Fresh Faculty: Nozomi Nakaganeku Saito

Nozomi Nakaganeku Saito is a postdoctoral fellow and assistant professor of English. She spoke to The Student about storytelling, Asian American studies, and the “ecologies of death” produced under militarism.

Fresh Faculty: Nozomi Nakaganeku Saito
Photo courtesy of Amherst College.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about your research?

A: Right now I’m looking at what I’m calling “ecologies of deaths” that are produced under structures of colonialism and militarism. My research focuses on [the Japanese prefecture of] Okinawa, so if you look at, for example, the construction of the military bases, a lot of these bases are taking place on Indigenous grounds. And they’re also oftentimes tied to certain types of deaths. For example, one of the articles that I wrote last year focused on how the military bases are digging up soil that has human remains in it. So that’s where I’m thinking about these kinds of objects of death, and how they become these sites of contested sovereignty under settler colonialism, or Japanese settler colonialism and US militarism.

Q: How did you come to this area of study?

A: Honestly, just paying attention to the news, and then doing a lot of deep research on Okinawa, and Asian and Pacific American studies. So a lot of my research focuses on literature, but I like to think of literature not in a vacuum, but in a sociohistorical context.

Q: A lot of your research taps into not only literature, but also American studies and ecology, which might initially seem like pretty different disciplines. As a professor in the English department, how do you tie all three together in your classes?

A: That’s a really great question, because in literature, a lot of times, there’s this push back against instrumental reading, or this idea that a literary text necessarily represents a political point. The literary text also has aesthetic qualities that distinguish it from, for example, historical narrative. And so my reading of these ecologies isn’t necessarily to say, “Oh, this literature reflects exactly the specific ecology,” — I’m more interested in the stories we tell about different landscapes, different ecologies. Storytelling, a lot of times, really shapes how we relate to land. And that also reflects how we’re thinking about lands, whether it’s a relational aspect, or if we’re thinking in terms of extraction or desecration.

Q: What brought you to Amherst?

A: Actually, the reason I wanted to work here was the work that the students have put in towards creating the Asian American studies program and really fighting for that. Asian American subjectivity has always been grounded in politicization, and making certain demands for visibility and rights. So I saw the work of Amherst students sort of as an extension of that, really building on the activist movements in the ’60s and ’70s. So it was really the students who brought me here, but as I’m working here, I’m also really interested in the fact that environmental studies is so prominent on campus.

Q: Coming into the English department as part of the Asian American Pacific Islander [AAPI] specialty cluster hire that was approved last year, what do you see as some of your goals? How do you imagine collaboration with other members of the cluster hire or other faculty?

A: I’m hoping we’re all going to work together to build an Asian American studies [department] at Amherst. I’ve been meeting with [Associate Provost and Associate Dean of the Faculty] Pawan Dhingra, [Assistant Professor of History and Sexuality, Women's and Gender Studies] Christine Peralta, [Chair of Latinx and Latin American Studies] Sony Corañez Bolton and they’re really influential… kind of helping them create the curriculum and the foundations for that program. Meeting with them has really been important for me.

Q: What did your efforts towards building an AAPI department look like at your last institution?

A: I would say we didn’t get nearly as far as Amherst did. The first thing that I did was actually right after the Atlanta massacre — I was really worried for my students after years of a rise in anti-Asian hate in Covid, and knowing that my students had faced harassment. So I reached out to my students first, and I said, “Hey, let’s gather together, we can just process. We can rage, we can cry, let’s just have the space for ourselves.” And then I started realizing that actually, there wasn’t anything like that for any of us, including graduate students. So I invited colleagues from my department. And then I eventually realized, Well, this could also be a learning moment for allies, too. If we center our voices, maybe they’ll listen. So the first session, I think, was just like 30 people. It was online, still during the pandemic, and we just kind of gathered and talked. Then last year, I met up again with a few other graduate students who attended, and I said I want to do something beyond reacting to national tragedies. I want to think about all that we’ve already contributed as Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders — we have always contributed to U.S. culture. I wanted to think about joy, I wanted to think about things that aren’t just rooted in mourning and violence. So that was kind of the impetus for all of us getting together and starting to organize events. We started really small; I think we were all really ambitious at first and like, “Oh, we’ll create a whole new curriculum,” “We’ll counter the white supremacy of the institution.” That kind of impact takes time. And so we were like, “Okay, well, what can we do this semester with the limited time and funds we have?” And so we just started a book club. I know that now, they’re still meeting regularly. I stepped down from my leadership position because I graduated, but I think they have a series of events being planned. And I’m hoping that in the future, this will kind of build momentum and become a demand for Asian American Studies. Let’s see.

Q:  So what course are you teaching this semester?

A: This semester I’m teaching “Asian American and Pacific Islander Critiques.” A lot of times — and this is for good reason — but AAPI has kind of lumped together Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, as well as native Hawaiians. And the reason for that is to gain political visibility and momentum. At the same time, especially coming out of the Pacific, those groups don’t necessarily have the same experiences, visibility, or even the same issues. So the point of my course is to really show how Asian American and Pacific studies have developed somewhat in parallel, so that they overlap on issues of militarism, settler colonialism, tourism, etc.

Q: Can you tell me about your path navigating the distinction between Asian American and Pacific studies?

A: I started with Asian American studies, but because I research Okinawa, a lot of times my research felt a little bit more marginal to Asian American studies. I don’t do a lot of work on what I would call a national lens of Asian American studies, which is thinking about citizenship, belonging, Asian American experiences within the United States, and looking more at the United States’ impacts. That’s actually why I ended up going for Pacific studies — they’re doing more of the thinking around militarism and settler colonialism, because they’re not necessarily relying on national frameworks.

Q: Can you talk about how you strike a balance between more theoretical work and active efforts in your work on decolonialism and demilitarization, particularly through your public projects?

A: You know, I don’t want to think of them as two separate things — I think that it’s all interconnected. So the stories we tell about certain landscapes that have been militarized can also serve the military’s projects. If we only see those landscapes, for example, as sites of waste and death, or as lands that aren’t inhabited by Indigenous people, then it’s easier for the military to move in and say, “well, these are unused lands, it won’t affect anybody.” The stories we tell, including in literature, are really a significant part of the cultural project that isn’t necessarily separate from the political project. Thinking about demilitarization, for example, a lot of what I do is informed by activists and the kinds of questions that they’re asking. I’m part of two different study groups with Okinawans, and so the conversations we have in those movement spaces also inform the way I’m thinking about my research. Of course, you know, when it comes to the writing aspect, there does have to be a difference, right? Like the genre of literary criticism is quite different from, a more public humanities form. So in terms of the output or the products, there is difference, but I don’t like to think of my work as being divided.

Q: How does combination play out within your classes and the types of sources you teach?

A: Yeah, that’s actually a really good question. There’s a quote I like to come back to, by Barbara Christian in “Race for Theory.” She says [that] people of color have always been theorizing, but through vernacular forms, like letters, or proverbs, or the stories we follow. And that really shaped how I think about literary study — taking seriously that these writers and artists are also theorists in their own right. And so my classroom isn’t just teaching theory or scholarship, but really trying to take those stories seriously — including the stories we tell each other or in our community. Those are also ways of theorizing. Even if we’re not using abstract or esoteric terms, we’re also thinking about how to interpret the world, how to understand what’s going on around us. In the classroom, that often looks like trying to have a balance between scholarship, because of course, I want to prepare students for graduate study or to be scholars or maybe community engaged activists. At the same time, I also want to give them a solid foundation in the literature, and to take those voices seriously. I don’t think you need to have a scholarly degree to be able to change the world or make an impact.

Q: Looking ahead, what are you most excited for in your first semester/year of teaching at Amherst?

A: Honestly, I’m just excited in general to be teaching in my fields. Coming from graduate school, and coming from a primarily white institution, I’ve never really been able to have a course just focused on my field. I’ve always had to have kind of a general focus, and then I always just work in some of the things I’m interested in. So I’m really excited to be able to actually focus on my research. I’m also really excited for the students — like I was saying earlier, I know the Amherst students are the reason this job was even created, and that energy is so infectious and admirable. At my previous institution, I along with several other graduate students, really tried to gain more visibility for the Asian American community on campus. And, you know, there were multiple times, especially after the Atlanta massacre, where there were a lot of feelings of neglect and feeling unseen. It was something I was hearing from my students. That was the reason I tried to gather people together and organize. But you know, those institutional structures that really maintain white supremacy are really hard to dismantle. And so I see what Amherst is doing as really actually investing in dismantling those racist structures is a huge part of why the students were able to do that.

Q: In the future, what kinds of courses are you hoping to teach?

A: So next semester, I proposed a class called “Narrative and Equality in the Trans-Pacific.” That’s kind of building on some of the research I’ve already been doing, but also expanding the scope of it, because my research focuses very much on Okinawa. I want to think about other places in the Pacific Islands that are impacted by militarism and settler colonialism, taking a kind of land-centered perspective — that’s a phrase I borrow from Max Liboiron in “Pollution is Colonialism.” They talked about how, if you center land as a methodology, how does that inform what we’re saying about these relationships between militarism? It’s not just this top-down structure, but it has a material impact. And if we think about land-base relations, then we also have to talk about indigenous sovereignty. So what I’m hoping to do with that course is to start off with some of the literary texts, and then introduce archival methods and research. And then the last third of the course is just up to the students. So I’m hoping to see more of the students kind of stepping up and saying, “Okay, well, this is what I want to research.” That’s a really important part of all my classes, including the one I’m teaching this semester, is just letting the students decide what they want to try. Your education should be in your hands.

Q: How are you settling into Amherst?

A: You know, I’m really loving it. It’s beautiful, it’s quiet. I love the collegial atmosphere. And everyone was really friendly. I mean, I lived in Boston for a while, and so it’s a really different culture.

Q: How do you like to spend your time?

A: I’ll be honest — I love Zumba. I love dancing. And I do it because it feels like a space where you can just mess up and look silly, and nobody really cares. It’s funny because it’s such a middle aged thing. My partner and I also love going on hikes with our dog — I don’t have kids yet, so he’s my baby.