Person of the Week
Valerie Hansen: Going Someplace?
Branford’s Dr. Valerie Hansen, who teaches both Chinese and world history at Yale, has recently published a new book, The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World and Globalization Began. (Photo by Zekun Zhang )
One thousand years ago, adventurous people could do something that has become increasingly difficult in the age of COVID: They could travel, and travel far.
Who were they and just how far could they go? That is the subject of Valerie Hansen’s new book, The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World and Globalization Began. Valerie, a longtime Branford resident, is Stanley Woodward Professor of History at Yale where she teaches both Chinese and world history.
One thousand years ago, people were on the move. Chinese merchants were sailing through the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea to Basra in what is now Iraq and from there often along the east coast of Africa, a journey of up to 14,000 miles.
In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the Malayo-Polynesians were branching out to in three directions to New Zealand, Hawaii, and Easter Island.
From Europe, Norse voyagers from Greenland had reached the New World, some 500 years before Columbus. Valerie notes that Norse, rather than the more common Viking, is the correct word. Accurately, Viking is the descriptive term for only one group of Norse, the pillaging bands of raiders.
In a volume full of surprising facts, Valerie says what readers, brought up on stories of Columbus discovering the New World, seem most surprised about is L’Anse aux Meadows, the settlement that Norse voyagers established on the North American continent in Newfoundland around the year 1,000. They stayed only 10 years before abandoning the settlement but continued to visit the area to harvest lumber long after that.
Valerie herself thought people would be more surprised by another fact: the suggestion that the Norse might actually have traveled even farther, as far as the territory of the Maya, who flourished at the time in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Mayan murals show blonde-haired captives, which some have theorized could have been adventurous Norse.
Trade between different areas of the world involved everything from spices to slaves. So many slaves were exported from the Slavic lands of eastern Europe that the word slave itself derives from the word Slavic. Long before the word globalization existed, Valerie contends, the trade and the trade routes of the year 1000 show a world that was already inter-connected.
The Year 1000 is not Valerie’s first book, but it is the first published by a trade rather than an academic publisher.
“My idea was to reach a wider readership. Historians should talk to the general public,” she says.
Getting the kind of publisher she wanted involved getting something else first, an agent.
“I’ve been trying for 25 years,” she admits.
A bit of serendipity helped. An editor sent her a volume seeking a blurb, the kind of short statement of support that usually appears on a book jacket. Valerie mentioned to him she was looking for an agent. He sent her a list of people he thought she might contact and she made the necessary connection.
Now she is involved in another new part of the process of authorship, doing publicity. She has been interviewed on NPR, given Zoom talks to various Yale alumni groups, and had her book reviewed in publications from the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times to the Times of London.
Valerie has a bit more time for interviews at the moment because she is on leave this semester, but with a change from her original plans. She was going to be in China, in Wuhan, a city she noted that few in this country had ever heard of before the emergence of coronavirus.
Over the years, her travels to China have taken her to see the Great Wall and the terra cotta warriors in Xian so many times that she no longer has an accurate count. She estimates 11 for the warriors and 7 for the Great Wall, but added those numbers are just approximations.
Valerie, a graduate of Harvard, grew up in Manhattan and Sherman, Connecticut. She majored in Chinese history in college despite the fact she was, in her own words, kicked out of her first Chinese language class.
“I just couldn’t hear the tones,” she recalls of the pitch levels that can change the meaning of words in Chinese.
But she didn’t give up and after a half year of tutoring, joined another class.
“I was determined to lick this thing,” she adds.
Looking forward, Valerie would like to do more research on the long Chinese trade route in use in the year 1000 that went all the way down the East Coast of Africa. She is also interested in learning more about how the Chinese, who already had the compass by the year 1000, used mud from the sea floor, brought up in devices to discover depth, as a way to determine location.
She and her husband, Jim Stepanek, have lived in Branford for 27 years along with their three now-grown children.
“It’s a wonderful place to live, such nice people,” she says.
When they first chose the town, they wanted a location where they could see Long Island Sound. Valerie not only sees the Sound, she swims in it daily, even at this time of year. She was a swimmer at Harvard and says one of the things she likes about swimming is it gives her time to think.
When she talked to a reporter recently, she was still taking daily swims but she thinks that will soon be over.
“Will we make it to Halloween?” she asked. “Unlikely.”
But that’s not the way it turned out. Valerie and Jim swam for about 10 minutes on Nov. 10.