Summer Kim Lee earned her bachelor’s degree at New York University with a concentration in women of color feminist performance and, later on, a master’s degree and doctorate in performance studies. Her research on Asian-American literature and culture, in addition to feminist theory, queer theory and popular music and sound studies will be published in her upcoming book, Unaccommodating Acts: Asian-American Aesthetics and the Limits of Sociality. On Feb. 20, Lee gave an inspiring talk on the topic of “staying in” to deconstruct liberal mandates to be “out.”
Lee’s talk was academically structured in the form of a lecture, but her references were drawn primarily from popular culture and the work of Japanese-American singer-songwriter Mitski and poet Ocean Vuong. Her voice, though soft, successfully captured the attention of the attendees gathered in Sawyer’s overflowing Mabie Room. She supplemented her insights and research with direct quotes and even played excerpts from one of Mitski’s songs.
Lee began the lecture by defining the term “staying in” by what it is not. She explained that “staying in” is not about literal isolation or autonomy. She described it as a “performance that allows minority subjects to be approached.” I was intrigued but also perplexed by how she defined Asian-Americans as autonomous, accommodating and residing in the outskirts. She provided an alternative mode of interpretation for Asian-American identity that was not restricted to hospitality, domesticity or “after you” customs of submissiveness. Ironically, Summer Kim Lee proposed that by “staying in,” these stereotyped characteristics of Asian- Americans could be subverted and challenged.
Lee also spoke about the concept of going to shows alone and enjoying the event without wondering whether others are having fun as well. For Lee, the act of “staying in” is just as important, if not more important, than the actual product or end result of an entire day at home. This can be compared to the “becoming” stage in the article “Being Chinese-American, Becoming Asian-American: Chan is Missing” by Peter X Feng, in which Feng describes the film Chan is Missing as an act of “becoming” in which “[the characters] are willing to wait and see what happens next” and are not limited to rote and fixed identities.
I enjoyed her breakdown of the lyrics to Mitski’s “Happy.” Lee described the idea of man and desire taking the place of the subject when Mitski sings, “Happy came to visit me. He bought cookies on the way. I poured him tea, and he told me, ‘It’ll all be okay.’” There is an inarticulate desire for “happy” to return and quell the speaker’s loneliness. However, to Lee, this song seemed to express that, while one is alone when “staying in,” one is not necessarily lonely. Her explanation of “staying in” as an act of resistance, rather than a form of withdrawal, release or giving up, was poignant.
In an intervivew with Rolling Stone, Mitski interpreted the lyrics to her song “Happy.” “The song is mostly talking about the stereotypically Western/American idea of happy, where it’s equated with ecstasy … and we’re supposed to be feeling it all the time,” she said. “It’s not healthy. You can’t be rolling on ecstasy every day of your life.”
Overall, I found Lee’s exploration and discussion of “staying in” to be compelling. Her talk became more complex and politically charged when she discussed specific people and identities who do “stay in,” namely Asian-Americans. She explained that the evolution of the term “Asian-American” in the 21st century has created an aesthetic that challenges recognizable, constructed forms of sociality.
Despite all the ambiguities and lingering questions, the final note in Lee’s talk resonated deeply with me. After reading a few verses of a poem by Vuong, Lee asked, “How is this about me? How is this not about me?” Throughout her lecture, Lee was comfortable and confident in expressing her research because it was relevant to her, which made it all the more interesting.
Unaccommodating Acts, Lee’s soon-to-be-published book, similarly examines how Asian-American cultural production at the turn of the 21st century has shaped an aesthetic that undoes recognizable, normative forms of sociality and the political subjectivities and collectivities built upon them. After hearing her insights, I can wholeheartedly say that the book will be worth your time.