Books interview: Deborah Brautigam

The political economist and author of Will Africa Feed China? on George Orwell, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and mountain-climbing, wine-drinking Tang Dynasty poets

February 18, 2016
Deborah Brautigam, School of Advanced Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University

What was the first book you loved as a child?
The Road to Agra by Aimée Sommerfelt: a boy and his small sister walk 300 miles across dusty rural India trying to get to a hospital in Agra to save her failing eyesight. It’s got snakes, thieves, tricksters and a loyal dog that can dance on its hind legs. At the end, doctors from Unicef swoop the two kids up in their white jeep. I’m sure it started me on my international development career.

Have you a favourite book about Africa?
Hands down, it’s Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel about a family caught up in the Biafran war. It works on every level: gorgeous writing, gripping plot, characters you can’t forget, complicated real lives lived at a compelling moment in history. I’ve been to Nigeria five times, but this gave me a much deeper understanding of the place.

Early in your scholarly career you studied in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Who was the first writer whose work you read for pleasure in the original Chinese?
I fell for the poets of the Tang Dynasty: Li Po, Wang Wei, Wei Yingwu. They travelled far from their homes, climbed mountains, paddled down rivers and drank a lot of wine. As a foreign student, I could identify with all of that. Their style was to write very short poems that seem very modern even today – a lot easier to read than struggling through English works of that period, such as Beowulf.

Was it hard to cover such a big subject so succinctly in your new book ‘Will Africa Feed China?’
China’s agricultural projects in Africa started in the 1960s. When I published my first book, Chinese Aid and African Development: Exporting Green Revolution, in 1998, there were dozens of Chinese agricultural aid projects to analyse but little investment. Although many believe that China is now leading an effort to acquire land in Africa to grow food to send back home, there is still very little Chinese investment in African farming. Honestly, I thought this book would be even shorter, but in tracking down the tales behind the headlines – solving the mystery of why so many investments didn’t go through – I ended up writing a kind of true-life detective story.

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?
Mary Oliver’s luminous new book of poems, Felicity, to my husband, who is also a professor. We tend to do all our writing shut up in our offices at home, but we have lunch together and we like to read a poem aloud and then talk about it.

What books are on your desk waiting to be read?
Right now I’m reading Thomas Christensen’s brilliant The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power and Ishmael Beah’s novel about Sierra Leone, Radiance of Tomorrow. I have a towering stack beside my bed, including Tom Burgis’ The Looting Machine, Evan Osnos’ Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, and Amitav Acharya’s Whose Ideas Matter? Agency and Power in Asian Regionalism. I just finished two terrific books: Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton and Jeremy Adelman’s absorbing biography of Albert O. Hirschman, Worldly Philosopher. I’d like to assign Hamilton to my governance and democracy students – Hamilton was a genuinely successful state-builder. 

Deborah Brautigam is Bernard L. Schwartz professor of international political economy, School of Advanced Studies, Johns Hopkins University, and author of Will Africa Feed China? (Oxford University Press).

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