Jay Prosser is the 2020 winner of BIO’s Hazel Rowley Prize for his proposal for Empire’s Loving Strangers, a biography that explores one Jewish family’s experiences and connections across empires and centuries. Prosser is a reader in humanities at the University of Leeds in England, where he has taught since 1999. His book was previously shortlisted for the Tony Lothian Prize for the best unpublished biography, which is given by the Biographer’s Club.
Carla Kaplan, chair of the 2020 Hazel Rowley Prize Committee, interviewed Prosser about his project via email.
Can you say a little bit about how the idea for Empire’s Loving Strangers first came to you?
Let me answer this with a story—actually, the story with which the book begins.
In the many houses in which I grew up, a family camphorwood chest lived in the hall. This chest was the one item of furniture my mother brought with her from Singapore when she migrated to England in 1960. The chest is the family archive. It holds all the photographs, identity papers, birth and marriage certificates, personal letters and diaries, as well as a Chinese quilt, a family tree of Iraqi Jews going back to the 18th century, and a few other amazing objects—all of which are associated with my mother’s side of the family.
As a child, and even still, the chest was a source of fascination for me. This was not only because it was a trove of magical treasures. It was also because these treasures came accompanied with stories and, as my mother retrieved items from the chest, she would tell me tales of her family, spinning out the stories, Scheherazade-like, one story leading to another. The chest-stories had the effect of transporting me to another world, far from the English insularity that surrounded me. This was the world of my book, of empire’s loving strangers: that is, of people from very different cultures, ethnicities, and religions who met and married as they were brought together by different empires—Chinese, Ottoman, and British.
I was so enchanted by my mother’s family saga of these loving strangers of empire when I was growing up, there was no question of me not writing this book. At the same time, what began as a story for my mother—a kind of commission—became, in the course of the writing, a transmission from my ancestors to me. The book only really started to make sense when I realized it was my own legacy of loving strangers: when it became driven by an exploration of what it meant to come into this particular inheritance of empire and of Jewishness. Writing the book was simultaneous with—in fact, it initiated—my journey into a less familiar kind of Jewish history: one from Iraq, India, Singapore, and China; and one that involved intermarriage and conversion.
This is a family biography as well as a social history; how have family members responded to your plans?
They’ve been not only incredibly supportive, but I absolutely couldn’t have written the book without them. Relatives have been goldmines of knowledge and intelligence, my mother especially, of course. They’ve relayed to me family stories, but they’ve also educated me about the extraordinary times they’ve gone through.
Alongside my mother, key sources have included two great-aunts, who survived as prisoners of war during the Second World War in Japanese-occupied Sumatra; a cousin, who could recall stories of the family spice trade business in early 20th-century India; and another cousin, who runs a catering business in North London [and] was able to speak knowledgeably about the cuisine and memories of food Iraqi Jews passed down and adapted over the generations and the geographies of their migration.
In terms of sources, it helps to be from an extended family—although having so many informants means that the stories don’t always match up! But then, negotiating different perspectives is part of the pleasure of family biography and what makes it valuable for social history. Family biography hopefully holds individual stories that fill the blanks of, or even make us change our understanding of, the big, historical picture.
Empire’s Loving Strangers will be telling a largely untold or neglected aspect of social and cultural history. What challenges, if any, have you faced with the source materials that you need to tell that story? Aside from your family’s archives, what kinds of archives do you imagine being most important to your story?
One catch-22 of family biography is that, while it often tells the stories left out of history, as such the historical archive you have to work with is not complete, readily accessible, or, to begin with, even easily identifiable.
The particular challenge for my family biography was the dispersal of the archive: geographically from China to Iraq; linguistically also (I’ve learned Hebrew during the course of writing this book and have tried to get to grips with some basic Hokkien terminology around migration, even some Arabic words passed down in the family); and historically, since my book goes far back into Jewish ancestry.
Essential to recreating the past of my ancestors has been revisiting all the places they lived. I have been able to go everywhere except Iraq. Among the archives I’ve examined, then, are marriage records in Bombay synagogues; oral history archives in Singapore; and the one and only archive in the world, in Israel, dedicated to the Iraqi Jewish diaspora.
And yet, I made a most exciting discovery in a library on my doorstep, which I had visited many times as a student. There, in the British Library’s Hebrew Collections, I found a poem written in Judeo-Arabic from the 1800s by an ancestor! His document provides me with some crucial clues as to why a Jewish family might leave Baghdad and what the conditions were like at the time.
Which of the ancestors you’ve uncovered in this story do you most wish you could have met in person? If you could pick one of those departed ancestors and interview him or her, what questions would you most like to be able to ask?
I’d have loved to have met my great-grandfather, Isaac Hyeem Ezekiel Elias. Isaac left Iraq after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, spending a couple of decades in Bombay running a spice trade business with two brothers. He then relocated to Singapore. His first wife—who was also a Baghdadi Jewish immigrant—died in Singapore, and after her death my great-grandfather took as his common-law wife a Chinese woman, who was herself an immigrant to Singapore, from China.
I’d have loved to have asked my great-grandfather about how he put together these very different chapters in his life. I’d have also liked to have known what it meant for him to go from being a subject of the Ottoman Empire (of which Iraq was a part when he left it) to becoming a subject of the British Empire (in which Singapore and India were then colonies). I would’ve liked above all for him to tell me about how he joined up his commitment to Jewish traditions and his Iraqi Jewish past with his intermarriage to a non-Jew. This is a burning question for me and I think for many in Jewish and other migrant-descent communities: how you carry forward the past of your ancestors while embracing an increasingly integrated future.
What family biographies have especially inspired you?
The family biographies I’ve been teaching for the past 15 years have been vital in teaching me how to write this book.
Top of my list would be Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother, for the way it negotiates cultural history and stories of untold lives—a technique Hartman calls “critical fabulation.” I also love Daniel Mendelsohn’s writing, and I especially admire Mendelsohn’s The Lost, for showing that a layered narrative structure is as important as the plot, and indeed is a great way to unfold the plot. I value Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish) for how she uses her own family biography to launch a critical investigation into British nationalism and racism.
The seminal family biography on my list, though, has to be Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. Though it’s almost 50 years old, I admire it very much for being a beautifully put-together kaleidoscope of other women’s lives in relation to the author, and for demonstrating superbly how the seaming of fact and fiction, of myth and history, has to be part of every family biography.
I’ve also learned a lot about writing from newer family biographies: Patricia Lockwood’s Priestdaddy; Tara Westover’s Educated; and Kerry Hudson’s Lowborn.
You are known as an academic scholar and with this book you are crossing over into a different kind of audience and voice. What are the challenges of that shift and what new opportunities does it offer? What academic crossover writers have inspired you? Which academic crossover writers have you been reading lately?
The main challenge for me is how to get the right balance of research and story: how much, and how, to include the techniques that make me a humanities scholar (critical insight, historical contextualization, cultural analysis), while not detracting from the engaging story that every biography needs to be at the end of the day. Writing this book has certainly been an opportunity to make me a better and kinder writer!
I’m having to be a good deal more selective about what I include of my research, even some of what I consider great finds. I can’t assume that my readers are familiar with my terms or discourse, and I can’t assume that they have the same kind of time I have to commit to a book for the subject alone or whatever the author has to say about it.
Way back when, I was lucky enough to have Nancy K. Miller as my PhD supervisor. Nancy’s work helped initiate the crossover academic biographical mode of “personal criticism.” I have greatly valued her writings, her mentorship, and her friendship over the past 30 years—not least for what it’s enabled me to do in this book.
As a graduate student, I also read the academic crossover work of Patricia Williams and Diane Middlebrook. I have learned, as well, from Marianne Hirsch’s and Leo Spitzer’s seaming of family biography and academic research; and, in teaching my students how to make critical theory intimate and compelling for the reader, I use Maggie Nelson’s writings. You can tell, I think, how crucial feminist writings have been to helping me bridge the personal and the political.
Crossover writers—who are also all family biographers—who I’ve been reading recently are Bart van Es, Philippe Sands, and Mikhal Dekel, who all offer very different approaches to how to balance research and story. Next on my reading list is Hazel Carby’s Imperial Intimacies, a book whose title suggests that it should really resonate for me.
You are also known as one of the key trans theorists, someone who has contributed to how we think about and understand trans identity and identity more broadly. How does your current book build on your previous book? Does it change the ways you understand and theorize identity? Has your work on trans identities been helpful to you in understanding the myriad identity issues at stake in Empire’s Loving Strangers?
This is another great question, and one I only realized surprisingly late on was relevant to my book.
Transformation, transition, and other forms of in-betweenness bridge my work on trans and my more recent work, including this book, which might be said to fall into transcultural studies, an interest in exchanges between religions and between ethnicities, and even what we might call trans-imperial studies (comparative approaches to, and exchanges between, empires).
My family always seems to have embraced transition and transformation: from my Chinese grandmother converting from Buddhism to become a highly valued member of the very traditional Iraqi Jewish community of Singapore; to the earliest family members who left Iraq and adopted the food, dress, music, and languages of India and then Singapore.
My PhD dissertation focused on biographies and autobiographies of transsexual transition. Perhaps one reason I’m drawn to biography is that it’s a great form for capturing transformation in action, in narrative. It also serves to set changes that happen in individuals’ lives against the backdrop of historical change.
Your book uses a reverse trajectory, or what you call a “backwards chronology.” What made you decide to work “backwards” and what are some of the challenges and opportunities of doing that?
Initially, what made me decide to start at the end was that I felt I had to begin with what was most familiar to me. When I tried to write about figures I didn’t know, like my great-grandfather or his ancestors, I found I simply couldn’t put the details in, couldn’t make them come alive for me.
But then, I started to appreciate how a backwards chronology also helps to invert the customary primacy attributed to origins. Origins are conventionally where you start in family biography, and it’s the search for origins that sets so many people off on researching their genealogy.
But the DNA-breakdown that you get back from sites like Ancestry.com surely raises more questions than it answers. How do the different parts of your ancestry match up? How are they related to each other, and how do they relate to you? What’s your story connecting them then, and you now? How are you going to narrate that? And how does what you learn about your origins change you in the future? Finally, can you use the discoveries you make along your journey to help change the crude code of ancestry and challenge assumptions about ethnic origins?
Instead of origins determining subsequent actions and generations, the reverse chronology in my book means that those origins are not a causal starting point but an endpoint I work towards questioning. I read them, I can only read them, in the light of my present moment, through the prism of my own story and of my research finds, framed by my own personality and my own identity.
The inversion of origins, so that they are where we end up rather than where we begin, seemed especially significant in a Jewish context, where the transmission of memory, tradition, and history—“from generation to generation”—is voiced and celebrated at almost every family and community ritual. In my journey back to the Jewish origins, especially in my family biography of Iraqi Jews, I discover that even patriarchs have uncertain origins.
So, Moses (whose story I interweave with that of my grandmother’s childhood, since it runs parallel to hers in so many ways, including being laid by the side of a river in a basket and being raised by a foster-parent), most famously in Freud’s reading, turns out to be an Egyptian who adopted Judaism. And Abraham, the first father of Judaism, who was born in what is now Iraq, became Jewish and was, in effect, the first Jewish convert. He is referred to as such in the Torah, with the Hebrew word that also means “stranger,” and that was used for my grandmother in her conversion to Judaism.
The reverse chronology, in other words, allows me to question the logic of causation not only in family inheritance but also in ethnic and religious descent.
Part of your title is the phrase “loving strangers,” which many of us find particularly evocative at a moment when so many borders are closing and when leaders of both the United Kingdom and the United States are pulling their countries away from the rest of the world and encouraging their followers not to “love” strangers but to fear and despise them. Will your book contribute to the political debates about immigration and if so, how?
In the course of my working on the book, Trump came to power proposing to “build a wall” against immigrants; Britain, stoked by anti-immigrant rhetoric, voted to “Brexit;” and Israel has become an ethnically nationalist state. Countries around the world—including places of my family’s multicultural sojourn such as India—have been pulled in similar, populist, right-wing directions.
So, the more I worked on this book, the more pressing became the demand that we love strangers. I have thought a lot about why loving strangers is the Torah’s most repeated instruction: a fact that many non-Jews might not know and that they might be surprised to discover as so fundamental to Judaism. I definitely hope that in digging out this age-old Jewish mitzvah, and offering a different picture of Jewish belonging via this story, my book will challenge current closed-mindedness about immigrants and strangers.
My book suggests that loving strangers—that is, forming powerful, intimate, and lasting connections with people from different worlds—is the inheritance for all of us who have a family biography entwined with empire. This is a category that includes all of us in the U.K. and the U.S., along with those who inhabit many other, currently nationalist states.
Empire was absolutely built on the back of loving strangers: the ruled subjects of empire, who immigrated to work in the colonies either through choice or force, who inevitably encountered and formed relationships with other stranger-subjects. Family stories have taught me that loving strangers is essential to individual survival and transformation. On it, also, depends our larger cultural, social, and economic flourishing.