Humanising Historians: Deana Heath

Posted on: 13 February 2024 by Deana Heath in 2024 posts

Deana holding a book on Colonial Terror
Professor Deana Heath holding a copy of Colonial Terror

In this month's Humanising Historians blog, we journey back and forth across the Atlantic, landing in Liverpool where Professor Deana Heath discusses what led to her decision to focus on Indian and Colonial History. Along the way we encounter old sci-fi movies, cakes and outrageous hats.

Where are you from?

I was born on a U.S. Air Force base in Spain, where my parents met (my father was an American G.I., my mother an escapee from a difficult mixed-race, working-class English background). They thereafter spent what little money they managed to acquire moving back and forth across the Atlantic. As a result, I went to almost two dozen schools, in various parts of the U.S.A. and U.K., and so grew up being the weird new kid and a perpetual outsider.  I therefore gravitated to other kids who, because of their race, ethnicity, cultural background, and so on, were outsiders like me. Such an upbringing made me, to borrow from the Malawian comedian Daliso Chaponda, a “citizen of nowhere”. It also gave me an understanding of difference and cultural relativity, and a dislike of exclusivist or hierarchical identities, however they were defined -whether in terms of nation, race, ethnicity, class, or gender.

How does gender fit into this?

Though she left school at 15, and never mixed in overtly feminist circles, my mother was a born feminist, and inculcated a sense of gender justice in me. This was fuelled by the period I spent growing up in Britain in the 1980s, in which misogyny was rife. I had a teacher, for example, who called female students ‘FDUs’, or ‘Female Defective Units’ - which he did to our faces - and denigrated women for, as he put it, never having invented or done anything of note.  My initial response to such treatment was to try to prove I could beat men at their own game, so to speak, which I did by going through the difficult process of gaining admittance to the U.S. Air Force Academy so I could become a fighter pilot. Thankfully the realisation kicked in that I had no desire to pursue such a career path, and I eventually ended up, after a stint in the U.S. Air Force and detours through various universities and degree programmes (including Aeronautical Engineering), studying English and History at the University of California, Berkeley.

How did you end up studying Indian and colonial history?

No one in my family had been to university, or conceived of going, but I was so determined to obtain an education that I essentially left home at 14 to pursue it. It wasn’t until I was undertaking a PhD at Berkeley, however, that I took a class on colonialism and culture, which focused on India. As I’d spent my life negotiating different cultures, the complexities of cultural interaction and exchange between Indians and the British resonated with and fascinated me. Since I was fortunate that Berkeley had a South Asia programme, in which a number of Indian languages were taught, I then started studying Hindi. It wasn’t until, however, a classmate took me to see my first Indian film – Yes Boss (Dir. Aziz Mirza, 1997), starring the global superstar Shah Rukh Khan (of whom, as my latest blog shows, I’m still an inveterate admirer) – that I found my calling. I decided to abandon my focus on British gender history to train as a historian of British imperial and colonial and Indian history.

How did you end up at the University of Liverpool?

I lived, worked, or carried out research in a number of countries during and after obtaining my PhD – in India, Australia, the Republic of Ireland, Canada, Chile, and Mexico – before landing at the University of Liverpool in 2013. I’ve been here over 10 years now, which is the longest I’ve stayed put anywhere. Since my son had already lived in four different countries by the age of 3, I wanted to put down roots for his sake, and Liverpool has been a great place to do that. It’s a very friendly, affordable city with a rich cultural scene and a history that resonates with my own interests. I’ve particularly enjoyed developing relationships with the local South Asia community and with National Museums Liverpool.

Why do you study difficult histories?

I didn’t start out studying difficult histories, by which I mean histories that are sensitive and go against accepted understandings of the past. My first book, Purifying Empire: Obscenity and the Politics of Moral Regulation in Britain, India and Australia, focused on print culture, in particular on the perils of using culture as a colonising tool, as the British did. This is because once colonised peoples could read English and had access to British culture, they could also gain entrée to the bits that the British didn’t want them to have access to, such as ‘dirty’ books – and then use them to resist British rule by turning the tables on the British and accusing them of being corrupt, immoral and degenerate.

Although I enjoyed doing the research for this book, carrying it out took me to over three dozen archives on three continents, and required a number of grants, which I didn’t have the time or capacity to do again. I therefore decided to focus solely on India, in projects on ethno-religious nationalism and globalisation and South Asian governmentalities. I felt a growing concern, however, that historians were being too benign in their critique of British rule in India, not least in their understanding of the role of violence in such rule, which eventually led me to write a book on police torture in colonial India. While this is not easy research to do, particularly in the current socio-political climate, I think it’s important to do it, which is why I’m currently working on a project on sexual violence as a tool of colonial power in India.

What are you currently reading and why?

I became an academic, in part, because I thought it would give me endless time to read and reflect – but finding time to read and reflect is a real challenge. I have a ridiculously long to-read list for my current project, which is something like 54 pages long, so I think we can safely consider that wishful thinking. But my bedside reading currently consists of a stack of books on sexual violence in India, including Mushtaq and et al., Do You Remember Kunan Poshpora, on a mass rape of Kashmiri women by Indian soldiers in 1991, Rupal Oza’s The Semiotics of Rape, and V. Geetha’s Undoing Impunity. It also includes, however, a stack of New Yorker issues, since I’m a devotee of in-depth, long-read journalism (I’m also, for this reason, a big fan of the Indian magazine The Caravan), and lighter fare, like Richard Littler’s, Discovering Scarfolk, a wonderfully dark parody of growing up in the ‘north’ in the 1970s and 1980s and Entangled Life, on the role of fungi in shaping our world.

What kind of TV programmes interest you and why? Any guilty pleasures?

I threw out my TV, literally, a long time ago, because I didn’t like its presence in the house and a lot of the content that came through it. I found that I was simply too busy to do much viewing and felt that life was largely richer without it, and so I never got into streaming, or social media (and only have a phone because it’s seemingly impossible not to anymore). So I’m definitely not in tune with the cultural zeitgeist. My family and I are, however, into old sci-fi movies and TV shows, which we watch, like fugitives from another era, with a projector and screen. The worse they are the more we enjoy them – my latest picks include Teenagers from Outer Space and The Giant Spider Invasion (it scored 1 star on Rotten Tomatoes!). I also watch Indian film releases, whenever I have the chance – we’re fortunate that a decent number of Indian films get released in Liverpool (including, last year, three of Shah Rukh Khan films).

What do you like to do to switch off as a hobby - if you have any?

My son has a passion for natural history, which I’ve enjoyed learning from and facilitating – we’re both avid amateur mycologists (fungi experts) and fossil hunters and go on foraging and collecting trips. I also have an allotment and I enjoy baking cakes with extravagant sugar paste decorations (recent favourite, made in Delhi for my son’s birthday: a ‘parasite cake’, replete with sugar paste tapeworms, mosquito larvae, fleas and more) – which may help explain my taste in outrageous hats. I go on, lastly, fairly frequent protests, although I don’t know that this would qualify as ‘switching off’ or a ‘hobby’.

A cake with shrimp decorations

Deana's 'Parasite Cake' complete with tapeworms, mosquito larvae and fleas.