Photo for Complicating ideas of identity and

Top row: Pelaud, Nguyen, and Duong / Bottom row: Lam, Gandhi, and Vu

Editors of "Troubling Borders: An Anthology of Art and Literature by Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora" discuss the origins of this project and its impact in the current moment.

By Kitty Hu (UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies)

Approaching the anthology

"It was a labor of love to do this. We didn't have existing institutional support for this desperate work," began Isabella Thuy Pelaud, professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University. "The ability to do this is community coming together. We just pulled through to produce something we all believed in."

A collection of short stories, poetry, paintings and photographs, Troubling Borders: An Anthology of Art and Literature by Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora (University of Washington Press, 2014) showcases the work of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao, Thai and Filipino women to disrupt understandings of borders and gender to ask questions of history, memory and identity.

Pelaud and her co-editors—Lan Duong, associate professor cinema and media studies at the University of Southern California; Mariam B. Lam, associate professor of comparative literature and Southeast Asian studies and vice chancellor and chief diversity officer at the UC Riverside; and Kathy L. Nguyen, writer and editor in San Francisco— presented their work and discussed the process of publishing this anthology on a virtual panel on May 26, 2021, sponsored by the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies and UCLA Vietnamese Student Union.

The panel was moderated by Evyn Lê Espiritu Gandhi, assistant professor of Asian American studies at UCLA and Jason Vu, president of UCLA Vietnamese Student Union and recipient of the 2020-2021 Foreign Language & Area Studies Fellowship from the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

The process of curating

The journey of creating this anthology began with an open call for submissions in addition to the editors reaching out to their personal networks. Pelaud emphasized that they wanted to "trouble the notions" of writers and artists so that anyone who wanted to creatively express themselves could find space in the anthology. While recognizing that many stories have been shaped by colonization, war, globalization and militarization, the editors also intentionally sought out distinct communities within the Southeast Asian diaspora to complicate understandings of and provide contrasts to familiar stereotypes.

"For a beautiful book with beautiful images of the kinds of vital artwork that I knew Southeast Asian women were so capable of producing, it was important for this book to leap out from the pages and really grab the reader's attention," explained Duong. "Because of the prohibitive costs of producing color images in books, you would often see images in academic books in black and white or the color images would be right stuck in the middle. We refused that. This book is full of color from beginning to end."

The nine different sections in the book are also grouped together based on their aesthetics, Duong added, because it was important that the writings and artworks speak to each other outside of ethnic or geographical categories. The editors also did not want to pigeonhole the contributors based on the backgrounds they have. In addition, the editors wanted to produce a holistic view of Southeast Asian women outside the colonial imagination which oftentimes only saw these women as exoticized objects of desire.

"I was very insistent on having sections that not only deal with Southeast Asians in America or the diaspora with thematic preoccupations like family or motherhood," Duong said. "I also wanted images and stories that showed that Southeast Asian women in the diaspora were sexual, traveling, radical and activists in ways that pronounced the multiplicity of their identities."

The impact of telling these stories

"There is no single piece that resonated with me in the anthology. Rather it's the fragmented pieces of the whole that strike me and the ways in which they weave together like a tapestry and also unravel and come undone," Nguyen said. “As Anne Le puts it so poignantly in her poem ‘Spool,’ ‘What we wind together, we eventually wind apart,’ which to me speaks to the experiences of the diaspora, particularly women in the diaspora, the disorientation and physical dispersion of women and families across borders and continents.”

I want to speak specifically about the Wombs and Wounds section on family relations in the diaspora,” said Nguyen. “It’s the opening section of the anthology and it opens, I think fittingly, with a poem by Karen Llagas titled ‘Open.’ There’s a tension and a beauty there that I identify with as a mother and also as a woman of color, a person of Vietnamese descent in America, brought here by the ravages of war.

There’s an image in the poem that stays with me of the body ripped apart during childbirth. The violence of the act and the wounds that it opens. And yet, there is also joy in Llagas’s poem. She writes in the opening line, ‘After her last child, my mother’s womb remained open,/innocent again as the last room in the ark when it opened.’ Also, ‘The radio host demands the desert borders be closed but the ocean this morning loses its walls, stays open./My grandfather said an act nourishes or kills—depending on its speed: the bread and the bomb can both be broken open.’

"These are such powerful, paradoxical truths. And there are so many such powerful images throughout the anthology," Nguyen shared.

Lam emphasized the importance of making this work as accessible as possible without generalizing the stories or falling victim to the "easy pretentiousness" that comes with releasing work in academia. Lam shared one review from a Filipina in the diaspora that said "going through the book for her felt like she was walking through an art exhibit with some poetry on the walls and art pieces and that each time she stopped at a piece, it was like all kinds of profound emotions and complexity of her own personal history and national histories coming to the surface. Lam explained, "In those emotions, we were able to intellectualize and think of all the deeper, richer histories and untold stories so that people who don't have the access to privilege can tell their stories right."

"At this point in time, it takes a lot of courage for women to speak can even be persecuted for speaking up," concluded Nguyen. "That is something that is not recognized enough, how much extra labor it is for Asian women to speak their truth."

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Published: Friday, June 18, 2021