Catching up with...Nicole de Silva

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Visiting assistant professor of history Nicole de Silva grew up in Riverside, Calif., where a landscape once filled with orange groves is now more dominated by rows of midcentury suburban tract housing.

Visiting assistant professor of history Nicole de Silva grew up in Riverside, Calif., where a landscape once filled with orange groves is now more dominated by rows of midcentury suburban tract housing.

Visiting assistant professor of history Nicole de Silva

“In the 1960s, my grandfather moved there with his wife and his son – who would become my father – from the small North Atlantic island of Bermuda,” she said. “But when I was younger, he would tell me how much he loved the radio and TV Westerns he’d encountered in the 1950s. They really planted this thrilling image of the American West in his mind and on some level, he feels they inspired the move.”

In turn, listening to her grandfather recount his experiences inspired De Silva’s interest in cultural history.

“At a pretty early age, I became fascinated by the stories Americans tell themselves about themselves, how those stories spread abroad and accumulate new meanings, how they have the capacity to create and transmit certain images of what America is or should be,” she said. “Of course, in the case of Westerns, they can gloss over or glorify deeply troubling moments in our national past – so there’s quite a lot of power involved in telling them.”

As an undergraduate at the University of California, Riverside, de Silva interned at local museums to look more deeply at the cultures of the American West. She employed the artifacts and papers left behind by former residents of her hometown to try to reconstruct as much as she could of their daily experience.

Using materials ranging from commercial records to women’s dresses, her first historical research project interrogated the social and economic lives of orange growers in late 19th century Riverside and Orange counties.

After earning her B.A. from the University of California, Riverside, de Silva completed a Ph.D. in history at the UC Santa Barbara. Her interests started to lean more toward U.S. international relations, “yet I maintained a sharp interest in daily life and social experience,” she said.

Her current book project, “Homemakers as Peacemakers: Women’s International Organizing and the Practice of Consumer Diplomacy, 1919-1946,” shows how American women used their identities and practices as household consumers to build international movements that voiced political concerns and pushed for domestic change during the turbulent years between the World Wars.

This work ties together her love of material culture with her interest in the economic ideas of the American peace movement. She is also working on a series of articles that explore peace activists’ investments in co-operative economics.

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De Silva joined Union last fall. She is currently teaching courses in 20th century U.S. history, some of which also have an international focus.

“My favorite classes to teach are ones that put U.S. history in a more transnational context. They’re classes that question how exceptional America really is or that help us to see how embedded our national history is within larger global patterns and processes.”

She also loves using pop culture as a teaching tool.

“The stories we consume have a lot of power,” she said. “So looking at the music, television and film of a period can help us deconstruct some of those narratives in a way that’s just as fun as it is productive.”

De Silva lives in Schenectady. In her free time, she loves to knit, go antiquing and take walks in the many beautiful nature preserves in the Hudson Valley and Capital Region.


My phone has a built-in weather app that I use to pick out my outfit for the day. Even though I am from California, I love experiencing the four seasons… as long as I’m prepared for what the day will bring.


It varies considerably. The only thing that absolutely must feature is a double espresso.


On two separate occasions over the past year, colleagues have recommended Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants,” and I just got around to reading it. It was a great introduction to the landscape of New York State, but it also offers much more than that. I found it astonishingly smart and poetic – a guidebook for how to think about our relationship to the land from a perspective rooted in both botanical science and indigenous thought.


A historian who is also a very good writer once suggested that he got that way in part by reading novels. He would try to get a sense of how authors set up a story and got their readers invested in characters and outcomes, then try to apply some of those frameworks to writing non-fiction. I like this advice for two reasons: first, I think good storytelling is so important to what historians do. Second, I love reading novels so will take any excuse!


I love Connemara in Co. Galway on the West Coast of Ireland. Maybe my favorite place of all is Killary Fjord. There’s a rumor that the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein used to stay in a nearby cottage in the 1930s and ’40s when he needed a break from the pressures of Cambridge, and I think I can see why. Truly an inspiring, almost otherworldly landscape. The local sheep are very cute, too.


I’m much more of a film person than a TV person. Sometimes I’ll pick a director and work through a series of their films until I want to move on. When Jean-Luc Godard passed away a few years ago I watched a string of his films from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s. Lately I’ve been obsessed with some of British director Joanna Hogg’s work.


I wish I were a better instrumentalist – music is very much a part of my family, but I never quite figured out the guitar as well as I’d like to have.


I’ve lately discovered the work of early 20th century satirist Dawn Powell, and I adore her dark wit. Even though she’s fallen into obscurity now, she was very well connected in the New York literary scene of the 1930s and ’40s. She had the same editor as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example. So I’d invite Dawn and let her curate the rest of the guest list. I’d love to hear their insider gossip on some of my favorite authors!


My father was a huge folk fan, so I grew up going to lots of trad sessions. Most of them were Irish-American folk (even in Southern California). It was a great experience to have growing up. It definitely made me feel that music can be something very spontaneous and participatory (even though I don’t participate as much as I’d like to… see above!).


I’ve wanted to be a historian for most of my life, but there was a pretty brief moment in high school when I thought I might actually take a totally different turn and go to fashion school. I’m very glad my life took the direction it did, but I do still sometimes like to design and make my own clothes when I get the chance.