On smallness, play, and the beautiful collective.
By Eliza Rudalevige
Last December, as the rimy campus trees tapped against the windows of Pupin 301, Professor Denise Cruz addressed her Introduction to Asian American Literature class for the last time before winter break. She told us that she had a present for us, a reward for making it through an extraordinarily tough semester. Then, she pulled out a box full of homemade medals: tiny slices of tree trunk strung on thin blue and green and yellow ribbons—which, she informed us with pride, her husband and child had helped her make.
This kind of community, as you will read, is essential to Professor Cruz’s practice of teaching and scholarship. Her resume is more than impressive—she boasts previous teaching positions at Indiana University and the University of Toronto, a book with Duke University Press on transpacific femininities, a brand-new faculty affiliation with the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, and three different teaching awards in the past five years. But she also manages to grasp the most evasive of all hard-won academic merits: fun. Even through the barrier of Zoom, Professor Cruz’s warm laugh during our recent conversation was infectious, reminding me of the energy with which she approaches each lecture. One day, she plugged in a hair dryer to fill in the soundscape of Vanessa Hua’s “Accepted” as we read it aloud. The next, she challenged two students to a game of badminton at the front of the class. I’m pretty sure the shuttlecock, arcing disobediently over our seats, was never to be seen again.
And so what happened at the conclusion of last semester’s ultimate lecture seemed inevitable: a standing ovation. It wasn’t the kind you reluctantly bestow after your baby cousin’s community theater production of Seussical. It was a real one, with beaming smiles that stretched the limits of our masks. After class, standing in the shadow of Pupin Hall, I flipped over my medal. Affixed to the back was a quote from Souvankham Thammavongsa, a Canadian poet whose breathtaking verse earned her a spot on the course’s syllabus. In tiny script, it read, “What happens at the end changes everything.”
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Blue and White: So your Intro to Asian American Literature class is, as I understand, the largest English class at Columbia currently …
Denise Cruz: It was, it was. Now there's a larger one! The other one is History of Horror; it’s a new class that’s team-taught. But it’s certainly one of the largest.
B&W: Okay, so one of the largest. I was lucky enough to get in, but from other people I’ve gathered that spots are pretty coveted. What about this class attracts so many students?
DC: I’ve been really struck by the diversity of students who come to Asian American literature. Some of them are interested in Asian American literature because they feel like they have a personal or familial connection to it. Sometimes they come to it because they have maybe a close friend or someone that they have a relationship with, and so there’s that kind of connection. I think, too, in the moment where Asian American literature and culture has risen into increased cultural prominence, there is a lot of genuine interest in the subject.
And I think, of course, in this difficult moment of anti-Asian hate and rhetoric, that there is also a need for the community to encounter work that they felt spoke to them. One of the difficult things about answering this question is in part because I think there’s been a long-standing interest in Asian American literature and culture, not just here at Columbia, but more broadly across university campuses. So it’s not just this particular class or this particular moment, but the development of interest in the field that has been in existence over the course of decades.
B&W: Definitely. How do you deal with the difficulties of defining Asian American literature in a class dedicated to it? How do you approach teaching a body of literature that is thematically and theoretically linked, but without presenting it as a monolith?
DC: One way that I do that is I first explain to students that there is a historical development of the term “Asian American”; often, what I like to do is remind them of how that term in particular came about and the importance of student movements in defining that term. Many scholars and activists point to, you know, those 1968 student-led protests that were really championing and advocating “Asian American” as a term. There were other usages of the term around that time, but that’s the one I like to point to as kind of the birthplace of Asian American studies, certainly as a discipline. I also like to connect that to how literature and literary scholarship was important to the conceptualization of Asian American identity; one of the elements of that movement was the desire to find a set of texts or works of literature that they could teach in the class the students were advocating for. Sau-ling Cynthia Wong calls this a textual coalition that would go alongside a community and political coalition.
So what I first do is I like to historicize the term, or talk about the development of the term and its particular connection to Asian American literature. And then what I like to do is move backwards and forwards from that 1968 moment, because I think it’s really important to think about how Asian writers in the United States were publishing well before 1968. Even though within their historical moment they might not have identified themselves as Asian American, I think they were certainly dealing with issues related to their racialization as Asian or their experience of being Asian in the United States. So in part, it’s to illuminate to students that those questions were being examined by Asian authors well before the 1968 moment.
And then I also like to move forward as well, in terms of the 21st century, to think about contemporary understandings of the Asian American. The idea behind this is that, even from its inception, “Asian American” was meant to create a form of coalition and community, but it wasn’t monolithic. Sometimes, to be sure, there was an emphasis on certain Asian populations over others. What I like to do is underscore the diversity of the writers—of the work, of the kinds of genres they were writing, of the kind of subjects they were creating and imagining, of the worlds that they were imagining—across what I like to teach as the long century of Asian American literary production.
B&W: And what has the relationship between Columbia and Asian American studies looked like historically? What role does Columbia play in the continuing development—if any role—of this field today?
DC: You know, the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race was a center that was also created as a result of student-led activism. And we’re fortunate in that we have some of the premier scholars of Asian American studies here at Columbia: We have Mae Ngai, who is in history; we have Jennifer Lee, who’s in sociology; Marie Myung-Ok Lee, who is a writer who was one of the founding members of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. We also have a very strong faculty in East Asian Languages and Cultures—these are just some of the faculty members that were here well before I came, because I arrived in 2018. It was exciting to me to be part of a faculty with members in various disciplines who have a strong commitment to the field. And they’ve been strong advocates of the field and have been working tirelessly to support the students and to support the needs on campus.
We were all hired separately, so we weren’t hired with the desire, for example, to create an Asian American faculty. I think, now that we have a critical mass of people, we’re really interested in building the field up and drawing more attention to it. We’re really ready to develop this foundation.
B&W: Do you notice the field of Asian American studies undergoing any major shifts or changes in recent years or in 2022, especially in such a tenuous moment of violence against Asian Americans?
DC: Yes. Asian American studies is interesting because it’s a field that for a long time, from its inception, has been thinking about, reflecting on, or self-reflexively imagining the relationships between the scholarship that we produce, the community, and the political formations of the field. There have been a number of key moments in Asian American studies where we’ve really tried to assess the field and imagine it. As we move into—now we’re what, two decades into the 21st century?—I think part of what we’re trying to do is take stock of the historical patterns of anti-Asian racism and violence that we’re still seeing today, that have been a long part of U.S. history, while at the same time developing attention to the complexities of Asian American experience. I often talk about how important it is that, in the classroom, my students are really advocating or attentive to how they’re identifying across a range of formations that seem unwieldy and don’t necessarily fit into the predominant forms of racialization in the United States. Asian Americans might identify as recent arrivals, they might be citizens, they might be refugees, documented and undocumented, they might be first generation, second generation, mixed race. They are queer, non-binary, feminist. There’s an attention to differences in class. There is attention to differences in religion or politics or in forms of affiliation and coalition—I do think that the field is really trying to explore that.
The field is also interested in thinking about Asian Americans’ relationship to questions that are being engaged by Black studies, by Indigenous studies, by settler colonial studies. We’re interested in working across disciplines or comparatively. We’re interested in recognizing the long history of how racial formation has affected Asian American communities. But I think we're also interested in questions related to how contemporary geopolitics, how international relations, and how different geographic formations are affecting Asian and Asian American communities.
B&W: I’d love to pivot a little bit to talking about your teaching philosophy and specific authors. I’d love to talk about one of the poets on your syllabus, Souvankham Thammavongsa.
When you assigned her work to us last semester, you gave us access to some really stunning poems from Light, which unfortunately is no longer in print. You also told us that there might be a few copies left at the Columbia bookstore, and I went after class to try to look—there weren’t any.
DC: Oh no!
B&W: But the person at the front desk was like, “Three people have come in looking for that today.” I definitely think that was your class’ influence at work. And I’ve been trying to track down a secondhand copy somewhere!
But my question is: Thammavongsa, in Light, examines objects that we might label small or insignificant, using really concise, distilled language; for example, writing poems focusing on single words or letters. How can redefining smallness and paying attention to language on a really microscopic level, like the close reading that we did a lot in your class, help people read Asian American literature?
DC: I’m interested in Souvankham Thammavongsa’s interest in scale—as you said, in her attention to the small. In class, and when I read that work, we talk about how that might work metaphorically or allegorically or as a mode of analysis: what happens when people are deemed small or insignificant or “minor.” Many times, I think that’s equated with a lack of significance or a lack of importance. One thing that’s important about Thammavongsa’s work is it asks us to reverse that sense of scale, to reverse that rubric or the dynamics of visibility and invisibility, to pay close and careful attention.
I love teaching her work because one of the struggles that we’re working with is how can we, as individuals, actually affect change on a larger systemic level? That’s a challenging question. It’s often hard, given the preponderance of systemic effects, to have individuals feel that they have any sort of power or ability to change the system. And I don’t think Souvankham Thammavongsa’s work, for example, is interested in overly romanticizing the value of the small. But I do think one of the fascinating things about reading that poem is where, progressively, the more and more you read that poetry, you look at small changes or pivots or you look at small moments of redirection or you learn to read closely and carefully with attention to context and history, with awareness of how small actions can have wider repercussions, both good and bad. With attention to complexity, you know, with the desire to read in a way that's as careful as possible.
I often talk about how this isn’t so much how we read or engage with the world right now. You’re skimming material on your phone or kind of engaging with the world, and it does happen in this often quick, temporally compressed progression. So I think that the value of reading closely is that we do so in a way that is frankly more ethical, because we are doing so in a way that is attentive to intent, that can be generative, that can be creative and imaginative, and yet at the same time is aware that there is a context and history that has preceded this particular moment.
B&W: So do you think there’s an unethical way to read literature?
DC: For me, an ethical reading practice demands that kind of complicated overlap of context, history, and careful attention. Thinking about a way to read generatively and generously. So I don't know how I would define an unethical reading practice—I always tend to, rather than modes of negation, look at modes of creation. So that’s in part why I’m turning instead to the definition of what I would call an ethical practice.
B&W: That definitely makes sense. Your lectures are so interactive—I remember you had students come up to the front to bang on the walls and fill in the soundscape of the short stories that we were reading, or play badminton in the front of the class. What’s the importance of playfulness in your classroom?
DC: Thank you for asking that question! I think playfulness is so important to developing and reminding ourselves of not just the value of intellectual curiosity, but what it feels like to be curious and the joy of feeling curious. Sometimes when you’re working with a class in an incredibly rigorous academic environment like Columbia—or many educational environments—you forget the value of play and the joy of playfulness, and how liberating it is to feel like, maybe you don’t know something, but that’s actually okay and you’re actually willing to take that risk. I think that play encourages people to take intellectual risks. I mean, part of it really is being a parent and seeing my child engage the world with that sense of wonder, and also my prior history working with elementary and middle school students. Or my recognition of how K–12 educators, especially in the last couple of years, have approached the pandemic. And thinking really carefully about the value of playfulness in encouraging students to feel safe in taking intellectual risks.
B&W: I imagine that you must be really proud of the space for open discussion of theoretical and practical pedagogy that your class has become. I've heard so many people say that taking your class was such a meaningful experience for them, and I certainly would be proud of it.
DC: Thank you.
B&W: You keep mentioning the idea of the collective and the community. What do you think the role of collective action or collective thought is in your personal research and teaching practice, and in the field of Asian American studies as a whole?
DC: I think Asian American studies for me has been a really important space because of that collectivity. What I try to do is always recognize the fact that I know my work is necessarily building upon and in conversation with—existing alongside of—the work of other scholars, of other faculty and students, of activists, of people in the community. The work that I do is only really a small part of that broader collective. You’re right, that’s one reason I really want to underscore that in my work with students and draw attention to that in my own research.
One of the things that’s been really important to me is how critical it is to look to scholars who are studying outside of the United States as well as within. That’s one of the elements of research that I try to teach my students in research-based courses. I work with some wonderful university librarians—Sarah Witte, for example, in gender and sexuality studies, has been a wonderful ally in this—and we work with students and talk about the constraints of the patterns we might fall into when we do research. Say, for example, you’re working and you’re doing research and you’re limited to a repository like JSTOR, or you’re doing a search. What ends up happening is that you might be missing important scholarship that isn’t coming up in the search algorithm. Or, you know, you might not realize that the search that you’re conducting is really confining you to a hierarchy of institutions that subscribe to that kind of cataloging service. In teaching students about research methods, it’s important to name and underscore that. And in the interest of other forms of collective, I think it’s important too to recognize the work of faculty and staff of the University community, the librarians, the student groups, who are all, again, working on these various initiatives. That, for me, is important to acknowledge and to do my best to try to promote.
B&W: Now I have a hard question for you. If you could recommend just one book that you’ve taught for any class, for every Columbia student to read, what would it be?
DC: What?! I want to ask you what you would do before I answer that question.
B&W: I think it would be Minor Feelings, Cathy Park Hong. I went and bought the whole thing because I felt like I needed to see the whole layout of her scholarship and her argument.
DC: I’m literally looking at my bookshelf right now, and it’s so hard to choose. And I’ll tell you why it’s hard for me to choose. I mean, this goes back to the question of what you want people to understand about Asian American literature; it’s so hard to encapsulate what I see as the tremendous diversity of that work.
Just to take you through the thought pattern, in my mind, I think to myself, well, it’s so important to promote authors that are new to students. Authors that maybe a student might not immediately see or that might not be promoted on social media or something that might be surprising or different to them. And it’s also important to me to promote authors that for some reason might be difficult, where they’re dealing with subjects or topics or in genres that might be hard for a reader to encounter, that will require a reader to sit down and think. We talk about this a lot in class—that might make us feel discomfort, and think about why we are feeling uncomfortable.
And it’s important, too, for me to underscore that Asians and Asian Americans have been publishing in the United States and elsewhere and have been such vibrant contributors to the literary traditions that one of my favorite parts of teaching that class is always the process of selection. Like, how do I juggle between writers that have been so influential and important in the field, like Maxine Hong Kingston, for example, alongside someone like Souvankham Thammavongsa who is a poet, a writer in Canada much better known in Canada but now is a new voice in the United States.
Oh! So I don’t even know, Eliza. Am I required to pick one?
B&W: No, you don’t have to pick one. That is a perfectly acceptable answer.
DC: I would be happy to provide a list …
B&W: So, I know a lot of your research focuses on gender and sexuality in a transnational context, and especially on the figure of the transpacific Asian woman. How do you think this research shapes the syllabi that you create?
DC: I hope when people take the course, they do see the importance of—not just the logic of inclusion where we’re including feminists and queer authors or feminist and queer content and gender and sexuality studies content, but also the critical framework that we’re using to think through the texts on the syllabus.
One of my interests in the transpacific is how it as a rubric allows us to think about not just about Asian American encounters in the binary that depends on this monolithic version of Asia in opposition to the U.S. As we talked about in class, there are other multiple imperial formations and contexts that shaped Asian American literature. So how do we think about the interaction of Spanish empire with Japan, China, the United States—those kinds of what Lisa Lowe calls intimacies? How do we think about transpacific history as being multiple and complicated, as being connected to a legacy of settler colonialism and its effects on indigenous populations? How do we think about the importance of the nation-state and imperial formations, but also look at modes of resistance or look at other geographic formations like the regional or the local? All of that, I think, does shape the syllabus in that I’m choosing texts or working with texts that put pressure on the category of Asian American itself. While we might be studying them under the rubric of Asian American, I think anyone who takes the class will see that so many of the authors are putting pressure on those narratives or those constructions in various forms.
B&W: And speaking of your own research, I read on your website that you’re currently working on a project on the development of high fashion in the Philippines, and I would love to hear more about that.
DC: My first book, Transpacific Femininities, was really thinking about the literary and cultural construction of the transpacific Filipina in the early to mid-20th century, and a significant portion of the book was interested in the rise of English literature alongside women’s movements in the Philippines and debates about who and what the Filipina should be. And some of that really pivoted on modes of dress, for example, or on the representation of fashion. So I was interested in that in the literature. At the same time, what also emerged in the course of my traveling to the Philippines and then in my family’s engagement with the Philippines was that there is a long practice of a particular form of high fashion in Manila and in the Philippines; there are designers who have crafted this hybrid form of what they would call made-to-order couture, where the clients are working very closely with a fashion designer.
Those are the research-based interests; the more personal interest is that I have family connections to a fashion designer in Manila. And so I was really interested in his story, in thinking about his story and how his role as a fashion designer and his practice as a fashion designer confounds some of the assumptions that people have when they think about the association between fashion and Asia. I think that the general association is that Asia is the location for fast fashion. It’s the place where clothes are made inexpensively and very quickly. The mode of fashion that I was looking at in Manila was kind of slow, very individualized. It had ties to the elite. And that created for me an interesting object of study or interesting cultural history that I wanted to look at more closely.
B&W: I’m looking forward to that being ready to read. I’m going to end with another big question: Why, in your opinion, is it essential to study Asian American literature?
DC: I love that you’re throwing me these questions … I think that there has been a long and troubling history of representing Asians as the figure of the other. And of course, Asians aren’t the only figure represented as the other, but I think one of the ways that it has manifested itself is in what I and other scholars like to examine as forms of fascination and fear that we’ve seen replay over and over again. In the wake of the Atlanta spa shootings or the forms of anti-Asian violence that we’ve seen over the course of the last couple of years, I was really struck by how many times Asian American scholars were asked to reflect upon that moment and to theorize it. Many of these scholars and activists have been underscoring these patterns for quite a long time, and how, unfortunately, they have recurred.
For me, it’s important to study Asian American literature, in part, as a way of contending with the repercussions of that long history and its continued emergence in our contemporary life. But I also think it’s important to study it because, as I hope anyone who takes the class realizes, I think it’s really beautiful. I think that Asian American literature and literary history is incredible as works of art, that these authors are taking up questions related to race, to empire, to legacies and histories of exclusion and of marginalization. They’re also theorizing, though, in really beautiful ways, modes of existence, of temporality, of intimacy, love, connection, of collectivity in ways that I find incredibly inspiring. That is one reason why it’s important to study. Not just because of the authors who are producing it or the topics that they’re working with, but because, frankly, it’s really beautiful.
Professor Cruz’s Reading List
Gina Apostol, Gun Dealers’ Daughter
Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior
Jessica Hagedorn, Dogeaters
Cathy Park Hong, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning
Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictée
Souvankham Thammavongsa, How to Pronounce Knife
Monique Truong, Bitter in the Mouth
Nghi Vo, The Chosen and the Beautiful
Rachel Khong, Goodbye, Vitamin
Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Refugees
Charles Yu, Interior Chinatown
Anthony Veasna So, Afterparties
Two recent books from the Columbia community:
Mae Ngai, The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics
Marie Myung-Ok Lee, The Evening Hero