Things I learned on maternity leave

Next week I return to work – in many ways I am excited about this, although it is of course tinged with sadness that I will be leaving little man behind every day. But maternity leave has been interesting for me academically, so I thought I would post what I have learned so that I can look back on this and get some perspective when the madness of term hits.

  1. Most of the emails I receive do not require much attention and can be deleted. Many of these come from my own university or are digests. Teaching/student/PhD emails are important. Previously, I used to be a constant checker and instant replier. So my note to self is: I only need to check emails once a day and do not need to check them over the weekend. At all. Ever.
  2. I am a workaholic. It took me 3-4 months to actually switch off and by 9 months I was fidgety again. I re-learned some French in the interim but it was good NOT to be working for my sanity. I actually feel mentally fresh, if not physically. Note to self: I do not need to be defined by my academic life. (I am working on this. It’s a process).
  3. Relatedly, in a polar opposite kind of way, I am extremely good at vegetating. I hadn’t realised quite HOW good. I am not an intellectual, I am a different sort of academic. I did not read many books (apart from finishing the Game of Thrones series and a few odd other things which I largely read in the middle of the night on my kindle). But I have probably watched every single Amazon Prime original series and a lot of films. Note to self: It is ok to not live and breathe work.
  4. I am really grateful for all the people who didn’t give up on me during maternity leave though. I wobbled. I wondered about part time, I wondered about full time. I reviewed some articles, I co-organised some conference sessions so I would have something to go back to (thanks Caleb). I occasionally needed to do something that did not relate to the baby and that made me feel more like my old self. That one defined by work. See point 2. I talked to/messaged a lot of academic peers with babies (thanks everyone) who made me feel better about point 2 because they were working on it too. I decided on full time. Note to self: I will, as the peer group evidence suggested,  feel guilty about working and guilty about not working. I will feel guilty.
  5. I used to faff, masquerading as work. I had always worried that post-baby I would not be able to manage the same level of work I did before, but I realised that with email checking etc that I wasted an inordinate amount of time every day. KIT days were interesting for how much I could actually fit in. I will not be able to do the hours that I used to, but I can probably completely internalize the neoliberal university (which I hate) by working more effectively in a core 9-5 model. In some ways what I have achieved between 8.45/9 and 4.30 has been very focussed work that would previously have taken me much longer. Note to self: Work smarter, not harder.
  6. I have less patience than I used to for whinging/griping/work stressing/gossiping. I just need to get on with things. Lots of people have lots of concerns, and in all likelihood I will probably share them, departmentally, institutionally, sector-wide-ally, TEF-ally, UKRI-ally, politically, but I haven’t got the energy for it, or, in fact, the time. Note to self: Pick the battles that really matter.
  7. I like my job. I know which parts I like more and which parts I like less. I know now how to concentrate my efforts whereas before I tried to do everything well. It isn’t always going to be physically possible to do this. Note to self: if you do everything well 70% of the time then that is ok.

We will see how I fare. Wish me luck! I will be back to posting more regularly now.

 

Interview with Dr Dave O’Brien

The other week I was lucky enough to be interviewed by Dr Dave O’Brien at Goldsmith’s about my book for the New Books in Critical Theory website. The podcast/audio file is now available, open access and therefore free, at the site here: http://newbooksincriticaltheory.com/2015/03/25/amanda-rogers-performing-asian-transnationalisms-theatre-identity-and-the-geographies-of-performance-routledge-2015/

He wrote a really great blurb for it which I am unashamedly cribbing here:

Identity, performance and globalisation are at the heart of the cultural practices interrogated by Amanda Rogers in Performing Asian Transnationalisms: Theatre, Identity and the Geography of Performance (Routledge, 2015). The book explores the global networks of theatre that have emerged between Asia, America and Europe, using a variety of policy, practice and political examples. The book argues that globalisation, and the attendant transnational flows of people and culture, has both the potential to create theatre careers and new, important, works, whist at the same time constraining individuals, communities and cultural forms. The book draws on a rich combination of ethnographic and interview data, along with theoretically informed cultural analysis, using examples ranging from The British Council and the Singapore Art Festival, through Asian American and British East Asian identities, to controversial performances of the Orphan of Zhao. The book will be of primary interest to cultural, geography and performance scholars, but has valuable insights for social science and the humanities more generally.

I hope I do it, and everyone I met through the project, justice. I was a bit nervous and I admit that I am not going to listen to it to spare myself any embarrassment, though I have received some nice compliments so far. We talked about a range of issues, including how I got into this area in the first place, the merging of passion and theory, some of the specifics of the research such as questions of scale, race and performance in different contexts, geographies of performance and transnationalism, policy making, the variety of approaches that I take, and what I am doing next. It’s about 50 mins long. Enjoy!

My book is finally here!

Yesterday I received my free copies of my book Performing Asian Transnationalisms: Theatre, identity and the geographies of performance. It’s been out since the end of September but I didn’t quite believe it until I got it in my hands. I did several jumps around the staff room, little dances in other people’s offices, and thrust it into the face of everyone I met, including physical geographers. My colleagues are very understanding. I could have been asked to do anything and I’d have said yes, but thankfully I was only asked to do a seminar on it by our HOD. I’ve been avoiding that ritual for new staff for 2 years, but he got me in a moment of excitement.

So here it is… a geography book written in a theatre studies series. I think it will generate quite distinct reactions because it’s hard to work in an interdisciplinary vein – it is probably not enough of one disciplinary approach or another – but I have tried to forge something different. Ta-da!

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Available at extortionate cost at  http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415854382/

 

My bio on ASEASUK webpages…..

Previous Grant Applicants.

I visited the L’École Français d’Extrême Orient in Phnom Penh in May 2014 to start exploring the possibilities of some new research on contemporary Cambodian dance. This interest emerged from my British Academy postdoctoral fellowship, where my work examined the transnational migration and performances of ‘Asian’ artists in the UK, US and Singapore. Whilst in Singapore I saw several performances of contemporary Cambodian dance and participated in some workshops with Amrita Performing Arts, and it seemed that Cambodian dance in particular was being shaped by wider political and economic geographies. This led me to apply for the ASEASUK-British Academy-ECAF fellowship on ‘Geopolitics and Performance: The role of NGOs in contemporary Cambodian dance.’

The broad aim of the project was to examine transnational political and economic influences on contemporary Cambodian performance, focussing on the extent to which NGOs and aid agencies enable innovations in classical dance forms. Classical Khmer dance is often discussed in relation to its reconstruction using foreign aid in the wake of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979), locking artists into a dependency relationship that fails to cultivate innovation. Conversely, the return of diaspora artists to Cambodia is often depicted as the driving force in contemporizing classical dance. So I wanted to bring these perspectives together to think through how NGOs and foreign donors support companies and individuals experimenting with classical dance forms, the adaptations in creative practice and Khmer identity that result, and the political tensions that surround such backing. I was able to conduct 28 interviews with NGOs and dancers whilst in Phnom Penh alongside two focus groups, and I watched performances at the Bophana Centre Archives. The ECAF centre, particularly Bertrand Porte, was really helpful in introducing me to artists they knew or had worked with, as well as French academics working on Cambodian dance. Once I’ve analysed and written through some of my materials I’m hoping to apply for AHRC or ERC funding to pursue a bigger project in this field. The challenge is to brush up my French and learn more Khmer!

Dr Amanda Rogers in a Lecturer in Human Geography at Swansea University. Her research focuses on geographies of the performing arts and she is interested in how the arts may express identity among different ‘Asian’ communities. Her recent work has focussed on the transnational geographies traced by Asian American, British East Asian and Singaporean theatres and practitioners. Her book on this topic, Performing Asian Transnationalisms: Theatre, identity and the geographies of performance, will be published with Routledge in September.

Yours truly at the National Museum Phnom Penh

The Orphan of Zhao Controversy Special Issue

Two years ago as part of British East Asian Artists, I was involved in a protest against the casting of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Orphan of Zhao (see blog entries here and here and here). Ashley Thorpe (Royal Holloway) and myself have spent the last year or so putting together a Special Issue of Contemporary Theatre Review on the controversy. It basically uses the controversy to discuss racial politics and casting, and questions whether or not British theatre is as inclusive as it likes to think it is. In it, we have an editorial, our own individual contributions, plus amazing articles from Broderick Chow, Angela Pao and Sita Thomas. The issue also includes an interview with the RSC, an interview with two members of British East Asian Artists, as well as the formal statements released by all parties at the height of the controversy.

In addition to this, there is an open access site that includes Ashley’s reflections on the production’s marketing, Daphne Lei’s analysis of the La Jolla/A.C.T. production in the U.S. (which was cast with all Asian Americans), a clip of Anna Chen’s brilliant poem Yellowface and Daniel York’s absolutely incredible film The Orphan of Zhao Redux. These are all available at http://www.contemporarytheatrereview.org

It has been a long and at times stressful road to put this together, but we are all exceptionally proud of this special issue which is the first to address British East Asian representation in theatre. Huge thanks must go to every contributor and to every actor and performer who was involved in making this happen.

Just because it is so brilliant, I am including the short film here too…

 

Cambodia: SEA Arts Festival 2014.

On Thursday, I was part of a panel entitled ‘Heritage Arts and the Contemporary’ at Goldsmiths, talking about contemporary Cambodian art and performance in response to Fractured/Khmer Passages by Thomas Buttery and Jai Rafferty, produced by Annie Jael Kwan. This was one of the first events of this year’s SEA Arts Festival. It was really fascinating as Thomas, Jai and Annie were all in Cambodia doing the research for this artwork (as well as other installations they’ve created) at the same time as me but we never coincided in Phnom Penh. Their work-in-progress projected films of dancers and musicians that were refracted (fractured) across surfaces combined with a voice-over from interviews including Arn Chorn-Pond. The piece and its form spoke to the literal and metaphorical cultural ruptures that have resulted from the Khmer Rouge, highlighting how these persist through to the present rather than there being a single ‘break’ with the past.

Still from Fractured.

The panel (also including Hi Ching, Reaksmey Yean, as well as Thomas, Jai and Annie, chaired by Barley Norton) had a really great – and at times heated – discussion about contemporary Cambodian arts. We all felt that it was on the cusp of something, a change, a new direction that was being forged even as there was a recognition of traditional arts and performances, and of the legacies of the Khmer Rouge. Barley asked us some interesting and tough questions about whether discourses around tradition had been replaced by heritage, and whether the seeming break between the genocide and thus ‘traditional’ performance followed by rapid globalisation obscured other narratives and influences. We talked a lot about the title of the work, of Cambodia as a fractured society, with Reaksmey viewing it in terms of the intersection of different forces and ideas. We spoke a lot about the choices that artists make, about whether there even are choices for Cambodian artists who seem to have a direct link to the forces of contemporary capitalism and the transnational arts circuit, and whether such interactions prescribe certain forms of work over others. In even discussing this, however, it seemed that certain (western) value judgements about ‘good art’ were being made, when Cambodian artists may not view it in those terms.

On the Friday I returned to Goldsmiths to watch Phnom Penh, Rescue Archaeology: The Body and the Lens in the City. A piece curated by Erin Gleeson of Sa Sa Bassac in Phnom Penh, it is composed of ten videos of performance works by seven Cambodian artists (Khvay Samnang, Lim Sokchanlina, Anida Yeou Ali, Sok Chanrado, Leang Seckon, Tith Kanitha and Svay Sareth). The works all speak to Phnom Penh’s rapid urban change, particularly as a result of land grabs, as Cambodia’s neoliberalism wreaks ever increasing inequality and violence. I particularly liked Svay Sareth’s piece Mon Boulet where he documents walking from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh pulling a giant metallic ball. The piece was by turns funny, as you see him going down narrow lanes and passages, as well as holding up the traffic on some of Phnom Penh’s busiest roads, but also very poignant, as the ball represents the bulldozing of Cambodia’s rural and urban landscapes. The sound of the metallic ball crunching over stones and pebbles, becoming covered in clods of mud as it ‘gathered’ material and momentum, speak to the seemingly unstoppable pace of change and the destruction of ways of life. All the videos were highly evocative, reflecting the fact that as Phnom Penh undergoes rapid change, artists are trying to ‘rescue’ physical and personal memories.

All in all, I had a great time and it was lovely to start thinking again about some of the new research that I’ve been doing.

British East Asian Artists Press Release

In response to a letter written by the BBC to an East Asian student asking why there was such a lack of representation of BEAs on our screens, BEAA has released the following press release and open letter this morning. You can read the original letter from the BBC here, and Anna Chen’s FAQ U BBC response here.

From: BRITISH EAST ASIAN ARTISTS

Monday 16th June 2014

British East Asian Artists (BEAA) write a stinging response to a BBC letter excusing discrimination against East Asian actors.

Shocking BBC email to student Bess (AKA Katherine) Chan cites the Equality Act 2010 to reject diversity and justify exclusion of East Asian actors from BBC programmes.

The British East Asian Artists group (BEAA) have written a stinging rebuke to a letter sent by the BBC Complaints Department this week to student Bess (AKA Katherine) Chan, who had asked why there were so few actors of East Asian origin in BBC programmes.

Despite being Britain’s third largest ethnic minority with an estimated 500,000 people identifying as of Chinese or East Asian origin, British East Asians (BEAs) are still not seen by the BBC as part of the fabric of British society.

Even though London is 40 per cent Black Asian Mixed Ethnic (BAME), and East London was the home of one of the great Chinatowns — Limehouse —  the BBC wrote: “For something like EastEnders, producers would consider the reality of the east end of London upon which depictions are based, thus questions would be is there a sizeable British East Asian population/presence/culture in the type of area Walford is meant to reflect.”

The BBC effectively says that British East Asians may only play characters that are crudely East Asian, and not ordinary everyday roles that are open to actors of other races: “… the actors hired are employed on the basis of their judged suitability for the role which has been written. You’ll understand that the actor does have to reflect the character they portray and, yes, this includes things like ethnicity as well as wider considerations of age, gender, physical appearance and so on.”

Writer Anna Chen, who blogs as Madam Miaow, asked, “Is this what made Laurence Olivier such a good Othello?”

A BEAA spokesperson said: “This would seem to imply that East Asian actors can only appear when the writer has specifically written their surnames as ‘Wong’ or ‘Chen’ and portrays them in characteristically recognisable ‘East Asian’ scenarios. … It would seem to discount the notion that we are all part of modern Britain. … certain minority groups cannot be included unless their perceived community’s activities are seen as ‘relevant’.”

“British East Asian Artists would welcome meeting the BBC in proactive dialogue that develops positive action to rectify a serious corporation-wide problem leading to the continual marginalisation of East Asians in Britain.”

 Bess Chan said, ” I couldn’t believe their message to me. They should replace Asian with Black and then they’d see how racist they are. It’s obvious that the BBC’s claim that there isn’t any trained BEA talent is complete and utter nonsense”.

The BEAA letter, can be found in full at (read below also) http://britisheastaa.wix.com/beaactors#!stop-press/c9i8 and is signed by Anna Chen: Hi Ching: Dr. Broderick Chow: Kathryn Golding: Paul Hyu: Michelle Lee: Chowee Leow: Jennifer Lim: Dr. Amanda Rogers: Lucy Sheen: Dr. Ashley Thorpe: Dr. Diana Yeh: Daniel York

15th June 2014

Open letter from British East Asian Artists (BEAA) in response to a BBC letter to a student which appears to excuse discrimination against East Asian actors

As a group of actors, writers and academics who campaign for the rights of East Asians in British media, the British East Asian Artists group felt compelled to write in response to a recent reply to a complaint made by East Asian student Bess (AKA Katherine) Chan about the lack of East Asian presence in BBC programmes (see: http://madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/british-east-asian-faq-bbc–casting.html ). Firstly, we commend Bess for having the courage to do what East Asians traditionally are not supposed to do: speak up. The response Bess received from the BBC, whilst of admirable length, is riddled with contradictions and, if it is truly representative of the BBC’s views on East Asians (and minority groups in general), is deeply troubling and problematic.

 In the response, the BBC spokesperson appears to strive extremely hard to convince that there is no discrimination at the BBC even going so far as to quote the Equality Act in defence of the corporation’s non-use of quotas. However the following bombshell is then dropped-

 “You’ll understand that the actor does have to reflect the character they portray and, yes, this includes things like ethnicity as well as wider considerations of age, gender, physical appearance and so on.”

This would seem to imply that East Asian actors can only appear when the writer has specifically written their surnames as “Wong” or “Chen” and portrays them in characteristically recognisable “East Asian” scenarios. In other words it would appear to directly imply that East Asians would be of the wrong ethnicity to portray regular “British” characters with no “foreign” trappings. It would seem to discount the notion that we are all part of modern Britain. Why else would anyone cite “ethnicity” as qualification for an acting role unless the role is specifically written that way?

The BBC, according to the response, decries the idea of “positive discrimination” based on “quotas” as inherently unfair to “everyone”. Yet by the same token they maintain-

For something like EastEnders, producers would consider the reality of the east end of London upon which depictions are based, thus questions would be is there a sizeable British East Asian population/presence/culture in the type of area Walford is meant to reflect.”

Are we to assume then that in order for East Asian characters and/or actors (it’s important to separate the last two) to appear on Eastenders the British East Asian population/presence in the very diverse area that Walford is supposed to represent must reach a certain “quota” in order to “qualify”? So it is possible to discriminate negatively on the basis of “quotas” it would appear.

A word on the Equality Act: It is absolutely true that positive discrimination is illegal. Yet sections 158 and 159 of the Equality Act 2010 do actually allow for positive action if people of protected characteristics are suffering disadvantages which East Asians and other minority groups clearly are in this instance. Does the BBC take positive action? It is also true to say that in adherence to the Equality Act best practice would surely be to publish transparent monitoring data of onscreen employment which at present the BBC does not. It is difficult to see how, without this transparency, the BBC is able to defend their record on casting and it would appear more than a little disingenuous to use the Equality Act to justify inequality.

Even more troubling is this-

There is absolutely no discrimination by writers and producers against any section of society when considering such things, it’s simply about characters, relevance, what can be brought to the wider context of the show and the series as a whole…The answer might be that whilst there may be a presence, it perhaps doesn’t specifically equate to something that could necessarily be part of storylines.”

Surely the contradiction here is obvious. There is no discrimination but certain minority groups cannot be included unless their perceived community’s activities are seen as “relevant”. Are we to understand then that East Asians in East London are “irrelevant” to a programme such as Eastenders (since that is what we are referring to here)? That East Asians are somehow separate or apart and do not “specifically equate” to the rest of East London? Elsewhere in the BBC’s response there is great play made on the idea of “talent” coming first but it would appear that all the “talent” in the world will be of little use if the “presence” of East Asians in the area the programme is set in is deemed “irrelevant” by the BBC.

This theme is continued in the next paragraph which re-emphasises commitment to a “level-playing field”-

…we want the best and most suitable person for the requirements of the role but whilst no-one is excluded or discriminated against, as mentioned a medium like television does have to allow programme makers the ability to have a very wide choice based on the dramatic and artistic requirements upon them.

East Asians clearly are being discriminated against if their presence is deemed “irrelevant” to a programme set in modern Britain and the programme-makers are clearly limiting their choices if their “dramatic and artistic requirements” are led by said notions of monolithic “relevance”. Let us be clear here: it cannot be often that the “relevance” of including Caucasian characters and/or actors in BBC dramas is questioned. If the “relevance” of East Asian (or other minority groups) is an issue then that is a clearly discriminatory set of circumstances.

What the BBC cannot possibly do, of course, is be responsible for the talent pool of actors out there.”

There does seem to be an implication here that there aren’t enough “good” East Asian actors. Whilst there may not be vast numbers there are, nevertheless, plenty of East Asian actors who have acted extensively in theatre and films. However, they simply cannot garner TV auditions outside stereotypical and one-dimensional “take-away owner” roles where the major requirement for the role would appear to be fulfilling the programme-makers’ idea of cliché. The currently-in-production One Child, described by BBC Head Of Series Kate Harwood as a “huge opportunity” for the “British East Asian acting community”, required actors to convince the BBC they could portray Mainland China nationals (in other words to not be “British”) and in many cases the casting process required the actors to speak a foreign language (Mandarin) which they often had to translate themselves for the auditions. It’s also true that members of the “British East Asian acting community” with extensive theatre and film credits have often felt compelled to decline offers to appear in clichéd and minor roles which, to artists of their professional standing, were considered somewhat desultory. It might well be that the BBC should get their own house in order before casting aspersions on the professional abilities of minority ethnic actors.

So, British East Asian actors can compete against any other actor, but the key word is compete because this is one of the most – indeed, perhaps the most, competitive industries there is thus there is huge competition for every role and every position with countless people being left disappointed of course, but that’s the reality of the performing arts.”

Virtually every British East Asian actor we know desires only to able to “compete” on a level playing field but surely you can see that in an arena when some are deemed “not relevant” on the basis of their ethnic background and it seems can most often only be considered in “foreign” roles this is no “competition” at all. At one point the BBC response even talks of the corporation being unable to-

simply shoehorn a British East Asian family of characters in for no reason or relevance

This is a simply staggering assertion. There is no question whatsoever of Caucasian characters being “shoe-horned” in but unless there is some sort of special relevance East Asians would be seen as being so. This is a clear statement of discrimination. One is considered the “norm”. One isn’t and requires “special” circumstances.

Finally, it has to be said that the list at the end of East Asian actors whose careers the BBC has supposedly “championed” is itself fairly damning including, as it does, someone who was so unimpressed by the opportunities on offer to them that they left the acting profession aged barely 30. Many of those on that list share Bess’, and our, concerns and are indeed on record to that effect.

The response concludes that the BBC “shares” Bess’ “ambition for more British East Asians to appear on BBC programmes and be part of our workforce”.

It doesn’t appear terribly “ambitious” when we still seem to have advanced no further than being tokenistic foreigners who require special “relevance” to justify our presence in British TV dramas. Citing The Chinese Detective only reinforces these concerns as it last aired in 1982.

This response is deeply disappointing, hurtful and even shocking. We support the BBC as a publicly funded broadcaster and would wish to work with them. But the corporation’s attitude on this appears to be stuck somewhere in the last century. The wider British East Asian population wishes to be recognised as a part of modern Britain and for their lives and experiences as such to be reflected in the media. All British East Asian artists whom we know are dedicated and work extremely hard . We would like to contribute and be included. We would like to “compete”.

We do not wish to be “shoe-horned” in.

British East Asian Artists would of course welcome meeting with the BBC in proactive dialogue that develops positive action to modify a situation which we believe is a serious corporation-wide problem leading to the continual marginalisation of East Asians in Britain.