Missed Opportunity

Mary Chapman, University of British Columbia

The Reclaim Her Name project was a missed opportunity for public scholarship. Imagine what a group of Legacy readers could have come up with, had the Board of the Women’s Prize for Fiction (and their sponsor, Baileys) collaborated with them instead of with an advertising firm! The project would have been much more carefully considered and would have better achieved its goals of honoring the achievements of women, cis and transgender, and transgender authors and giving them the credit that they deserve.

Imagine what a group of Legacy readers could have come up with, had the Board of the Women’s Prize for Fiction (and their sponsor, Baileys) collaborated with them instead of with an advertising firm!

Scholarship is built on giving credit: on attribution, citation, acknowledgements, and permissions. Much of our research works to correctly attribute unsigned and pseudonymous works to their authors. Our footnotes recognize and publicize the scholarship of researchers (whether we agree with them or not). Our acknowledgements thank those who have assisted us, including the libraries, literary estates, and translators who have made our publications possible.

It is ironic, then, that this ambitious project–to publish twenty-five works of literature by women in order to honor their achievements and to give them credit–fails to give credit to anyone who played a part in the rich networks through which women writers write and publish: namely, the scholars who recovered many of these works and traced these authors’ uses of pseudonyms; the librarians who preserved manuscripts; and even the translators who made some of these texts available in English.

The Reclaim Her Name project’s “recovery” of “How White Men Assist in Smuggling Chinamen across the Border in Puget Sound Country” which it attributed to Asian American author Edith Maude Eaton (Sui Sin Far) is a case in point. In my 2016 book Becoming Sui Sin Far: Early Fiction, Journalism and Travel Writing by Edith Maude Eaton, published after I’d spent years recovering her oeuvre, I speculated about whether or not this short story had been written by Eaton.   I wrote that the story, signed Mahlon T. Wing, “may . . . have been written by Eaton” for several reasons: because it bears a strong formal and thematic resemblance to Eaton’s other journalistic and fictional works about smuggling (“Thrilling Escape,” “Woo Ma and I,” “Tian Shan’s Kindred Spirit,” and “The Smuggling of Tie-Co”); because Eaton was familiar with the story’s Pacific Northwest setting; and because the story appears in the Los Angeles Express on March 5th, during a period in which Eaton was publishing regular-installments of a travel narrative she signed with a male pseudonym, “Wing Sing of Los Angeles on His Travels.”   I wondered if perhaps Eaton had fallen behind on an installment and offered the newspaper this story as a replacement. But I hesitated to make a definitive attribution because the story was, in style, like much newspaper fiction of the period. However, the advertising firm who orchestrated the Reclaim Her Name project dispensed with all the nuance of my speculation, gave me no credit for the theory, and simply attributed the story to Eaton under the simplistic tagline: “Disguised as a man, she smuggled her story out into the world.”

As all scholars know, literary recovery work takes time and it is costly to do, whether one is paying for travel to archives or subscriptions to databases. If literary recovery scholars had been asked to collaborate with the Reclaim Her Name team and had been given their budget, imagine what could have been accomplished! But when I spoke with the advertising account managers who had worked on the project, they hadn’t the faintest idea how to reach out to literary recovery scholars. They had not heard of Google Scholar or Academia.edu—platforms scholars rely on to make our work publicly visible or available. If I learned one thing from Reclaim Her Name, it was that we need to get better at sharing our research with the public.

As the inaugural academic director of a new Public Humanities Hub at the University of British Columbia, I’ve spent the past year developing, with Hub staff, Public Scholarship training modules (“How to write an op-ed,” “How to develop a scholarly podcast,” “How to pitch and write a nonfiction book for a trade audience,” “How to curate an exhibition,” etc., as well as complementary toolkits about how to use these more public-facing genres. Please check them out! You are welcome to use them to figure out how best to share your research more broadly https://publichumanities.ubc.ca/. My hope is that sharing our research in these public-facing genres will dramatically improve public discourse about the topics we care about!

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