Most book milestones are measured in time—six months to deadline!—or word count. For Nicholas Kitto, author of Trading Places: A Photographic Journey through China’s Former Treaty Ports, the pertinent metric was step count: in the process of searching out the subjects for his photographs, Kitto walked 2,784,010 steps in the course of fifty-one different journeys from his home in Hong Kong—which must have amounted well over a thousand miles on foot.
The “diva” is a common trope when we talk about culture. We normally think of the diva as a Western construction: the opera singer, the Broadway actress, the movie star. A woman of outstanding talent, whose personality and ability are both larger-than-life.
Japanese art was a breath of fresh air to the citizens of 19th-century France, whose country was being overwhelmed with rapid modernization and industrialism. The focus on individual craftsmanship and quality stood in stark contrast with mass production, and the simple utilitarian designs were the antithesis of perceived contrivances in European schools of art. Japanese aesthetics quickly permeated all aspects of popular culture, from fashion to theatre to home decor, and assembling collections of Japanese imports became a common pastime for the wealthy elite. This enthusiastic reception and emulation of Japanese art was called japonisme.
Biographies have much to offer as a way into the past. Lives are messy, and avoid neat conclusions about history—frustrating things, they refuse to fit a preconception. Human lives have a complexity that can keep history-writing honest. To navigate subjectivities keeps us alive to the truth that the work of history, too, is subjective.
The Hijaz, that part of the Arabian Peninsula which contains the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, was long subject to imperialism, but not of Western variety: it was instead subject to the Ottomans. Although nominally under Ottoman suzerainty for centuries, it was ironically 19th-century British imperialism that forced Istanbul to attempt to consolidate its control over the region.
The volcanic Jeju Island is now a popular honeymoon destination in South Korea, but has a darker history that has only relatively recently begun to be openly discussed: a little over seventy years ago it was the scene of a massacre. Residents of Jeju had been some of the most ardent resisters of Japanese rule and supporters of an independent Korea. In April 1948, violence broke out when the regime in Seoul started an anti-communist purge in Jeju. In The Mermaid from Jeju, Sumi Hahn has written a novel centered around the massacre and a community of haenyeo, or female deep-sea pearl divers who begin their work as young as age eleven.
In 1480, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, who had conquered Constantinople fewer than three decades earlier, sat for a portrait by the Venetian painter Gentile Bellini. Bellini had been sent to Istanbul to fulfill a request for a “un bon depentor que sapia retrazer”—“a good painter who knows how to paint portraits”. The Sultan apparently wanted his portrait done.