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The story of the US is typically told as one of heroic immigrants: those Europeans who first came to these shores escaped tyranny and sought freedom, forming the nation and becoming Americans. However, the story is different when it comes to other groups of immigrants. Lisa Lowe, in her influential book Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (1996), shows how immigration has been racialized, with Asian immigrants excluded from the national political sphere while included as labor in the economic sphere. Using both ethnographic accounts and literary portraits, she explores how Asian American women in particular are conscripted as labor and exploited.

Lowe’s first book, Critical Terrains: French and British Orientalisms (1994), examines the heterogeneous nature of orientalism in texts from the eighteenth century to the French Tel quel group’s infatuation with Maoism in the wake of 1968. Immigrant Acts brings together her analysis of Asian American history and representation. She is currently completing two new books, The Intimacies of Four Continents and Metaphors of Globalization (forthcoming from Duke UP), which study the history and theory of globalization. She has also co-edited the volume The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital (with David Lloyd; 1997), which includes an interview Lowe conducted with Angela Davis, and she co-edits the series Perverse Modernities (Duke UP), with Judith “Jack” Halberstam. Relevant to this interview, one might also look at her entry on “Globalization” in Keywords for American Cultural Studies (2007).

Born in Berkeley, California, Lowe attended Stanford University (BA, 1977) and UC Santa Cruz (PhD, 1986), where she worked in the History of Consciousness Program as well as the Board of Literature. Since 1986, she has taught in the Department of Literature at UC San Diego.

This interview took place in the J. W. Marriott Hotel in Los Angeles on 7 January 2011. It was conducted and edited by Jeffrey J. Williams, Professor of Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University, and transcribed by Jennifer Beno, an MA student at Carnegie Mellon. [End Page 345]

Jeffrey J. Williams:

The first question I thought I would ask is about Immigrant Acts, since it’s a signature book in Asian American studies and also since it’s being republished in a new edition. It sets out the paradigm of immigration and racialization. What do you see as the problematic of immigration in that book?

Lisa Lowe:

I have always thought of Immigrant Acts as using the case of Asian immigration to tell a small history of modern US capitalism, since the case of Asian immigration demonstrates how the building of the US economy relied upon enlisting a laboring population while excluding them from political citizenship or inclusion in the state. Beginning in the nineteenth century, there was this successive recruitment of one Asian group of workers followed by their exclusion, and then the enlistment of another group and then their exclusion. I can give you an example: Chinese were brought in the 1850s, as is well known, to work on the railroads and in mining and in agriculture. But by 1882 there was agitation by white citizen laborers, and an appeal to nativism, and the 1882 Exclusion Act prohibited further immigration from China. Then Japanese and Korean laborers were later recruited, but in 1924 there was a subsequent Exclusion Act. With Filipinos, who emigrated from the US-colonized Philippines, the 1934 Tydings-McDuffie Act changed their status from “nationals” to “aliens.” A series of Repeal Acts after World War II permitted quotas of immigrants from various Asian origins, until 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act opened up Asian immigration to the US.

Of course, Asian Americans are not the only group to have been racialized as non-citizen labor, but this case gives us a paradigm of how citizenship is a regulating institution used to recruit and manage populations who provide cheap labor for the growth of the US economy. This has been the history of so many different immigrant populations from around the world, from Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa. When I first conceived the book, I was thinking about...

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