I received my copy of the June 2018 American Quarterly last week and I couldn’t be more thrilled to see my essay, “Time Traveling with Care: On Female Coolies and Archival Speculations,” in print at last in a journal that I’ve been following since I began my graduate studies. That it appears alongside the words of Kandice Chuh, Jodi Melamed, Douglas Ishii, and other scholars who have been vital mentors and interlocutors for my research over the years is all the more reason why I will hold this AQ issue close.
The essay itself has gone through numerous revisions, from its early beginnings as a term paper for Robert Reid-Pharr’s seminar on “African American/Africana Literature and Culture,” as an ASA conference presentation, and dissertation chapter, which is also to say that many people contributed their time, energy, and wisdom to supporting its realization in this current form. Any remaining shortcomings are of course mine but I wanted to share my acknowledgments again here to make visible the often unseen, unpaid labor that goes into the life of a publication like this:
This essay benefitted from the insights of many eyes. I would like to thank Kandice Chuh, Duncan Faherty, the members of my dissertation writing group, and my colleagues on the Committee on Globalization and Social Change at the Graduate Center, CUNY, for their generous feedback on earlier drafts. Many thanks also to Cathy N. Davidson, the two anonymous reviewers, and the Board of Managing Editors at American Quarterly for sharing the critical insights that helped me realize my vision for this piece in its final stages. Lastly, I want to thank my sister, Sharon Tran, for her unflagging support; the meditations on what it means to approach an archive with care in this essay are, in part, indebted to her always careful reading of my work.
There are many others who haven’t been mentioned here by name, including an entire class of students that I taught at Queens College who challenged and deepened my thinking about Patricia Powell’s The Pagoda more than I could have ever anticipated; their questions and energy animates this essay as well. I look forward too to the ways in which future readers will take up and give continued life to this work in the years to come.
Below is the essay abstract for those interested in a brief preview:
Archives, as both institutional and epistemological formations, are intimately associated with mastery, entangled in legacies of colonialism and efforts to document the past and manage bodies. This essay takes up the science fictional trope of time travel to posit a mode of critical engagement that disorganizes the hegemonic time-space of the archive. It thinks alongside Charles Yu’s conception of time travel in How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010), which emphasizes the embodied nature of this process as one that takes both time and care. Mobilizing this understanding of time travel, the essay approaches the history of the coolie trade and the figure of the female coolie in ways that aim not to reproduce mastery or establish these subjects as knowable entities. Instead, by taking time to travel through multiple archives—literary, historical, theoretical—it builds on speculations and untidy reflections that come from positioning ourselves beside the female coolie and the histories of racialization attached to her. In doing so, it models time travel as a form of reparative criticism for American studies, an affective and aesthetic practice that illuminates other ways of encountering subjects that have been forgotten, silenced, or disavowed.
Finally, I wanted to share a companion piece I wrote to the longer essay, which is published on AQ‘s Beyond the Author page here. This new writing offers questions, sample assignments, and resources that I hope will help people bring the concept of time traveling with care, as a speculative archival and reading practice, into their classrooms. It was a way for me to ground my research in the work that we do as teachers and learners and, in that, it captures the spirit of this essay to always remember the painful pleasures of embodied encounters, which always exceed the spatial and ideological constraints of “the archive.”
May this work be of use to you and all that you do.