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Gerry Pratt is Professor of Geography at the University of British Columbia and a former editor, and current honorary editor, of Society and Space. She spoke with current co-editor Natalie Oswin about her latest book Families Apart: Migrant Mothers and the Conflicts of Labor and Love, published by University of Minnesota Press in 2012, among other things. Pratt’s ‘Research Performances’ (2000), one of her several published contributions in Society and Space, is currently available open access.

 


 

Natalie Oswin: Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions. Can you briefly describe Families Apart, setting out its main arguments and aims for our readers? And can you say a bit about the collaborative nature of the project?

Gerry Pratt: Families Apart is in the first instance a book about the lives of Filipino families who are separated when mothers come to Canada to work as domestic workers and children stay behind in the Philippines, typically cared for by their grandmothers and aunts. It emerges out of a long collaborative research association with a Filipino activist organisation in Vancouver, the Philippine Women Centre, and tells intimate stories about the pain and costs of this separation.

I would say that its theoretical and political contributions lie in four areas. First, there has been a massive expansion of temporary labour programs worldwide and the program that I scrutinize is one of the largest and longest running ones in Canada. So it provides an important opportunity to assess the long-term impacts of a so-called temporary labour program. What we find is that it is not so temporary — families are separated for 7 or 8 years on average — and the effects reach into the next generation — many of the children of domestic workers are faring poorly in Vancouver after they migrate to join their mothers there. Second, the book traces a trajectory from stories about the lives of domestic workers and their families in Vancouver to witnessing human rights violations in the Philippines as a way of enacting an argument about the politics of witnessing and an ethics of responsibility excessive to national boundaries. In that sense it is decidedly not just *about* domestic workers, it is as much about disrupting the complacency of Canadians who accept and benefit from temporary migration. To that end — and this is the third ambition of the book — the book is a set of performative experiments on how to penetrate this complacency through different representational strategies. In one chapter, I insert my own son’s photographs into a domestic worker’s oral testimony to challenge the reader into a position of uncomfortable witnessing. Some readers have found this to be extremely irritating and symptomatic of my whiteness and privilege. I respect that reaction but stand by our responsibility and opportunity to take risks with our representational strategies. And to generate conflict and public discussion. Another chapter analyses a testimonial play that we created from the research transcripts as another way of engaging and creating a critical public. Fourth, I think that the book stands out as a piece of activist scholarship. My collaboration with the Philippine Women Centre has been long term — over fifteen years, and this is a little unusual. What started as a one-off research project involving focus groups with domestic workers has evolved into a kind of ethnography. I have known some of the families written about in Families Apart for over fifteen years and interviewed them many times over this period. The collaboration with the PWC has always been a full collaboration and that means that we sit down together at the beginning of the project and decide on the focus of the research, and then do the research together. I typically do the writing and return to the PWC for their input and approval. Originally I asked for the PWC to be named as collaborating authors but the Press was not comfortable with this. After a stand off of sorts, the PWC and I agreed that it was better to see the book in print than insist on this point.

NO: I would like to pick up on these four contributions. But first, for the benefit of other scholars doing collaborative activist scholarship, can I ask you to elaborate on your last point about authorship, just to say a bit more on the divergent views that you encountered on this point and why sole authorship was seen by you and the PWC as ultimately acceptable?

GP: I’m sorry that I can’t really elaborate on the divergent views because, although the press was insistent, their view was never fully elaborated. We were keen on joint authorship because it reflected the collaborative nature of the research enterprise. Although I may have written most of the words on the page, the PWC has been a full partner in the theorisation and research process. I cannot begin to describe the many things I have learnt through our association. As for why the PWC and I saw sole authorship as ultimately acceptable I would say that it came down to pragmatism and a decision about choosing battles. I certainly appreciate the trust and generosity of the PWC in accepting this resolution to the impasse.

NO: Now back to the book’s four contributions – its attention to ‘temporary labour migration’ programs as not so temporary, its disruption of Canadian complacency, its enactment of different representational strategies, and its exemplification of activist scholarship. This is the second book that you have written out of your collaboration with the PWC, after Working Feminism, published in 2004. Can you set these themes in relation to the themes of that work? In your view, did the length (and life) of the collaboration impel you to write two quite different books? Or do you see them as companion pieces?

GP: I haven’t thought of them as companion pieces but this is an interesting way of thinking about them. Over the last fifteen or so years our research has moved across the life course of migrant workers and we have tackled different topics as they have been recognised as problems requiring research within the Filipino activist community. In 1995 when we did our first study, Filipino women had just begun to come to Canada as domestic workers and so the urgent political questions were about conditions *within* the LCP. And this was the focus of our research. At that time, second generation Filipino youth had begun to organise and we decided to do a small project together around the theme of belonging and their experiences of exclusion in Canada. These are the studies discussed in the first book and put into conversation with scholarly theoretical debates (e.g., the limits of human rights discourse, the challenges of navigating between liberal universalism and cultural relativism). The second book discusses research further along the life course of domestic workers, when they settle in Canada and sponsor their families. This was not yet an issue for the community when we did the first research project because family reunification had not begun on a large scale. But it has become an issue and it is chilling to recognise that we have been recording the systematic marginalisation of a community through our research. This process was just beginning when we began documenting the LCP, in effect it has grown up around our research. The massive expansion of temporary labour migration programs has happened within the last decade, making the LCP an extremely important case study program. The second book also can be seen as a response to our frustration with the lack of uptake of the kind of critique of the LCP elaborated in the first book, and very effectively by many other Canadian feminist researchers as well. It is a kind of exasperated response to the question of what it takes for Canadians to pay attention to this issue. Liberal normative thinking finds room for temporary work programs as long as the effects are temporary; our research says that the effects are anything but temporary — they reach into the next generation and have long-term effects. The second book represents another strategy of critique. It also pays closer attention to the cultivation of a complicit witness who will hear the critique.

There are other continuities between the books as well. The last chapter of the first book is an experiment in performative writing and a call to imagine our research as performative. The next book takes this much further, including an analysis of our testimonial play.

NO: I’ll ask you to elaborate on that next book in a moment. But first, yes, although this text follows on from Working Feminism in the ways that you have pointed out, the shift in tone is both clear and obviously very important since, as you note, you had to find ways to respond urgently to the marginalization of a community. Has this changed your relationship to theory? Has your exasperation with the political situation unfolding around and through your research project changed what you think feminist geographical theorizing can do or how it ought to be deployed?

GP: The two books had different starting points. Working Feminism was a conversation between my graduate course in Feminist Geography and my research with the PWC; I interleaved purely theoretical chapters with chapters that work with and push the theory through the research I had been doing with the PWC. So in a sense it starts from and prioritises theory. Families Apart starts in what we see as the banal, grinding state violence of a temporary work program and within a frustration with Canadians’ complacency or even their sense of beneficence in relation to it.  The tone may reflect the length of time that we have worked on this issue. It may reflect my long association with the PWC and the fact that they had begun to see ways of using me as an academic within their organising and advocacy work in more direct ways, by asking me to participate in press conferences and on community panels. These experiences inevitably affect tone. But it is also written from a profound sense of awkwardness and embarrassment. I found the emotional weight of the stories of mothers and children to be a huge responsibility and my relationship to these testimonies to be in need of constant questioning. I write in the book of the experience of ventriloquizing children’s stories of being left by their mothers — their memories of what we interpret as trauma — to an audience of Filipino activists. At the end many in the audience were in tears, rendered literally speechless for a short period of time. It has to be asked why I am the right person to deliver these stories and how I might circulate them in a responsible way. Rather than leading me away from theory this led me to some of the literature on witnessing and I found Kelly Oliver’s work on witnessing along with the work of many other theorists to be hugely useful for thinking through these issues. So too, after creating and staging the testimonial play I wanted to think about it but it was hard to find the right distance and tone in relation to it. Ian Baucom’s work on different epistemologies of witnessing and Jacques Ranciere’s work on theatre and politics helped me to find some space to reflect upon the play and the possibilities of theatre as a site of politics. So the theory is there and the imperative to theorise is just as pressing. As I discuss in the book, Filipino activists in Canada are presently divided around temporary labor migration, in part because they diagnose or theorise the situation differently. To conceive of temporary labour migration as state violence is already to theorise the situation within a particular frame.

As for what feminist theorising can do and how it ought to be deployed, I am loathe to prescribe. I have always been most interested in theorising in the concrete but sometimes the most abstract theory can be the most useful to do that. I do think that the opportunities to deploy or practice theory are particularly open right now.

NO: Thanks for that really interesting reflection. Now can you say something about the next book?

GP: I’m not sure what that will look like! I had thought that the cycle of research with the PWC had ended — for different reasons, including the fact that there are many more Filipino-Canadians in graduate school who are keen to do this kind of research. But we have just received funding to take the play to the Philippines and there will be research component to that. Not sure. We’ll see.

NO: It’s great to hear that this isn’t the end of your collaboration. One last question. What other projects have you currently got on the go?

GP: I am finishing a book on City and Film this summer with a colleague, Rose Marie San Juan, an outgrowth of an undergraduate course that we co-taught for a number of years. I am beginning a small project with a colleague in Sociology, Jennifer Chun, on a class action suit filed by temporary service workers in Vancouver.  Its looks to be a fascinating case of transnational labour organising. And Jennifer Hyndman and I have started a comparative project on Sri Lankan Tamil and Filipino transnational nationalisms and belonging; just at the beginning stages. And we are taking the play to the Philippines, which involves some new collaborations with theatre artists there. There will be a script reading of the play at the RGS in Edinburgh in July as well. I am Associate Dean of Faculty and Equity at the moment so also very interested in the ways that universities engage or fail to engage with equity and diversity issues; Sara Ahmed has a new book out on that which I am keen to read.

NO: Fantastic stuff. Thanks again for taking the time to talk with me!

GP: Thanks for the opportunity.

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Natalie Oswin is Associate Professor of Geography at McGill University. She is Managing Editor of Society and Space.