- You have published prolifically on space-related issues, from your first book in 2010—Geography and the Production of Space in Nineteenth-Century American Literature(which I am using in my postgraduate course seminar now) to your Sitting in Darkness: Mark Twain, Asia, and Comparative Racialization (2015), to your forthcoming book The Smell of Risk: Atmospheric Disparities and the Olfactory Arts. I wonder how the issues of smell came to your attention in the first place, and if / how the transpacific aspect of your previous projects might inform the development of your current research.
I came to smell as a scholar with long-term interests in geographical inequities, critical race studies, and the environmental humanities. I first got interested in smell years ago, when I was researching environmental representation in naturalist novels. I noticed lot of references to odor in writings by authors like Emile Zola, Stephen Crane, and Frank Norris, and this got me thinking about how smell enacts a kind of environmental agency by entering and transforming bodies, minds, and moods. I tracked this pattern from naturalist novels to contemporary writers like Helena Viramontes, who update naturalist techniques to think about environmental justice themes. Around this point, I started reading up on smell as an embodied and often disavowed sense, and it occurred to me that the things that have marginalized smell in the Western aesthetic tradition—for example, its subjectivity, potential toxicity, ephemerality, resistance to description, and its deep ties to memory and emotion—actually make it really interesting for thinking about as a tool of environmental perception. I’ve been especially influenced by work in sensory history (Alain Corbin’s The Foul and the Fragrant, Mark Smith’s work on race and the senses), studies of “atmospherics” (Peter Sloterdijk, Derek McCormack), and material & postcolonial ecocriticism (Stacy Alaimo on the trans-corporeal agency of matter, Rob Nixon on “slow violence”). Eventually, these lines of inquiry led me to rethink earlier work I had done on Edith Maude Eaton’s writings about Chinese immigrants, and the way she mobilized ideas about fragrance and fresh air to combat stereotypes about Asiatic odors which associated Asian immigrants with “bad” smells such as industrial fumes, opium, food-related scents, body odors, and the smells that result from poverty and inadequate, overcrowded housing.
- In your 2016 article “Olfactory Art, Transcorporeality, and the Museum Environment” (Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities), you talk about the issue of toxicity and risk assessment / management in a museum environment. I wonder how you might perceive this environmental turn and atmospheric approach in your more recent project?
That article is actually extracted from the book project, so it’s very much part of what I’ve been thinking about. The article frames olfactory art as a practice that destabilizes the conventions of climate control and ventilation that are central to art conservation in modern museums and galleries. In order to stabilize objects for disembodied, primarily visual consumption, the museum had to become a paradigmatic space of deodorization. I argue that this has made it difficult to display works that center the politics of the atmosphere, and I think through the exciting ways in which olfactory artists have been engaging with the politics of air pollution. For example, in my book I discuss a work by Boris Raux called Swimming Pool, which reworks the myth of Narcissus by presenting a pool of luminous purple fabric softener. As the viewer gets closer to gaze into the pool and potentially see their reflection, they have to inhale the liquid’s strong chemical scent and consider how it’s affecting their body and mind. Western literature has also tended to privilege deodorized or mildly perfumed depictions of the world, except in particular genres such as travel writing, detective fiction, and naturalism. I focus on some of these unusually smelly forms to consider how environmental trans-corporeality is dramatized through the olfactory plots of detective fiction and the malodorous settings of naturalist novels and environmental justice narratives.
- Michael Haldrup and Jonas Larsen in Tourism, Performance and the Everyday: Consuming the Orient(2010) talk about the "performative" turn in the studies of Orientalism. I wonder what your thoughts are on the invested interest in the (new) materialistic turn / performative aspect in the studies of humanities, and the future direction(s) of the studies of Asian-American Literature.
I’ve learned a lot from New Materialist scholarship and associated frameworks for understanding materiality in action. In this context, “performativity” accords a kind of agency to the material world: a smell, for example, is a performance insofar as it’s defined by transience, presence, and embodied perception. In particular, I’ve been inspired by the rich interdisciplinary work on atmosphere, which includes Ben Anderson and Teresa Brennan on affective atmospheres, Peter Sloterdijk’s theorization of “air conditioning,” Christina Sharpe on the “weather,” and Renisa Mawani on “racial atmospheres.” I’ve also found work on toxics—for example, by Mel Chen, Michelle Murphy, and Julie Sze—incredibly productive for thinking about material ecologies in connection with racial inequities. After finishing this book, I’m planning to co-edit a project (with David Vázquez) on “the molecular intimacies of empire,” which we hope will trace the intimacies of U.S. empire at the scale of molecular, biochemical transformations through the transnational circulation of materials such as chemicals, foods, pigments, plastics, waste, and radiation. This project would of course be situated in the vast wake of Lisa Lowe’s Intimacies of Four Continents, but it would put it in conversation with a range of projects focused on material intimacies, including (in the field of Asian American studies) Rachel Lee’s work on transpacific metabolics, Michelle Huang’s work on molecular aesthetics, and Sarah Tracy’s work on monosodium glutamate and food science.
- Recently you wrote an introduction for John Rollin Ridge's The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta(the 2018 Penguin Edition). I included one of Ridge's poems about the prairies (“A Scene along the Rio De Las Plumas”) in my postgraduate seminar and my students seem to prefer his poem over, say William Cullen Bryant’s “The Prairies” (written roughly around the same time). I wonder if you can talk a bit about his writing and how Ridge (or the other less known / minority authors you have dealt with) helps illuminate our current understanding of the transnational nature of American literature in the nineteenth-century.
I’ve been working on transnational currents in the long nineteenth-century for some time now. Early on, I became interested in authors like Brockden Brown, Melville, Jewett, and Twain, whose work moves through a range of transnational spaces and relations. I started teaching Joaquín Murieta in my nineteenth-century survey course in order to present a more marginalized perspective on the transnational. The novel isn’t just about the contestation and repeated crossings of the U.S.-Mexico border. It has also circulated widely throughout the Americas in Spanish language translations, corridos, and other rewritings. And it puts a plurality of nations and migrant communities in violent conjunction: people Indigenous to the land that became the state of California, Cherokees, Chinese miners, Mexican Americans, and a range of European immigrants. I’ve also worked on the writings of Edith Maude Eaton (Sui Sin Far), whose career writing primarily about Chinese North Americans ranged across Canada, the U.S., and Jamaica. Like Ridge, Eaton depicts a range of unruly transnational movements and intimacies. Authors like Ridge and Eaton—and also Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, Wong Chin Foo, Pauline Hopkins and many others—illustrate how vital it is to think about the complex ways in which race orients literary transnationalism.