Reimagining the Railroad’s History: A Conversation between Paisley Rekdal and Julia H. Lee

In celebration of the publication of their newest books, Paisley Rekdal, author of West: A Translation, and Julia H. Lee, author of The Racial Railroad, discuss the cultural influence of Chinese and Asian labor on the Transcontinental, and the railroad’s subsequent impact on American life and literature.





Paisley Rekdal (PR): Let’s start with a very broad question: Why think about the meaning of the railroad in American art and literature at this particular time, especially since so few Americans now ride trains regularly?

Julia H. Lee (JHL): What’s so interesting about the train is that its presence in American culture does not seem to correlate with the number of people who actually ride the train. The “Golden Age” of train travel occurred in the early twentieth century, and the record for U.S. rail ridership was set in 1920 with numbers dropping sharply as automobile ownership and airplane travel became more accessible and convenient. And yet, trains are everywhere in American culture and have been since the first railroads were built in the 1800s. They show up in films, on television, in songs, in literature. The train has infiltrated our everyday language, from how we talk about space (someone is from “the wrong side of the tracks”), film (the “tracking shot”), or the way that children line up at school (the last child is the “caboose”). I note in the book that the train’s continuing presence in our culture cannot be the result of its popularity as a means of travel, but rather its ability to tell a story.

I’d be interested in hearing your response to this question, as a poet, writer, and a reader. In the course of your research and writing, do you have a sense of why the railroad continues to have such a presence in American culture?

PR: I completely agree about the train’s powerful connection to narrative. I was struck by how nineteenth-century writers and politicians understood the Transcontinental as, primarily, a metaphor—one related to the body. The train was “the iron joins and joints” of our nation, or “the spine” of our nation, or its “nervous system.” Trains and bodies were elided into one, and the fact that the train became a place where we changed or reified categories of race and gender makes it, for me, a really rich subject for poetry, and of course makes me reevaluate my own relationship to the railroad. If the railroad is a metaphor as well as a material reality, in what ways am I, too, building the railroad by continuing to write about it? Regardless of whether we ride the train or not, the railroad remains a powerful if sometimes invisible influence on our environmental, economic, and political systems, as witnessed by the recent crash in Ohio and the many threatened railway strikes of this year.

With that said, certain bodies are tied—historically, and in our cultural imagination—to the railroad. For example, in popular imagination, the transcontinental railroad might evoke both Native and Chinese bodies and histories. Can you talk about the problems of that conflation, and can you talk about the kinds of artworks (or art interventions) that you think best resist or problematize that conflation?

JHL: I’m not so certain that the Chinese labor or Native American removal are automatically conflated with the railroad. There is more awareness about the role of the Chinese in building the railroad now, but I often feel like the rhetoric around Chinese labor and the Transcontinental reinforces contemporary model minority discourse rather than asking the much more difficult question of what damage the Transcontinental wrought on the land, the Native people who lived on the land, and even the settlers who arrived in its wake. It’s important to acknowledge the undercompensated and dangerous labor that Chinese workers performed, but we can do that without falling into some easy narrative about the pliability and reliability of Asian American workers.

One of the Asian American literary works that I think does a great job of undermining that model minority undertone is Peter Ho Davies’s novel The Fortunes, which is partly set in the nineteenth century. The protagonist, Ling, talks to old railroad workers and expresses pride in their accomplishments. The men respond with impatience and disgust at his admiration. All they see when they see the railroad are the wages they weren’t paid, the risks they were forced to take, and the white executives who mistreated them.

As for Native Americans, I think the relationship isn’t one of conflation so much as it is erasure and appropriation. In the nineteenth century, the train was seen as a way of eradicating Native peoples’ presence in the Great Plains and the West. But by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the railroads began to use the figure of the “Indian” to encourage domestic tourism, especially in the Southwest. Within the span of a few decades, the Indian went from being an existential threat to the nation’s sense of its own manifest destiny to a romanticized commodity in the service of the emerging leisure travel industry. The multimedia artist Jaque Fragua (Jemez Pueblo) interrogates that in his installation pieces Stop Coal, Untitled 2012, and Untitled 2013. In these works, Fragua graffities working freight cars with Native-inspired design and text to resist discourses that would erase or commodify the Native relationship to the land they occupied.

Turning to your own book, West: A Translation, I’m struck by how you narrate the environmental impact of the railroad, how it impacted the sequoias, the ecosystem, and altered much of the land that it was supposed to take and make productive. I feel like this is an under-examined aspect of the railroad. And of course, the Chinese first arrived in the United States to participate in (when they were allowed to) what was an extraction industry: digging for gold. Can you talk about what the role of the environment in West?

PR: Because I live in Utah, which is suffering from a forty-year drought, I am always thinking about our impact on the environment. For me, this was one of the first questions I wanted to explore in this collection. But it’s also the result of trying to re-think what might be included in a truly capacious and ethical memory, such as the one that Paul Ricoeur argues for in Memory, History, Forgetting. There is no one history, but histories, and an ethical memory is one that would try to include as many different stories and encounters as possible that circulate around an event or technology. It’s fundamentally impossible to do, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attempt it. The land is the first and perhaps final witness to our cultural changes: shouldn’t it, too, have a voice?

Interestingly, the environment and Chinese railroad workers share something in common when it comes to the history of the Transcontinental: the lack of a voice. No letters or written records authored by Chinese railroad workers have yet been discovered, so our understanding of the Chinese experience on the Transcontinental is essentially imaginative, and often imagined by white authors. When you were researching your book, what anxieties did you see white authors expressing in the late nineteenth century about Chinese workers?

JHL: The Chinese provoked a lot of anxiety (they still do!). And while a few American writers—notably Mark Twain—expressed sympathy for the plight of Chinese migrants to the United States, many saw them as a threat: to the sanctity of white womanhood, to the nascent labor movement, to Christian foundations of the country, to the nation’s public health, to the racial purity of its citizenry, to democratic principles that were seen as reserved for Anglo-Saxons.                             

As for West, you also address this lack of documentation by Chinese workers. You evocatively describe your translation as a “series of violations” and as a “carefully cultivated loss.” I’m struck by these characterizations, because to me they describe contradictory but not disharmonious acts. The first phrase speaks to resistance and breaking unwritten rules, but that second description speaks to what I think we as Asian Americanist writers and scholars have to grapple with: first, that the work we do has to be done “carefully,” because one must be respectful toward material that hasn’t been preserved since it represents lives erased/lost; and second, the fragility of the scraps of material we do have. Can you talk about this as a methodology for this volume as a whole? When did you feel like you were violating and when did you feel like you were “carefully” cultivating loss?

PR: There were many deliberate violations, the first being to the Chinese language itself. I understand that—in their own isolated semantic pairs—these characters would be translated differently and certainly more elegantly, but I wanted the sense of a “bad” translation in the titles, because I wanted to duplicate that feeling of reading a language you aren’t perfectly familiar with. This would then be fixed, ideally, in the final translation, in which my bad renditions of the characters themselves are newly arranged into a fluid poem. But the “careful” cultivation of loss occurs around appropriating the voices of people like the Black porters, whose oral histories I radically compress to focus on particular stories that they reveal about the railroad. There, I had to think about how to stay true to other people’s rhythms of speech and experiences, while also making these testimonies work as poems.

Some historians would look askance at my poems, since of course they are constructions of memory based upon select facts: they are, in that sense, bad or possibly “presentist” histories, since they have been created to elicit particular contemporary responses to the railroad. It’s not that these criticisms aren’t valid, but they exist to support a specific response. In that, I’m thinking about how Chinese Americans now look back at Chinese transcontinental workers through the lens of their own memories—and perhaps through a distinct rendering of the past that will help them interpret America now. Do you see Asian American artists, or those sympathetic to Asian Americans, as potentially suffering from a kind of presentism or nostalgia about America?

JHL: I think it’s important for those of us in the Asian American literary community to understand that the experiences of the tens of thousands of Chinese who were living in the United States in the nineteenth century are erased from history. Not lost, but erased. As a scholar, I feel like it’s important to call attention to that erasure. I can’t reconstruct the life of another person or community based on a few dates, entries in company archives, or newspaper articles. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. But we should also examine the conditions that led to that erasure, which individuals or institutions were involved, and how individuals and communities resist that erasure. Only by acknowledging what is lost can we imagine other possibilities.

PR: I agree! And acknowledging that loss naturally results, I think, in formal innovations. In your book, I like what you write about Asian American authors “queering history”—that is, creating stories that are “imperfect or askew” to disrupt conventional historical narratives, which usually wouldn’t include Chinese Americans or African American railroad worker histories. Can you talk about the power of the “imperfect” narrative, and what, for you, constitutes a “queer” narrative?

JHL: To me, West is a wonderful encapsulation of what I think “queer” history is. Your work drives home the point that in order to grapple with the loss of these Chinese laborers’ lives, the key isn’t solely to go deeper into archives to look for a more buried “Truth.” Too often the archive is presented to us or perceived as the repository of all knowledge or history instead of what it really is, which is a record of one past that’s filled with violence and absence. West looks to the archive not as a source of Truth, but as a means to ruminate on the meaning of loss. You write that “history . . . may be best understood as a question of relation,” and to me, that’s what it means to me to “queer” the archive or read it “askew.” Thinking of history relationally never presumes the “factness” of the history that is often presented as official or authoritative.

PR: I also think that “factness” finally privileges select community or individual experiences. The reality is that “history” is the result of many different perspectives and experiences colliding. You yourself argue beautifully that the railroad provides a space where race, class, gender and—of course—labor intersect, and often manifest themselves in contradictory ways. Black men and women, for example, during Jim Crow had their train travel experiences negatively segregated and constrained on the basis of race, while white women—constrained in other public spaces—suddenly had segregated cars that were meant to protect them from male passengers. I’m wondering how that historical sense of constraint and segregation that the train represented has formally led writers to create highly speculative, “unconstrained” narratives now about the train?

JHL: That’s a really interesting question, because cultural representations of the railroad—especially filmic ones—tend to emphasize it as a space that is highly structured and constrained. It’s a particularly compelling space for imagining conflict precisely because its structure makes that difference spatial and therefore visual. Literary representations of train travel, particularly in the era of Jim Crow, also highlight the train as a highly socially organized space in which race, class, and gender dictate how mobile a passenger can be.

Again, I actually think of West as doing the work that your question highlights—taking a space (the train) that is highly structured and writing about it in a genre (poetry) that also carries expectations regarding form and structure. West is a system—not unlike a rail network—that emphasizes how the train (and each poem) is entangled in multiple political and cultural discourses. It’s multimodal to reflect the multifaceted nature of the railroad’s place in America.

Now I’m wondering if you felt that constraint as you were putting together the online and then the print version of West. In researching and creating art about the railroad did you feel that you had to put together this volume differently than others?

PR: In putting this book together, I finally understood the project to be tackling one fundamental question: is America moving forwards with regards to rights and ideas of race, or is it sliding back? Attached to that is a question of what kind of evidence we can find to support either argument—or both arguments simultaneously. When we lack documents or conventionally approved historiographies, what material evidence can we assemble to prove our points? And, if the train itself is both a material and figurative reality in our consciousness, do we want to focus on material at all? That’s why West exists in both digital and print forms. The digital highlights evidence that is transitory and immaterial—sound, for example—and also the reader’s own choice in selecting histories she wants to pursue by clicking at will. The book highlights the material nature of histories—the collages and photographs and scraps of letters. The book doesn’t quite allow for the same kind of self-selective reading that the website does, though I try to encourage that in the book’s split between poetry and prose, and the ways that each poem comes with a lyric-historic note which is itself part of a longer sequence.

All the poems produce one “translation,” just as all the notes together produce one “essay.” In effect, I’m always trying to disorder your reading, so you can see the radial connections that emerge between themes, problems, even specific figures from history, which defies the conventionally linear and progressive momentum of the conventional book. I want to make people move backwards and forwards as they read, from poem to note to poem again. And because I weave my own story into this research, I am trying to play with our ideas of time, too: we move back and forth between the personal and the historical, between poem and prose, between the nineteenth century and our own.

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about loss. But considering so much of the railroad’s cultural impact on racial groups in America might be read as historically negative or problematic, why do you think we keep going back to the train as a symbol of progress? And why can’t it save us?

JHL: You’re referencing the coda to The Racial Railroad, where I talk about the resurging interest in the train in the form of high-speed rail. The historian Richard White compares the rhetoric around the railroad in the nineteenth-century to the rhetoric around the internet in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Both the railroad and the internet were initially extolled for their seeming ability to connect people and communities to each other; but I would argue that what really links them is their ability to make us believe that technology, progress, and growth are all coeval terms. The train and its cognates—the internet, nanotechnology, space travel, AIs, “clean” energy—make us believe that more growth, more production, more consumption will lead to prosperity, freedom, and happiness. It is precisely this kind of thinking, now enacted on a global scale, that has led us to environmental catastrophe. What the advent of the railroad made clear is that we increasingly look to technology and growth to be the “magic bullet” to save us from our societal ills, when in reality, those are the very things that are going to kill us. I think looking for more localized ways to live offers more hope for our survival than any new or better technology, which the train has exemplified for almost two centuries.


Julia H. Lee is professor and chair of Asian American Studies at the University of California at Irvine. She is the author of The Racial Railroad (New York University Press, 2022), Understanding Maxine Hong Kingston (University of South Carolina Press, 2018), and Interracial Encounters: Reciprocal Representations in African and Asian American Literatures, 1896–1937 (New York University Press, 2011). She is a co-editor of Asian American Literature in Transition, Vol. 1 (1850–1930) (Cambridge University Press, 2021). She teaches courses on Asian American literature, race and urban space, Asian American popular culture, and Asian American communities.

Paisley Rekdal is the author of four books of nonfiction, and seven books of poetry, including Nightingale (Copper Canyon, 2019), Appropriate: A Provocation (Norton, 2021), and the forthcoming West: A Translation. Her work has received the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship, Pushcart Prizes, a Fulbright Fellowship, and various state arts council awards. The former Utah poet laureate, she teaches at the University of Utah, where she is a distinguished professor.