Border Crossing with Pamela Scully, the historian who wandered into the present

Pamela Scully, professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and African Studies, assistant vice provost for academic innovation, and director of The Center for Faculty Development and Excellence, has had what she calls an “eclectic” career. South African by birth and an historian by training, her research into gender, slave emancipation, biography, and sexual violence in wartime and in post-conflict societies has led her across continents as well as disciplines.

On studying border crossings and crossers

My academic career has been eclectic. A lot of people, especially historians, tend to focus on one city or one village, and they spend fifty years of their life examining that. That has not been my experience. I wandered to begin with to America, and I’ve kept on wandering.

I’ve wandered through leaving South Africa and coming to the USA; then as an historian I studied people who wandered, and because I followed people who wandered, my own identity wandered, too.  So, I started off as an historian of South Africa writing on slave emancipation in the 1830s through 1850s, but my first book on South Africa was informed by the new British imperial history so it wasn’t just a focus on Africa. Then when I was writing about Sara Baartman, who lived in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, I was also writing about British history in some way. So, I then became in conversation with people who do British history broadly speaking, which then brought me to Australia, where I became involved in conversation with Australian feminists who were working on biography and identity and race and things like that, which is where I met Fiona Paisley with whom I’m doing this [current book on transnational history]. But in between those movements, I became involved with The Carter Center in Liberia, and so I became engaged with people who were working in the present on Liberia, which involved discussions with anthropologists and from there an engagement with people working on Ebola.

On juggling calendars and taking the long view

For me, the challenge [of international work] has been trying to put together administrative, family, and research calendars and trajectories. It’s just – it’s much easier if you work in the library. It’s challenging. In some ways, you have to take a long view, and what could in a different kind of more closely focused research be done in a month might take you a year because you have to go do three trips of a week each. So, trying to balance all that, make the calendars and trajectories of different parts of one’s life fit, is harder when you’re doing international work. At least, it has been for me. But it is very rewarding.

Relationships have been central to making international work work, and it is the people who I value so very much. For example, in 2015, I was invited to give a keynote at an international symposium in Sydney on Gender, Poverty and Violence organized by the University of Sydney Law School and – UTS, the University of Technology in Sydney, and King’s College London. And then, as a result of that, they asked if I’d like to come back for a month. So, I said I was interested but couldn’t come for so long. So, they kindly said well why don’t you just come back for a bit? I said, well, can I come back for a little bit? They said yes. So, I was back there in July 2016 for a week, presenting my work in a seminar and working with graduate students. We had a really interesting series of conversations and they’ve asked me to go back again. I hope to do so. Since then, I have been an external examiner on a PhD thesis at UTS and my keynote is being published in a book Lucy Fiske and Rita Shackel, organizers of the conference, are publishing with Palgrave. But, in the meantime, Professor Fiona Paisley has invited me to go to the University of Brisbane to work on the book on transnational history, and I’m there as a distinguished visitor for a week. I am doing a workshop conversation with Penelope Edmonds, of the University of Tasmania, since we both do work on reconciliation in settler societies, and then a public talk, where she will be the interlocutor. I am really looking forward to that.

On the genesis of her most recently released book, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

I started working in Liberia through The Carter Center on a working group that was organized by the Institute for Developing Nations. The Carter Center wanted experts to follow them around for two weeks and see what they were doing on rule of law and to help them assess the ways they were responding to and understanding gender based violence. And this was in 2008. So, I went, and I became very interested in Liberia, because it had echoes of South Africa but echoes also of America. So, I started writing primarily out of a critique of the kind of international interventions that were happening in Liberia, and particularly as a case study of my reservations about some of the work being done in the name of women’s human rights that was taking off in the late 2000s.

I continued to visit Liberia and wrote various articles on development and women’s rights in Liberia and edited a special issue of The Journal of Peacebuilding and Development. I organized a workshop in Liberia in 2009 and a conference, I think the same year, at Emory, also with the Institute for Developing Nations. Then Ohio University Press approached me and said they had a series called Short Histories of Africa, and the director asked would I like to write one on Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and I said, yes! And so that’s what I did. It’s a small book, but I am proud of it. It traces the history of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in the context of Liberia and its history. I tried very hard to be even-handed, as opposed to hagiographic…. The book considers her role as the first elected female president in Africa, considers her role as a leader and at the vanguard of women’s human rights.

On writing a biography of a person who’s still alive

I loved writing this book. It practically wrote itself, and – I just loved it. I think what it spoke to, and this continues to speak to me, is I’m interested in history in a genealogical sense. It’s asking how did we get to where we are today? Writing about history that ends in the present and that has meaning for trying to understand this very important leader, I found fascinating, and then, also – I love people! I like thinking about their motivations. I like trying to understand them. So – history through biography is something that I’m beginning to think really is my genre.  I would love to write a biography of Mrs. Rosalynn Carter. I have enormous respect for her and all she has done for America and the world around women’s rights and mental health.