This is the fifth in a series of posts about my book, Empires of Vice.
In my previous post, I discussed how understanding the inner workings of opium-entangled colonial bureaucracies in 19th and 20th century Southeast Asia can shed broader light on the nature of the modern state, its construction of symbolic power and strategies of self-legitimation. In this post, I’ll reflect on conveying this particular argument through a zoom interview and podcast, along with links to a few exemplary interviews by recent first book authors.
There is one consistent, simple, and very helpful reminder I’ve received from experienced colleagues and friends regarding how to literally speak about a book argument during an interview: “Try not to include everything.” Or put differently: “Figure out what to leave out.” It may seem like we need to simplify the complex and nuanced arguments of our books—because interviews are short in time, and the audience is general. This is not necessarily true. Nuances can be conveyed; just not all of them. Complex ideas and abstract concepts can be explained; but sparingly. Being selective is more important than simplifying.
Of course, this is more easily said than done. During this interview with The Asia Chessboard (a podcast for the thinktank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), which was done over Zoom, I had 10 index cards sprawled artfully over my desk (including 2 taped onto my laptop screen), which I had planned to glance at surreptitiously during the call. Each card contained 3-4 bullet points, in response to a list of questions that the CSIS team had emailed me in advance. Before the interview, I felt happily prepared that I would not forget anything. Afterwards, I had indeed not forgotten anything. However to my dismay, of the 40 bullet points I prepared, I had covered fewer than 10, which included a minor anecdote and commentary on what others had written on opium, but not much about my own work.
Ten days later, I had another spoken and transcribed interview with the Asia Expert Forum, with the International Journalism lab at Claremont McKenna College. I couldn’t quite bring myself to do away with index cards altogether. But I limited myself to 1 card, and tried to select just 3 things I would want someone to remember from my book. One of which was about the inner anxieties of the powerful, shown by how surprisingly complicated it was for colonial states to profit from the vices of the colonized. After this interview, there was a sense of relief that I had at least been able to speak about this one important theme, a small but essential part of the larger argument that I spent so much time crafting in my book and felt passionate about. And I came away with a excitement about future opportunities to talk about what I hadn’t been able to include, not least the stuff that remains on my other 9 index cards…
Reflecting briefly on three practical lessons I would take away for next time are: first, for a pre-recorded podcast, to not be shy about asking to “do over” sentences (as it can be edited out of the audio easily. My CSIS interview was around 50 minutes in total, but edited down to 30 minutes). Second, to be polite but not apologetic about asking to review and edit the recording and transcript before it goes online. Third, to feel comfortable interrupting the interviewer and not feel bad about being interrupted in turn.
One learns from the examples of others. Here are just a few recent interviews and podcasts on new (or forthcoming) books that I’ve found inspiring and helpful thinking about the state and colonialism.
· Rohit De on A People’s Constitution: The Everyday Life of Law in the Indian Republic, for a podcast with Center for the Advanced Study of India.
· Adom Getachew, speaking on Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination for the Political Theory Other Podcast.
· Arunabh Ghosh on the States of Anarchy Podcast on The Stories Behind the Numbers. His new book is Making it Count: Statistics and Statecraft in the Early People’s Republic of China.
· Daniel Mattingly on The Art of Political Control in China for the New Books Network
· Ken Ochieng’ Opalo on Legislative Development in Africa: Politics and Postcolonial Legacies for the Ufahamu Africa Podcast
· Rachel Potter on Bending the Rules: Procedural Politicking in the Bureaucracy for the New Books Network
· And just out today! Nurfadzilah Yahaya, speaking on The More Better Podcast on Learning Malay History. Her book, Fluid Jurisdictions: Colonial Law and Arabs in Southeast Asia comes out in September 2020.