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s part of the most recent meeting of the American Association of Geographers, a small group of scholars working at the intersection of radical geography and critical ethnic studies came together for a virtual panel on the topic of “Asian/American geographies.” According to the panel’s organizers - Wendy Cheng, Laurel Mei-Singh, Keith Miyake, and Kyle Kajihiro – Asian/American geographies is “a term that would seem to follow naturally from other such entities (Black geographies, Latinx geographies, Indigenous geographies), but has not yet established any kind of substantial presence in geography.” This is particularly surprising, given the extent to which Asian diaspora studies as a field is beginning to undergo a substantive spatial turn. While the work of the organizers is exemplary in this regard, other Asian Americanists such as Simeon Man and Beth Lew Williams have also recently engaged with geographical frameworks and concepts in their pathbreaking books (which are Soldiering Through Empire: Race and the Making of the Decolonizing Pacific and The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America, respectively). And yet, while both Man and Williams rely on the work of individual geographers to map and interrogate the “spatio-temporal relationships of multiple articulations of Asian/American diasporic and transnational communities” (Cheng et al., 2022) geography as a field remains curiously disconnected from these conversations . This missed opportunity, in turn, served as an impetus for the panel’s organizers, who identified an urgent need to “bring more Asian/Americanists into critical geographic dialogues” (Cheng et al., 2022). What, they asked, should a “materialist, geographic Asian/American studies look like” (Cheng et al., 2022)? And what can radical geographers learn from Asian/American studies?
Thuy Linh Tu’s (2021) new book, Experiments in Skin: Race and Beauty in the Shadows of Vietnam, offers one potential model for Asian/Americanist geographical scholarship moving forward. I first read Experiments in Skin in July 2020 as part of a longer-running reading group on the intimacies and infrastructures of U.S. empire at New York University. Dr. Tu had just received her proofs from Duke, but generously agreed to share them with our small group of faculty, postdocs, and graduate students. This was a time when the global COVID-19 pandemic was still in its first wave. Social distancing requirements and restrictions were perhaps at their most intense and it was a time, for me and for so many others, of much personal and professional uncertainty. Under such conditions, the reading group felt like a lifeline back to an intellectual and political community that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to see in person again for a very long time.
But Dr. Tu’s (2021: 26) book – with its emphasis on the everyday geographies of “body” or “skin” work under conditions of race war and afterwar, and what such a mundane politics of survival and relation making tells us about the social life of beauty in a world devastated by the racial symptoms of a morbid genre of capitalism, as well as the violent afterlives of empire – also felt like a salve (see also Tu and Singh, 2018). We were reading Experiments in Skin in the smouldering wake of the Black Lives Matter protests that began in Minneapolis and then eventually engulfed other major urban centres across the U.S. and elsewhere. At first glance, Experiments in Skin and its focus on questions of beauty and skin seems tangential – secondary, even – to the concerns of the protestors, activists, and organizers that were struggling to build decolonial and abolitionist futures of social transformation in the streets. And yet, I think Experiments in Skin is valuable precisely because it asks us to reconsider what counts as political in a time of formal decolonization, drawing our attention to the centrality of women’s labors – what Dr. Tu calls body or skin work – to the everyday project of what the Black Panther Party once famously named “survival pending revolution” (Newton, 1995: 104).
Over the course of Experiments in Skin, Dr. Tu (2021: 20) shows how “the struggle over making beauty is also a struggle over making life in deeply toxified environments, borne on bodies, and grappled through bodies, the excesses and imperfections of which are already read as ‘woman’.” Drawing on a combination of archival and ethnographic work, Dr. Tu begins Experiments in Skin in Holmesburg Prison in Pennsylvania. This was where the (in)famous dermatologist Arthur Kligman experimented on inmates, subjecting them to toxic doses of dioxins, fungi, and other known carcinogens and in so doing, gave empirical weight to longer-standing racist valorizations of Black skin as strong skin. Dr. Tu (2021: 82) then travels to the jungles of war-torn Vietnam, where military dermatologists such as Marion Sulzberg and Alfred Allen put Kligman’s ideas into action in hopes of equipping white soldiers “not with more gear, but with an individual, built-in protection, or idiophylaxis”: this is to say, with the seemingly innate protective properties of Black and Asian skin. Dr. Tu finally ends up in Calyx, a small woman-run spa located in District 3 of contemporary Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon), where ordinary Vietnamese women have long come to seek out treatment for a variety of skin conditions. These include lesions, scaly skin, and debilitating acne, to name only a few examples, which are all outward manifestations of all the toxins that had come to rest in their bodies after a life of surviving and working through a time of renovation and afterwar.
It is well beyond the scope of a short book review to do justice to Dr. Tu’s exacting empirical research, or her powerful and affecting prose. But what I want to emphasize in my comments here is how Experiments in Skin is a fundamentally geographical book. It is, at its core, a book about places, the people who inhabit them, and the connections between them. With extraordinary care and empathy, Dr. Tu shows how the patrons of Calyx feel the toxic afterlives of morbid capitalism and empire as inheritances. As they go about their everyday lives in a city that seemingly escaped the worst of the US military’s campaign of chemical warfare and defoliation, they cannot fully divest themselves from the longer histories of trauma and violence that have come to rest in their own bodies, evading concrete diagnosis and treatment. At Calyx, they seek out cosmeceutical such as Retin-A – first derived by Alfred Kligman as a by-product of the experiments with dioxin that he was conducting on Black inmates in Holmesburg Prison – that offer the promise of cleaner, stronger, and more beautiful skin. Yet this use also implicates them in longer transpacific histories of race war, carceral management, and domestic counterinsurgency.
By making space for these women and attending to them in all their contradictions, ambiguities, and complexities, Dr. Tu narrates their everyday lives as what the geographer Doreen Massey (2005: 9) once theorized as “stories-so-far.” For Massey, the story-so-far – or, “simply the history, change, movement, of things themselves” (Friedman, 2013: 124) – must necessarily be understood as the building block of spatial processes and relations. Spaces like Calyx, she argues, are produced at the meeting point of various stories-so-far. And as the historian Andrew Friedman (2013: 124) emphasizes in his own reading of Massey, these convergences “don’t happen because all places are always connected.” Instead, they “happen because people have a complex agency, they initiate stories, which set off social processes that further make and change the places and the people inside them” (Friedman, 2013: 124). Such a localized politics of entanglement, however, does not only produce and give life to spaces like Calyx, but also brings them into relation with broader geographical configurations of power and violence. This is to say, Dr. Tu’s ethnographic work showcases how the face-to-face encounters between Calyx technicians and their customers are, following Sara Ahmed (2000: 8), never “simply in the present.” Each consultation invariably “reopens other encounters . . . between embodied subjects” that “always hesitate between the domain of the particular – the face to face of this encounter – and the general – the framing of the encounter by broader relationships of power and violence” (Ahmed, 2000: 8). By drawing connections between Calyx, Holmesburg, and the battlefields of South Vietnam, Dr. Tu asks us to think relationally across the different spaces, scales, and times of US empire and its unmaking; and, by implication, to better understand how these transpacific and inter-Asian geographies of relation-making and encounter overlap in what the Vietnamese American novelist Lan Cao (1997: 212) once called a “pool of common space.”
But if Experiments in Skin powerfully heeds Andrew Friedman’s (2013: 13) call for scholars of empire to track the “stretched out and sequential connections” that have linked the various overseas “fields of development and destruction caused by US counterinsurgency and modernization campaigns,” holding them together in a single frame of analysis, it also tells us something about how everyday people continue to build lives for themselves in these damaged and ruined landscapes. Dr. Tu’s (2021: 151) interviews with the staff at Calyx reveal how they “[seem] to accept that their efforts were ameliorative.” “In this sense,” Dr. Tu (2021: 151) argues, “theirs was a project of ‘making do,’ those tactics of everyday life, of use, reuse, and other innovations that turn people from ‘mere’ consumers into actors and producers.” While the women of Calyx “[adapted] the tools of beauty to meet their own needs” (Tu, 2021: 151) cosmeceuticals and other advanced treatments were often not enough. Perhaps sensing the tenacity of the historical and geographical entanglements between skin stories, war stories, and ghost stories, they “pushed for remediation rather than redress,” speaking not of cures, but instead about "survival, alleviation, how to make do, and maybe even make over” (Tu, 2021: 160).
By showing how making life livable in contemporary Ho Chi Minh City invariably requires making do, Dr. Tu invites us to linger on the radical potential of a politics of endurance or survival grounded not explicitly in protest, blockades, and other forms of direct action, but rather, in the mundane work of care, intimacy, and mutual aid. Almost 20 years ago in Race and Resistance, Viet Thanh Nguyen (2002: 144) cautioned Asian Americanists against exalting the “bad subject” – or the “un-model minority” – as the only viable position from which to resist dominant ideologies, such as racial capitalism, militarism, settler colonialism, and imperialism. Perhaps one of the key tasks that Dr. Tu leaves us with then, is to better understand how such a politics of making do might travel and resonate beyond the spaces of Calyx and Ho Chi Minh City across the decolonizing world more broadly. So much of Dr. Tu’s thinking and writing is informed by places and the relationships that are forged in and through them. And yet, as I already noted above, I see some important resonances with Huey Newton’s (1995: 104) idea of “survival pending revolution,” as well as with Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s (2007: 179) claim in Golden Gulag that the “unfixing” of urban and rural areas by capital flight and state restructuring does not entail “absolute erasure”; that, “in the course of crisis, ordinary people do not abandon themselves but rather renovate already existing activities.” Dr. Tu (2021: 164) hints at these connections in the epilogue, when she asks her readers if we will ever be able to “find our way out of the convoluted histories and complex geographies that have come to ‘rest’ in all of us?” What, then, can we learn by carefully attending to these quiet practices of renovation and making do that might otherwise escape us if we instead hold up the riot, the protest, or the blockade as the primary terrain of abolitionist and decolonial politics?
In this sense, Experiments in Skin shares much in common with a number of other new books that are revisiting the Vietnam War from the terrain of the mundane and the everyday, and that specifically foreground the war’s racialized and gendered dimensions. Here, Thy Phu’s (2002) Warring Visions, Long Bui’s (2018) Returns of War, and Simeon Man’s (2018) Soldiering Through Empire spring immediately to mind. But there is also an emerging generation of graduate students and junior scholars who are making significant contributions to this burgeoning literature, some of whom are writing essays for this forum. As the children of refugees and immigrants themselves, they too have rediscovered the Vietnam War as a productive and generative moment for thinking through not only the everyday work of U.S. empire, but also its diasporic inheritances and afterlives, both on Turtle Island and elsewhere. Far from being “historical” or “archival,” this work remains more important than ever. For as Dr. Tu (2022) herself reminds us in a beautiful and deeply affecting essay recently published in The New York Times, in a “shrinking” U.S. that has always been defined by increasingly restrictive immigration policies, fewer opportunities for racialized and marginalized communities, and a declining sense of responsibility for the damage and the destruction that it has caused elsewhere, wars never really end, but rather, morph and take on new and ever more damaging forms. “Kabul,” Tu (2022) writes, “is not really a replay of Saigon – it’s a continuation.” It is precisely this long durée of US imperial warfare and its transnational reach that Dr. Tu maps so powerfully in Experiments in Skin, and that promises to open new terrains of research and political activism for generations to come.
 Indeed, as the geographer Aaron Mallory recently noted, this seems to be a more general problem across critical ethnic studies more broadly.
Bui L (2018) Returns of War: South Vietnam and the Price of Refugee Memory. New York: NYU Press.
Cao L (1997) Monkey Bridge. London: Viking.
Cheng W, Kajihiro K, Mei-Singh L and Miyake K (2022) “Asian/American Geographies.” 2022 AAG Annual Meeting Program. Available here.
Friedman A (2013) Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of US Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia. Berkeley: The University of California Press.
Gilmore RW (2007) Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. Berkeley: The University of California Press.
Lew-Williams B(2018) The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Man S(2018) Soldiering Through Empire: Race and the Making of the Decolonizing Pacific. Berkeley: The University of California Press.
Massey D (2005) For Space. London: Sage.
Newton H (1995) To Die for the People. Ed. Toni Morrison. New York: Writers and Readers Publishing.
Nguyen VT (2002) Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Phu T (2022) Warring Visions: Photography and Vietnam. Durham: Duke University Press.
Tu TL (2021) Experiments in Skin: Race and Beauty in the Shadows of Vietnam. Durham: Duke University Press.
Tu TL (2022) “America’s Vanishing Kingdom.” The New York Times. Available here.
Tu TL and Singh NP (2018) “Morbid Capitalism and its Racial Symptoms.” n+1. 30. Available here.
Wesley Attewell is currently an assistant professor of political geography at the University of Hong Kong. His first book, The Quiet Violence of Empire: How USAID Waged Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is forthcoming in spring 2023 from the University of Minnesota Press. He is currently working on a second book project on the entanglements of logistics and empire during the Vietnam War, which is tentatively entitled The Lifelines of Empire: Logistical Life in the Decolonizing Pacific.