Asian Studies

Q&A with Liz P. Y. Chee, author of Mao’s Bestiary

In Liz P. Y. Chee is Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute and Lecturer at Tembusu College, both at the National University of Singapore. In her new book, Mao’s Bestiary: Medicinal Animals and Modern China, she complicates understandings of Chinese medicine as timeless and unchanging by historicizing the expansion of animal-based medicines in the social and political environment of early Communist China. Chee is Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute and Lecturer at Tembusu College, both at the National University of Singapore.

In Mao’s Bestiary, your focus is on the production rather than the consumption of animal-based drugs. As a reader, it’s hard not to wonder about the efficacy of some of the therapies you describe. From the consumer’s perspective, do you have a sense as to why faunal medicalization remains popular?

I agree it’s hard to understand why demand continues in the present day despite the lack of science-based proofs of efficacy, and given the awareness that so many animal species are facing extinction, but let me provide two reasons. One is prestige. In China and elsewhere in Asia, rare animal parts and tissues have been highly valued within a gifting economy. I first became aware of this on a trip to Boten City, Laos in December 2009, where in the lobby of my hotel, which faced the entrance to a casino, venders were selling boxes of bear bile wrapped in neat red packaging. Jill Robinson, founder of Animals Asia Foundation, has discussed how such high-end animal medicinals are often never consumed, but permanently displayed as trophy objects. Others have written of how the gift of an expensive animal-based medicine to a sick relative is taken as a sign of caring, regardless of whether it is used.

A more general reason is the belief, deliberately cultivated during the period I write about, of the greater potency of animal tissue in preventing or curing diseases as compared to herbs. The Chinese medical belief of “like-cures-like” has always contributed to the use of animals parts as cures, though my book documents many cases of animals being given new medical powers in the modern period that have little or no sanction in classical texts. Contributing to the decimation of the rhino population, for example, has been a surge in Vietnamese demand for rhino horn, based on its claimed efficacy in curing cancer, or just hangovers. And in post-war Singapore, the horns of Saiga antelope were made into a cooling drink. I remember drinking this as a child and believing in its cooling effects. That Saiga horn is still openly sold here probably relates to this earlier marketing, which like all marketing need not be backed by scientific proofs. When such parts and tissues are officially banned, their trade goes underground, or operates through the internet. Only educating consumers has a chance of ending it.

Instead of using Eastern and Western medicine as analytic categories, you compare Chinese medicine with biomedicine. What do you think Western historians of science and medicine, or, perhaps, historians of Western science and medicine, can take away from this reframing of geography and tradition?

“Eastern” and “Western” are artefacts from the colonial period, so didn’t work for me in telling this story. Even “Chinese medicine” and “biomedicine”, the two broad-brush descriptors I settled on, needed to constantly be given more nuance in the text. It’s well-accepted now that “Chinese medicine” is a modernizing and heterogeneous set of practices and materials, hence full of innovation, and I’ve further documented that. But another reason the directional categories didn’t work in my manuscript is because Soviet or socialist medicine had a large influence in China from the 1950s, and its openness to herb-based and animal-based therapies—which were out of favour in “The West”—acted as a bridge to traditional Chinese drug culture. Russia is also in Asia, so its floral and faunal materia medica overlapped with that of China, as did its medicinal farming of deer. Other scholars have already documented the way that Japanese research influenced the whole range of medicines in China, including traditional pharmaceutics, and we can add North Korea in the case of bear bile farming. As a Singaporean, I was also very aware of the north-south axis; how what happens to the north of us effects the Southeast Asian rain forest where we live, and which has traditionally supplied so many animals for Chinese medicinal markets.

In your own life, you have been both a consumer of Chinese medicine and an activist for wildlife and biodiversity. How do these two things sit in tension for your generation? How do you imagine this tension might shape conversations about Chinese medicine moving forward?

I’m currently in my early 40s, and it’s not easy to generalize about my generation of Chinese-Singaporeans. While we’re more educated than our parents, we’re still quite immersed in inherited ways of thinking. My family origins are in Southern China, where animals were never treated humanely or with a view toward conservation. I was brought up eating shark fin soup and consuming Chinese medicine made with dried lizards, in addition to the antelope-horn drink I mentioned. I only became sensitized to ethical issues around animals in my late teens, but even then felt powerless to change anything. One turning point came when I saw (in the early 2000s) a BBC documentary on bear farming, and then witnessed it first-hand in Laos. While I think I’m still more the exception than the norm among my generation, an active minority of us have contributed to a strong and increasingly effective movement for the ethical treatment of animals here, as I mention in my book. We are ahead of China in that regard, though attitudes there are changing as well.

I’m more hopeful about the younger generations of Singaporeans and Chinese, who have been more outspoken in voicing their distaste for exploiting endangered species. The Guizhentang controversy of 2012, which I describe in my book, and which saw young mainland Chinese demonstrating against bear bile farming in front of the company’s outlets, was early evidence of a more dynamic and ethically-focused generation evolving. Celebrities like basketballer Yao Ming have also spoken up in challenge to conservative voices in the Chinese medical community. As an academic, my job is to contextualize and explain why and how animals came to be medicalized on such a scale. And my book rejects the claim that an unbroken Chinese tradition is the reason for the current industrial-scale exploitation, thereby skipping over the influence of nation-building in Mao’s China. But even without this historical evidence, I believe the younger generation prefers a Chinese medicine which does not endanger biodiversity, threaten the survival of species, harm individual animals, or harm us through the spread of zoonoses. They realize that continuing to medicalize animals is not essential to the survival of this healing tradition. It may rather threaten it.

You reference the COVID-19 pandemic several times in your introduction, and again in your conclusion. What impact, if any, do you think COVID-19 will have on future uses of medicinal animals? Do you think your book would have looked different if you had started it, and not finished it, in the middle of a pandemic?

As mentioned, one origin of this book was the trip I made to a bear bile farm in Boten City, Laos, a story I tell in the introduction. My team and I were there because the bears were diseased and dying, and I was struck that liquid extracted from sick bears was being sold locally as “medicine.” So zoonotic disease was a specter hovering about my project from the beginning. But I was more interested at that moment in the ethical question of how Chinese farmers could engage in such a cruel practice, and the historical question of where medicinal animal farming originated, and why. Going into the archives to understand faunal medicalization as an historical process, zoonoses faded from view because they were outside the consciousness of my actors and informants. Now of course they are front and center. But in some sense I’m glad I finished the book just before the pandemic, so as not to see the history of medicalizing animals solely through that contemporary lens. I’m hopeful, however, that the pre-history provided by the book will be useful to those working today to limit zoonotic disease by ending the global wildlife trade, so much of which is linked to medicalization. “Tradition” has always been a black box (or perhaps wall) limiting what people felt they could do to institute change. Understanding it as a process of constant re-invention and choice, and in this instance one that has become detrimental to both human and animal health, is an important step.

Read the introduction to Mao’s Bestiary and save 30% on the paperback edition using the code E21CHEMB

Q&A with Ross King, editor of the Sungkyun Journal of East Asian Studies

We’re thrilled to welcome the Sungkyun Journal of East Asian Studies to our publishing program starting with volume 21, issue 1, which is available now. SJEAS is an open-access, international publication that presents research related to the Sinographic Cosmopolis/Sphere of pre-1945 East Asia, publishing both articles that stay within traditional disciplinary or regional boundaries and works that explore the commonalities and contrasts found in countries of the Sinographic Sphere. Today we’re pleased to share an interview with Ross King, editor of SJEAS.

How would you describe SJEAS to someone new to the journal?

SJEAS was launched in 2000. As an international East Asian humanities journal based at a leading South Korean university with seven centuries of excellence in humanities scholarship (Sungkyunkwan University), SJEAS strives to move away from some of the entrenched biases of ‘East Asian’ studies by focusing on pre-1945 humanities in the Sinographic Cosmopolis/Sinographic Sphere; thus, SJEAS now welcomes contributions on pre-1945 Vietnam, which traditionally was not a focus of the journal. Much of East Asian humanities scholarship today is heavily presentist, while also suffering from eurocentrism and (increasingly) sinocentrism. In ‘East Asian’ studies, there is the additional challenge of ‘national studies’ myopia, whereby scholars tend to focus on just one national tradition, and then typically with a lopsided focus on either vernacular or (rarely) Sinitic sources. Thus, SJEAS aspires to challenge such biases and also include comparative and/or transregional perspectives whenever possible.


When did you join SJEAS as editor, and what drew you to the journal?

I joined in 2018, and was drawn by the fact that it is based in Korea at an institution with a strong tradition in premodern East Asian humanities scholarship: the Sungkyunkwan 成均館 was Korea’s foremost seat of learning from 1398 until the end of the Chosŏn dynasty. South Korean scholars are producing robust, theoretically informed humanities scholarship on the Sinographic Sphere across a wide range of fields, and are keen to join the international conversation while also including voices from scholars in neighbouring East Asian countries.


Why is it important for SJEAS to be published open access?

The original terms of the South Korean government funding that helped launch the journal more than twenty years ago stipulated open access; but beyond just that legal requirement, South Korean academia in general is broadly committed to making publicly funded research as widely and freely accessible as possible, and SKKU and SJEAS share that commitment.


How has the journal changed in recent years, and how do you expect it to continue to evolve in the near future?

The most significant change since I joined has been to narrow the temporal focus to pre-1945 and to specify a long-term preference for humanities research on the Sinographic Cosmopolis (including Vietnam), along with a preference for research in translation studies, broadly defined. In previous decades, SJEAS published quite a few articles on post-1945 topics, including work on quite contemporary issues, but there are so many journals now specializing in modern and contemporary topics, and so few focused on pre-1945 (let along ‘premodern’, however one defines that) topics, that we felt it important to narrow the focus.


What are you looking for in submissions?

We are particularly welcoming of contributions that treat pre-twentieth century (before 1945) topics in the humanities. We are keen to highlight the research achievements of colleagues doing cutting-edge research in China (broadly construed), Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Our preference is for solid, primary-source heavy research rather than cutting-edge theoretical or historical work. Research on Vietnam is explicitly encouraged, as is comparative/transnational research. Because of the journal’s anchor in Korea at SKKU, with its centuries-old ties to Korean cultural tradition, we always welcome research on premodern Korean humanities that engages source materials in Literary Sinitic and/or negotiations between Sinitic and vernacular literary culture. I would emphasize that we are willing to put editorial resources into submissions that might (initially) be on shakier ground in terms of the quality of their academic English, provided the research is new and exciting for an international Anglophone audience, and that the English passes a certain relatively high threshold. But all submissions must engage with relevant western or East Asian scholarship outside the national tradition within which it is produced.

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New Books in June

Looking for some summer reading? Check out the great new titles we have coming out in June!

Jennifer L. Morgan draws on the lived experiences of enslaved African women in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries in Reckoning with Slavery to reveal the contours of early modern notions of trade, race, and commodification in the Black Atlantic.

In Decolonizing Memory, Jill Jarvis examines the crucial role that writers and artists have played in cultivating historical memory and nurturing political resistance in Algeria, showing how literature offers the unique ability to reckon with colonial violence and to render the experiences of those marginalized by the state.

The contributors to Beyond Man, edited by An Yountae and Eleanor Craig, reckon with the colonial and racial implications of the philosophy of religion’s history by staging a conversation between it and Black, Indigenous, and decolonial studies.

In Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, Martin Savransky draws on the pragmatic pluralism of William James and the ontological turn in anthropology to propose a “pluralistic realism”—an understanding of ontology in which at any given time the world is both one and many, ongoing and unfinished.

In How to Go Mad Without Losing Your Mind, La Marr Jurelle Bruce ponders the presence of “madness” in black literature, music, and performance since the early twentieth century, showing how artist ranging from Kendrick Lamar and Lauryn Hill to Nina Simone and Dave Chappelle activate madness as content, form, aesthetic, strategy, philosophy, and energy in an enduring black radical tradition.

Việt Lê examines contemporary art in Cambodia and Việt Nam in Return Engagements to trace the entwinement of militarization, trauma, diaspora, and modernity in Southeast Asian art.

In Images of Beirut, Hatim El-Hibri explores how the creation and circulation of images has shaped the urban spaces and cultural imaginaries of Beirut, showing how images can be used to consolidate or destabilize regimes of power.

Editors Diana Paton and Matthew J. Smith combine more than one hundred classic and lesser-known texts in The Jamaica Reader to present a panoramic history of the country—from its pre-contact Indigenous origins to the present—and provide an unparalleled look at Jamaica’s history, culture, and politics.

In Colonial Debts, Rocío Zambrana uses the current political-economic moment in Puerto Rico to outline how debt functions as both an apparatus that strengthens neoliberalism and the island’s colonial relation to the United States.

Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández challenges the stereotypes of machismo in Archiving Mexican Masculinities in Diaspora with nuanced portraits of Mexican men and masculinities along and across the US-Mexico border.

The contributors to Words and Worlds, edited by Veena Das and Didier Fassin, examine the state of politics and the political imaginary within contemporary societies by taking up the everyday words such as democracy, revolution, and populism that we use to understand the political present.

A concise, easy-to-understand reference book, the revised and updated second edition of the bestselling All about Your Eyes tells you what you need to know to care for your eyes, various eye diseases and treatments, and what to expect from your eye doctor. The editors, Sharon Fekrat, Tanya S. Glaser, and Henry L. Feng are all physicians at the world-renown Duke Eye Center.

In an indispensable guide for all ethnographers, the editors of Experimenting with Ethnography, Andrea Ballestero and Brit Ross Winthereik, collect twenty-one essays that offer concrete suggestions for thinking about and doing ethnographic research and writing.

The contributors to Sound Alignments, edited by Michael K. Bourdaghs, Paola Iovene, and Kaley Mason, explore the myriad forms of popular music in Asia during the Cold War, showing how it took on new meanings and significance as it traveled across the region and forged and challenged alliances, revolutions, and countercultures.

Shaoling Ma examines late Qing China’s political upheavals and modernizing energies through the problem of the dynamics between new media technologies such as the telegraph the discursive representations of them in The Stone and the Wireless.

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New Books in May

As you finish up the semester, considering rewarding yourself with new books! Here’s what we have coming out in May.

songbooks In Songbooks, veteran music critic and popular music scholar Eric Weisbard offers a critical guide to American popular music writing, from William Billings’s 1770 New-England-Psalm-Singer to Jay-Z’s 2010 memoir Decoded.

In Black Bodies, White Gold, Anna Arabindan-Kesson examines how cotton became a subject for nineteenth-century art by tracing the symbolic and material correlations between cotton and Black people in British and American visual culture.

Pollution is Colonialism Max Liboiron models an anticolonial scientific practice in Pollution Is Colonialism, aligned with Indigenous concepts of land, ethics, and relations to outline the entanglements of capitalism, colonialism, and environmental science.

The Genealogical Imagination by Michael Jackson juxtaposes ethnographic and imaginative writing to explore intergenerational trauma and temporality, showing how genealogy becomes a powerful model for understanding our experience of being in the world.

Editor Lisa Björkman and contributors to Bombay Brokers provide thirty-six character profiles of men and women whose knowledge and labor—which is often seen as morally suspect—are essential for navigating everyday life in Bombay, one of the world’s most complex, dynamic, and populous cities.

Christopher Tounsel investigates the centrality of Christian worldviews to the ideological construction of South Sudan from the early twentieth century to the present in Chosen Peoples.

Brian Russell Roberts dispels continental-centric US national mythologies in Borderwaters to advance an alternative image of the United States as an archipelagic nation to better reflect its claims to archipelagoes in the Pacific and Caribbean.

Palestine is throwing a party Palestine Is Throwing a Party and the Whole World Is Invited by Kareem Rabie examines how Palestine’s desire to fully integrate its economy into global markets through large-scale investment projects represented a shift away from political state building with the hope that a thriving economy would lead to a free and functioning Palestinian state.

Liz P. Y. Chee complicates understandings of Chinese medicine as timeless and unchanging in Mao’s Bestiary by historicizing the expansion of animal-based medicines in the social and political environment of early Communist China.

Never miss a new book! Sign up for our e-mail newsletters, and get notifications of new titles in your preferred disciplines as well as discounts and other news.

New Books in April

Check out the great new titles we have coming out in April!

Right Here Right NowIn Right Here, Right Now, Lynden Harris collects the powerful first-person stories of dozens of men who are living on death row in the United States, offering a glimpse into the lives of some of the most marginalized people in America. Watch the trailer.

Rafico Ruiz uses the Grenfell Mission in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, to theorize how settler colonialism establishes itself through the building, maintenance, and mediation of site-specific infrastructure in Slow Disturbance.

Analyzing a range of Chicano/a and Native American novels, films, short stories and other cultural artifacts from the eighteenth century to the present, Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita in Spatial and Discursive Violence in the US Southwest examine literary representations of settler colonial land enclosure and dispossession in the US Southwest.

Hentyle Yapp analyzes contemporary Chinese art as it circulates on the global art market to outline the limitations of the predominant narratives that currently frame understandings of non-Western art in Minor China. Join an online book launch for Minor China on April 15.

We are excited to be bringing out two new volumes in the Stuart Hall: Selected Writings series. Selected Writings on Marxism, edited by Gregor McLennan, collects Stuart Hall’s key writings on Marxism surveys the formative questions central to his interpretations of and investments in Marxist theory and practice.

Race and DifferenceAnd in Selected Writings on Race and Difference, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Paul Gilroy gather more than twenty essays by Stuart Hall that highlight his extensive and groundbreaking engagement with race, representation, identity, difference, and diaspora.

The contributors to Religion, Secularism, and Political Belonging, edited by Leerom Medovoi and Elizabeth Bentley, examine how the new political worlds that are emerging—from Trump’s America to the post-Arab-Spring Middle East—intersect with locally specific articulations of religion and secularism.

Todne Thomas explores the internal dynamics of community life among black evangelicals and the ways they create spiritual relationships through the practice of Kincraft—the construction of one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, partners in prayer, and spiritual mothers, fathers, and children.

Edited and translated by Ilinca Iurascu, Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, and Michael Wutz, Operation Valhalla collects eighteen texts by German media theorist Friedrich Kittler on the close connections between war and media technology.

Eating in TheoryAnnmarie Mol reassess notions of human being and becoming by thinking through the activity of eating, showing how eating is a lively practice bound up with our identities, actions, politics, and senses of belonging in the world in Eating in Theory.

Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu examines the legacies of the Vietnam War on contemporary ideas about race and beauty, in Experiments in Skin, showing how US wartime efforts to alleviate the environmental and chemical risks to soldiers’ skin has impacted how contemporary Vietnamese women use pharmaceutical cosmetics to repair the damage from the war’s lingering toxicity.

The Long EmancipationRinaldo Walcott posits that Black people globally live in the time of emancipation and that emancipation is definitely not freedom in The Long Emancipation, showing that wherever Black people have been emancipated from slavery and colonization, a potential freedom became thwarted.

Drawing on Black feminism, Afro-pessimism, and critical race theory, the contributors to Antiblackness, Moon-Kie Jung and João H. Costa-Vargas,trace the forms of antiblackness across time and space, showing how the dehumanization of Black people has been foundational to the establishment of modernity.

Thomas Aiello traces the complicated and fascinating life of pioneering journalist, television host, bestselling author, and important yet overlooked civil rights figure in The Life and Times of Louis Lomax. Lomax became one of the most influential voices of the civil rights movement despite his past as an ex-con, serial liar, and publicity-seeking provocateur.

Never miss a new book! Sign up for our e-mail newsletters, and get notifications of new titles in your preferred disciplines as well as discounts and other news.

Asian/Pacific American Cultures and Histories Syllabus

In response to recent acts of violence against Asian Americans stemming from a long history of anti-Asian sentiment in the United States, we wish to offer resources to contextualize the experiences of Asian and Pacific Americans. The articles, issues, and books in our Asian/Pacific American Cultures and Histories Syllabus discuss not only complex histories and contemporary experiences of racism and imperialism, but also community formation, solidarity between marginalized groups, and worldmaking possibilities.

All journal articles and issues in the syllabus are free to read until August 31, 2021. The introduction to each book is free, and books may be purchased at dukeupress.edu.

The Asian/Pacific American Cultures and Histories Syllabus is one of several staff-curated syllabi, with topics ranging from global immigration to racial justice to trans rights.

Q&A with Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez, author of Empire’s Mistress, Starring Isabel Rosario Cooper

Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez is Professor of American Studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, author of Securing Paradise: Tourism and Militarism in Hawai‘i and the Philippines, and coeditor of Detours: A Decolonial Guide to Hawai‘i. Her latest book is Empire’s Mistress, Starring Isabel Rosario Cooper, which follows the life of Filipina vaudeville and film actress Isabel Rosario Cooper, who was the mistress of General Douglas MacArthur, to explore the contours of empire as experienced on the scale of personal relationships.

If most people know anything about Isabel Rosario Cooper, it’s that she was General Douglas MacArthur’s mistress. In footnotes to most histories, she is portrayed as a tragic figure, “a beautiful woman who died of heartbreak.” What made you want to tell her story more fully?

This kind of feminine figuration has always served as camouflage for complexity, a shorthand that feeds into and is fed by a colonial fantasy of brown women longing for white men, as well as narrative desire for familiar tropes. This version of Isabel Cooper’s story is not in the footnotes: it is front and center because it’s the comfortable and typical characterization of “women like her.” When I started to dig into the footnotes of MacArthur biographies, I discovered a kind of recursive pattern that boiled down to a reliance on repeated citations of sources that had somehow become authoritative evidence for her story. What became clear was that these sources that were more hearsay or even outright inaccurate had circulated enough times that they had hardened into truth—in particular the version that revolved around the General as her object of yearning and heartbreak had become the standard. The work of postcolonial feminist scholars has taught us that of course there’s something more operating beneath the flattened image of dead, beautiful, heartbroken women, something more than “MacArthur’s mistress.” The short interludes that bothered to portray Isabel Cooper in MacArthur biographies and their suspect footnotes that were cited as evidence didn’t match up to this work.

Empire's MistressThere’s also a way in which stories like hers are dismissed as unworthy in the sense that her biggest known “accomplishment” is sleeping with MacArthur—often read as betrayal at worst, or venal at most—another way to marginalize women’s stories. At the same time, I did not want to dismiss her sexual agency, because to some degree, that was crucial to the kind of power and identity she wielded. From the great work that has been done on the early colonial period in the Philippines, particularly on the “woman question,” we know that the lives of Filipinas were complex, cosmopolitan, and often grappled with the contradictions engendered by the shifts in colonial society. I wanted to tell her story more fully because it deserved to be told with the same kind of effort in terms of research and writing as stories of men like MacArthur, and I felt that it would be a good vehicle to also interweave a parallel account about archives and genres, and the ways in which both open and up and foreclose how we learn to narrate ourselves.

You choose not to structure your book chronologically like a traditional biography. Instead you begin with her relationship with MacArthur and then jump around in time. You also feature documents, pictures and imagined letters and conversations in between your chapters. Why did you choose this structure? How does it help tell Cooper’s story more fully?

It took me a while to figure out how to tell her story. I knew I needed to include elements of biography—because so little of her life is actually known, and the broader historical context of her story is unfamiliar to most readers—so some part of this had to be fleshed out. But I also knew that I didn’t want to present an account that was somehow whole or authoritative or forthright, like an exhumation or an explanation, because I didn’t want to repeat the pattern of how she has been narrated in such an overdetermined way. I did begin with a chronological draft, but this structure felt like it didn’t make room for the ways in which patterns repeated themselves in her life, or how a particular part of her story (the MacArthur interlude) pre-empts others. It felt inert—and so I began with her death, because so much of what is written about her pivots on the suicide of this beautiful woman, and the half-truths or outright lies that adhered to it. I also foregrounded her time with MacArthur in the narrative, a bit perversely, because I wanted to arrest the desire to center MacArthur and frame him as the “reveal” of the story later on in the book. I felt like that the strange enticement of that infamous scandal was not something I wanted the reader to be invested in. The few years of her life during which she associated with MacArthur has come to define her and how she’s narrated: it’s the hook that draws most people to her story, but I didn’t want it operate as the climax of the narrative. It is certainly not the main driving force of her life, even as it is often characterized this way. I try to make the case that this moment is more an effect, rather than a cause.

The overall structure of the book also pulls from the protracted, piecemeal, and interrupted process of my research into her life, and from the sometimes-unexpected and last-minute way that new sources would shift a whole arc I had neatly mapped out. The sparseness and inaccuracy of the existing writing and archival materials on Isabel Cooper resists that neat and orderly biographical narrative: there are so many moments that are lost to history because of lack of documentation, and in her case, contradiction, inconsistency, absence, or outright error in whatever records can be pieced together. So that’s another story in itself: the colonial archive’s promises and secrets. I was struck by how so much of the narrative about her is fictional (in the sense of repeated inaccuracies), and as I dug deeper, how much of this fiction she also perpetrated. It gave me permission to speculate about moments that might not have documentation, or to invent, as she did, stories about herself.

Cooper goes by many different names in her life, from Dimples as a child performer, to Chabing Cooper, Elizabeth Cooper, and Belle Cooper, to a married name of Isabel Kennamer. Why does Cooper constantly rename herself and shift her identity?

To me, this was a strategy that was tied to moments in her life where she was reinventing herself, or starting over. She was someone who had, at a very young age, entered the world of the stage and screen, so taking on roles was a habit she never dropped. It was something she also learned from her mother, to some extent. But she also had really distinct periods in her life: she crossed the Pacific several times, experienced very diverse living conditions, married twice, had affairs, and made big choices about her career. I think renaming herself gave her some modicum of control over conditions that were far beyond her power to manage, and later on, allowed for her to have a clean slate when so much of her past tended to creep up on her unexpectedly due the lingering effects of US imperialism. As a researcher, this made tracking her occasionally tricky: it felt sometimes that these past decisions on her part were also about refusing an easy narration on mine. It forced me to pause and think about what went into her decisions to go by a particular name at different points in her life.

You say that “sex, and lots of it, defined the colonial encounter.” How does focusing on intimate relationships like that of Cooper and MacArthur change the way we view colonial history?

I owe so much of this work to postcolonial feminists who understand the intimate as a site of colonial power, and to work by Philippine Studies and Filipinx diaspora studies scholars in particular who have explored how sex and sexuality operated in the US-Philippine colonial world. My ability to tell Isabel Cooper’s story is built on that foundational research, and my claim is not new. What I try to shed a bit of light on is how the contradictions of American claims to benevolence and discourses of superiority break down when you look at how empire played out through relationships between people. So many of the colonial encounters turned on sex—the archives are filled with both overt confessions, allusions, or outright mentions of sexually transmitted diseases or decisions about the management of sex work. It’s dirty reading at times. I was interested in the messiness of transactions that revolved around sex or were defined through sexual exchange, as well as how the racial carnal desires at the heart of empire shaped relations well after the actual arrangement or encounter occurred. Who had the upper hand in these kinds of arrangements or coercions was not always clear, and that made for a fascinating dynamic to explore. Isabel Cooper operated within this colonial milieu and the ways she understood, navigated, and leveraged it gives us a sense of the push and pull, and the possibilities and limits of human agency and creativity at a more intimate scale of empire.

What can we learn about Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s from Cooper’s story? How does centering the experiences of non-white actors change the way we think about this era and its films?

I don’t know that we learn much more than we already know about how the Hollywood gambit was a story about deep disappointment for non-white actors in the 1940s and 1950s. For all the Anna May Wongs and Philip Ahns who carved out some kind of a career against and alongside the deep racism and sexism that defined Hollywood culture, there were hundreds of aspirants like Isabel Cooper whose willing and strategic self-exoticizations fell far short of any kind of living. It is probably safer to say that Cooper supplemented her income with her film acting roles but supported herself mainly from nightclub work. The casual mention of casting couch culture, or the matter-of-fact ways she tried to position herself for “Oriental” roles or parts for which she could make a racial stretch was evident in the letters that she wrote during that time, as well as in the industry literature itself. In some ways, her experience was more the rule, rather than the exception that gets written about.

How have artists and people of Filipino descent remembered and reimagined Isabel Rosario Cooper? What does her legacy mean to people today?

For most Filipinos, Isabel Cooper first registers as MacArthur’s mistress, with all the titillation and scandal that entails. This is why interest around her endures. In so many ways, this bit of her story feeds into the melodramatic habits that characterizes some of Hollywood/Manila cinema of her time, as well the theater of everyday politics in the Filipino diaspora. She is also known to some extent as a performer on stage and screen. Filipino cinema is just a bit over a century old, so there has been renewed interest in its pioneers—and as a crossover vaudeville star who made a big early impression in the first “modern” Filipino silent films, Isabel Cooper (she went by Elizabeth Cooper in film) is noteworthy.

Over the course of my research and writing, I also encountered visual artists (one of whom I write about), and writers (both fiction and non-fiction) who grapple with the kinds of narratives that adhere to Isabel Cooper. I think she continues to attract this kind of interest because when you dig deep enough, there’s a lot more to her story beyond the superficiality of MacArthur’s mistress that is typically the first draw. I look to these interpretations as retellings that reveal the inadequacy of the “mistress” framework. My purpose in the book is not to supplant or supersede any of these creative encounters with her, but rather to shake up the assumptions that produce a particular narrative account that is a habit of imperial culture, and one that clearly is not enough to contain her.

Read the introduction to Empire’s Mistress, Starring Isabel Rosario Cooper and save 30% on the paperback with coupon E21GNZLZ.

 

New Books in February

Winter is a great time to curl up with a good book. In February we have notable titles in media studies, critical race studies, and more!

Universal Tonality Jazz critic and historian Cisco Bradley tells the story of the life and music of bassist and composer William Parker in Universal Tonality, which documents fifty years of the monumental figure’s life in free jazz. Be sure to join us for a live online event featuring Bradley, Parker, Anthony Reed, and Senior Executive Editor Ken Wissoker on February 19.

Drawing on interviews with industry workers from MTV programs such as The Real World and Teen Mom, Amanda Ann Klein in Millennials Killed the Video Star examines the historical, cultural, and industrial factors leading to MTV’s shift away from music videos to reality programming in the early 2000s and 2010s.

Lauren Steimer’s Experts in Action examines how Hong Kong-influenced action movie aesthetics and stunt techniques have been taken up, imitated, and reinvented in other locations and production contexts around the globe.

Marina Peterson traces entanglements of environmental noise, atmosphere, sense, and matter that cohere in and through encounters with airport noise at Los Angeles International Airport since the 1960s, in Atmospheric Noise, showing how noise is central to how we know, feel, and think atmospherically.

Point of ReckoningTheodore D. Segal’s Point of Reckoning narrates the fraught and contested fight for racial justice at Duke University—which accepted its first black undergraduates in 1963—to tell both a local and national story about the challenges that historically white colleges and universities throughout the country continue to face. Catch Segal at two online events this month: on February 10, sponsored by the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies, and on February 24, sponsored by the Duke Alumni Association.

Kevin Quashie in Black Aliveness, or a Poetics of Being analyzes texts by of Lucille Clifton, June Jordan, Toni Morrison, Evie Shockley, Gwendolyn Brooks, and others to argue for a black aliveness that is disarticulated from antiblackness and which provides the basis for the imagination and creation of a black world.

Throughout The Powers of Dignity Nick Bromell examines how Frederick Douglass forged a distinctively black political philosophy out of his experiences as an enslaved and later nominally free man in ways that challenge Anglo-Continental traditions of political thought.

Black UtopiasEngaging with the work of Black musicians, writers, and women mystics, Jayna Brown’s Black Utopias takes up the concept of utopia as an occasion to explore new states of being, doing, and imagining in Black culture. You can catch Brown’s first online event this Thursday, February 4.

Samantha A. Noël investigates how Black Caribbean and American artists of the early twentieth century responded to and challenged colonial and other hegemonic regimes through tropicalist representation in Tropical Aesthetics of Black Modernism.

Candace Fujikane draws upon Hawaiian legends about the land and water and their impact upon Native Hawai‘ian struggles in Mapping Abundance for a Planetary Future to argue that Native economies of abundance provide a foundation for collective work against climate change.

A time of YouthA Time of Youth brings together 89 of the more than 2000 photographs William Gedney took in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood between October, 1966 and January, 1967, documenting the restless and intertwined lives of the disenchanted youth who flocked to what became the epicenter of 1960s counterculture.

In Coed Revolution Chelsea Szendi Schieder examines the campus-based New Left in Japan by exploring the significance of women’s participation in the protest movements of the 1960s.

Ma Vang examines the experiences of Hmong refugees who migrated to the United States following the secret war in Laos (1961–1975) to theorize “History on the Run” as a framework for understanding refugee histories, in particular those of the Hmong.

Empire's MistressVernadette Vicuña Gonzalez follows the life of Filipina vaudeville and film actress Isabel Rosario Cooper to explore the contours of empire as experienced on the scale of personal relationships in Empire’s Mistress, Starring Isabel Rosario Cooper, taking us much deeper into her life story than merely her role as the mistress of General Douglas MacArthur.

Jonathan Beller traces the history of the commodification of information and the financialization of everyday life in The World Computer, showing how contemporary capitalism is based in algorithms and the quantification of value that intensify social inequality.

In The Charismatic Gymnasium, Maria José A. de Abreu examines the conservative Charismatic Catholic movement in contemporary urban Brazil to rethink the relationship between theology, the body, and neoliberal governance, showing how it works to produce subjects who are complicit with Brazilian neoliberalism.

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New OA Journals in 2021: Demography, liquid blackness, Sungkyun Journal of East Asian Studies

This spring, we are thrilled to welcome three journals to our publishing program, all of which are open access: Demography, liquid blackness: journal of aesthetics and black studies, and the Sungkyun Journal of East Asian Studies.

Demography, the flagship journal of the Population Association of America, will become platinum open access in 2021 as it joins Duke University Press. Since its founding in 1964, Demography has mirrored the vitality, diversity, high intellectual standard, and wide impact of population studies. It is the most cited journal in its field and reaches the membership of one of the largest professional demographic associations in the world. Libraries and institutions, learn how you can support Demography’s conversion to open access.

“In moving Demography from a traditional paid subscription model to open access, we’re thrilled that the worldwide community of population researchers will have access to its content, especially at this moment when access to reliable, peer-reviewed information is critically important,” said Dean Smith, Director of Duke University Press.

liquid blackness: journal of aesthetics and black studies carves out a place for aesthetic theory and the most radical agenda of Black studies to come together in productive ways, with the goal of attending to the aesthetic work of blackness and the political work of form. In this way, the journal develops innovative approaches to address points of convergence between the exigencies of black life and the many slippery ways in which blackness is encountered in contemporary sonic and visual culture. The journal showcases a variety of scholarly modes, including audio-visual work and experimental and traditional essays. Read an interview with founding editors Alessandra Raengo and Lauren McLeod Cramer.

The Sungkyun Journal of East Asian Studies is an international, multidisciplinary publication dedicated to research on pre-1945 East Asian humanities. The journal presents new research related to the Sinographic Cosmopolis/Sphere of pre-1945 East Asia, publishing both articles that stay within traditional disciplinary or regional boundaries and works that explore the commonalities and contrasts found in countries of the Sinographic Sphere. SJEAS joins our rich list of Asian studies journals, which include Archives of Asian Art, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, the Journal of Chinese Literature and Culture, the Journal of Korean Studies, Prism: Theory and Modern Chinese Literature, and positions: asia critique.

Check out our full list of journals here.

New Books in January

If you made a New Year’s resolution to read more, this month we have some great new books to help achieve your goals. Happy New Year!

The future of FalloutJoseph Masco examines the psychosocial, material, and affective consequences of the advent of nuclear weapons, the Cold War security state, climate change on contemporary US democratic practices and public imaginaries in The Future of Fallout, and Other Episodes in Radioactive World-Making.

Andrew Bickford analyzes the US military’s attempts to design performance enhancement technologies and create pharmacological “supersoldiers” capable of becoming ever more lethal while withstanding various forms of extreme trauma in Chemical Heroes.

Drawing on ethnographic research in the Palestinian city of Ramallah, Christopher Harker in Spacing Debt examines how Israel’s use of debt to keep Palestinians economically unstable is a form of slow colonial violence embedded into the everyday lives of citizens.

Whites are the Enemies of Heaven With The Whites are the Enemies of Heaven, Mark W. Driscoll examines Western imperialism in East Asia throughout the nineteenth century and the devastating effects of what he calls climate caucasianism—the West’s racialized pursuit of capital at the expense of people of color, women, and the environment.

In Dear Science and Other Stories Katherine McKittrick presents a creative and rigorous study of black and anticolonial methodologies, exploring how narratives of imprecision and relationality interrupt knowledge systems that seek to observe, index, know, and discipline blackness.

Christopher Freeburg’s Counterlife challenges the imperative to study black social life and slavery and its aftereffects through the lenses of freedom, agency, and domination and instead examines how enslaved Africans created meaning through spirituality, thought, and artistic creativity separate and alongside concerns about freedom.

emancipations daughtersRiché Richardson in Emancipation’s Daughters examines how five iconic black women—Mary McLeod Bethune, Rosa Parks, Condoleezza Rice, Michelle Obama, and Beyoncé—defy racial stereotypes and construct new national narratives of black womanhood in the United States.

Lingzhen Wang examines the work of Chinese women filmmakers of the Mao and post-Mao eras in Revisiting Women’s Cinema to theorize socialist and postsocialist feminism, mainstream culture, and women’s cinema in modern China.

Kaiama L. Glover examines Francophone and Anglophone Caribbean literature whose female protagonists enact practices of freedom that privilege the self, challenge the prioritization of the community over the individual, and refuse masculinist discourses of postcolonial nation building in A Regarded Self.

The Small Book of Hip ChecksErica Rand uses multiple meanings of hip check—an athlete using their hip to throw an opponent off balance and the inspection of racialized gender—to consider the workings of queer gender, race, and writing in the The Small Book of Hip Checks.

Drawing from ethnographic work with queer activist groups in contemporary Turkey, Evren Savcı’s Queer in Translation explores how Western LGBT politics are translated and reworked there in ways that generate new spaces for resistance and solidarity.

Anthony Reed takes the recorded collaborations between African American poets and musicians such as Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, Cecil Taylor, and Charles Mingus to trace the overlaps between experimental music and poetry and the ways in which intellectuals, poets, and musicians define black sound as a radical aesthetic practice in Soundworks.

The Bruce B. Lawrence Reader assembles over two dozen selections of writing by leading scholar of Islam Bruce B. Lawrence which range from analyses of premodern and modern Islamic discourses, practices, and institutions to methodological and theoretical reflections on the study of religion.

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