We recently published Growing up with God and Empire by Stephanie Vandrick. In this post Stephanie speaks about her experience writing the book as a ‘missionary kid’ herself.
I grew up as a ‘missionary kid’ (child of North American Protestant missionaries) in barely post-Independence India. Little did I know that decades later I would become fascinated by the memoirs of other missionary kids (MKs), now adults, about their childhoods in various countries at various times during the past century, and would write a book analyzing 42 of those memoirs through a postcolonial lens. Writing this book has been a personal and scholarly odyssey for me, bringing together my own missionary kid background, my love of memoirs, and my academic interest in the consequences of colonialism and empire.
At the same time, this topic was a deeply fraught one for me. Some of the questions I struggled with were as follows:
- How do my dual roles as an insider (a ‘missionary kid’ myself) and an outsider (a critical researcher) fit together?
- Can I balance a fair portrayal of the very concrete good that many missionaries, including my own parents, did, on the one hand, with my concerns about deeply problematic aspects of being part of colonialism, on the other?
- Is it appropriate for me to weave my own MK experiences into my analysis of the 42 memoirs?
- Since I have strong criticisms of colonialism, why am I so nostalgic about my childhood in barely post-British India, and why am I so attracted to all things British (afternoon tea, British novels, English accents)?
- How will other missionary kids feel about my book and its thesis? Will they think it is unfair of me to take excerpts from the memoirs of unsuspecting former missionary kids to make points, sometimes negative, about the role and behavior of missionaries in India, China, Nigeria, Brazil, the Philippines, and several other countries? Will they be offended?
I concluded that I had to tell what I perceived was the truth, as revealed during my study of the memoirs and of other sources. At the same time, I had to candidly acknowledge the conflicts and the concerns. I tried to do so throughout this book, especially in my ‘personal epilogue.’
I don’t want to end this post with the impression that researching and writing this book consisted mostly of painfully conflicted feelings and angst! In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in these fascinating MK memoirs, so various and yet with so many common themes and experiences, and in the historical, religious, political, cultural, and linguistic contexts I investigated. The memoirs are intriguing, adventurous, happy, sad, open, guarded, artful, artless, naïve, professionally written, amateur, shaped by their times (mostly mid-20th century), full of engaging and surprising stories, sometimes exhilarating and sometimes heartbreaking. I am happy to have been able to explore and provide a window into the so far very under-examined lives of missionary kids and what their perspectives reveal about the missionary project.
Stephanie Vandrick, University of San Francisco
For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Spirituality and English Language Teaching edited by Mary Shepard Wong and Ahmar Mahboob.