American Studies Program Features Fantasy Islands and Soundtracks of Asian America

A joint book launch by Julie Sze and Grace Wang, associate professors in American Studies at UC Davis, highlighted the program’s strength in transnationalism and the relationship between Asia and Asian America.

Sze’s second book,  Fantasy Islands: Chinese Dreams and Ecological Fears in an Age of Climate Crisis, probes Chinese, European, and American eco-desire and eco-technological dreams, and examines the solutions they offer to environmental degradation in this age of global economic change. Wang’s first book, Soundtracks of Asian America: Navigating Race through Musical Performance, explores how Asian Americans use music to construct narratives of self, race, class, and belonging in national and transnational spaces.

Sze and Wang decided to organize the January 12 event as a joint book launch to draw particular attention to American Studies as a field examining global phenomena and highlight how their works represent that trend. The complementary pairing of the two authors and their books also reflects the collaborative relationship between Sze and Wang and their investment in one another’s teaching and research in American Studies.

Wang began with a brief introduction to Soundtracks of Asian America and focused on a few prominent Asian and Asian American artists who “negotiate complicated social and geopolitical conditions to forge identities in global music.” With special attention to pop star Leehom Wang, who is also featured on the cover of her book, Wang examined one particular narrative of second generation middle-class Asian Americans who are embedded in model minority stereotypes.

Wang explained to the crowd that her interest in Asian Americans and music makes sense in the context of her own personal background, which involves playing violin at age five, enrolling in Julliard’s pre-college music school, and intuiting the “powerful associations of class and refinement to classical music.” Only later in life did she acknowledge the troubling way in which the study of European classical music “mapped discipline onto Asian Americans.”

Wang said she initially saw her involvement with music in personal terms rather than shaped by larger contexts like immigration and racism; however, while Wang played with the national symphony orchestra in Taiwan in the 1990s, she was troubled by how the Taiwanese government expended a great deal of money and energy in attracting the “Three Tenors,” while simultaneously neglecting local musical forms. This transformative moment compelled Wang to consider the way macro-level structures and forces challenged her engagement with classical music.

Sze described the major arguments in Fantasy Islands, which addresses how ideas about sustainability travel, or flow, across the United States and China in a time of increased anxiety about carbon emissions. Sze continues her deep engagement with people, place, and pollution that she began in her well-regarded first book, Noxious New York: the Racial Politics of Urban Health and Environmental Justice (2006).

“It’s important to think about the stories we tell about pollution,” Sze said. She stressed how the narratives and historical contexts of pollution are just as important to investigate as the climate science. “Sustainability is a global language that has a particular iteration in a specific locale like Shanghai, and requires understanding of a specific place to know how it expresses itself,” Sze concluded.

The event ended with a Q & A session that featured questions on reconciling personal and academic interests, which was a theme that appeared in both Wang and Sze’s presentations. The authors also addressed how their respective phenomena – global pop music and sustainable eco-cities – simultaneously speak to relations between the U.S. and China and tensions among global concerns with a particular local expression.

– Stephanie Maroney, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies