While an undergraduate at Princeton University, when Caroline M. Elkins informed her parents that she would be majoring in African history, they were “a bit horrified.” A professorship at Harvard and a Pulitzer later, the Elkins are probably glad their daughter did not major in economics.
But the Foster associate professor of African studies has never been one to back down from pursuing her goals.
In just one year as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Elkins wrote, edited, and published a nearly 500-page tome entitled “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya.” The then-assistant professor’s first book would garner her a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.
“She was here all the time, seven days a week—I’d come in on the weekends and there she’d be at her desk,” says Judith E. Vichniac, director of Radcliffe’s fellowship program. “She’s somebody who really put her nose to the grindstone.”
Elkins’ academic safari began in 1989 when she touched down in Namibia to teach English.
“I knew almost immediately that this was my future when I got off the plane,” the Africanist remembers.
After a trip to Kenya the following year, Elkins could not be kept out of Africa. The next decade would include frequent trips and a year-long stay as a 1989 Fulbright scholar.
It was not a wealth of information, but a paucity, that drew Elkins again—and again—back to Kenya. While researching social changes among Kikuyu women from the pre-colonial period to independence for her thesis, the Princeton senior learned of a detention camp for women during the 1950s Mau Mau Revolt, a failed insurgency movement that set the stage for Kenyan independence. But there was no secondary literature.
Elkins handed in her thesis and decided that if she ever went back to graduate school, she would investigate these detention camps.
Following a brief stint on Wall Street, Elkins arrived in the Yard to begin her graduate studies in history and the search for an untold story.
While most research relies on existing records, Elkins’ project was propelled by gaps in the record.
Encountering destroyed files and a government-imposed 50-year silence, Elkins realized the immensity of the cover-up.
“This was an enormous story, not just in terms of politics and nation-building in Kenya but in terms of individual lives and communities,” she says.
For countless hours, Elkins sat with survivors’ descendants in conversations that would end either with interviewees opening up or refusing to divulge.
“I was frankly just determined to uncover the story,” Elkins says. “When you’ve set your sights on something like that, other things—however minor or major—seem much less important.”
FACT MORE STRIKING THAN FICTION
While the history she studies is patchy, Elkins’ career is a consistent portrait of hard work. Even before her find on Kenya, she had always loved stories.
“I liked to read and would be up at night with a flashlight,” says Elkins, who read historical fiction such as “Johnny Tremain.” Elkins’ attempts at nonfiction storytelling began with a grade-school research paper on the Underground Railroad, her “first voyage of discovery in terms of reading and researching.” By middle school, Elkins was writing regularly.
“History is in many ways about good storytelling,” the acclaimed history-teller says. “Analysis is a combination between good storytelling and analyzing the past....The combination of the two is really what keeps me going.”
Elkins’ intellectual passions come across in her teaching.
“She just has boundless energy,” says Bethany L. Hoag ’06, who took Historical Studies A-21, “Africa and Africans: The Making of a Continent in the Modern World,” taught by Elkins. “I left lecture every time with my hand hurting.”
In the History Department, Elkins “engages in all kinds of issues...and is not afraid to speak out on them,” says Chair Andrew D. Gordon ’74, who adds that Elkins’ book was “interesting and accessible to a large audience,” which is not easy to do, especially on the first try.
MORE TO GO
Lying amidst her backpacks from a recent trip to the Oral History Center she co-founded in Kenya, Elkins’ Pulitzer is not a crowning achievement but further testament to her mantra of hard work: The scholar is cranking out a sophomore publication that will examine the fall of the British Empire after the Second World War from the periphery.
The Kenyan government honored her in a reception during Elkins’ latest visit to Kenya, but she knows that her storytelling provokes plenty of not-so-celebratory reflection in Britain.
“I don’t have too many fan clubs over there,” Elkins says with a laugh.
‘JUST A MOM’
Outside of Harvard, Elkins’ children keep her busy.
“Sometimes you really feel like you’d like to be in two places at once,” the mother of two says. “At the same time, having a career makes me a better mother and having had children made me in many ways a better writer and teacher.”
When Elkins’ oldest son was informed of the $10,000 Pulitzer award, the six-year-old replied, “Wow, that’s pretty cool—can we go buy some toys?” At home, Elkins says, “I’m just mom.”
—Staff writer Lulu Zhou can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.