APA Spotlight: Dr. Cathy J. Schlund-Vials, Interim Director, UConn Asian American Studies Institute

APA Spotlight is a weekly interview of Asian Pacific Islander Americans (APIA) community leaders. It is a spotlight on individuals who have dedicated their careers to issues surrounding the APIA community with the goal of bringing much deserved recognition to their work and cause(s).

Dr. Cathy J. Schlund-Vials is an Assistant Professor in English and Asian American Studies at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. She is the Interim Director of the UConn Asian American Studies Institute and the Faculty Director of Humanities House, a campus living/learning community. Her research interests include refugee cultural production, critical race theory, immigration law, human rights, and contemporary ethnic American literary studies.

Dr. Schlund-Vials is the author of Modeling Citizenship: Naturalization in Jewish and Asian American Writing (Temple University Press, 2011) which examines the interplay between citizenship, performance, and immigration policy in the literatures of two “model minority” groups. She has published and forthcoming articles and pieces in Life Writing, Journal of Asian American Studies, MELUS, Modern Language Studies, American Literary History, and positions. She has recently completed her second book, Cambodian American Memory Work: Genocide Remembrance and Juridical Activism (forthcoming, University of Minnesota Press), which is focused on genocide remembrance and juridical activism in Cambodian American literature, film, and hip hop.

Dr. Schlund-Vials is currently working on a third project, tentatively titled “Imperial Coordinates: War, Containment, and Asian American Critique,” which engages a spatial reading of U.S. imperialism through Asian American writing about militarized zones, internment camps, and relocation centers.

What is the mission statement of your life?

After thinking through this a bit, I would have to say that the mission statement of my life is one of accident, adaptation, and affiliation. I spent most of my childhood growing up on Air Force bases. I have a twin brother; we were both adopted. Our biological mother was ethnically Cambodian; our biological father was an American GI. We were born in Thailand during the Vietnam War, and in many ways we were a direct product of that conflict. We were adopted by an American Air Force father and a Japanese mother roughly three months before the Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh. This particular history — shaped by movement, migration, and war — has shaped my work as an Asian American Studies scholar. Like many, I was usually one of only two or three Asian Americans in various communities, and I found that I had to adapt quickly to changing circumstances (of location and culture). Even so, I have a strong affiliation to my Asian American identity, and I am proud of this affiliation.

How did you end up doing what you’re doing?

It was rather accidental. I began my undergraduate career at the University of Texas, Austin as a History major, and I wanted nothing more than to be an American History teacher at the secondary level. However, I soon realized that this was not the best fit — this was before Asian American Studies was a fully established program, and I found myself drawn to Victorian literature (of all things). While in school, I worked full time at a pizza company — my job was to handle complaints from customers (we handled all calls for a total of 34 stores).

When I graduated, I continued to work this job for an additional two years, along with another full time job. I had never really thought about graduate school — I and my twin brother were among the first in our family to attend university — but…I desperately wanted to get out of Austin. I ended up going to UMass-Amherst for an MA/Ph.D. and it was there I took courses in Asian American studies with Sunaina Maira at the graduate level. I began teaching “Introduction to Asian American studies” and served as a program assistant for the Asian American Studies Program, which was begun in response to student activism. These experiences clarified for me why Asian American Studies matters — it is a field that is acutely aware of the intersection of scholarship and community. Moreover, the accidental nature of my professional career is born out of a sense that it’s okay to change gears and do something different.

Even though I was in graduate school (for a Ph.D.), I did entertain other jobs, including working for a non-profit (as a grant writer) and doing research for immigration advocacy groups. However, there are relatively few Asian Americans in the Humanities (especially at the graduate level) “east of California.” Hence, doing this type of work accretes more meaning because there is the “presence” issue. My first tenure-track job was at Penn State Erie (the Beherend College), and I was one of only a few Asian Americans on the faculty. I eventually ended up at UConn, and I was immediately struck by the commitment to Asian American studies from both my colleagues and students alike. This commitment is inspirational, as is the work of others in Asian American Studies. I currently direct the Asian American Studies Institute, a position that affords me the opportunity to combine scholarship and pedagogy.

If Hollywood made a movie about your life, whom would you like to see play the lead role as you?

I fear that my life would be incredibly boring (ha!). The question is harder than one would think, simply because there are very few Asian American actors or actresses who are “high profile” figures in the industry. Even so, I think that I would pick someone like Margaret Cho because she is able to levy social critique in a manner that is both palatable and provocative. I also like her attitude.

How can people find out more about your organization or get involved?

The link to our website is asianamerican.uconn.edu. We have a number of outreach initiatives, and UConn happens to be one of the few universities that accepted Japanese Americans (specifically men) during the period of the internment. We also have the Fred Ho archive, which showcases the work and papers of this leading activist. Even so, we are constantly searching for new opportunities to engage community outreach, and are more than welcome to ideas about programming (whether this take the form of high school talks or film screenings).

If you had a crystal ball, what do you see for the future of the Asian Pacific Islander American community?

This is a tricky question. I do think that it is important to see how the APIA community has grown considerably over the last decade. However, what I think needs to happen is a return to the solidarity-driven, coalition politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s. I think that APIA communities must remember how their histories of social injustice helped shape the Civil Rights movement (including the Black Panther Party, which featured Japanese American activist Richard Aoki). One of the concerns I have is that students — in light of crushing debt — are seeking degrees that don’t allow them to take Asian American Studies courses. They therefore graduate without knowing the significance of their history. I would like to see more engagement with this history. Without knowing this history, very real problems facing APIAs — with regard to workplace discrimination and glass ceilings — are troublingly dismissed as not part of a larger system of institutionalized racism.

Bonus Question: What advice do you have for young Asian Pacific Islander American professionals?

Although this may sound a bit overly sentimental, I advise young professionals to think about what makes them happy and to project this out over a five year period. It is natural to think in terms of immediate “nexts,” but I think that there is a profound short-sightedness to this approach. What one wants at 20 is not the same as what one wants at 30, and the overall goal should be one of happiness. I would give the same advice to young Asian Pacific Islander American professionals.

Bonus Question: What are your comfort foods and what memories do you have associated with them?

I actually love SPAM, deviled ham, and vienna sausages. I always associate these foods with living on an Air Force base, and I must admit that I still struggle with what to do with fresh produce!

Bonus Question: What’s your guilty pleasure?

I really, really like shooting zombies (preferably the Resident Evil kind) on Wii and XBox.

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About Koji Steven Sakai

Writer/Producer Koji Steven Sakai is the founder of Little Nalu Pictures LLC and the CEO of CHOPSO (www.CHOPSO.com), the first Asian English streaming video service. He has written five feature films that have been produced, including the indie hit, The People I’ve Slept With. He also produced three feature films, a one hour comedy special currently on Netflix, and Comedy InvAsian, a live and filmed series featuring the nation’s top Asian American comedians. Koji’s debut novel, Romeo & Juliet Vs. Zombies, was released in paperback in 2015 and in audiobook in 2016 and his graphic novel, 442, was released in 2017. In addition, he is currently an adjunct professor in screenwriting at International Technological University in San Jose.
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