“Biology is not about equality,” said Christine Kenneally recently about the hostility she encountered while researching for The Invisible History of The Human Race (Viking). “The rhetoric about equality is so important to democracy, but life is unfair.”
The Australian’s quiet, unhurried tones underscored the precision with which she spoke to a journalism class at The New School in Manhattan. The 46 year-old mother of two boys discussed her book that hit nonfiction aisles amid enthusiastic applause from the NY Times Book Review.
Yet science, by itself, doesn’t explain our identities or our future, asserted the author.
Kenneally’s connection to the material wasn’t just business, it was also personal. “I remembered being shocked by the indignation with which my parents responded to my innocent request,” she said referring to an incident from her childhood. A grade school assignment to complete their family tree had elicited a prickly response.
Much later, her father revealed to his adult children that the man they’d known to be their grandfather was actually their great-grandfather. And while research for this book brought another ancestor, a convict, into focus, the frame of her grandparent remains a blur. His absence, however, stirred questions and feelings that ultimately gave birth to this superb book.
Underpinned by research, her beautiful prose doesn’t bear the markings of a scientific thesis – jargon, wieldy cross-referencing, lengthy footnotes, that Kenneally, armed with a PhD, is adequately trained to produce. “I had to wrench the academic language out of my writing,” she said, adding, “I’m a journalist now and I walk the painful line of keeping scientists happy and writing something that people will read and enjoy.”
The very class she said this to played a part in honing this aspect of her craft. In 1999, Kenneally sat in the exact same room, albeit in a student’s chair; a vantage point from where she impressed a NY Times Book Review editor and earned her first assignment to review science writing.
“It was a moment of real adventure,” said Kenneally, who is originally from Melbourne, of her journey to Manhattan, fifteen years ago. The city was yet another box on the global hopscotch she and her American boyfriend, now husband had outlined after meeting in London, where Keneally was pursuing her Doctorate in Linguistics at Cambridge. “We planned to spend time in America, then a few years in Australia before we decided on where to settle.”
Scientists and scholars of humanities have separately made remarkable advances in understanding links between chromosomes and health — or race, culture and specific traits, she writes. “But DNA does what it does without regard to any of the conceptual silos,” and so does she.
To build a compelling case for this provocative notion, she chased “hidden mysteries that individuals have lived their whole lives.” Kenneally let her fascination for “experiences that profoundly shaped families,” guide her inquiries for three years.
Wildly ambitious in scope, this book also required her to travel for two months. When asked how she budgeted for the bills that accompanied the pricey ticket stubs she said, “I didn’t. It was a constant struggle between being sensible and knowing that I had to go to Iceland. I just had to.” After all, the country is home to a project that set out to trace the lineage of all of its denizens – the only project of its kind, making it incredibly significant to her study.
On her quest Kenneally covered mindboggling ground on Earth – from Tasmania to Iceland — and also in her pages. The result are human stories that promise to grip the reader, crank their brains, and ache their hearts.
Follow Christine Kenneally on twitter and her website, for announcements on forthcoming book tour.
Natasha Awasthi is a data monster by education and business designer by profession. She artfully untangles messy problems by discovering unexpected patterns–in behavior, processes, and technology. A self-proclaimed Jedi-in-training, she writes about channeling the force and embracing her creativity. Find her on Twitter or email her here.