Interview via Email
August 18, 2014
Rachel Ishikawa, CA+T Interviewer
Denise Cruz, Scholar
Rachel Ishikawa: Can you speak a little about your background and what initially drew you to pursue a career in academia?
Denise Cruz: My parents migrated to the United States from the Philippines in the late 1960s and settled in California, where I was born (Los Angeles) and raised. I started as a first-year undergrad at UCLA [the University of California, Los Angeles] with the intention of becoming a doctor, but I also insisted in majoring in English while still working through the premed requirements. Reading Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters at UCLA was a life-changing experience. It was the first novel I had ever read that spoke to my own identity as a Filipina American. I graduated from UCLA and decided to “delay” applying for medical school; instead I worked in education-based community organizations in San Francisco and Oakland for three years. After the “delay” stretched from a year into two and then three, I realized that I wanted to do something else. It was then that I decided that I wanted to pursue graduate studies in literature.
RI: For the CA+T curated exhibition Sea, Land, Air: Migration and Labor, you contributed a few excerpts from your first monograph, Transpacific Femininities: the Making of the Modern Filipina, in which you explore how the modern Filipina is not a mere result of colonial influences but is constructed under complex relationships between the Philippines, Spain, the United States, and Japan. For this you analyze a unique set of archival English printed Filipino literature. How did you arrive at this method to conduct your research?
DC: It really stemmed from a combination of supportive mentors at UCLA and my interest in what appeared to be a “scarcity” of work authored by Filipina/os during the early twentieth century. When I was in my graduate program in the English department at UCLA, I became increasingly fascinated by the lack of available materials for studying Asian American literature in the first half of the twentieth century. This was especially surprising to me because of the Spanish American War and the US occupation of the Philippines. How could there be no material by Filipina or Filipino writers? My advisor at the time was Richard Yarborough, a specialist in nineteenth century African American literature, and he was quite influential in encouraging me to explore this issue further. King-Kok Cheung, who eventually became my co-chair, also agreed. So I started by initially just searching anthologies, and then I turned to finding the authors mentioned in anthology introductions. I found out that there was a large amount of material, especially if I just shifted the site of inquiry to include works produced in the Philippines and the United States. Another turning point was when I was browsing through the stacks at UCLA (something that I now encourage my grad students to do) and I came across Yay Panlilio’s The Crucible. I had been searching for more material authored by women, and there was this full-length volume sitting on a shelf. It hadn’t turned up in my searches, and it was uncatalogued by the library.
RI: In one of the chapters that CA+T featured, “Pointing to the Heart": Cold War Makings of the Transpacific Filipina,” you address the Cold War era and contend with ideas of US “benevolence” and nostalgia in the reshaping of transpacific femininities. While reading this chapter, I was reminded of the concept of imperialist nostalgia, which proposes that the colonizers “mourn the passing of what they themselves have transformed.”1 How do you think this concept relates to the colonized perspective, especially in relation to some of the ideas you contend with in this chapter?
DC: That’s an interesting question, and I appreciate the comparison. So, imperial nostalgia, benevolent assimilation, and Cold War sentiment (via Christina Klein’s reading of “sentimental integration”) all work primarily through the production of affect and emotion. As long as everyone “feels” in a certain way, there can be a willful forgetting of one’s role in empire. You’re right to also point out that, in a way, my book explores the other side of imperialist nostalgia, as I examine how Filipina and Filipino nationalists also use sentiment and affect. In Transpacific Femininities, I was interested in the gendered dimensions of these feelings about empire and nationalism and how they often hinged upon iconic constructions of women: the “lost” or mourning Filipina mother, for example, or the india [indigenous] woman as symbolic of connection to an original nation. And in examining the complexities of these figures and the writers who produced them, I also underscored how the elite’s relationship to empire was complicated especially in their negotiation of gender and sexuality. They both resisted and reinscribed these iconic representations of women. Such as in Ben Santos’s photograph of the Filipina, or the Filipina feminists who promoted themselves as citizens of the world by reifying indigenous women.
RI: In your methodology for this monograph you are very direct in situating your work within the tension of Asian American and Pacific Studies. In what ways do you reconcile the two? Have you received any contention from scholars in either field of study?
DC: I haven’t received any contentious reactions from anyone in either field (as far as I know of!). I tried to be really cognizant of how I might bring together these fields in the work, especially given their fraught history of interaction. I also want to underscore (in this interview and in my book), that I’m not arguing for a collapse in the distinctions between the fields, nor am I suggesting that the Philippines can be equally compared to the history of people in the Pacific Islands. But I do draw upon Pacific studies because of its careful attention to the Pacific itself. I think that Black Atlantic studies has been so generative in so many ways, not only for scholars of the African and African American diaspora, but also for transatlantic scholarship more broadly. Drawing upon this, I wanted to think about what happens when the transnational isn’t just about travel between two nations but, rather, when you’re interested in multiple forms of influence. How can we think about indigeneity in discussion of not only Filipina/o literature, culture, and history, but also in Asian American studies more broadly?
RI: I am interested in your current project which focuses on regionalism within Asian America. Can you tell us a little about what direction this project is taking?
DC: I have an article coming out in American Literary History later this year (“Monique Truong’s Literary South and the Regional Forms of Asian America”) that anticipates this work. In recent years there has been much attention to the South or Midwest in Asian American Studies (I’m thinking, for example, of work by Leslie Bo, Moon-ho Jung, or Khyati Joshi and Jigna Desai’s anthology). In this essay, I look at Truong’s recent novel Bitter in the Mouth as an example of how we might think differently about racial formation when we think of the region as the primary lens for viewing or analyzing race rather than the nation. In a lot of ways we can think about Asian American literature, culture, and history as being organized around a plot of discontent with the nation-state. This is of course crucial given the history of Asian American relations. But I also think that it’s led, in part, to certain normative ways of thinking about race (race as visually defined, for example, or the nation-state and its definitions of race).
The article, and the project as a whole, takes up what I call “regional forms” – both the regional formation of race and the literary practices that we use to represent race and region. Truong’s novel is about a woman with synesthesia: she experiences words as tastes. But the tastes in the novel also mask her identity as a transnational and transracial adoptee; she grows up in a small rural town in the South, and we spend over half the novel wondering whether or not she is Asian American. Moreover, throughout much of Bitter in the Mouth, Linda/Linh Dao’s most intimate connections are with the white queer and southern others in her community. The revelation in Bitter in the Mouth, then, is not just about Linda Hammerick’s Vietnamese identity, but rather the surprising confluence of global south and queer rural histories, communities, and affiliations; their representation in literature; and their ramifications for discourses of race.
RI: What else can we expect from you in the future?
DC: I’m also working now on a book that I’m tentatively calling Filipino Couture and the New Silk Road, a project that builds upon my interest in Filipina/o cultural production and forms as explored in Transpacific Femininities. I’m really excited about it and have just returned from Manila where I’ve been interviewing designers and industry insiders and have begun the archival research. It’s about the made-to-order couture industry in the Philippines, which is one of the dominant modes of fashion production in Manila. While North Americans and Europeans have long viewed Asia as a site for inexpensive labor and production (or now, as the locus of “fast fashion” [companies] like Forever 21 or H&M), there’s actually been a long history in the Philippines of high-end, carefully crafted, and individually tailored clothing. This book both documents and explores that tradition and its development.
1Renato Rosaldo, “Imperialist Nostalgia,” Representations 26 (1989): 108.