Graduate Student Spotlight: Kiley McLaughlin (Literature)

August 01, 2022

by Talib Jabbar

Migration Circuit


Talib Jabbar: You’re doing a Creative/Critical dissertation project as part of the Literature program as well as a DE in CRES. How has CRES informed your project? (Note, if you’d like here you can explain what a creative/critical project is best you can). 

Kiley McLaughlin: My dissertation comprises two major components: an experimental novel tentatively entitled Maw, and a collection of three critical essays tentatively grouped under the title “Mámaw: Imperial Disavowal and the Diasporic Maternal.” While the novel project blends/bends genre to imagine a proliferation of simultaneous possibilities (doppelgängers, apparitions, multiform creatures, and/or split beings) into the space left by my own mother, a Filipina immigrant to the United States who left or was separated from her children under unexplained circumstances, the critical chapters sketch out a theoretical framework and proposed methodology for imagining into this maternal absence, grounded in linked histories of empire, race, gender, and labor. 

My mother is one of the massive number of Filipino women who have migrated to the United States, who labor in the informal or affective economy, and who have lived most of their lives separated from one or more of their own children—a lost, absent mother. What I consider crucial to any rendering of her, even fictional, is a critical account of how a mother like mine might come to be absent or to absent herself, rooted in linked histories of empire, race, gender, and labor. I’m interested in understanding what the stakes are for attempting to imagine her, in a context of twenty-first century American literary production/academia, and the conversations I get to be a part of and the material I’ve been introduced to in CRES provide me with the language and methodology to do so. 

How do you apply theories of racialized labor diasporas and “matrilineage” in your writing?

KL: In The Work of Mothering, Harrod Suarez writes that the Filipino labor diaspora is gendered, globally, not just as female but as maternal. Wary of the moralizing flattening that this figuration imposes on the subjectivities of diasporic Filipinos, Suarez proposes “the diasporic maternal” as an alternate frame through which to read representations of the global Filipino labor diaspora.

I try to take the diasporic maternal as a guiding principle for my work on this project. According to Suarez it’s a subjectless category, capable of carrying irreducible multiplicity, and requires a mode of “archipelagic reading” that is attentive to opacities, contradictions, and unassimilable expressions. Because I am working with so many unknowns, writing into gaps in my own knowledge and a sparse material archive, this approach, which honors unknowability and contradiction, has been extremely nourishing. 

TJ: What does research look like for you?

KL: For both the critical and creative elements of my project, I examine the material and immaterial/informational archive of my own family, including photos, letters, government records, and gossip, hearsay, and rumor. I read this artifacts alongside literary, artistic, and critical works that in my view assist in a mapping of the ways in which intimate practices of seeing, desiring, and remembering inhere in the figure of the/my absent Filipina mother, and how these practices emerge from, affirm and/or distort representational matrices of heteropatriarchal nationalism, U.S. racism, militarism, and imperialism. 

My method is shaped by this archive—my investigation of intimate and informal ways of seeing invites a method not of objectivity or that aspires to expertise, but rather an approach rooted in tenderness, attentive to affective experience, which allows for ambivalence, partial understanding, multiple perspectives and forms, and which does not deny (but proceeds from) my profoundly entangled orientation to the material. 

TJ: I know you went to the Philippines for research pre-pandemic — what was that like?

KL: It was the first and (so far) only time I have been there, and it was overwhelming and humbling. My primary feeling was one of disorientation, which was at first a kind of bewildering and even discouraging experience, but the disorientation ended up being a gift, as it became and remains central to the work. 

TJ: Filipina author Gina Apostol, in her novel Insurrecto, writes of what the narrator calls “the quibbles”—reader moments “when she gets stuck in the faulty notion that everything in a book must be grasped. Why should readers be spooked about not knowing all the details in a book about the Philippines yet surge forward with resolve in stories about France?”

Can you respond to this? What do you think she means? Does it resonate for you when imagining your reader/ship?

KL: Gaps in understanding, illegibility, invisibility, historical blindspots– these are all central concerns of this project. I’m concerned with how we (meaning folks who grew up in the US/immersed in US media, including second+ generation Filipino-Americans) are trained not to see the Philippines and its diaspora.

Unlike an author like Apostol, who grew up in the Philippines, I am writing from a vexed (but not uncommon in the diaspora) position with respect to the Philippines. I am at a huge remove, and cannot pretend to represent it with any authority. What I’m writing is a mixed-race diasporic account, and the defining condition there, at least for me, is not knowing. So, if everything in my book can be perfectly grasped by my readers, I will certainly have done something wrong. But ideally I’d like for readers to know that things are purposefully outside their grasp, and be able to reflect on why, if that makes sense. The many forms and shades of unknowing are what interest me. 

TJ: What do you think readers might not know about the Philippines that might be important to your project? // The afterlife of empire is a prominent theme in Filipinx writing. Can you reflect a bit about the imperial imprint in your project?

KL: The fact that a US-based reader is likely to know so little about the Philippines’ colonial/imperial history with the United States, the kind of violence that the United States military perpetrated there in the Philippine-American and Pacific Wars, as well as the ongoing American military presence there, is central to the project. In her introduction to The Decolonized Eye: Filipino American Art and Performance, Sarita See points out that, in the United States, “the compulsive, organized nature of imperial forgetting has rendered inarticulate and incoherent the history of colonialism. Unlike other Western colonial projects, American imperialism traditionally does not recognize itself as such…because the American empire constitutively forgets that it is an empire, it offers neither space nor speech for the exploration of its post/colonial cultures” (xvi, xvii). One thing that the critical portion of my project is trying to do is examine visuality and legibility within and against American imperialism and imperial disavowal, to ask how the history of U.S. militarism and empire in what has been called “the American Century” or America’s “Pacific Century” circumscribes what can be seen and imagined. 

TJ: What is going on in this excerpt and how is it linked to the overall manuscript? 

KL: This excerpt is from the opening of my novel, and it introduces three identical women who are not sisters but in fact simultaneous versions of the same woman, the narrator’s estranged mother (variously called Celia, Cecile, Celina, Ciel). The three mothers live apart from each other, having all migrated to different parts of the United States, but in the second half of the excerpt they met to discuss the question of whether or not they are being haunted by an apparition of their daughter, who at this point is still a child. Each reports having been visited by a vision of her. 

Following this excerpt, the narrative switches to first person and present day, from the perspective of the daughter, who is now in her twenties and hasn’t heard from her mother in over fifteen years. The narrator’s father has recently died, and after sorting through his things and finding a disturbing photograph of her mother, the narrator decides to go looking for her.