The University of Iowa

Workshop in Natural Disasters and Public Memory in South Asia Oct. 7-9

October 1st, 2010

Note: This course is already filled.

Workshop in Natural Disasters and Public Memory in South Asia
(152:125: SCA Topics In Global Health)

October 7-9, 2010
International Programs Commons room 1117 (University Capitol Centre)
University of Iowa

Disasters loom large in modern consciousness. As global citizens of a heavily populated planet, we take turns experiencing and then sharing accounts about the destructive effects of natural events like hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, forest fires and floods. No place is entirely immune. In Iowa City alone the town has been stricken in the last 20 years by two serious floods and a small tornado that tore through the central business district. In the same period but on a much larger scale, South Asia has been especially hit hard, although the region has a full record of similar events (not to mention droughts and epidemics) in recent centuries. At one time South Asian disasters occurred in obscurity, and knowledge about them was most often preserved orally and in local memory. In the connected and mediated world of the present, however, the pulse of great human loss and mass dislocation in South Asian countries appears in headlines and newscasts everywhere, and very swiftly.

This workshop focuses on a particular phenomenon that occurs in the unfolding of natural disasters in the present: the opening of a new or blank space for representation and narrative after a disaster. Briefly, this is the space arising between those who directly bear the pain of great losses (i.e. the victims or affectees) and the outsiders who opt to spring forward to relieve, reverse, report, interpret and sometimes exploit the punishing blows of a disaster. These outsiders (journalists, researchers, bureaucrats, political representatives and others) can interpose or frame—whether by accident or by design and simply by virtue of their greater resources and power— their own versions of events. Not surprisingly these versions can become the enduring and most widely circulated public memory of events, even to the extent of infiltrating and altering the affectees’ own memories.

The workshop organizers define “public memory” broadly to mean the interpretations made by local or foreign relief workers and their parent organizations as well as the interpolated tropes and narratives that are launched through print and electronic media. Thus public memory is assumed to be complex in origin, filled with contradictions and stratified in its reception. The speakers who address these issues in the workshop are not confined to South Asian experts but include several whose views about natural disasters have been honed in non-South Asian settings.

Speakers and discussion leaders

Malathi de Alwis, Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, Colombo, Sri Lanka, is a feminist scholar and activist; she also teaches in the MA Program in Women’s Studies at the University of Colombo and was previously visiting associate professor of anthropology at the New School for Social Research, New York. She is the co-editor or co-author of three books, Feminists Under Fire: Exchanges Across War Zones (2003); Casting Pearls: The Women’s Franchise Movement in Sri Lanka (2001); and Embodied Violence: Communalising Women’s Sexuality in South Asia (1996). Her most recent book (co-edited with Eva-Lotta Hedman) is Tsunami in a Time of War: Aid, Activism and Reconstruction in Sri Lanka and Aceh (2009). Dr. de Alwis is also a poet, columnist and short story writer. Contact:

Frank Durham is an associate professor of journalism in the University of Iowa’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. His research focuses on the role of media as a part of social change and on the historical sociology of newspapers and social movements with a focus on the role the news frames in the maintenance of mainstream social values. In a series of focused articles he has investigated the ways in which journalism defined the social meanings of key events in a variety of contexts, including in news coverage of the crash of Flight 800, the 1997 Thai currency crisis, the Katrina disaster, and the Southern labor and civil rights movements. Contact:

Peter Feldstein is an artist working at the intersection of photography, drawing, printmaking and digital imaging. He is also an emeritus professor in the School of Art and Art History at the University of Iowa where he taught for 32 years. With the publication in 2008 of his collection of doubled photographic portraits in a small Iowa town over 20 years (The Oxford Project with narratives by Stephen G. Bloom), Feldstein has become a celebrity among art photographers, historians of place, and the designers of grassroots community projects nationwide. Contact:

Paul Greenough is a professor of history and of community and behavioral health at the University of Iowa, where he teaches the history of modern India, environmental and global health history. He is a co-director of the South Asian Studies Program and director of the Crossing Borders Program. His most recent book is a collection of essays (co-edited with Balmurli Natrajan), Against Stigma: Comparing Caste and Race in an Era of Global Justice (2009). His earlier works include Nature in the Global South: Environmental Projects in South and Southeast Asia ((co-edited with Anna L. Tsing, 2003) and the monograph Prosperity and Misery in Modern Bengal: The Famine of 1943-1944 (1982). He is currently working on a history of American investigative epidemiology and smallpox control in the developing world. Contact:

Harish Naraindas is an associate professor of sociology, Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is adjunct associate professor of International Studies, University of Iowa, and he has visited Iowa City regularly since 2003. He is also a joint-appointments Professor in the Department of Anthropology, South Asia Institute, University of Heidelberg, Germany. His current work revolves around various facets of Ayurveda, bioterrorism, a comparative study of birthing practices in India and the US, and the question of equity in relief in post-tsunami in Sri Lanka. He has published extensively in leading journals on tropical medicine, smallpox, childbirth, and Ayurveda. Contact:

Edward Simpson is a senior lecturer in social anthropology, Department of Anthropology and Sociology, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.
Dr. Simpson received his PhD in Anthropology from the London School of Economics in 2001. He is the editor or co-editor of three collections and is the author of Muslim Society and the Western Indian Ocean: The Seafarers of Kachchh (London: Routledge, 2006). He is particularly interested in the anthropologies of history, religion, and natural disaster in India. At SOAS, he teaches courses on research methodology, migration and diaspora, and the ethnography of South Asia. He is the reviews editor for the journal Contemporary South Asia. He also is co-editor of a series called Society and History in the Indian Ocean published jointly with Hurst and Columbia University Press.
Contact: Edward Simpson

Jennifer Trivedi is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the University of Iowa. She is currently carrying out fieldwork in Biloxi, Mississippi. Her research focuses on pre-disaster vulnerability and on long-term recovery strategies and class status in post-Katrina Biloxi. Contact:

This workshop is funded by the US Department of Education through an Undergraduate Studies International and Foreign Language UISFL grant to the South Asian Studies Program. Other sponsors include the Global Health Studies Program, the South Asian Studies Program, International Programs and the Department of History.