A Q&A with UNSETTLED author Eric Tang for University Press Week

In this Q&A, Eric Tang, author of Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the New York City Hyperghettotalks with Temple University Press publicist Gary Kramer about the value of publishing with a University Press and the books that were influential to him as a scholar and reader.

GK: Why publish with a University Press? 

ET: Professors are expected to publish (their first book at least) with a University press. The expectation is that our books should be making a contribution to a certain academic field. At the same time, however, there’s this pull I feel to speak to a much broader audience—especially because I situate myself in the field of race and ethnic studies—and this led to my decision to publish with Temple.

GK: What made you choose to publish Unsettled with Temple University Press?

Unsettled_smET: Temple University Press has a long track record in race and ethnic studies. Its Asian American Studies history and culture series is the oldest and most established of its kind. When I first started reading about race, racism and social movements as an undergrad in the 1990s, TUP published some of my favorite titles. But more importantly, I noticed how those outside of academia were also familiar with these TUP titles—activist, community organizers, and artists were also reading the Press’ books. So I’ve always thought of TUP as more than an academic press; it was clear to me that it had a reach with other audiences, and this is why TUP was at the top of my list when I was looking for a home for Unsettled.

GK: What observations do you have about your experiences with a university press?

ET: There are a lot of things that go into making one’s decision on which press to sign with. Having gone through the process, I feel certain that the decision should hinge on whether or not the editor you will be working with really wants and gets your project. You can tell from your initial conversation with the editor if they are excited about the unique argument and contribution you desire to make in your book—if they would actually look forward to reading your book regardless of who you published with. Granted, professors are known to have healthy egos and many of us believe that everybody wants to read our books, but there’s a way in which that initial conversation with a potential editor should go—I would define it as less salesmanship and more geek—that should tip you off and make you feel certain that this particular editor and press is right for you. That’s the kind of situation that I had with my editor at Temple.

GK: What do you see as the benefits and challenges of university press publishing?

ET: The clear benefit of publishing with the university press is that it gets your book directly into the hands of your core audience: colleagues, graduate students, and undergraduates. The press promotes your books through academic journals and at conferences, and it gets your book reviewed by peers. The university press is set up do to all of this, which is terrific.

As for challenges, the university press is obviously smaller than the trade press and therefore under-resourced. This means that whatever advance you might receive will be relatively small (and usually a first-time author won’t receive any advance) and there is very little money they offer to support authors on the production end—with essential pieces like paying for permissions and indexing. Authors have to absorb the cost of these things (or find external funding to support these items).

Also, the university press does not have a lot of advertising dollars to promote your book beyond the core academic audience. Still, if a certain university press has a marketing team with extensive experience and contacts, this can more than make up for what that press may lack in raw dollars. I think it’s a mistake to think that a small university press can’t get a book reviewed in the New York Times or covered on National Public Radio. I’ve seen it happen a lot, and TUP is an excellent example of a press that reaches large markets despite its relatively small size.

GK: How involved were you as an author with elements such as cover design, editing, layout, endorsements, and other aspects related to the publication of your book.

ET: As for the cover design and other design elements, I think it’s important for the author to be very clear about the look he or she desires. Pick out some images that you wish to have on the cover, and present the press with some examples of other book covers that you really admire so that its design people have a clear sense of what you want. Even go so far as to make some font suggestions. However, once you do this—once you are clear about what you want—I think it’s important for you (the author) to get out of the way and let the press do its work. Don’t try to micro-manage the process or think that you are in a position to go back and forth a dozen times with the designer until they get it just right. This was my general disposition to the book design process with TUP, and it paid off for me. I was very impressed with the cover they came up with and I didn’t ask them to change a thing.

GK: How has university press publishing helped your career?

ET: To the extent that publishing a book with a university press is essential to meeting the criteria for promotion and tenure at a major research university, then publishing with TUP has already paid off for me. But beyond climbing the career ladder, it has also put me in touch with other scholars who I would have never met or heard from otherwise. In fact, the other day I received an email from a faculty member from the University of Hong Kong who read Unsettled and gave me wonderful feedback.

GK: What are your thoughts on the university press community as a whole?

ET: I think the university press has been in a steady process of moving away from its reputation as publishing house for arcane scholarly work that isn’t accessible to the public. Increasingly, I see it taking on issues that are at the center of the public discourse: police violence, immigration, LGBT issues. But as is it takes on these issues, it holds its authors accountable to scholarly rigor. Writers are expected to tell new stories, offer new ways of looking at these matters, while at the same time being in conversation with the existing scholarship. In other words, one gets the best of both worlds with the university press.

GK: What books are you currently reading?

I’m currently re-reading two disparate works in preparation for my next manuscript. I’m putting these two works in conversation with each other (at least in my own head!): Sylvia Winter: On Being Human As Praxis edited by Katherine McKittrick and Mike Tyson’s autobiography Undisputed Truth. Both books are revelatory and devastating on their own, and placed together they are a true gift.

GK: Was there a particularly significant titles that influenced your work and career? 

542_regET: George Lipsitz’s A Life in the Struggle: Ivory Perry and the Culture of Opposition was formative for me. For an example of how good scholarship should read—how it should hew to the sensibilities of  those it writes about—I consistently turn to Robin Kelley’s Race Rebels. For pure inspiration, Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak! made me understand what writing was all about, what it does for the political. Of course it made me want to be a writer, and at the same time scared me to death about what that meant, what it really takes. I guess you can say I am still stuck in the mid-1990s! It’s true for the music, too—hip hop between 1994-1996 is still the pinnacle for me.

GK: What would folks be surprised to discover you reading/on your bookshelf?

ET: I will read anything. From the brilliant books mentioned above to worst, most destructive self-help books you can imagine (precisely why I get to airports early for my flights — to catch up on the latest self-help degeneracy). I’m also a bit of a fanboy, I read comics. Right now, I love Saga (Image comics): all about race, gender, biopolitics and liberal warfare. I will teach it one day. The X-Men, of course. I’m staring at a stack of comics about Wolverine I just picked up at Austin’s comic con, they are resting on top of Lisa Lowe’s The Intimacies of Four Continents.

Celebrating University Press Week: Surprise!

November 8-14 is University Press Week. Since 2012, we have celebrated University Press Week each year to help tell the story of how university press publishing supports scholarship, culture, and both local and global communities.

Today’s theme: Surprise!

University Press of Florida provides recipes and photos from recent UPF cookbooks that have changed how people view the Sunshine State, highlighting a thriving food scene that has often gone unnoticed amid the state’s highly-publicized beaches and theme parks.

University Press of New England blogs about the unusual success of a book from our trade imprint, ForeEdge—the book titled Winning Marriage, by Marc Solomon, tracing the years-long, state-by-state legal battle for marriage equality in America. Surprises came in many forms: from the serendipitous timing of the book’s publication with the Supreme Court ruling to the book’s ability to resonate with general readers and legal scholars alike—and many others surprises in between.

University Press of Mississippi Steve Yates, marketing director at University Press of Mississippi, describes how the Press has partnered with Lemuria Books in Jackson and writers across the state to create the Mississippi Books page at the Clarion Ledger.

University Press of Kentucky We’re surprising everyone with a pop quiz about some surprising facts about AAUP Member Presses.

University of Nebraska Press We’re more than our books! Find out about the UNP staff and who we are.

University of California Press UC Press’ Luminos and Collabra OA publishing platforms (inclusion in slideshow AAUP is creating)

University of Wisconsin Press Mystery fiction is a surprise hit, and a surprisingly good fit, at the University of Wisconsin Press. Our sleuths in several series include a duo of globe-trotting art history experts, a Wisconsin sheriff in a favorite tourist destination, a gay literature professor, and a tough detective who quotes Shakespeare and Melville.

Help us Celebrate!

  • Use the hashtag #ReadUP that presses have been using all year to talk about the work we publish—maybe use it to draw your book into University Press Week conversations.
  • Tell the story of publishing with us with the hashtag #PublishUP.
  • Join our #UPshelfie campaign (we are continuing this campaign from last year if you Google #UPshelfie you will find them!). Show us what university press books are on your shelf!
  • Subscribe to the University Press Week newsletter here, keep an eye out for the 2015 UP Week infographic, and attend one of our online events.

Apologies for the past are political theater

In this blog entry, Ashraf Rushdy writes about the recent phenomenon of apologizing for the past and how it shaped his book, A Guilted Age.

On August 15, 2015, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe apologized for Japan’s aggression during the war and for its colonization of China and Korea. His apology was delivered on the seventieth anniversary of the end of WW II in the Pacific theater.

His apology, according to most commentators, used all the right words – and, in Japan, there is a significant difference in terms that express “deep remorse” and those that offer actual “apology” – but his apology nonetheless did not ring true.  The New York Times called it an “echo,” and the Japan Times referred to it as his “sorry apology of an apology.”  Partly, the effect of insincerity came from the fact that Abe was echoing previous prime ministers’ apologies and making it clear that he was part of a different historical trajectory.  He was, after all, the first Japanese prime minister born after the war, and he therefore belonged to that vast majority of eighty percent of Japanese who, like him, as he reminded us, were born to a postwar world.  So, even while he insisted in a repeated refrain at the end of his speech that Japan must “engrave in our hearts the past,” it was clear that he was tired of being haunted by it.  What he wanted was for future generations “to inherit the past,” but not “be predestined to apologize” for it.  The other reason that his apology rang as insincere is that he sent a monetary gift to the Yasukuni Shrine, which celebrates Japan’s military might, houses the remains of some of its war criminals, and represents to Japan’s neighbors precisely the kind of aggressive ultranationalist politics that led to their colonization.

It was an apology that the world expected, one on which Abe had certainly received a great deal of advice, not only from the panel he set up to consider the wording of the statement, but also from foreign media pundits and political figures.  Indeed, a few months before, no one less than German Chancellor Angela Merkel had urged him not to water down the anniversary apology and pointed out, in a perhaps unwelcome bit of comparison, that Germany had been able to “face our history” and apologize and therefore establish good relations with her neighbors.

Abe’s apology, then, like all political theater, was anticipated, scripted, advised, delivered, and then reviewed.

What does it mean when a politician offers an apology on behalf of a nation for that nation’s past actions?  How did apology become a recognized form in international relations – a diplomatic instrument in the same way as treaties, tribunals, and trade agreements?  That is part of the story I explore and tell in A Guilted Age.

Guilted Age_smIntrigued by this political development, and what it might tell us about the postwar epoch, I set out to discern how apologizing for the past emerged as a practice.  There are notable moments in that relatively short history that stand out for us: Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s apology on the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war resonates as Japan’s most felicitous statement of contrition, and German President Richard von Weisacker’s on the fortieth anniversary quickly became the gold standard for political apologies.  I wanted not only to appreciate these important moments, though; I wanted to understand what these apologies were doing, and what led to the widespread belief that they could do this particular work. I wanted, in other words, to discern just what kind of political events and philosophical responses to them inaugurated a guilted age in which public apologies for the past could flourish.

As I undertook my research, it quickly became clear that we lived in a world awash in apologies of all sorts.  Corrupt politicians, scandal-prone celebrities, and rogue corporations regularly apologized to the public – and it was assumed that the public needed this confirmation of penitence.  What struck me was that these apologies differed in meaningful ways – and not just in the fact that some came across as more sincere and others as less.  They differed substantially in what they addressed.  I felt that it was important to make distinctions, and the one that seemed to me particularly salient was whether the event for which the apology was offered had direct survivors or not.  When Abe apologizes for Japan’s conduct during the war, the so-called Korean “comfort women” hear him, as do survivors of Japanese war camps.  When Pope John Paul II apologized for the Crusades, no one who heard his apology was directly affected by the event.  The historical event for which apologies have been offered – colonization, slavery, religious wars – assuredly have palpable and deeply significant effects on our modern world, but the apologies for them differ, in tone and meaning, because they are addressed in a different way to a different audience.  That distinction, then, between apologies that are for recent political events for which we have survivors (WW II) and older historical events for which we don’t, was worth making so we can better understand the different kinds of works these two distinct sorts of apologies do.

Having explored their origins, and made distinctions among the different kinds of apologies for the past, I set out to understand in just what ways we could understand what these apologies represent.  I focused on two topics.

The first has to do with what precisely an apology does.  Many commentators believe that an apology can undo the offending behavior.  Most of them – but not all of them – believe that this is true in a symbolic rather than a physical sense.  When I say I am sorry that I stepped on your shoe, I indicate that it was done by accident and not maliciously, and so you do not feel that you were targeted or disrespected by the event.  The effects of the event are changed; your rising resentment at being mistreated is derailed and changed to something else.  In that way, an apology can undo what was done.  The analogue statement is “forgive and forget,” which likewise sees the value of erasing the past.  Such an idea, of course, translates badly when we think of larger political and historical events for which apologies are offered; and I wanted to see just how this deep belief in the power of apology’s capacity to erase might residually affect what apologies for the past mean.

The second has to do with what an apology is supposed to express, namely sorrow.  There is a key ambiguity in that idea that politicians and other people with less power sometimes take advantage of by saying we are sorry for instead of being sorry that.  “I am sorry for your loss” means one thing; “I am sorry that I stepped on your shoe” means quite another.  One consoles by grieving, the other accepts responsibility.  That ambiguity is sometimes used deviously in political apologies.  When China demanded an apology from the Bush administration for the downing of one of its military planes, Secretary of State Colin Powell apologized by saying that America was sorry for the loss, but made it patently clear that the administration was not accepting responsibility for the event of the loss.  In other cases, though, the ambiguity appears to be more of an honest categorical mistake made by people who perhaps intuit that grieving is the more appropriate tenor for the occasion.  By looking at key moments in that history and examining some particular apologies, I show that apologies for the past that seem to express contrition are actually expressing mourning, and why that matters.

Apologizing for the past is a relatively new phenomenon, and one that bears our understanding better because it both has great potential and carries great risk. The past matters because we live in a world formed from it, and we need to figure out in what ways we can address it. Some have revered it, others reviled it, some see in it randomness, and others a discernible and meaningful pattern. To these older approaches, we can add those who wish to draw inspiration from it by being consoled that it is past, by redressing its ongoing damages, and, maybe, by atoning for it – and thereby claiming it – in words, gestures, and a mixture of celebration and grief.

Terrorizing Latina/o Immigrants

This week in North Philly Notes, Anna Sampaio, author of Terrorizing Latina/o Immigrants, writes about sanctuary cities and immigration enforcement policies that continue to discriminate against foreigners.

Congress is once again embroiled in a debate about security and safety that trades on racialized fears of Latina/o immigrants, constructing them as criminal threats ready to take advantage of the generosity of “sanctuary cities” and calling upon an army of local law enforcement to aid in their restriction, detention and removal. In addition to being wholly manufactured, these debates around security and threatening foreigners plays to the worst instances of racism and allows for an entire population to be summarily targeted without justification. Moreover, the new legislation banning so-called “sanctuary cities” extends a pattern of restriction and punishment aimed at Latina/o immigrants to cities, states, and local governments that refuse to conform – locations such as San Francisco that have the audacity to uphold constitutional protections, due process, and the safety of all its residents.

Lost in the conservative fervor surrounding the new sanctuary city legislation is the volume of existing legislation, policies, departmental directives, programs, initiatives, task forces, databases, regional and local associations, vigilante groups along with a myriad of federal, state, and local departments devoted almost entirely to targeting, scrutinizing, restricting, encumbering, detaining and ultimately removing the population of immigrants at the center of the sanctuary city debate. In other words, immigration politics and policy has been steadily reorganized and restructured over the past 25 years into a system centered disproportionately around restriction and enforcement.

Terrorizing Latina_o Immigrants_smBeginning in the early 1990s, with the shift in enforcement strategies emphasizing “concentrated enforcement” along the U.S.-Mexico border – restrictionists in Congress buoyed by anti-immigrant hysteria dedicated unprecedented resources and money to targeting, detaining and removing undocumented immigrants. This included large scale increases in border patrol agents and increased time spent on border control activities, installation of fencing and physical barriers, and use of advanced surveillance equipment such as sensors and video equipment, infrared night-vision devices, forward–looking infrared systems, and drones. By 1996, efforts to deter undocumented immigrants through programs such as Operation Gatekeeper had effectively militarized the border while worksite raids resurfaced across the country. Moreover, the budget for INS doubled between 1993-1997, from $400 million to $800 million.

This dedication of unprecedented resources, time, and money toward restricting largely Mexican immigrants was succeeded by an era of enforcement, fed by a host of anti-immigrant legislation in the late 1990s that was accelerated in the era of security after 9/11. Anti-immigrant legislation proliferated in the late 1990s most notably with the passage of the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA). Together, these laws increased scrutiny of immigrants, increased penalties for unlawful presence, severely restrained judicial review and due process, facilitated increased detentions and deportations, and created a system to expand immigration enforcement by deputizing local law enforcement as immigration agents. This union of local and federal immigration agents facilitated through the creation of 287 (g) agreements “permitting designated officers to perform immigration law enforcement functions,” eroded the standards for separation between these law enforcement agencies enabling increasing entanglements such as Operation Return to Sender, the Secure Communities Program, fusion centers, the proliferation of Fugitive Operation teams carrying out large scale raids and round-ups.  Despite evidence of widespread racial profiling, insufficient oversight from the federal government, inadequate training, and incidents of abuse designed in some cases to “purge towns and cities of ‘unwelcome’ immigrants…resulting in the harassment of citizens and isolation of the Hispanic community” these collaborations between federal immigration enforcement agents and local law enforcement only proliferated after 9/11 as did the targeting and terrorizing of Latina/o immigrants.

Thus, between 2001-2009 over 2000 immigration related bills were introduced into Congress with the vast preponderance of those signed into law restricting immigrants and the most common and consistent restrictions resulting from expansions of  law enforcement scrutiny made possible through the empowerment (or extension of capacity) of local and state level law enforcement to execute greater levels of investigation, review, apprehension, and/or cooperation on immigration matters.

After 9/11 this process of deputizing local law enforcement to act as immigration agents, gained renewed vigor as additional memoranda of understanding were crafted between federal agencies and local law enforcement, and state and local personnel were granted security clearances required to access secured information in federal databases. With the creation of the Secured Communities Program in 2008 state, local and even tribal law enforcement agents had become thoroughly intertwined with federal immigration enforcement and consequently the number of immigrant detentions and deportations skyrocketed. Constructed as threats to national security, immigrants were now exposed to arrest and in several cases extended detention for even minor infractions of local ordinances, and increasing deportation. Between 1999 and 2007, immigrant detentions increased by 78%; more importantly, many of those deported committed no actual crimes or only minor infractions that were elevated to deportable offenses within the changes in legislation.

Latina/o immigrants overwhelmingly bore the brunt of this system of security and enforcement as they constituted the largest percentage of foreign born persons but equally because the new legislation and policies rested on the manipulation of racialized fears of this population as foreign and threatening. This despite the fact that among the millions of Latina/o immigrants apprehended, detained and/or deported in this era of security, and despite claims to increasing public safety, no evidence of terrorist activity or threats to homeland security has been found among those apprehended. Moreover, despite Trump’s description of Mexican immigrants specifically as “criminals and rapists” the reality is that immigration has become increasingly feminized and costs of a system focused on enforcement, detention and deportation has been felt in additional women, parents, and children being incarcerated or separated.

Thus, as Congress and individual states once again debate enforcement and greater security against alleged criminal threats posed by Latina/o immigrants we are well served to remember the billions of federal, state and local dollars, time and resources already spent on scrutinizing, restricting, detaining and removing a population that poses no actual threat. In particular, the extension of immigration enforcement to local police and sheriff officers has not increased public safety or security, has not rooted out terrorist associations or abated homeland security risks, but has succeed in terrorizing a population already made vulnerable by the current immigration system. Moreover, heightened scrutiny has generated increasing numbers of detentions, (including indefinite detentions), deportations, raids in immigrant communities, criminalization of legitimate expressive activity, denial of basic services, rising fees, and persistent harassment at the hands of multiple law enforcement agents, with few if any sources of support or respite.  In short, the only interests served by the new legislation banning sanctuary cities are lawmakers looking to whip up racialized hysteria among their constituents in an election year, or enforcement institutions who stand to make millions more in further detention of immigrants.

A Blueprint for the Possible

This week in North Philly Notes, Bill V. Mullen, author of Un-Americanwrites about the legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois. 

Un-American was inspired by calls for social justice. In 2012, after the shooting death of Travyon Martin by George Zimmerman, a group of Chicago youth created the group “We Charge Genocide” to document police shootings of African-Americans in the city: http://wechargegenocide.org/about/. The group took its name from the 1951 petition to the United Nations, “We Charge Genocide,” co-signed by W.E.B. Du Bois. In it, Du Bois, William Patterson, Claudia Jones, Charlotta Bass, Paul Robeson, and a host of Black radicals accused the United States of state-sanctioned mass killings of African Americans. The petition was the first ever presented to an international body linking judicial killings in the U.S. to American imperialism abroad. It sutured American state violence at home to the dropping of atomic bombs overseas and the U.S. occupation of foreign lands. It called for a stop to both, and demanded that the United Nations recognize the historical grievances of African Americans as a problem demanding a global response.  Its subtitle might have been, “No Justice, No Peace.”
SoulsBlackFolksThe historical memory of Dr. Du Bois as an instigator and agitator of world-historical change is one Un-American seeks to resurrect and reconstruct. Too often, the W.E.B. presented in high school and University classrooms and in public commemoration is a genteel Dean of African American letters, an avuncular “race man” whose career is often reduced to sound bite-size passages from The Souls of Black Folk on “double consciousness,” his political thought caricatured as the frowning narrative of a village elder who drifted from civil rights dedication to blind advocate for socialism.

American exceptionalism, anti-Communism, and the Cold War have much to do with this misremembering and misrepresentation. Du Bois’s books were removed from shelves during the 1950s and 1960s owing to his statements of support for revolutions in China and the Soviet Union. Close friends, Black and White, abandon Du Bois late in life when he refused to denounce Stalin’s crimes, and continued to criticize the U.S. government as what Martin Luther King, Jr. would later call the “greatest purveyor of violence” in the modern world.

Un-American argues that remembering Dr. Du Bois accurately, and fully, requires remembering him as the rest of the world saw him and knew him. Because of his radical political commitments, Du Bois’s stature as a public intellectual and global figure rose outside the United States in inverse proportion to his shaming and blacklisting at home. Not just in the Communist world he himself embraced, but across Africa, Asia, and Europe, Du Bois by the end of his life was something like the Muhammad Ali of African American intellectuals of his time. His global reputation for international support for anti-colonial struggles, for the struggles of working-class people, for his criticism of imperialisms in all forms, also paved the way for world-wide recognition of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers who were themselves inspired by Du Bois’s global political and intellectual reach. Indeed, Du Bois was a transnational globe-trotting voice for change throughout his life, from his first, trip to Berlin as a student in 1892, to his death in Ghana in 1963.

Un-American_smUn-American then seeks to remember the “worldly” Du Bois whose embrace of and support for what the Communist International called “world revolution” is the most important vector of his political life and legacy. Recognizing this Du Bois means leaving behind not just provincial, nationalist frameworks for analysis, but appreciating the “scholar-activism” Du Bois himself set for himself as the highest bar of achievement. Put another way, writing a book about Du Bois in 2015 demands thinking through the warp and woof of theory and practice as it relates to building social movements, constructing international solidarity, conjuring transnational affiliation. It means engaging honestly and critically with the best and worst of revolutions made in the name of justice across the world in the last century, mindful of Walter Benjamin’s caution that “progress” can be both an excuse and a euphemism for brutality.

At the end of his life it was Du Bois the advocate for peace, for economic equality, for popular sovereignty, for universal health care, for women’s emancipation, for decolonization, for workers’ rights, for a nuclear-free world, that the planet grieved for in his passing. Un-American seeks to recreate a memory of that Du Bois as a way of mobilizing it and him for our own present and future.  As a current generation struggles against the same forces of police violence and racism the impelled Du Bois forward more than 70 years ago, we do well to remember that the long arc of his life and career bent not just toward justice but to political and social revolution. His life remains a blueprint for the possible.

Chronicling the unfinished odyssey of Bronx Cambodians

This week, Eric Tang, author of Unsettled likens the Cambodian refugees that are featured in his book to the current exodus of Syrian refugees to show connections of race, gender, and activism.

After they survived the Khmer Rouge genocide of the mid-to-late 1970s, followed by several years of confinement in international refugee camps, as many as 10,000 Southeast Asian refugees arrived to the Bronx during the 1980s and 1990s.

Unsettled chronicles the unfinished odyssey of Bronx Cambodians, closely following one woman and her family for several years as they both survive and resist their literal insertion into the Bronx “hyperghetto.” The term hyperghetto refers to the postwar structural decomposition of U.S. cities resulting from massive and compulsory unemployment, public and private disinvestment, and the hyper-segregation and confinement of the city’s poorest Black and Latino residents. It serves as a prime example of how late-capitalism and racial democracy failed far too many in the post-Civil Rights era.

Unsettled_smI wrote Unsettled  to reveal how Cambodian refugee resettlement to the United States did not mark the closing of the refugee sojourn, followed by the opening of a new era of peace and stability for those who fled their homeland. I wanted to show the ways in which the refugees remained displaced, their sojourn unclosed, owing to the false promises of federal policy makers and the unscrupulous actions of their handlers. Politicians talked boldly about delivering refugees into the arms of the free market, but there was never a meaningful economic plan tethered to U.S. refugee resettlement policy. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) offered only one-year of housing and job training assistance to refugees before they were cut loose, told to make it on their own. Meanwhile local resettlement agencies placed Cambodian refugees into ruinous housing units in some of the most economically marginalized neighborhoods in the Bronx. According to the past three decennial censuses, Southeast Asian refugees have held some of the highest welfare and poverty rates of any racial or ethnic group in the United States. Among Cambodian refugees living in New York City, 42.8 percent were living in poverty, 23.9 percent were unemployed, and 62 percent had less than a high school education twenty years after their resettlement. Over the past three decades the vast majority of Bronx Cambodians have subsisted on welfare programs (or what remains of them).

Despite these harsh realities, many Bronx Cambodians engaged in activism. Unsettled explores how Bronx Cambodians resisted conditions of poverty, violence, and housing discrimination. It pays attention to the unique process whereby community members developed an analysis of their conditions, reached consensus on their collective needs, and sought meaningful political redress through community organizing and direct action. Today, such activism continues through the community’s younger generation—the children and grandchildren of refugees—led by organizations such as Mekong NYC. The organization’s work, as told by director and community organizer Chhaya Chhoum is featured in key chapters of the book.

As an urban ethnography, Unsettled offers a new kind of discussion on race and gender in the contemporary city, particularly as it relates to the welfare-dependent and jobless urban poor. In this way, it departs from the core thesis of seminal texts in the sociology of immigration that, in the decade following refugee resettlement, predicted the seamless transition of Cambodian refugees into American labor markets as well as their eventual assimilation into Anglo-American culture. It serves as a rebuttal to research that seeks to ideologically remove the refugee from the grips of a Black and Latino “underclass”—the sociological pejorative used to describe racialized inner city poverty. By examining the ongoing phenomena of refugee poverty—that is, the manner in which Cambodian refugees of the Bronx simultaneously subsist in the welfare state and the sweatshop economy—Unsettled complicates the fixed race and gender identities that structure common-sense notions of the city: the immigrant working-poor on the one hand, the domestic and welfare-dependent underclass on the other.

Finally, Unsettled poses questions that are relevant to the present moment. The current exodus of Syrian refugees represents the “biggest humanitarian emergency of our era,” according the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.  Indeed, not since the Southeast Asian refugee crisis of the late-1970s and 1980s, have so many migrants from one region risked their lives, across land and sea, in search of asylum. Yet what happens after they are resettled to their new homelands? Have their struggles come to an end, or have they only just begun?

Celebrating Mural Arts Month

This week in North Philly Notes, we celebrate Mural Arts Month with a rundown of the various events sponsored by the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.

Phila Mural Arts 30_smThis October, amid the crisp fall leaves and sunny blue skies, we hope you’ll join the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts program for Open Source. 14 artists from Philadelphia and around the globe joined forces with Mural Arts to create a citywide, month-long explosion of phenomenal public art that’s housed all across the city. With over 40 Open Source events in October, there is something fun, unusual, educational, or fascinating going on almost every day. Not sure where to start? Here’s an Open Source overview.

Explore new things

Expand your horizons with Open Source lectures and artist talks. Shepard Fairey talks about Jasper Johns at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Sam Durant and others walk us through the labyrinth of the criminal justice system, creative people from across Philadelphia join the conversation with our muraLAB Live, and so much more. The wide-ranging discussions and intellectual explorations are the perfect time to get a taste of the innovation fueling Philadelphia’s creative life.

Phila Murals compTour the city

Discover the story behind the art with an Open Source tour. Guest tour guides like Mural Arts Executive Director Jane Golden, Open Source curator Pedro Alonzo, and Streets Dept photojournalist/blogger Conrad Benner will lead you through the art of Open Source, giving you the insider’s view of the biggest outdoor exhibition Philadelphia has ever seen. You can tour the art on the northern side of the city, the southern side of the city, all around Center City, or grab a combination ticket and see it all.

Get creative

You’ve read about the art. Now, come make your own! Check out street artist MOMO at The Franklin Institute to try your hand at art and geometry or join Heeseop Yoon on October 29 to learn how to use masking tape to create art.

MoreMuralsParty with the artists

Find Open Source in Center City on October 16 for our Philly DJ Mural Block Party, as we celebrate the end of the Philly DJ Mural Project, a yearlong program with a creative spin on music education for youth. Celebrate Shepard Fairey’s new mural, honoring Philly’s rich DJ history, and dance for hours to jams from Rich Medina, Cosmo Baker, Illvibe Collective, and Scratch Academy.

Need more Open Source? Visit opensource.muralarts.org for information about the exhibition, events, and the Mural Arts program.


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