Texts speak?

Lisa Yun’s chapter “An Afro-Chinese Author” is just as much about acts of writing and narration as it is about the interlinked social histories of Chinese coolies and African slaves. Through the act of inscribing the coolie experience Chuffat creates a mode of speaking for peoples often excluded from official narratives.

From the beginning of her chapter, Yun qualifies Chuffat as a distinctive political actor, as his dual African and Chinese identities uniquely positioned him to translate for the Chinese merchant community, all while complicating its representations of and relationship to Chinese-ness and Black-ness. His work as a black activist also revealed a political commitment to the subaltern.

What is particularly interesting to me is Yun’s section “The Motley Tongue” for its emphasis on the way the text itself—peppered with contradictions and veiled language—speaks subversive meanings. The sources Chuffat weaves into his text, Yun writes, “legitimated, confirmed, contrasted, embellished or subverted what Chuffat was saying, thus raising questions about what he appeared to be saying” (197, Yun’s emphasis). Yun highlights these tensions as she traces the methodology of her scholarship; she juxtaposes Chuffat’s work against other prevailing narratives told by individuals or communities with political influence, economic wealth, or even the ability to employ “proper Spanish”—and therefore the “means to produce representations” (185).

Whereas free Chinese merchants had the aforementioned “means to produce representations of their histories, communities, and institutions, and could attest to their cultural history,” coolies and slaves had to seek alternative, often veiled or ambivalent modes of representation (185). Whereas prominent leader and politician Rafael Martínez Ortíz’s comprehensive history of Cuba featured the State as protagonist, Chuffat’s work brought out the narratives of coolies and slaves. Yet, Chuffat’s Apuntes still “offered a well-crafted banner of model minority examples” that aligned with Spanish rhetoric that emphasized the value of Chinese for their physical labor and capital generated. Yun also likens parts of it to a “yearbook” representing the contributions of prominent leaders in the Chinese merchant community (people who might have separated themselves from Blackness), and notes that it is dedicated to and opens with a photo of Martinez, even as other parts of the text offer a very different history (192).

One of the explanations Yun offers for these tensions is that patronage from the Chinese merchant community and prominent national leaders like Rafael Martinez alike led to traces of their influence in Chuffat’s book. Her reading of Chuffat’s text against the grain of nationalism, elitism, and racially exclusionary practices is transgressive and illuminating. It also does not fail to generate many questions about how cultural production—and in particular hybrid, contradictory and ambivalent forms—speaks.

What is it that texts or films or sculptures are really trying to say? Chuffat seems to have much greater direct political agency and stronger political motivations than the Goan artists who crafted the “hybrid” religious figurines that circulated in Brazil. But do textual representations (words, language, signs) really speak less ambiguously than visual or bodily (performance) representations? What would be the impact of a reading of Chuffat as politically compromised? Does all contradiction in the “official story” point to subversion? Are not all acts vulnerable to being read and misread? What is the relationship between author (artist), reader (spectator), and text?

I bring these questions up because after spending so much time writing papers on whether a particular book, film or space is racist or not or subversive or not, I’ve arrived at in impasse in which I hope to hear texts/objects speak but no longer am able to so clearly.