Updated Nov. 5, 2013
As co-founder of the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA), Michelle Caswell works to help communities of immigrants from India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan tell their stories of their lives in the United States. The assistant professor of information studies is also committed to the study of archives that document, heal, and create closure for victims and families affected by some of the grossest violations of human rights.
Professor Caswell will deliver the 2013 Fall Colloquium, hosted by the UCLA Library & Information Studies Alumni Association (LISAA). She will present ”Archiving the Unspeakable: Silence, Memory, and the Photographic Record in Cambodia” on Saturday, Nov. 9 at 10 a.m. in the Reading Room on the third floor of Moore Hall.
Caswell’s forthcoming book, “Archiving the Unspeakable: Silence, Memory, and the Photographic Record in Cambodia” (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014; in press), is based on her doctoral dissertation on Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, which is now a museum that displays a collection of photographs of victims of the Khmer Rouge.
“A lot of the mug shots are unidentified,” says Caswell. “To this day, more than 30 years later, people come and still recognize loved ones in the photographs. The Documentation Center of Cambodia publishes a monthly newsletter that is distributed free of charge throughout Cambodia [with] reproduced images of these mug shots. There are still people coming forward and recognizing their mother, father, brother, or uncle for the first time.”
She says that along with providing a historical record for activists and scholars, the efforts of non-governmental organizations like The Documentation Center of Cambodia provide survivors and the families of victims with a way to find closure.
“The majority of Cambodians are Buddhist and in Cambodian Buddhism, you need to know the location and the date of the death of your ancestors in order to perform certain rituals on that date,” she says. “And if you don’t know that date, [it is believed] that the ancestors can haunt the world as angry ghosts. So at a practical level, it is really important for people in Cambodia to know when their ancestors were killed.
“For some people, the facts about how a loved one was killed can really stir up disturbing memories and induce trauma. But I think it definitely provides a sense of closure to know.”
Caswell says that an agency like The Documentation Center of Cambodia engenders the public trust since it is led by the survivors themselves.
Caswell’s interest in how communities preserve their own histories unites her work on both SAADA and Khmer Rouge records in Cambodia.
“Community-based archives provide the space for communities to decide for themselves what is of value; how those materials should be preserved, if they should be preserved; how those materials should be described,” she notes. “It is a way for marginalized communities to gain control over their own story, over their own narratives.
“It is an issue of trust in a place like Cambodia. I think when it comes to records documenting human rights abuses, we need to be looking at survivors and victims’ family members, what their priorities are, and who they trust.”
Caswell, who is the only non-South Asian American on the board of SAADA, says that trust is also an important element in providing a way for communities to tell very realistic stories about their experiences as immigrants to the U.S.
“It’s been a fantastic creative process,” says Caswell. “In the past, [when] groups have felt marginalized and left out, when they are finally empowered to start collecting their own histories, [they tend] to make it a singular narrative, about celebration.”
“With SAADA, we’ve tried really hard to incorporate multiple narratives, to include failures as well as successes. We incorporate a diverse range of perspectives, because there’s not a singular South Asian American community. We look at all religious backgrounds, all socioeconomic statuses, and linguistic differences. To try to portray the diversity of that community has been really challenging and also I think, very rewarding – and something that if this organization were not based in the community, just couldn’t be done.”
Caswell emphasizes that the online nature of SAADA also affords a chance for more community contributions to the archive.
“The digital aspect has really enabled us to get feedback from a larger [audience] and to get communities to participate in archiving,” she says. “We also run community forum events where we physically go to communities and ask them, ‘What is important to you? What should we be collecting?’ We ask them to fill out cards that on one side ask, ‘What do you wish you knew about your grandparents?’ and on the other side ask, ‘What do you want your grandchildren to know about you?’ This participation may be done face-to-face, but it can also be done though Facebook, email, and our website.
“We had a letter posted on Facebook that was written by someone [who] had signed it with a Sanskrit epigraph. Samip (Mallick, SAADA Executive Director) my colleague who digitized it, doesn’t read Sanskrit. So he posted it on Facebook, asking ‘Hey, does anybody know what this means?’ In two hours, we had the Sanskrit professor from the University of Chicago giving his translation; somebody else gave an alternative translation. New technologies present new opportunities to get communities involved in telling their stories.”
On October 18-19, Caswell presented “The Antonym of Forgetting: Global Perspectives on Human Rights Archives,” a two-day symposium at UCLA. A cadre of international experts, archivists, and scholars, including Caswell and UCLA colleagues Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, dean of the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies; Anne Gilliland, professor of information studies; and Geoffrey Robinson, professor of history, examined the political, ethical, legal, and cultural challenges that arise in the creation, preservation, and use of records documenting human rights crises.
Caswell holds a Ph.D. in Information Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a B.A. in religion from Columbia University, a M.T.S. in world religions focusing on South Asia from Harvard University, and an MLIS with an archives concentration from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She has written numerous articles for scholarly journals such as Archival Science, Archivaria, American Archivist, The Journal of Documentation, InterActions, Libri, and numerous edited volumes. Two more forthcoming articles include, “Inventing New Archival Imaginaries: Theoretical Foundations for Identity-Based Community Archives” (Identity Palimpsests. Los Angeles: Litwin Books, 2014) and “Documenting South Asian American Struggles Against Racism: Community Archives in a Post-9/11 World” (Powerful Times. London: Palgrave, 2014)
For more information on Caswell’s IS Colloquium, contact the GSE&IS Office of External Relations at email@example.com or (310) 206-0375.
For more information about “The Antonym of Forgetting” Symposium, click here.
For more information on the South Asian American Digital Archives, click here.
Originally published in Ampersand on Oct. 11, 2013