Guest Post by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

University of California logoIn this fast-changing, increasingly interconnected world, it’s difficult to stay an informed global citizen. To remain on top of things, you need a strategy for swiftly getting up to speed whenever parts of the world you previously knew little about begin making headlines, as Haiti did last year and countries of North Africa have in 2011. I’ve found that one useful strategy, whenever a new setting commands attention, is to come up with the name of someone with a demonstrated ability to write about the locale in an effective, accessible, concise and informed manner—and because life is too short to read boring or inelegant prose, is also an engaging stylist. Then I go online to see if the author has written anything on the topic of the moment. Most recently, this approach led to a morning spent scouring the web for new commentaries by Laila Lalami, a Moroccan writer who I had heard say fascinating things about North Africa at a 2008 public event, and then devouring and learning from smart essays on Tunisia and Egypt she had written for the Guardian and the Nation. In 2010, a similar process led me to a crash course on contemporary Haiti, courtesy of Amy Wilentz, the author of an important 1990 book on that country who went back to it after last year’s earthquake and wrote about the experience for the Los Angeles Times, the Huffington Post, Time Magazine and the New Yorker.

You can do the things I’ve just described doing from any place in the United States, of course, but there’s something special about turning to Lalami and Wilentz for edification if you happen to be a Californian: each is not just a world-class writer, but also someone who is employed by this state. If you attend UC Riverside, where Lalami teaches in the Creative Writing Department, you can go from reading her essays to signing up for one of her courses. Likewise, if you go to UC Irvine, where I teach, you can take a course with Wilentz, who is in our unique Literary Journalism Program. And if you aren’t a UC student, simply living in the state increases the likelihood of catching a free public event featuring one of them. Wilentz recently spoke at Pitzer College, for example, and this week will be a presenter in an Irvine Lifelong Learning series. Lalami spoke at the Los Angeles Public Library last year and at UCI the year before that. Both are also regulars at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

Lalami and Wilentz are unusually gifted and insightful writers, but they are hardly unique in being University of California professors who are committed to conveying what they know about issues in the news to broad audiences—and do this with panache. … Read the full article at the Huffington Post.

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine and the Editor of the Journal of Asian Studies. He is the author and editor of many books, including China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press) and Chinese Femininities/Chinese Masculinities (UC Press).