How did COVID-19 impact Asian American literature and Asian American lives? That was the question Professor Stephen Hong Sohn explored in his inaugural lecture as the newly installed Thomas F. X. and Theresa Mullarkey Chair in Literature.

“Asian American literature always responds to the historical moment, whether it’s Japanese American incarceration, whether it’s 9/11, Asian American writers always want to remind us that we shouldn’t be so quick to judge people based upon how they look,” Sohn said at the April 25 installation ceremony.

In this case, Sohn highlighted how the COVID-19 pandemic and its roots in China spurred a rise in racism and attacks against Asian Americans. But, Sohn noted, Asian American writers have to tackle the issue of racism against their community “every 20 years” or so, dating back to Japanese internment camps during World War II.

“It reminds us that we’re all interdependent, meaning that we all have to rely on each other to create a collective social awareness, that we need to treat each other with complexity,” he said.

A man talks at a podium
Professor Stephen Hong Sohn discusses Laura Gao’s “Messy Roots” graphic narrative.

Since 2020, more than a dozen books have been published by Asian American authors on the pandemic, and for his lecture, Sohn read all of them, aiming to find common patterns and themes. As he was reading, he said he was most drawn to the “life writings,” such as memoirs, essays, and autobiographies.

He cited three examples that provided a deeper understanding of the pandemic period: disability advocate Alice Wong’s Year of the Tiger essay collection; The Monsoon Diaries: A Doctor’s Journey of Hope and Healing from the ER Frontlines to the Far Reaches of the World by Dr. Calvin Sun, who worked as an emergency room physician; and Laura Gao’s Messy Roots graphic narrative.

“[They’re] telling us that we have to be careful about the different vulnerable subjects,” he said. “And it’s not just Asian Americans, obviously, it’s lots of other communities, it’s disabled communities. It’s health care workers like Dr. Sun. And it’s everyday individuals like Laura Gao, who just want to be connected with their family.”

In Gao’s graphic novel, she depicts herself playing ping-pong with a woman in January 2020 who keeps talking about China in a racist way, until Gao gets fed up. At first, Sohn showed that it was just her dealing with this one instance of racial aggression, but later in the piece, Gao shows a multitude of examples from news coverage of Asian Americans being blamed for the pandemic and abused in response to it.

“It tells us about the social structure that has changed in that three month period, and ramped up, and it’s something affecting a larger group of people,” he said. “You can’t have this individual microaggression without that larger social structural overlay.”

People pose with an award
(From left to right) Fordham Provost Dennis Jacobs, Theresa Mullarkey, Professor Stephen Hong Sohn, and English Chair Mary Bly

A Connection with Tom Mullarkey

Sohn was officially hired to fill the Mullarkey Chairin January 2020, but with the pandemic, the official installation ceremony was put off. He recalled how when he first found out about the position, he felt a tug to apply due to some of the parallels between him and Thomas Mullarkey, one of the chair’s namesakes.

“I share a key affiliation with Tom as we’re both the children of immigrants who no doubt saw America as a land of opportunity and refuge,” Sohn said.

But Sohn also noted that their interactions with Korea overlapped—Mullarkey had served in Korea in the armistice period from 1954 to 1956, which was exactly what Sohn was researching for his book project. This “strange parallel” helped encourage Sohn to apply.

Sohn also shared with the audience some history about Mullarkey, who was a double Ram—graduating from Fordham College at Rose Hill in 1954 and Fordham Law School in 1959. He served on the Board of Trustees for almost 10 years before he passed away in 1993.

“The legend goes that [Mullarkey] originally planned to major in business, but a Jesuit tapped him on the shoulder and told him, ‘No, you should probably go into the humanities. It would be better for you,’” Sohn said. “He ascended the ranks of Wall Street and was very successful in finance. But what you might not know is that he was always well known for his abilities to write and speak eloquently—skills no doubt cultivated in part by his time as an English major here at Fordham.”

This inspired Mullarkey to want to give back, Sohn said, something continued by his wife Theresa, who received an honorary doctorate from the University in 2005.

Sohn said that becoming the Mullarkey Chair has been “transformative.”

“I’ve been able to travel, go to archives, do the kind of research that I’ve always wanted to do without some of the obstacles that we would traditionally have,” he said. “So it means everything to me to have this opportunity.”

Students pose for a selfie
Professor Stephen Hong Sohn poses for a photo with students.