I’m working on a series of interviews with creative, interesting and amazing people I’ve known over the course of my life who, through whatever series of events, have found themselves in academia. This time, I’m interviewing Dr. Julie Huntington, who I know mostly as the oboe player in the seminal Michigan skronk outfit, Galen but now works on Francophone African literature in NYC.
Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Julie Ann Huntington. By profession, I am a professor of French language and comparative literature at Marymount Manhattan College. I also identify as a bicyclist, runner, advocate, writer, noise-maker, thrill-seeker, daydreamer, gourmande, and vagabond.
You’re from Southeastern Michigan, but now live in New York. I don’t know what I missed, how did that happen?
It’s a rather long story… that’s where the vagabond part kicks in. I’ve actually spent more consecutive years in New York City now (going on six) than any place in my life since graduating from high school. My first stay outside of Michigan in the summer of 1996 led me to a picaresque nanny job in a tiny town called Hem working for a psychiatric professional with some anger management issues and a college professor who tried in vain to seduce me with lines like “I see what kind of books you read… I know what kind of girl you are…” At the end of three weeks, we all agreed it was best for me to head to Paris to pursue other paths. With little money, I spent most of my days daydreaming and walking around the city. One day, I ended up wandering into an English language bookshop near the Notre Dame cathedral. After chatting with the owner, I secured lodging with some other ex-pats in a bed-bug infested library in exchange for a few hours of work each day. With little money, I spent much of my time reading books and helping out around the shop. George [Whitman] took notice of this and promoted me, calling me his Cordelia. In exchange for more responsibilities, consisting mainly of book-keeping and listening to George tell stories about lost generation Paris, I got my own room full of first editions and a sublime view of Notre Dame…
Filling in the gaps, I returned to Michigan to finish my BA at Eastern Michigan University in Anthropology and French. At the start of my studies, I had wanted to be a journalist, decided that I was ill-equipped to take on the burdens of truth and objectivity. Degree in hand, I headed back to Paris to consider my options…
I worked as a waitress in Paris in a Tex-Mex restaurant in Paris in 1998 for the World Cup matches and beyond. The restaurant isn’t there anymore, but I still have a scar on my knee from the celebrations. During that time, I decided to go to graduate school and prepped for my GRE exam…
And then you went down South?
In 1999, I moved to Nashville to start an MA-Ph.D program at Vanderbilt. My preliminary intention was to study XX century feminist narratives. As luck would have it, the woman with whom I had planned to work left the university and I had to shift gears. I became interested in issues of language and identity in areas where French was spoken as an official but not maternal or vehicular language. I was particularly intrigued by “noisy” writers who presented multilingual, musical, and otherwise resonant texts to readers. It all started with Ousmane Sembene… In my first year of graduate study, I read Guelwaar and God’s Bits of Wood… It was love at first read…
My interest in Sembene led me to Keur Momar Sarr Senegal in the summer of 2001 where I spent a summer working on a rural development project in coordination with community members and a group of Belgian and American volunteers…
I went back to Nashville and finished my Ph.D. at Vanderbilt in 2005. My work focused on exploring how instrumental literature, non-vocal music, and otherwise noisy phenomena are translated and transcribed into the frames of literary texts as a means of creating spaces for identity negotiation that lie beyond the limits of Western/Northern identificatory paradigms…
I worked as an Assistant Professor of French at Clemson from 2005-2008. While I was there, I spent summers taking students to Ghana on a summer program I created. I also traveled to Martinique and Guyane for research and conferences. I feel lucky to have visited Saint Pierre, Alawla-Yalimapo, Nzulezo by chance as sidetrips on these journeys as they are beautiful and unique places that have informed my work in important ways…
I loved the job at Clemson but was miserable living in small-town and even smaller-city South Carolina. I struggled to be happy there. It just wasn’t a good fit for me culturally…
When I was offered a tenure-track job at a small liberal arts college in NYC in 2008, I embraced the opportunity. Regardless of the professional pros and cons of my decision, I am happy with the choice I made. I love working at a teaching-focused job in a city where I feel joyful and inspired…
Since my arrival in NYC, I have spent time away in Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, and France for research, but have always felt compelled to “come home” to NYC. I’m not sure if this is my forever city, but my vagabond heart is happy here doing what I do for the time being.
I really don’t think I’ve seen you in person in nearly 20 years, at which time you were active in music. Are you still doing music?
Music is a part of my life everywhere I go and I sense that it always will be. Although I don’t have any regular projects at the present time, I find myself collaborating on a few projects every year. Most of these are spontaneous and performance-based. I feel like the energy and logistics of living in New York City foster these kinds of dynamic but ephemeral musical encounters. Some of my favorite NYC collaborations have been with Samuel Consiglio (of Tami on 12 inch and Perfect Weiners and Butts), who I met while dancing at Zoot’s in Detroit in the 1990s. Another performance moment I enjoyed was when I was invited to perform as an oboe-playing cannibal in a play—It Didn’t Have to Come to This by Normandy Sherwood.
I seem to know a lot of people who did odd music things, and then moved on to the wacky world of academia. How did you go from music to academia? Do you feel like your particular musical experience serves you well in your academic career?
Coming from a working class family in Michigan, many of my life decisions as a young adult were guided by financial imperatives. From a young age, I understood that work defines so many aspects of an average person’s day-to-day existence, especially in American culture. With that understanding, I followed the path that I thought would lead me to my greatest contentment. In spite of the present states of fiscal and identity crisis in academia, I feel like I made the right choice. Working as a professor is fulfilling in many ways. I learn so much each and every day in my interactions with colleagues and students, but also in my own investigations and explorations.
In terms of music, being a musician definitely helps me to be in tune with the people and texts with which I work. It is particularly useful in the space of the classroom. Playing in collaborative projects throughout the years has helped me become better in listening to and responding to others. I am very student-centered in my approaches to teaching and I often position myself as a collaborator-facilitator-coach when working with students on discussions and projects. One could liken the structure of a lesson to that of a jazz standard. In this respect, there are definite objectives and protocols in place to guide our interactions during class time, but there are also spaces for every participant to voice, interpret, and respond in a multiplicity of harmonious or cacophonous ways.
I became really interested in questions of linguistic, cultural, and regional identities in post-colonial frameworks, particularly as mediated in literary texts. Since there was already a fair amount of work being done on linguistic approaches to identity negotiation and appropriation in literature, I turned my focus to music. Although much work had also been done on the aesthetics and implications of oral genres in written literature, instrumental genres were not being considered to the same extent. I wanted to create a rationale and a vocabulary for considering sounding elements in literature, particularly non-vocal ones.
The book project came about after the series editor, Gregory Barz, approached me about revising my manuscript to give it a more interdisciplinary focus. We agreed that I would take out much of the literary jargon and construct narrative frames around the chapters.
A book in itself is strange because it fixes ideas on the written page, even if those ideas are still being revised, reconsidered, and reconfigured. It is like a time capsule of thoughts. All things considered, I am proud of this work with all of its shortcomings and strengths. In my view it is just the beginning, a point of departure, the start of a dialogue.
What took you to Senegal? In the book it sounds like you just kind of showed up there. While the experiences are obviously amazing (outside of drinking the borehole water: been there, done that), I’m kind of thinking the whole time “How did she get there?”
The decision to spend time in Senegal was motivated by a desire to get a feel for the geographic and cultural spaces and the aesthetic and linguistic protocols I was reading about in the works of writers like Ousmane Sembene and Aminata Sow Fall. I signed on to volunteer with ASREAD, L’Association Sénégalaise de Recherches, d’Études et d’Appui au Développement, an NGO in Keur Momar Sarr, where I lived and worked with members of the local community.
In a sense, I did just show up without any sort of formal agenda. I just wanted to learn as much as I possibly could during my time there about music, language, and culture. For the most part, I let the villagers guide my experience of that learning. This created openings and opportunities I would not have been able to witness or experience if I had come in with a clear itinerary and agenda.
I really enjoyed the cross-cultural, cross-linguistic and cross-disciplinary nature of the work, (and in the Julie-in-Africa vignettes).
Whereas personally, I find it very fulfilling to work across languages, continents, cultures, and disciplines, the work is challenging and not always well-received.
In a sense, interdisciplinary work is destabilizing. It requires critics—both readers and writers—to suspend self-ascribed notions of mastery of their respective methodological approaches and areas of expertise while exposing themselves to alternative modes of analysis and subject areas. Metaphorically speaking, interdisciplinary work is the mixed martial arts of academic work. In this respect, interdisciplinary practitioners develop proficiency in a multiple areas of expertise which they incorporate interchangeably depending on conditions and contexts. Multifaceted, versatile, and dynamic, interdisciplinary work creates opportunities for dialogue and exchange across categories, perspectives, and methodologies. The limits of this type of work is that is simply not possible to be a specialist in all styles. By consequence, interdisciplinary scholars often exchange the jargon and depth of analysis displayed in single-discipline scholarship for the accessibility and interwoven or textured quality of interdisciplinary work with varying degrees of success.
In terms of working across languages, cultures, and genres, there are multiple challenges at work here. The main challenge is that what we conceive of as the academy is still grounded in the geographic, linguistic, and cultural zones of Northern/Western nations. Even when working in scholarship grounded in African locations, critics find themselves faced with the imperative of constructing argumentation in dialogue with critical frameworks created within and endorsed by scholars working predominantly in Northern/Western academic and cultural systems. There is a type of academic hegemony at work here and it is difficult to overcome.
My parents and much of my extended family still live in Michigan, so I come back to visit a few times a year. I would also come back for an epic jam session.
What’s next? Anything new coming down the pipe?
I am working on a second book project examining culinary narratives, folklore, and recipes in contemporary West African fiction. I am also training for the 2014 Boston Marathon.
Julie’s book, “Sounding Off: Rhythm, Music, and Identity in West African and Caribbean Francophone Novels (African Soundscapes) is available for purchase HERE.
The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe It will be a great day for the world when Robert Mugabe dies. His reign over Zimbabwe has been disastrous for the country. Once known as the “breadbasket of Africa,” it is now known as a governmental basket case of seemingly inconceivable proportions.
Godwin travelled to his home country of Zimbabwe at great risk during the 2008 Presidential elections. He documents, in a literary style a pattern of voter intimidation and unfathomed violence by Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party. The profiles of torture victims, some of whom are Parliament members and high profile party members of the opposition MDC party, are gut wrenching. While it’s hard to doubt the lengths that Mugabe would go to to maintain power, the zeal with which his supporters violate basic standards of morality is mind-boggling.
Most interesting is Roy Bennett, a white Zimbabwean former Parliament member who once justifiably physically assaulted another MP during session. Despite being beaten, tortured, humiliated, having his farm ripped violently from him during Mugabe’s land redistribution scheme and despite even having his wife beaten so badly that she lost the child, Bennett fights on for Zimbabwe’s freedom and maintain an amazingly high level of public support. Bennett eventually becomes pegged to be the Minister of Agriculture under a power sharing scheme, directly undercutting Mugabe’s racist narrative which helps keep him in power.
Godwin pulls no punches in “the Fear,” but at times the violence and inhumanity are so extreme as to be somewhat implausible. I don’t doubt the accounts of torture and targeted beatings he lists here. There are so many episodes and the nature of the violence so extreme, that even if the book were 90% lies, the situation would be one of the worst on the planet.
The book, however, is more saddening than revolting. How an educated and well endowed country like Zimbabwe, which was so full of potential following independence could sink to such low depths is not only perplexing, but thoroughly depressing. An excellent read. (BUY HERE)
Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade A son of a junkyard owner grows up and decides to be a journalist, then goes back to the family scrap business, then writes a fantastic book about the history and current state of the worldwide junk trade.
I remember when recycling became a part of American life, but it was sold as a new phenomenon. Americans were portrayed as living a wasteful existence before recycling campaigns, throwing otherwise useful items into landfills to be buried and forgotten. Minter digs deep into the history of scrap in the US, noting that during the Depression, many people made good livings pulling and sorting trash and selling whatever was useful to whoever was willing to buy it.
The problem, apparently, isn’t in recycling or the willingness of business to reuse goods, but the costs of sorting and resorting, a problem which requires innovation. Minter points out that many innovations in recycling come from the bottom. Those willing to brave the junk heap to find gold are the most motivated to find new and efficient methods of extracting it. Even more challenging is the volatility of commoditiy prices and the sudden changes in demand for specific substances or components. The trade requires a speedy willingness to adapt, a quick sense of what buyers want and a collection of connections to link them to supply. It’s a cutthroat, though exciting business.
Though the domestic recycling and scrapping industry is a multi-billion dollar business. Now, the economics of junk span the entire glove. China, with its large supply of cheap and efficient labor has taken on a good portion of the scrap world. Minter addresses the potential hazards of scrap, much of which is sorted by hand under minimal regulation, but notes that the work is consistent and offers a way out for a lot of rural Chinese already living under squalid conditions. His easy to read assessment of the global junk trade is as much a story of the potential hazards of globalization and first world consumption as it is a celebration of the ingenuity of the bottom to offer market based solutions to the problems of potentially increasing scarcity of certain commodities. (BUY HERE).
A new study which just appeared in Malaria Journal, however, calls this optimism into question.
This review presents two central arguments: (i) that empirical studies measuring change are biased towards low transmission settings and not necessarily representative of high-endemic Africa where declines will be hardest-won; and (ii) that current modelled estimates of broad scale intervention impact are inadequate and now need to be augmented by detailed measurements of change across the diversity of African transmission settings.
So, our ability to accurately determine whether transmission intensity has declined is hampered by the fact that most studies of the disease occur in areas of low transmission. This would make sense. It is much easier for us to evaluate the malaria situation in Kenyan context than in the Democratic Republic of Congo due to availability of surveillance infrastructure, official mechanisms which allow research projects to move forward, and security issues.
The obvious problem with this, is the relationship of governance, economy an instability to malaria itself. People in the poorest countries are at the highest risk for malaria and people in the poorest parts of the poorest countries are at the highest risk of all. The trouble is, despite being the populations we are most concerned about, they are the hardest to reach, and the hardest to help.
Worse yet, the estimates of malaria prevalence found in a number of studies were considerably lower than estimates for the entire African continent.
The combined study area represented by measurements of change was 3.6 million km2 (Figure 1), approximately 16% of the area of Africa at any risk of malaria . The level of endemicity within these studied areas (mean PfPR2-10 = 16%) was systematically lower than across the continent as a whole (mean PfPR2-10 = 31%) (Figure 2). While 40% of endemic Africa experienced ‘high-endemic’ transmission in 2010 (PfPR2-10 in excess of 40%) , only 9% of the studied areas were from these high transmission settings.
This is a huge issue and one that shouldn’t be limited to malaria. While it is helpful to hear good news of malaria declines in formerly afflicted areas, we need to be careful about overstating the impact of interventions. Funding for malaria projects such as the distribution of insecticide treated bed nets was incredibly high throughout the 00’s but it is unlikely that trend will continue. Offering an positive picture can show that our efforts are valuable, but might also lead policy makers and donors to suggest that money be put toward other goals. If Sri Lanka is any indication, where malaria was nearly eliminated at one time but experienced a rapid and devastating resurgence, even a brief relaxation of malaria control efforts could erase current gains completely.
It’s an old paper, but I just came across The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation
by Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson and James A. Robinson, originally published in the The American Economic Review back in 2001.
They take rough data of settler deaths back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and plot them against the GDP of several countries from 1995. I’ve included the plot on the right. What they found was that a higher number of European settler deaths was associated with a long term decline in economic output.
Settling in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was a dangerous business, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and less so in what is now the United States, New Zealand and Australia. Malaria and yellow fever were responsible for killing up to 100% of groups brave enough to attempt the journey.
Acemoglu, et al.’s argument is as follows:
1. There were different types of colonization policies which created different sets of institutions. At one extreme, European powers set up “extractive states,” exemplified by the Belgian colonization of the Congo. These institutions did not introduce much protection for private property, nor did they provide checks and balances against government expropriation. In fact, the main purpose of the extractive state was to transfer as much of the resources of the colony to the colonizer. At the other extreme, many Europeans migrated and settled in a number of colonies, creating what the historian Alfred Crosby (1986) calls “Neo-Europes.” The settlers tried to replicated European institutions, with strong emphasis on private property and checks against government power. Primary examples of this include Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States.
2. The colonization strategy was influenced by the feasibility of settlements. In places where the disease environment was not favorable to European settlement, the cards were stacked against the creation of Neo-Europes, and the formation of the extractive state was more likely.
3. The colonial state and institutions persisted even after independence.
They argue that the disease environment determined the nature of settlements, which determine the nature of institutions which, in term, determined the economic trajectory of a country.
Interestingly, they control for all of the things that one might control for, such as distance from the equator and the percentage of inhabitants that were European, being landlocked and the ruling power, ruling out the effect of some obvious potential influences. Property rights, a solid judiciary and limits on political power in the colonies and upon independence, they argue, had a greater effect on long term GDP, and the development of those institutions was enabled or inhibited by early settler mortality.
It’s a fairly compelling argument, though not without its critics.
A few gems from the paper interested me. One, the return on investment in the British colonies during the nineteenth century was a whopping 25%, far more than one could have expected domestically. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this dropped so that returns on colonial and domestic investments were the same.
I found (finally!) a reference to indicate the willful choosing of high altitude and thus less malarious areas for colonial settlements. Note that in Europe and the US, the location of cities is often along river ways and sea sides, where in Africa large cities tend to be placed inland (with some exceptions). There has been no industrial revolution in Africa and little regional trade (a condition which persists to this day) so that cities along water based shipping routes are not necessary. Extraction in Africa was largely done by rail, further alleviating the need to be close to rivers.
Kenya, lacking mineral or oil resources, is an agricultural economy. Specifically, they are really good at growing tea, and, to a lesser extent, coffee. This helps explain why Kenya’s developmental trajectory has been far more successful than that of other economies. Tea production is labor intensive and often depends on small and mid-sized farms which employ lots of people. Instead of money flowing in the pockets of the corrupt, who often squirrel it away in overseas accounts, money goes directly in the pockets of growers.
Kenya is the UK’s biggest tea supplier, but Egypt buys more tea by volume from Kenya than any other country. A piece in Think Africa Press today wrote on the dual problem of falling demand for tea from Egypt due to prolonged unrest, and that of falling commodity prices worldwide.
The cause of the farmers’ problems lies far to the north of the cool, tea-covered slopes of the Aberdares, in the heat of Cairo and the continuing fallout from the Arab Spring. In 2010, the last year before the uprising in Egypt, Kenya supplied the tea-obsessed UK with around half of its tea, but Egypt was the the single largest destination for Kenyan tea exports, buying nearly a fifth of what the factories around Nyeri produce. With the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 and the ongoing campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood causing continued political instability, demand has plummeted and prices have gone with them.
“It’s a supply and demand issue,” says Chai Kiarie, Field Services Manager at Gitugi Tea Factory. “We produced more tea this year, but we still made nearly $2 million less than we did last year. With these problems abroad, the demand just isn’t there.”
This isn’t an isolated problem. Coffee prices, once riding high on a boom in commodity prices have been steadily falling since the financial collapse. The commodity boom was a winning sitaution for African economies and helped drive much of the rapid growth seen throughout the 00’s. Regulation has started curbing speculative practices that drove the increases, removing a source of destructive volatility which drove up food prices in developing countries, but has also decreased badly needed foreign exchange revenues.
I visited a few farms the last time I was in Kenya. Farmers aren’t waiting around for subsidies to help pull them out of a potential mess. All of the farmers I spoke with are looking for new ways to diversify their operations and meet potentially lucrative world wide demand for competitive products. All of them wanted to think of ways to increase productivity while decreasing the cost of inputs. The pressures from falling tea demand could help push them to find ways to innovate and increase both revenues and stability.
Prime Minister Abe Shinzo recently visited three African countries to unveil plans to provide 320 million dollars in aid to Africa. This should, of course, infuriate China enough as they seem to consider the continent their own in 2014.
However, following Abe’s stupid disregard for common sense in his visit to Yasukuni and a spokesman’s less unrealistic quip about China’s unwillingness to hire locals, the Chinese Ambassador to the African Unions call a press conference. In truly comic fashion, he screamed at the press, labelled Abe the “biggest troublemaker in Asia” and held up graphic pictures of Japanese war crimes committed during World War II.
During his press conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, where Abe had just visited, Xie held aloft photos of Chinese he said had been massacred by Japanese troops. “[Abe] has worked hard to portray China as a threat, aiming to sow discord, raising regional tensions and so creating a convenient excuse for the resurrection of Japanese militarism,” said the Chinese envoy.
Is there any level at all where this isn’t absolutely ridiculous? First, we have to question Abe’s judgement in visiting Yasukuni, which enshrines a number WWII war criminals, as an inexplicable act of stupidity. The stunt was guaranteed to annoy China, setting back already strained relations over the Senkaku islands off the shores of Taiwan. It’s possible, though, that it was orchestrated to do just that. If so, it worked.
Second, setting aside the fact that most people who were participated in WWII are long dead now, and China’s old history of bloodshed, no matter how one looks at it, waving pictures of war crimes at the African Union is likely to have, well, no effect at all. Many African countries are still autocracies and nearly all have deep pasts of violence against civilians. In fact, both of the highest leaders of Kenya are currently in court for crimes against humanity!
Third, let’s just ponder how stupid it is to have two of the largest economic powers in the world quabbling like crying children. Please, we can do better, kids.