Interview with Minayo Nasiali, UCLA History

Interview with Minayo Nasiali, UCLA History

Minayo Nasiali discusses her recent book, “Native to the Republic: Empire, Social Citizenship, and Everyday Life in Marseille since 1945.”

“Neighborhood space functioned as a particularly useful vantage point from which to explore questions of social rights, citizenship rights, decolonization and modernization.”

By Molly Fee, Graduate Assistant, Center for the Study of International Migration

Minayo Nasiali’s (UCLA History) recent book “Native to the Republic: Empire, Social Citizenship, and Everyday Life in Marseille since 1945” (Cornell, 2016) examines questions of membership, exclusion and the role of the welfare state during the post-World War II reconstruction of France. Nasiali focuses on the role of housing at “a moment when France was trying to reconceptualize citizenship and empire.”

While a graduate student at the University of Michigan, the UCLA historian benefitted from an interdisciplinary learning environment. As she began preparing for her dissertation in 2005, she recounts, “France was experiencing this real moment of urban insurrection.” During this time, Marseille seemed to be the exception, as it did not experience the same level of turmoil as Paris and other cities. For this reason Marseille piqued Nasiali’s interest.

“Marseille seemed to be posing a question that needed answering.” Once in Marseille, Nasiali soon realized the importance of the role of welfare and the welfare state. She approached this topic through housing because, she explains, “Neighborhood space functioned as a particularly useful vantage point from which to explore questions of social rights, citizenship rights, decolonization and modernization.”

Rebuilding France and French nationhood

Her book begins with the immediate post-World War II period, which was a moment of massive reconstruction and rebuilding in France. The country was grappling with “how to rebuild not just infrastructure, but also a sense of Frenchness and nationhood after the occupation and after actively collaborating with the Germans.”

The first part of the book looks at the development of the post-war welfare state and the re-imagining of social rights, while the second part focuses on the post-1973 period following the OPEC oil crisis. In the latter period, she says, “There’s this growing anxiety about the seeming crisis of the welfare state, and this anxiety often manifests through anxieties about so-called immigrants.”

Nasiali’s book simultaneously deals with big questions, such as how modernization intersects with decolonization and “how the grand scaffolding of the welfare state and the institutionalization of social citizenship happened through the creation of the ‘other,’ and through the institutionalization of exclusion.”

Marseille, in her view, frames the book as “an important place to look at questions of migration, empire, and decolonization.” While many studies have focused on social dynamics in Paris, Nasiali says she wanted to know, “What can one find outside of Paris?” — especially regarding notions of center and periphery.

Within the city, she examines the renegotiation of the state’s relationship with its citizens. During the late 1940s, she explains, “There’s a real effort to create an environment where the citizenry could never fall back into fascism and it’s done through the creation of a comprehensive welfare mechanism that included access to education, decent housing, healthcare, and pensions.”

The post-war housing crisis was one factor in these broader conversations about social citizenship. Nasiali observes, “Housing was the most concrete and material of questions [and]… came to symbolize the real need for substantive change.” At the time, activists saw housing as more than just shelter, and advocated for adequate housing as a basic human right.

Her focus on housing allowed Nasiali to examine the construction of citizenship from the bottom up. It is in neighborhoods where residents interacted with one another, as well as with public officials and state institutions. At that level, Nasiali says she explores “how the institutionalization of the welfare state happened necessarily through these local level interactions,” where residents also engaged in practices that fostered exclusion or belonging.

“When you look at the institutionalization of these grand systems from the bottom up, it allows space for ordinary people,” she explains. “It shows how the grand narratives of modernization, the construction of public housing — all of those things didn’t happen in a vacuum. It necessarily happened from below.”

Marseille, 2013. (Photo: C D_Fr, 2013, via Flickr). CC BY-SA 2.0.

Broader themes of race, citizenship and empire

By addressing themes of race and empire in the post-colonial context, her book speaks to broader literatures on immigration and citizenship in France. Nasiali engages with conversations about “how migrant communities have been constructed as marginalized” through public housing and the welfare state.

Her work also speaks to contemporary contexts of immigration in France, particularly her discussion of the 1995 murder of Ibrahim Ali, a Franco-Comorian teenager killed by supporters of the Front National in Marseille. For Nasiali, this incident sheds light on issues of race, religion and difference in the French public sphere.

The themes of her book also extend to issues of immigration and citizenship elsewhere, such as the UK, Germany, and the U.S. It helps, she says, “to de-essentialize some of the common-sense assumptions that are at the root of these anxieties and conversations.”

Looking ahead, Nasiali’s new project will trace the mobility of sailors from French Africa from the 1920s through the 1940s in the shipping industry. Her research will examine questions of empire, technology and expertise to, in her words, “trace the movement of these African sailors within a globalizing economy.”

The UCLA professor is particularly interested in the production of knowledge and how “these sailors often articulated their own ideas about expertise and skill.” Marseille will also feature prominently in this project because it was an important port city during the time period, serving as a crossroads of imperial boundaries.

Nasiali says she hopes to look more closely at the interactions between empires and colonial subjects by exploring “the fungibility of subject-hood and how African sailors understood their subject-status as a tool that wasn’t just defined by the state, but was something that they themselves could wield and even commodify.”


Published: Thursday, October 5, 2017

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