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  • Not just the freeway, but the ride and the radio
  • Lisa Brawley (bio)
Review of Karen Tongson, Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries. New York: NYU Press, 2011.

Contained in these boxes, little and large, are the unacknowledged urgencies, desires, and encounters meant to be kept out of these meticulously planned geographies: queers, immigrants, 'gangstas,' minimum-wagers, Others who find the notion of a 'nuclear family' as toxic as it sounds.


Karen Tongson's Relocations is an ambitious first book, with an admitted "propensity for sprawling out" (xiii): it deftly merges disparate elements of a diverse archive to describe wide-ranging forms of queer world-making in suburban Southern California. The book forges a two-fold critique that is long overdue. Tongson aims to correct two stubbornly persistent misconceptions that, despite ample evidence to the contrary, continue to frame both critical and popular discourses about cities and suburbs alike: the first is the idea that suburbs are sites of "racialized, classed, and sexualized homogeneity" (3); the second misconception is that the metropolis — especially New York City — is the privileged habitat for queer world-making. In this sense, Tongson joins Judith Halberstam and especially Scott Herring in forcing a fundamental reexamination of accepted narratives of sexuality and space, one that moves beyond the metropolis and the walkable city to take up post-pedestrian forms of urbanism.1

Relocations makes this two-fold critique while also serving as a meditation on Tongson's own relocation from Manila to Southern California in 1983, after a childhood spent with musician parents traveling through the Pacific rim. For Tongson, as for so many others, the suburbs of Southern California represent the signature landscape of the American Century. And while her text is far more than a case study of the so-called ethnoburbs, its narrative more than supports the conclusion that it is no longer the central city but the (older, first ring) suburbs that have become the primary destination for immigrants and migrants in the United States. If this is true for suburbs in general, Tongson suggests it is all the more so for Southern California, as she cites Gustavo Arellano: "Orange County is the Ellis Island of the twenty-first century" (83). In Tongson's forceful description, the evident heterogeneity of suburbs past and present has not altered their idealized image as the exemplary setting for "American normativity" (20). Drawing especially from Catherine Jurca's White Diaspora, Tongson suggests that the American suburban ideal persists largely as the result of a vast 20th-century cultural archive—film, literature, and television—that portrays suburbia as both the promise and paradox of "American normativity." As she describes, "bourgeois seclusion" in "the tidy confines of suburban domesticity" serves as "the prosperous white American's most profound burden" (20). Against this normative framing, the core project of Relocations is to reveal a counter-archive of suburban cultural forms and practices produced by the suburbs' less visible inhabitants: "queers, immigrants, 'gangstas,' minimum-wagers, Others who find the notion of a 'nuclear family' as toxic as it sounds" (1). And thus Relocations produces a "queer of color suburban archive" (27), the core thematic element of which is not the ennui of the suburban entitled, but rather the various modes of "making do" undertaken by "the relocated" (21).

We are introduced to this counter-archive in Tongson's first chapter, and we learn that the archive of "the relocated" is as expansive as the landscapes it surveys, including strip malls, amusement parks, freeways, neighborhood culs-de-sacs, and agricultural wastelands. But in Tongson's text, these landscapes of American normativity lose their generic hue and become newly specified as diversely-lived social spaces: the strip mall with a dim sum shop and Botánica, the tract house with the "customized, ornamental addition" (42). The range of materials that comprises this counter-archive is likewise expansive: interviews, municipal archives, blogs and bulletin boards, radio stations, DJs, soundscapes, personal memories, literature, performance art, fotonovelas, online diaries, site plans, urban visual culture. Tongson's counter-archive— willed into coherence by the fact that it is an archive she lived in and through—demonstrates that Southern California is not just the freeway but the...

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