Imagine Otherwise: Emily Hue on Burmese Performance Art

Imagine Otherwise: Emily Hue on Burmese Performance Art

May 17, 2017

Emily Hue wearing a black and white patterned shirt and glasses, outside under bright green trees


How are performance artists in the Burmese diaspora resisting notions of indebtedness and redefining narratives of political oppression and liberation? How can performance art and organic networking interrupt the academic-industrial complex?

In episode 37 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach and guest Emily Hue discuss how artists in the Burmese diaspora navigate the intersecting violences in the asylum and refugee process, why graduate students and other academics should explore multiple outlets for their work beyond the academic monograph, what luxury hair markets and oil spill cleanup have to do with one another, and Emily’s contribution to the giant wish list we’ve been compiling on this podcast as guests imagine and create better worlds.

This episode of Imagine Otherwise is part of Signal Boosting, a podcast miniseries collaboration between the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, Ideas on Fire, and the Association for Asian American Studies. Each week during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we’re highlighting an emerging scholar who is building new audiences for the field of Asian American studies. The Signal Boosting miniseries aims to show how interdisciplinary scholars, activists, and artists are producing socially engaged work in multimedia forms, as well as inspire you to create your own.

Guest: Emily Hue

Emily Hue is a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California, Riverside in the Departments of Comparative Literature and Foreign Languages and Ethnic Studies.

She is a cultural theorist and ethnographer who examines race, feminist/queer theory, visual arts, performance, and humanitarianism in the 21st century.

She is currently finishing up a book called Economies of Vulnerability: Humanitarian Imperialism and Performance in the Burmese Diaspora, which looks at current trends of self-injury and bodily objectification taken up by diasporic, refugee, and asylum-seeking artists working within the confines of the international arts market and humanitarian industry.

Her recent work will appear in a special issue on critical refugee studies in the journal, LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory, and the anthology Undercurrents: Southeast Asian Transnational and Diasporic Cultures.

Emily also helped produce the American Alien podcast and worked in the academic publishing industry.

We chatted about

    • Humanitarian imperialism in an era of human rights (2:40)
    • How Burmese artists are resisting the imperial notion of indebtedness (9:12)
    • The scholar as translator (11:58)
    • What Emily has learned about scholarship from working in publishing (17:35)
    • Human hair and other “live but not quite dead” commodities (20:10)
    • Imagining otherwise (26:45)

Emily Hue wearing a black and white patterned shirt and glasses, outside under bright green trees. Text reads: I want funders, patrons, and policymakers to take into account that experiences are affected by histories of race-making, gendering, sexuality, class, nationality, ethnicity, political status—these have made it harder for some communities to be apprehended as human in the first place.


The trend of self-injury among diasporic artists

I’m really interested in how and why diasporic artists, including refugees and asylum seekers, are choosing self-injury as they’re dealing with markets of the global humanitarian industry and arts funding.

How artists are resisting the pressure to conform to commercial interests

They are insisting on creating moments of creative license, of agency, of improvisation and aesthetic value, and taking pleasure in these small moments, intervening in these small moments that are often thought of as quite difficult to talk about or unspeakable.

Meeting collaborators organically through diasporic and professional networks

That’s the experience of what diaspora is like. This idea that certain historical events, certain people and places, put you in orbit thousands and thousands of miles away from the country that your peoples are hailing from, and you haven’t really met yet. But at the same time, you’re always in the position of just-about-to-meet. There’s a spirit of potentiality there.

Why academic writers should expand their audiences

A professor in graduate school once said to me ‘I write as if I’m writing for my father.’ I think it’s important to flex that muscle; you need to recognize that what might work for one audience doesn’t always work for all audiences and publishing taught me that as well. You’re not always writing for a scholarly context—you’re writing so that the work is accessible to more people as it gains ground.

“Live but not quite dead” commodities

The things that people are trading in are these commodities that were once live, but are not quite dead either. The question that I keep coming up upon is, does it mean that someone has to lose something, or lose a part, in order for someone else in the Global North to lead a fuller life?

Choosing to work at the intersection of art, academia, and activism

I want funders and patrons and policy makers to take into account that experiences that are affected by histories of race-making, of gendering, sexuality, class, nationality, ethnicity, political status—these are always things that have made it harder for some communities to be apprehended as human in the first place and deserving of rights in these legal frameworks. What I’m hoping that I and others are doing is thinking through how art, scholarship, and these spaces of activism are always serving each other.

Imagining otherwise

I imagine a world where we have eradicated these incredibly unequal dynamics of power with regard to state violence, with regard to borders, with regard to language and migration.

More from Emily

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a 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 and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

About Signal Boosting

This episode and the Signal Boosting miniseries is a collaboration between Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency that works with progressive, interdisciplinary academics, the Association for Asian American Studies, the primary research and teaching hub for Asian American Studies as a dynamic, interdisciplinary field, and the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, a migratory museum that brings Asian Pacific American history, art and culture to you through innovative museum experiences online and throughout the United States.

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