Academic journal article South: A Scholarly Journal

Declining Misery: Rural Florida's Hmong and Korean Farmers

Academic journal article South: A Scholarly Journal

Declining Misery: Rural Florida's Hmong and Korean Farmers

Article excerpt

The Southern Gothic tradition asserts a misery that centers decline, the pull of decay and degeneracy, as a regional terror. Yet the notion of declining misery also hinges on a dual elaboration, that of refusal, of choosing to decline the long reach of misery. This piece proposes a different method of indexing misery1 by considering the dynamic confluences of empire, geographical relocation, and racialization through interviews with Hmong and Korean farmers in rural Florida. Such a scope illuminates understandings of ongoing, unfixed southern spatial imaginarles: the unended "terror modalities of chattel slavery" that structure Black misery, by no means temporally bound nor geographically static in the south (Childs 29); the insistence to "[d]ig deep here and you will find layers upon layers of human suffering and environmental degradation, but also a prime landscape for sifting through cultural memory" (Salvaggio 62); the Dolores Flores-Silva Deep Listening Trio's reflection on the "painfully odd, reorienting perspective that renders Indigenous people and cultures foreign to southern spaces ... the dominant perspective of North American institutions, one that calls for dialogic re-vision" (104). Rendered this way, southern spatial imaginaries are dense with concomitant terror, suffering, degradation, and pain, although also thick with possibilities for cutting through such miseries.

Rather than exceptionalize the misery imagined as intrinsic to transpacific migration, I follow the undercurrents that intimate the Hmong and Korean farmers' encounters and expectations. By declining misery, the farmers instead craft alternative kinships and build non-normative formations of living. Despite hardships and hard labor, in implicit ways, the farmers embody lived formations of what Houston Baker Jr. and Dana Nelson articulate as collective desires in their landmark 2001 American Literature preface, "Violence, the Body and 'The South,'" by "mark[ing] out a political space for the resistance that comes in pleasure--for instance, in the interracial awareness, political action, and sense of community that become possible in the blacker and more Latin and more Asian parts of the South, as well as in the region's foods, its architectures and landscapes, its rhythms" (236). Declining misery does not assume a necessary correlative with inviting pleasure, but for sure one version of Baker and Nelson's "sense of community" and perhaps unanticipated growing of "the region's foods" converges in the communal formations of the Hmong and Korean farmers. This essay therefore builds on the significance of Southern spatial imaginaries, in their thorny, unexpected contradictions.

There is an origin story to this project, with one beginning located in the U.S. imperial reach in east and southeast Asia. This story, launched in the 1940s and renewing itself each decade, moving at times in tandem in the geopolitical regions of east and southeast Asia, is a story of war. Given that my larger project focuses on the subterranean histories of the Korean War, I would normally elaborate on this story--skirmishes of power and their military undulations, critiques of an insatiable empire bent on establishing capitalist supremacy. After all, there is a peninsular familiarity with Florida, and the occasion to consider a south not defined by the north, but by other souths, southeasts. But this work is not an attempt to add or include a new layer of racial history to the south. Instead, in order to theorize in continuum with the unended legacies of settler colonialism, slavery, and militarized empire, I turn to one corner of the south that holds such histories in tension with small Hmong and Korean farming communities in rural central Florida. This essay harbors at its center the quiet lives of people who farm, who include my own parents, and the academic language with which I'd write quite simply refused to comply. Attentive to Lisa Lowe's reflection on "the dynamic relationship among the always present but differently manifest and available histories and social forces" (20), this essay considers methods that might fashion a gradational storytelling, how tracing the stories of a few farmers and their families in rural Florida offers possibilities for sensing how they fit within and perhaps shape the contemporary racial landscape. …

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