Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Interviewing Esyllt, part one

As the Lost Foote Photos blog winds down, we thought we'd share author Esyllt W. Jones' thoughts and impressions around working on a project like Imagining Winnipeg:

1) In the last two years, you’ve co-edited three texts:

Epidemic Encounters: Influenza, Society, and Culture in Canada, 1918-1920 (with Magda Fahrni),

People's Citizenship Guide: a response to conservative Canada (w/Adele Perry), and 

Place and Replace: Essays on Western Canada (w/Adele Perry & Leah Morton). 

And now Imagining Winnipeg.

Is this breakneck pace normal for you? What has it taught you, in terms of managing your workload as a prof, parent, and community member?

I like to be busy! Editorial work is different from writing. Editing is collaborative work, and the collections you mention are things I’ve done with others. This book, too, belongs as much to the press as it does to me. It’s a cliché to say that academic work is solitary, but there is truth to it. I need projects that bring me into connection with other people, and sometimes this means I work on several at once. Finding time to write is more difficult. I’ve never really mastered that Alice Munro ability to write in between everything else going on in life.

I don’t know about managing workload. Our family always has a lot on the go, and it usually works out. A lot of opportunities come your way when you are a university professor, and there are obligations, too – to your students, to your community. Ultimately, I appreciate commitment more than its absence.

2) How did you come to working on social history and the history of health and disease? Did you have a particular mentor who piqued your interest?

I was a labour historian first, and for that I owe Doug Smith, who sent me to the archives, and also my employers at the union where I worked, for letting me help to write its official history.

I became interested in disease when reading documents from the Brandon and Selkirk mental hospitals. I had no idea how compelling these fragments of evidence from people’s past lives would be for me. I wanted to know how ordinary people lived with and through illness, and how it shaped their lives. I once read an interview with the novelist Ian McEwan, in which he talks about the influence on his writing of listening to the women in his working class family talk endlessly, without boredom or irony, about every gruesome detail of their own illnesses and those of their friends, neighbours, or mere acquaintances. I laughed when I read that, it was so deliciously familiar to me. That is my mother’s family. I grew up hearing stories of diphtheria, tuberculosis, pleurisy…it was sad, but also carried a certain meaning. It was a vocabulary for shared experience.

I had many good teachers when I did graduate work; Manitoba is fortunate to have such talented historians in our universities. I was inspired by gender historians like Ellen Ross, whose book Love and Toil about working class motherhood in England is still a model of humane scholarship to me.

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Stay tuned for the next two sections from UMP's interview with Esyllt W. Jones, which will be posted December 17 and 24th.

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