Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Wenshu Lee: "Kuaering Queer Theory: My Autocritography and a Race-Conscious, Womanist, Transnational Turn"

What would you do if I called you a kuaer? Say whaaaat? I bet you wouldn't really know what to do, or what to say, because, well, what exactly does that mean? Let me see if I can help.

Wenshu Lee has lives in both Taipei, Taiwan and San Jose, California in the U.S.; she speaks Chinese and English. She is currently a professor at Loyola Marymount in the College of Communication and Fine Arts and a scholar in communication studies and Asian studies. She focuses her scholarship in, among other things, queer/quare/kuaer studies. And she may just identify as kuaer, too. Or at least she did in 2003 when she published the article “Kuaering Queer Theory: My Autocritography and a Race-Conscious, Womanist, Transnational Turn,” the article which is the subject of this blog entry.

I'm sorry... autocritography? I suppose we need to break down her vocabulary. Vocabulary, in fact, is one of Lee's main topics of interest. Autocritography is a technique Lee found in the work of Michael Awkward which she uses to describe her writing style and rhetorical strategy. In each paragraph of this article, Lee divides her narrative voice into two visibly distinct pieces: one version of her voice is italicized, a self-reflective, dreamy, poetic, authentic voice that reads more like prose than 'academic writing.' This voice addresses the reader directly as 'you' and speaks critically and intuitively about herself. The second voice is an academic one, her scholarly voice, through which she presents her research and analysis. These two voices speak to and build on one another. Autocritography is Lee's attempt at “a concrete intercultural communication project” that integrates intersectionality rather than giving it lip service (163). She uses autocritography to act out her commitment to the poetic as well as the personal, political, professional, and scholarly; and she uses it to keep in focus the ways that she is marginalized and privileged because of her specific identity.

So what is Lee studying through this autocritographical essay? She introduces the article with a section titled “...My Nameless Everywhere....” This is the name she gives to a history of omission that she experiences as a Taiwanese woman-identified women who lives and works in the U.S. and China. She's talking about the way that lesbian women of color's real lives are not represented by mainstream culture, and the way she has thus been conditioned to identify herself with the dominant history, to a degree that she feels in many ways identified as a heterosexual white woman, even though she's not. Her whole article is the story of the way that she unburied and found names for her marginalized identities. She has a number of projects that play out from here:

  1. She traces the history of Taiwanese nu nu (female-female) connections and vocabularies from the 19th century to the present – in other words, the way that lesbians and woman-identified women performed their lesbianism and what they called themselves. She traces this history in three sections, each of which she calls an 'awakening' to describe the way that she experienced each discovery – as an awakening to a history she identified with. The first concerns itself with 19th century Chinese nu nu names and women, the second with those of the 1990s, and the third with a term she has invented that builds on these last two vocabularies and integrates it with womanist thought and quare theory.

  2. She integrates this history with womanist and radical women of color traditions and E. Patrick Johnson's quare theory (see Allison's blog entry below) from the United States which have also greatly informed her identity. She gives particular attention to the womanist focus on peoples' specific intersectional experiences of gender and race; she embraces E. Patrick Johnson's notion of quare theory for its critique of queer theory's tendency to erase the importance of race and class in its theory and politics. The integration of these U.S. traditions with her Taiwanese history make her project transnationalist, as does her commitment to formulate a critical praxis in a post-colonial globalized world. People who identify with this movement – these transnational, womanist, quare theory and politics – can now identify as 'kuaers,' the term Lee coins to label her new consciousness. She creates this term through wordplay, which I discuss below. Kuaer is a transliteration of two Chinese characters, kua, which can mean crossing, praised, or proud/boastful, and er which means child/children and “connotes vibrant energy, the ability to grow and to learn new things” (162). Thus kuaer connotes a variety of meanings:

    Children who cross horizons. Children who are praised. Children who are proud/boastful. Children who cross worlds and understand quare and womanist politics. Transnational womanist quare children who are proud and praised and whose critical consciousness is multi-racial, multi-sexual, multi-gendered, and multi-class-based (162).

  3. She examines and practices wordplay as a subversive, creative rhetorical activity. In her second awakening, she discusses the first officially registered lesbian publication in Taiwain, Ai Fu Hao Zi Zai Bao, or Ai Bao, which means “the Love Newspaper/Magazine.” This title in its long version can be read in five different ways using homophonic and homonymic wordplay. She breaks down these five ways of reading it. The first is a reading in which the title is a collection of traditional and gendered Chinese values – “Love, Luck, Good, Self at Ease Newspaper” (155). “Love, Luck, Good” are feminine and selfless values, while “Self at Ease” is masculine and self-oriented (155). Other readings subvert these traditional and gender-appropriate values into phrases which would not be appropriate to talk about in public, let alone publish as a magazine title, such as “Caress/Foreplay, U.S. Sanitary Napkins/So Very Great/Free Newspaper/Magazine” (157). These wordplays are discursively creative and defiant in that they remake traditional values into something new and fresh, and thereby identify the traditional values (which are heteropatriarchal) as cliché by comparison (157). The implication then is that women loving other women are performing acts that are original, creative, and good, thus creating a self-affirming discourse for nu nu women (158). This conception of the usefulness of wordplay as a creative and deviant act becomes relevant for her specific purposes because it underlies the way she has created her new name, kuaer.

So, what do you think? If I call you a kuaer, am I right? And do you like it? As Lee puts it, “do you find kuaer yo yi ci (meaningful; interesting/intriguing; romantically engaging)?