Pop Culture Explorer

Portrait of Elena Creef

Photo by Richard Howard

Elena Tajima Creef, professor of women’s and gender studies, describes her work as “Asian American/African-American/Native American and Latino/a studies mixed in one big theoretical, critical, historical pot with cultural studies, feminist theory, and critical race studies.” We asked her about her interest in Elvis Presley and where her scholarly pursuits are taking her next.

When did you become interested in Elvis Presley?

In 2009, I designed a first-year women’s and gender studies seminar on Elvis that was probably the most fun I have ever had in a classroom. My goal for every meeting: Teach like it was the last class I would ever teach. I credit those first-year students (my “Elvettes”) with inspiring me to become an actual Elvis scholar. My current work on Elvis impersonators in New Orleans happened because they challenged me to merge my teaching with my research. I now teach the Elvis class only in summer session and find that the typical response of my students is, “Who is Elvis?” By the time they finish my course, they can speak with authority on the androgynous appeal of young Elvis, Elvis’ appropriation of African-American music and culture, Graceland as a unique American pilgrimage site, the rise of Dead Elvis Studies, and the gendered and racial complexity of Elvis impersonators.

Your current book project draws on your family history. Tell us about that.

My work on Shadow Traces: Japanese American Women in Photo Archives looks at the visual history of Asian women in America. In the absence of any formal archives on WWII Japanese war brides, I ended up turning to my mother’s carefully preserved 1952 immigration family photo album as one of the subjects of my study. Precious family albums like my mother’s are rich overlooked repositories for studying the visual history of so many marginalized immigrant groups. Every Japanese war bride I have ever met has a similar trove of personal family photographs that literally fill in a historical blank spot.

Anything surprising on your bedside table right now?

John Ewers’ The Horse in Blackfoot Indian Culture, and Peter Mitchell’s Horse Nations: The Worldwide Impact of the Horse on Indigenous Societies Post-1492. Can you tell that I am trying to become a self-trained scholarly expert on the history of the horse in Native American Great Plains culture? I’m not joking. This is the subject of my new book project.

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