On the unbelievably ideal and inspiring site for my first public book talk.
I got to talk about the Angel Island poetry next door to a full-size recreation of an Angel Island wall, complete with a transcribed poem carved in the wood. I got to discuss some of the stories and histories of Yung Wing and his Chinese Educational Mission just a few feet away from a monitor playing a compelling short film about Yung’s life and the school he founded. I got to analyze the rise of the Yellow Peril narrative while asking my audience to follow up the talk by examining the large collection of salient political and social materials exhibited across the room. And I got to share the stage and event with the talented and dynamic Karen Shepard, whose The Celestials (2013) is without question one of the couple most significant literary engagements with 19th century Chinese and Asian American identity, community, and history yet written.
So yeah, my September book talk at New York’s Museum of the Chinese in America, as part of the debut of the museum’s new MOCACitizen series, was truly pitch-perfect. If you live in or near New York, or have the chance to visit the city at any point, I can’t recommend the museum strongly enough—it’s a truly unique and exciting space, and features not only the standing exhibit to which my above details refer but an ongoing collection of rotating exhibits that promise to extend such foundational historical and cultural questions and themes to various compelling and contemporary issues and conversations (see for example the current exhibitions on the “new woman” in mid-20th century Shanghai and on 21st century Chinese American designers). The museum is a model 21st century historic, cultural, and educational site, and I look forward to future visits, events, and connections there.
Talking about my book at MOCA also forced me to think more deeply about a balance I’m still working out, both in these particular talks and in my ongoing public AmericanStudies scholarship: the balance between doing specific justice to the details and complexities of particular histories and stories (such as those of 19th century Chinese Americans, in this case) and making broader connections to national narratives and conversations (such as those of immigration laws and diversity, in this case). My instinct is always to move toward the latter connections, since they’re the ones that involve and impact all Americans, and thus (I would argue) the most significant stakes of my work. But on the other hand, it’s the specific histories and stories that we so often don’t know, and without which the broader conversation would feel as decontextualized and empty as would the museum space without all its exhibits and materials. So MOCA inspired me to keep focusing on what goes on the walls as much as on the communal space I hope to help us build out of those foundations.
Next talk follow up tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
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