On Beginnings

This is a post that I was planning to write in January at the start of the new year, but I am glad that life and work got in the way because beginnings have taken on a sharper, more intense meaning for me these last few weeks. And, for once, the timing feels just right that I’m getting this writing in on the eve of Lunar New Year.

It would be wrong, of course, to say that beginnings are a new preoccupation of mine. Much of my scholarly work has been a meditation on and an effort to articulate other beginnings for Asian American studies and Asian Americanist critique. Thinking through the historic establishment of the field, the constraints of identitarian epistemologies, and other geographies for Asian America are some ways I’ve confronted questions around the objects and objectives, the scope, scales, and stakes of Asian American studies.

At the same time, beginning the dissertation that would become my current book project was a struggle. I have written elsewhere about the anxiety of embarking on an Asian American cultural studies project, about fears that it would delimit the possibilities and audiences for my research and confine me to  what is natural, expected, and known–an Asian American woman who would, of course, study Asian American literatures and cultures. And yet, recognizing that these concerns, which I’ve come to describe as the feeling of being minor, are not personal or individual, but rather structural and systemic–evidence of institutional racism and the effects of compartmentalizing minoritized knowledges–was a pivotal moment in my academic career and intellectual life.

It led me to pursue a version of Asian Americanist critique that refuses to be constrained by assumptions about the purportedly proper objects, archives, and parameters of the field. In this way, thinking through other beginnings has been liberating; it is a space-clearing gesture that suggests other routes, not to escape from, but as ways of entering the fray anew.

I am thinking here of Edward Said’s theorization of “beginnings,” which he claims are distinct from “origins,” and the linear narratives they engender. Beginnings are unpredictable and, at times, disorientating; they refuse to give us the sense of security and stability that comes with assurances of development, progress, and telos in origin stories.

Perhaps this is what excites me too about science and speculative fictions; the worlds these texts open up, the dissonances and continuities between the textual landscapes and the material realms we inhabit, the spaces between the critiques they offer and the new modes of seeing, sensing, and becoming these works make perceptible, are part of what draws me to them. Cultivating a capacious ability to imagine alternatives is, moreover, becoming increasingly important and necessary today within our uncertain presents.

However, beginnings aren’t about blank slates either; as we know all too well, slates are never blank to begin with. And, even if beginning a new page or creating a blank document (or blog post) feels like a fresh start, we take the memories, knowledges, and experiences we’ve accumulated with us and they infuse our writing, thinking, and unique modes of being in the world. This is why I often approach the idea of beginnings with the shape and form of the palimpsest in mind, with the realization that each effort to write over and to write anew still bears the traces of those voices and histories that have made my articulations in this present possible.

This palimpsestic perception of beginnings is what I’ve been thinking of a lot, and especially during the last few weeks, because I am at the point of beginning again, with all of the anxieties, anticipation, and excitement that comes with it. I recently accepted a tenure-track appointment in the English department at Florida State University and I could not be more overjoyed (and nervous) about what this change entails. The position in Multi-Ethnic U.S. Literatures is a perfect fit for my research and I look forward to working with new colleagues and students who have welcomed me into their communities with generosity and grace. At the same time, there are the networks I have been a part of for so long in New York and CUNY that will be hard to leave.

What has helped me as I contemplate the possibilities ahead is remembering all that I will bring with me to FSU, the imprints of the friends, family, teachers, mentors, histories, streets, sounds, smells, tastes, and more, that have left their traces on my mind, writing, body, and sense of self and community. And so, this beginning won’t be a blank slate, but another layer, an as yet unwritten page through which the marks that I’ve made here in this City, and with these peoples and places, are still perceptible, palpable, always. This post, then, is to beginnings and the painful pleasures they bring.

Photo by TeroVesalainen on Pixabay.

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