By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
Tu: Fashion and Beauty ‘Beyond What’s In, What’s Out’Today (February 14), we reach the most compact moment in the annual PROSE Awards from the Association of American Publishers (AAP), when instead of 106 finalists in 39 categories, the program reports out four super-category “Excellence Awards” and the winner of the top prize, the R.R. Hawkins Award.
Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu, has won the Hawkins for her April 2021 release, Experiments in Skin: Race and Beauty in the Shadows of Vietnam from Duke University Press. Tu is a New York University professor in the department of social and cultural analysis.
It’s an intriguing selection for this year’s win, not least because Tu’s work connects social, historical, and political realities with concepts and impressions of fashion, beauty, and self-image in cultural development. This isn’t the first direction you might expect scholarly analysis to take you. And so it is that the PROSE Awards have again healthily challenged popular expectations of competition in academic work.
- You might recall that last year’s Hawkins win went to Simon Martin’s Ancient Maya Politics: A Political Anthropology of the Classic Period 150–900 CE from the United Kingdom’s Cambridge University Press
- And politics of a much more contemporary kind were at issue in 2019, when the Annenberg’s Kathleen Hall Jamieson warned publishers of a new “Library of Alexandria moment” in Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President from Oxford University Press
Tu works even farther from staid, hackneyed ideas of lecture-hall tedium.
Before the publication of her first book in 2010, she told Minh-Ha T. Pham for Threadbared—”an evolving collaboration between two clotheshorse academics”—a bit about her family’s losses in the Vietnam War.
“My mom didn’t buy a stitch of clothing for herself and she always looked phenomenal,” Tu said. “Everything my mom owned when I was younger—like, our first five years in the US—was given to her from the church that sponsored us [in Avon, Connecticut]. I remember this green shift dress she had with black piping . . . she always looked like a total class act.”
Tu also talked in that interview about the potential of fashion as a vortex of scholarly study: “It has this significance. If we’re able to look at fashion beyond ‘what’s in, what’s out’ we’re able to see how it drives economic development, shapes identities, mobilizes consumer desires.”
Duke’s promotional copy for Experiments in Skin gets at what Tu is doing.
The book, Duke’s description makes clear, “examines the ongoing influence of the Vietnam War on contemporary ideas about race and beauty.
“Framing skin as the site around which these ideas have been formed, Tu foregrounds the histories of militarism in the production of US biomedical knowledge and commercial cosmetics.
“She uncovers the efforts of wartime scientists in the US Military Dermatology Research Program to alleviate the environmental and chemical risks to soldiers’ skin. These dermatologists sought relief for white soldiers while denying that African American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians were also vulnerable to harm.
“Their experiments led to the development of pharmaceutical cosmetics, now used by women in Ho Chi Minh City to tend to their skin, and to grapple with the damage caused by the war’s lingering toxicity. In showing how the US military laid the foundations for contemporary Vietnamese consumption of cosmetics and practices of beauty, Tu shows how the intersecting histories of militarism, biomedicine, race, and aesthetics become materially and metaphorically visible on skin.”
Wissoker: ‘What the Humanities Should Be’
If you’re interested in knowing more, the NYU Center for Humanities has a piece from Sughnen Yongo-Okochi on how Tu had planned to write a different book. “I originally thought that I would go to Vietnam and study the cosmetology and beauty industry there,” she says in the article, “but what I came to find out was that a lot of the history of what the Vietnamese endured during the war was narrated through their skin, and I call these skin memories.”
Tu is also the author of The Beautiful Generation: Asian-Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion, another Duke University Press title (2010).
In that book, Tu looks at Asian-American designers in New York City’s fashion industry, some of the major influencers being Derek Lam, Jason Wu, Thakoon Panichgul, Alexander Wang, and Doo-Ri Dhung. As Duke’s copy has it, Tu’s research “links the rise of Asian-American designers to historical patterns of immigration, racial formation, and globalized labor, and to familial and family-like connections between designers and garment workers.”
Tu has co-edited three books: For Duke, Alien Encounters: Popular Culture in Asian-America (2007); and for NYU Press, Fashion and Beauty in the Time of Asia (2019) and TechniColor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life (2001).
In comments on Tu’s Hawkins-winning Experiments in Skin, Duke University Press senior executive editor Ken Wissoker is quoted, saying, “It was a special privilege to work with Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu on this book, a brilliant reimagining of what the humanities should be.
“Archival, ethnographic, scientifically curious, and visually astute, Experiments in Skin links crucial moments in United States and Vietnamese histories in a palpably human way.
“The book’s insights, commitments, and methods exemplify scholarly writing and speak to the importance of the Duke list and of university press publishing overall.
“I could not be more grateful to the AAP, the PROSE Award program, and its judges for recognizing the way the most important ideas and the best thinking come from a wide range of authors and presses. It’s a special honor for this award to be given to this book and to Duke University Press.”
And speaking for the PROSE program, chief juror Nigel Fletcher-Jones of the American University in Cairo Press says, “Every so often a PROSE Award submission comes along that shouts out to the judges, ‘This is a story that absolutely needed to be told,’ and Experiments in Skin: Race and Beauty in the Shadows of Vietnam by Professor Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu at NYU is one of them.
“In this case, the book clearly illustrates Faulkner’s famous line, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’
“Experiments in Skin is a finely written amalgam of ethnography, military history, chemistry, and biomedicine that illuminates the links between the substantial modern day ‘cosmeceutical’ industry in Vietnam; the Vietnam War and its continuing toxic aftermath in the form of dioxin in the food chain; and the racist history of dermatological experimentation in both the US and Vietnam that occurred around that war and continues to resonate to this day.”
Those of us who enjoy following this program for “professional and scholarly excellence”—the source of the acronym PROSE—will be doubly pleased to learn that Experiments in Skin has a paperback edition available, priced by Duke at a very affordable US$25.95. The hardcover is priced in the more typical range for a scholarly title, $99.95. And that’s still a steal compared to the 2020 Hawkins winner, Carmen C. Bambach’s magisterial Leonardo da Vinci Rediscovered from Yale University Press retailing for $550.00.
PROSE Excellence 2022 Winners
There are four rather than five super-category PROSE Excellence winners. A fifth super-category, in reference works, this year was essentially distributed among pertinent topical categories, of which there were 39.
These four books, then, are the top super-category winners:
Humanities and R.R. Hawkins Award Winner
- Experiments in Skin: Race and Beauty in the Shadows of Vietnam, Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu, Duke University Press
Biological and Life Sciences Winner
- Global Health Security: A Blueprint for the Future, Lawrence O. Gostin, Harvard University Press
Physical Sciences and Mathematics Winner
- Atlas of Forecasts: Modeling and Mapping Desirable Futures, Katy Börner, The MIT Press
Social Sciences Winner
- Halfway Home: Race, Punishment, and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration by Reuben Miller, Little, Brown and Company
In speaking about all of today’s announced winners, Syreeta Swann, AAP’s COO, is quoted, saying, “We’re proud to announce that the RR Hawkins Award goes to Duke University Press for Experiments in Skin: Race and Beauty in the Shadows of Vietnam by Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu.
“We also congratulate Duke University Press; Harvard University Press; Little, Brown and Company; and The MIT Press for winning this year’s Excellence Awards for their exceptional titles.
“Together, these top honorees reflect an extraordinary level of academic achievement and cultural insight, illustrating that scholarly publishing continues to be an essential force both in academia and the culture at large.”
During the 2022 PROSE cycle, more than 560 works were nominated for review by a panel of 24 jurors.
More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.