In the first hors d’oeuvre post about our NEW June issue, we caught up with Katie Edwards to talk about her article on the 1937 Godart mission to Indochina.
Katie Edwards is an Associate Professor of French History at Tulane University interested in decolonization and historical memory. She is the author of Contesting Indochina: French Remembrance between Decolonization and Cold War(University of California Press, 2016).
Hi Katie, thanks for joining us to talk about your new article. What do you think will most surprise readers in what you have to say?
I’m not sure that readers will be at all surprised by the blatant contradictions in the Popular Front’s critiques of empire and its actual approach to colonial governance, though I do hope that they will nonetheless find the study intriguing.
The contortions of Minister of Colonies Marius Moutet to reconcile his longstanding commitment to justice for colonial subjects with his desire to maintain order and sovereignty in an era of intense demands for reform in French Indochina, particularly in its Vietnamese territories, are especially notable. More broadly, the article engages with the Republican left’s expressed desire to extend greater rights (and in some cases, French citizenship) to colonial subjects, and their refusal to acknowledge the mobilization of the colonized as making legitimate claims on the state much as citizens would.
Do you have a favourite example you came across in this work?
This is completely unrelated to the actual material for the article, but while I was doing the archival research in Aix-en-Provence, I came across a folder with a smudge on it and a caption underneath reading “ceci est mon sang” (this is my blood) along with a signature.
Naturally, I wondered about the circumstances that might have led to the perceived need to label such a thing…Was it a fastidious archivist? A bored colonial bureaucrat?
Ewww. So, can we talk about the backstory to the article? How did you first get interested in this topic?
I first came across Justin Godart’s mission report while conducting research for a chapter of my first book, which explores the remembrance of the Indochina War in France. This chapter examines the groups and individuals who have promoted a narrative of the conflict that emphasized its colonial character (as opposed to those who conceive of it as an anticommunist crusade) and Godart’s nephew was very involved in one of the associations I focus on. He spearheaded the publication of the mission report, and worked with prominent scholars of French colonialism Charles Fourniau and Alain Ruscio to make it happen. From there, I grew increasingly interested in not only the Godart mission, but the Popular Front’s approach to colonialism more generally. Full disclosure: after the first book and the challenges of writing about people who were still alive, I was also looking for a new research topic that was less likely to present the same issues.
Are you a ‘plan it all in detail’ writer, or a ‘start writing and see where it goes’ person?
I’m a ‘plan it all in detail’ person until I can’t figure out where I’m going, and then I completely switch modes in the hopes that I’ll sort it out eventually.
Do you have a cure for writer’s block? We ask everyone this question because we live in hope.
See above, though it’s definitely no cure! I usually use a combination of timed writing blocks with breaks in between, scribbling random thoughts furiously by hand when I’m stuck, and throwing in the towel and doing something else entirely when it’s just not flowing.
Who did you get feedback from on the article?
I got feedback early on through a conference presentation and a departmental workshop, which helped me develop new directions for the material. By far the most helpful feedback came from the journal’s editor and the reviewers, who helped me to rethink the direction of the article completely.
What do you think helpful feedback on writing involves?
As basic as it is, having someone summarize the main points and the significance of the piece and communicate it back to you – others will often see things that you don’t, and that can make a world of difference.
What’s the word you can never type right?
Mediterranean – I can’t spell it to save my life in either English or French.
Now we have to double check it in the post. Looks… right? Let’s go with that. And what are you working on next?
This article is part of a larger book project on the Popular Front and French Indochina. The archives of the Guernut Commission (officially the Commission of Inquiry into the Overseas Territories) contain significantly more material generated by colonial officials, settlers, and the colonized than any of the other regions targeted by the inquiry, so there is quite a rich source base.
I’m interested in various components of the French left (political parties, the Human Rights League, Masonic orders, etc.) that shaped the Popular Front’s colonial policies, as well as the mobilization of indigenous activists who demanded everything from reform within the French system to independence.
If you could see one change in academia in the next five years, what would it be?
Since I live in the US, where the Supreme Court has just effectively eliminated race-based considerations in the college application process, the issues of equity and diversity in academia are at the forefront of my mind. I would like to see university administrators actually try to protect their institutions from attacks on these principles.
Éclair or saucisson?
I love both, but I’d trade them for a nice creamy stinky cheese any day.