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For one of our author interviews this month, I talked to Elizabeth Little about her new book Trip of the Tongue: Cross-Country Travels in Search of America’s Languages, published this month by Walker & Company.
What was the most enjoyable moment in researching Trip of the Tongue? The worst?
My most enjoyable moment was, without a doubt, my first evening in Neah Bay, a tiny town on the tip of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. I had just spent the past few days with friends in Tacoma, and I was loathe to leave their hospitality for what sounded like an uncomfortably rustic accommodation in the middle of nowhere. But then I discovered that I was staying in a cozy little cabin a stone’s throw away from this windswept gem of beach. That evening I walked along the sand in my bare feet as the sun set. Then I returned to my cabin to drink hot chocolate and read about language. A near-perfect evening.
My least enjoyable moment, on the other hand, was surely when I was in northern Maine, when I got caught in a snowstorm and had to battle all-day morning sickness. There’s a very good reason why that section didn’t make it into the book.
How did you end up deciding which particular languages to highlight in the book? Were there some that just barely didn’t make the cut that you’d like to tell us about?
The languages that made it into the book were those that really challenged my own assumptions about the history of language—or language itself—in the United States. I spent some time in San Francisco, for instance, but my background in Chinese language and culture made for a less than compelling narrative thread. It was a lot of “Oh, yes, I remember reading about that.” (Looking back on things now, I wish I had tried to look at Chinese language and culture in Old West frontier towns. Although that should probably be a book of its own.)
Some other sections had to be set aside because they led me down a very different path than the one I was trying to travel. The chapter that got cut at the very last minute was a chapter that looked at the impact of technological change—very particularly in transportation and manufacturing—on language communities in Baltimore, Cleveland, and Detroit. I loved my time in each of those cities – in Baltimore I met the loveliest and most helpful docent and historian at the city’s Jewish museum; in Cleveland I gorged on paprikash and learned about Hungarian girl scouts; and in Detroit I went to the Ford Rouge Factory, which turned out to be one of my favorite activities on the entire trip. Unfortunately, when I found myself compiling economic paper after economic paper for research purposes, I had to acknowledge that my focus was starting to drift.
In the final chapter of your book, you note that Trip of the Tongue didn’t end up being the book you thought it would be. How did you originally envision it, and how did your travels and experiences change the book into what it is?
At the beginning I envisioned that the book would be more of a romp: road-tripping high jinks with some linguistic data thrown in. What I ended up with, though, is something more like a meditation. On language, on discrimination, on my own preconceived notions. I first got an inkling of this in South Carolina, where I went to learn about Gullah. My very first day in Charleston, I learned about these spikes (called chevaux-de-frise) that some city residents put on their fences in the nineteenth century to protect themselves in the event of a slave rebellion. It was at that point that the desire to write anything resembling a romp died a swift death. The history of race and language and culture in the United States isn’t exactly rich in comedy. (Though I certainly tried to find it where I could.)
But I’m glad that I ended up somewhere very different than I’d intended. Because it’s not much of a journey of discovery if you only learn things you already knew.
I also talked to Diana Preston, the author of The Dark Defile: Britain’s Catastrophic Invasion of Afghanistan, 1839-1842, published earlier this year by Walker & Company.
For those who haven’t yet had a chance to read the book, give us a thumbnail synopsis of the First Anglo-Afghan War: how did the conflict come about, how long did it last, and what was the result?
The First Anglo-Afghan War in 1838-42 is one of Britain’s most notorious military catastrophes. The genesis of the war was British suspicion that imperialist and expansionist Russia was planning to advance through Afghanistan to invade India, Britain’s richest and most prized colonial possession. The Afghans resented the British presence, and the invasion was politically controversial at home. Barely two years after the British had occupied Kabul thousands of British and Indian troops, officials and their dependents suddenly found themselves besieged. A disastrous retreat to India under constant attack by the Afghan hill tribes left only one Briton and several Indian soldiers alive. When the news of the disaster reached Britain, it was greeted with anger and the British sent an army of retribution to punish the Afghans. Soon afterwards, the British withdrew from Afghanistan with their puppet king already murdered, allowing Dost Mohammed, who had surrendered to the British and been exiled by them, to return. The entire enterprise was a disaster that soured British-Afghan relations for many years.
How did you come to be interested in the conflict, and how long was the research process for The Dark Defile?
I’ve been interested in the conflict for a long time and in particular in some of the characters but the more I began delving into the sources the more I realized it is something of a cautionary tale. The Duke of Wellington (the conqueror of Napoleon at Waterloo and a former Prime Minister) predicted at the time—accurately as it turned out—that “The consequence of crossing the Indus once, to settle a government in Afghanistan, will be a perennial march into that country.” (British forces entered Afghanistan twice more over the subsequent 80 years, before doing so again as part of the current NATO-led force.) I became increasingly intrigued not only by what actually happened and the many vivid personal stories but also by the wider political and strategic issues surrounding the campaign.
Subsequent research in the UK and northern India took about two years.
I was struck by Lady Florentia Sale, whose diary of the war you draw on frequently in the book. Tell us how Lady Sale ended up in the middle of the conflict, and about her diary which recounts so vividly the events she witnessed.
Plain-speaking, fifty-year-old Florentia Sale arrived in Kabul to join her husband, a senior British officer nicknamed “Fighting Bob”. She devoted her early months to planting a flower garden but when the Afghans rose up she found herself trapped in Kabul without her husband who had left with his regiment for India. She commented acidly on subsequent British military incompetence and diplomatic vacillation, writing, “it appears a very strange circumstance that troops were not immediately sent into the city to quell the [rising] … but we seem to sit quietly with our hands folded and look on … General Elphinstone vacillates on every point. His own judgment appears to be good but he is swayed by the last speaker …”
She survived the early days of the British retreat, caring with her pregnant daughter for her dying son-in-law, a wounded British officer. She was then taken hostage by the Afghans. Her clear-eyed, unsentimental, occasionally humorous diary provides a detailed account of events, both previously in Kabul and then in her captivity and—unlike some of the other eyewitness accounts written with an eye to publication—rings true to the core. She describes how, as she and the other prisoners were bundled away by their Afghan captors, they passed naked starving people left behind by the retreating British column who were surviving “by feeding on their dead comrades.” She also wrote that she and the other prisoners quickly became verminous—”very few of us … are not covered with crawlers”—and learned to distinguish between lice which they called “infantry” and fleas which were “light cavalry”. She lived to be eventually reunited with her husband.
Catch up on previous State of the Thing newsletters.