- Nothing to Write Home About: British family correspondence and the settler colonial everyday in British Columbia by Laura Ishiguro
By Laura Ishiguro. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2018.
In Nothing to Write Home About, Laura Ishiguro works with more than two thousand letters from dozens of colonial families to chart the ways that "British people came to understand a familiar everyday in a once unfamiliar place" and "made feasible and imaginable long-term individual and collective belonging in British Columbia" (147). The book is divided into three parts that move from more general themes to specific case studies. At the same time, Ishiguro experiments with shifting from a more formal to a more personal analytical and authorial tone. The first section focuses on the pitfalls, opportunities and complexities that came with a reliance on letters and the post as constitutive elements of transimperial families and communities in the nineteenth-century British Empire. Part Two addresses aspects of the settler everyday, including "imperial boredom," food practices and other aspects of daily life as they were communicated in family correspondence and used to simultaneously normalize the unfamiliar and erase Indigenous peoples. The final section focuses on case studies that show how transimperial families were structured and reconstituted through death, rupture and epistolary gossip. Each chapter's themes are brought together in a coda that, as in musical contexts, serves as a conclusion while also adding to the structure itself, in this case through personal reflections that draw out additional insights.
Ishiguro addresses the challenges of situating families, both in the past and one's own, within studies of colonialism. The author's opening acknowledgement letter should be read as a part of the text itself that lays out the importance of place, post and relations, and engages with the politics of citation in academic writing. This study explicitly does not exist in isolation from its author's personal and academic journeys, and is so much the better for it.
Ishiguro's historiographical contributions in Nothing to Write Home About are varied and significant for a number of fields of historical inquiry. Experimentation with shifting authorial voice and frames of analysis demonstrates the different ways that historians can approach letters as objects and archival sources. Ishiguro explicitly states the methodological choices that informed this work, and pays attention to the particularities of the post, the archive, class, race and mobility in shaping the records that survive and the stories that can be told. Ishiguro approaches the families in this study with care and understanding without downplaying their importance to the colonial project that became the Dominion of Canada and the ways they enacted and benefitted from settler privilege in colonial power structures.
One of the key methodological interventions of this study is Ishiguro's challenge to the dominance of intimacy as a category of analysis, and at times the conflation of intimacy and family, in literature focused on colonial families. Familial connections were experienced across geographic and affective distances. Letters and the post could forge and maintain bonds, or be the source of intentional or unexpected strife or estrangement. Ishiguro asserts, "Family relationships could also be defined by and maintained due to the refusal of intimacy, crafted by strategic silence, and guarded through cultivated ignorance" (185). Ishiguro also demonstrates the importance of taking a more inclusive view of families that includes family of origin alongside relatives through marriage.
Throughout this study, Ishiguro is frank and self-reflexive about the pragmatic and methodological choices that underpin this study, and the archival realities that impacted the genus of this project. In one instance, we find that the author had to decide how to approach the donation of a previously unknown collection related to one of the families under study (the family of Michael and Rowena David Phillips), which was still being accessioned and catalogued at the Ktunaxa Nation Council Archives as the project came to completion. Ishiguro provides valuable insights for graduate students in particular, by shedding light on the labour, circumstances and considerations that are foundational to the historian's craft, yet so often go unremarked...