Research

Finally in Print! — “Time Traveling with Care: On Female Coolies and Archival Speculations”

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.

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Research

Following Wild Mushrooms: A Letter to Anna Tsing

Dear Anna,

I have been a fan of your work since I read Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (2005) at the beginning of my graduate studies, so I don’t know why it has taken me this long to pick up The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (2015). But since I started reading it in late August, I can’t stop thinking about your project.

It offers such a captivating invitation- to follow the lifeways of matsutake, wild mushrooms, and the lives it assembles. Who would’ve thought that a project could be built around a single type of mushroom? …But you did. I’m sure there were and still are people who would dismiss a work like this for daring to focus on something so small and, some would say, insignificant. And yet, you elegantly show us how following matsutake opens up whole worlds.

Your work has attuned me to new ways of seeing and understanding received categories and concepts–capitalism, ecology, labor, freedom, precarity, and ruin. I am still in awe of how deftly you take readers from the day-to-day struggles of mushroom foragers searching for matsutake in the forests of Oregon and the complicated stories of how and why they began picking mushrooms for a living, to consider broad-scale questions about ecological devastation and forest renewal, to how matsutake enter capitalist markets and informal gift economies in Japan.

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Research

Reflections on Chapter Writing

One of the most difficult challenges I faced during the beginning of the dissertation process was figuring out how to write a chapter. How does it differ from a seminar paper? Are there specific elements or sections I need to include? How do I know when I am done? After finishing full drafts of my first two chapters (finally!), I feel ready now to offer some brief reflections on this process.

Although I had read beautifully written critical and theoretical texts before, sitting down to write my own chapter was still a daunting experience because I have only ever been familiar with the form of seminar papers. The essays I wrote for class, with its specific thesis statement, often focusing on a single literary text, did not prepare me for writing a chapter that is just a piece of a larger project. For me, grappling with this new form also meant learning how to let go of my own desires to produce a perfect whole, a neat and contained document. I had to move between the arguments I wanted to pose in a specific chapter and the over-arching research questions that animate my dissertation project. I had to constantly remind myself that a chapter is just one attempt at getting at these larger questions without necessarily having to answer them in full; the following chapters would provide other opportunities and angles for returning to and approaching these questions differently.

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Research, Teaching

How Google Docs Changed My Life

The title of this post might be a bit hyperbolic, but I really do mean it. I have been using Google Docs on-and-off for the past few years, mostly as a way of collaborating with other graduate students to organize events and share meeting notes. But it wasn’t until this past summer when I opened up a fresh Google Doc to begin drafting the second chapter of my dissertation that I began to realize its amazing capabilities.

One of the main reasons why I decided to try writing in Google Docs was because I was getting frustrated by the amount of clutter in the massive dissertation file I created on Scrivener. Since I’m the kind of person who is always trying to find more effective ways of organizing my research and writing, a program like Scrivener seemed like a godsend- It offers a way of collecting drafts and research materials and notes into different folders as well as the option to split your screen in two so you can edit one document while reviewing another, not to mention tons of features that I have not yet learned how to use. But the main drawbacks to Scrivener, at least for me, was the complexity of the layout (a dizzying amount of buttons and lists) and the tediousness of having to constantly convert my files to share with non-Scrivener users. Google Docs solved these dilemmas beautifully.

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Research

Resisting the Will to Institutionality: A Letter to Roderick Ferguson

Dear Rod,

This is so much more than a thank you letter ever could be, but I will call it that for now as I continue to search for the right words to describe what your work means to me. I just finished re-reading The Reorder of Things: The University and its Pedagogies of Minority Difference (2012) and I am still reeling from the enormity of this project that you have undertaken with such grace and precision.

You have done the difficult, often under-appreciated thing, of asking us to look again, to reevaluate the victories of the Civil Rights Era and, in particular, the interdisciplinary fields that were born in its wake. Your assertion that the establishment of these interdisciplines also signals the advent of new mechanisms of racialization to quantify, regulate, and discipline minoritized subjects and knowledges cuts to the quick. Your words are hard to read and hear and process all at once, especially as someone who identifies as an Asian Americanist, who benefits from those earlier struggles, and whose scholarship is necessarily shaped by them.

And yet, you show us how institutionalization has its costs. Even though it was the end goal, the horizon for many students and activists of the 1960s and 70s–and, in some places, it is still the horizon that slips from grasp–we have to recognize how institutionalization was also used to placate unruly scholar-activists and constrain the energies of antiracist social movements.

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