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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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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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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Reading the Archive

Last week, I traveled to Duke University to conduct archival research for the second chapter of my dissertation, which investigates how the figure of the Chinese coolie and the history of the coolie trade could reconfigure the spatiotemporal dynamics of the construct “Asian America,” including questions around diaspora and memory. This chapter engages explicitly with Patricia Powell’s The Pagoda (1998), a novel that relates the story of a queer female coolie struggling to cope with a racist colonial system in nineteenth century Jamaica. In order to further contextualize my reading of the novel and to enhance my capacity to approach questions about the practice of archival research and knowledge production, I decided to visit the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The main collection I researched was the “Ballard’s Valley and Berry Hill Penn Plantation Records, 1766-1873,” which consists of account books, ledgers, and papers for a plantation in St. Mary’s Parish, Jamaica.

Working with the Ballard’s Valley records this summer was my first experience handling archival materials so it took me a while to get adjusted, but the staff at the Rubenstein Library was incredibly patient and helpful in terms of explaining the proper procedures and numerous do’s and don’ts for working with fragile documents.

One of the challenges I wasn’t prepared for was the difficult process of deciphering the handwritten letters between the plantation owners and managers. Since this correspondence, which documents the transition from slave to coolie labor on the plantation was the main reason for my visit, I realized that the bulk of my time in the archives would be spent training myself to read these letters, to try to make sense of what was actually written, but also to learn how to read between the lines and recognize what remains unaccounted for and unsaid.

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