Anthropology, History, UCP News

Meet Mary Al-Sayed, Our New Editor for Anthropology & History

We’re excited to welcome Mary Al-Sayed, who recently joined the Press as editor in the Books Division, acquiring new titles in anthropology and history. Mary comes to us from Palgrave Macmillan, where she was senior editor for anthropology, sociology, and migration studies. Ordinarily, we would look forward to introducing Mary in person at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), where you’d have the opportunity to chat with her directly about her interests.

Alas, here we are. AAA will be virtual, as will our booth. But we didn’t want you all to miss the chance to get to know Mary, so we’ve put together this little Q & A.

Enjoy the interview, and then click through to our Virtual AAA booth to browse the latest, best books in the field, which are available for 40% off with free shipping. We’ll look forward to seeing you in person at next year’s AAA!

What are you looking for in a book, and what kind of project gets you excited?

I approach most proposals with a really rude question in mind, one that my mother forbade me from asking around second grade: “So what?” (Yes, I was an obnoxious child.)

Most proposals an editor considers contain some sound scholarship, but we’re not looking for just technically publishable research. Even when a book contributes most directly to a particular discipline or sub-discipline, I also hope to see the author grapple with a big-picture question that, in the case of the most ambitious books, resonates with core concerns in the humanities and social sciences. Even the most specific case study or ethnography has a “so-what” at its heart, but an exciting book brings it forward with ease, intermingling broader conversations in theory and practice with its own realm of study.

Much of an editor’s initial work with a proposed book will be bringing forward this larger question, so it’s not necessarily a project’s death knell if it’s not immediately there, especially if the field of study is of interest in and of itself. But when you run into a proposed book or manuscript that’s anticipated the question and holds up to even the most irritating second grader’s litany of “So what? So what? So what?”—that’s a winner.

What topic do you hope to never see another proposal about?

I’m struggling with this question! There are certainly academic clichés and tropes that feel a little played out, but sometimes, a new approach or fresh voice can completely reinvigorate even something that feels tired.

I’ll take this opportunity to instead say something that I hope to never see in another proposal, which is answering a question about competing or comparative books with the line, “There is no other book doing this work.” Argh! Even if your work is completely unique, surely it exists in a trajectory of published works on which you can elaborate. If not… that’s a little worrying.

In your previous acquisitions work, what book are you particularly proud of that speaks to your approach as an editor, and why?

The first book that comes to mind is actually yet to publish (maybe that’s why it’s still so fresh!): Rebecca Gibson’s The Corseted Skeleton, which will issue later this year from Palgrave Macmillan. Part of what makes Rebecca’s book so memorable is the developmental work we put into it from the start. The second I saw the subject, I knew we had to try and publish it as a trade-crossover book, but it’s harder than it seems to marry up bioarcheological skeletal data and archival research on corseting in a way that might appeal to, say, contemporary fashion studies students! I credit Rebecca’s patience and dedication more than anything else, but we went through multiple revisions of the proposal and manuscript to get the structure and tone right—which we did ultimately successfully, I think.

For me, it’s a great example of really going to bat for a project as an editor: it was an unusual approach for Palgrave’s anthropology list, from a young academic, and as a trade-crossover—it was a stretch, in a lot of ways! It doesn’t always work out as cleanly as this did, but one of the best parts of being an editor is trusting your instincts when it comes time to push the boundaries of publishing norms.

When you’re not reading book proposals and manuscripts in your field, what kinds of books do you enjoy reading?

In normal times, I read a lot of contemporary literary fiction, mostly whatever the Booker Prize tells me I should have been reading that year. This year, though, I’ve had trouble concentrating on anything grounded in this world, so I’ve been returning my teenaged literary diet of sci-fi and fantasy. I’ve been doing a lot of re-reading, but new favorites include Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, the first two books of Ken Liu’s unfinished The Dandelion Dynastytrilogy, and some Octavia Butler I’d never read.

Now that I’m adjusting to our “new normal” and reading more broadly, up next is Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom (loaned to me by a patient friend) and the Hilary Mantel trilogy. History is also a new field for me, so I need to start up a nonfiction reading list in world history especially.  

What have you done to keep sane and focused during the pandemic? Any new hobbies or forms of cultural engagement?

I’ve been doing a lot of walking. Pre-pandemic, this would have been the time to spend weekends outside of New York City, where I’m based until next year, to hike and enjoy nature upstate. I’ve instead put all that energy toward discovering every single street in a 100-block radius of my home in Park Slope. I’ve uncovered some architectural gems, weird abandoned factories, and a feral cat colony, so I can’t say it’s been a waste.

I’ve also been working my way through every Chicago-based movie I can find in an effort to prepare for my move . . . so now I know what a backdraft is. 

It’s been a while since any of us has gotten to attend an academic conference. What do you miss about them? (We know what people don’t miss: Weak coffee, too-warm conference rooms, the question that is more of a comment . . . )

I’m sorry, which conferences had too warm of rooms? Send me there, please. My greatest conference struggle is how to look put-together while also wearing my puffer coat.

Most of the core conference activities, like attending panels or reaching out to scholars with interesting papers, can be at least imitated digitally. Sometimes a pale imitation, sure, but close enough, really. So, I find myself missing the casual chatting more than anything else. Sending an email right now is so fraught—am I just adding to someone’s already over-full inbox?—and video calls have a certain hyper-attentive formality to them that makes it difficult to relax and just socialize—it always feels you should have come with an agenda!

At a conference, though, removed from the immediate pressures of one’s inbox and teaching and all the rest, a casual run-in at a panel can turn into coffee or a meal, and before you know it you’ve accidentally told someone your whole life story (anthropologists are particularly good at this…). 

Usually, an editor’s first conference in a new role is a big chance to shake hands and wave the flag. What’s your version of doing that without the in-person component look like?

I wish I had a clearer idea of how to substitute for that, but I think like all conferencing activities in the “new normal,” this is going to be a lot of trial-and-error.

For AAA, the conference has given us a virtual exhibit space that includes a video chat option, so I’ll be monitoring that in case folks reach out there, which I hope they do. I also plan to be much more engaged on social media than I usually am, trying to replicate some of that casual conversation I’ve been missing via Twitter. We’ll see how that goes! (If you’d like to follow along, I’ll be tweeting from @maryalsayed.)

One big advantage to going virtual is simply that I can attend more panels this way, of course, and without feeling guilty that I’m not minding the booth. So who knows? Maybe this will be an even better way than business-as-usual to get to know great new work in the field.