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Q&A: Lucy Burns

UCLA Filipino American theater expert says teaching is like performance, and scholarship and activism go hand in hand.

Angilee Shah Email AngileeShah

Today, Lucy Burns' class of about 15 students is chronicling Filipino culture in America. Photo collages on posterboards cover a large table in the center of a small seminar room of UCLA's Campbell Hall. One student sets up a video presentation while another arranges a stack of take-out menus in a styrofoam container. Through such diverse mediums as sound collages and purple ube cake, Burns' students seek out the hybrid cultures of Filipino Americans.

The course, called "Critical Filipino Studies," is one of Burns' first at UCLA. After ten years of teaching at UC Santa Cruz, Smith College, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Burns has come to UCLA as a professor in the departments of Asian American Studies and World Arts and Cultures. An expert in Filipino and Filipino American theater, she spoke with the International Institute about her a passion for critical thinking and commitment to activism.

Q: You grew up in the Philippines. How long were you there and how did you come to focus on Filipino Americans in your research?

I was born and raised in Olongapo City, Philippines, and my family came here in 1984. I was 13 when I came to the U.S, so I attended high school in the U.S. and went on to college at Sonoma State. Then went to grad school at the University of Massachusetts—Amherst.

I have my degree in English, actually, with a concentration in American studies. I went into graduate school thinking I was going to study American literature, kind of a range of modern American writers. I really didn't have that clear of a focus but knew that I was interested in postcolonial literature. And that was actually my point of entry into Filipino American studies, reading works about [Kenya's] Ngugi wa Thiong'o and [Nigeria's] Wole Soyinka. Because postcolonial literature was emerging out of African literature and South Asian literature, those were the sort of questions that really informed my turn to the Philippines' diaspora.

Was there any particular work that led you to focus on Filipino Americans?

Really, I work in theater. It was actually though working in an archive called the Uno Collection of plays by Asian American women. It was in my first year in graduate school that I met my mentor, Roberta Uno, who was artistic director of New World Theater, probably the oldest theater by and about and for people of color. She turned me on to this newly established archive. I was taking a course with her, and that's when I came into some plays by Filipino Americans. And that was when I decided that this would be my focus.

The plays weren't in the archive yet; they were simply recorded. They were by this group called Sining Bayan, which means theater of the people or of the nation. They were described as a cultural arm to a radical political organization called Katipunan ng mga Demokratikong Pilipino—it translates as Union of Democratic Filipinos [1973-86]. It was a political group that was a transnational, progressive, leftist organization. I read the description, and I was inspired by the idea of a Filipino American radical organization that used culture and the arts as central to their political organizing towards a progressive radical politics. Protest theater was really inspiring to me—the liveness, the potential of what could happen in that kind of gathering.

Like I said, the plays weren't in the archives, so that became my quest. Since then, I've worked to collect materials: scripts, bills, any production notes. I'm really committed to building the archive and bringing in Filipino American theater artists.

What kind of teacher do you see yourself as and how do you approach your courses?

I really don't know what kind of teacher I am. I think I'm constantly changing. Every class presents a new challenge of how to convey to students why I chose this particular set of materials to investigate. Teaching is very terrifying to me. It's like having to perform several times a week. Whether I'm teaching for an hour and twenty minutes or for three hours, you have to be completely present as you are on stage. There's not a moment when you can release. For me, preparing to teach a class is like preparing for a performance.

It seems like this is the first time many of your Filipino American undergraduate students have approached Filipino American studies. How do you separate students' personal histories and identities from their critical studies of the topic?

I'm less interested in the personal aspects of students. I'm interested in how you use that personal history to think about yourself in the context of the larger world. I don't really see my classes as where you could process who you are as an 18-year-old.

You edited Resisting Homeland Security: Organizing Beyond Deportation in 2004. How does that fit in with your interest with Filipino Americans and performance?

That is a report that my colleagues and I, who are members of the Critical Filipina and Filipino Studies Collective, put together. It's a report that focuses on the deportation of Filipinos after 9/11. The group came together during the declaration of war against Afghanistan [in 2001]. The members of this group were all academics, colleagues, and some of us were friends.

We decided that we should really form this collective. For me, it was really the desire to be in company with other scholars who didn't see being a scholar separate from being an activist and separate from thinking about larger political questions no matter what disciplines we were coming from. The Filipino and Filipino American part of that was really important to us. What's really important for me with that particular group is to be in company with these people who give me a little bit more courage to speak out and speak up.

[Resisting Homeland Security] is only one of our multiple projects. It centers around the organizing that we did for the Cuevas family, a Filipino family who received notice for deportation after 9/11. The report looks at deportation patterns in the Filipino community in the U.S. and links it to the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security. In the report is a history, we were claiming, to this deportation that goes back to the colonial relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines. In the introduction we lay out different historical moments when Filipinos were rendered as criminals, as criminal beings. And that's how these deportees also were being rendered.

You use the term scholar-activist. Which one do you consider yourself first?

I don't see those as separate. That's not how I approach the way I teach; that's not how I approach the way I write.

What do you say to critics who say that scholars should not teach as activists?

I don't know what that means. I don't see how you can be a teacher and not be an activist because that's not what I see as the role of intellectuals. I think that particular statement is based on the notion that there is something called neutrality and an objective voice. For me, what activist means is being a critical thinker. And that's what my classes aim for.

What other projects are you working on now?

I've been invited to become part of the curating team for the feature films in the upcoming Asian American Film Festival that's produced yearly by the Visual Communications, which is a phenomenal film organization that's been around and established by a professor who teaches here in Asian studies, Bob [Robert] Nakamura. I'm not trained intellectually to write about films or think about films, so it's really refreshing gaining a new vocabulary around things like 'eyesight' and 'camera angles.' I like the opportunity to acquire a different language.

Also, I am part of a planning committee for a conference that's happening in the Bay area in the beginning of April [PURO ARTE, hosted by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) with a partnership of Filipino American individuals and organizations]. It's a gathering of community development organizations, artists and scholars or academics in the Filipino American arts. There's a mutual interest in sharing resources between the different participants. In that conference I'll be giving a brief talk about how Asian American arts or Filipino American arts have been able to develop or form with support from academia.

What are your first impressions of UCLA?

I love living in L.A. I'm not entirely new to the city because, through my work with theater and performance and different Asian American cultural projects, I've worked with a lot of people in L.A. I've worked in L.A., too. A few years ago I was a dramturg for a community-based theater project that was produced by an artist named Leilani Chan, TeAda Productions. I spent part of the summer in L.A. then, and I loved it. I took the bus from Silverlake to Downtown L.A. every day, and I really enjoyed that. As for UCLA, I'm totally new. I'm still trying to figure out which building is what. So far so good, I think.

What about the academic environment? Any thoughts about Filipino studies at UCLA?

I've never been on a campus with this much presence in Filipino and Filipino American studies. I'm always dumbfounded when I hear students and other people say 'There's no one we can work with here.' Of course, there's never enough people doing things in areas of studies that matter to us, that we're interested in intellectually. I just really have been so inspired and energized by the people who I could work with here—all my colleagues in Asian American Studies and World Arts and Cultures. Even when I was a graduate student, I wasn't around this many graduate students who are interested in working in the Philippines or Filipino diaspora. There's so many resources and so many interesting angles to come at it, whether it's through Southeast Asian studies, the Filipino diaspora, or Asian American studies, I think the resources are here. The city has a lot of resources as well. I think it's a really exciting place to be.

I'm just reading this set of papers from my students—the "Race and Gender" course is a lower-division seminar. I've really been so excited to see this first set of papers, which have ranged from an analysis of race- and gender-formation amongst fourth-graders through the observation of a volleyball game, a P.E. class, to a paper that explores race and gender on the ice rink because one student is a competitive ice skater. I've been really pleased by the creativity of the students, of where they're taking these assignments. In the course, they see a performance that's based here at UCLA, but also another requirement is to write about a performance or a performative site outside of UCLA. I'm really interested in encouraging students to go beyond the campus.


Lucy Burns will be teaching two courses next quarter: Filipino American Experience in Asian American Studies and Feminist Performance and Race in World Arts and Cultures.

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