AAS Member Spotlight: Carla Nappi

Return to Member Spotlight page

Carla Nappi, Canada Research Chair in Early Modern Studies and Associate Professor of History, University of British Columbia 

The histories of China, of science and medicine, and of translation; Manchu studies

How long have you been a member of AAS?  

Since 2000

Why did you join AAS and why would you recommend AAS to your colleagues? 

I probably joined AAS as a graduate student for totally uninteresting reasons. (I was probably terrified that if I didn’t join all of the important professional organizations then the cosmos would somehow find out and would tell The People In Charge Of Giving Out All Of The Jobs and things would end badly.) I would recommend it to colleagues now, though, because it’s a great organization that offers lots of support to our colleagues and students…and also because our annual meeting features what is likely to be the best random-Asian-studies-evening-bluegrass-music-fiesta of all of the conferences.

How did you first become involved in Asian Studies? 

Let’s use a Dark Crystal reference to explain this: if Harvard were a podling, I arrived there like a Skeksis intending to drain it of its vital essence. (But in a non-creepy kind of a way.) So I took Chinese and Russian in my first year of college for no good reason at all except that I thought they both looked awesome. Fast-forward to my final year of college, after some very wise mentors had convinced me that maybe I should throw out my plan to be a paleontologist – I was a special concentrator in paleobiology – which would find me doing lots of lab work (which I deeply not-loved) and instead look into the history and philosophy of science. I wound up getting interested in the intersection between language and the life sciences, I had this totally for-no-good-reason-at-all beginning of a Chinese language background, and so I figured, Hey! Why not! Let’s look into Chinese-language-biology things! (At this point I also didn’t appreciate how much more Chinese I needed in order to do the work I wanted to do.) And then I just kept going. And here I am. (And I can still do a serviceable Skeksis impression when called upon to do so.)

What do you enjoy most or what have been your most rewarding experiences involving your work in Asian Studies? 

Oh, I love sharing texts that I’m excited about with other people. I love talking with colleagues and students about what they’re excited about. And I really love talking with authors about the books that they’ve written for the New Books in East Asian Studies (NBEAS) podcast. Right now, hosting NBEAS is one of the great joys of my work in Asian Studies.

Tell us about your current or past research. 

I’m currently finishing a book about translators in early modern China. It’s inspired by the work of Italo Calvino and plays with the conventions of historical writing. I’ve also begun a project that uses Manchu documents about anatomy, materia medica, and the natural world to posit a way of thinking about bodily and material experience as it emerges from relations of proximity and prepositionality: to-ness, with-ness, between-ness, etc.

What advice or recommendation do you have for students interested in a career in Asian Studies?

Try to be kind. Try to be generous. Sleep. Make sure to work on language early and often, but don’t be discouraged if your language skills aren’t yet where you need them to be: just start somewhere and keep putting one language-learning-foot in front of the other. Authorize yourself to read joyfully and promiscuously outside of your discipline. Ask for what you need. And finally, grad school can be a soul- and confidence-crushing experience (not for everyone, but definitely for some of us): when things get tough hang in there, try to maintain your senses of humor and of what’s important to you, and know that lots and lots of us have been there, too.

Outside of Asian Studies, tell us some interesting facts about yourself.

In addition to writing history, I also work in short fiction. One ongoing project imagines four historians of the elements (earth, wind, flame, liquid) and offers up some of the stories they might have written. (You can find them at “The Elizabeths.”) Another takes the form of what I’m calling “Reading Notes”: using a close reading of another work to explode out into a cloud of little fictional worlds inspired by the original book or essay. Other recent writing experiments have ranged from exploring Twitter as a medium for writing about history, to imagining imaged pages of Tibetan script as the setting for a creaturely love story, to using translations of medicinal recipes to create fairytales or theatrical works or to conjure relationships in space and time, to playing with an essay form based on the idea of an exploded view diagram. I’ve recently begun playing more with sonic media, weaving natural landscapes out of Manchu onomatopoeias or exploring the connected arts of DJ’ing and history. I also host two podcasts: New Books in East Asian Studies and New Books in Science, Technology, and Society. And I play clawhammer banjo and theremin very, very badly. 

Nappi, Carla

"Make sure to work on language early and often, but don’t be discouraged if your language skills aren’t yet where you need them to be: just start somewhere and keep putting one language-learning-foot in front of the other."

— Carla Nappi