I am now happily -- yes, I wrote "happily," and meant it! -- ensconced in my new job in the Middle of Nowhere. On my first day here, in the middle of the day, in the middle of researching, I had this unexpected spark of realization, "This is my job! I'm researching as my job! I'm researching something in which I am interested AS MY JOB!" I may be in the Middle of Nowhere, but I made the absolute right choice.
In an unexpected turn of events, however, I found out today that I may lose my contract on my local history book because I am no longer a citizen of the locale. This was not a stipulation of the contract, but apparently the publishers do have the right to revoke the contract at their discretion. I have written – or griped, as the case may be – about this sense of proprietorship over the history of the town. This new development seems to underscore this belief.
Is this a common phenomenon? Have other historians had contracts revoked or been met with hostility for daring to write about a place that they do not live? I’m trying to find some analogies. For instance, can white people write the history of non-white people? Can men write the history of women? Can straight people write the history of gay people? Can Americans write the history of places outside of the United States? Are historians limited to their own specific identity as defined by gender, race, sexuality, or geography?
When I was growing up in Texas, the last place that I wanted to write about was Texas. I turned to the history of other places because any place other than Texas was more exotic to my younger mind. Similarly, I turned to the history of Native Americans and African-Americans specifically because they were not me. Their history was like a secret side of what was supposed to be “my” history as a white person, and this fascinated me. Studying history had begun as a way of going outside of myself and my own limited experience.
On the other hand, I later embraced women’s history specifically because it was about me, or people like me. I would ask, “what would my life have been like, as a woman, a hundred years ago? How is that different from what my life is like now? What led to that difference? What does that difference mean?” My interest in women’s history came from my embrace of feminism, which was directly related to my awareness of my life in female shell as it differed from my friends’ and brothers’ lives in a male shell. At the same time, my knee-jerk hostility toward men who were attracted to women’s history helped me to understand the suspicion with which black people viewed me when I expressed interest in African-American history.
Then, I read a book that, in part, addressed this issue: Should history be written by “insiders” and “outsiders"? Gradually, designation of “insider” or “outsider” ceased to have any real meaning in regard to historians. The historian has a point of view, enhanced or hurt both by membership in a group and by lack of membership in a group. In fact, to classify someone as more or less able to write the history of someplace or some group or even some event due to their inclusion or exclusion from those categories became ludicrous. Otherwise, the only history anyone could write would be a personal memoir or, at the opposite extreme, the history of events, people, and places to which the historian has absolutely no connection. Even the personal memoir could be disputed since actors other than the author participate in the narrative.
This is all to say, while I understand the attitude of the people connected to the town, including the publisher, I find it incomprehensible that I should be summarily disqualified from writing this book because I was not a native of the town and because I had to leave the town. Understand that I had to leave the town because there was no future for me there outside of publishing this book (which, no matter how wonderful, was not going to get me on the New York Times bestseller list and allow me to retire in luxury). I would still gladly live there if the future were a bit brighter in regard to my employment prospects and if my income allowed me to survive.
If the contract is cancelled, I suppose that I could find another publisher; but, do I really want to do that? I have two other books outlined that would be much more important and would advance my career as a historian much more than this one would. And, of course, there is always that novel! In any case, at this moment, the contract is still mine and the book is still mine.
The book will always be mine.