Literary Spotlight: Contingent

‘All kinds of history are important – it doesn’t all have to be about the Civil War,’ say the founders of this unique new history magazine.

Contingent
Contingent magazine

In June 2019, the new online history magazine Contingent put out a call for short essays that explore the influential blockbuster film Forrest Gump. “The 25th anniversary of Forrest Gump is nigh,” editors wrote on Twitter. “And for better or worse, it’s how a lot of us learned the late 20th-century US history we didn’t get to in class: the counterculture, Vietnam, Watergate, the AIDS epidemic.”

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Also in June, Contingent editors solicited “research postcards” – four to eight images or two-minute video/audio clips that document contributors’ field research locations, as a way to illustrate the experience of conducting historical studies. As a colorful and appealing magazine geared toward a general audience, it features essays and interviews and reviews, and also short films, poems, and comic strips related to historical events and figures.

“History is for everyone,” says Erin Bartram, who co-founded Contingent with Bill Black, Marc Reyes, and Emily Esten in early 2019. “Some publishers have the idea that only certain types of people like history. Also, the people to whom history is marketed have much broader interests than what’s assumed.”

A comic strip by B. Erin Cole for Contingent
Contingent editors published B. Erin Cole’s “I Am a Historian I Make Exhibits” comic strip in March.

Underscoring that point, co-editor Reyes – in India on a Fulbright grant while he works on his dissertation on the historical relationship between Indians and nuclear energy – published a photo essay on the Sulabh International Museum of Toilets in Delhi in Contingent. “All kinds of history are important – it doesn’t all have to be about the Civil War,” Bartram says.

Tone, editorial content

The magazine’s editors look for submissions that don’t hide the process of historical research but rather “make the process visible and put the historian into the story, especially when the historians don’t look like ‘historians’ – that is white men,” Bartram explains.

As an example, she cites historian and professor Sonia Gomez’s short nonfiction piece “Mr. Kay” (4/25/19), about the author’s research in Chicago’s Japanese American Service Committee Legacy Center and her fascination with one particular immigrant to the U.S. who hoped to return to Japan to buy land, but who died alone and poverty-stricken in Chicago.

The essay, Bartram says, explores the emotional relationships historians develop with the people they study. “That piece resonated with me, made me think about getting to know a person, going through this emotional journey of unpacking their life and putting it back together from lots of sources,” she says.

Contributors

Exhibit developer B. Erin Cole published a comic strip titled “I Am a Historian I Make Exhibits” (3/20/19) about how she designs historical exhibits at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul. “We don’t realize museum exhibits have arguments and evidence,” Bartram explains. “Cole explains what goes into creating an exhibit, and if it’s not working for you, here are some reasons why. What a great thing to give to students before they go to a museum. It’s just spectacular.”

On March 27, 2019, Contingent published culture and travel writer Meher Mirza’s photo essay “Cooking with the Time & Talents Club” (3/27/19), about a Parsi cookbook passed down from generation to generation in Mirza’s family, compiled by the Mumbai-based club and titled, simply, Recipes. She writes:

Although it may not have had the heft of government cultural organizations, the Club was keen on boosting Mumbai’s cultural scene. In 1963 they opened and oversaw the Victory Stall near the Gateway of India, once a culinary landmark, feeding the citizenry with their beer-soaked Parsi lunches and donating the proceeds to the widows and orphans of Indian soldiers.

Edward Guimont, a doctoral candidate at the University of Connecticut Department of History, published “Hunting Dinosaurs in Central Africa” on Contingent’s site (3/18/19). The essay explores 19th century European beliefs that dinosaurs were alive and living in Africa. His piece, Bartram says, opened up a public conversation about the importance of respecting indigenous knowledge.

Advice for potential contributors

Bertram urges potential contributors to study the link on Contingent’s website titled “How to Pitch Us,” which requests a query of no longer than 250 words. “If you’re writing on a topic that’s not seen as interesting from people who market books and articles, you get a complex and have a tendency to over-explain, but not in the way that’s helpful,” she says. “Don’t justify the importance of your pitch from a defensive position; think more about the really cool part of what you study.”

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She suggests that potential contributors consider how they’d tell history to a group of undergraduate students as a story to illustrate a point. “Sometimes, it’s easy, like dinosaur hunting in Africa,” she says. “Other times, you’re writing about archaeologists’ wives in Central America in the early 20th century against a backdrop of the United Fruit Company and exploitative banana farming. Think about how you can juxtapose the weirdness of history.”

She reminds historians that writing for a public audience is very different from writing for a scholarly audience. Contingent editors seek submissions that offer readers a compelling hook – a way to connect the general public with the material, as in Cole’s comic about museum exhibitions or Miraz’s photo essay on an iconic cookbook.

As a scholar passionate about making history accessible to all, Bartram asks visitors who enjoy a particular piece on Contingent’s website to consider forwarding it to one person. “Share it if they don’t think they like history or culture,” she says, “and especially if our society has told them they’re not a ‘history person.’”

 

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Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the author of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens (Sasquatch, 2019). Twitter/Instagram: @WildMelissaHart