Q&A with women's, gender and sexuality studies professor Eng-Beng Lim

by Frances Cohen | 5/23/17 2:00am


Women’s, gender and sexuality studies professor Eng-Beng Lim looks at intersectionality, critical race studies and feminist gender studies within the fields of performance and cultural studies, Asian-American studies, postcolonial/diaspora studies and queer/transnational studies. His book “Brown Boys and Rice Queens: Spellbinding Performance in the Asias” has received national awards.

What is your area of study and interest here at Dartmouth?

EL: My work is very interdisciplinary, and I am very much interested in thinking about how we might organize knowledge across different fields in order to get a better understanding of how gender, race and sexuality are experienced and performed, both in everyday life and in cultural productions, in theater spaces, in festivals, parades, literary representations and so on. So what primarily interests me is the way that queer histories and experiences are conveyed culturally and how those differences are understood across time and space, from the colonial past to our transnational diasporic present. As a performance theorist as well as a cultural critic, I am interested in thinking about how these different histories are represented on stage, on the page, and how we might imagine a world where social justice, equality and livable futures can be held by all. Because my work touches upon so many different ways of thinking about these issues, I work with students from across the disciplines, from the humanities, the sciences, the social sciences, and students who are pre-med.

What classes have you taught at Dartmouth in the past?

EL: Some of the classes I have taught thus far include “Queer Popular Culture” and “Introduction to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Studies,” and I just proposed to the Gender Research Institute at Dartmouth an experiential learning course in New York City for its related advanced gender studies seminar. That is a course that will enable students to think queer, write queer, feel queer and taste queer. This course is going to enable them to go to New York and visit places such as the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, the Stonewall Inn and the Guggenheim [Museum], as well as attend a drag show, to figure out for themselves what kinds of queer possibilities can be imagined, experienced and implemented. The other courses that I’ve taught, such as “Queer Popular Culture,” take a very broad approach to understanding queer popular culture in all its different manifestations. We examine queer popular culture’s manifestation in the United States through “Orange Is the New Black,” for instance, or a number of other theatrical and performance cultures that are practiced by queer-colored collectives. We also look at queer cultures around the world, such as ones in Japan, and think about how we might understand the phenomenon that critics have called “global queering,” which is the dissemination of Western-based LGBT cultures to the rest of the world, supposedly helping to liberate sexual minorities in third-world countries. We look at the sexual politics of many of these cultural manifestations and practices and debate what and how these practices constitute queer and popular culture.

Can you tell me a bit about your book?

EL: “Brown Boys and Rice Queens: Spellbinding Performance in the Asias” is a book that I wrote to investigate the queer dimensions of colonial orientalism and understand how Asian performance, broadly construed, is embroiled in the encounters of what I call a colonial diet, the “white man brown boy” diet, that is often under the radar, vis-á-vis a more familiar heterosexual Orientalist diet, the “white man brown woman” diet, that is central to postcolonial critique. I was very curious about the ways in which the “white man brown boy” diet is embedded in Asian performance and how the diet in its conceptual, sexual, performative and ethnographic configurations produce different kinds of Asian performances. What I’m trying to do in that book was to configure a transnational configuration of the Asias, using Bali, Singapore and Asian America as three sites to think about the movements, histories and encounters of the “white man brown boy” diet, and how it organizes exotic, diasporic and transnational understanding of Asian sexuality and in particular, Asian male sexuality. The book opens up alternative interpretations of texts that are in circulation but which curiously have suppressed the homoerotics of the encounters that are constitutive of their production.

What are the projects you are currently working on?

EL: One of the projects I’m working on right now deals with toxic masculinity and queer intoxications in performance. I’m interested in thinking about the ways in which hetero-patriarchal formations of gender are making a comeback in the Trump era. How might we understand queer intoxication as one way of understanding the pushback? One of the archives I’m looking at involves what I’m calling “ethnocuties,” which is an archive of boys who are photographed in Bali, Southeast Asia and Southern Europe at the turn of the century by European artists. I’m trying to figure out how to make a connection between different ideas of masculinity that are produced in these global encounters from the early 20th century to the present, where we’re seeing waves of Korean pop music and cute boy bands that are taking the world over by storm, particularly in Asia.

What was it like to be put on Turning Point USA’s Professor Watchlist earlier this year for your class on the Orlando shooting?

EL: I don’t think very much about that list because it forecloses productive and critical inquiries, even provocative debates, as well as a kind of openness to difference that are not part of the intellectual coachers that we want to sustain in the university classroom. I don’t think very much about it and am certainly not very bothered that I am the only professor on campus to be in this role. I think that, like a lot of the toxic public discourse that is happening in the Trump nation, the list’s rhetoric and logic is part of that. That is to say, the list is motivated by a set of rigid and narrow ideological viewpoints of the world, so I would much rather talk to my students, my colleagues and the public about my work, ideas, inquiries and research, and not to put that work and research on the defense. The defensive postures that are mandated by the necessary responses to these ideological formations are just not productive for an open, diverse and progressive understanding of the world.

What are your hobbies or activities that you enjoy outside the classroom?

EL: Many of my interests are context-specific and geographically defined. When I’m in Hanover, I like to garden and do a lot of planting in the spring. In New York, I love going to see shows, museum installations and performances. I love to read commentaries and op-eds. I’m part of an academic blog called the Bully Bloggers, and I write for that collective. I’m also part of an editorial collective called Social Text, so I do a lot of thinking and writing collectively, which is something I enjoy. I love traveling and being in the midst of intellectual artists, especially those who are on the fringe, on the edge and who are experimental, not just for the sake of being experimental but to use experimentation as a way to push the boundaries and help us think about worlds that are yet unseen, and desires, futures and visions that are yet unknown.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.