While I have known her since high school (we went to an enrichment camp together), today Sunny Yang is an Assistant Professor of English at Louisiana State University. She received her B.A. from Swarthmore College and her Ph.D from the University of Pennsylvania. Sunny’s research and teaching interests include ethnic and African American literatures, critical race theory, law and literature, and U.S. empire. Her current book project, “Fictions of Territoriality,” examines the competing narratives of race, rights, and governance that arose from U.S. imperial and territorial expansion in the long nineteenth century.
Sunny Yang: What happens if I'm incredibly boring and there is nothing to post? Then we'll just have a nice catchup?
David Schraub: Well I'll throw in a few swear words and see if I can get you fired. I hear that's a thing now at LSU.
Sunny Yang: I had two people send me that article! Right before I went to LSU, I mean. I'm pretty sure I'm allowed to swear outside of the classroom. Malign Mike the Tiger or the football team though and then I could have some problems…
David Schraub: Okay, first thing's first -- let's get the quick biographical sketch. Where were you born and raised?
Sunny Yang: I was born in Guangzhou, China, moved to the U.S. (specifically Memphis, TN) when I was two years old, then moved to Carmel, Indiana in sixth grade. So I don't know which counts as the place I was "raised": the South or the Midwest. Both gave me politeness and passive/aggressiveness though.
David Schraub: I considered myself pretty nice for the DC area, but once I moved to the Midwest I realized people were playing on a whole different level.
Sunny Yang: Like the way of saying "I'll let you go now" when I'm on the phone. When really I mean: PLEASE STOP TALKING NOW. The Midwest and South are definitely next level -- and next level for throwing shade
David Schraub: Well, you think that, but you have to realize nobody on the outside is picking it up. It was several years into my relationship before I could reliably tell when Jill was angry or annoyed with me.
Sunny Yang: My partner is British so I'm running into the same issues; only it's also trying to convince him that every time I slightly raise my voice, I am not in fact having a rage meltdown.
David Schraub: One thing I've discovered about having a partner with a cute accent is that, unfortunately they often sound more adorable when they're upset.
Sunny Yang: You strike me as someone who would try to exploit that.
David Schraub: "Exploit" is such a harsh word. I just take joy where I find it.
Sunny Yang: Does she have the stereotypical Minnesota accent?
David Schraub: Not usually. It comes out more if she's talking to her family; especially her grandmother.
Periodically those "o" sounds do stretch a bit.
Sunny Yang: I love that too! Malleable accents (I mean, less lovable obviously when it's a class thing and a shaming code-switch-y thing).
David Schraub: For sure. Though I do not apologize for teaching her the proper way to pronounce "bagel" (first syllable is like "bay", not like the sound a sheep makes).
Sunny Yang: BAH-GUHL? But think about how much joy you would have had every time you rolled up to a coffeeshop. The funny thing I've discovered with an English accent: urinal is pronounced yur-eye-nuhl
David Schraub: I hadn't heard that one I knew about "al-loo-MINium" of course.
Sunny Yang: It's totally unacceptable and hilarious. Speaking of weird accent quirks
During my faculty orientation day they had a powerpoint slide of "common Louisiana names and how to pronounce them." They had your typical french last names, things with "eaux" at the end (as everything here does), and then, in the middle, "Martinez." Which is pronounced "martin-ez" here. I was so horrified
David Schraub: Is that because there is a clan of "Martin-ez"s who have lived in Louisiana for a long time and the pronunciation has just changed? Or is it simply that people here really don't know how to pronounce "Martinez"?
Sunny Yang: My guess is it's a local deviation (though I still assume that choosing not to pronounce it a particular way is at the root of that shift). I'm still learning about the different ethnic groups of Louisiana. It's a super rich history
David Schraub: It seems like it. It has a really unique history both with regard to America generally and the American South specifically. I do want to get the chance to turn to some of your work though before we pivot back to the bayou.
Sunny Yang: Ok, sure.
David Schraub: You went to Swarthmore for undergrad, which is a decent enough liberal arts college for folks who don't attend Carleton (Sunny: HAH!), and then UPenn for graduate school in English. Why English? What grabbed you?
Sunny Yang: So my undergrad degree was actually in sociology/anthropology; and really, more focused on anthropology. After I decided I wasn't going to law school (in fact, I got tattoos to shame myself if I ever sold out), I realized I wasn't comfortable with navigating the power dynamics involved with field work. I realized that the kinds of issues of race and equality that I wanted to do with anthropology, I could do with English. Only these people had already written their narratives and shaped them how they wanted them
David Schraub: That makes a lot of sense. It's interesting you mention law school, though, since a lot of your research interests (Law & Literature, Critical Race Theory) are legal or come out of legal academia. Do you ever feel like formal legal training could be of use in those areas? I'll admit, as a lawyer, I get very nervous when I see non-lawyers do law-related work.
Sunny Yang: Oh absolutely! And I still wonder if that's something I ought to do I think part of the problem si that I did attempt to take a law class in grad school. It was an upper level seminar on property theory
And i absolutely hated it. I think it's in part because Penn's law school is...lets just say more practice-based? But I remember an entire semester of talking about property and even reading Locke
And no one wanted to talk about race besides me!
David Schraub: Well, also Property Law is horrifically boring.
Sunny Yang: To be fair to law schools, I do think that part of the disconnect is the kind of training Penn specifically aims to provide. I mean, I look at that UCLA Critical Race Theory program and drool. I think the problem is that Cheryl Harris' “Whiteness as Property” is one of those foundational texts for me, and for some reason I didn't realize that a property law course would not be discussing issues like that. But again, we were assigned Locke! And still no one wanted to talk about the fact that his whole model for property was the "New World". I mean, I get that the dispossession of Native Americans is kind of a downer, but come on!
David Schraub: You should have enrolled in my anti-discrimination seminar. "Whiteness as Property" was absolutely on my syllabus.Though I have to say, for whatever reason it did not resonate with my students at all. I was really surprised.
Sunny Yang: Why do you think your students didn't enjoy it? Did they think it was "old hat" or...?
David Schraub: I don't know. They were very interested in other CRT texts I assigned. That class just seemed to be a whiff. Have you read Patricia Williams' story on renting apartments and the importance of formal contracts?
Sunny Yang: No I haven't! Only The Alchemy of Race & Rights.
David Schraub: It's in her "Alchemical Notes" article (pp. 406-408) upon which that book was based,
but that passage was actually assigned in my first-year Contracts Class. (I very quickly discovered that nothing makes U.Chicago Law Professors happier than arguing that strict adherence to hard formal rules operates to the advantage of the marginalized).
In many ways, I still consider myself more of a "Chicago" guy than a "Berkeley" guy, even now; not because I necessarily adopt the a Chicago approach to solving problems, but because I deeply value the different vantage points Chicago gave me for considering them.
Sunny Yang: I totally respect that. I think going to Swarthmore (famously dubbed "Kremlin on the Crum"; a place that didn't have a young republicans club until my senior year--and it was run by libertarians) insulated me in a way that I think has still made it difficult for me to debate certain topics/ideas
David Schraub: Yeah. I worry about that tendency in academia generally, and I particularly worry about it in the humanities.
Sunny Yang: I think it's a valid concern because we should be prepared to have those conversations with our students
David Schraub: So you get your Ph.D. in English and then a tenure-track position at LSU--which, congratulations, since I kind of thought tenure-track English jobs didn't exist anymore.
Sunny Yang: They barely do, it's totally depressing. My first year on the market I was the only person in my cohort who got a tenure-track job. The model seems now to go through one or two postdocs, or adjunct for x number of years.
David Schraub: It's awful throughout academia, but English is sort of the poster child for where it has gotten really dire.
Sunny Yang: Yeah, I mean out of the eleven women who initially entered with my cohort, two of us have tenure-track jobs. The rest have either left academia, are adjuncting, or are on fellowships. And Penn has one of the best placement records in English.
David Schraub: Obviously you're incredibly smart and talented, but did you feel like there were any specific elements of the academic package you presented that helped you along?
Sunny Yang: Oh absolutely. First of all, I'm a 19th century Americanist, but I do "long 19th century" which meant that I could apply for both 19th and 20th century jobs. I also do multi-ethnic literature. I've taught Asian American literature and I could do a general ethnic American literature course. I have a certificate in Africana studies as well and can teach African American literature. So I think part of my ability to get a job definitely had to do with the fact that I can cover a huge range of courses.
David Schraub: That certainly is a perk! And what, in turn, attracted you to LSU? Other than the football, of course.
Sunny Yang: I think there are a couple of things. I mean, first I like the fact that it's a big flagship state university. I only have had experiences with small liberal arts colleges and Ivies, so it's nice to have a big and super diverse student body to engage with. This is going to sound ridiculously cheesy, but I also like the vibe of the department. There are some amazing scholars there, but it's a more relaxed place. It's not super cutthroat, there seems to be a genuine community.
David Schraub: I don't think that's cheesy at all. I think finding a good academic home is incredibly important
Sunny Yang: Plus, I mean let's be real: New Orleans being an hour and 20 mins away did not hurt. Mardi Gras season is actualy going down right now.
David Schraub: I'm sure Baton Rouge natives love hearing that refrain.
Sunny Yang: HAH! I mean Baton Rouge is a pretty nice place to end up. The weather is insane, I mean it's 70 degrees right now. And I was on fellowship in Boston last year [with the American Academy of Arts & Sciences] and it just wouldn't stop snowing (which is also the other thing I like about LSU. Since it's an R1 they are super supportive on the research front. I got the fellowship and the job at the same time and they let me go that first year before coming back to LSU to teach).
David Schraub: I noticed that -- that was really cool. So I have to ask this -- it's something I've been wondering for years and I finally have a live English prof in front of me to do it…
Sunny Yang: Uh oh...sinister drum roll.
David Schraub: The scholarship that comes out of English departments has a bit of reputation in terms of how it is written: really dense, obscure, jargon-laden -- what I would simply call terrible writing (irrespective of the merit of the underlying ideas). Why is that? And why in English departments, of all places, does awful writing seem to find a redoubt? (Or is this an unfair stereotype?)
Sunny Yang: I think this is a bit of an unfair stereotype now; I think there was definitely a moment when critical theory was all the rage and you had all this awful, dense writing. Obviously, this is program-specific; Penn tends to be very historicist and Marxist, so you have--I think!--way clearer writers. And in more recent years (perhaps with the tanking of the market?), you have more and more English PhDs trying to write for popular forums—Los Angeles Review of Books or Public Books.
David Schraub: I think that's a heartening development, and it's possible this stereotype is out of date.
Sunny Yang: Yeah, I think the newer generation is way more conscious about needing to write more clearly, especially since many of them end up writing for public venues.
David Schraub: I've dipped a toe into the freelancing life recently -- it's not bad. Definitely recommend.
Sunny Yang: How did you get started? I always wonder about this. Did you have connections?
David Schraub: Well, I've had the blog for over a decade now, so I've had a web presence that at least a few people knew about. One of the editors of Tablet Magazine (a Jewish periodical) took a shining to my work and has tossed me some gigs. Most of my popular writing is trying to situate anti-Semitism inside progressive understandings of oppression analysis. Which -- and given your research interests I'm very interested to hear your thoughts on this -- is I think a massively important and underserved area of discussion. There is, right now, an extraordinarily deep sense of alienation felt by large swaths of the Jewish community vis-a-vis this branch of academia, and it is just devastating.
Sunny Yang: I think that's definitely an interesting issue and I wonder how that alienation can be reconciled. Unfortunately this issue is just way out of my area of expertise, but obviously these issues won't be going away soon and there needs to be more conversation about it.
David Schraub: I think that's a fair response. But it isn't it in some ways reflective that one of your areas of expertise includes "ethnic literature" generally, and yet the way academic lines are drawn "Jewish" issues are seen as external rather than internal?
Sunny Yang: So this is actually a generational thing; and broadly speaking "Jewish literature" (along with early Irish and Italian American literature) is considered ethnic literature. But my intuition is also that funding structures shape how departments/programs are set up. So for example, Penn doesn't have an ethnic studies program or department (in fact you mostly only see those on the West Coast), but there is the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at Penn. In other words, I take your point about the general separation of Jewish literature and ethnic literature as it's commonly understood today. But I wonder if part of that comes from how universities and hiring lines have been set up.
David Schraub: It's possible, although I do have some familiarity with the genealogy of these departments emerging and I know that Judaic Studies has never really been viewed as part of the "ethnic studies" pantheon. Now, there is a more prosaic point to be said here, which is that people are allowed to be interested in what they're interested in, and I don't think that everyone (or everyone doing "ethnic studies" or "ethnic literature") has to be thinking about Jews all the itme or even a significant part of the time.
Sunny Yang: No; but I think you're right in pointing out the lack of theorization going on between these experiences.
David Schraub: I think the alienation is less from the absence and more the sense that it isn't even viewed as a regrettable absence; and sometimes is even viewed as a feature. We are better off if Jews aren't heard from. I read an account the other day about someone at an MLA session who tried to raise the issue of anti-Semitism on campuses and the audience broke out laughing at him. I mean, that's truly chilling.
Sunny Yang: I haven't heard about that instance so I don't know about the specific context, but obviously that is terrible. That said, it's also interesting that this supposedly happened given that so much of the MLA this year (or at least the organizing committee, which I'm not part of) was devoted to discussing the potential of supporting BDS.
But going back to your earlier point, I don't think it's true that there's the thought “we are better off if Jews aren't heard from.” But what it is, and what i think is also a problem, is that "oh, Jewish issues are separate" and there are specifically Jewish studies courses that explore those issues. But I think you're absolutely right that that's a problematic way of thinking about it (This is also the issue of not thinking about inter-ethnic or comparative ethnic studies).
On the east coast at least, the tendency tends to be oh, you do "ethnic studies" by having a class that does one month of Asian American issues and then one month of Chicano, then Native, etc., without theorizing them together or thinking about how these histories are interrelated (and it's not like African American literature ever gets brought up in all of that either).
David Schraub: Interesting! That's really surprising to me actually.
Sunny Yang: Yeah. It's why I actually organized an Afro-Asian American studies conference when I was at Penn. I mean, one of the academics I met through ACLS [American Council of Learned Societies]/Mellon is a woman working on Black and Jewish studies. And I remember her talking about how she got strange looks when she described her project. I think part of that is this rigid way of thinking about disciplines and specializations that you have.
David Schraub: That kills me because I hear that and I'm like "that's such an interesting project!"
Sunny Yang: RIGHT? And this work is slowly coming out. You have more and more Afro-Asian books
and Afro-Native books. I do think that in certain ways, the way the job market is structured makes it more difficult to pursue these kinds of comparative projects. You can see how ads are framed -- they are horrifically specific. (And, for example, oftentimes the "Ethnic American" jobs will ask specifically for specializations in Chicano/Native but not really Asian American. So if you're an Asian Americanist you generally can't apply for many of the "Ethnic" positions).
Once you’re hired I think you can publish whatever but you have to be legible enough to be hired in the first place. Like if I suddenly decided to publish on American modernism or whatever, I don't think LSU would care as long as I still taught ethnic American literature courses occasionally. But the initial job ad was specifically for that.
I think it does lead to the problems we were discussing of not branching much beyond your field. Though I think there are attempts in the last couple of years to change this like the category of "global anglophone" or hirings that don't specify a period (like Penn this year is doing an open-field and time period "literature and science" hire).
David Schraub: Hyper-specialization is definitely a problem and I'm not really sure how to resolve it other than to be clearer that wide research interests are okay. Incidentally, I also thinks this relates to the "bad writing" problem -- if one is only writing for the 12 or so people who do exactly what you do, it is perfectly okay to write in a manner only intelligible to that dozen.
Sunny Yang: Oh absolutely! I think in certain ways that's also why I identify myself as someone who does American Studies Which is an interdisciplinary field. And, you know, the articles in American Quarterly (the main journal) are usually very legibly written.
David Schraub: Before we conclude -- we still haven't talked at all about your projects! Give us the rundown of what you're working on nowadays
Sunny Yang: So right now I'm in the midst of revising an article on the unexpected system of racial labor management in the Panama Canal Zone during canal construction; I've got another article I'm working on (out of my time period!) on the cross-racial solidarities imagined in Yusef Komunyakaa's collection of poems, Dien Cai Dau. And, as always, still working on revising my book manuscript.
The book project is currently titled "Fictions of Territoriality," and I'm looking at the legal and popular debates that emerged over race and citizenship as a result of U.S. expansion in the long 19th century. I examine four locations: extraterritorial zones in China, the Mexican Cession, Indian Territory, and the Panama Canal Zone. In each space, I analyze how legal and literary texts deployed certain narratives to rationalize the refusal to extend rights to non-white subjects. At the same time, I'm interested in seeing how these marginalized people drew on alternate legal, cultural, and sometimes imperial systems in order to propose alternate ways of thinking about race, rights, and governance.
David Schraub: That sounds like a really interesting project.
Sunny Yang: Each chapter is interested in pursuing a slightly different issue (though the California and Indian Territory chapters are about different ways of thinking about sovereignty/governance)
David Schraub: That's really cool. I've all of the sudden found myself thinking a ton about "sovereignty" as a political idea. So as far as I'm concerned, you're on-trend.
Sunny Yang: I love it! Only at MLA I found myself going to all these early modern panels, because apparently sovereignty & empire are just too passe now for later periods!
David Schraub: I know you have to run, but look -- three hours of interesting material!
Sunny Yang: Are you sure? Who's going to want to read this? Literature professor swears: we're not all bad writers! The end.
This interview was conducted on gChat, and has been edited for length and clarity.