V. Jo Hsu
Constellating Home: Trans and Queer Asian American Rhetorics
Ohio State University Press, 2022
Reviewed by Abigail Burns
What haunts your work? What questions, desires, anxieties linger beneath every word you leave on the page? In their debut book Constellating Home: Trans and Queer Asian American Rhetorics, V. Jo Hsu renders their own hauntings legible in ghost passages scattered just beyond the introduction and first three chapters. Here, Hsu ruminates on the (hi)stories—family and otherwise—that have made them who they are; on their choice to pursue academia and the pressure to contain those stories within forms more readily valued by tenure committees; on the scholar’s relationship to the subjects they study, a relationship that is far too often destroyed by unreflexive practices of exploitation and extraction; on the reinvigorating experience of sharing their research and story with other LGBTQ+ Asian Americans; and more besides. In short, these ghost passages trust readers with a self-consciousness centered on, among other things, the academic researcher’s place and purpose within the work of liberatory politics and collective worldmaking. This is a self-consciousness that I would argue academia sorely needs as we strive to weave care and connection into the research we put out in the world.
As a whole, Constellating Home offers keen and evocative insight into the imaginative and constitutive possibilities opened up by deliberate storytelling practices—what Hsu calls “homing”—in pursuit of more livable futures. Their analysis centers story as a “rhetorical technology,” through which individuals and communities channel the personal into “social analysis, collective politics, and mobile sites of belonging,” particularly as those stories become a means and method for negotiating, resisting, and transforming normativizing social scripts. Hsu orients us toward trans and queer Asian American and Pacific Islander narratives as they are tenderly curated and shared by QTAPI community activists across three archives: the Dragon Fruit Project, the Visibility Project, and the Queer Ancestors Project. In making this turn, they help us to better understand how QTAPI people both resist the twin scripts that inform Asian American racialization in the US—that is, ‘yellow peril’ and the ‘model minority’ myth—and how they create space for, articulate, and honor the intracommunity heterogeneity contained within the wide umbrellas of queer, trans, and AAPI even as that heterogeneity holds within it sites of tension and contradiction. As such, Hsu’s work will be useful and generative for scholars, activists, and artists invested in better understanding defiant and messy practices of individual and collective identity formation, sociopolitical critique and activism grounded in practices of mutual care and accountability, and the everyday acts of resistance that foster sites of belonging—that make a home.
The critical orientation of Constellating Home is radically open-ended in a way that resonates with the work of feminist scholars like Alison Kafer, with whom Hsu is in conversation. Moreover, scholars with whom Hsu shares an investment in inviting the reader to join them in stretching our social and political imaginaries in directions they couldn’t anticipate even after years of writing and theory-building. Their method of tracing out “rhetorical constellations” from the stories they’ve collected “draws meaning from the connections,” not to discover a singular truth about QTAPI identity but to “[listen] for and [accommodate] a multiplicity of relationships and responsibilities.” All the same, they take care to note that their constellations offer just one possible picture among many, one way of stitching these stories and voices together to make meaning. Given this deliberate open-endedness, Hsu centers their book not necessarily on a singular argument so much as a set of genuinely compelling questions. They write,
What rhetorical strategies, then, are available to us as people whose embodiments, desires, and lives subvert the narratives used to shield white supremacy? How do we negotiate, from our varied positionalities, a sense of collective power and political purpose? And how do we practice a politics of refusal that prevents our stories from being weaponized against our own or other minoritized communities?
The first three chapters, then, trace out how QTAPI rhetors craft and network stories to negotiate a multiplicity of meaning around the shared concepts—or topoi—of love, resilience, and ancestry against the violent, disciplinary force of dominant hegemonic scripts. Chapter One takes on the first of these topoi: love, as its varied meanings circulate through the Dragon Fruit Project while also setting up how each of the following chapters will be structured. That is, Hsu opens by critiquing the dominant script for love in the US, which attaches the experience and expression of love to heteronormativity and ableism, while sketching out how that script has historically and contemporaneously fed into the racialization of Asian Americans. They then explore and analyze how QTAPI rhetors respond to and negotiate that script as they invent and amplify counternarratives. Here, rhetors with the DFP come to forge understandings of love as a praxis, as building communities of care, as an “active commitment to [someone’s] possibilities,” and so forth. Importantly, in this chapter, Hsu develops their theory of “differential consciousness-raising” to make sense of how rhetors work together to construct new scripts for love even as the meaning of those scripts diverge.
Chapter Two builds on this negotiation of difference within communities to constellate the stories of the Visibility Project as they resist understandings of resilience rooted in individualism and self-sufficiency. They argue that the stock story of resilience values individual uplift at the expense of “[co-creating] spaces that affirm one another’s experiences and paths toward healing.” At the same time, this chapter troubles the assumed political good of visibility by reminding us that visibility requires vulnerability that not everyone can afford. In a move that brings our attention back to the question of how academics choose to relate to the subjects they study, Hsu refuses to write about or analyze the performances staged by the VP even as they describe attending some of those performances themself. Instead, they choose to protect these stories from our gaze, leaving space for these QTAPI storytellers to be vulnerable with each other without the risk of inviting a potentially violent voyeur. This is just one moment in many where Hsu enacts an ethics of care and accountability in their scholarship, which we, as readers, must learn from if we want to do work that does not reinscribe the existing power structures and dynamics that too often inform academic practice. Here, we see one method for resisting such academic practices that serve to extract the knowledge and survival tactics of marginalized communities for scholars’ own professional benefit and for the enrichment of our communities alone while leaving those we study open to further harm.Closing out their analysis of topoi significant to AAPI racialization, Hsu dedicates Chapter Three to exploring the hegemonic and counternarratives of ancestry by constellating the stories circulating through the Queer Ancestors Project. Here, Hsu focuses on how QAP students use story to “disrupt taxonomies that have organized dominant views of lineage, loyalty, and belonging,” writing connection with queer ancestors, finding and inventing connection with the past in order to better imagine new futures. Finally, Chapter Four stitches the three topoi of love, resilience, and ancestry together in Hsu’s own personal narrative as they make sense of their own (his)story by bringing themself into contact and community with each of the QTAPI storytellers Constellating Home contains. Beautifully written, this chapter models an intimate, loving scholarly practice and fulfills a promise Hsu made in the introduction: that this book and its many constellated stories might take form in “a stitch toward the closing of a wound.”