I just returned from a conference where I presented my paper, a critical reading of Kim Sunee’s popular 2008 “food memoir” Trail of Crumbs: Hunger, Love, and the Search for Home, a one-off paper that I’m quite proud of but that didn’t get a very enthusiastic reception.
In this paper, I meditated on some of the ways that one’s racial identity (in this case, Sunee’s as a transracial Korean adoptee, raised in New Orleans) is produced not only by one’s interactions with other people, but also is shaped through one’s movements through cities, nations, and their consumption of food and the land. In this paper, I wrote about the ways that cities Sunee visits or lives in, like New Orleans and Cayenne in French Guiana, as well as their foodways are so marked by histories of slavery, colonialism, war that many people like Sunee refuse to acknowledge or romanticize. In tracing Sunee’s travels through these places, I focused on the ways that Sunee negotiates her literal and metaphorical place in these locations, as an Asian/American/female/adoptee whose own history is shaped by experiences of colonization, warfare, and US military actions in Korea. Pretty basic, no?
To completely oversimplify my argument– I used this text to think through how all of us negotiate our racial/sexual/national identities in part through our interactions with people and land, and through our consumption of food and sex. For women of color, in particular, these interactions are fraught by the multiple, material and imaginative colonizations of our land, our food, and our bodies. In order to “imagine otherwise,” or to inhabit the world ethically, we need to be attentive to ways in which we, as queer/women/of color folks, engage with these different geographies– to note and address the moments where we may ourselves be perpetuating the abjection and (neo)colonization of other’s lands and bodies, even if we often are the ones more often marginalized or abjected by dominant society. Pretty basic, no?
Needless to say, it didn’t go very well. I really think other folks in the panel, and in the audience, are working on issues of Asian American or transracial adoptee identity from a completely different angle. My focus on discussing the ways in which we traverse and inhabit geographies both materially and imaginatively, using frameworks of black feminist geography rather than legible “Asian American Studies” or “critical transracial adoption studies” scholarship, wasn’t satisfying for folks in the room. Questions kept pressing me on my reading of Sunee’s “assimilation” into whiteness or rejection of “black people,” which is what I repeatedly said I wasn’t suggesting. There seemed to be some anxiety (anger?) over the (mis)perception that I was claming that Sunee, and by extension all transracial adoptees, are choosing their “American” identities over their “Asian” identities.
[What do those categories even mean, really? The whole point of my paper was to really have us think about what constitutes these places known as “America,” “Asia,” “Africa”– to have us break down on a smaller scale the cities that make up these nations, and the literal and metaphorical positionings of the people that live or travel through these places. The audience probably thought I was being too deconstructionist or poststructuralist about identity, when in fact I was really trying to tie us to the political economy, the real (like, almost vulgar Marxist materialist) conditions that create the places which we inhabit, travel through, and consume.]
Basically, we were speaking in different languages.
Perhaps my talk of a “food memoir” seemed too apolitically fluffy from the start. I get it- many of them there, some colleagues of mine, are themselves transracial adoptees with a real investment in changing policy and in producing ethical, social scientific research that will change the ways people view adoption. Really important issues, yes. My political, personal, or intellectual project? No. Frankly, I don’t even know why I was placed on this panel– oh, probably because the conference organizers saw the words “Korean adoptee” in the abstract and just threw me in there. And who says critical race studies scholars don’t racially lump? Riiiight…
I don’t know why I just rambled on about this. Perhaps because it’s part of a longer set of frustrations I’ve been having as I develop my dissertation project (not at all using this paper I just wrote about, though some of the very basic frameworks are similar). It’s getting harder and harder these days to find folks to dialogue with about the work I’m doing now. So often lately people have tried to lump it under “food studies” or “Asian American studies”, neither of which necessarily fits well or at all. Rather than try to describe my project, I feel like spitting out keywords so people can leave me alone:
Filipino/American labor x solidarity politics x urban and rural geographies x gendered and racialized subjectivities x archives and repertoires x consumption and value
Would that help clear it up? Probably not.