Following Artists into Orphaned Space

This week in North Philly Notes, Mrill Ingram, author of Loving Orphaned Spacewrites about providing a new vision for the ignored and abused spaces around us.

Recently I had the opportunity to launch my new book, Loving Orphaned Space, the art and science of belonging to Earth, at a Madison, Wisconsin based community arts organization called Art + Literature Laboratory. I was really pleased to be able to celebrate the book at a center dedicated to expanding community participation and access to the arts. The book is rooted in research I pursued on art-science collaboration, which revealed to me a new perspective on how we sideline the arts as an optional, even leisure pursuit. I’ve learned how the arts can assist all of us in navigating the everyday and imagining and enacting a better future. It’s also provided a powerful new perspective for my writing on the environment. Because so many of us don’t experience the power art can play, we often don’t recognize what we are missing. Sharing that insight was one of the reasons I wrote my book.

Following artists around is likely to pull a person out of their comfort zone. It certainly has done so for me. For example, in my writing, I am compelled to center emotional impulses and images I might have previously sidelined. The roots of this book lie in what began as a very personal preoccupation with the scattered bits of open space so many of us are surrounded by, much of it dedicated to infrastructure and often abused. Why did I care about these spaces? Why did I want to know more about each one of them? By following artists (literally) as they venture into such spaces, occupying them in a variety of ways, my personal, individual feelings expanded into something more social, that involved feelings of belonging and connectedness, respect, and responsibility, as well as delight and surprise. Wow! All that in a street terrace!

In the book I describe the energy and the politics of keeping infrastructure spaces such as drainages, stormwater basins, abandoned gas stations, right of ways, so policed and “empty.” It is an active process, an “orphaning” that quite literally, disappears space by keeping ecological and social relationships simple. This takes physical effort – I’m talking about fencing, channelizing, lighting, herbiciding, and cementing. Brownfields are orphaned by the toxicity of pollutants they are storing. I want us to think about what this purposeful disciplining of space costs us. I’m also talking about a psychic erasure. We literally do not recognize this space as Earth. Our culture normalizes so much land as a commodity, something anonymous, bought and sold, and with infinite possible futures but no history.

Open space is an enormous amount of territory, representing some 25% to over 40% of land in many cities. This is true around the world, as cities expand, and shrink, at different rates than their populations shift. In the wake of the pandemic, this kind of territory is being increasingly seen as a “solution” to problems like polluted stormwater, flooding, urban heat islands, lack of green space in neighborhoods. But I think there’s more here. I see these as spaces of struggle. Their distribution is deeply influenced by histories of racism and discrimination. Through my work with artists, I came to understand such spaces as portals through which people like me, our privilege revealed by how easily we disappear all this space, can catch a glimpse of important history and relationships and recognize potential for action.

I share stories of artists who’ve helped me to see this disappeared space in new ways, but also present a general framework to help us appreciate the work of art in building new connections and producing new results. I argue that the arts, by engaging with science and technologies of infrastructure in new ways, can transform those processes, shifting the purpose and the outcomes of technical endeavors for new benefits and ends, including ways to address inequities. In the book, I describe discoveries in phytoremediation, a process by which plants help dismantle soil pollutants, produced by a Chicago based artist, and a new model for capturing dirty water running off roofs and parking lots. I also celebrate ways in which artists build unconventional relationships, including with nonhuman beings, that can free us up to realize new projects and to experience and feel in new ways. I write about this kind of expansive and emergent relationship building as artists’ “diplomacy,” a term inspired by Isabelle Stengers.

It took me a while to put many of these pieces together in a way that felt coherent enough to deserve a book. In some ways the process of “loving” orphaned space is just beginning for me. I see them anew every day. In preparing for the talk at the book launch, for example, I looked at an image of open space distribution in St. Paul, Minnesota. For the first time, I put together the lack of open space in what is a very open city, with the I-90 corridor, which, when built in the 1960s, obliterated parts of a thriving predominantly Black neighborhood. Many businesses were lost and 1 in every 8 Black households in Minneapolis lost a home. The neighborhood lives on, still rich, but adjacent to a thundering expressway with the health threats, disconnectedness, and loss of property values that freeways bring.

This kind of recognition is the opening of the orphaned space portal. To venture in, and to occupy, involves many skills I learned from artists. They are certainly not the only ones doing this work, nor should they be. But for me, they’ve enabled me to shift my perspective on the land around me. They’ve provided me with examples of how careful listening, telling stories, and building relationships inside and out, can connect humans to each other and to other beings in new ways that transcend notions of a functioning system and enter the realm of loving.

Listen Up! Temple University Press Podcast, Episode 5: Jennifer Lin, author of Beethoven in Beijing

This week in North Philly Notes, we debut the latest episode of the Temple University Press Podcast, host Sam Cohn interviews author Jennifer Lin about her book, Beethoven in Beijing: Stories from the Philadelphia Orchestra’s History Journey to China, which provides an eye-opening account of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s unprecedented 1973 tour. A companion volume to Lin’s documentary of the same name, this photo-rich oral history takes readers to the People’s Republic of China during the time when Western music was banned.

The Temple University Press Podcast is where you can hear about all the books you’ll want to read next.

Click here to listen

The Temple University Press Podcast is available wherever you find your podcasts, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Overcast, among other outlets.

About this episode

Eugene Ormandy was the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1971 when ping pong diplomacy was starting to thaw U.S.-China relations. (An American table tennis team was invited to Beijing—the first American group of any kind asked to visit mainland China since 1949). Wondering about the possibility of having the Orchestra visit, Ormandy’s idea soon became a reality with some assistance from the White House, and President Richard Nixon, and National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, among others. In 1973, the Philadelphia Orchestra embarked on a 10-day visit to Beijing and Shanghai to perform a series of concerts. This historic event is retold in Jennifer Lin’s Beethoven in Beijing, which recounts this remarkable breakthrough cultural exchange.

What Representations of Disability Add to Postcolonial Literature

This week in North Philly Notes, Christopher Krentz, author of Elusive Kinship: Disability and Human Rights in Postcolonial Literature, writes about the significance and utility of disabled characters in novels from the Global South.

About two decades ago, the scholar Ato Quayson noted that postcolonial literature is full of disabled characters, an intriguing insight that sent me searching for examples. Among those I quickly found:

  • In Chinua Achebe’s classic novel about Nigeria, Things Fall Apart (1958), the Igbo clan’s formidable war medicine is associated with a one-legged woman;
  • A partially deaf, cracking, impaired character narrates Salman Rushdie’s Booker-Prize-winning Midnight’s Children (1981); incredibly, he connects telepathically with other children born in the first hour of India’s independence;
  • Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K (1983) focuses on a cognitively disabled man of color who traverses through a war-torn South Africa and is beset by hunger;
  • Edwidge Danticat’s story “Caroline’s Wedding,” from her collection Krik? Krak! (1996) tells of a beloved Haitian-American sister in New York City who has a missing forearm;
  • Anita Desai’s Fasting, Feasting (1999) recounts how an ungainly disabled daughter in small-town India is largely kept out of sight by her upper-middle-class family;
  • In Chris Abani’s short novel Song for Night (2007), the narrator is a boy soldier in a war in Nigeria who has had his vocal cords severed and communicates with others through an improvised sign language;
  • The narrator of Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People (2007) is an exuberant boy in India who has a bent spine and goes around on all fours as a result of a chemical plant disaster;
  • The story in Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory (2015) is related by an albino woman in Zimbabwe who encounters both intense stigma rooted in traditional metaphysical beliefs and unexpected kindness.

And there are so many more examples! 

The examples made me realize that, far from being incidental, disabled characters are integral to the energy and vitality of literature in English from the Global South. These are great stories, and part of their greatness is how writers repeatedly deploy disability in creative, original ways. Through figures of disability, authors make any number of pressing topics more vivid, including such issues as the effects of colonialism and apartheid, global capitalism, racism and sexism, war, and environmental disaster. 

Furthermore, even at their most fantastic, such representations relate to the more than half a billion disabled people who live in the Global South, often in precarious circumstances. Disabled character can be both realistic and metaphorical.

In 2006, a few years after Quayson’s observation, the United Nations adopted its first human rights treaty of the twenty-first century: the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). I began to wonder if the prominence of disability in postcolonial literature should be linked to the gradual and global emergence of rights for disabled people—especially since both happened concurrently in the last half century or so. The representation of disabled people in this literature, I concluded, both directed and reflected this change in how disabled people are seen. 

In the last fifteen years, a new interdisciplinary field, the study of human rights and literature, has drawn connections and examined relations between fiction and human rights issues. As Joseph Slaughter puts it in Human Rights Inc., fiction—especially the bildungsroman in his case—is uniquely about rights as it typically serves to portray the relationship of an individual to society. Scholars in the field have used literature to explore the paradoxes surrounding human rights. Most of all, they show that literature can serve as a valuable form of witnessing human rights violations, making such issues more personal to readers in different times and places and compelling them to care. The first step in achieving rights, advocates realized back in the 1960s, is not laws or treaties but rather winning the public’s imagination.

While the study of human rights and literature has frequently dealt with postcolonial literature, it has not had much to say about disability. I hope Elusive Kinship can begin to fill that lacuna, enhancing our appreciation of literature in English from the Global South and nudging us toward making the world more hospitable for everyone.

Reviewing women-centric cinema in Bangladesh

This week in North Philly Notes, Elora Halim Chowdhury, author of Ethical Encounters: Transnational Feminism, Human Rights, and War Cinema in Bangladesh, writes about female representation in Muktijuddho films.

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A modern remake of Ajoy Kar’s 1961 film Saptapadi, Shameen Akhtar’s film Rina Brown (2017) unfolds intimate geographies of love and loss among individuals from India, and West and East Pakistan. One of few independent women filmmakers in Bangladesh, Akhtar offers a tale about unfulfilled dreams of love and freedom, set in contemporary Bangladesh (or, Dhaka City), that traces the return of Rina, an Anglo-Christian, to the now-independent nation that she left during the Bangladesh Liberation War (or, Muktijuddho). Forty years after the war’s end, Rina comes back to participate in a seminar about women in conflict. She seeks out her adolescent love, Darashiko, a Bengali Muslim freedom-fighter-turned-business-executive. Over the course of a long afternoon, the two reminisce about the fading aspirations of the nationalist struggle and its unreconciled trauma.

Though Rina’s past is indelibly linked to the history of Bangladesh, she is now a stranger whose suffering is incomprehensible to the post-war generation. As the couple look out on the sweeping urban landscape of Dhaka City, and think about what could have been, a vacant footbridge bereft of pedestrians serves as a metaphor to all that the war has torn asunder and imaginary borders, intractably entrenched. War changed everything, yet as Darashiko expresses forlornly, “We could not change the country.”

The poster for Rina Brown

I begin with this vignette from Akhtar’s film—a woman-centered Muktijuddho film—because it highlights what the essays in Ethical Encounters strive to do: reimagine a Muktijuddho gender ideology that through visual culture engages with, disrupts, and incites a new imaginary for gender justice. The collection defies conventional readings of the aesthetics and politics of Muktijuddho narratives. They tell stories of the birth of a nation from its margins, constructing a ‘Bangladeshi’ identity that embraces Bengali Muslims, as well as non-Muslims and non-Bengalis, coalescing into a national cinema that crystallizes an emergent Bangladeshi modernity. Yet at the same time, this modernity also relies on a middle-class and masculinist reading of the nation and its history. Ethical Encounters, inspired by women-centric cinema in Bangladesh, illuminates a feminine aesthetic as well as the politics of disruption and agency, healing, and reconciliation.

The poster for Meherjaan

The attempt to memorialize the varied experiences of women in the Liberation War is a way to advocate for and ingrain their complex, agential roles into the national history. Notably, instead of primarily focusing on state-level negotiations or masculine combat, films in this genre highlight the intimate, domestic, or “feminine” sphere as the site of struggle and meaning. By a “feminine” sphere, I mean those spaces that are usually considered feminized—and thus subordinated—within dominant patriarchal ideology. However, reframed, they can also be read as portrayals of nonconformity, mutuality, and solidarity. By allowing the viewer to remember, imagine, and work through traumatic events such as war and conflict through a feminine aesthetic, cinema can encourages appreciatiation of the moral choices and interpretive acts of women, previously consigned to only the “feminine” sphere, cast as passive victims or witnesses. Women in these films instead make unexpected, sometimes jarring, choices: nursing a wounded enemy soldier; seeking the assistance of a sympathetic Pakistani soldier after having been raped by others like him; and embracing a child of rape even when the nation rejects them. Recognizing these moral choices is a legacy of the war that viewers learn to appreciate through the cinematic medium, and these films are an evolving archive where diverse women’s stories are memorialized, as significant and precious as the memorials and museums the state erects to commemorate martyrs.

These films redefine what humanity, loss, and justice mean for victims, and reconfigure relationships between viewer, witness, and ally. They point to the open wound that 1971 still is, especially for women. This foundational trauma remains constitutive of the nation, and Muktijuddho cinema plays a pivotal role in constructing—and disrupting—the gendered subjectivities beget by the war’s legacy. Women’s cinema, and human rights cinema, capture more broad, transnational visions of feminist filmmaking. They recast the relationships of women to war—as plunder of the nation, as dislodged women from that nation—and question the terms of what constitutes the human in these fraught circumstances.

Ultimately, women-centric Muktijuddho films emplot global human rights narratives and aesthetics that defy reductive and monolithic renditions of social reality. They offer complexity and nuance beyond just a tussle between victims and aggressors, loss and triumph, and colonization and liberation. Simultaneously, they strive for more ethical recognitions, drawing on a multiplicity of histories, struggles, and experiences. Woman-centered films provide an alternative reading toward decolonizing notions of agency, freedom, and justice; they imagine a new kind of feminist knowledge-making.

Recommending a book that anticipated the 1619 project by more than 50 years

This week in North Philly Notes, William Cross, author of Black Identity Viewed from a Barber’s Chair, recommends a lost classic of African American writing. (That was alas, not published by Tempe University Press).

For those interested in the African American experience, I want to recommend Lerone Bennett, Jr’s generally overlooked masterpiece: Before the Mayflower, a History of the Negro in America 1619-1962I read it, at a much younger age, and although at the time, my consciousness was evolving; it was, nevertheless, too limited to fully appreciate that Bennettconsidered merely a historian who popularized history—evidenced what in fact was a level of historical consciousness the likes of DuBois, Herbert Guttman and others. 

As shown by the title, his book, published in 1966, anticipated the ongoing 1619 project by 56 years! Like the 1619 Project, Bennett’s narrative anchors the beginning of Africana within American history much sooner than is often argued. He links the accumulation of wealth from slavery that made it possible to capitalize the beginnings of industrialization in America as well as Europe. Bennett, much as anyone, captures in great detail, Abraham Lincoln’s tortured ambivalence and conflicting attitudes about race, Lincoln’s thoughts on the solution of the race problem through colonization, and the pressure put on Lincoln to sign the Emancipation proclamation. 

Bennett’s unique chapter on miscegenation interrogates the outrageous sexual lust and hypocrisy of the founding fathers that should be required reading in any contemporary history course. Most of the chapters are exciting to read because of his detailed, nuanced, elaborate, and telescopic narratives, as his words and phrases stimulate—within the mind of the reader—rich, colorful, dark as well brilliant images.  Time and again the writing creates in the mind of the reader, actions, verbal exchanges, and vivid descriptions that emote. Frankly, sections reflect the compositional style of an accomplished novelist. 

Ironically, he wrote to educate the average reader; but for those who are well informed, the book is an unexpected delight. Bennett helps one revisit familiar information and ideas and plays it back the way Miles Davis could transform a jazz standard. Given the disjuncture between how Bennett envisioned and narrated black history from what at the time was considered settled-history, the word that captures a great deal of the book is “daring.” 

History tends to favor “looking back” but Bennett’s narrative grounded the reader in the present, made it possible to understand the past in such a way as to make the future less surprising. Before the Mayflower is a hidden gem.

Beyond a Monolith

This week in North Philly Notes, James Lai, author of Asian American Connective Action in the Age of Social Media writes about what the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard Lawsuit Reveals about Emerging Political Identities in the Asian American Community and the role of Social Media Networks.

On January 24, 2022, the United States Supreme Court announced that it would be hearing the appeal of the federal Harvard Admissions case (Students for Fair Admissions v. Presidents and Fellows at Harvard College) in which a federal judge ruled that Harvard University did not discriminate against Asian American applicants. Arguably, in no other community has felt the divisions of the affirmative action issue than the demographically and ideologically diverse Asian American community. Despite these divisions, a common narrative by journalists has been to portray Asian Americans as a monolithic group in their stance against affirmative action policies creating a zero-sum game that pits Asian Americans on one side and other racial minorities (African Americans and Latinx) on the other side. Such depictions are inaccurate and fail to grasp the larger picture as one recent public opinion poll and study found that a majority (nearly sixty percent) of various Asian American ethnoracial groups generally support affirmative action policies since 2016. 

Upon closer examination, the Harvard lawsuit, in addition to others like it, reveals emerging political and group identities taking shape among the over 30 ethnoracial groups that comprise of the larger, contemporary Asian American community as well as how the process of connective action is facilitating the motivations behind these lawsuits. These identities among Asian Americans are shaped by emerging political contours such as class status, educational background, immigrant status, and political ideology, and amplified through social media platforms or digital counterpublics,  which refer to spaces where racial and ethnoracial groups can share experiences and challenge larger narratives in the mainstream media. Digital counterpublics can take the shape in the form of inward social networks (i.e. WeChat, a common app used by Chinese American immigrants that seeks to build consensus on issues along ethnoracial lines) and outward networks (i.e. common social media platforms like Twitter that typically seek to build consensus beyond a specific ethnoracial group). Political motivation represents one of the critical facilitators of connective action that has served as an adaptive political strategy for Asian Americans, which has the nation’s largest foreign-born population (nearly 70 percent in 2020), to mobilize politically both online and offline for their ideologically divergent voices in the public arena and discourse around various contentious topics.  

In the Harvard case, WeChat will continue to serve as a vehicle for framing, mobilizing, and fueling the political motivations around Harvard’s policy of the highly educated and working class Chinese American immigrants who make up a key constituency of the plaintiffs known as the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), which was created by Edward Blum, a conservative activist who has previously challenged affirmative action policies as seen with the University of Texas case. In addition to online counterpublics like WeChat, on February 3, 2022, sixteen days after the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would review the Harvard case, Edward Blum and SFFA released the full version and a trailer of the same video on YouTube entitled “Admissions” to serve as an online commercial on SFFA and their concerns now that they find themselves in the nation’s spotlight.  

However, what is often lost in the discussions are the connective action efforts by progressive Asian American activists, community leaders, and national Asian American civil rights organizations, who refuse to be portrayed as “racial mascots” or a racial wedge group. On Twitter, an outward social media network, Asian American progressive hashtags such as #NotYourWedge and #DefendDiversity have become synonymous with the tweeting and subtweeting of information related to the reasons for defending higher education diversity and why this issue matters for Asian Americans even if Asian American applicants are not likely to benefit from affirmative action policies. 

In this regrouping along ideological lines as illuminated by the Harvard case, new political coalition possibilities emerge in the Asian American community on both sides of the ideological spectrum where social media platforms have become a critical vehicle for online and offline political mobilization and shaping of public opinions around affirmative action. This will likely be the case for the diverse Asian American community on other bellwether issues in the future.

Celebrating National Library Week

This week, in North Philly Notes, in honor of National Library Week, we highlight Temple University Press’ Open Access books, journals, and collaborations

Labor Studies and Work From its start, Temple University Press has been known for publishing significant titles in labor studies. Given this long history, many of these titles have gone out of print. Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Press, in collaboration with Temple University Libraries, reissued 32 outstanding labor studies books in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats and made them freely available online. Chosen by an advisory board of scholars, labor studies experts, publishers, and librarians, each book contains a new foreword by a prominent scholar, reflecting on the content and placing it in historical context.

The grant enabled us to reissue the eight-volume The Black Worker series.

Knowledge Unlatched makes scholarly content freely available to everyone and contributes to the further development of the Open Access infrastructure. KU’s online marketplace provides libraries and institutions worldwide with a central place to support OA collections and models from leading publishing houses and new OA initiative.

Read an interview with Press author Jennifer Fredette, whose book, Constructing Muslims in Francwas one of the first KU titles. 

One of the recent Press titles in the Knowledge Unlatched program is Islam, Justice, and Democracy, by Sabri Ciftci.

We publish the open access journal, Commonwealth: A Journal of Pennsylvania Politics and Policy, on behalf of the Pennsylvania Political Science Association. In 2021 Commonwealth published a special issue on women in Pennsylvania politics.

Blind Author and Publisher Make Are You Two Sisters? Accessible

This week in North Philly Notes, Susan Krieger, author of Are You Two Sisters?, addresses the need for books to be made available in formats for the blind and others with print disabilities.

Because I am blind as well as a writer and a sociologist, each time I have a new book about to be published, I must take steps to make sure that book will be available for others like me, who are blind or have challenges in reading print.

In writing my books and articles, I use a screen reader: a computer program that translates text to speech. It reads aloud to me all the text on the screen, the dialog boxes, and the keystrokes as I type them. I hear my words spoken aloud rather than visually seeing them. As I wrote my latest book, Are You Two Sisters? The Journey of a Lesbian Couple, I listened intently to the words on the page as I typed them, going over and over the text of the book in my mind after hearing it spoken to me, making my revisions as needed.

When I submitted the final book manuscript to Temple University Press for copyediting and subsequent production, I was anxious about how the process would go. Would the copyeditor be responsive to my needs for a different way of entering proposed changes than is usually used for sighted authors? Would the final published book be one that I, a blind author, could easily read and be proud to disseminate to blind and print-disabled readers?

I am happy to say that Temple University Press has been extremely generous in assisting me in enabling the production of accessible versions of Are You Two Sisters? for the blind and print-disabled. The Press has made special efforts on my behalf through each stage of the production process—ensuring that the copyeditor would be sensitive to my needs for alternate ways of entering changes on the manuscript; preparing the typography of the book design in a manner that a person using a screen reader can accurately navigate; assigning a remediation specialist to work with me to produce an accessible ADA compliant PDF version of the book; and facilitating my production of an independent audiobook edition.

As a result, Are You Two Sisters? is now available in several alternate formats for blind and print-disabled readers. An accessible PDF and Word version can be obtained from the publisher or author; a Daisy digital text, Braille ready Format, or an ePub version can be obtained from Bookshare.org; and an independent audiobook version can be enjoyed through Audible.

Blind readers are well aware that the PDFs of books and articles are often hard to navigate. Although they look fine to sighted readers, the hidden codes or choices that have gone into these documents may be poorly executed and nonstandard and may pose overwhelming barriers to reading. Each time I have a new book published, I become painfully aware of those barriers and seek to overcome them.

I strongly believe that all print materials should be as accessible for blind and disabled readers as they are for the sighted. Sadly, in our world of abundant print—both in books and online—the playing field is not level. Most of the print in the world that is available to the sighted is not equally accessible to the blind. This is something that needs to be changed, but that will only happen when requirements for equal access are enforced and when authors and producers of print materials embark on the task of finding new ways of making information accessible. I am grateful to Temple University Press for allowing me to guide the accessibility process, and I hope that readers will enjoy Are You Two Sisters? in one of its several formats!

Caring Beside: Metaphors of Solidarity at the Bedside

This week in North Philly Notes, James Kyung-Jin Lee, author of Pedagogies of Woundedness, writes about “the horizontal ethics of care and politics of resistance” as well as the power that can come from the person lying on the bed.

            

In the epilogue of Pedagogies of Woundedness, I cite the opening scene of Johanna Hedva’s “Sick Woman Theory,” in which they describe listening to the sounds of a 2014 Black Lives Matter protest taking place outside their apartment, while Hedva was consigned to a bed because of a chronic illness: “Attached to the bed, I rose up my sick woman fist, in solidarity.” They then wonder what role ill/disabled people might play in revolutionary activity: “How do you throw a brick through the window of a bank if you can’t get out of bed?” Such a question resonates with a corresponding image that Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha conjures in her essay “Crip Superpowers,” that implores her readers and fellow activists to imagine, “We can community-organize flat on our ass in bed—as what the movement needs most.”

The horizontal body in space and time is the prevailing image of the patient consigned to the hospital bed that animates so much of the crucible of experience that animates physician memoirs, the contrast between the standing, able-bodied doctor hovering over, caring, surveilling, and enacting on the prone one in need of care and thus submitting to such diagnostic colonization. It is this asymmetry of power exemplified in bodily position that motivates both Hedva and Piepzna-Samarasinha to see the bedridden Asian American sick woman as nonetheless agentive. Here, I also take to heart Mel Chen’s meditation on Piepzna-Samarasinha’s insistence on a politics enabled “flat on our ass in bed” by their subtle but trenchant critique of the most widely used phrase to demonstrate solidarity with a cause or community or condition: “The grammar of ableist liberatory fervor is succinctly captured, for instance, in the widespread use today of declamatory campaigns that urge one to metaphorically ‘stand with’ various populations or politicians. Such a metaphor is constructed on the figurative imagining of a literal standing. The question becomes what might it mean to ‘stand with’ a figural group, when standing for wheelchair users, or those chronically ill ‘flat on our ass in bed,’ cannot readily invite such ‘politically aligned’ embodied action.” At the time of this writing, my social media feed is filled with posts that stand with the people of Ukraine, stand with LGBTQ+ kids in Florida and trans children in Texas, and of course all through the pandemic we were ostensibly standing with health care workers toiling in the desperate days and weeks of the worst of the COVID pandemic. I suppose that the lack of shortage of people standing with others is a small testament that wounded, vulnerable people receive some modicum of compassion that isn’t tethered to market forces or transactional expectation.

But Chen’s, Hedva’s, and Piepzna-Samarasinha’s insistence on a horizontal ethics of care and politics of resistance have hit home in ways that exceeded my imagination once the final draft of Pedagogies of Woundedness was locked. The following is a story which I have permission to disclose: a year ago, our older teenage daughter attempted suicide and in doing so revealed that she had been suffering from severe mental illness and associated trauma for years, unbeknownst to me and her mom. What followed was a long flight of various treatments, both outpatient and residential, and our family’s baptism into the world of mental health care. There have been and continue to be moments of crisis that punctuate periods of relative mental and emotional stability, and some rare moments of happiness for my daughter, and for the other members of the family. Early on, I clung to a restitution narrative, but we’re late into this story and I recognize now that my daughter is living a different genre. Early on, I stood over her bed desperately wishing she could join me, despairing that the aggressivity of her depression prevented her from even remaining conscious for hours at a time. Over time, I came to understand that standing with my daughter when she couldn’t get out of bed wasn’t all that much different from the physician’s diagnostic colonization of his patient.

So I’ve tried to shift my body and my metaphor to align with where my daughter is on any given day. On really tough days, as she lies in bed, I’ll sometimes lie on the floor and listen to the quiet sounds of her breathing. At moments when she is able to sit at her desk and is willing to let me into her space, I’ll pull up a chair: sometimes we sit face to face and at others side by side, as if we’re facing the world together. Stories of illness and disability, and the politics and ethics that emanate from these stories, the power that can come from the person lying on the bed, have taught me that there is and must be always more room to imagine solidarity with the vulnerable. Nowadays, I will only stand with people, like my daughter, if they want to stand, and if they give me permission to rise with them, if they let me take their hand into mine.

Women’s History Month: Anna May Wong

This week in North Philly Notes, in honor of Women’s History Month, we repost Shirley Jennifer Lim’s article about Anna May Wong that appeared in The Conversation on March 7.

The U.S. Mint will, over the next four years, issue quarters featuring the likenesses of American women who contributed to “the development and history of our country.”

The first batch of the American Women Quarters Program, announced in January 2022, includes astronaut Sally Ride and poet Maya Angelou.

One name on the list might be less familiar to some Americans: Chinese American actress Anna May Wong.

Back of quarter featuring engraving of woman.
Anna May Wong will appear on the back of a quarter as part of the U.S. Mint’s American Women Quarters Program. U.S. Mint via Getty Images

As someone who has written a biography on Wong, I was delighted to provide the U.S. Mint with Wong’s backstory.

The subject of renewed attention in recent years, Wong is often referred to as a Hollywood star – in fact, the U.S. Treasury describes her as “the first Chinese American film star in Hollywood.” And she certainly did dazzle in her roles.

But to me, this characterization diminishes her chief accomplishment: her capacity for reinvention. Hollywood continually stymied her ambitions. And yet out of the ashes of rejection, she persevered, becoming an Australian vaudeville chanteuse, a British theatrical luminary, a B-film pulp diva and an American television celebrity.

A star is born

Born just outside of Los Angeles’ Chinatown in 1905, Wong grew up witnessing movies being made all around her. She dreamed of one day becoming a leading lady.

Cutting classes in order to beg directors for roles, Wong began her career as an extra in Alla Nazimova’s 1919 classic film about China’s Boxer Rebellion, “The Red Lantern.” In 1922, at the age of 17, Wong landed her first starring role in “The Toll of the Sea,” playing a character based on Madame Butterfly. Her performance was well received, and she went on to be cast as the Mongol slave in the 1924 hit film “The Thief of Bagdad.”

However, she quickly hit a wall in an era when it was common to cast white actors in yellowface – having them tape their eyes, wear makeup and assume exaggerated accents and gestures – to play Asian characters. (This practice would continue for decades: In 1961, director Blake Edwards egregiously cast Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and as recently as 2015, Emma Stone was controversially cast as a part-Chinese, part-Hawaiian character in “Aloha.”) Wong would go on to land roles playing unnamed minor characters in the 1927 film “Old San Francisco” and “Across to Singapore,” which premiered a year later. But anything outside of typecast roles seemed out of reach.

Woman and man hold hands.
In ‘Daughter of the Dragon,’ Anna May Wong starred alongside Warner Oland, a Swedish-American actor who often appeared in yellowface. LMPC/Getty Images

In some ways, her career mirrored that of the great Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, who had forged a path for people of Asian Pacific descent in Hollywood. Hayakawa became a star through his headlining role in the 1915 Lasky-Famous Players film, “The Cheat.” However, as anti-Japanese sentiment increased in the U.S., his roles dried up. By 1922, he had left Hollywood.

European fame

Some actresses would have accepted their lot, grateful for the chance to simply appear in films.

Not Wong.

In 1928, fed up with a lack of opportunities in Hollywood, she packed her bags and sailed to Europe, where she became a global star.

Woman holding purse on sidewalk.
Wong poses in front of the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris in 1935. Bettmann/Getty Images

From 1928 to 1934 she made a series of movies for Germany’s Universum-Film Aktiengeselleschaft, and found work with other leading studios such as France’s Gaumont and Associated Talking Pictures in the U.K. She impressed in her roles, attracting the attention of luminaries such as the German intellectual Walter Benjamin, British actor Laurence Olivier, German actress Marlene Dietrich and African American actor Paul Robeson. In Europe, Wong joined the ranks of African American artists such as Robeson, Josephine Baker and Langston Hughes, who, frustrated by segregation in the U.S., had left the country and found adulation in Europe.

When film work wasn’t forthcoming, Wong turned to vaudeville. In 1934, she embarked on a European tour, where she sang, danced and acted before enthralled audiences in cities large and small, from Madrid to Göteborg, Sweden.

Wong’s revue showcased her chameleonlike powers to transform herself. In Göteborg, for example, she performed eight numbers that included the Chinese folk song “Jasmine Flower” and the contemporary French hit “Parlez-moi d’Amour.” Inhabiting a variety of roles and races, she seamlessly shifted from speaking Chinese to French, from portraying a folk singer to appearing as a tuxedo-clad nightclub siren.

Wong decides to do it on her own

What I love about Wong is that even as Hollywood thwarted her time and again, she continued creating her own opportunities.

Though she spent years in Europe, Wong continued to audition for American roles.

In 1937, she tried out for the leading role in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “The Good Earth.” After she was rejected, she decided that if she couldn’t star in a movie, she would simply make one of her own.

She took her one and only trip to China, documenting the experience. Her charming short film showed numerous activities, including female impersonators teaching Wong how to enact Chinese female roles, a trip to the Western Hills, and a visit to the family’s ancestral village. At a time when the number of prominent female directors in Hollywood could be counted on one hand, it was a remarkable feat.

Two decades later, the film would air on ABC. By that time, Wong had established herself as a TV star by playing a gallery owner-cum-detective who traveled the globe solving crimes in “The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong.” It was the first television series to feature an Asian Pacific American lead.

By the time Wong died on February 3, 1961, she had left a legacy of more than 50 films, numerous Broadway and vaudeville shows, and a television series. Equally important is how she became a global celebrity despite being shut out from Hollywood’s A-list leading roles.

It’s a story of tenacity and determination that can inspire all who want to see images of people of color reflected back to them on screen.

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