An interview with Kelsey Owyang and Catheline Phan on the Reading Group Asian / American Non / Fiction, its successes and new momentum. Interview conducted by Hurford Center students and staff Miriam Hwang-Carlos, Lydia Gingerich, and Christine Dickerson, photos by Elena Harriss-Bauer
HCAH: What led you to create this reading group? What need or gap on campus did you see the group as filling?
Kelsey: I had just come back from studying abroad in China, and was coming to terms once again with the reality that Haverford offers few to no classes about the Asian American experience. I had taken one Asian American history course in my freshman spring, which was offered by a visiting professor who left at the end of that year. I was startled/disheartened/uncomfortable when I realized that even classes about racial and ethnic inequality — the classes for my Sociology major, for example — rarely had any material on Asian Americans.
I thought about this all the time, but had been unsuccessful in advancing any action to get faculty or administration to take notice and make structural changes to the curriculum. When I saw the advertisement for the Hurford Center reading group funding, I realized that I could take matters into my own hands and build interest and support from the ground up. I knew that Catheline had organized a reading group around Watermark, a collection of Vietnamese American-authored works, while I was abroad, and got in touch to see if she had interest in working together to build something with an even greater reach. From there, we received amazing support from James and Emily in the Hurford Center and a strong response from the student body, with 27 students and two staff signed up to participate.
Catheline: For me, this reading group was a continuation of the ideas I had from the previous semester. After I ran the Watermark group, I felt that I wanted to keep involving myself in discussion featuring Asian American identity and the various themes surrounding it. And since I had prior experience creating a space for that type of dialogue, I felt it was easier for me to engage in the conversation by prompting another event. I wasn’t sure what I exactly wanted to do, however, so it was perfect when Kelsey reached out to me with her ideas.
HCAH: Can you unpack your title? Why was it important for you to make these distinctions, Asian and American, Fiction and Nonfiction, without necessarily separating these categories from one another?
Kelsey: The slash between Asian / American came from a piece I had read by David Palumbo-Liu, in which he argues for a critical consideration of punctuation: a slash at once indicates an equal status between the two terms on either side of it, and an element of incompatibility or indecisiveness. He writes that this conflict in status captures the sometimes powerful, sometimes futile efforts to describe those of Asian heritage in America. The term also helped us encompass the complex transnational identities we presented through our readings: a Hmong family in America reflecting on their refugee journey, for example, or a Taiwanese American making his first trip back to his parents’ home country.
Our reading list had a combination of short stories and memoirs — fiction and nonfiction — but we felt both types of writing were influenced by the author’s positionality, the romanticism of nostalgia, and the truthful mythiness of family stories passed down through generations and across languages. Also, we like parallelism! Thus, “Asian / American Non / Fiction.”
Catheline: Along with Palumbo’s excellent argument that Kelsey introduced me to, I was thinking of the visual elements that would go into poster design and advertising. “Asian / American – Non / Fiction” gets at the tension and gray ambiguous areas between both the identities and the genres. Plus, I think it’s catchy. It’s certainly made me very particular in writing out all the punctuation at least.
HCAH: How did you go about choosing your reading list? Were you influenced by classes you had taken at Haverford or were you looking to fill gaps in the the College’s curriculum?
Catheline: One huge draw for making this reading group for me was getting to read Linh Dinh’s Blood and Soap short story anthology. Throughout the fall semester I was planning on inviting him as a speaker (which coincidentally evolved into a larger speaker panel event this semester, but details!); when I contacted him prior to proposing the reading group, he suggested that I read some more of his recent works. Linh had a novel (Love Like Hate) and another poetry collection (Borderless Bodies), but Blood and Soap’s short story anthology format made it perfect for pairing with our other readings.
The other books on the reading list comprised mainly of memoirs. I think a big factor was that many of these were published recently, like Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off The Boat and Anchee Min’s The Cooked Seed (both in 2013), while other ones were seminal works like Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (first published 1997). Kelsey chose most of these, as I didn’t have that much experience with Asian American literature besides the bits I read for my own independent and class research. In the beginning I wasn’t wholly thinking of filling gaps in Haverford’s curriculum – instead, I was building off of my experiences in prior classes such as my freshman writing seminar “Monuments and Memory” (taught by Paul Farber) and my first class with Andrew Friedman, “International History of the United States.” But now my viewpoint has changed on that, and I would definitely like to address the curriculum gap in the future.
On another note, almost all of the books we chose were either a) unavailable in the Bi-Co libraries, or b) unavailable in the Tri-Co and Interlibrary Loans were necessary to get them.
Kelsey: Catheline pretty much summed it up here — she came in with Blood and Soap, and I added excerpts from three memoirs as well as an ethnographic piece (The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down). Although the motivating factor behind my participation in the group was to address the lack of Asian American Studies at Haverford, like Catheline, it was originally more selfishness that made me suggest these specific texts. The Latehomecomer, a three-generation memoir by Carleton-educated Hmong American writer Kao Kalia Yang, is my favorite book — I just wanted to share it with others.
However, as the syllabus came together and our group took off, it became clearer that these works were simultaneously filling a student desire for more organized, academic takes on the histories of Asians in America. To that end, we tried to be intentional about including different ethnic and national backgrounds in the reading material, and encouraged our participants to share other texts and experiences that were not covered in syllabus.
HCAH: What were some of the key themes you addressed throughout the reading group?
Kelsey: Migration. Diaspora. Language. Power. Family. History. Inclusion. Exclusion. Memory. Identity. Belonging.
Catheline: Other keywords and ideas I’d like to highlight: Displacement, Colonialism, Empire, Perspective, Authority, and Teaching – how certain ideas are perpetuated through cultures, along with the social spheres and constructs which both build and constrict them.
HCAH: What were the discussions that were most salient and engaging for you?
Catheline: Honestly, each meeting had its engaging points so it’s difficult for me to rank them. I think for both of us, co-running this reading group was also an exercise in how to smoothly facilitate discussions. Thus, we ended up experimenting with the format each time – things like breaking up into small groups, utilizing whiteboards to draw Venn diagrams, etc.
Kelsey: Yeah, that’s a good point. Because people are busy and the reading group is not for credit, the students in attendance varied from meeting to meeting. We were also reading small selections, so the vibe changed week-to-week: some topics were more serious, others lighthearted. I think the most salient takeaway for me was not a single conversation but the overall atmosphere of the group; it was a really pleasant mix of Bi-Co intellectualism, safe-space vulnerability, and chill snack time (thanks DC Catering!).
Catheline: Thanks Charles, thanks Bruce. Cheese and fruit platters are great.
HCAH: What has been this reading group’s influence on you? Did the reading group evolve from your initial vision? If yes, how so?
Kelsey: It was powerful to see the number of students and staff engaged in our group, and gave me confidence to say that there is a demonstrated interest in Asian American Studies in the Bi-Co.
Catheline is building on the momentum of the group by inviting Linh Dinh, one of our central authors, to speak at Haverford this spring. She and I, along with ten other students, also applied to the Facilities Fund to establish an Asian American Resource Center on campus, to create a permanent physical space for groups of this kind. Four of the students in our planning committee were members of the reading group; I met two of those students (and Catheline!) for the first time through the group, so I feel very fortunate to continue working with them.
Catheline: Reading groups are always so generative for me, it’s great. One particular approach from this is that the final product evolves so much from the initial drawing concept – one thing Kelsey and I often did were pre-meetings after the group sessions (which also acted as post-reflections from the previous week) to reflect on points people brought up or other ideas we wanted to highlight. A lot of the content comes from what the other participants bring in; while sure, I have a lot of established ideas from the prior independent research I’ve done, these sessions helped to flesh out and expand those even more.
Another thing I can’t highlight enough is the connections that stemmed out of this process. Kelsey is a pro choice for a collaborator both in generating ideas and execution (thanks for taking care of the mailing lists so I didn’t have to fumble through those!) And like she said with the Asian American resource space initiative, it was cool to take this momentum we built up and push it towards new ways of manifestation. The committee was especially helpful; the synthetic dialogues and troubled discussions we had in formulating the proposal helped me focus my own speaker proposal, which I’ve now expanded into a larger speaker panel with co-organizational funding. It makes me happy that students like me and Kelsey can continue to get logistical and funding support for ideas in incubation – hopefully other people are inspired to do the same thing.