Christopher B. Patterson on Writing as Resistance and Refusal

Jan 22, 2020

What is at stake when we choose to write in one genre over another? Why does our name shape how our work is taken up in the world? How might we harness the power of refusal as means for collective liberation?

In episode 103 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach chats with speculative fiction author, podcaster, and scholar Christopher B. Patterson.

Chris shares why he prefers writing novels and scholarly books in pairs and how they inform one another. They also explore how we can approach all of our work as passion projects and why we might want to do so, the power of names and publishing under different names to reach different audiences, and why advocating a politics of refusal is how Chris imagines otherwise.

Cite this episode: Hannabach, Cathy (host). “Christopher B. Patterson on Writing as Resistance and Refusal.” Imagine Otherwise. January 22, 2020. Produced by Cathy Hannabach and Ideas on Fire. Podcast. 27:42.

In this episode

  • Negotiating academic writing and fiction writing (2:17)
  • Advice for scholars interested in creative writing (8:38)
  • The politics of his alter ego Kawika Guillermo (10:28)
  • Chris’s forthcoming books All Flowers Bloom and Open World Empire (12:53)
  • Chris’s podcast New Books in Asian American Studies (16:22)
  • Working at the intersection of art, activism, and academia (20:41)
  • Imagining otherwise (24:17)

About Christopher B. Patterson

Christopher B. Patterson is an assistant professor in the Social Justice Institute at the University of British Columbia.

He is the author of two academic books: Transitive Cultures: Anglophone Literature of the Transpacific (Rutgers University Press, 2018) and Open World Empire: Race, Erotics, and the Global Rise of Video Games (NYU Press, 2020). 

Chris also writes fiction under his alter ego, Kawika Guillermo. His debut novel, Stamped:
An Anti-Travel Novel
(Westphalia Press, 2018), depicts American minority, Black, and queer exiles who travel in Asia and face their new roles as privileged American expatriates. His queer speculative novel, All Flowers Bloom (Westphalia Press, 2020), follows a reincarnating soul who takes on multiple lives and lovers from 500 BCE to the death of humankind.

As an organizer and public scholar, Chris founded the podcast New Books in Asian American Studies, which he co-hosts. He blogs on race and new media for Anomaly Magazine and serves as the Prose Editor for decomP Magazine. His commitment to teaching was recognized in 2018 when he was awarded Hong Kong Baptist University’s Arts Faculty Early Career Teaching Award.

Chris’s writing stems from his experience growing up in a family of Filipinos, Irish/Scottish people, and mixed Chinese and Native Hawaiians. He has frequently been an American abroad, living in South Korea, mainland China, and Hong Kong for extended periods of time.

He earned his PhD from the University of Washington.

Teaching and learning resources


Click to read the transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

[00:22] This is episode 103 and my guest today is Christopher B. Patterson.

Chris is an assistant professor in the Social Justice Institute at the University of British Columbia.

He is the author of two academic books: Transitive Cultures: Anglophone Literature of the Transpacific, published by Rutgers University Press in 2018 and Open World Empire: Race, Erotics, and the Global Rise of Video Games, which is forthcoming in 2020 by NYU Press.

Chris also writes fiction under his alter ego, Kawika Guillermo. His debut novel, Stamped: An Anti-Travel Novel, published in 2018 by Westphalia Press, depicts American minority, Black, and queer exiles who travel in Asia and face their new roles as privileged American expatriates. His forthcoming queer speculative novel, All Flowers Bloom, follows a reincarnating soul who takes on multiple lives and lovers from 500 BCE to the death of humankind.

As an organizer and public scholar, Chris founded the podcast New Books in Asian American Studies, which he co-hosts. He blogs on race and new media for Anomaly Magazine and serves as the Prose Editor for decomP Magazine

[01:33] Chris’s writing stems from his experience growing up in a family of Filipinos, Irish/Scottish people, and mixed Chinese and Native Hawaiians. He has frequently been an American abroad, living in South Korea, mainland China, and Hong Kong for extended periods of time.

In our interview, Chris and I chat about why he prefers writing novels and scholarly books in pairs and how they inform one another, how we can approach all of our work as passion projects and why we might want to do so, the power of names and publishing under different names to reach different audiences, and why advocating a politics of refusal is how Chris imagines otherwise.

[To Chris] Thanks so much for being with us today, Chris.

Christopher B. Patterson: Thank you so much for having me.

Cathy: So you’re the author of two academic books as well as two novels, including the forthcoming ones Open World Empire and All Flowers Bloom, both of which are being published this year. I’m curious about your writing process for those two manuscripts. Do you find that you write novels and scholarship simultaneously, going back and forth between them, or do you tend to keep writing projects pretty separate?

Chris [02:39]: I usually go back and forth. I’ve always been a writer, since as far back as I can remember. I don’t mean that as a title. I mean that I would wake up and to start writing, usually in chat rooms on the internet or something like that where I’d be sharing stories with a small group of people, all sharing stories together, sharing ideas. Since as far back as I can remember, it’s always been a habit of doing at least two, sometimes five, hours a day.

[03:21] I feel a bit restless if I’m not writing something, and even so, I still wrestle all the time with writing. I get writer’s block a lot. The best cure for me is to move on and write something else. So I’ll be in the middle of a story about a Filipino American traveling in Indonesia and then I’ll get stuck or something isn’t working or I need to take more time with it or I need to spend time in Indonesia or something. So I’ll take a break by writing an academic essay about Filipino American travelers in literature or film. And then those ideas will circle back to each other over and over.

There is a kind of sharing of resources, I suppose, that goes on through fiction writing and academic writing. That enables me to feel like I’m an imposter in both, which isn’t always a bad thing. As an impostor you can also feel like an amateur and you can pursue your passion and ignore what people think of it.

[04:16] When I do fiction writing I think of myself as really an academic so I can be sly and not really obey restrictions of genre. I can not really care about how I present my own identity in the writing. And then as an academic I can think, “Well I’m really a fiction writer so I’m here to disrupt things. I’m here to think outside the box.” I can be silly and weird and playful in ways that I wouldn’t be otherwise. I think that adds a lot to it.

[05:00] I should also say that this is not professionally helpful. Nothing I’ve written has really been directed at getting promotion or tenure—almost the opposite. It almost comes back to feeling passion for a writing project. It almost has to feel like it’s committing a type of career suicide. Like “Well now I’m going to write this queer fantasy story with dragons and robots,” or “I’m gonna write about this thing that, job committees think is useless, like video games.”

I have four books either published or in production, two from Ivy League presses, and I still don’t have a tenure-track job, which I’m only now realizing is horrible. I kinda need that to be an adult. But I also feel really free in my writing because it always resists professionalization. I feel like that kind of promise of promotion, which is a kind of promise of academic freedom, often promotes a very disengaged kind of writing that only takes up political aims when it’s in service to the university, which is to say to neoliberalism and imperial violence. So I think there is a lot at stake when we choose to write outside of the disciplines that are assigned to us.

Cathy [06:01]: I’m really curious about this interaction between your fiction and your scholarly work. Although very different in genre, tone, and structure, all of your books tackle issues of travel, mobility, race, and queerness. I’m curious to hear you talk a little bit more about this. Do you find that the form of a novel or fictional work versus the form of an academic essay or a scholarly monograph let you get at different elements of those themes?

Chris [06:33]: Yeah, absolutely. I’m very lucky that I took some of the right classes from some of the right professors when I was an undergraduate.

I was introduced to [W. E. B.] DuBois’s Souls of Black Folks very early on, which is a very multi-genre text. I tried to read everything DuBois wrote. He wrote in so many different genres: romance novels, science fiction, poetry, historical texts and essays, and so on. His answer was always that it was kind of like coming at similar issues but asking different questions. So different genres ask different questions but also reach different audiences.

There’s a whole genealogy there. There’s James Baldwin, there’s Susan Sontag, there’s a lot of women of color feminists, [Gloría Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga’s] This Bridge Called My Back, [Gloría Anzaldúa’s] Borderlands. The contemporary examples would be Saidiya Hartman and Fred Moten, where the creative is always blended into the academic.

[07:29] When I write in different genres, I think of them as being part of the same project. I can use my first two books as an example. These both came out in 2018. The academic book, Transitive Cultures,asks how global multiculturalism was formed through forms of colonial pluralism in Southeast Asia and how narratives about migration, minority experience, and mobility really expose this.

Then my novel Stamped, which came out the same year, is itself a narrative about migration, minority experience, and mobility and most of it takes place in Southeast Asia. So in a way, I was trying to put into practice many of the ideas from my academic work and then my academic work was also trying to understand the tropes that were emerging in my fiction.

It’s a kind of a chicken and egg question. The ideas emerged by trying to understand the story and the story also emerged as well, trying to understand the ideas. So they’re very much complimentary and written hand in hand. One would not exist without the other.

Cathy [08:37]: Do you have any advice or lessons learned for other scholars who want to do more creative writing or want to cross some of those genre boundaries you were talking about?

Chris [08:46]: I do get students are interested in doing that all the time, because not many other scholars do it or if they do it, they hide one of those. I usually tell them, “Yes, you should try and do it. And also good luck.” It’s definitely a risk. Like I said, I still don’t have a tenure-track job. So it’s not exactly the most professionalizing thing to do. DuBois did it a hundred years ago, over a hundred years ago, and we’re still wrestling with how to recognize that kind of work.

[09:30] I think that the biggest obstacle is that people will ask you, “Which is your career and which is your hobby?” So one is always made to seem like something you do for pleasure or fun and the other one’s seen as more serious. Whereas to me, I grew up believing that I would be stuck in a minimum wage job forever, working in retail or something. I never imagined I’d be smart enough to be at a university or to even go to university when I was a kid.

I thought I would just be a poor writer with a small audience. And that was fine for me. I would always write, but I wouldn’t necessarily be a career. So my answer is that everything I write is my hobby. I forgot to care about my career at some point. Everything I write is a passion project. The great thing is that I only have passion projects. Like every writer, I have to write some things I don’t want to like a grant proposal or something like that, but otherwise I feel pretty free as a writer. But it is a risk and I hope that as more of us take those risks, we can also build institutional backing to support the next generation so that they don’t have to choose between their career and their passion.

Cathy [10:29]: I’d love to talk about your use of different names for these two genres. You published under Chris Patterson, Christopher Patterson, for your scholarship, but you also have what you call an alter ego, Kawika Guillermo. I’d love to hear about how Kawika developed. What is the story behind these two names?

Chris [10:49]: Well, my legal name, Chris Patterson, was the name I was given when I was born. Kawika is the name that my mother wanted for me and Guillermo is her last name. It’s half of my family’s last name. Kawika is also the name I would’ve had (as I’m told) had I been born in Hawai‘i rather than an pasty white Portland, Oregon, where I was born. It’s also the name I would’ve had if we were not living in a patriarchal naming system.

[11:32] I’ve used that name in all sorts of different contexts. I use it whenever I am writing on the internet. I used to use a lot when I was traveling and when I was in Hawai‘i, some of my family members still call me Kawika. It doesn’t feel like a name that I chose to be particularly empowering or more truthful even. But like race itself, it’s a historical trace that I feel like is part of me whether I like it or not.

Writing under my legal name, Chris Patterson, tells one truth about me and my history. I think it’s important to keep that name in some of my writings and my scholarship. Then when I write as Kawika, that’s tells another history about me and another truth about me. It’s also important that that name stays alive.

I wrote about writing as Kawika in my first book, Transitive Cultures, but also in my novel Stamped where the main character, who’s Filipino American, uses the name Kawika while transitioning to a woman and while trying to understand their own pansexuality. I was trying to explore how names are both very freeing and very confining at the same time, how they can be out there for the world but also feel deeply personal.

I’ve been told by agents and other writers that I would have a larger audience if I changed my pen name, but I feel like it’s part of who I am. That history is very personal and important. So smaller audience it is!

Cathy [12:53]: Can we maybe go back a little bit and talk about your forthcoming books, both your novel, All Flowers Bloom, and your scholarly monograph, Open World Empire? For our listeners, what do those books cover?

Chris [13:06]: They are part of a similar project even though Open World Empire is about video games (essentially it’s about video games) and All Flowers Bloom is a queer speculative fiction novel. They’re both experimenting with forms of play and thinking about, like the title of this podcast, how we can imagine otherwise.

Open World Empire’s basic argument is that we are living within the confines of what I call an open world empire, which is an overpowering network of militarized devices and surveillance technologies that traffic and ideas of transparency, scandal, of bringing us all together but are also telling us how to see ourselves and what groups we belong to, what racial politics we should have, and so on. To me, video games are crucial in the fact that they are the artistic expression of that empire because they are created by the people who are most deeply embedded within it: the developers and so on.

[14:09] Because they’re often coming from Asia or they are inspired by Asian innovation or are manufactured in Asia, they have what I call this Asiatic characteristic to them. So I’m looking at how to play games differently, in this case, how to play them erotically and to help us understand the ways that the Asiatic and the imperial emerge within this form so that we can recognize our own pleasures and our own positions as citizens of the Global North.

The novel kind of compliments that in the sense that it’s about (and this is gonna sound pretty weird) these two souls that reincarnate over hundreds of years of history, starting from 500 BCE. I guess it’s much longer than that actually. It’s 5,000 years up until the end of mankind. These two souls are wrestling with what it means to take pleasure in each other but also to continually be trapped in systems that reproduce power and abuse onto each other.

Both of those books are thinking through dynamics of pleasure, erotics, intimacy, and how power, abuse, and structure are constantly embedded within that and how we can imagine ways of being outside of that.

Cathy [15:31]: Wow. Hearing you talk about all four books in pairs—the novel goes with the scholarly text—it really hits home how these two inform each other. It’s a really fascinating writing process.

Chris [15:44]: Yeah, I think. And they’re only two years apart. So the first pair came out in 2018 and this one’s coming out in 2020, this year. It seems like they were written at the same time but they were all written at very different periods of my life. I waited a long time to start trying to publish them because I was not really that confident as a writer. I waited quite a while to try, or I tried to publish them (like my first novel) and had horrible experiences with the publishing industry. I almost gave up on it many times.

Cathy [16:21]: So in addition to being a novelist and a scholar, you’re also a podcast host. Your podcast is called New Books in Asian American Studies, which is fantastic. And for listeners who don’t already know about it, go listen to it immediately or at least finish this episode and then go listen to it immediately. For that show, you get to interview authors of cutting-edge scholarship in Asian American studies who are pushing the field in some really new and exciting directions. What got you interested in podcasting?

Chris [16:52]: Yeah, thank you so much for that question. I think because I do a lot of writing that the podcasting often people forget about it. But I was a grant writer and a program manager for the Seattle Asian American Film Festival. When I was living in Seattle, I was very engaged with the communities there. Then my first academic job was in mainland China. I spoke the language somewhat, but I wasn’t fluent and so I felt like I couldn’t really devote myself to the local communities of Nanjing, China, where I was living. So I needed to have a way of remaining engaged and being of service remotely, through the digital. So I took on the podcast as kind of a way to try and create change through mass media.

[17:38] And so it’s interesting to me how the podcast has really taken off in the last five years. It was in 2013 when I first started it. And I’m sure you share this feeling of when you have a good interview and you realize that for a lot of folks who listen to this, this is going to be the only opportunity they might have to confront a lot of these ideas. It’s amazing. It’s very, very rewarding. I love sharing ideas, our ideas as academics, with audiences all around the world that sometimes number in the tens of thousands.

Even though we don’t really get any academic recognition for any of this—me or my guests don’t seem to get any academic recognition—the recognition that we get randomly around the world is really, is really amazing. I was at a conference in Hong Kong and this is actually how I met my wife. She recognized my voice from the podcast.

Cathy: Oh my gosh, what a great story!

Chris: Yeah. That’s happened to me a lot, but it was never, of course, as intimately. It comes out a lot and in a lot of different contexts. So I think it’s a way to reach people and it feels incredibly rewarding to do. I don’t know. You must feel similarly about it, I assume.

Cathy [18:59]: Yeah. I feel in many ways it’s a privilege to be able to talk to so many amazing folks such as yourself. What I find fascinating is seeing all the connections. Everybody has really different approaches to the various work that they do and the projects and the things that they’re committed to. But it’s really interesting to see threads of commonalities across very vast differences.

Chris [19:22]: Yeah. I have a friend, a very good friend, who’s a very popular radio host for AM radio here in Vancouver. She’s a woman of color and she tells me all the time about how they had to train her voice and train her questions in certain ways to relate to a mass white audience. AM radio is quite conservative too, even when they think they’re liberal.

One of the things I love about podcasting is we don’t have to train ourselves or domesticate our voices in the ways that people on radio shows often do. Like on this podcast here, we can ask the questions we really want to ask. So that’s been really freeing.

For the Asian American studies podcast, that’s been more of how to disrupt Asian American studies and try and include other forms of questions that have not really been all that present in Asian American studies. I’m trying to also foreground experiences from Oceanic people, Southeast Asians, Filipinos, and so on. The podcast is not a Asian American studies 101 podcast. It’s very much trying to get at the nitty gritty of this identity.

Cathy [20:41]: I’m curious how you see your work in the podcast, in your novels, in your scholarship, and inyour collaborations combining your interest in academia or scholarship with your interest in art or creativity and social justice activism. What draws you to this nexus?

Chris [21:02]: You know, I don’t really know, exactly. I had a great dissertation supervisor and I told her, “I’m very worried that I’m going to lose my interest in activism after graduate school.” And she told me, “You never stop being you.”

As an activist or as an engaged scholar, there’s something in you. You probably relate to this too, that you have to stay active. I was raised very religious so that might have something to do with it. I’m not really [religious] anymore but I think through that there’s this unending need to be active and always be pushing against the forces of violence, injustice, and empire and listening to people, listening to students, listening to communities, and trying to remain active and engaged with the communities around us, which includes advocating for activists and artists within the institution and to trying to change the institution.

[21:54] I serve in the Social Justice Institute here at UBC [University of British Columbia], but UBC is also an institution that routinely brings white nationalists or allows white nationalists and racists and transphobic speakers to come to campus all the time. I think it’s really important that we work to fight against those forces (and the fight is always here) and as we’re fighting to build things for ourselves, we build communities.

[22:37] One example of this is when I lived in Hong Kong. I was there for two and a half years. I had an article come out yesterday in the journal Cultural Studies, which is about my time working with and among migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong, about half from the Philippines, half from Indonesia. This piece of scholarship is really a collaborative on so many levels.

It’s collaborative with students who wrote about growing up with domestic workers in their home. It’s a collaboration with, of course, other scholars who’ve been working on this for many years in Hong Kong. It’s a collaboration with artists and curators who make art by and about domestic workers. It also working with local organizations and talking to union leaders and NGO groups, editors and artists in the community. And it also comes from having a domestic worker briefly when my son was born.

I don’t see those folks as my subjects or as informers. I invited them to speak to my classes and I advised them as collaborators and friends. I’m Filipino myself and I’ve spent my career researching Filipino history and culture. We’re part of the same diasporic community.

[23:32] And so those folks were the first that I gave this article to, the only people I have given the article to so far. I feel like the work has been made with them and it’s been a collaborative process. I think as scholars who are devoted to social [justice], we need to think collaboratively in everything that we do. Otherwise we’re gearing our work towards a large audience, a mainstream audience, which is to say a white, hetero academic audience.

I take a kind of punk rock philosophy of don’t go mainstream, don’t sell out. Just be there for the community. Be happy, I guess, playing the same club night after night because the community that’s produced through that process is extremely valuable and changes a lot of the people who filter through it.

Cathy [24:17]: So this brings me to my last and my absolute favorite question that really gets at the links between all of these different endeavors that you do. That’s that world that you’re working towards building. So I’ll ask you this giant question that I think we don’t get enough opportunities to ask and to answer. What kind of world do you want?

Chris [24:39]: I love this question. I listen to this podcast a lot so I was prepared for it and I was thinking a lot about it but I still don’t know the answer to it. I think that’s why it’s such a great question. I write speculative fiction short stories about the future. So I’ve imagined many futures, but none of them are particularly good. I think the problem is that once it is good for you, it’s likely horrible for someone else. You know, your heaven will be someone else’s hell. I have a hard time trying to imagine futures that don’t do that though I believe in it; I think it’s possible.

[25:25] One short story is that I always teach is Ursula Le Guin story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” In Omelas, folks are living in a grand utopia. But before they reach adulthood, they have to bear witness to a single child who is tortured day in and day out in order to bring happiness to everybody else. And so these people, these new adults, must then decide whether to stay in this utopia or to walk away into the dark unknown.

The story is really about whether or not to take a politics of refusal in the face of the suffering of just one person. That is a politics that I believe in, that we need, that once we find one person one group of people—whether it be refugees, Muslims, trans folk, Indigenous people, Islanders, immigrants, or even poor white people—that their suffering is enough for us to walk away or to refuse to go along or to start insurrection or to undertake a form of sabotage in our work. Even if it risks our livelihoods.

[26:21] I think a better world is one where we can all have a way of seeing that every single living person is human and complex and contains multitudes within themselves so that any happiness or privilege or security must be refused if it is conditioned on the suffering or the violence or injustice towards other groups of human beings.

You and I know we have a long way to go before we can get there. I think that would begin with a great historical reckoning, with a great reforming of our economic relations to each other, with understanding that Black lives matter, that Indigenous lives matter. We have to try.

Cathy: Well, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all of the ways that you imagine and create otherwise.

Chris: Thank you so much.

Cathy [27:14]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]

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