Omoiyari Interview with Dr. erin Khuê Ninh
Assistant Professor of Asian American Studies
University of California, Santa Barbara
erin Khuê Ninh: A Biography (As Written by Herself)
erin grew up in L.A., borrowing copious stacks of books from the Hawthorne and then Culver City libraries. By the end of her undergraduate years at Berkeley, though, she’d come to the clear-eyed if sad conclusion that she’d make a terrible writer of fiction. Turning her sights to interpreting it instead, she spends her days teaching literature, and her nights editing and managing the blog at Hyphen magazine.
KL: You are currently on faculty in the Asian American Studies Department at University of California, Santa Barbara. What are some courses you enjoy teaching, and what new courses are you developing or would like to teach one day?
erin Khuê Ninh: At the moment, Karen, the specter of the over 200-person lecture I’m slated to teach again this fall is hanging over me, and the horridness of being hated by that many people at once rather blots out the sky. So I’m hard-pressed to think of what I actually like teaching.
But in other quarters I have a much brighter perspective, because I actually like all the other classes I teach. I’m obsessed with teaching students how to close-read, because tracing meaning to its ‘source’ is a necessary and exciting thing. So my AsAm Fiction class, for instance, is organized around mysteries, quasi-detective fiction, which makes searching for meaning and truth both meta and content. My AsAm Women’s Writing is a little depressing in theme, but always rewarding to teach; I take students through a series of novels and theoretical readings on wartime rape, moving them from the comfort women camps to rape as part of our “peacetime” lives. A course that I haven’t been able to locate the resources to teach yet, but still hope to, is one merging the practice of martial arts, Chinese dance, and readings on discipline and feminine embodiment.
KL: Would you share about your involvement with the cutting-edge Asian American publication, Hyphen magazine?
erin Khuê Ninh: I started on the publishing (business) side of the magazine when I first joined it, actually. Not that I had any business qualifications, but the editorial side has always been well staffed with experienced and professionally trained reporters, with real journalistic chops, so they had no need of an English grad student! Eventually I became publisher, a post I left when I took the job at UCSB and had to leave the Bay Area (where the magazine is based). (I’d like to point out here that the magazine is not only nonprofit and politically progressive, but all volunteer-run! This explains a great deal about how I became the boss.) Now I run the blog with my coeditor, something I can do from remote—and that a lit Ph.D. will just about qualify me to do.
KL: Congratulations on your book publication, Ingratitude: the debt-bound daughter in Asian American literature, now forthcoming from New York University Press. Are you working on any current projects?
erin Khuê Ninh: Thanks, Karen. Well, I’m working with an artist to design the cover image right now, which is pretty exciting! Aside from that, some new pieces for a new project on femininity and agency—physical beauty and social dance (i.e., the “follower’s” role) are some of its components.
KL: Last but not least, what’s the story behind the intentionally lowercase “e” in your first name?
erin Khuê Ninh: Well, “erin” is not the name my parents chose for me when I was born in Viet Nam (surprise surprise), but “Khuê”—“Is Cue here? Cueey?”—had become wince-worthy by the time I’d hit college. So erin is just easier, but it’s also… just a name.