Asian American History and Culture series adds a new editor

This week, we welcome Modeling Citizenship author Cathy Schlund-Vials to the Asian American History and Culture series editorial team.

Temple University Press is pleased to announce the addition of Cathy Schlund-Vials, Associate Professor of English and Asian/Asian American Studies at the University of Connecticut-Storrs, to the Asian American History and Culture series editorial team. Schlund-Vials, whose book, Modeling Citizenship , was published by Temple University Press in 2011, joins current series editors David Palumbo-Liu, K. Scott Wong, and Linda Trinh Võ.

Modeling Citizenship sm CompVõ, who is the incoming President of the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS), acknowledged, “Cathy Schlund-Vials’ impressive academic accomplishments and publication record will make her an invaluable asset to the Asian American History and Culture  editorial team. The range of her expertise in twentieth-century U.S. literature, multi-ethnic literature, immigrant/refugee narratives, refugee cultural production, critical race theory, human rights, and comparative ethnic studies will be important as we identify emergent research that should be highlighted in the series.”

Võ also spoke about her plans for the AAAS. “Next year as we mark the 50-year anniversary of the 1965 Immigration Act and 40 years since the Vietnam War ended, it is important for the Association for Asian American Studies to reflect how both events transformed the cultural, economic, and political trajectory of this nation and its global connections. I intend to make the association a dynamic and inviting intellectual space that fosters innovative research and reimagines the possibilities for Asian American Studies and that also nurtures scholars and community members who are the foundation of our field.”

Saying she was honored to be affiliated with the Temple University Press series, Schlund-Vials highlighted how the Asian American History and Culture  series has been foundational to the discipline. “Since its inception, the series has in many ways not only been witness to the emergence of Asian American studies as a diverse field; it has been at the forefront of its growth as a provocative and productive site of inquiry.”

She also spoke to her plan to foster books for the cultural studies aspect of the series, “I hope to continue the capacious, constantly innovative vision of its founding editors and the press’s forethought with regard to Asian American studies as a viable, sustainable field.”

Temple University Press published the first two titles in the Asian American History and Culture  series — Entry Denied, by series founder Sucheng Chan and Cane Fires, by Gary Okihiro — in the spring of 1991. There are now 65 titles in the series. Under the guidance of Temple University Press Editor in Chief, Janet Francendese, and series editor Chan, the Asian American History and Culture  series focused on titles grounded in original research. The books in the series changed the notion that Temple’s Asian American titles simply added to its acquisitions in ethnic studies; they represented a commitment to an emerging academic field that has from the start been rooted in communities and unique experiences of race and ethnicity.

About the Series

Founded by Sucheng Chan in 1991, the Asian American History and Culture  series has sponsored innovative scholarship that has redefined, expanded, and advanced the field of Asian American studies while strengthening its links to related areas of scholarly inquiry and engaged critique. Like the field from which it emerged, the series remains rooted in the social sciences and humanities, encompassing multiple regions, formations, communities, and identities. Extending the vision of founding editor Sucheng Chan and emeritus editor Michael Omi, series editors David Palumbo-Liu, K. Scott Wong, Linda Trinh Võ, and Cathy Schlund-Vials continue to develop a foundational collection that embodies a range of theoretical and methodological approaches to Asian American studies.

Considering the lives of transnational adoptees

This week in North Philly Notes, Kristi Brian, author of Reframing Transracial Adoption, reflects on the assumptions commonly articulated by non-adopted people that rightly infuriate many adult adoptees.

Thousands of people took to the streets of Moscow earlier this month to protest the adoption ban that prevents U.S. citizens from adopting Russian children. Although the turnout was impressive (reported estimates range from 7,000 to 50,000 protesters) I have to wonder what really brought all these people out.  Are the protesters genuinely united for the sake of Russian children as much as they say they are? Do people feel that they honestly need to help preserve the interests of the mostly white, middle-class, U.S. adopters left with pending or halted adoptions? Of course, it’s not too tough to get folks to stand up for the sake of “poor, orphaned children,” but it’s especially easy if a critical mass of people stands practically “at the ready” to yell at the big state machinery that hasn’t done much for them lately. I suspect this was the predominant unifying element of the protesters and I certainly can’t blame dissidents for making the most of a “hot” moment to demonstrate their democratic freedoms. However, when it comes to rallying behind precious, romantic statements about the immensely better life adoptees are destined to have in the U.S., I urge caution.

Reframing Transracial AdoptionsmAs my research on transnational/transracial adoption from South Korea explains (see Reframing Transracial Adoption), “the better life in America” assumptions commonly articulated by non-adopted people rightly infuriate many adult adoptees. Many of the adoptees I spoke with helped me to understand their reality of navigating the imposition of gratitude that surrounds being “rescued” from a nation often implied as inferior.  While it is true that Russian adoptions into white U.S. families are often pursued as a way to avoid the racial component of adoption, questions of belonging, origins, and abandonment are nearly universal to all state-regulated adoptions.

Not only do we have a lot to learn from adult adoptee perspectives, but critically observing the rise and fall of massive adoption projects, such as Korean-American adoption (the first and longest-running form of transnational adoption) should allow nation-states to learn from one another’s mistakes. Korea went from being the world’s top “supplier” of children for adoption in the mid-1980s to a “sending nation” that is, at least to some degree, more conscious of the meaning and impact of that history. This change happened through internal and external criticism, and most notably, in recent years through the dedicated reform work of the Korean adoptees who have returned to Korea to help keep more Korean children in Korea.

While there may be heartache for families with their minds set on a particular child to “bring home,” I feel abundantly confident that criticism and worldwide scrutiny of transnational adoption serves us all. If nothing else, dramatic legislative actions such as the adoption ban should help us to fine tune our understanding of the relationship between family and the state. Perhaps it will make us ask us what the state has done for our family lately. Or what the role of the state should be in helping us form families. I suspect most of us would like to think of the state as an afterthought. It’s there when we need it otherwise we prefer to keep it out of our family matters. Yet for folks fighting like hell to have the state validate their most intimate, loving partnership as legitimate and legal, the family-state question becomes more vivid. Similarly, for those of us unfortunate enough to find ourselves facing the threat of losing our family members, acquiring them, or reuniting with them based on the intervening policies of a state (including policies of the child welfare system, the police force or the prison system) the power struggle can get ugly.

When it comes to your family or your government, who do you expect to win the power struggle? And in the case of transnational adoption, adopters’ vision for family must interface with the power and politics of two nations.  When the fate of our families becomes heavily determined by the “personalities” of two competitive capitalist nation-states (with many skeletons in both closets) both posturing as the top contender in human rights protections, we can only expect a stampede of contradictions to complicate our attempts at creating family intimacy.

My ethnographic research on adoptive families has led me to a position much like the one being voiced by Russia’s Children’s Rights Ombudsman, Pavel Astakhov. Astakhov has stated candidly at human rights hearings on adoption that the “hysterical warnings” about international adoptions being the best viable solution for Russian children only serves those seeking profit from adoption.

The fact of the matter is, as much as we hate to admit it, transnational adoption is a marketplace driven by and reflective of capitalist modes of production. The desires of white Americans and Europeans (predominantly) are the buyers in that marketplace interested in “giving” a better life to a child of their choice. Race does play a big role in which adoption programs adopters choose. Given this fact alone, transnational adoption offers us a chance to follow the advice of philosopher George Yancy as he urges us to shift our gaze (in Look, a White!) to assess the ways of white folks rather than simply accepting them as the way things ought to be done. Look a Whitesm

My book explores the actions of white adopters in Korea’s history with transnational adoption. But more importantly it highlights the work of the Korean adoptees who have critically observed adoptive family life in the U.S. as well as the politics of race, culture and statehood surrounding their adoptions. Although Korea has provided more children for overseas adoption than any other place in the world since 1955, Korea has dramatically reduced its numbers down to 627 adoptions to the U.S. last year. That is still a lot of children being transplanted through the complex bureaucracies of two national-states that cannot begin to attend to the life-long emotional realities of adoption. The more we see those numbers decrease in all “sending” countries, the better I feel about our abilities to create home-grown solutions to globalized problems that often masquerade as new ways to embrace superficial multiculturalism.

Remembering Tiananmen Square and its impact on both personal and political levels on the anniversary of the protests

In this blog entry, Belinda Kong, reflects back on the 1989 massacre and how it inspired her  new book, Tiananmen Fictions Outside the Square.

In many ways, I am an unlikely person to have written a book on Tiananmen fictions.  In 1989, I was a thirteen-year-old kid living in Miami, having moved to the States from Hong Kong just three and a half years earlier.  When the Tiananmen demonstrations erupted that spring, I hardly paid any attention; those students in Beijing seemed so remote to me.  I am sure many people have much more vivid memories of watching the protests on TV that spring than I do. 

My own memory is of hearing the news of the massacre the morning after—it would have been June 4th too on this side of the Pacific—from the son of the owner of the Chinese restaurant where my father was working at the time.  I remember being surprised and confused, by the news itself as much as the sight of this Chinese American college student getting incredibly upset.  I remember feeling how unreal it all seemed, the idea that a whole generation of Chinese students could imagine they possessed the power to change their country’s course, camping out for weeks on end in the nation’s most public political space, successfully mobilizing a million citizens to march in the streets in their support, and even facing down government troops and army tanks.  All this seemed to me like a drama unfolding on another planet.

Then, about a dozen years ago, I was in graduate school at the University of Michigan, working on my dissertation on Chinese diaspora literature.  This would become the genesis of my book, Tiananmen Fictions Outside the Squarethough at the time, it was not focused on Tiananmen, and it could hardly be called even a rough draft of the eventual product.  Instead, I was thinking about Chinese identity more generally, about how many Chinese writers in the West could be seen as sharing overlapping concerns about “Chineseness,” whether they had been born and raised in China and went abroad as adults or been born in America and knew only English.  I was trying to bring together some of the most globally visible Chinese writers known to me at the time under a very broad rubric of “writing Chineseness,” regardless of their biographical trajectory or cultural education. 

In many ways, the dissertation was too abstract and did not explain why I discussed some authors, such as Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan in relation to Ha Jin and Gao Xingjian, but not others.  Meanwhile, without conscious design, I kept getting pulled by the literature on Tiananmen, and it took me several years to realize that these were the works that most clarified my thinking about Chineseness.  Almost by accident, I started to clue in that Tiananmen was one pivotal and defining point for both Chinese and diasporic identity in our time, that I had grown up in the wake of its ripple effects, and that many of the writers I was reading were themselves living out the extended legacy of the movement and the massacre.  It took five years or so for this realization to dawn on me, and another five years for me to reframe my book and coalesce it around Tiananmen fictions.

The insight I ultimately arrived at is that Tiananmen was not just a political event but something that has significantly shaped Chinese literature and cultural identity in the post-1989 world.  When we think of Tiananmen, we usually think history, and above all, we think politics—the politics of mass opposition, of calls for democracy vs. totalitarian state power, etc.  Certainly, with Arab spring, this political understanding of Tiananmen resonates with particular force today.  But what is less recognized is that Tiananmen has had a tremendously powerful, productive, and longterm effect on Chinese literature and cultural identity.  And precisely because the topic remains censored to this day in the PRC, precisely because only those abroad could write about it openly and publicly and without evasion, Tiananmen has come to serve as a key point of self-definition for writers in the diaspora.  Tiananmen is a topic that more and more Chinese authors, especially in the West, have come to address in their writing; it is an event that writers continually imagine and reimagine and thereby keep alive and relevant for our contemporary moment, and also a subject that unifies as well as fractures writers.  Above all, Tiananmen has politicized the Chinese literary diaspora: after the massacre, writers show a much stronger tendency to write political fictions that critique either the PRC regime itself or authoritarian uses of state power more generally.  And most strikingly, these fictions on Tiananmen do not remain static but evolve alongside global concerns, as though Tiananmen already anticipates the theoretical vocabularies with which we continually try to make sense of globalization and global life.

Challenging dominant stereotypes of young people of color

In this blog entry, Bindi Shah, author of Laotian Daughters, describes the impressions formed about an unlikely group of young Laotian girls who became advocates and leaders for social justice and community change.

In the late 1990s I began field work with Asian Youth Advocates, a youth program for second-generation Laotian girls in Richmond, California run by the environmental justice organization Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN). This excerpt from field notes on one of my early research visits portrays them as ordinary inner-city American teenagers interested in fashion, music and boys:

It’s a cold, crisp but sunny Tuesday afternoon in February. As I walk in almost everyone looks and smiles or says “hi.” The front room of this small house in Richmond, which serves as LOP’s offices, is packed today. Twenty-one of the youth members are here, waiting for the Whole Group Training on campaign options to start. Bryanna and Huk are sitting close to the radio, tapping their feet to Eminem rapping “My Name Is…” Once the song ends Bryanna turns the dial to a station that plays alternative and R&B music. Two girls are sitting on the floor in the middle of the room, sharing thumsom, a green papaya salad. Others are sitting on the chairs placed in a circle, munching on nachos, burgers, burritos, and sipping on soda.

A lot of the girls are dressed in black today, black flared trousers, black tops and black jackets. Others sport blue or white flared jeans, short T-shirts or shirts that hug the body, and platform shoes or sneakers. This ‘70s retro style transports me back to my own dress preferences as a teenager, though I wore luminous pink crimplene trousers. In the 1990s, these girls are wearing muted colors, which often bear the logos of Tommy Hilfiger, The Gap, BeBe, Nautica, or The Old Navy. Bryanna wears an oversized orange rain jacket, nylon pants that bunch up around her ankles, and sneakers. Others resemble the style of the majority of their peers in the urban multicultural neighborhoods, blue jeans, long T-shirts and sneakers or high-tops.

Their conversations revolve around boys, school, and clothes. My by-now-trained ear picks up both Black English and standard English, with a smattering of Mien and Lao words that I don’t understand.

At first sight this group of teenage Laotian girls appear unlikely candidates as advocates and leaders for the Laotian community in west Contra Costa County, California. In Laotian Daughters, I unravel popular images of young people of color and draw attention to their engagement with political activism and community building.

Politicians and journalists have tended to portray young people, particularly those growing up in poor, urban neighborhoods as social problems and as experiencing moral decline. For example, a media report on a 2001 University of California study that found Laotian high-school girls had the highest teenage pregnancy rate in California and the highest number of teen births was ominously titled “Asian Teen Mothers, a quiet State of Crisis”. Despite a steady decline in youth crime and violence over the last few decades, we continued to hear from the media, politicians and other professionals that young people were “at risk”, with proclivities for teenage pregnancy, gang involvement, violence, drug addiction, and reliance on public assistance. Such constructions provided a rationale for increased surveillance of and intervention into young people’s lives by schools, police, health services, and the juvenile justice system. In April 2001 Governor Gray Davis of California approved $3.3 million for juvenile crime prevention in Contra Costa County. One of the programs that the funding financed was a program that places probation officers in selected high schools and middle school to provide supervision and services to youths with problems ranging from truancy to major criminal offenses.

It is important to examine youth programs with a social justice agenda because such programs can help challenge such representations of young people of color and reveal how citizenship is not just an adult experience. In a community that is linguistically isolated and lives in a region experiencing extensive environmental pollution, APEN hoped to empower and engage the bilingual second generation to act as advocates for the health of their community and to organize around environmental justice, reproductive health, and broader community issues such as inadequate academic counselling resources in schools and the political challenges to bilingual education. Asian Youth Advocates was a broad, integrated youth program that aimed to nurture a new generation of women leaders, in a community where authority is traditionally vested in elderly Laotian males, as well as address issues of adolescence and cultural identity experienced by the teenage Laotian girls.

In Laotian Daughters I show that if we dig beyond the dominant stereotypes of young people of color, particularly young women of color, we can unearth political engagement and the construction of active citizenship amongst this group. Through political mobilization around issues faced by a new immigrant community, these teenage Laotian girls both re-fashioned Laotian culture and demonstrated that young people can be a positive voice for change. In the process they forged a sense of belonging for Laotians in the American nation.

Can we empathize with those whom we deem “the enemy”?

In this blog entry, Rajini Srikanth, author of Constructing the Enemy, considers how we understand issues of empathy and antipathy using examples from reality and fiction.

Philosophers and psychologists who write about empathy agree that it is a state of mind that combines cognition (knowledge of the particulars of some other person’s circumstances) and affect or feeling (growing out of awareness of that person’s reality). 

I remember when the (first) President George H.W. Bush appointed Justice David Souter to the Supreme Court there were some critics (on the left) who observed that because Judge Souter had lived all his life as a single man he would have no understanding of the pressures of raising a family and the many challenges that the majority of Americans face.  He could not, their implication was, be empathetic to the vast majority of the public.  Nobody actually used the word “empathy” at the time, and Justice Souter went on to show, in his opinions, that he could be quite empathetic to the complicated lives of Americans of all backgrounds and circumstances. 

Creative writers and literary theorists remind us that the exercise of the imagination is a prerequisite for empathy – it is only when one is able to imagine the circumstances and feelings of another that empathy has a chance of emerging.  Richard Wright called this labor of imagination “a kind of significant living.” Describing his efforts at creating Bigger Thomas, the angry disaffected African American protagonist of his 1940 novel Native Son, Wright said, “It was an act of concentration, of trying to hold within one’s center of attention all of that bewildering array of facts which science, politics, experience, memory, and imagination were urging upon me. . . . I was pushing out to new areas of feeling, strange landmarks of emotion, cramping upon foreign soil, compounding new relationships of perceptions, making new and—until that very split second of time!—unheard-of and unfelt effects with words.”

But this very novel shows us that one can be empathetically imaginative without feeling the need to alleviate the distress of the person whose circumstances one cognitively understands. In Wright’s novel, the state’s Attorney General says to Bigger Thomas, ““Maybe you think that I don’t understand. But I do, I know how it feels to walk along the streets like other people, dressed like them, talking like them, and yet excluded for no reason except that you’re black. I know your people.’” His cognitive knowledge of Bigger Thomas’s circumstances is not accompanied by care and concern for Bigger. In fact, Bigger is bewildered at the Attorney General’s attitude: how could he know so much about Bigger and yet be “so bitterly against him.”  And herein is the dark side of empathy – it can become an exploitative means of power and control. It is precisely because of the empathizer’s power over the recipients of empathy (in certain circumstances, as in, say, the CIA’s “empathetic interrogation” of prisoners) that the latter are suspicious of empathy when it is offered. 

Yet empathy is also, paradoxically, about vulnerability. In Morgan Spurlock’s television documentary “Thirty Days as a Muslim,” a Christian man from West Virginia agrees to live for 30 days in Dearborn, Michigan with a Muslim family and to respect all their customs and participate in the everyday activities of their life. When he arrives at the West Virginia airport to leave for Detroit, he is dressed in Muslim attire, and he realizes for the first time what it means to be vulnerable –  the suspicious and hostile stares he receives, the heightened scrutiny he is subjected to at security, these new realities unsettle him and make him feel exposed. As a result of this initial reaction by others to his newly reconstituted body (as a Muslim man), he begins to experience vulnerability and gain the first traces of understanding of what it might mean to live as a Muslim in present-day United States.

It is this vulnerability that accompanies some instances of empathy that leads to its being discredited, particularly by those who feel that there ought to be no place for empathy in the legal system. When President Obama announced in 2009 that his nominee to the Supreme Court would possess the key characteristic of empathy, the criticism from the right was sharp. An empathetic judge would be vulnerable to manipulation by groups with specific ideologies; an empathetic judge would not be able to adhere strictly to the text of the Constitution; an empathetic judge would be an activist judge.

The complexity of empathy as a sentiment (the intertwining of power and vulnerability in those who experience it), its complex reception by those who observe its emergence or are its recipients, and the difficulty of its emergence provide a humanist with an intellectually challenging terrain to explore. But it is not just the intellectual frisson of studying empathy that first drew me to it. Rather, what led me to pursue the study of empathy was a sense that it, of all the sentiments that are critical to the effective functioning of a true democracy (concerned with issues of equity and justice), is perhaps the most crucial to cultivate.  I became interested in exploring empathy when it is least likely to emerge and to understand the motivations of individuals who are courageous enough to open themselves up to the emergence of empathy in these situations. It seemed obvious to me that we are least likely to be empathetic to those whom the state, with the acquiescence of the citizenry, constructs as “the enemy.” 

Consequently, I zeroed in on two historical moments – the internment of 110,000 Japanese Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the current U.S. global “war on terror” leading to the detention of Muslim men in domestic detention centers and at Guantanamo Bay.  We have apologized formally for the internment of Japanese Americans and made reparations to the surviving internees. Yet, despite our retrospective empathy with regard to the Japanese American internees, we are currently immersed wholly in the “war on terror,” convinced of the righteousness of our approach, and pursuing a problematic strategy of detention and military tribunals, the possibility of preventive detention, and deportation.

In 2004, I began to hear lawyers who were questioning the arbitrary application of executive power, and I became aware of the work of the Center for Constitutional Rights, the New York City-located nerve center for lawyers from the private bar who were offering their services pro bono for the detainees at Guantanamo Bay. In speaking with some of these lawyers, I realized that they were drawn to become involved not from empathy but principally to uphold the U.S. Constitution, but it also became clear to me that through following the letter of the law some other larger emotional and humanistic space of interaction was opening up between the lawyers and the Muslim detainees. In attempting to examine that humanistic space, I turned to what I know best – the work of creative writers. In doing so, I brought into juxtaposition the use of language by lawyers and creative writers as they both consider “the enemy” and how they bring their respective skills into representing this enemy.  Ultimately, I am interested in exploring whether the work of these lawyers and creative writers has any impact on policy decisions, or whether their work is significant only in reminding those whom they represent (legally or creatively) that antipathy is not universal, and in providing some small relief in an otherwise bleak and unrelentingly hostile political and socio-cultural climate.

How Mu Performing Arts’ New Performance Program generated Asian American Plays for a New Generation

In this blog entry, Rick Shiomi, co-editor of Asian American Plays for a New Generation describes the New Performance Program and the process of selecting plays as being like a Survivor competition.

Two plays tied together in this anthology are Asiamnesia by Sun Mee Chomet and Sia(b) by May Lee Yang. They were both part of the first round of Mu’s Jerome New Performance Program. This program is designed to bring in artists who are not primarily playwrights to write and create new works for theater. It was designed with the Survivor television series in mind. That is, we started with seven artists (performance artists, poets, spoken word artists, etc.) and provided them with an initial commissioning fee and the support of dramaturges, directors and actors.

After several months, Mu held a reading of the seven pieces, either in full or excerpts, and then selected four to continue on to the next stage in the process. After another set of readings, one piece was selected to receive a main stage production. That piece in the first round was Q & A by Juliana Pegues and was produced in June 2008. However, two of the other pieces, Asiamnesia and Sia(b), both still interested us and we later produced them as a pair of one act plays in the fall of 2008 under the title Under The Porcelain Mask: Asian American Women Speak Out.

Each play took its own unpredictable artistic journey to get to that production. In the case of Asiamnesia, it started as a group writing project proposed by Sun Mee Chomet. She wanted her project to give voice to a number of Asian American women on the subject of their own lives, dealing with stereotypes and other forms of challenges and identity angst. In both of the readings in the process, our feedback to Sun Mee was that the results of the group writing process were too uneven and not as effective as imagined. We were in fact going to drop the play from the process when Randy Reyes, who was serving as the director/dramaturg, pleaded that there was something worth pursing in the piece.

We agreed, with the promise that Sun Mee would take on the writing as a solo playwright rather than continue the group writing process. In the summer of 2008, Sun Mee took on the whole project herself and the result was Asiamnesia. It did include one existing poem by Katie Hae Leo, but that was the only segment by an outside writer. The production was directed by Randy Reyes, and it was recognized in the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s 2008 Year End Review by Rohan Preston as the best new script.

With Sia(b), we thought May Lee was a long shot in terms of the survivor system. She was the least experienced of the participants, but through her work with Robert Karimi as her director/dramaturg, she was able to generate her play with the Hmong American perspective which has been generally underrepresented in Asian American theater. We saw this piece as a groundbreaking work leading a new wave of Hmong American plays. Mu recently produced WTF by Katie Ka Vang as part of our second round of the Jerome program which took a very different, edgier tone about the Hmong American experience. So in both of these cases, the results were quite unexpected and gratifying. Mu’s Jerome New Performance Program has been one of the keys to our development and production of new work.

Celebrating an “important contribution to the understanding of a neglected ethnic community in the Caribbean”

Anne-Marie Lee-Loy’s  Searching For Mr. Chin: Constructions of Nation and the Chinese in West Indian Literature recently won the Gordon K. and Sybil Lewis Book Award. This award, which is given by the Caribbean Studies Association, honors the best book about the Caribbean published over the previous three-year period in Spanish, English, French or Dutch. Award committee chair Linden Lewis provided his announcement of the award.

Searching for Mr. Chin is an attempt to understand the construction of  Chinese identity and the place of people of Chinese descent in the Caribbean, namely in Jamaica, Guyana and Trinidad, where the importation of Chinese indentured workers was more heavily recruited.

The bulk of Chinese indentured labor to the Caribbean occurred between 1853 and 1866. Despite the focus on the three English-speaking countries, Lee-Loy from time to time expanded her focus to include the Chinese presence in Cuba.  The book is the exploration of a process of belonging and non-belonging in the region. 

Indeed, the author is careful to point to the ambiguous images of belonging of Chinese people in the Caribbean.  Although its focus is on literary representations of Chinese citizens of the region, the book goes to great length to situate the Chinese presence in an historical context.  Lee-Loy takes the reader on a journey in time from the point of Chinese indentured labor, and the way in which these immigrants were compared to both people of African and Indian descent in the region. There is an interesting story here about the control of labor and of sowing divisions among workers along racial lines.  The characterization of Chinese indentured workers was often one that was made up of compliant subjects, who were efficient, and least likely to rebel.

One of the important contributions of this book is to present a more nuanced understanding of the Chinese images in the region that move beyond stereotypes.  There is very little literary work in the region that focuses exclusively on Chinese Caribbean people, so that Lee-Loy’s analysis revolves around minor characters as opposed to book-length treatments of this community. 

Another strength of the book is her analysis of the representation of  Chinese Caribbean persons as having an alien presence in the region.  Some of these representations directly place the Chinese at odds with other Caribbean people.  There are also other images of the Chinese man as a sexual predatory, who by virtue of his financial resources, mainly in terms of shop-ownership, preys on economically vulnerably women.  It is the Chinese shop that also gives us some insight into the perception of the Chinese Caribbean identity that is important to the phenomenon of the nation.  Lee-Loy summaries this issue in the following manner: “The Chinese shop, like West Indian literature in general, must therefore be recognized as a site of performance, that is, a site of contact and exchange between West Indians, where ideas of exclusion and inclusion, suspicion and trust, hostility and camaraderie – namely, ambiguous everyday ideas of belonging – are given tangible meaning through repetitive stylized gestures”. 

The book is clearly written, broadly interdisciplinary, makes an important contribution to the understanding of a neglected ethnic community in the Caribbean, and would add to the storehouse of information on race, ethnicity, gender, class, national identity and community in the Caribbean.  This book is certainly worthy of the Gordon K. and Sybil Lewis award.

The drama behind the drama of Asian American Plays for a New Generation

In this week’s entry, Rick Shiomi, co-editor of Asian American Plays for a New Generation provides the backstories for two plays in this exciting new collection.

Every play that Mu Performing Arts was involved with in Asian American Plays for a New Generation had an interesting backstory.  In relation to the actual production, there was always some quirky event that shed light on our company and/or the process of how these plays were developed, produced and eventually published.

For Asiamnesia, by Sun Mee Chomet, it was the painstaking process that started as a project that involving half a dozen Asian American female writers. Playwright Sun Mee wanted to gather various writers together to co-write the play.  So after a couple of drafts and readings that didn’t work because the voices and styles were too disparate, Randy Reyes, the dramaturg and director for the project, pushed to have one last revision done with Sun Mee as the sole playwright. This version include the poem “Yellow Girl” by Katie Hae Leo, one of the original writers in the group.  That draft showed a new promise that was largely fulfilled in the eventual production of the play.  Bringing Asaimnesia  to the stage was one of those odd journeys where the answer was no, no, and no until it turned to yes!; we think it will work.  There was a clear passion and belief in the project even when it didn’t work, but also a willingness to listen to the feedback and make changes based upon that.  The play was recognized by Rohan Preston of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis as the best new script of 2008.

For Bahala Na by Clarence Coo, it was the change in our attitude from reading the play on paper to hearing it at a reading.  When the play was originally submitted, none of our readers were impressed by the play. However, there was a feeling that it should at least be given a reading.  The style seemed unnaturally lyrical and non realistic, but then it was difficult to find someone to direct the reading.  Finally after some difficulty, some excerpts of the play were read at our New Eyes Festival in 2005 and all of us immediately knew we wanted to produce the play. The lyrical style that seemed odd on paper, sounded so beautiful when read aloud; the characters just came alive.  We produced the world premiere production of the play in Sept. 2007.

What remains clear, even in these two examples, is how elusive and unpredictable the creative process is.  What appears not to work with one draft can be turned around in another and what appears odd on paper can appear fluid and natural on stage.  We all know this, and yet continue to be surprised by the twists and turns taken on creative projects.  That’s what makes being an artist such a fantastic trip.

Reflectiona about writing about Vietnamese American literature

In this blog entry, author Isabelle Thuy Pelaud explains that her inspiration for writing this is all I choose to tell: History and Hybridity in Vietnamese American Literature came from her involvement in the Vietnamese American writers community.

I have been active in promoting Vietnamese American literature for almost twenty years, organizing or participating in many literary events myself. All these years I have heard complaints from writers about the limiting pressure to represent the refugee experience for a mainstream audience in search of resolution for the Vietnam War.

This recurrent theme became central to my argument. I used interviews, reviews of the literature and close examination of the texts to address it.  Since no book on Vietnamese American literature had been written, I complemented my observations and analysis with a general introduction of the literature spanning over forty years and generated a framework for reading these texts. I advocate taking into account

the overall Vietnamese American experience. Vietnamese Americans are not only refugees, they are also from a country that has been colonized. And they are also immigrants who often maintained transnational linkages.

One challenge in writing this book was that the stories I read did not always fit neatly with some of the theories and concepts in Asian American Studies.  The examination of transnational identities is at times disputed because it is said to lead to depolitization and dehistorization. I did not see the narratives purely as acts of resistance or accommodation to White hegemony. Sometimes they are those together and sometimes they are more concerned with other issues like finding closure with a past located outside the United States. These stories forced me to reconsider what I had learned and to open myself to new themes and contradictions within the texts. I also struggled with my own contradictions, by this I mean between my own view of identity as being something fluid and always changing in relation to the environment and various axes of power, and my own political drive to represent and include these voices within American society. I opted to make this tension clear and selected texts to illustrate this tension. The first two (Andrew Pham’s Catfish and Mandala and Lan Cao’s Monkey Bridge), although they do so with a certain degree of ambivalence, seek to represent the Vietnamese American experience, and the two others (Truong Tran’s dust and conscience and Linh Dinh’s Fake House) reject more forcefully the representation imperative.

Other challenges had to do with time and space. I teach at California State University where the focus is on teaching, leaving little time for research. Faculties have to compete for limited resources to obtain release times. At times I thought of not applying to university grants so that others have more chances to receive them. My attempt to write an academic book was nonetheless misconstrued by some as not community-oriented enough. This tension between academic and community orientations in Ethnic Studies is common. The most difficult part for me in writing this book was to uphold my vision and keep my focus. I could not have maintained my slow but steady progress without the support of my family, friends and mentors.

What also helped me a great deal is that I know many of the writers. When I had a question and did not understand a passage clearly, I could send them an e-mail, call them or meet them for coffee. I believe that my own Vietnamese, mixed race and working class background further helped me capture certain insights and remain independent minded. I did not attempt to replicate other literary criticism books in my field. I was more interested in applying theories than formulating new ones. I acknowledged the importance of history for Vietnamese Americans and in Vietnamese American literature in a context where these perspectives are absent from the official history of the nation. I provided a chapter to the actual Vietnamese American history that I saw as relevant to the understanding of the texts and supported my call for a broader interpretation that includes, but is not limited, to the refugee experience. Finally, I did let go of trying to please an audience, whether it is an academic, community or mainstream one.

I hope this book will be a significant step toward the inclusion of Vietnamese American literature in American society and that some of my observations and approach will contribute to the development of Asian American Literary Studies. To suggest for instance that identity politics may at time by used by narrators as shields to protect themselves is not too lessen the importance of that identity. It points however to the lack of accountability, understanding and support from this society for those who are no longer regarded as useful to its geopolitical interests, and of the still overwhelming relevance of the issue of belonging in our own terms.

Exploring China’s “talent markets”

Temple University Press author Lisa M. Hoffman explains what prompted her to write about the Chinese “talent markets” in her new book Patriotic Professionalism in Urban China

My first trip to China was in 1988, when I went to Beijing to teach English for a year. That landed me in the city for the student movement in 1989 and the subsequent crackdown on June 4th. In some ways that was the beginning of my interest in young urban college students and their aspirations, although my studies began in earnest when I returned to the U.S. and went to graduate school.

When I learned of Dalian’s strategy to become the Hong Kong of the North, I was fascinated. It wasn’t until the very end of my first visit to the city that I heard of a place called the “talent market.” I still remember going there for the first time and the sense I had that this was something very new in China. Certainly college graduates had been allowed to look for work on their own by 1993, but the creation of a specific place in the city for independent “talented” workers to find employers in a “marketplace” was noteworthy. I really wanted to understand what was happening in these exchanges, how people understood themselves in these new roles, and what this meant for the relationship between labor and the state.

I will admit that I was not expecting to hear so much about the country (China) and patriotic ideals as these young graduates and working professionals planned their own futures. It seemed very reasonable to expect explicit narratives of self-development (which I did hear), and not to hear much about collective responsibilities.

Yet it was a persistent message in interviews and more ad hoc conversations, suggesting it was not simply propaganda or some kind of rehearsed speech that is expressed to foreigners. Also, as I became friends with people I interviewed, we would meet for meals, coffee, or leisure outings around the city. These events pushed my research into the city itself, helping me to understand that the young professionals’ sense of self was tied quite closely to the remaking of the city.

As I paid more attention to descriptions of the city Dalian wanted to become, I realized that they often paralleled the way the young people described themselves and their futures. Patriotic Professionalism in Urban China, in other words, grew out of a variety of experiences, some planned, and others that were accidents of history.

Patriotic Professionalism in Urban China by Lisa M. Hoffman is now available from Temple University Press


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