Friday, May 31, 2024

LiterASIAN Festival: 30 Years in the Making

2024 LiterASIAN Festival group photo

LiterASIAN Festival just wrapped up.  More than fifteen years ago, LiterASIAN was a dream when a few of us at the Asian Canadian Writers' Workshop (ACWW) threw the idea around the table over dinner.   We were aware that the odds were against us and difficult to pull off, as none of us had ever organized a festival. We were used to running Ricepaper Magazine, and as the magazine was winding down its print run, we wondered whether a literary festival could exist in the competitive Canadian literary festival circuit. It’s incredibly hard work to recruit volunteers, invite authors, and write grants to fund a festival.   As a librarian, I had put on some events, but nothing on such a grand scale. So we began with a small two-day festival in Vancouver’s Chinatown with limited experience but a lot of aspirations.  I recall it as a dank, rainy November evening, not exactly the atmosphere you’d want to be for a festival’s beginnings, but it all worked out in the end.   That was more than a decade ago.  Things turned out for the best.

LiterASIAN is now well-known across literary circles as a celebration of the contributions of Asian Canadian and racialized writers.  But why did we do it?  LiterASIAN stems from a need to create a dedicated platform for Asian Canadian authors, whose works often explore themes of identity, migration, and cultural heritage. By providing this platform, LiterASIAN not only showcases the vast tapestry of Asian Canadian literature but also fosters a sense of community among writers, readers, and literary enthusiasts.  Writers often exist in silos and isolation.  The festival's inclusive and celebratory nature encourages established and emerging writers to participate, thereby nurturing new talent and ensuring the continuity of Asian Canadian literary traditions.

We’ve had writers such as SKY Lee, Evelyn Lau, Madeleine Thien, Fred Wah, Joy Kogawa, Simon Choa Johnston, Jack Wang, Jamie Liew, Wayne Ng, Larissa Lai, Rita Wong, C.E. Gatchalian, Philip Huynh, Jovanni Sy, Janie Chang, Jen Sookfong Lee, Terry Watada, Catherine Hernandez, Paul Yee, Kevin Chong, Doretta Lau, Souvankham Thammavongsa, Denise Chong, Terry Woo, and many, many more.

My predecessor and friend, Jim Wong-Chu, the Festival Director who started it all

The festival typically features an array of activities designed to engage and inspire. Book launches are a staple, allowing authors to introduce their latest works to an eager audience. These events are often accompanied by readings, where authors share excerpts from their books, providing a glimpse into their narratives and stylistic approaches. Panel discussions delve into various topics relevant to both the literary world and the Asian Canadian experience, such as representation, the publishing industry's challenges, and literature's role in social justice.

Workshops are another key component of LiterASIAN, catering to writers at different stages of their careers. These sessions, led by experienced authors and industry professionals, cover a wide range of topics from writing techniques to navigating the business aspects of publishing. They provide invaluable insights and practical advice, empowering participants to hone their craft and pursue their literary ambitions more confidently.

Beyond the scheduled events, LiterASIAN offers a unique networking and community-building opportunity. Writers and readers can connect, share experiences, and build relationships beyond the festival. This sense of camaraderie and mutual support is a hallmark of LiterASIAN, reflecting its mission to cultivate a supportive environment for audiences to talk about Asian Canadian literature.

The festival also serves an educational purpose, raising awareness about the contributions and experiences of Asian Canadians through literature. By bringing these stories to the forefront, LiterASIAN challenges stereotypes and broadens the understanding of Asian Canadian identities. It celebrates the multiplicity of voices within the community, highlighting stories that might otherwise remain unheard.

The success of LiterASIAN has really been 30 years in the making: years of building to what it is today since it was founded 30 years ago.  In my many years involved in making LiterASIAN, I’ve realized it’s more than just a literary festival; it is a celebration of culture, identity, and storytelling. Through its diverse programming and community-focused approach, it plays a crucial role in promoting Asian Canadian literature and fostering a vibrant, inclusive literary community.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

The Dreaded Golden Handcuffs of Academia

“Not All Staying is the Same: Unpacking Retention and Turnover in Academic Libraries” by Samantha Guss, Sojourna Cunningham and Jennifer Stout is a fascinating piece that explores some of what the golden handcuff by delving into the intricate dynamics of why academic librarians choose to stay in their positions despite being dissatisfied or unhappy.

The authors extend beyond the conventional exploration of reasons for job satisfaction and fulfillment, dissecting the complexities of what drives individuals to remain in roles where their needs are not met or where they experience toxicity or discontent.

Part of the conundrum is that the academic librarian job market is challenging to navigate, characterized by job scarcity and fierce competition for positions. Additionally, geographical constraints and familial responsibilities often limit the mobility of librarians, making it difficult to pursue opportunities elsewhere. Career advancement within the academic library sphere may necessitate relocating or changing organizations, posing further challenges, especially for dual-career couples.

The concept of "job lock" highlights how employees often feel constrained to remain in their current roles due to various factors, including non-portable benefits, limited job availability, and emotional connections to their workplace and colleagues. Vocational awe and passion for the profession also contribute to librarians' reluctance to leave, despite facing exploitation or dissatisfaction.

Often, the triggers that prompt librarians to consider leaving their jobs come down to toxic work environments, bullying, and low morale. Toxic leadership and organizational culture are identified as significant factors driving turnover in academic libraries. While many studies focus on reasons for leaving, this research investigates the transition from voluntary to involuntary staying, where librarians remain in their roles despite experiencing discontent or toxicity.

Through qualitative interviews with academic librarians, the authors uncover the journey from voluntary to involuntary staying, shedding light on the coping mechanisms employed by individuals to navigate challenging work environments. Functional coping strategies, such as seeking validation and setting boundaries, are contrasted with dysfunctional strategies, including disengagement and resentment. The nuanced interplay between individual and organizational perspectives on coping mechanisms is explored, emphasizing the complex nature of retention and turnover in academic libraries.

This piece provides valuable insights into the factors influencing academic librarians' decisions to stay in their positions, despite facing challenges or dissatisfaction. This piece certainly resonates with me. An academic librarian colleague once raised his wrists showing his imaginary shackles and said he was wearing the golden handcuffs, explaining the discord of the job but too comfortable with the stability to quit their tenured position. As I grapple with how I am doing in my own career, I don’t see the shackles as heavy anymore. I enjoy the work tremendously, and I’ve learned to grow with the position and the institution. Things change all the time, and if we don’t change as well, we stay stagnant and hence the “job lock” becomes more unbearable.

Thursday, April 11, 2024

In Search for an Opaque Past

As I search for my family’s past, I've run into many hurdles.  Genealogy is difficult work, particularly for racialized and historically marginalized people. There is an array of special identity documents – called C.I. certificates – that were issued by the Canadian Government exclusively to its Chinese residents. Files were kept of foreign-born Chinese in Vancouver, Victoria and Ottawa. These pieces of paper that were intended to control, contain, monitor and even intimidate this one community continue to be mysteriously hard to access.

Ironically, the very documents that were used to control was somehow forgotten, closed to the descendents who looked for them. About a decade or more ago, I started to research my great-grandfather and his brothers at Vancouver Public Library which has microfiche of C.I.9 records.

A Chinese Immigration Certificate no. 9 (C.I.9) was a Canadian reentry permit for Chinese immigrants, issued between 1910 and 1953. Every C.I.9 had to be returned when the traveler arrived back in Canada. Héritage Canadiana has released digitized records of nearly 5700 C.I.9 certificates from the Port of Vancouver (1928-1930).

These records show Chinese immigrants' travels and provide biographical details like names, occupations, physical descriptions, and departure/return dates. The release sheds light on migration patterns amidst immigration laws and political changes. The documents also offer insights into the photographers and references involved in the application process, reflecting the social dynamics of the time.

But searching for my great-grandfather’s C.I.9 was no easy task. The scholar Lily Cho has argued that while C.I.9 certificates served as passports for noncitizens in Canada, they also highlighted the ambiguity of granting a citizenship right to noncitizens. Despite their detailed records, the system often failed to accurately identify migrants. The certificates, though meticulously archived, revealed the challenges of accessing historical information due to issues like name Anglicization and dialect differences. If it weren’t for knowing the nuances of his village, I would likely never have found his record as his anglicized surname is “Choo” which is different from his gravestone recorded as “Chow.”

The system's reliance on human agents and photographic technology led to vulnerabilities and errors. Agre's concept of "grammars of action" elucidates how systems like the C.I.9 relied on standardized procedures for identification. While the C.I.9s captured vast amounts of information, the distinction between memory and storage underscores their limitations in processing and effectively utilizing this data. Overall, the C.I.9 system exemplifies the complexities and failures of mass information capture in immigration control.

Wednesday, March 06, 2024

Remembering Self-Care and Vocational Awe in the Post-Pandemic World

This is a wonderful presentation by the scholar Fobazi Ettar as part of the NASIG 2021 Conference. I cherish Ettar's work and am truly inspired by their resilience and perseverance despite their personal challenges.  Fobazi Ettar is well-known for their work on vocational awe and library culture, particularly the impact of idealized narratives on librarianship.  Ettar's ideas have influenced and shaped the way I think about our profession (and broader topics about society, too).   Thus, Ettar and Chris Vidas' “The Future of Libraries:” Vocational Awe in a “Post-COVID” World" is an important follow-up to their seminal piece on vocational awe.

This piece is a timely addition to the scholarship, at a time when the world is just coming to terms coming out of the global pandemic. Ettarh outlines two ground rules: the acknowledgment of vocational awe, a romanticized perception of librarianship that can limit progress, and the encouragement to embrace discomfort for personal and collective growth.

Ettar delves into the perception of libraries and librarians as heroes and champions of democracy, highlighting historical figures like Margaret Edwards, Pura Belpré, Barbara Gittings, the Connecticut Four, and contemporary figures like Sarah Kowalski. Ettarh argues that the love for the job and passion, while positive, can be weaponized to exploit library workers.  The concept of "vocational awe" is explored further, portraying librarianship as a vocation rather than an occupation, leading to an uncritical reverence for libraries.

Ettarh challenges this idealized view, pointing out historical instances of library segregation and discriminatory policies. Ettarh discusses how vocational awe is weaponized in the workplace, with an emphasis on the Taylorism Model, where passion is exploited at the expense of workers' well-being. She cites examples of abuse, such as a lack of work-life separation and job creep, exacerbated by the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ettar concludes with a call for collective action to set boundaries, work collectively, and resist the exploitation of passion. Ettarh urges us to prioritize self-care, advocating that caring for oneself is an act of political warfare. She emphasizes the need for libraries to evolve beyond a Silicon Valley-driven future, focusing on the well-being of library workers and their communities.

In the scholarship about EDI, there is still an emerging role of self-care for the racialized individual who often bears the brunt of the invisible labour, expected (even required) to do extra duties or the oft-heroic phrase of “working twice as hard as others.” Ettar and Vidas warn us of this with wisdom which seems so simple yet doesn’t seem to be disregarded by our work culture.
Setting aside time for your life, your loved ones, and your hobbies is vitally important. I always like to say there is no such thing as a library emergency. . . That email can wait until Monday morning or the next day.

Thursday, February 29, 2024

Absurdities of the Juicero and Libraries

Juicero, circa 2013
Though Julia Glassman is no longer a librarian, her brilliant article, The Innovation Fetish and Slow Librarianship continues to influence the way I view the absurdity of academic libraries during my tenure in this profession.   The article deserves much more attention than I think it gets.   It uses the analogy of a now-defunct and short-lived fad by drawing parallels between the failed Juicero Inc., a Silicon Valley startup producing an expensive and impractical juicing machine, and the pressures faced by academic librarians to constantly innovate in their roles. 

The Juicero, initially marketed as an innovative internet-connected device, was later revealed to be unnecessary as users could achieve the same result by squeezing the juice bags with their hands. The author sees the Juicero as a symptom of late capitalism, emphasizing the pressure for constant innovation in a market saturated with gadgets.

The author relates this to the academic librarian's environment, where career advancement relies on showcasing innovation.  I've certainly experienced this myself, having been caught up in the euphoria of Web 2.0, Library 2.0 and the semantic web just a decade ago -- a sign of the obsession with innovation in academic librarianship, driven by a corporatized academia that prioritizes measurable achievements and publications.  The pressure to constantly innovate, often for its own sake, can lead to impractical projects that consume time and resources without addressing genuine needs.

Glassman recounts a scenario where MLIS students suggested changing a popular reading collection to be less "object-centric" without providing a clear vision for the alternative.  Thus, the rush for constant innovation can result in ideas that lack practicality and fail to meet the actual needs of patrons.   

The author reflects on personal experiences of succumbing to the pressure to innovate, even when existing methods were effective.  The obsession with innovation is deeply ingrained in the academic librarian profession, fueled by the need for immediate and tangible outcomes to justify investments.   I've witnessed this myself, playing a hand in accepting directives while secretly scratching my head at the logic of decisions.

I recall one instance of securing an iPad against the pillar in the middle of the library with no purpose other than it looked "innovative" to do so.   It was stolen the next day and quickly ended the innovative and expensive experiment.   Interestingly, the computer workstations adjacent to the iPad seemed to do just fine the decade before and the decade after the stolen iPad initiative. 

As a solution, the article proposes looking to the Slow Movement for guidance, advocating for a Slow Librarianship approach that prioritizes reflection and meaningful practices over a constant pursuit of impressive achievements. This alternative approach aims to provide deeper, more lasting, and more human services to patrons by rejecting the constant need for innovation and allowing for more thoughtful and responsive practices.  It's something that I'm still trying to integrate into my own work and approach to my life.   It's always a work in progress.   Thankfully, it's not considered innovative.