Nayan Shah

Portrait of Nayan Shah

Nayan Shah is a historian whose books uncover how people struggle with incarceration, migration, and illness in the United States and across the globe. Shah is Professor of American Studies & Ethnicity and History at the University of Southern California. His latest book Refusal to Eat: A Century of Prison Hunger Strikes (2022) is the first global history of hunger strikes as a tactic in prisons, conflicts, and protest movements. He also wrote two award-winning books on the experiences of Asian Americans: Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (2001) and Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality, and the Law in the North American West (2012). Shah has received fellowships and grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, Mellon Foundation, National Endowment for the Humanities, van Humboldt Foundation, Thomas J. Watson Foundation and Freeman Foundation. He is featured in PBS documentaries on “Asian Americans” (2020) and “Plague at the Golden Gate” (2022). He has worked with the National Park Service, Angel Island Foundation, California Historical Society, and the New York Historical Society to interpret Asian American past and present.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

Both a century ago and at the beginning of the the COVID-19 pandemic, why did politicians target and demonize Chinese immigrants and draw suspicion on where Asian Americans live, eat and work as the source of contagion? This talk examines the the historical experience of public health and Chinese American history to shine a lens on an ongoing 170 year problem of how public health crises can inflame and aggravates xenophobia, race and class disparities. Living with the pandemic can also demonstrate how its possible to create and mend systems of care and enhance collective well-being in ways demonstrated by Asian Americans both in the past and the present.
Women fighting for the vote and free speech, Japanese Americans protesting detention with charge, conscientious objectors challenging racial segregation and refugees from Haiti, Guatemala and India protesting their indefinite detention have all wielded the hunger strike across the 20th and 21st century. This presentation grapples with what it means to go the edge of human endurance for one’s cause and conscience. What compels the use of this last resort personal power? How is the hidden protest communicated across prison barricades? Why does the physicians' response compound the crisis aggravating the crisis of government accountability and spotlight the hazards to prisoner care and dignity? Taking seriously the decision-making of hunger strikes, the presentation revolves around a core of moral, practical, and political questions that hunger strikers raise and investigating what it takes to resist and oppose state power.