Patara McKeen is SSHRC funded scholar at the University of British Columbia and is in their second year of residence at Green College. Patara is author of “OPINION: It’s time to sit down and listen. The pandemic is racist” and submitted article “Shaping Sensibility, A Riots Production of Civility.”
*This is a transcript of our conversation on December 5, 2020. It has been edited for length and clarity.
In your biography on your website you describe yourself as considering “sensibility as shaped by the 1907 anti-Asian riots in Vancouver.” Could you elaborate on what ‘sensibility’ means to your research?
This is a good question, because sensibility is central to my research. I think we have to go back to the year of 1907 in Vancouver. It’s important to remember the city was at the periphery of the British Empire. So, there’s these manners, behaviours, certain attitudes of politeness being formed in Britain and being spread across the Empire. It reaches Vancouver, but the city’s colonial administration doesn’t have the control or authority to govern politeness as it does in the metropole. In my research, when I’m referring to sensibility, I’m considering it as an instrument of colonization that shapes the ideas and practices, the morals, values, attitudes, regulating behaviour. Also, I think you’re trying to understand what does sensibility mean? I would define it as politeness — what is polite and what isn’t polite — the cultivation of it in society and the distinction of these binaries. In my work, I’m really focused on deconstructing binaries, so you take this notion of politeness and non-politeness and try to discover the entanglement between it, and that’s what I mean by sensibility as shaped by the riots in Vancouver because 1907 is a very important point in this city’s history.
I’ll provide an interesting example to trace this, William Lyon Mackenzie King. At the time, Deputy Minister of Labour. In 1907, the riots happen, and Mackenzie King comes to Vancouver to investigate property damage as a result. The 1907 riots mainly targeted Chinatown and Japantown, and what Mackenzie King finds is, yes there’s property damage, but there’s also an issue of narcotics. He becomes interested in Chinatown’s opium dens. Eventually, he publishes a report on the need for suppression of opium in Canada. So, one question of sensibility could be why is Mackenzie King interested in the notion of people who use drugs and its production coming out of the 1907 riots? Why isn’t he concerned with the violent treatment of Asians? And this tells you the character of society in 1907. This character still affects Canadians in the present day. These attitudes have transformed over time, but it doesn’t mean they’ve disappeared. Currently in the pandemic, there is an increase in anti-Asian sentiments, but I will leave that for later, I don’t want to get ahead of myself.
In our preparations for this conversation, you directed me towards Saidiya Hartman's Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments and Slavery and the Culture of Taste by Simon Gikandi. Hartman’s work focuses on the lives of young black women in Philadelphia and New York in the early 20th century as the locus of a cultural revolution in intimate black American life, while Gikandi’s work looks at the connection between slavery in the American South and a flourishing ‘culture of taste’ in the colonial homeland of England. What about these two works helps to define your scholarship? How do the methods and foci employed by Hartman and Gikandi inform your own research?
Both these scholars anchor my research, which is quite important. When I go about the process of researching, piecing together these stories, these fragments and information, I start from the ideas of Saidiya Hartman and Simon Gikandi. Both of these authors studied the archive and I study the archive as well. Hartman’s work is incredible and Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is full of narratives of real people. I think that’s quite important. It can be missed because it reads like a novel, but it requires someone captivating to take these disparate pieces and make a coherent story. What Hartman is doing is drawing from a method called ‘critical fabulation’ which is a way to act as an interlocutor and to take disparate narratives, maybe from a case file or a diary, and put a life back together. You could call this ‘missingness in the archive,’ because without that work that story wouldn’t be there. I have a quote here from her book that I really thought was amazing. She talks about this notion of ‘wayward’ quite often, and I pulled out this quote that I thought you might find interesting:
“The unregulated movement of drifting and wandering; sojourns without a fixed destination, ambulatory possibility, interminable migrations, rush and flight, black locomotion; the everyday struggle to live free.”
So, Hartman is one anchor. When I’m talking about manners and the management of behaviour, that theory is drawn from Gikandi’s Slavery and the Culture of Taste. He does this in a really inventive way. He is discussing an era of politeness, the age of sensibility in Britain and how slavery and the culture of taste are intimately connected. This idea of alterity, of creating the other, is created from aesthetics, from certain tastes and sensibilities in society and these sensibilities actually spread across the British Empire. You can’t have high taste — you can’t have this English sense of high culture — without also having low culture, so that’s how you have these distinctions created. You can’t have politeness without also distinguishing what isn’t polite. That construction, that distinguishing, that’s how you get the other, the marginalized. And I’m navigating these ideas and I try to piece together my own stories. I also draw from several other theorists, Anne Stoler, Tina Campt, Renisa Mawani and her article “Law’s Archive,” which really discusses this idea of gaps, silences, and erasures in the archive.
This is your second Masters degree. You previously pursued a Masters in Sociology of Law at the University of Basque Country. In your work there, you focused on how citizenship, identity and belonging as navigated by Pakistani migrants in Basque Country. How did you transition from that research to your current focus on archival histories in Vancouver?
The transition between my first Master’s and now has been a significant transition, the work I’m doing now is quite different but it draws on many similar interests. I’ve always been interested in human rights and I think it’s one reason why I eventually decided to do a degree in Spain, because I was working with marginalized individuals in Canada and I wanted to do something more global. Graduate study is difficult for young people, especially young people searching for answers. I thought getting into a different culture and experiencing a different system would bring new and interesting ideas. And it did. But the research I did there was also a lot more contemporary work, it wasn’t historical, and focused on interviews and experiences of South Asian migration to Spain. I was just lucky to come across a few South Asians in the town I was in. Oñati is a beautiful town located in the hills of Basque Country, which is of course an autonomous region of Spain. At the time, I was a human rights scholar studying the sociology of law, which is completely different from what I’m studying now; I think I’ve transitioned to this interest in art and literature.
It was later in 2018, that I snuck into a Law and Society Association conference and discovered who I really wanted to research with. I’m at this meeting, and I sneak in, I’m the type of person to sneak into conferences, I don’t know if that’s something people do, but that’s what I did. That’s how I met my supervisor. I went into a presentation and Renisa Mawani was there and I was fascinated by her work and I thought this is the person I want to work with. And it worked out.
When I came to the University of British Columbia in September of 2019, my project evolved to centre on the 22,000 Japanese Canadians displaced, dispossessed, detained, and forced into cheap labour as a result of incarceration between 1941-1949. Then the pandemic happened in the spring of 2020. Renisa helped me to rethink my work toward an important moment in British Columbia’s history. That’s when I began to research the 1907 anti-Asian riots in Vancouver.
There are a lot of connections, anti-Asian discrimination, the hardships of Asians in Canada, Japanese Canadian incarceration in Canada, dispossession, displacement, imprisonment. In many ways the 1907 riots act as a starting point to connect these ideas. I found myself just looking at pictures. Actually, looking at picture in the UBC archives, the open collections, there are all these photographs, and I found myself looking through these pictures and thinking: this story needs to be told.
What helps you distinguish a gap in an archive? You said you were looking at pictures and this led you to the 1907 riots. What made you realize that there was something missing that you particularly needed to piece together?
That is such a good question, and I think you did the work for me. When you look at pictures from the archives of the 1907 riots, what you notice is what isn’t there. One of the things missing is the actual people rioting. You have a lot of pictures of property damage because there are reports written and data collected related to property damage, but you don’t get a sense of what happened during the 1907 riots. If you look at a picture, you can see windowpanes shattered, you can see the faces of people looking at damage or going about their daily life as if nothing had happened, but something did happen. What is that? It’s a gap or an absence, a silence, something that hasn’t been told, or an erasure, something that’s been hidden. That’s one way to understand missingness in the archive.
One way to go about this is reading into the image, you can read the photograph, I call it ‘listening to images.’ Tina Campt coins this word, it’s not mine, but I use it. It’s the idea that you can bring emotion and really understand not only what’s in the photograph or what it looks like, but you can also get a sense of what are the sounds. What can you hear on that day in the photograph, what can you imagine hearing? This is also historical, what’s the locality, what’s happening there? Was there traffic that day? We’ll have to delve into the archives and discover the histories connected to a photograph. I’m interested in the smells, the fragrances, the odours, what can we imagine that time period smelling like? This paints a different picture of what could’ve happened. It engages the olfactory system.
The holders and curators of archives have often been academic institutions themselves. How do you see the role of the academy in investigating gaps and missing histories which it has often played a role in creating?
What comes to mind is our role. We’re criticizing the academy and I have many critiques but we’re also within it. It’s hard. The academy definitely acts as a gatekeeper and chooses who can read into the archives and who cannot. A part of this comes through in publications, it’s not only about access to documents but who can write about them. It’s something I consider a lot. I’m very interested in counter-archives, things found outside the academy. At UBC there’s this big initiative on public engagement, public scholarship, public history, public sociology and that’s one way to get this information that’s within this secluded realm and give it to the people. One thing that I’m quite interested in is the 360 Riot Walk. It’s a website where you can learn about the 1907 riots, but it’s a way to recapture and give this archival material to people and let them narrate this history.
When I think about the archive, I think about it in the colonial context quite often. The people who created the archive have come from the context of a colony, but also the people who’ve written about it. One important contribution as scholars is to re-read the archive. The photographs of, and documents that have been written about, a certain history, we can go back and read them again and bring new light to them, especially to the minor subjects. The people that wouldn’t have a voice unless someone went back and added that voice back in. That’s what’s great about Hartman’s work because she does that. These subjects are small characters, and that’s something I try to do, is discuss the unknown. I think you have to do this in conjunction. If you discuss Mackenzie King, you have to discuss someone else, that people understand it’s not just about single, powerful historical figures, but also the common, everyday people living their life and what they experienced in society.
It’s been over a year since the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed. Since that time the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the entire world. For us, here at UBC and Green College it has fundamentally changed how we pursue our studies. What are the most noticeable ways you’ve been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?
It’s hard, it’s difficult. Covid-19 has changed a lot. It’s not only changed my research project, it’s changed my research approach. I have to do everything online, I’m an advocate for physical books, I like the feel of a book. When the pandemic first hit it was a scary experience because I didn’t know what I was going to do to get access to any material and conduct research. I adore Green College, I think I’m very privileged being on a university campus and having the opportunity to continue my studies and have funding. I’m very thankful, but I can’t imagine the experiences my friends and colleagues, and also the classes of the students I’m TAing are having. It’s these really bright, smart first-years and what they haven’t been able to experience. For them, the university experience should be coming here and developing an identity, getting an independence.
If I can sum up the experience, this will probably be a difficult year for all of us but I hope we can reflect on it in a positive way. It’s important to look at what we can accomplish. There’s been a lot of community, especially here at the College. At the beginning, there were people working really hard to make sure people had access to the essentials they needed and also advocating for each other. This shows you how active we as students are, not only in the research we do but how engaged we are in terms of advocating for each other and for the community.
You recently wrote an op-ed for Vancouver is Awesome entitled “It’s time to sit down and listen. The pandemic is racist”. First of all, I can’t help noting the irony of that publication’s name with your observation that “issues of racial inequality are at an all-time high, [and] in Vancouver, it’s no different.” How do you see the current anti-Asian sentiments evoked by the pandemic as a reflection of the histories of Vancouver you study?
What is frightening for me is how much the present is in the past, I hope that makes sense. In my op-ed, I point to the increase in anti-Asian crime, hate-related crime. What this evokes is what I discuss in my research: a sensibility, a certain attitude towards Asians in Vancouver. This has been agitated during the pandemic and I think this is really connected with what’s happening in the world. One thing that panicked me when the pandemic started was what was happening down south in the United States. The way Trump described the pandemic, the ‘China virus’ and ‘Chinese flu’ and these different characterizations of it originating and emanating from the Asian population really put into people’s minds that this is related somehow to Asians in general which is an alarming way for a powerholder to shape a pandemic. You can see this reflected in the way people discussed ‘Orientals’ or ‘Asiatics’ during the 1907 riots. They used pejorative words to frame issues of labour and employment, but it’s all one and the same, it’s just anti-Asian sentiment. This is unrelated to origin and has much to do with the attitudes in society unfortunately. Today, it’s related to a lot of issues, think of anti-Black violence, BLM protests, all of this occurring in our contemporary moment.
Not that Vancouver isn’t a beautiful city, but no place is without its difficulties or its unpleasant histories.
It’s not only unpleasant histories but what’s happening today. Apart from issues of race, what’s happening with the opioid crisis, inadequate housing. It’s a very wealthy city but there’s also a lot of inequality that we don’t discuss. As scholars, we are very interested in these subjects and we engage with them but I am worried about how the general public perceives them. Vancouver is extraordinary in many ways but it also has many issues that need to be pointed out; and if Vancouver is extraordinary, it’s because people are willing to point out these issues.
My last question, is the most simplistic, but I think perhaps the most important. I’ve only been a graduate student for a few months, but I believe that graduate studies are, more often than not, a labour of love and/or passion. So, what is it about your research that drives you to do it? What about it is important to you and the world?
I’m passionate about writing stories and I’m passionate about literature, poetry, art, music. It’s very interesting to engage with artworks in general because I think it’s an important lens to make sense of different cultures in society. I think my passion derives from that. I’m passionate about writing about the truth, but I’m also critical about what the truth is. I think people say I’m ‘post-modern’ or ‘post-colonial’ but I consider myself a scholar critical of what is and what isn’t. I think many people think of history linearly and I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Just because we’ve been told history with a certain narrative, we can question it, how it is told, and its construction.
by: Jane Willsie, Department of English Language and Literature, UBC; Green College Work Learn Content Writer, 2020-21