the body (I admit it: should be ‘Then just don’t mix’ – will re-do one day) and for that end of the prayer mat. As the number of syllables increases, so too does the import of the words.

The final poem, ‘Mother and Daughter’, takes one of the central relationships in Chinelo Okparanta’s story ‘America’ and works it into a dual-voiced sonnet. The trickiest of all to write, the long lines (six feet) aim to be graceful, part of the ballet between the two speakers set out on the page. My aim was that the poem could be read as two separate poems (one per speaker), or as one poem (in sonnet form), and still make sense. Quite a challenge! The ultimate goal was to trace the complex mother-daughter relationship (entanglement?), and the difficulty of breaking free from it, all of which I found compelling in the story.

——-

So there we are. I had great fun with these, with reading the rest of the responses in the carnival, and most of all with the stories. I raise a glass to you all, no matter who will win tonight.

My your stars shine bright and your words ring true.

Read Chinelo Okparanta’a story here.

——

.                       Love is always something special to a friend.

What is love if not for children? I can’t tell.                           .

.                       Love is never something shameful to defend.

Barren lands produce no fruit; an empty well.                          .

.                       Spread those arms and let me see inside your soul.

You are all I have, my hope, my joy, my gain.                         .

.                       Sing a song of glory; tell of tales untold.

I release you though you’ll never know my pain.                        .

.                      Speak those words to those who wish to save the world.

Look at me my child, look close and learn from me.                        .

.                       Spread those wings until such ceaseless joys unfurl.

Love is greater when it learns to set love free.                        .

.                       When you fly please take love with you to the sky.

When you leave me to my sorrows let me die.                       .

Mamma og barn

Other responses from:

Kola Tubosun – http://www.ktravula.com/2013/06/no-not-america-but-love-a-review/ and http://nigerianstalk.org/2013/06/20/no-not-america-but-love-a-review/

Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva: http://walkingdiplomat.blogspot.com/2013/06/bev-is-blogging-caine-america-by.html

Chika Oduah: https://chikaoduahblog.wordpress.com/2013/06/24/my-thoughts-on-chinelo-okparantas-america/

Veronica Nkwocha: http://veronicankwocha.com/2013/06/24/my-thoughts-on-america-by-chinelo-okparanta/

Aishwarya Subramanian: http://www.practicallymarzipan.com/2013/07/chinelo-okparanta-america.html

Ben Laden: http://uninterpretative.blogspot.no/2013/07/blogging-caine-chinelo-okparantas.html

Lexzy Ochibejivwie (Africa in Words): http://africainwords.com/2013/07/12/blogging-the-caine-prize-thinking-through-chinelo-okparantas-america/

Created in response to Elnathan John's 'Bayan Layi'

Created in response to Elnathan John’s ‘Bayan Layi’

I think I’ll let the graphic speak for itself. But of course, please do read the story here.

Other responses from the carnival:

Kola Tubosun: http://nigerianstalk.org/2013/05/19/the-children-of-bayan-layi-a-review/

Veronica Nkwocha: http://veronicankwocha.com/2013/05/22/my-thoughts-on-bayan-layi-by-elnathan-john/

Beverley Nambozo: http://walkingdiplomat.blogspot.com/2013/06/bayan-layis-kuka-tree-review-of-bayan.html

C.E. Hastings: http://africainwords.com/2013/06/17/bayan-layi-blogging-the-caine-prize/http://africainwords.com/2013/06/17/bayan-layi-blogging-the-caine-prize/

Jeffrey Zuckerman: http://www.airshipdaily.com/blog/the-caine-prizes-prehistories-elnathan-johns-bayan-layi

Chika Oduah: http://chikaoduahblog.wordpress.com/2013/06/21/my-thoughts-on-elnathan-johns-bayan-layi/

Aishwarya Subramanian: http://www.practicallymarzipan.com/2013/06/elnathan-john-bayan-layi.html

Ben Laden: http://uninterpretative.blogspot.no/2013/06/blogging-caine-elnathan-johns-bayan-layi.html

Written in response to Abubakar Adam Ibrahim: ‘The Whispering Trees

So your hopes are dashed,
And your mother is gone.
Weep if you will, then,
Keep in with the throng.
You still have your dignity,
You still can be strong
You still have your love
Which has lasted so long.

Come away, O blind man, come to us and play!
We have whispers and laughter, here the wild waters flow.
Come join your family, leave the weary world below,
One time you tried, but she summoned you away.

Oh it’s anger you want, then?
Try that if you will.
Live in your head then,
And struggle uphill.
Imagine they mock you
When they love you still:
Lash out and curse them,
And love sends its bill.

Come away, O blind man, come to us and play!
We have whispers and laughter, here the wild waters flow.
Come join your family, leave the weary world below,
Two times you tried, but she pushed you away.

Come find your dignity,
Let faith bring you peace
Forgive those who hurt you,
Let insight increase
Lay down your burden
Amidst the deceased
Give unto others
Till life grants release.

Come away, O blind man, come to us and play!
We have whispers and laughter, here the wild waters flow.
Come join your family, leave the weary world below,
Three times you’ll try, and the third time you’ll stay.

(OK wrong bit of world but the colours of the polar night are suitably eerie...)

(OK wrong bit of world but the colours of the polar night are suitably eerie…)

This week’s posts on the Caine Prize blog carnival:

This week’s contribution to the ‘Cain Prize carnival’. Written in response to the short story ‘Foreign Aid’ by Pede Hollist, available to download here. Thank you, Pede, for this vivid snapshot of a place and its people, and what happens when the self-made ‘American’ man goes home to keep the promises he made a lifetime ago.

———–

Balogun Bro-yankee is not a nice man
Hands out the money like anyone can
He thinks with his knob and he yells with his gob
Believes in machines and his grand masterplan.

From Wikimedia.org: in public domain.

From Wikimedia.org: in public domain.

Women and kiddies are objects indeed
One is to please and the other breeds greed
Corruption, disruption, destruction, seduction:
They take and they fake but they’re always in need.

But wait: there are some who are not overthrown
Who value their virtue, their knowledge, their own
Skylarks midst loansharks and proud oligarchs –
They may spread their wings but they’ll always fly home.

Imagine a future which might just be bright.
Where friends make amends, whatever their plight
Forget it, you left it, you bet it, regret it:
Minista owns all; your sister was right.

Yet were you surprised to find trouble and strife?
That dollars breed daggers: run for your life.
Homeless and haunted, dumb-ass and daunted,
Return to your lair, to your prison, your wife.

————-

Other members of this week’s carnival procession:

The miracle is not that we are here, it is that we are here together.
That the seasons turn about us, and we watch it all.
That the moon waxes and wanes but love endures,
That life springs eternal, when death is but a breath away.

I come to you with unseeing eyes, broken bones, wounds of pride.
I come to you with hope and dread, fear and pain, guilt and prayer.
You come to me with commanding presence, broken shackles, assured faith:
Lay your hands on me, remove my bonds, let me be free.

They are the wanderers, the lost, the forgetful,
They need your power, your storm-fraught words, your lust for grace
Your certainty sweeps me in its wake. We must not fail them.
They believe so hard, their blindness leaves no room for doubt.

Written in response to Tope Folarin’s short story ‘Miracle’, nominated for the Caine Prize and available for download here.

This post is part of the Caine prize carnival, organised by Aaron Bady at the New Inquiry. It’s not Machaut, it’s not medieval, it’s only vaguely multimodal (so far), so why am I writing about it?

St Francis

St Francis receiving the stemmata. Found through a creative commons search (Wikimedia commons).

One of my goals this summer is to develop my creative side. Back in my undergraduate days I specialised in composition and dreamed of having my work performed at the Proms (who says I don’t still? Doesn’t everyone?). I’ve had the occasional piece published or professionally performed, but most are sitting in a rather battered file by my desk, trying their best to keep out of the way of small, clumsy feet. I have always enjoyed creative writing and have great plans which may or may not ever be realised. So far, so banal.

If you’re still reading, then you can be let into a realisation that I am still coming to terms with. I intend to write a monograph. An academic one about my research, aye, but not an inaccessible one. (Impenetrability is not my style.) It has a plan, it has support from my institution, and senior colleagues are all encouragement. All it requires is for me to sit down and do the dirty. And that is daunting. Very daunting. This summer, then, is my preparation time. The more I write, the more I will be able to write. The more confident I feel in my output, the better the product will be. The more at home I am with my creative leanings, the more multimodal my finished book. The more peaceful my soul.

One of the biggest things my journey into multimodality so far has taught me is the limits of my knowledge. I might be pretty hot on Machaut and medieval stuff, but multimodality spans such a broad range of topics that I am in awe of my colleagues who are able to meaningfully link them together. And so I am Branching Out. For the next few weeks, as part of the Caine prize carnival for which I have volunteered myself, I am going to let the stories take me on a journey to – broadly speaking – Africa. A continent I have never visited. Every week until July I will read a short-listed story, and blog my response. (For a list of the co-participants, see below.)

The first story in fact takes Nigeria to the United States. Already I can hear resonances in my readings. I am lucky enough to be working with the editors of a collected edition of essays on exile literature (Axel Englund and Anders Olsson), and thus have recently been on two journeys from Algeria to France (through the contribution by Gabriela Seccardini), as well as one from the New World ‘back’ to the Old, via north Africa (that of William Bamberger). There are, of course, more contributions which deal with exile writers (or those writing about exiles) in the United States. (I think I will have to devote a blog post to this entire fascinating volume in due course.) At the recent Multimodal Research Seminar in Lesbos (which I blogged about here) Tormod W. Anundsen gave a presentation on his work with expatriot musicians (the group ‘Afrisa’) from the Côte d’Ivoire presenting ‘Africa’ to schoolchildren in Norway. Interestingly, Anundsen questioned whether postcolonialism is a wholly useful way of thinking when professionals choose to exploit their ‘otherness’, whether for educational, profitable, or other purposes.

And so postcolonialism raises its head. I might as well deal with it now, lay my cards on the table, and admit that one of the reasons why I have never studied non-European literature at a professional level is because I have no inclination to delve any deeper into postcolonialism than I need to. Perhaps, when faced with this huge mound of critical thought, I feel the fear of the unknown, the other – yes, I am well aware of the paradox, thank you. But, for me, what my feelings boil down to is this: people are people, whoever they are, whenever they are, wherever they are. They are capable of supreme wit, of bringing great joy and sadness, of moving me to tears through their works, their images, their stories, their arts. People are also capable of unspeakable cruelty to their fellows and to the world around them, and the world is just as capable of inducing suffering on its occupants. ‘Twas ever thus, as a delve into history (or, for that matter, the Bible) confirms.

Let me put that another way: the fact that the Caine prize is for African literature, and is immersed in and surrounded by the politics of that fascinating and vast space, is not what I will focus on in my contribution to the carnival. Others, vastly more knowledgeable and capable than me, are already doing that. What I hope to offer is a series of personal responses, as a human being, a reader, a writer. If I hadn’t already been enriched by the first offering I wouldn’t be writing this; it is my hope that I may pass on some of that richness in my turn. That is all.

List of other participants in the Caine prize carnival, with links to their responses: