Politics & Society

The best books on Global Cultural Understanding: the 2020 Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize

recommended by Patrick Wright

Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands by Hazel Carby

winner of the 2020 Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize

Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands
by Hazel Carby


Every year the British Academy's Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize is awarded to the best nonfiction book that has contributed to 'global cultural understanding.' This year, the legacies of colonization and empire loom large. Patrick Wright, Emeritus Professor at King's College London and chair of this year's panel of judges, talks us through the books shortlisted for the £25,000 prize.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands by Hazel Carby

winner of the 2020 Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize

Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands
by Hazel Carby


You’ve chosen a really fantastic set of books for the shortlist of the 2020 Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding, an international nonfiction book prize awarded annually by the British Academy. Before we start talking about the books individually, can you say a bit about what kind of books you were looking for, what these books are, broadly, about?

I’m glad you found them interesting! We’re looking for books that explore and help us understand the cultural dynamics, if I may put it that way, running between nations and societies in a world that is full of distances, even though it is, in many respects, also more global and interconnected than it used to be. That’s the basic remit. Now, I could spend a lot of time trying to explain that more precisely, but I think it’s far better to say that we allow the definition to remain fairly loose at the start of the selection process, because it keeps us open to book entries from many different fields. When the judging panel has drawn up a longlist—this year we formed that from nearly 100 entries—we then start to work out more closely where we are for this year. So we begin with a broad understanding of what we’re looking for—books that contribute to ‘global cultural understanding’—and then we focus in to choose a shortlist that seems to speak to the present moment. We have included works by anthropologists, historians, psychologists and poets in the past, so our understanding of “culture” is quite wide. We do, though, prioritise well written books that combine original thinking and research (understood broadly) on topics of present importance with a will to communicate beyond academic circles.

So that’s the way the process works. Some years, the judges may select a very diverse and mixed shortlist. This year, however, we have settled on five books that, in hindsight, seem to be quite connected in their concerns. The common question appears to be, ‘What are we to think and do about the various forms of imperial development and, indeed, exploitation that continue to shape contemporary experience? What are the legacies of colonization and empire? What do we now need to understand not just about its history, but also about its present consequences?’ All the books delve into the past, but they do so primarily in order to understand a problem that is still pressing on people in various parts of the world.

Several of the books are also very moving, because they’re so personal. I guess I haven’t always appreciated the extent to which the history impacts on the present so directly.

We looked at some excellent academic books that could be very insightful indeed, but for this prize we needed more than that. We were after books that we hope people are actually going to read, and that’s quite a lot to ask of anybody. These are often quite big books about stuff, they’re not just fables or stories (although they may contain both). The reason we think these books are worth the effort is because they are deliberately engaged with issues that are, as you suggest, living and present in the world. Their authors know that the histories they may discuss are still active, still causing misery and degradation—and sometimes also spurring its creative opposite—in the present. We’re interested in consequences and ways forward and developing an understanding that is not limited to reciting moral or political pieties. It’s very easy to be anti-imperialist, but what happens after you have said that?  It is, I think, the process of discovery, of encountering complexity and making new sense of it, that we’re looking for. We hope all five of the books we’ve chosen would be interesting to readers thinking about how we continue to emerge from a history that has been so heavily defined by imperial power.

Let’s turn to the books. The first one is Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands, which is by Hazel Carby. She’s a professor of history at Yale, who is in her 70s now, and this book is partly autobiographical, is that right?

Yes indeed. It is a moving as well as interesting book, because it’s a combination of life-writing and historical and political analysis. These two don’t always go together, but this book really manages to combine them effectively. Family histories can be quite soft, but this one revisits a background that was full of stress, disappointment and difficulty as well as dreams and aspirations. Carby’s approach is quite steely in places, but her book is also a story of discovery, which combines judgement with sympathetic testimony as it explores the two large worlds squeezed into her small childhood home in South London.

Hazel Carby has, as you say, taught at Yale for many years, but she grew up in the Croydon area and also worked as a schoolteacher in East London. Her father was mixed race Jamaican and her mother was the daughter of white working-class parents from Wales and the West country (Carby’s maternal grandfather was an agricultural labourer, her grandmother died of tuberculosis). These two people were brought together by the Second World War.

“The reason we think these books are  worth the effort is because they are deliberately engaged with issues that are…living and present in the world”

Hazel Carby’s father, Carl, came to Britain after he was recruited in Jamaica to serve with British forces in the Second World War. He was trained as a wireless operator and airman, and flew for the RAF in Britain. He flew in Coastal Command, defending shipping, and also in Bomber Command, destroying German cities, including Essen, with the saturation tactics of the time. Her mother, meanwhile, comes out of this very poor and difficult life in the West country and, during the war, she qualifies as a civil servant so her life, too, is totally transformed. These two people meet at a dance, and they get together.

Is her childhood difficult because the parents don’t get on, or because of a racist environment?

I think the two run together. Hazel Carby grew up with the knowledge that her parents were frustrated and unhappy: a difficult live that was certainly made worse by the racism that confronted her as well. During the last years of their lives, she starts digging, and also travelling, in an attempt to understand who they were, both before they met and after.

One of the things she reveals—which is quite shocking given the way the British like to remember the Second World War as a moment of national pride—is the extent to which, having used Jamaican and other imperial subjects in the war effort, the British state developed this hostile policy towards them, attempting to discourage mixed-race marriages, to prevent mixed-race couples having children, sweeping many of the children into adoption  and emigration, and trying to whiten them up in various ways.

Going further back, she also explores how the plantation culture in Jamaica affected her family history. She investigates, say, the experience of humble and far from wealthy men from places like rural Lincolnshire who, because of the opportunities of the Empire, were able, like her own ancestor Lilly Carby, to become slaveholders and run plantations in Jamaica. Two islands then, but one connected history which helps to explain both the conditions under which her parents lived and the attitudes they formed from the experience.

I read the beginning and I felt so bad for her. She’s haunted by this question, ‘Where are you from?’ Living in the country that’s your home and always being asked that question is just horrible.

That’s exactly right. This is the sort of childhood experience she had. There are people hissing and spitting and shouting in the streets. She had a childhood full of that—abuse in every sense. But what I also thought reading it is that even though this was a rough and violent and hate-filled world for a lot of the time, it is also in predominantly working class places like Mitcham and Croydon that the important encounters take place. It’s easy for Liberal-minded people in more prosperous and still largely unmixed places to sit there and say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be racist.’ Of course you shouldn’t, but when you’re in areas like the one Carby grew up in, you know that the interaction is often expressed in really horrible terms. Yet you may sometimes also see the possibility within that of people learning to coexist. Even in the negative and painful moments of the book—and there are those—you do try to glimpse other possibilities, so it can be encouraging too.

The second book on the 2020 shortlist is a bit less personal, but also looks fascinating. It’s about resistance to the British Empire and it’s by Priyamvada Gopal, Professor in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge. Can you tell me about Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent?

Gopal starts the book with a row she had with a very famous Scottish historian—I won’t mention his name—who confronted her on a radio program and told her, more or less, that the British Empire did a lot of good in the world. Writing against this way of thinking, Gopal chooses key moments in the history of anti-colonial struggles of the world—her examples include the Indian Mutiny in 1857 and the much later Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya—to show how the impulse towards decolonisation was advanced by resistance within the colonies.

One part of the book’s project is to establish that change came because people among the colonised put their lives on the line for it. The other lies in exploring the extent to which the resistance in the various parts of the Empire she’s describing found echoes and also amplification within Britain itself. She’s interested in tracking the history of anti-colonial advocacy in the imperial centres, individuals and campaigners who took up the cause of opposing the Empire or supporting movements struggling towards independence, or trying to reduce or challenge the Empire’s excesses and violence. So the book pays a lot of attention to the people in Britain who were on the resistors’ side.

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The book is really a study of this interlacing, through which resistance on the one side is amplified and taken into the heart of the imperial power by often quite marginal figures. Some of the people who did this were Chartists or Quakers and, as Gopal notes, many of them were women, who were themselves not confined to the male roles of being the exploiter or the enforcer. In the mid-20th century, quite a lot were Communists, who saw resistance to the Empire as part of the struggle of the international working class. This is what I found most interesting about the book, the way she brings those two worlds together.

Is she also opposing a Whiggish view of history—that English people came up with the idea of freedom and then spread it through the world—and saying that actually perceptions of what freedom is in Britain were themselves influenced by the resistors?

Yes, I am afraid she has no time at all for the suggestion that ‘Liberty’ was Britain’s last gift to the departing colonies! As an example of this attitude, she quotes a post-war British politician who went so far as to suggest that decolonization had always been the original aim of the British Empire. The people who advance this argument tend to talk a lot about the Magna Carta and the unchanging virtue which is liberty in England. We may wish that was true, but Gopal is having none of it. What she shows instead—and she does use  some theoretical language —is a kind of dialectic, a coming and going between the two sides, which paves the way for a transformation.

She cites the work of Susan Buck-Morss, who has explored the ways in which the German philosopher Hegel was influenced by the Haitian Revolution of the late eighteenth century. The master-slave dialectic is one of Hegel’s classic concepts, from which Marx would later derive his idea of the class struggle. The master has all the power, but the slave is the one who works on the world and thereby gains the power to transform it. That’s the sort of interaction between colony and imperial centre that interests Gopal. She sees liberty as a term that is almost grabbed, it’s repossessed, it’s taken over by the resistors in various places and redefined, potentially for everyone.

When I was reading the book, I felt quite sad because a lot of the people who were these great anti-imperialist objectors in the West have since slipped out of view because of their association with Soviet communism. I too had not thought very seriously about some of them because you think, ‘Well anybody who can believe in that, how can you trust any other judgment they made?’ There are some truly deluded fools, like Hewlett Johnson, the Red Dean of Canterbury, who revered Stalin and thought everything was wonderful in Mao’s China just as it was about to turn into a cemetery. But Gopal asks us to think again about why the name of Fenner Brockway, the British campaigner and MP, is only dimly remembered here in the UK, along with others, including, say, Dadabhai Naoroji, the Indian anti-imperialist who served as a Liberal  MP in Westminster in the 1890s.

This book feels like the beginning of an enquiry that is going to be interesting to watch. I don’t think of it as a complete work, but books don’t have to be that. They join and sometimes create conversations, and this is surely one we need to have.

Let’s go on to the third book, Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power by Pekka Hämäläinen, who is a professor of American history here at the University of Oxford.

He’s a Finnish historian who wrote a very interesting book on the Comanches a few years ago. This book, in a way, follows on from that. The Lakota are a culture within the Sioux indigenous people.

Hämäläinen says that when we think of America, we tend to think of this big American Republic set up after the War of Independence (or their Revolution, depending what you call it). But he says there were actually two American nations set up at about that time. The other was the Lakota nation, set up by the aboriginal Sioux he then proceeds to trace. We know the history of the America that was founded in Philadelphia and then expanded in all directions, the movement West and the settlement of the continent. We know that there were Native Americans there, but they tend only to feature as a more or less picturesque “adjunct” to the other America’s triumph. Too often we only know them through Hollywood movies about Custer’s Last Stand and perhaps about the final end at Wounded Knee.

Hämäläinen has produced this book that studies the rise of the Lakota nation from the 17th century through to the 19th century. It’s an extraordinary story, because it shows a group of people forming their space, their culture, in opposition to the various forces that are lined up against them. These include the French, the British and of course the advancing people of white America too. You’ve also got other indigenous peoples fighting and sparring for territory.

“We’re interested in consequences and ways forward and developing an understanding that is not limited to reciting moral or political pieties”

What he shows is the way this Lakota nation emerges in the area south of the Great Lakes,  in “the Black Hills of South Dakota” as he puts it, and then absorbs and accommodates various other peoples approaching it from outside. It’s a story of enormous flexibility, of continuing adjustment, as well as of murderous fighting and even cannibalism. There’s terrible stuff that goes on, particularly in the early parts of this history. But what does emerge is a clear civilization: resilient, complex, capable of negotiation and its own forms of diplomacy and insight.

Then, in later years, as pressures change and opportunities open up, the Lakota spread out. They move down the Missouri River in a more or less southern direction. They refound themselves and are no longer hunter-gatherers but reorganize their whole economy and society around working the river. Then, they move out into the plains, where Hollywood keeps them, mostly. They take to the horse and operate with the buffalo, a later history that we perhaps know better.

So Hämäläinen has tracked the emergence and historical development of the Lakota nation, as he calls it, and he’s done so in what’s a quite detailed and sometimes quite dizzying survey, because you enter a world you don’t know anything about—well, I didn’t. You think you know the broad outlines of the story, and there have been some great books, like Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, that have explored elements of the story. And obviously the Lakota nation is still with us, so there are many people working with it and speaking from it and addressing its history. Yet this book is a really interesting reminder of the complexity, the dynamism and creativity of a nation that was defeated, in a fundamental sense, by the consolidation of the United State of America.

What sources did he use, because presumably there’s not much written documentation?

He is partly in the hands of European witnesses and archaeologists – he  seems to have looked at relics in every glass case imaginable!  He also draws on these intriguing calendars called “winter counts”, which are pictographic records of the tribe’s experiences. Often a whole century is registered in a spiral on a single buffalo hide. So there is some remaining registration of the history that survives from within that world.

There are, though, things that remain invisible. One of our judges said, ‘I wish I knew more about the women of this world’ and you could guess with some confidence that’s what the author wishes too. The record doesn’t give him everything. But he’s done incredibly well with what it does give us.

The book is already causing quite a lively discussion in North America. Fewer readers in Britain, perhaps, are so well attuned to this history. It’s a good book, partly because Hämäläinen uses his expertise without entirely forgetting that his readers probably don’t share it. They need somebody to take them on the journey with some respect for the fact they’re in territory they don’t know already, and he’s quite good at that.

So book number four is The Reinvention of Humanity: A Story of Race, Sex, Gender and the Discovery of Culture (to use its UK title, in the US it seems to be called Gods of the Upper Air) by Charles King, who is Professor of International Affairs and Government at Georgetown University.

This is a fascinating historical investigation that is nevertheless firmly addressed to the present. King shows how, in the early 20th century, a collection of ‘dissident anthropologists’, most of them women, confronted the still widely-held view that only one part of the world was civilized, and created a new understanding in which the world’s human cultures came to stand alongside one another. Nowadays, “cultural relativity” is often derided as implying that anything goes in a world without standards, but Margaret Mead and the other women King shows developing this new line of thought were exploring  cultures that were still very different and sometimes geographically isolated from one another, and yet were also bound to come into increasing contact with one another. So the relationship between them really did call for new thinking that did not just reproduce imperial assumptions about ‘the primitive’.

The story really starts with a 19th century German anthropologist called Franz Boaz, who came to the East Coast of the United States and carried out field work in Baffin Island and British Columbia. Boas was an outsider, if not always an embattled figure. He had left Germany because of Nazism and knew, long before they started burning his books, that his ideas were at odds with the race thinking that emerged in Nazi Germany—and which, as King shows, was indebted to the race theorists of early 20th century America.

Boaz may have initiated the search for a different way of thinking about culture, but it was his students in New York who took it further. Most of them are women, though not all, and the most well-known of them is Margaret Mead, who goes to Samoa and works with the people there to produce books like Coming of Age in Samoa. There’s also Ruth Benedict, who becomes Margaret Mead’s great friend, and whose Patterns of Culture also becomes a classic.

“If you wanted to understand why anthropology matters you couldn’t get a better book”

Then, most interestingly—and I guess this may be where he is at his most original—King adds the Native American activist Ella Deloria, whom Boas hired to work with First Nations people and also Zora Neale Hurston, who is known primarily as a writer within the Harlem Renaissance. She is another of Boas’s students and went to a poor area in Florida and recorded the folklore and life of people there, before moving on to Haiti where she encountered zombies and other magical creations.

These people were all doing really detailed ethnographic work to try and find out how indigenous and other peoples were making sense of their experience, how their belief systems operated, how their exchange systems operated, and there is this enormous enrichment of understanding that comes from their work.

There’s no question, in King’s mind, that we need to understand this stuff right now. We’ve got problems with the ways in which culture is being talked about all over again, and the way in which ‘civilization’ is being claimed for some and denied to others. King reminds us that all these investigators were outsiders, their project not welcomed by an academic and museum establishment that was reluctant to open up to them. They lived far-flung, travellers’ lives, and their own relationships were often fairly peculiar and complicated and, in some cases, fairly tormenting, one suspects. So that’s what this book is about.

If you wanted to understand why anthropology matters you couldn’t get a better book. In some versions,  anthropology can seem little more than a kind of gossip, with one tribe telling tales about the odd behaviour of another. But what you have here is a beautifully written book that gives you a sense of why it matters how we think of the human and what it is and what its extraordinary and diverse capabilities may still be.

It’s also very readable, isn’t it?

He’s both gifted and careful in that matter. I’m always looking—aren’t we all?—for the person who actually knows stuff but doesn’t bore you to death. And that’s not as easy to find as you would like.

Isn’t he focusing, also, on the fact that human beings are the same all around the world? That’s what pretty much everyone believes now, but if you and I were speaking in the Victorian era, we might actually believe that there are scientific differences between races that makes one ‘better’ than another. These anthropologists mattered because their fieldwork was also showing our common humanity.

Yes, you’ve got a new definition of what culture is, but it’s also a new definition of what humanity is, and this is pitched against  the played-out theories of race we may still have in our heads. The very idea of “Race” is an invention, there is no purity of race in the world: we should all know this, but these ideas persist. Long before those assumptions were off the agenda or in any way in retreat, these people were saying, ‘No, if you look at what’s going on here, you will find that these are people with the same capabilities as people anywhere else and, in their context and their situation, this is how they’ve made sense of the world.’ The extinction of indigenous peoples, which we’ll come to in the next book, is a dreadful loss, once you start accept that you’re not just looking at savages. It’s an impoverishment of the species. The key thing is this discovery that culture is not just something that belongs to ‘Western civilization.’

When he’s describing Margaret Mead, she’s amidst this group of Samoans who like having sex with each other and she writes, “And oh how sick I am of talking sex, sex, sex”

And the terrible heat as well! You can imagine it, on boats, often, and in weird cabins. It seems to have proved a bit contagious, although not necessarily in Paul Gauguin’s exploitative way.

King writes, “Samoan ways, Mead reported, were not so much primitive and backward as intensely modern.” In terms of sexual liberation, the West has followed in Samoan footsteps, rather than vice versa.

They were experimenting with their own humanity, perhaps particularly the women. There is this man, an English anthropologist named Reo Fortune, Margaret Mead’s husband at the time, who is made unhappy by this, because along comes Gregory Bateson, this tall Englishman, and Mead goes off with him, even though they’re all working together. There is a feeling of experimentation, of possibility. How can you still be entirely governed by western Christian values and rules if you cast yourself adrift in other cultures, which is what the ethnologists did?

Let’s move on to the last book which is just heartbreaking. It’s called All Our Relations: Indigenous Trauma in the Shadow of Colonialism by Canadian journalist Tanya Talaga.

Tanya Talaga has written an urgent, passionate book, which is about the legacies of colonialism in the most naked, raw sense. Of all the books, this is the one that proves how much the chaos and disorder and misery is still unfolding for living people. The book opens with these terrible child suicides among the Canadian First Nations. These are young kids from their early teens through into their 20s, taking their own lives in horrifying numbers. It’s like an epidemic. These are the children of peoples who are stuck in this apparently immovable situation, their lives are cramped and conditions create dislocation and despair.

She takes this as a point of departure for an analysis of what actually happened to these people. She shows how brutal colonial policies were in Canada. The First Nations people were hardly ever aggressive—it’s not as if they were Comanches on horseback or anything like that—they were just trying to hold onto their ground. And yet, their kids were taken away and put in boarding schools, away from their families, in order to try to make them proper ‘westerners.’ It wasn’t just that people were mistreated and their land was stolen, but there was this whole policy of disruption of community; the state was used to try and destroy their culture. That’s what happened.

Talaga picks up on this very strongly. She shows how the process continues, in many ways. You’ve got a situation where young people are completely cut off from their roots and they just have this sense of an absence in their lives, even when they’re not also facing the extreme social injustice in other ways, like the poverty, the alcoholism among the men.

“Of all the books, this is the one that proves how much the chaos and disorder and misery is still unfolding for living people”

We should surely know these stories from the past, but this book reminds us that they’re still active, and by no means just in Canada either. Talaga goes to Finland and Norway and looks at the Sami people, who are having very similar experiences. She goes to Brazil, where the expropriation is still going on in the most brutal way in the rainforest and elsewhere. She talks about the Australian experience too.

Talaga writes with a sense of urgency as one who knows the story from the inside. One of her parents is Polish. The other is indigenous. So she’s got her own mixed experience and doesn’t only know the situation as a journalist. She wants us to recognise the urgency of the problem and she wants us to do something about it, to change things. She’s gone to the history as a way of explaining where the problem comes from and to help us to understand what we’re faced with. She’s not, though, writing primarily as a historian. This is a campaigning book, so it’s a different kind of book than the one about the Lakota nation, even though it’s dealing with the same history.

I liked the way the book joined up the dots, that this is not just an issue in Australia, or America, but that across the globe, indigenous people have had similar, terrible experiences. But if it is a polemical book and she wants things to be done, what can be done?

I think she’s trying to inform us and through that to put pressure on existing governments and powers. A citizenship that knows about this is surely better than one that doesn’t, and is also more likely to do something about it. The other thing reading this book raised in my mind is the sense that we live in a world where we have state institutions that have very often absorbed liberal, progressive and democratic values. The people who have taken salaries to run the parts of the state that relate to education and various other forms of aid to these indigenous worlds—I’m sure they all believe in diversity. The state apparatus has learned the language of democracy and justice, but for whatever reason the practice doesn’t always work: after all these decades of attempted redress, it’s still failing on the ground. That’s what’s particularly shocking to me. With Trudeau in power, you’d like to think that in Canada this would all be in hand and that enlightenment would prevail—but that is not the story we find here.

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This problem of public administration is also important in other fields. Those of us who live in Western democracies do live with states that—challenged as they may be in some places, including America right now—give you a feeling that the language of public thought and public administration understands how things should be. But the reality out on the street is still intractably unchanging, in many cases. So I think that’s one of the useful challenges in this book: don’t just speak the language, look at the consequences, look at what’s actually there and think about what must be done, because the problem with state-based public programs is that once they’re up and running they can go on forever, whatever is happening outside the office window. They just have a bureaucratic logic to them.

In the case of the youth suicides in Canada, she say there had been lots of appeals to the local authorities for psychological support before they happened. There had been a number of calls for help, but apparently the funding wasn’t there.

The funding for these sorts of programs is, as Talaga shows, constantly challenged. It’s constantly being scraped back. The funding is one thing, but I suspect it is also this problem of administration, where people talk a language and really believe it, but somehow don’t manage to make things on the ground move. The case for a more participatory approach that works from within the communities in question seems pretty compelling.

Including the Sami in her analysis is interesting, in the sense that I tend to think of the Scandinavian countries as having some of the most enlightened, socially responsible governments out there.

That’s right, but I think enlightened societies are often very challenged by the idea that anybody wouldn’t want to join their way of life. It’s almost an insult, isn’t it? So I think sometimes even in the more enlightened places, you will find a kind of impatience that develops against people who decide they want to carry on living as they were and keep their distance, land use and traditions. But we mustn’t be too subtle about this. Often the damage is done through mining corporations and other commercial extractors who may not even be pretending to do better by the affected people. I was impressed by the parallels Talaga finds between different indigenous worlds: where power moves, it tends to do so in an all too recognisable way.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

October 5, 2020

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Patrick Wright

Patrick Wright

Patrick Wright is Emeritus Professor of Literature and History at King's College London and a Fellow of the British Academy.

Patrick Wright

Patrick Wright

Patrick Wright is Emeritus Professor of Literature and History at King's College London and a Fellow of the British Academy.