Associate professor Francesca Lawson discussed her research and field experience behind her new book, The Women of Quyi: Liminal Voices and Androgynous Bodies and how this project has become one of the major accomplishments of her career.
PROVO, Utah (Apr. 26, 2017)—When a researcher discovers a little-known story in a country’s cultural history, does she have a responsibility to share that story? What if she is a foreigner in the country she is studying? What if the story is sensitive and hard to tell? Francesca Lawson, associate professor of comparative arts and letters at BYU, faced all of those challenges in writing her newest book, The Women of Quyi: Liminal Voices and Androgynous Bodies. The book tells the fictionalized story of real women in the city of Tianjin, China, who revolutionized the genre of musical storytelling.
When Lawson traveled to China in 1985 as a Fulbright-Hays doctoral student of ethnomusicology, her goal was to research what happens to the comprehensibility of a tonal language when sung. She traveled to Tianjin, China, under the sponsorship of Nankai University. “The professor who was willing to take me on – and I will be eternally grateful he did that – was an academic like me, and he could see, ‘here is this student who [wants] to learn,’ so he allowed me to work with him,” Lawson said.
However, she found it nearly impossible to get people to open up to her about their experiences as performers or their rich cultural tradition. “When I first went [to China] it was ten years after the Cultural Revolution and foreigners were not a common sight in China, especially where I was in Tianjin,” Lawson explained. “We were a real anomaly. They were not eager to speak to me.”
“Finally,” Lawson remembered, “[the professor] said, ‘Look, you’re going to have to become the disciple of someone because nobody’s going to share anything with you if you don’t.’”
Many of the women performers took on serious students, or “disciples,” to train in their art. “It was very difficult to get into the community,” Lawson said. “But the reason why I was able to get in [is because] I became the disciple of two different women.”
Each of these women, performers in different musical storytelling traditions, agreed to teach Lawson. “That was a formal ceremony where I had to bow and there were certain things I had to do in this ritualized tradition,” Lawson said. Because of that formal relationship, “they were obligated to tell me things because that was their responsibility as my teacher.”
In addition to gathering research for her dissertation, Lawson discovered during her interviews with these women a deeper, more personal side of their stories. Lawson explained, “In the 20th century, women [were] beginning to take the stage.” Women had performed on the stage before, but this was the first time well-respected women became performers. Lawson attributes this change to international feminism and China’s desire to step onto the world stage and their subsequent embrace of modernity.
In the past, male storytellers had used the iconic “tragic female figure” to represent the loss of power – the fall of a dynasty, for example. “The urban storytelling that became very popular in the late 19th and 20th centuries happened to be stories about women,” Lawson said. “So, we have women who are now going to sing stories about women because they can. These tragic stories about women often mirrored the lives of the female storytellers.”
The women of Quyi in the book’s title actually refer to two different groups of women – the performers themselves and the symbolic female figures about whom they sang. Women were able to break into the tradition by becoming an androgynous narrator. “They’re not playing a female role, necessarily. They’re playing the role of a storyteller,” Lawson explained. “These women are ones who could de-emphasize their [bodies] and allow their voices to be heard.”
During her time in China, Lawson realized the historical nature of the story she had discovered – most of the performers were in their later years. “That older generation of women represented the heyday of the female domination of storytelling, from the ’20s to the ’40s. “You still find performers today who are learning, although what I learned when I came in the ’80s was already at that point a shadow of what it had formerly been,” Lawson said.
Lawson realized that the story she stumbled upon was extraordinary. She said, “I had never, in my research on China, come across a similar situation. There were groups of women that did fascinating things, but this seemed to be an unusual story. There are a lot of Chinese scholars that don’t know about these women.” Lawson felt as if she had a unique perspective on this certain group, and to her, “this was a fascinating story that needed to be told.”
Lawson spent the next 25 years figuring out how to tell it. She remembered, “Every time I would sit down and try and figure [it] out, I censored myself because I thought, ‘this is really sensitive. How are you going to be able to do it?’” She finally decided that she would change names and identifying information and alter personal stories just enough that they wouldn’t be immediately recognizable. It had been long enough that some of the women she interviewed had passed away, and she hoped she had figured out a way to tell the story without revealing any personal or damaging information.
After working with a developmental editor to help the story and research flow smoothly, Lawson solicited the opinion of many different people and eventually Routledge accepted it as part of their ethnomusicology series.
Despite her efforts to treat the sensitive subject matter with respect, Lawson said, “This is mine. I take responsibility for it, and we’ll see how it goes. Every time you publish anything you’re subject to lots of different opinions.”
The book stands as a powerful reminder that it sometimes takes bravery to tell stories, especially the most important ones. Lawson reflected, “You don’t know what you’re going to get when you do fieldwork. You write a grant proposal, you go in with an idea, but then you discover something [you] had no idea [you were] going to come upon.”
—Olivia Madsen (B.A. French language, ’18)
Olivia covers new research for the Department of Comparative Arts and Letters for the College of Humanities. She is pursuing a degree in French language with a minor in international development.