MLA 2018 Special Session: Narratives of Resistance and Resilience in Southeast Asian Security Regimes

A special session I am organizing for the 2018 MLA conference in New York has been accepted.

Please contact me ( or check this post for more information regarding the date, time, and location of the session.

The proposal, talk abstracts, and speaker biographies can be found below.


“Narratives of Resistance and Resilience in Southeast Asian Security Regimes”

This session presents new scholarship on literature and film regarding conditions of security and insecurity in Southeast Asia. Formerly colonized by many European powers until the second half of the twentieth century, Southeast Asian nation-states inherited various authoritarian security and governmental apparatuses from these colonial powers. They generally adopt comprehensive security models centered on the military defence of sovereign territories but also encompassing economic and ecological issues to protect their ruling governments from various threats. After the 1997 Asian financial crisis and 2004 earthquake-tsunami, state-centered security shifted toward flexible human security modalities, adding the management of individuals and communities to the regulation of populations and territories. Human security manages certain groups as productive citizens while marginalizing others as insecure multitudes.

Drawing on Michel Foucault’s Security, Territory, Population (2009), we trace overlapping disciplinary and security regimes in contemporary Southeast Asian countries and border zones that constitute a formidable but uneven terrain of forces. Per Foucault, discipline acts centripetally, permeating enclosed spaces with regulatory power; security works centrifugally, expanding, integrating, and managing new elements and subjects in widening neoliberal circuits. Our papers position literary and visual narratives at overlapping or contradictory points between these spatial logics where gaps, tensions, or fractures appear. Our session addresses the conference topic of “States of Insecurity” by emphasizing how literature and film employ narrative and aesthetic techniques to imagine contrapuntally discursive spaces resisting political imperatives of discipline and security. They also show how human subjects resiliently preserve or construct community relationships even when designated as insecure multitudes within conditions of socio-economic vulnerability and precariousness created by state power.

Existing scholarship such as Philip Holden and Rajeev Patke’s Routledge Concise History of Southeast Asian Writing in English (2009) and Tilman Baumgartel’s Southeast Asian Independent Cinema (2010) adopt historical and technological perspectives but do not discuss questions of security or vulnerability as we do. Although disciplinary and security regimes in Southeast Asia are pervasive, as relatively autonomous cultural narratives literature and film inhabit but also interrogate such regimes by imagining spaces and subjects beyond their disciplined or vulnerable conditions. Our focus on literary and filmic engagements with security and vulnerability builds on but also diverges from previous MLA special sessions on Southeast Asia about memory and cartography, sovereignty and state power, and genre and national boundaries.

Weihsin Gui’s “Resilient Spaces and Sociality in Last Train From Tanjong Pagar examines spatial aspects of security through a graphic novel based on actual heritage tours of train stations and railways in Singapore that once connected the island-nation to Malaysia. Interwoven with these tours is the story of a Malaysian boy taking the train every day to school in Singapore, where he eventually settles. The railways’ closure in 2011 was an act of securing Singapore’s sovereign territory against Malaysia’s presence on its soil. But Koh’s graphic novel traces cultural histories and abiding social connections between both countries in the railways and their surrounding spaces. Koh’s narrative reconfiguration of geographical and social spaces is a counterpoint to Singapore’s regulation and management of its sovereign territory and boundaries.

Focusing on Singapore’s insecurities about its population’s racial composition, Michelle O’Brien’s “Foreign Talent and the Specter of Foreign Workers in The Inlet discusses a novel based on the death of a young woman from China in a Singaporean luxury resort. Although the novel critiques Singapore’s rapid globalization and development, it also represents foreign women workers as insecure bodies who threaten the state-sanctioned Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others racial configuration of the country’s citizenry. The state’s distinction between professional foreign “talents” and semi-skilled foreign “workers” makes migrant women’s precarious presence even more troubling since many of them work as domestic helpers. The precarity of and unvoiced anxieties generated by the almost one million migrant workers in Singapore are glimpsed tangentially in The Inlet through the Singaporean characters’ focalized narratives.

Ben Tran’s “Socialism’s Underworld: Crime and Gold” traces the imbrication of human and state insecurities in Vietnam through a novel and some short stories by Nguyen Tri. Nguyen’s fiction depicts the precarious lives of South Vietnamese veterans of the Vietnam War who, after serving time in labor camps, returned to a society and government that refused to acknowledge them. To survive, these excluded characters turned to an underworld of gangsters, lawlessness, and violence, and participated in an underground economy of gold mining. Such informal and illicit economic zones were precursors to Vietnam’s current market socialism once they became official and securitized by state power. Vietnam’s disciplining and marginalization of its civil war enemies have expanded to national neoliberal policies.

Brain Bernards’ “Covert Videography, Undocumented Migration, Concealed Burmeseness” examines the work of Sinophone Burmese filmmaker Midi Z regarding the Yunnanese Chinese minority in upland Myanmar. Living in what James Scott calls a “shatter zone,” they defy colonial and state-building schemes and disregard geopolitical borders through their illicit economic and agricultural activities. Midi Z’s 2012 Poor Folk is a covertly filmed and multilingual narrative consisting of four interwoven segments about Chinese Burmese undocumented migrants trafficking drugs and people via Thailand. The covert audiovisual elements of Midi Z’s filmmaking stylistically mimic the illicit movements and activities of his subjects as they inhabit yet evade multinational regulatory and security regimes while deliberately and selectively concealing their Burmese identity to subsist and carry out cross-border trade.

In conclusion, much existing scholarship on (in)security, vulnerability, and precariousness in Southeast Asia comes from the social sciences rather than the humanities. Situated in the humanities, our papers discuss these issues through a range of texts and genres: graphic novels, prose fiction, and multilingual film. As Foucault observes, security creates a milieu where uncertain events can unfold with minimal risk, a space where some subjects are managed productively as a population while others are marginalized as vulnerable bodies in insecure multitudes. Literature and film reconfigure these spaces by narrating alternative sequences of events and tracing other possible subjectivities and identity positions. Literary and filmic texts take risks by imagining resistance and resilience within and against disciplinary apparatuses and security regimes in Southeast Asia.


Speaker biographies:

Weihsin Gui is Associate Professor of English at the University of California-Riverside and a member of UCR’s SEATRiP (Southeast Asia Theater, Ritual, and Performance) program. His research and teaching focus on global anglophone literatures and postcolonial studies, with an emphasis on South and Southeast Asia. He is the author of National Consciousness and Literary Cosmopolitics: Postcolonial Literature in a Global Moment (Ohio State U P, 2013) and the editor of an essay anthology on the Singaporean painter and poet Arthur Yap, Common Lines and City Spaces (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2014). With Cheryl Narumi Naurse, he co-edited a 2016 special issue of Interventions on neoliberalism, globalization, and Singaporean literature and culture. He is currently the section contributor for Southeast Asia for the Year’s Work in English Studies published by Oxford U P.

Michelle O’Brien is an instructor at the Institute of Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice at the University of British Columbia. She received her Ph.D. in English from UBC with a doctoral dissertation “Architectures of Raciality: Racial Grids and the Convergences of the Racial Nonhuman in Canada, Singapore, and Malaysia,” which was funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). Her research examines the intersections of racial organization across minor sites of empire, primarily in Asian North American literary studies, anglophone Singaporean and Malaysian writing, global postcolonial literatures and criticism, transpacific studies, gender studies, critical race theory, and biopolitics. She has published a journal article, “Un/productive Raciality and Transnational Affiliations in Lydia Kwa’s Pulse,” in  Asiatic.

Ben Tran is Assistant Professor of Asian Studies and English at Vanderbilt University. His research and teaching focus on modern Vietnamese literature and culture, twentieth-century Southeast Asian literature, postcolonial studies, colonial modernity, and translation studies. He is the author of  Post-Mandarin: Masculinity and Aesthetic Modernity in Colonial Vietnam (Fordham UP, 2017). He has published in PMLA, positions: Asia Critique, and The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms, and has articles forthcoming in Cultural Critique and Modern Fiction Studies. He is working on a monograph about the “literary dubbing” practiced by both Southeast Asian authors and diasporic writers, provisionally entitled Foreign Mother Tongues: Literary Dubbing and Modern Literature.

Brian Bernards is Associate Professor of East Asian languages and cultures at the University of Southern California.  His research interests include modern Chinese and Southeast Asian literature and cinema, postcolonial studies, and critical regionalism.  He is author of Writing the South Seas: Imagining the Nanyang in Chinese and Southeast Asian Postcolonial Literature (U of Washington Press, 2015; longlisted for the ICAS Book Award in the Humanities) and co-editor (with Shu-mei Shih and Chien-hsin Tsai) of Sinophone Studies: A Critical Reader (Columbia U Press, 2013).  With the assistance of an SSRC Transregional Research Fellowship, he is currently working on a manuscript on inter-Asian cinema.  His primary research languages include Chinese, Thai, and English.