Thursday, June 18, 2020

Empires of Vice: On Doing a Written Book Interview via Email

This is the third in a series of posts about my book, Empires of Vice.  

My previous post dwelled on the archives that informed my understanding of how local colonial administrators shaped the rise of opium prohibition across Southeast Asia between the 1890s and 1940s. In this post, I’d like to share my experience talking about archives and method in an interview for The Docket (March 2020).

This was a fully written interview. Via email, I received five very thoughtful questions that were written in a conversational tone from the team at the Docket. Within two weeks, I sent back my 2,700 word response in a word document. In less than 48 hours, I received a url for a “stub” webpage—a draft of the online layout of the text and illustrating images—with an opportunity to correct any typos and suggest changes.

Perhaps it is a truism to say that good questions make answering them easier. The Docket team made it additionally fun; first, by giving me an opportunity to talk about my book cover. Mine is an image of poppy overlaid on an opium ledger from French Indochina, which I had encountered at the Archives nationales d’outre mer in Aix-en-Provence and puzzled a lot over. The ledger was orderly, with neat headings for both territory-specific and aggregated numbers—for opium revenue, total opium consumption, and per capital consumption—from 1899, when the French first introduced a colony-wide opium monopoly, to 1908. By explaining the ledger itself, I found it possible to speak more concretely about how and why I came to focus on local administrators. The ledger was, in effect, a partial and “cooked” version of French Indochina’s state-opium market relationships, and much of my archival research involved excavating backstories of who produced the numbers, headings, and categories; how and why they chose to include and omit certain information. Thanks to the “in” of the book cover, I was able to elaborate on how I followed paper trails of local administrators, which revealed fictitious opium sales numbers in the 1910s, hidden emergency funds for buying opium from India and China in the 1920s, and debt crises and odd situations of excess opium left rotting in the basement of the Bank of Indochina in the 1930s.  

A second very helpful question allowed me to talk about sources and method by citing my own text. I was asked: “[Y]ou include this beautiful quote from the novelist and scholar Amitav Ghosh that when consumed opium was “at once bountiful and all devouring, merciful and destructive, sustaining and vengeful”…You also give us some pretty funny, colorful language from local critics such as “Simple Simon” (147). This contrasts, of course, with the cold, technical language of imperial administrators. How much of a challenge was it to have to bridge these linguistic worlds as you assembled this narrative?” What made this sort of question especially welcome was how it helped anchor my answer about approaching a colonial bureaucracy from the inside out in specific examples. I enjoyed elaborating on the tension between the language of observers like “Simple Simon” in Singapore (who was writing in the Straits Times, publicly excoriating the British administrator Arthur Pountney for designing an opium revenue reserve replacement fund, analogized to the stench of a rat) and what Pountney himself was writing about the same fund at the time for his peers and superiors.

On a practical note, I found this written style of interview one of the most time efficient ones. Although my responses were quite long, the text was not difficult to write because it was a similar style of writing used my book. Also, none of the interview questions came as a surprise, both because I had two weeks to mull through them and because they came from another academic, for a scholarly venue so I didn’t feel the pressure to make my argument “legible” (in ways that I would for a non-academic audience).

One thing I might do differently in retrospect, is to take up The Docket’s invitation to add questions of my own. I’ve noticed that just about every interviewer provides this option (and/or to tweak the questions provided). Until now, I’ve been shy about doing so, and tried to focus on providing the best answer to the questions posed, in the given order. In written interviews especially, because there is no direct back-and-forth conversation, it can feel like the list of emailed questions is a fixed guideline. But, there is a great deal of leeway to develop and refine a script of questions collaboratively.

Here are a few exemplary written interviews that I’ve learned a lot from authors with recently published first books:

·      On Fei-Hsien Wang’s Pirates and Publishers: A Social History of Copyright in Modern China with the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University.
·      On Durba Mitra’s Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought for the Harvard Gazette.
·      On Andy Liu’s Tea War: A History of Capitalism in China and India for the New School’s India China Institute.

My next posts will revisit my book’s argument about low-level colonial administrators for audiences interested in the state, especially theories of modern state building and symbolic power. I’ll also dwell on additional styles of book interviews, including a transcribed and edited text based on a zoom conversation and a podcast

In the meantime, the new June 2020 issue of The Docket has just been posted online. It’s a fascinating issue on the history and legacies of age of consent laws, guest edited by Kanika Sharma and Laura Lammasniemi. Do check it out!

-Diana Kim