#AsiaNow Speaks with Juno Salazar Parreñas

Juno Salazar Parreñas is currently Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at The Ohio State University and author of Decolonizing Extinction: The Work of Care in Orangutan Rehabilitation, published by Duke University Press and recipient of the honorable mention for the 2020 AAS Harry J. Benda Prize.

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

My book thinks about how to live and die in this moment of mass extinction, knowing that colonial legacies impact chances for survival. It considers this question by studying social relations that develop between critically endangered and displaced orangutans and the different kinds of people who care for them in Sarawak (present day Malaysia). Such caretakers include Iban economic migrants, commercial volunteers from abroad who pay thousands of dollars to help perform manual labor, and local managers who run Sarawak’s orangutan rehabilitation centers. I show how these centers work as privatized hospices for a dying species.

I adopted primatological behavioral sampling along with participant-observation, interviews, linguistic discourse analysis, and archival research. These methods allowed me to engage multi-scalar time, ranging from seconds of affective uncertainty between semi-wild apes and the humans that shape their everyday lives, to decades of life histories impacted by early maternal separation, war, and displacement, to centuries of colonialism, and to the millennia of geological epochs. With this perspective, I theorize relations, enclosures, and futures as expressed in the arrested autonomy of semi-wild orangutans. Ultimately, I argue that supporting biodiversity should reject aspirations for unequal safety and instead accept vulnerability shared with multitudes of life forms.

What inspired you to research this topic?

It began for me in Summer 2004, just after I got admitted into Harvard Anthropology’s PhD program. I was planning to study a totally different kind of project in the Philippines. But then, I happened to watch a documentary about a famous orangutan rehabilitation center in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. It showed Dayak women caring for infant orangutans, but it didn’t interview any of them. It only interviewed the white Europeans funding and running the site. So, I became very intrigued and wondered what these women thought of their work. I dropped my original project in my first semester of graduate school and started taking primatology courses and learning Malay. At the sites where I eventually did my research, it was gendered quite differently than I had anticipated. You’ll have to read chapter 1 to find out how!

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

Getting fieldwork funding for this project was a serious challenge. I applied to the Wenner-Gren so often, I was told to not apply anymore. I made it high enough on an SSRC-IDRF panel to get personal feedback one year, but didn’t even make the first cut the next year. I think my project was very weird at the time. It was years before “multispecies ethnography” emerged. To begin fieldwork, I had to string together different institutional grants and get a student loan. I successfully got a Fulbright-IIE on the 2nd or 3rd try. To this day, I am very grateful that my dearly departed PhD advisor Mary Steedly steadfastly believed in my project, despite the frequent rejections! She gave me feedback on so many drafts of grant proposals. I’m also grateful that I got a job that enabled me to pay back all of my student loans! I’m also grateful that I have better proposal writing skills!

What is the strangest/funniest/most outrageous/most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

An orangutan ripped my eyeglasses off my face and my eyeglasses remained intact! The same orangutan bore her teeth at me when she once held me by the leg. I was very afraid that she was going to bite me with her enormous teeth, but she ended up mouthing a zipper pocket at the side of my leg. I wrote about that as the uncertainty of affective encounters—you really don’t know if a semi-wild orangutan will bite you or do something else. I did not write about how the same orangutan rubbed my scalp with her hand moments before she pushed my eyeglasses off my face. Her hand was really heavy, cold, and clammy. She could have crushed my skull, but thankfully she didn’t!

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

I wrote much of Decolonizing Extinction while in a state of grief. In that period of my life, Renato Rosaldo’s poems dedicated to Michelle Rosaldo, The Day of Shelly’s Death (Duke UP, 2013) had a profound impact on me. It struck me to think about the material effects of those who have departed. Backpacks last longer than a person or other living beings.

It was very personally meaningful for me when my book received the Michelle Z. Rosaldo Prize from the Association for Feminist Anthropology. Shelly Rosaldo died while doing fieldwork in the Philippines, in northern Luzon while I was a toddler in Manila. Her book, Knowledge and Passion (Cambridge UP, 1980) is so good for thinking about affect, epistemology, and ontology. She wrote about these topics well before their turns! It would be an inspiring book to read, with or without mine in tandem.

Mary Steedly trained me to be a serious student of Southeast Asia. She passed away two years ago and I’m sad that I will not have the chance to celebrate with her in Boston this year. While I was working on my PhD with her, she was finishing up her book Rifle Reports: A Story of Indonesian Independence (University of California Press, 2013). I’m indebted to her careful thinking about Merdeka (freedom in the sense of political independence) that helped me to think about kebebasan (freedom in the sense of liberty).

Anna Tsing’s influence on me is really deep. I was working as her research assistant and enrolled in her undergraduate seminar on Southeast Asia at UC Santa Cruz when I first read her book, In the Realm of the Diamond Queen (Princeton, 1994), which was the 1994 Harry J. Benda Prize winner. Reading Anna Tsing’s first book with my own offers fruitful comparisons for how to theorize across disciplines as ethnographers and for thinking about Borneo from different locations on the island and over a gap of 25 years.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a new project, tentatively titled Short Stories, Long Lives: Human-Animal Biographies of Aging. I’m figuring out the question, why is animal retirement emerging around the world when human retirement is seen as a problem in the very same places? When I was writing up my first book, Sandra the Orangutan in Argentina got to “retire,” which meant being sent from a zoo to a wildlife sanctuary. I know from my own experience that animal sanctuaries aren’t necessarily better than zoos. Meanwhile, chimpanzees once owned by the National Institutes of Health became “eligible for retirement.” I’m designing this research project as a cross-section of the world economy: USA, Germany, South Africa, and Singapore. I suspect that the answer to the question of who gets to retire is often a matter of privilege, one in which race, gender, sexual orientation, and wealth matter. I’m hoping that this research will let me think about racial capitalism via Cedric Robinson as a global issue and how it might be the same or different in these different places, especially in Southeast Asia. This project has me continuing to think about the values of supporting life in the face of what feels like immanent death.

My first book is so grounded in a particular place, from which I am able to study large planetary issues like the Sixth Extinction, global capitalism, and climate change. In the intro, I make the criticism that most multispecies ethnographies often ride along with elites who bounce from place to place, following a species, without getting to really think about particular members of a species, the people in their vicinities, and the issues both animals and people face when understood in their specific locales. My new project departs from that quite dramatically! That said, I couldn’t imagine not being a Southeast Asianist!

I’m trying to avoid that elite bouncing around by really thinking deeply about specificity of place and by learning from the already existing literature. I’m excited about the work of TEO You Yen, Shiori Shakuto, SENG Guo-Quan. I’m also excited by new scholarship in Southeast Asian environmental studies from Faizah Zakaria, Anthony Medrano, and Cindy Lin, who is a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan’s School of Information. I continue to be inspired by the work of other Southeast Asianists Rusaslina Idrus, Nur Amali Ibrahim, Veronika Kusumayarti, Sarah Grant, Jesse Grayman, Chika Watanabe, and Natalie Porter. Southeast Asia is an exciting place to be thinking about the state of the world!