When Stewart Gordon was at TJ

Author Stewart Gordon talks about the process behind writing “When Asia was the World.”


In the auditorium, author and historian, Stewart Gordon, speaks with Jefferson sophomores. He was the writer of their summer assignment book, When Asia Was the World, in which he wrote about Asia’s history and their impact on the world. Photo courtesy of Forrest Meng.

Forrest Meng and Jordan Lee

All Jefferson sophomores are familiar with the name Stewart Gordon, seen on the cover of their summer assignment book When Asia Was the World. The book details 10 stories of different traders, ambassadors, and scholars from different nations and their accounts of their travels in the Asian world. On Nov. 12, Dr. Stewart N. Gordon visited Thomas Jefferson High School. Jefferson sophomores sat down in the Auditorium,

where he answered their questions and discussed the process of writing the book.

Before delving into history, Gordon originally studied pre-med, like the rest of his family. He only studied history as a side hobby, which eventually became his main focus after thinking about what career he was going into. Making his decision, he became a scholar in South Asian studies at the University of Michigan.

Gordon took up the task of writing When Asia Was the World after a talk with Scott Huller of NPR about the world during the Middle Ages. Huller explained that many people think of knights, war, the Black Death, and more. During that same time, there was a place with advanced astronomy, medicine, trade, elegant fabrics, technology, etc. That place was Asia.

“As a reporter, he said that we are really concerned with Asia because we are really involved but we don’t know very much. ‘If you could write a book that was accessible and human with stories that honored Asia, you would really be doing service.’ And I took it on as a challenge,” Gordon said.

At that time, Gordon was already in love with Asia, and he was fascinated by its culture and people. Up to today, Gordon has visited Asia 20 times. Writing this novel was going to be a unique task, but it wasn’t going to be simple.

“It’s a kind of book I had never written before. It took 13 drafts. The full book was rewritten 13 times before I got it right,” Gordon said.

Gordon tried to first write about the ecological regions and empires of Asia.

“That went down in flames right away,” he said. “Really in despair I thought the book would just die.”

He went to the Southwest Coast of India to research the spice trade, where spice cultivators  helped him and showed him around the plantation. There, he learned about who they were and how they lived life. After the trip, he had a revelation.

“Suddenly, I said that what I needed to do was tell human stories. I need to tell stories about the people who really lived the experience of being in Asia, travelling and recording what they saw. Through that, we can experience what they go through, ” Gordon said.

In order to look for the stories he would put in his book, he had to look through 45 memoirs. He wanted memoirs about travellers since they had a wide perspective of the world. These people couldn’t be ordinary, but they couldn’t be powerful kings either. Instead, he looked for doctors, philosophers, and ambassadors. He also really wanted a memoir written by a woman, but wasn’t able to find one that met his criteria.

Besides researching primary sources like the memoirs, Gordon also travelled around the world to visit archaeological sites in Asia, which was his favorite part of the research. For example, there were no written memoirs or accounts of the Intan shipwreck. To write about it, he went to the actual site of the wreck in order to look at its physical evidence, discussing with historians on what conclusions they can reach from it. He also visited Southeast Asia and the Silk Road, one of Asia’s most important trade routes.

After his research, Gordon began to write the chapters based off of the memoirs, giving each of them a certain structure.

“Let’s suppose it’s the biography of some guy. You don’t start with his birth. You start when he’s being chased out of town by an entire army. So you wonder, ‘Is he going to make it? Does he deserve to make it?’ So you start with something that immediately engages the audience that you’re writing it for, then you can go back and tell about when he was born, and what he did as a child,” Gordon explained.

He also gave advice to the students watching, telling them to be simple, clear, and powerful in their writing, putting quality over quantity.

After Gordon gave students a look into how complex the process was for creating When Asia Was the World, he talked about the importance of history.

“Historians are basically storytellers. If you take in that, and treasure that, rather than reject it, you get strength from it. You come from a culture, you understand the culture. You come from a place, you understand that place. So, we are all historians,” Gordon said.

To Gordon, history is all about understanding our origins, making us clear and confident in our identity. Knowing the past affects the future. He told students that history is essential for all of us. It’s whether we choose to look into our history, learning from it and making the effort to understand it. For his audience of Jefferson students, he talked about how even in the fields of science, history is key.

“My brother is a star chemist at Harvard. When I asked him how he relates to history, he said that he was very involved in history. He told me that if you don’t know where the thing you are trying to develop comes from, you get it wrong every single time,” Gordon said.

It was the universal importance of history that captivated Gordon and sparked his fascination, turning him away from his family’s traditional background in medicine and science. His favorite part about history is looking into the patterns and cycles that repeat throughout it, such as the Chinese dynasties.

“The neatest thing is the same thing that drives science. It’s the moment that you understand patterns,” Gordon said. During his research for When Asia Was the World, he loved all the lightbulb moments and revelations he got.

When the 45-minute block ended, students began to leave their seats. Some of them left to their next period while others approached Gordon to sign their books. Still, one thing is for certain. All of them walked out having a new perspective on history that showed its relevance both in their day-to-day life and the world around them.