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The Byuti and Danger of Performing Transgender and Transnational Belonging

The Byuti and Danger of Performing Transgender and Transnational Belonging

A colloquium with Allan Punzalan Isaac, Associate Professor of English, Wesleyan University, analyzing the film "Paper Dolls" (Bubot Niyar, Israel 2006) by Tomer Heymann.

Thursday, April 10, 2008
5:00 PM - 7:00 PM
10383 Bunche Hall (10th floor)
UCLA Campus
Los Angeles, CA 90095

Film Photo: Strand Releasing

After the second intifada in 2000 Israel closed its borders and expelled Palestinians who were no longer welcome as service labor in Israel. 300,000 foreign workers were brought in to do jobs Israeli’s could not or did not want to perform including giving care to the elderly in Orthodox neighborhood.  Neither Muslim nor Jewish, neither Arab nor Jew, 30,000 Filipino workers fill the service labor gap among Israelis. These depend on private family employment to maintain the legality of their stay in Israel. In the last five years, three Israeli films, both documentary and fictional, have featured Filipino caregivers and labor issues. This paper focuses on a recent documentary, Paper Dolls (2006), which provides a painfully moving account of the lives of Filipino transgender caregiver-drag performers in Tel Aviv. They are ineligible for citizenship but are also immediately deportable upon loss of employment. Their presence in the Israeli nation-state stands tenuously on fragile economic and affective relations in Israeli homes. The film goes beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to explore the emotional lives of these marginal figures in Israeli society.

National borders and harsh state power are enacted most apparently on the most vulnerable members of society, such as the five Paper Dolls, who are not only caregivers but also perform a lip-synch act for the Filipino migrants in Tel Aviv. Their lipsynch act and name invokes multiple sets of mediations in gender and national belonging, but gestures towards a different sense of pleasure, danger and beauty/byuti, a concept elaborated on by Martin Manalansan in Global Divas (2004). Given the Israeli populace’s suspicion of all immigrants because of the increased bombing, these invited but custodial guest-workers of the Israeli nation-state become targets for police surveillance and detention. Yet they also offer alternative notions of belonging in the face of globalization. I argue that both the characters and the film narrative evinces a style of palabas (spectacular and emotional output) and damay (sympathy and engagement), terms deployed by Philippine cultural studies scholar, Patrick Flores, towards a political reimagining of diasporic belonging. “Filipino” as a category is not defined solely by the vexed history between the U.S. and the Philippines; other global labor locales also serve as important identificatory sites for this imagined community intricately bound to global labor that reimagines family and national ties. Reflecting the transnational aspect of Asian/American Studies, this project puts pressure upon the facile metaphorical elisions among the terms family, gender, and nation.

Allan Punzalan Isaac, Associate Professor of English at Wesleyan University, specializes in ethnic American and Asian American aspects of American literary and cultural studies. His book American Tropics: Articulating Filipino America (University of Minnesota Press, 2006) is the recipient of the Association for Asian American Studies Cultural Studies Book Award. In 2003-2004, he was a senior Fulbright scholar at DeLaSalle University-Taft in Manila. He teaches a broad range of undergraduate and graduate courses in Theory and Literature, Asian American Studies, Critical Race Theory, and Comparative Race Studies.

Cost : Free and open to the public.


Sponsor(s): Center for Near Eastern Studies, Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Asian American Studies Center, Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics