Dr. Robert Hayashi
Associate Professor of American Studies and Environmental Studies.
How did you decide to focus on AAPI Studies?
Asian American Studies was something that I was conditioned to study given my family history. When I first became aware as a very young child that my family had been relocated, my relationship to identity, education, and the things that I had been trained to believe as a citizen of the United States changed. I began to ask a lot of questions and was very fortunate to come from an educated family. My parents were very indulgent and would never stop me from reading or watching anything I wanted to. I also had siblings who were much older, so there were a lot of books and college textbooks around. When I was in fifth grade, I was reading things like Buried My Heart at Wounded Knee. I didn’t have many Asian American books because that’s when that field was really taking off, but there were books about Japanese American relocation that I read. I was always driven by this need to understand. How could this have happened given the things that we are educated to understand about our nation, democracy, due process, and civil rights? I needed to understand how this happened to my family, specifically because I saw the repercussions. There was this disconnect between the public history of that event and what I knew to be true. The incarceration devastated people's lives. People never recovered. My grandfather died in Minidoka, one of the camps. He had been terminally ill, so his incarceration certainly accelerated his death, and that changed my father in significant ways that he could not fully reconcile. So there was always this drive for me to understand and that became an increasing focus of my education.
As a college student, did you have the opportunity to take courses in AAPI Studies?
In college, I didn't have the opportunity to study these kinds of things. It just wasn’t in the curriculum. There wasn’t Asian American history, and I don’t think I was assigned an Asian American author in college. I certainly read some, but that was me going out of my way to find them. When I went back to school to get an MFA in Creative Writing from Cornell University, the first thing I really wanted to work on was literature written during relocation. Some of that stuff was in print, but a lot of it was not. So I spent a great deal of time looking at old camp newspapers and poetry written during relocation. When I went back to grad school at UMASS Amherst, I wanted to focus on that literary production. However, my focus transformed into something else when I serendipitously took a journey out west to Idaho and was confronted by some Asian American history I did not know about, including some violent history. The American landscape has always been this seminal project in American Studies, but my family’s experiences were not represented there. We were not included in these paradigms in the field. So I wanted to insert Asian experiences into the discussion, and this is what compelled me to go in the direction that I did.
What was your path to Amherst College?
My hire was, in part, due to student activism. There was an active group of students pushing for a hire in the Asian American Studies field, and my colleagues in American Studies recognized there was a lack and said they would make the hire. When I came, I met with students who were very involved in the process, which signaled to me that there was student interest and that this was a Five College effort. I ended up in the English department, but American Studies needed someone in Asian American literature, which helped open a door for my joint appointment. After a while though, student activism waned as so much of this is cyclical by nature. One of the concerns I have is maintaining student interest longitudinally, and we can definitely use the help of students to figure out how to do this. Otherwise if the interest isn’t maintained, people may say we overreached.
How do you understand your role at Amherst College?
When I came to Amherst, I was very cognizant that our discussions about diversity were extraordinarily behind the times, so I immediately offered myself to help with issues of diversity and inclusion. I felt that at a small school like this, there was the possibility of creating something if we raised visibility; educated people; and made the investment of time, energy, and resources. As a faculty member, I see this as my role, and I think it is necessary. There are significant numbers of students of Asian ancestry here, and it really troubles me that many of them don’t know who they are and they don’t know their history. You need to know who you are. You need to know your history. It grounds you and gives you a sense of who you are in relationship to everything else around you. As painful as some of that may be, it is important to know. Asians need to know their place within this society, especially because society doesn’t recognize who we are. There are many issues that directly involve people of Asian ancestry, but that don’t acknowledge their involvement. For example, the discussion around immigration right now. Because of the way it’s framed politically, particularly by the Trump administration, there is a Latinx face to the issue, but so many of the immigrants today, including people who are undocumented, are of Asian ancestry, and everyone needs to understand that.
What would you like to see in an AAPI Studies program?
I would like to see a real commitment to the communities in the Pioneer Valley. That means that the College needs to enable, support, and recognize this kind of work. A lot of people in Ethnic Studies come out of a perspective and orientation toward community engagement, which unfortunately is something that is not valued in academia. It doesn’t get you a promotion, it doesn't get you tenure, and it doesn’t bring you visibility, but it’s essential. I worry that the field has become increasingly professionalized and further disconnected from communities, even though there are certainly community needs right here in the Valley. So I would hope that that would be a component of the program. Also, I hope it would maintain a comparative framework so that we don’t see ourselves in isolation to Latinx Studies, Native American Studies, and African American Studies. I would also really like for there to be a scholar who focuses on South East Asian Studies, which would complement the Studies that exist within the Valley. And finally, I would like to see robust support from the College in terms of acknowledging the importance of this field and providing resources, visibility, and support.
How can alumni be supportive and involved?
Alumni need to engage in conversations with the College to express their interest and to express that this is not only something that is meaningful to them, but is meaningful to everyone who wants to understand American society broadly. They can also ask questions of us—like if they are curious about the things we are doing, what we may need in terms of support, what kinds of things we are teaching, and what we have in mind in terms of development of any kind of program. I always enjoy talking to alumni to get their perspectives. It gives me a greater historical understanding of the institution and how it has evolved over time.
A moment of change is here at Amherst. There are so many things that have changed in a positive way since I started in 2008. The student uprising two years ago has thrown fuel into the fire. It has helped make an institution that is conservative by nature begin to evolve and innovate. Amherst has historically been so slow to change, but students are inspiring to me because they aren’t accepting that anymore. As a faculty member of color who is committed to social change and institutional change, you can feel like an unwelcome guest, but we are not guests. We are members of the community, and all we are asking for is the same sort of unacknowledged and unblinking sense of familiarity, comfort, and ownership of this place that other people enjoy.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
Read Professor Hayashi's Haunted by Waters: A Journey Through Race and Place in the American West, a lyrical history of marginalized peoples in Idaho.
Even though race influenced how Americans envisioned, represented, and shaped the American West, discussions of its history devalue the experiences of racial and ethnic minorities. In this lyrical history of marginalized peoples in Idaho, Robert T. Hayashi views the West from a different perspective by detailing the ways in which they shaped the western landscape and its meaning.
As an easterner, researcher, angler, and third-generation Japanese American traveling across the contemporary Idaho landscape—where his grandfather died during internment during World War II—Hayashi reconstructs a landscape that lured emigrants of all races at the same time its ruling forces were developing cultured processes that excluded nonwhites. Throughout each convincing and compelling chapter, he searches for the stories of dispossessed minorities as patiently as he searches for trout.
Using a wide range of materials that include memoirs, oral interviews, poetry, legal cases, letters, government documents, and even road signs, Hayashi illustrates how Thomas Jefferson’s vision of an agrarian, all-white, and democratic West affected the Gem State’s Nez Perce, Chinese, Shoshone, Mormon, and particularly Japanese residents. Starting at the site of the Corps of Discovery’s journey into Idaho, he details the ideological, aesthetic, and material manifestations of these intertwined notions of race and place. As he explores Idaho’s fabled rivers and visits its historical sites and museums, Hayashi reads the contemporary landscape in light of this evolution.
-Excerpt from University of Iowa Press