Jetting off to the 2015 Association for Asian American Studies Conference, “The Trans/National Imaginary: Global Cities and Racial Borderlands,” in Chicago/Evanston tomorrow! I’ll be presenting on an awesome panel, “Gender and the Aesthetics of Race.” Check out my abstract below and hope to see you there!
Female Coolies and Aesthetic Archives
Re-configuring the Timespace of Asian America
Recent scholarship on the figure of the coolie has identified Latin America and the Caribbean as important components of the spatiotemporal imaginary of “Asian America.” Critics like Moon Ho Jung, Walton Look Lai, and Lisa Yun have pushed us to re-negotiate the borders of Asian American studies, not only by drawing attention to the space of the Americas writ broadly, but also by attuning us to temporalities that precede the field’s origins in the social movements of the 1960s and 70s. However, this research on the coolie has been largely historical, drawing on official archives to provide a broader conception of global economy and the distribution of colonial power during the nineteenth century. My paper contributes to such conversations by exploring how the literary enables us to negotiate gaps in colonial archives.
In particular, I engage Patricia Powell’s The Pagoda, which relates the story of a Chinese coolie woman’s journey to and struggles with racist tensions in mid-nineteenth century Jamaica. I argue that Powell’s decision to portray her protagonist’s survival as dependent on an elaborate masquerade as a male shopkeeper, highlights the performative practices that illuminate diaspora as both a racialized and gendered experience. By exploring how The Pagoda expands the discursive boundaries of what can be said about a history of female coolie migration, this paper invites us to attend to the coolie as an embodiment of Asian America’s transnational imaginary with the potential to illuminate different sensibilities of “here” and “there,” “home” and “elsewhere” for Asian American studies.