2015 ASA Conference Abstract

Excited to present at the 2015 ASA Conference tomorrow! Our panel, “Disorganizing Knowledge,” is going to be awesome- check out my abstract below and hope to see you there!

Time Travel (De)collage

on Female Coolies, Archival Knowledge and Speculative Aesthetics

Researchers working in and with colonial archives, grappling with the historical legacies of transatlantic slavery, imperial conquest, and genocide, consistently confront the immiserating sense that the past cannot be changed. The concept of time travel is captivating precisely because it suggests the possibility of altering the course of history, of avoiding violence and injury, to access other futures. However, if the dilemma remains that futuristic machinery cannot help us rectify past wrongs, in this presentation I explore how the concept of time travel can still function as a mode of confronting loss and doing justice. Engaging the figure of the Asian coolie and the history of the coolie trade in particular, I posit time travel as an alternative practice for relating to archives and archival materials, one that is necessarily aesthetic and speculative.

Archives as both institutional and epistemological formations are intimately associated with legacies of colonialism, with processes of documenting, categorizing, and objectifying difference that establish certain groups as knowable “others.” As Foucault demonstrates, archives figure as sites for the management of bodies, in which living bodies are transformed into quantifiable statistics, concrete measures of value, loss and profit. I argue that attending to time travel as a process that emphasizes encounter and embodiment, the ways in which our bodies impact other bodies as we do archival research, disorganizes the hegemonic time-space of “the archive” and what constitutes as legitimate knowledge.

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2015 AAAS Conference Abstract

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.

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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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Reflections on the ARC Conference

Last Friday I had the pleasure of presenting at the Archival Research Conference, sponsored by the Advanced Research Collaborative at The Graduate Center, CUNY. It was a wonderful opportunity to share my experiences working in the archives at Duke University, which I have discussed here and here. I was on the panel, “Mining Alternative Geographies of Race and Labor,” chaired by Professor Herman Bennett from the History program.

My paper, “Traces of the Coolie: An Archival Encounter” was largely a reflective piece, showcasing some of the important letters and documents I was able to find in the “Ballard’s Valley and Berry Hill Penn Plantation Records, 1766-1873” that contained references to coolies and coolie labor. Presenting alongside supportive colleagues and to such a generous audience gave me the confidence to share my questions and concerns about the materials I came across in this collection and how I plan to incorporate them into my dissertation. Usually introducing work that is still “in progress” would be a daunting experience  for me, but I found it energizing to participate in a conversation about how we approach archival research, including how to negotiate the volume of the material we collect and how to grapple with what is missing or absent from the archive.

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Working with an Archive

Now that I have finished transcribing the letters I photographed from the “Ballards Valley and Berry Hill Penn Plantation Records, 1766-1873” at Duke University (see this post), one of the challenges I am facing is figuring out what to do with the archival research I have gathered. In other words, how do I incorporate this material into my project in a way that is more critically engaging than a simple “show-and-tell”?

Before actually working with the Ballards Valley records, I had intended to use the photographs and information I collected to provide context for and enhance an analysis of Patricia Powell’s The Pagoda (1998), a novel that describes the tensions between Asian coolies and freed Blacks in mid-nineteenth century Jamaica. But during those long hours in the archive, struggling to decipher and make sense of the handwritten correspondence between plantation managers and absentee owners in London, I became acutely aware of how desperately I was searching for traces of coolies in letters, account book entries, and ledger pages.

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