Amber Dean, an associate professor in English and Cultural Studies, has been named a 2021 University Scholar. The award, which includes up to $60,000 in funding, recognizes mid-career researchers who have distinguished themselves as researchers, instructors and university citizens.
We sat down to chat about her work. Please be aware – this article includes references to addiction and violence against women.
Can you tell me about your research?
My research has all been about cultural memory, and the public record of how mass deaths – usually mass death caused by violence – are mourned in public ways.
The interest in that topic started for me during my PhD. I was doing a big project on women and trauma and sexual violence, looking at memoir and other genres. I was from Vancouver, and my supervisor pointed out that women had been disappearing from the Downtown Eastside neighborhood in Vancouver: why not focus the whole project on that particular case?
There was a personal connection as well: when I started my master’s at Simon Fraser, I was in a relationship with a woman who had struggled with addictions, which got worse when we moved to Vancouver.
Like many people with addiction, my partner would sometimes disappear, and, at that time, the police response was pretty lackluster for any woman who went missing from the Downtown Eastside.
That was just before Robert Pickton was arrested. [Robert Pickton was charged with the murders of 27 women, many of them from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. In 2007, he was convicted of six counts of second-degree murder.]
As his trial started, I started to think about activism and public mourning and memorialization, and what public mourning can tell us about whose lives matter and whose don’t.
Some mass deaths receive pretty widespread public mourning and attention, and it’s important and essential to have public mourning in response to violent deaths – but it tends to happen more often for lives that align with what we imagine is an “idealized” Canadian.
For people who are more marginalized, that kind of public mourning often ends up taking the form of a kind of demonstration or protest – we’ve seen that with Black Lives Matter. We’ve seen that also with the public mourning around Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
Attempts to remember the violent deaths of people who are marginalized tend to focus on trying to communicate their human-ness to a wider public and make them more relatable – and that tells us something about whose lives are assumed to widely matter or not.
Tell me about your work at Mac now.
Working with my good friend (UBC professor and McMaster graduate) Phanuel Antwi on the afterword to the book Out North: An Archive of Queer Activism and Kinship in Canada [edited by English and Cultural Studies PhD graduate Craig Jennex and PhD candidate Nisha Eswaran] inspired me to start working with Hamilton’s LGBTQ+ archive and combine it with my teaching.
The goal is to get students working on building the Hamilton LGBTQ+ archive collection, which right now is a collection of materials at the Hamilton Public Library donated by one gay man, Michael Johnstone, who died in 2018. For decades, he had been an unofficial archivist for the gay and lesbian community in Hamilton.
There’s a massive collection of items, like meeting minutes and organizing documentation, but also media, like newspaper clippings and VHS tapes. It’s 40 boxes of one man’s chronicles.
If that becomes the extent of the collection, though, it risks repeating some of the mistakes that have been made at other gay and lesbian archives, which have focused on white gay men to the exclusion of lesbians and BIPOC queer and trans lives.
The Hamilton archive is a great opportunity to think about how an archive can serve a community differently, and the kinds of ways it can make queer and trans history accessible beyond being just a collection of papers.
Along those lines, I’m working with Cole Gately, one of the community stewards of that archive, to develop some short videos about Hamilton’s queer and trans histories. The students in my class are working on that, too – they’ve been sourcing music and B–roll footage, they’ve done a couple of interviews, and they’ve been thinking about how to design these videos.
It’s been great to involve undergraduate and graduate students in that process.
We’re hoping to have a workshop to help launch the HPL collection – we were going to do it in June, but now we’ve pushed it to October with the hopes that we might be able to meet in person.
That workshop will be a chance to start a more critical conversation about what an LGBTQ+ archive can be and whose lives it can represent. How do we not replicate the mistakes – which now seem so obvious – of gay and lesbian archives that were started in the ‘70s?
How did it feel when you when you found out you had been named University Scholar?
Alarming, initially! But also terrific. It provides funding for events and research, so, for example, we’re going to be able to make this workshop in the fall as accessible as possible.
It’s always nice to have recognition, but I’m also a bit reluctant – so much of my work is collaborative. For example, the last two books I’ve worked on have been collaborations.
Remembering Air India was a collaboration with Chandrima Chakraborty, my colleague here, and our colleague, Angela Failler, in Winnipeg. Many family members and artists contributed to that book, as well as other scholars.
I also had a book project that was on community–engaged learning in women’s and gender studies programs in Canada. I worked with two colleagues at other universities to edit that – I’m really kind of committed to the collaborative model of scholarship.
I’m very grateful, and it was terrific news. My colleague Chandrima was one of the more recent University Scholars in Humanities, and has done great things with her position: she’s been engaging with the community, including organizing an amazing conference for Air India family members and scholars a few years back. She’s provided an excellent model for how to do it in a way that benefits the wider community.