Southeast Asian women in the diaspora – “Troubling Borders” book review

An anthology of artwork and texts by Southeast Asian women highlights issues such as identity, violence, migration and (in)visibility.

Published by the University of Washington Press, Troubling Borders: An Anthology of Art and Literature by Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora brings into focus hitherto neglected and nearly invisible voices through visual art and literature.

'Troubling Borders' book cover. Image courtesy University of Washington Press.

‘Troubling Borders’ book cover. Image courtesy University of Washington Press.

The anthology, published in 2013, features the work of 62 immigrant women of Southeast Asian descent. The poems, stories, artworks and photographs are arranged thematically, addressing concerns that are common to all these women and their communities – such as a sense of self and identity, a history of violence, migration and displacement – while at the same time being deeply personal experiences.

Questioning labels, troubling borders

The editors of this anthology are four Vietnamese American scholars and writers, Isabelle Thuy Pelaud, Lan Duong, Mariam B. Lam and Kathy L. Nguyen. In their introduction, they assert that the works in this anthology are meant to be “troubling and discomforting”, and they address the challenges of such a project as well as its necessity in an age where “Asian” women are still stereotyped as exotic objects, sex symbols and dragon ladies.

One of the foremost concerns of this volume, and one in which it also departs from other similar works, is the label of “Southeast Asian”, which clubs together regions based on geographical proximity but consisting of heterogeneous histories, languages, religions and cultures.

Click here to watch the book trailer on

Rather than ethnicity or geographical location, the book is divided into sections based on the concerns and preoccupations in the artists’ work. The sections are:

  • Wombs and wounds: Family relations in the diaspora
  • Coming to voice: Language, writing, literacy
  • Homes and homelands
  • Loving sex/sexing love
  • Militarised lives
  • Asians in America
  • Race, roots, religion
  • Travel narratives and narratives that travel
  • Speech acts: Labour, activism, resistance

The anthology is possibly the first of its kind to integrate visual art and literature spanning multiple generations and nationalities. The combination of image with texts complementing and conversing with each other provides a textured, layered engagement with the subject matter. According to the introduction, art and cultural works by Southeast Asian American women are:

nearly invisible in U.S. society, neglected by mainstream critics. Art that speaks about racism, exile and displacement does not fit into recognisable models of arts criticism invested either in the authentic and traditional, or in contemporary and modernist aesthetics.

Gina Osterloh, 'Impossible Delineation', from the series "Blank Attempt", 2008, LightJet chromogenic print, 11.5 x 14.5 inches. Image courtesy the artist, Francois Ghebaly Gallery LA and Silverlens Galleries.

Gina Osterloh, ‘Impossible Delineation’, from the series “Blank Attempt”, 2008, LightJet chromogenic print, 11.5 x 14.5 inches. Image courtesy the artist, Francois Ghebaly Gallery LA and Silverlens Galleries.

Identities, the self and the Other

A large number of people from Southeast Asian countries migrated to North America at different times and for various reasons. Troubling Borders contains work primarily by women from the American diaspora of Southeast Asian countries.

In her preface, Shirley Geok-Lin Lim of the University of California, Santa Barbara, says that there is a need to revise

the paradigms of ‘multiculturalism’ that dominated contemporary American women’s studies, reconstituting the pan-ethnic identity of ‘Asian America’.

Fluid, hybrid identities and a shifting sense of self are results of migration and displacement, faced by those who make a home away from their homeland.

Gina Osterloh uses photography, sculpture and performance art to address issues of identity. She often works with camouflage, and faces that are missing or turned away: a blank that represents a gap in communication. Tiffany Chung’s Gò Vấp (pictured on the book cover) is an exercise in cartography, remapping colonial topographies and official national histories.

Linda Saphan, 'S-21 No Flying Away', 2010, ink on rice paper and Arche aquarelle paper, 15.75 x 12.5 inches. Image courtesy the artist.

LinDa Saphan, ‘S-21 No Flying Away’, 2010, ink on rice paper and Arche aquarelle paper, 15.75 x 12.5 inches. Image courtesy the artist.

Violence, bodies, relationships

The sections of the book dealing with militarised lives, women’s bodies, sex and relationships all highlight the trauma that violence causes, which lasts long after the acts themselves. The presence of military personnel and bases due to colonialism and war are a common factor in many Southeast Asian countries. Economic sectors growing out of this militarisation such as sex tourism, arms trade and espionage directly involve and affect women and families – often forcing migration and displacement.

Hong-An Truong’s photographs refer to the legacy of the Vietnam War, drawing on “fragmented memories that constitute the refugee imagination”. LinDa Saphan’s portraits are poignant portrayals of S-21 prisoners, with yantras, kbach and headless dragonflies that represent the then headless state of Cambodia.

The violence of patriarchal traditions on women, as well as the exploitation of women’s bodies as intrinsically linked to the exploitation of their land and country, are also resonating themes. The need to take back power from those who wield it is expressed through lines such as:

Alone and used,
I find strength to bear the storm that will come and cleanse my land,
Replenish my trampled soil.
And when they come again,
I will welcome them with tides and storms of thunder and lightning.
And they will never set foot on my sacred land again.
– Yer Yang, “Virgin Land, Virgin Body”

Anida Yoeu Ali, 'Palimpsest for Generation 1.5', 2010, performance and installation. Image courtesy the artist.

Anida Yoeu Ali, ‘Palimpsest for Generation 1.5′, 2010, performance and installation. Image courtesy the artist.

Voice and visibility

Both artists and writers need a voice through which they communicate their stories. Finding this voice when displaced or traumatised can be a challenge; more so when voices are silenced and people made invisible owing to their origins. Lin + Lam’s This is Not Me, an installation of passport photos with the faces cut out, addresses the paradox of “being pictured through the processes of immigration but of never being seen nonetheless”.

Anida Yoeu Ali’s performance piece Palimpsest for Generation 1.5 is about silencing and erasure. It includes inscriptions written on the artist’s back which are then washed away. The artist says:

Text pulled from my family’s memories and histories related to Cambodia are inscribed onto my back. As a result of the act, ink and water drips onto my body and stains the dress. When the gestures end and the body leaves the installation, detached roots, a disembodied dress, and faint traces of a performed history remain.

And finally, Troubling Borders itself is an attempt to give recognition to the voices of those who have been nearly invisible in academic and arts circles, as well as a testament to the courage of these women to share their experiences.

Kriti Bajaj

Related Topics: Southeast Asian artists, book reviews, feminist art, art about identity, art about migration

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