2020 has been an extraordinary year, with the most disruptive pandemic for over a century, political upheaval, and yet more catastrophic climate change upending lives across the globe. As it winds towards a dramatic and exhausting close, editors from History Workshop select their best ‘Radical Reads’ for this radical year.
Christopher Kissane chose Doireann ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat, ‘a unique, unconventional and deeply personal exploration of two women separated by more than two centuries. By locating her excavation of the eighteenth-century poet Eibhlín Dubh ní Chonaill in her own twenty-first century female body, ní Ghríofa weaves “a female text” that illuminates a history long kept in shadow by male characters and scholars. The book defies summary and exploration, instead demanding to be read and discussed. It is one of the most radical books about history that I have read, and I am really excited that Doireann ní Ghríofa is joining us for a History Workshop podcast in early 2021 to talk about it’.
Ria Kapoor selected Sujit Sivasundaram’s Waves Across the South: A New History of Revolution and Empire. Ria writes that ‘the book shifts perspectives, turning to the place of the indigenous peoples of the Indian Ocean world in what we best know as the ‘age of revolution’ (a framework largely dominated by the Atlantic world) , stretching across the breadth of the Indian Ocean world and in ways that does not necessarily see South Asia alone as the pivotal geography. In doing so, Sivasundaram is not just writing a history that is removed form a framework governed by European colonialisms and its afterlives, instead challenging these caricatures, while also introducing the novel metaphor of waves to explain both revolution and empire as a counterrevolutionary response’.
Sadiah Qureshi chose Claudia Rankine’s Just Us, ‘the latest instalment of a powerful series exploring race in modern America and beyond. This exquisite series has rightfully won Rankine widespread acclaim. Just Us is the product of Rankine instigating conversations about whiteness in various encounters, including with complete strangers. It is a work of profound generosity that teaches us how much there is to be learned from discomfort and asking questions in the search for justice. I would recommend it, and the entire series, to everyone’.
Jonathan Saha selected Robert Nichols’s Theft is Property! Dispossession and Critical Theory: ‘Not a book by a historian, and perhaps more accurately described as political theory, it is nevertheless very historical in analysis and argument. I was taken and persuaded by his reconceptualization of “dispossession” as a recursive act through which theft (from colonized indigenous people) establishes property relations (in favour of settlers). Through this he develops “dispossession” into critical concept that affirms indigenous rights without naturalising capitalist forms of ownership and projecting them backwards in time. He does this by taking seriously indigenous thought and activism as contributions to political philosophy, and bringing them into dialogue with the canon of critical theory’.
Elly Robson ‘thought a lot this year about Poppy Sebag-Montefiore’s prize-winning essay on ‘Touch’ for Granta. It’s a luminescent piece of writing, traversing the historical forces that shaped her experiences of public touch in Beijing’s streets in the noughties: “it was through these small, intimate, gestural moments that I began to get a hold on how macro changes imprinted themselves onto people’s relationships and inner lives”. What work does the language of touch perform, she asks, and why? The essay’s resonances – in a year in which the loss of both familiar and casual touch has become a public health imperative – are not mysterious. The intimacy of strangers in the essay fills me with yearning for crowds, protests and dancing – although this was temporarily quenched by being immersed in the unspooling house party of “Lovers Rock”, the second episode of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series.
Julia Laite selected Lucy Delap’s Feminisms: A Global History. Julia writes that ‘this dynamic, accessible book tells the history of feminism from a truly global perspective. Throwing out tired ideas of ‘waves’ and camps that have developed within the western history of feminism, Delap instead explores feminist dreams, feminist ideas, feminists spaces, feminist actions, and even feminist songs. It does my heart good to think that students of feminism have this new, radical resource that is insightful, plural, diverse and hopeful. It’s a wonderful book to read, an excellent book to teach, and a radical call to rethink feminisms past and present.’
Marybeth Hamilton chose Taffy Brodesserr-Akner’s Fleishman is in Trouble, writing that even though it is ‘neither a work of history nor overtly political, it is the book I’ve most enjoyed, found most thought-provoking, and that I recommended to everyone I know. The story of a bitter divorce between a New York hepatologist and his disaffected, yoga-practitioner wife, It begins as satire (a hilarious and razor-sharp dissection of the world of online dating), only to turn into something very different: an understated and unexpected #MeToo masterpiece, an acerbic, probing and moving reflection on whose stories matter and who has the authority to tell them’.
Peter Jones selected a new edition of Upton Sinclair’s anthology of social protest The Cry for Justice, which brings together centuries of radical writings from around the world. In his 1915 introduction, Jack London wrote: ‘To see gathered here together this great body of human beauty and fineness and nobleness is to realize what glorious humans have already existed, do exist, and will continue increasingly to exist until all the world beautiful be made over in their image. We know how gods are made. Comes now the time to make a world’.