For The New York Times Book Review, I write on Code Switch co-founding editor Kat Chow’s memoir of grief and family, immigration and ancestors. Guided by the work of scholars in Asian American studies who have developed a theory of “racial melancholia,” elaborating on Freud, Chow links her own life and species of grief to their explanation of how identities are formed in immigrant families who try to preserve the memory of the places they left — in a sense to taxidermy the past. Seeing Ghosts gives flesh to this theory, the idea that loss of country and loss of loved ones can hook us with similar perpetual sorrow, through storytelling that brings alive both Chow’s mother and father, drawing their characters tenderly but with unflinching honesty.
For The Nation, I write about Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s experiment with magical realism in The Undocumented Americans. She goes beyond conventional reportage to mirror the surreal ways in which the undocumented experience their lives. Her work exposes the unsustainable fiction built into the economic and political systems that invite the labor of the undocumented into the country but fail to protect them once here. The pandemic has only sharpened this structural fabulism.
To commemorate the late poet Meena Alexander’s life and legacy, Feminist Press has reissued her brilliant and gutting memoir Fault Lines. This new edition includes an afterword by me, “A House Filled with Women,” paying tribute to Meena. Here’s the Asian American Writers Workshop on the afterword and the reissue.
An essay for The Virginia Quarterly Review: “For both artist and migrant, ships are symbols of the universal. A slave, an indentured servant, a tourist, a seaman, a refugee obviously each inhabit a ship distinctly, but aboard, each is ultimately at the mercy of the sea. I share Locke’s instinct for seeking comrades in the hull’s curve.”
The spring issue of Dissent Magazine, devoted to migration, carries my essay “Postcards from Empire.” The piece dissects Victorian-era photographs of Indian women used on postcards to sell images of the Caribbean as a tourist paradise:
“Several of the ‘coolie belles,’ for instance, appear to be wearing the same flowered orhni or veil draped over their heads and across their waists. Western photographs of geishas in late nineteenth-century Yokohama possess similar telltale signs of staging: a recurring kimono, suggestively falling off one shoulder, sometimes revealing a breast. The reappearing item of clothing hints at manipulation by photographers who were perhaps creating images not for their subjects, but for others: tourists or seekers of soft porn.”
It contrasts the postcard images to family portraits of Indian women in the Caribbean:
“Instead of opulently dressed ‘coolie’ women posing by themselves, these portraits show women wearing modest clothes with sparse jewelry. Their adornments are the grandchildren on their laps, their husbands and sons, their mothers and sisters by their sides. … With these family portraits, women weren’t simply sexualized objects but individuals with relationships, revealed through the cradling of a toddler, a hand touching a shoulder, or a bridal bouquet grasped.”
And it ends with an ode to the poet Mahadai Das, a beauty queen and a paramilitary volunteer who studied philosophy at Columbia and the University of Chicago before tragedy struck and sent her back home to Guyana in the 1980s:
“Her poetry serves as an alternative imaginarium, a rival source like the family portraits, illuminating a hidden chapter of colonial history from the perspective of those who suffered its wounds.”