Q&A with Tania Murray Li and Pujo Semedi

AuthorsTania Murray Li is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto and author of Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier, also published by Duke University Press. Pujo Semedi is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Universitas Gadjah Mada and author of Close to the Stone, Far from the Throne: The Story of a Javanese Fishing Community, 1820s–1990s. In their new book, Plantation Life: Corporate Occupation in Indonesia’s Oil Palm Zone, Li and Semedi examine the structure and governance of contemporary palm oil plantations in Indonesia, showing how massive forms of capitalist production and control over the palm oil industry replicate colonial-style relations that undermine citizenship.

What led each of you to plantation research?

Pujo Semedi:

Well it is basically a continuation of my previous research on a fishing community in the north coast of Java where in a matter of decades fishers were able to destroy the natural stock of fish in a fertile marine ecosystem. A precious opportunity to obtain welfare from the richness of mother nature sunk into an abyss. The fishers were living in poverty, the government failed to obtain a sustainable supply of protein to feed its people, and the sea was stripped of its fish.  I found the destruction of the fishery a perfect illustration of what Garret Hardin (mistakenly) called a “tragedy of the commons,” which is more accurately described as a tragedy of open access: anyone could access the resource hence no one took responsibility for protecting it. Both fishers and government officials dreamt of a fish stock cornucopia while in fact living the sad consequences of an open access situation.

My research in the fisheries led me to pose a new question: what happens when resources are highly privatized, owned by a single person or institution? Is privatization a sure way to avoid destruction of resources, as Hardin proposed? A plantation is a large and highly privatized institution in which people make a living from hundreds of hectares of land and an array of machinery that belong to a single company. So I did research on a coffee/tea plantation in Java in 2003-6; the book is not finished yet. And then came this project in 2010.

Tania Li: 

For me the interest started with crop booms which bring dynamism to rural economies. I had studied a spontaneous, farmer-driven cacao boom in Sulawesi and wanted to see what happened in a boom that was driven by corporations. I also became aware that since 2000 the plantation format, which had been in decline, was again expanding massively in the Indonesian countryside. I wanted to understand what that meant in human terms.

How does the contemporary plantation compare to and differ from colonial-era plantations? How does the rise of global capitalism/corporatization affect the ways in which plantations operate today?


The first difference is scale. In the heyday of colonialism there were around 2 million hectares of plantation in Indonesia. About half were located in Java where labor was relatively easy to obtain and the rest were in the east coast of Sumatra, the infamous Deli plantations supported by indentured labor mostly from Java and China. Now there are more than 10 million hectares of plantations and new concentrations in Kalimantan and Papua.

The expansion began in the 1980s when the Indonesian government facilitated capital owners to invest in the countryside, based on the idea of increasing the country’s productivity and the wrong assumption that the area was unoccupied. Now the government knows the land is occupied but implicitly assumes that the people who live there are people of low value whose livelihoods can be sacrificed without compensation or recognition. Officials also assume that plantations grow oil palm more efficiently than local farmers, but that is unproven.

The second difference concerns the actors involved. In the colonial period plantations were sites for European capital; a century later at least half the plantation corporations are owned by Indonesian capitalists, and transnational corporations also have a heavy component of Indonesian ownership. A dozen Indonesian oligarchs are firmly in control. So colonial-era plantation-style capitalism has become Indonesianized.


At one stage in our writing we made a diagram in which we attempted to identify common elements and differences between colonial and contemporary plantations. The labor regime is an obvious place to start. Colonial plantation labor in Sumatra was indentured but in Java plantation workers were always free to come and go, as they are in the plantation sector today, so the difference is less stark than it seems. Plantation infrastructure, technology, layout, housing and hierarchy are almost unchanged.

The most significant difference we identified is in the political milieu. In colonial times plantation owners and managers expected government officials to facilitate their ventures. This is still true today but now government officials and politicians expect to profit from plantation presence, so a much larger set of actors have an incentive to support them. Sadly this expansion of the political field does not make plantation presence more democratic; quite the opposite. It brings the political, administrative and corporate regimes into new kinds of alignment and leaves citizens unprotected. In colonial times Indonesian villagers did not have the rights of citizens; the shocking part is that they do not have these rights now either because the people whose job it is to protect citizens are busy protecting corporations.

We argue that plantations are intrinsically colonial. Not only do contemporary plantation corporations rely on the racialized, colonial “myth of the lazy native” to justify appropriating land and importing workers; they continue to create colonial situations not just economically, as resources are extracted and sent overseas, but politically and socially as well.

The title of your book indicates a focus on plantation “life,” even though plantations, as you argue, operate as machines (a word usually associated with the non-biological) and cause a great amount of destruction and death. What led to your decision to emphasize “life” even so, and how does that shape your project?


This machine of production is operated by people—real people, not theoretical and abstract ones—whose life is structured and shaped by relations set in place by plantations.


Pujo’s response opens towards the ethnographic aspiration of the book. There are many studies of the death and destruction that accompany plantation presence, but so far not much attention to the new sets of relations or what we call the forms of life that emerge in a plantation zone. Plantation presence shapes not only landscapes and livelihoods but also communities and subjectivities, law and government, aspirations and claims. We estimate that around 15 million Indonesians are now living a plantation life, whether as workers on plantations or as residents of the residual nook and cranny spaces between plantations. So what kind of life is it?  Our ethnographic approach is designed to address that question.

What are some of the unique, theoretical concepts your book offers for understanding modern-day plantations?


For me the theorizing followed from an empirical puzzle. I found from my study of plantations in Java that some of them ran at a loss for multiple decades, yet they did not fold. So what kind of entity is a corporate plantation, and what kind of cultural, political and economic relations enable it to persist and replicate?


Theorizing the corporation is one part of our conceptual tool kit. Another is the concept of occupation, and specifically corporate occupation. Again, we devised this theorization inductively from our ethnographic research. I noticed that in the margins of my fieldnotes I had written many times “this is a war zone; these people are at war.” But talking it through with Pujo we came to the realization that war was not quite the right term. It suggests armed conflict, which we did not encounter; indeed we did not see any guns anywhere, as security guards do not carry them and we did not witness any direct confrontations involving armed police. The violence was real but it was built into the infrastructure: the presence of a plantation on customary land; roads designed to transport palm fruit not people; credit schemes that entrap and impoverish; laws that favor corporations.  Violence was also ambient. An early draft had a chapter we called “an uneasy feeling” where we described an atmosphere of strain, resentment, frustration, anger, and anxiety about the future. These are the structures of feeling of an occupied population. Villagers and workers know that the presence of massive corporations in rural spaces produces an unjust situation, but they cannot change it and have to find ways to live with it. This often means collaborating with the occupying force, which leaves a bad feeling. 

Plantation Life draws on collaborative research involving around a hundred students from your two institutions, Gadjah Mada and the University of Toronto. (You speak to your collaborative practices in the appendix to your book, but perhaps you’d like to say a bit for our blog readers.) What was the greatest reward of this collaboration, and what was the greatest challenge?


As a teacher, the greatest reward is seeing how the students learned about plantations as a form of life on site.  They obtained knowledge that I cannot simply teach in a classroom. Some of the students continued further to write their master’s thesis about the plantation; and three students wrote PhD dissertations on palm oil in Kalimantan. The training opportunity was really valuable.  Challenges? It takes some energy to organize a good number of students to work in several villages at the same time. But the students were good in supporting each other, especially in dealing with language barriers.


The big plus for me was collaborating closely with Pujo. We had a partnership in both the fieldwork and the writing, which I found very enriching. As I read the book now, I can reconstruct how we came up with the ideas, the fieldnotes we drew on, and hundreds of discussions, decisions and most of all, revisions! We took the text to pieces and reconstructed it several times, something I’m used to doing with my own writing but I wondered if Pujo would have the patience. It turned out he was equally determined not to settle for something that wasn’t quite right.

Who do you hope will read your book? That is, who is it for?


I hope this book will be read by scholars in agrarian/plantation studies, either for teaching material or input for further research, that in effect will spread critical knowledge on plantations and help us to decide what we are going to do next. I also hope this work will be read by agrarian policy makers for more or less the same reasons, that they will take the message in this book as serious consideration for their further policy in Indonesian agriculture; that they should not see agriculture in a cost-benefit calculus but as a world lived by people, by their own fellow countrymen.


The book addresses topics currently under academic and public debate including new and old forms of capitalist globalization, racialized landscapes, and our changing planet. In addition, I believe the political stakes of the book are quite high. In Indonesia plantation corporations and their government allies endlessly repeat the message that plantations are necessary for agricultural productivity and that they bring development and jobs to remote regions. Transnational development agencies like the World Bank echo this mantra on a global scale. Yet none of them provide credible evidence to support their claims, as if the necessity for corporate domination in agriculture is self-evident.

Our book counters the corporate narrative by exposing the distorted form of development that emerges in a plantation zone: the losses are huge and the gains are not as advertised. It also counters the sustainability fix—the notion that massive mono-crop plantations can be certified “sustainable.”  Even a virtuous corporation that obeys all the rules is still a giant, occupying force. In Indonesia, not only is the domination of plantation corporations over a third of all agricultural land harmful, it is unnecessary, as farmers have shown for three centuries that they are capable of highly efficient production.  We hope that our work will be useful to activists who have been mobilizing against plantation corporations for decades without making much headway. 

Read the introduction to Plantation Life for free and save 30% on the paperback with coupon code E21PLTNL.


New Titles in History

We will miss meeting with authors, editors, and friends of the Press in person at the American Historical Association annual conference, but we look forward to connecting with you all virtually. Until March 31, 2022, save 40% on books and journal issues with coupon code AHA22 when you order on our website. Customers in the UK and Europe can order books with this code from our UK partner, Combined Academic Publishers. You can browse a complete list of books and journals in history here.

Assistant Editor Alejandra Mejía

I am saddened to not be joining folks in person in New Orleans, but I am excited to join virtual sessions and connect with prospective authors digitally. I acquire in Latinx History and I am particularly interested in histories of labor, migration, social movements, pan-ethnic and pan-racial solidarity, and scholarship deconstructing the ways in which we currently understand Latinidad. If you’d like to meet with me to discuss your book proposal, just send me an email at alejandra.mejia@dukeupress.edu. I hope you are all taking care of yourselves and your communities!

Assistant Editor Alejandra Mejía has a brief welcome for AHA attendees.

You can find DUP authors in multiple panels around the conference:

If you were hoping to connect with Gisela Fosado, Joshua Gutterman Tranen, Alejandra Mejía, or one of our other editors about your book project at the American Historical Association annual conference, please reach out by email. See our editors’ specialties and contact information here and our online submissions guidelines and submission portal here.

New Titles in Literature and Literary Studies

We will miss meeting with authors, editors, and friends of the Press in person at the Modern Language Association annual conference, but we look forward to connecting with you all virtually. Until February 28, save 40% on books and journal issues with coupon code MLA22 when you order on our website. Customers in the UK and Europe can order books with this code from our UK partner, Combined Academic Publishers.

Registered attendees can find our listing on the conference website. For all of our newest titles in literature and literary studies, see below for our digital catalog. And browse all books and journals in literary studies here.

Senior Executive Editor Ken Wissoker will be a virtual presenter on the panel, “Getting Your Book Published,” Friday, 7 January at 12:00pm EST in the Marriott Marquis, Mount Vernon Square.

Join Executive Editor Courtney Berger in the virtual panel, “Navigating the Changing Landscape of Scholarly Book Publishing in Literary and Cultural Studies,” Saturday, 8 January at 10:15am EST.

DUP author Elizabeth McHenry will be presenting on her new book in the panel, “Unsettled Genealogies of Black Writing: Elizabeth McHenry’s To Make Negro Literature,” Saturday, 8 January at 3:30pm EST in the Mint Room of the Marriott Marquis.

And you can find other authors on many panels around the conference!

If you were hoping to connect with Courtney Berger, Ken Wissoker, or one of our other editors about your book project at the Modern Language Association annual conference, please reach out by email. See our editors’ specialties and contact information here and our online submissions guidelines and submission portal here.

New Journals in 2022: Agricultural History & Trans Asia Photography

This coming year, we’re thrilled to welcome two journals to our publishing program: Agricultural History and Trans Asia Photography. Both journals will begin publication with Duke University Press in the spring.

Agricultural History, edited by Albert Way, is the journal of record in its field. As such, it publishes articles that explore agriculture and rural life over time, in all geographies and among all people. Articles in Agricultural History use a wide range of methodologies to illuminate the history of farming, food, agricultural science and technology, the environment, rural life, and beyond. The journal includes innovative research, timely book and film reviews, and special features that unite diverse historical approaches under agriculture-related themes.

Trans Asia Photography, edited by Deepali Dewan, Yi Gu, and Thy Phu, is the first and only open-access international peer-reviewed journal devoted to the interdisciplinary exploration of historic and contemporary photography from Asia and across the Asian diaspora. The journal examines all aspects of photographic history, theory, and practice by centering images in or of Asia, conceived here as a territory, network, and cultural imaginary. Bridging photography and area studies, the journal rethinks transnational and transcultural approaches and methodologies. By centering photographic practices of Asia and its diasporas, the journal foregrounds multiple ways of seeing, knowing, and being, which are distinct yet inseparable from other regional formations. The journal brings together the perspectives of scholars, critics, and artists across the humanities and social sciences to advance original and innovative research on photography and Asia, and to reflect and encourage quality, depth, and breadth in the field’s development.

Check out our full list of journals here.

Scholarly Publishing Collective Launches New Journal Hosting Platform

The Scholarly Publishing Collective (the Collective) is pleased to announce that its online content platform is now live, with content from over 130 journals published by Michigan State University Press, Penn State University Press, SBL Press, and the University of Illinois Press.

Through the Collective, managed by Duke University Press, publishers have access to resources that would otherwise be cost-prohibitive, such as a best-in-class web platform, proven customer relations and library relations teams, and a network of global sales agents with insight into university press content. Journals are hosted on the Silverchair hosting platform, which is home to Duke University Press’s publications as well as publications from the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, Wolters Kluwer, and many other distinguished publishers.

Through the Collective’s partnership with Silverchair, publishers benefit from fully responsive journal websites that adapt to any display size and have a user-friendly, easy-to-navigate interface. Features of the platform include support for advance-publication articles; the ability for non-subscribers to purchase access to full issues and articles; the ability to search and filter results across journal, publisher, or Collective content; robust usage statistics; and support for supplemental data files, including media.

“Silverchair is very proud to support the Scholarly Publishing Collective and, through Duke University Press, to support more presses and other mission-driven publishers,” said Sarah Heid, Vice President of Customer Success at Silverchair. “Scholarship and society are enriched by these types of organizations being able to share their content with the world, and we’re honored to be a part of that.”

The Collective platform currently hosts the journals content of four publishers migrating from the JSTOR Journal Hosting Program, which is ending after 2021. All content is temporarily free to access until March 31, 2022. One journal, Real Analysis Exchange, will be hosted on the Project Euclid platform for mathematics and statistics journals.

“Duke University Press has developed infrastructure for our own publishing program that we can share with our fellow UP journal publishers and society publishers to support them at a time when sustaining their journals program is critical to sustaining their overall mission. Through the Collective, the partners expand their ability to disseminate, promote, and increase the impact of scholarship. More than fifteen years of investment and experience and skill-building have gone into being able to do this, and we want to leverage our experience for our Collective partners,” said Allison Belan, Director for Strategic Innovation and Services at Duke University Press.

Learn more about the Collective here.

For more information, contact:
Allison Belan
Director for Strategic Innovation and Services
Duke University Press
allison [dot] belan [at] duke [dot] edu

New Books in January

It’s almost 2022. Ring in the New Year with these books, coming out in January!

978-1-4780-1783-7In Sissy Insurgencies, Marlon B. Ross explores the figure of the sissy as central to how Americans have imagined, articulated, and negotiated black masculinity from the 1880s to the present. 

In Rainforest Capitalism, Thomas Hendriks examines the rowdy environment of industrial timber production in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to theorize the social, racial, and gender power dynamics of capitalist extraction.

In Confidence Culture, Shani Orgad and Rosalind Gill examine how imperatives directed at women to “love your body” and “believe in yourself” imply that psychological blocks hold women back rather than entrenched social injustices.


978-1-4780-1444-7Tani Barlow’s In the Event of Women outlines the stakes of what she calls “the event of women” in China—the discovery of the truth that women are the reproductive equivalent of men, revealing how historical universals are effected in places where truth claims are not usually sought.

In Making Women Pay, Smitha Radhakrishnan explores India’s microfinance industry, showing that despite the rhetoric about improving the everyday lives of women borrowers, the practice is a commercial industry that seeks to extract the maximum value from its customers.

In How Do We Look?, Fatimah Tobing Rony draws on the transnational visual images of Indonesian women as a way to theorize what she calls visual biopolitics—the ways visual representation determines which lives are made to matter more than others.


978-1-4780-1075-3In Warring Visions, Thy Phu explores photographs produced by dispersed communities throughout Vietnam and the Vietnamese diaspora, both during and after the Vietnam War, to complicate prominent narratives of conflict and memory and to expand understandings of how war is waged, experienced, and resolved. 

In Horn, or The Counterside of Media, Henning Schmidgen reflects on the dynamic phenomena of touch in media, analyzing works by artists, scientists, and philosophers ranging from Salvador Dalí to Walter Benjamin, who each explore the interplay between tactility and technological and biological surfaces.

 In African Motors, Joshua Grace examines how everyday Tanzanian drivers, mechanics, and passengers reconstituted the automobile into a uniquely African form between the late 1800s to the early 2000s.


978-1-4780-1762-2In Subversive Archaism, Michael Herzfeld documents how marginalized groups use official discourses of national tradition against the authority of the bureaucratic nation-state state and violent repercussions that can often follow.

In The End of Pax Americana, Naoki Sakai examines the decline of US hegemony in Japan and East Asia and its impact on national identity and legacies of imperialism.

In Ugly Freedoms, Elisabeth R. Anker reckons with the complex legacy of freedom offered by liberal American democracy, identifying modes of “ugly freedom” that can lead to domination or provide a source of emancipatory potential.

In Unintended Lessons of Revolution, Tanalís Padilla traces the history of the normales rurales—rural schools in Mexico that trained campesino teachers—and outlines how despite being intended to foster a modern, patriotic citizenry, they became sites of radical politics.


978-1-4780-1770-7In Diminished Faculties, Jonathan Sterne offers a sweeping cultural study and theorization of impairment, in which experience is understood from the standpoint of a subject that is not fully able to account for itself. 

Edited by Laurent Pordié and Stephan Kloos, the contributors to Healing at the Periphery examine Sowa Rigpa, or Tibetan medicine, and the central part practitioners of Tibetan healing known as amchis play in Indian Himalayan communities and the exile Tibetan community.

In Collective Biologies, Emily A. Wentzell analyzes a longitudinal study of HPV occurrence in men in Cuernavaca, Mexico, exploring how people can use individual health behaviors like participating in medical research to enhance group well-being amid crisis and change.

In Reactivating Elements, edited by Dimitris Papadopoulos, María Puig de la Bellacasa, and Natasha Myers, contributors explore how studying elements—as the foundations of the physical and social world—provide a way to imagine alternatives to worldwide environmental destruction.

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January Events

Our presence at the American Historical Association and the Modern Language Association conferences will be virtual. We can’t make it to the in-person conferences, but you’ll still be able to order at the 40% conference discount on our website.

January 7, 3:30pm-4:45pm EST: If you are at the MLA meeting, be sure to attend the book launch panel for Tani Barlow’s In the Event of Women, featuring Ping Zhu, Ruri Ito, Rebecca Karl, Suzy Kim, Nicola Spakowski, Sharon Wesoky, and Xueping Zhong. [This event has gone virtual. A Zoom recording of the event will be available on YouTube.]

January 8, 2pm EST: Mark Jay and Philip Conklin, authors of A People’s History of Detroit, give a virtual talk hosted by the Marxist Education Project.

January 14, 2:30 pm CEST: Jennifer Morgan, author of Reckoning with Slavery, will lecture in-person at the Centre for Modern European Studies at the University of Copenhagen.

January 24, 1pm EST: Kareem Rabie, author of Palestine Is Throwing a Party and the Whole World Is Invited, is joined by Wassim Ghantous to discuss the book in a webinar sponsored by Columbia University Center for Palestine Studies.

January 28, 1pm CST: David Grubbs, author of Now that the audience is assembled, The Voice in the Headphones, and the forthcoming Good night the pleasure was ours will speak at Rice University’s Moody Center for the Arts about his trilogy in a talk entitled  “Three Experiments in Music Writing.” He will also give a concert later that evening at Sicardi Ayers Bacino Gallery.

We hope to see you at a conference this month or at an online or in-person event!

Fall Awards

We’d like to celebrate our many authors who have earned various awards and honors for their books since July 2021. Congratulations to all of them!

Diabate_cover_frontNaminata Diabate’s Naked Agency: Genital Cursing and Biopolitics in Africa has won the African Studies Association Book Prize, also known as the Herskovits Prize.

Vanessa Freije’s Citizens of Scandal: Journalism, Secrecy, and the Politics of Reckoning in Mexico has won the Eugenia M. Palmegiano Prize from the American Historical Association.

Shana L. Redmond’s Everything Man: The Form and Function of Paul Robeson has won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation.

Kregg Hetherington’s The Government of Beans: Regulating Life in the Age of Monocrops has won the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology Book Prize.

Mahon_cover_frontMaureen Mahon’s Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll has won the Alan Merriam Prize from the Society for Ethnomusicology and the Otto Kinkeldey Award from the American Musicological Society. It has also received Honorable Mention for the Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research from the Association for Recorded Sound Collections.

Several of our books have been named Choice Outstanding Academic Titles from the American Library Association. These honorees are Charles R. Acland’s American Blockbuster: Movies, Technology, and Wonder, Monica Popescu’s At Penpoint: African Literatures, Postcolonial Studies, and the Cold War, Allesandro Russo’s Cultural Revolution and Revolutionary Culture, Abigail A. Dumes’s Divided Bodies: Lyme Disease, Contested Illness, and Evidence-Based Medicine, Samantha Pinto’s Infamous Bodies: Early Black Women’s Celebrity and the Afterlives of Rights, Jeremy Packer and Joshua Reeves’s Killer Apps: War, Media, Machine, Andrew Bickford’s Chemical Heroes: Pharmacological Supersoldiers in the US Military, and Emily J. Lordi’s The Meaning of Soul: Black Music and Resilience since the 1960s.

Max Liboiron’s Pollution Is Colonialism has won the Clay Morgan Award for Best Book in Environmental Political Theory from the Western Political Science Association.

Heyes_cover_frontCressida J. Heyes’s Anaesthetics of Existence: Essays on Experience at the Edge has won the David Easton Award from the Foundations of Political Theory Section of the American Political Association.

Harry Harootunian’s The Unspoken as Heritage: The Armenian Genocide and Its Unaccounted Lives has won the Der Mugrdechian Armenian Studies Book Award from the Society for Armenian Studies.

Alex Blanchette’s Porkopolis: American Animality, Standardized Life, and the Factory Farm has won the Diana Forsythe Prize from the Society for the Anthropology of Work Section of the American Anthropological Association and Committee on the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing. Porkopolis also received Honorable Mention for the Victor Turner Prize from the Society for Humanistic Anthropology Section of the American Anthropological Association.

Saiba Varma’s The Occupied Clinic: Militarism and Care in Kashmir has won the Edie Turner First Book Prize in Ethnographic Writing from the Society for Humanistic Anthropology section of AAA.

Abrego_cover_front_REVWe Are Not Dreamers: Undocumented Scholars Theorize Undocumented Life in the United States, edited by Leisy J. Abrego and Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales, has been named co-winner of the International Latino Book Awards from the Latino Book & Family Festivals.

Kimberly Chong’s Best Practice: Management Consulting and the Ethics of Financialization in China has won the European Group for Organizational Studies Book Award.

Race and Performance after Repetition, edited by Soyica Diggs Colbert, Douglas A. Jones Jr., and Shane Vogel, has won the Errol Hill Award from the American Society for Theatre Research.

Christina Schwenkel’s Building Socialism: The Afterlife of East German Architecture in Urban Vietnam has won the European Association for Southeast Asian Studies (EuroSEAS) Book Prize.

Hagar Kotef’s The Colonizing Self: Or, Home and Homelessness in Israel/Palestine has been named co-winner of the Yale H. Ferguson Award from the International Studies Association. It has also received Honorable Mention for the International Political Sociology (IPS) Book Award from the IPS Section of the International Studies Association.

Escobar_cover_frontArturo Escobar’s Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds has been named co-winner of On the Brinck Book Award from the University of New Mexico School of Architecture + Planning.

Laura Doyle’s Inter-imperiality: Vying Empires, Gendered Labor, and the Literary Arts of Alliance has won the Political Economy of the World-System (PEWS) Book Award from the PEWS Section of the American Sociological Association.

Savannah Shange’s Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness, and Schooling in San Francisco has been named co-winner of the Sharon Stephens First Book Prize from the American Ethnological Society.

Brimmer_cover_frontBrandi Clay Brimmer’s Claiming Union Widowhood: Race, Respectability, and Poverty in the Post-Emancipation South has received Honorable Mention for the Letitia Woods Brown Memorial Prize from the Association of Black Women Historians.

Peter Weiss’s The Aesthetics of Resistance, Volume II: A Novel has received Honorable Mention for the Lois Roth Award from the Modern Language Association. The novel was translated by Joel Scott.

Monica Popescu’s At Penpoint: African Literatures, Postcolonial Studies, and the Cold War has received Honorable Mention for the Scaglione Prize in Comparative Literary Studies from the Modern Language Association.

Christopher Tounsel’s Chosen Peoples was named a finalist for the Christianity Today Book Award in History Biography.

You can purchase any of the above award-winning titles at a 30% discount on our website using coupon SAVE30. Congratulations again to our authors!

Best Books of 2021

We’re always pleased to see our books land on various best of the year lists. Check out some of the great titles that were featured in 2021’s lists.

Pitchfork named Joshua Clover’s Roadrunner to their Best Music Books of 2021 list, calling it “as ecstatic as the music it celebrates.” 

On the International Center of Photography blog, Vince Aletti included A Time of Youth by William Gedney in his list of the top ten photobooks of the year, writing that Gedney’s “queer eye never misses the shaggy-haired beauties and the tender, erotic undercurrent here is Gedney’s signature.” 

The New York Times’s Holland Cotter put the Virginia Museum of Fine Art’s The Dirty South on his list of the best art exhibitions of the year, and the catalog, which we distribute, on his list of the best art books of the year. He says, “The book vividly illustrates and deepens the show’s powerful argument.” Cotter also named Lorraine O’Grady’s Brooklyn Museum retrospective, Both/And as one of the year’s best exhibitions, and said her 2020 book Writing in Space, 1973-2019 was “a vital supplement to the show.” You can catch The Dirty South at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston through February 6 and Both/And at Greensboro’s Weatherspoon Art Museum from January 4-April 30, 2022.

Writing in Bookforum’s Best Books of 2021 feature, Elias Rodriques said The Long Emancipation by Rinaldo Walcott “gave [him] new tools to think with in Black studies.”

Smithsonian Magazine asked contributors to name their best books of 2021 and Joshua Bell, curator of globalization recommended Max Liboiron’s Pollution Is Colonialism, calling it “a beautifully written text that is both a handbook on method and a call to rethink how we live our lives on occupied land.”

Entropy put Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s Dub: Finding Ceremony on its list of 2020 and 2021’s best poetry books. And Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries, told The Art Newspaper that her trilogy, including Spill, M Archive, and Dub, was his best read of the year. He said, “This trilogy, as well as Gumbs’s most recent work, Undrowned, offers fascinating insights into new forms of togetherness—among ourselves and our environment.”

Christianity Today selected Chosen Peoples by Christopher Tounsel as a finalist for its best History and Biography book of the year.

On the Verso books blog, Mark Neocleous selected Christopher Chitty’s Sexual Hegemony as his best book of the year, saying it was “a nuanced rethinking of Foucault’s relation to Marx and Marxism.”

Writing in The Millions about the best books she read this year, Arianna Rebolini said Magical Habits by Monica Huerta was “much-needed reminder that there are countless ways to tell a story, and that a book can be whatever you want it to be.”

If you haven’t already, we hope you will seek out some of these highly recommended books!

The Best Books We Read in 2021

Through the ups and downs of 2021, reading–in a variety of genres–can be just what the doctor ordered. Below, Duke University Press staff recommend some of their favorites. We hope you’ll check them out!

Jones_CorregidoraEditor Elizabeth Ault recommends Gayl Jones’s Corregidora, a book she says she “probably should have read a decade or two ago.” She writes, “Somehow, I never encountered Jones in college or grad school, but I have learned so much in my work here at the Press from and about this formidable text. With all the renewed attention to Jones this fall around the publication of her new book, Palmares, it felt like time to finally correct this oversight. And wow, the book was just beyond powerful. And it’s given me a newfound appreciation for the amazing Black feminist work that has taken Jones up as a theorist of gender for generations.” She adds: “On a very different note, this was also the year I discovered reading books on my phone via the Durham Public Library’s Libby app as a wonderful alternative to social media scrolling, so I also read a LOT of sanity-saving romance this year; shouts out to Talia Hibbert, Jasmine Guillory, Helen Hoang, and Casey McQuiston.”

Good MorningCopywriter Christopher Robinson suggests Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton. He writes, “This beautiful heartbreaker was recommended to me by DUP’s own Cason Lynley (Director of Marketing, Sales, and Finance). It takes place in the immediate aftermath of an undisclosed global apocalyptic calamity and it follows the story of an astronomer who decided to stay behind when his arctic science station evacuated and the crew of a spaceship on its return voyage to a suddenly quiet Earth. As its story lines begin to converge, the novel tackles some biggies: the choices we make in our lives, regret, missed opportunities, and what remains valuable at ‘the end.'”


Know My NameJocelyn Dawson, Journals and Collections Marketing Manager, recommends Know My Name: A Memoir, by Chanel Miller, which was the Duke University 2019 Common Experience Summer Reading Program pick. “The story of the sexual assault survivor known as Emily Doe, whose victim impact statement addressed to Brock Turner went viral, Know My Name was published to critical acclaim and topped many best-book-of-the-year lists. Miller draws you into her life, her experience of sexual assault, and her navigation of the justice system in a way that is riveting, relatable, and incredibly vivid.”


Razorblade TearsProduction Coordinator Erica Woods Tucker recommends Razorblade Tears by S. A. Cosby. “Razorblade Tears turns the buddy/crime/revenge genre on its ear and tells a story of two imperfect fathers trying to make up for years of neglect by finding the men who murdered their sons. It’s an intense book filled with pathos and energy that is really remarkable. There’s violence in this story, but Shawn uses the violence to make Ike and Buddy Lee tools of redemption. It’s on a lot of ‘best of’ lists this year and is totally deserving of every accolade. I think you’ll really enjoy it.”



The DeliveryCustomer Relations Representative Alex Brown recommends The Delivery by Peter Mendelsund. “In The Delivery,  Peter Mendelsund uses fiction as a vehicle to explore ‘gig economy’ labor through the lens of a worker who delivers food to wealthy city-dwellers on a power-assist bicycle. The reader is led through a world of omnipresent labor-surveillance, all-powerful phone app ratings, and a corporate machine in which the main character is trapped. Mendelsund interrogates some of the more pressing questions of our time­–global citizenship, labor exploitation, oppressive technologies–by humanizing a narrative that’s often reduced to news headlines and/or statistics. A relatively quick read that offers insight into a world that often lives in the shadows.”


Leave the WorldAmy Buchanan, Director of Editing, Design, and Production, was struck by Leave the World Behind, by Rumaan Alam. She writes: “The promise of Rumaan Alam’s ‘insufferable family’s air B&B vacay goes wrong’ was too juicy to resist. But what I got instead was so much better, and it has lingered with me all year. White NYC couple Clay and Amanda’s unquestioned liberal identities are put to the test when an unknown Black couple shows up at their vacation home’s door late one night, seeking refuge from a mysterious, potentially apocalyptic, disaster. What follows is a slow, beautifully wrought unraveling of some tightly wound people. The familiarity of these families’ political, race, gender, and class identities are punctured by Alam’s sharp observations, and the two adolescent characters are unforgettable as well.”

Actual StarMarketing Designer Dan Ruccia suggests The Actual Star by Monica Byrne. “This is a difficult book to describe briefly. It encompasses three interconnected storylines spanning 2000 years from the end of a Mayan royal lineage in the 11th century to a radical, post-climate change future. Despite all that complexity, Byrne’s writing is rich and engaging and, like Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia E. Butler, raises lots of big, fascinating questions about how we’re all connected.”



UnaccustomedStaff Specialist Bunmi Fatoye-Matory recommends Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. Bunmi writes: “It is a deeply engaging fictional story about the physical, emotional, and psychic dislocations of professional Bengali-Indian immigrants in America. I identified with it strongly because I am an immigrant, and this is really an immigrant story of the sort not usually seen in the media or movies. It is also a universal human story of anyone who has ever felt alienated and disoriented in new situations.”



Project Hail MaryFinally, Digital Content Manager Patty Chase says the most memorable book she read this year was Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir, author of The Martian. She adds: “This book is very different from that one, but no less entertaining. Lots of science, but plenty of humor to keep me from zoning out. A fun ride!”