Commentary about the work of Julie Thi Underhill

At the heart of my work is a desire to acknowledge what usually remains untranslated in our lives, including residues of violence, grief, outrage, and uncertainty.

— Julie Thi Underhill


In the words of others —



My family immigrated to the United States from Afghanistan and left almost everything behind due to war—including most of their memories. Inspired by Julie’s film, I’d love to rediscover these memories that haven’t made it to me through oral tradition yet.

—    Mashalle Olomi, on Second Burial

This is so beautiful! Mesmerizing. I love the music too—it’s perfect. Wistful, gorgeous, decayed, mysterious. And in the end, you come back to “reality” and walk away down the street…

—    Henry Shepherd, Independent video producer and editor, on The City in Which I Love You

This wonderful short film, like Julie’s photography and other creative endeavors, is deep and rich. To witness it is to be let in on a secret story—whispered not in words, but in the sense and the feelings they provoke. And the soundtrack is perfectly married to the visual.

—    Scott Mahood, Powells Books, on The City in Which I Love You


Several contributors pursue strategies variously informed by media and visual culture studies and critical autoethnography to query the resonance of connections to the past — and often to our dead — without necessarily offering a final ‘truth’ or closure, instead pressing open the wounds as a reminder, or as a resolution, to never forget. In her portfolio of black-and-white images of the Cham, a now ethnic minority in Viet Nam that once ruled the large Champa empire colonized by Viet Nam, Julie Thi Underhill’s elegiac photographs gesture toward the identifications, the desires, and the love that often underline the encounter with the ruins of past wars in the present. Underhill documents and intensely personal journey, returning twice to Viet Nam for her maternal grandmother’s funeral rites, a journey that nonetheless carries the almost unbearable weight of documenting a ‘disappearing’ population. Remembrance is of course a particular problem after the devastation wrought by colonialism and war, and as such is less a recovery than a refusal to move on, which is to say, to leave behind. Indeed, to re-place the Cham and their haunting presence in Viet Nam is to press not only against the seams and sutures of United States’ amnesia but also against other histories of forgotten empires in Laos and Cambodia as well.

—  Fiona I.B. Ngô, Mimi Thi Nguyen, and Mariam B. Lam, “Southeast Asian American Studies Special Issue: Guest Editors’ Introduction,” positions: east asia cultures critique (Duke University Press) special issue Southeast Asian American Studies, Summer 2012

Julie Thi Underhill’s beautiful photographs of Vietnam, including her Cham relatives, represent an important and personal search for connection and self.

— Karín Aguilar-San Juan, “Vietnamese Americans in the Context of the Vietnam War,” Understanding and Teaching the Vietnam War, edited by John Day Tully, Matthew Masur, and Brad Austin, University of Wisconsin Press, 2013

If travel can elicit excitement and trepidation, it can also evoke fear and ambivalence, two registers that are found in Julie Thi Underhill’s highly textured black-and-white photograph Fear of Ambivalence.

— Isabelle Thuy Pelaud, Lan Duong, Mariam B. Lam, and Kathy L. Nguyen, editors of Troubling Borders: An Anthology of Art and Literature by Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora, University of Washington Press, 2013

Julie Thi Underhill’s photography and art works are like her poetry and self portraits—a study in identity. They are not snapshots but choreographed, as a dance between shades of gray from dark to light, deep and introspective, composed from a perspective unique and profound. When doing portraits of people within a culture they are as much her and she them.

Her subjects—whether human, animal or landscape—are visual verses of poetry to decipher as a movement in the symphony of stars. There is something natural and beautiful in her work. Like nature there is cruelty. Still children laugh and play, the sun still rises with each new dawn with her lens a witness, the film the evidence, the print a testimony.

—    Dan Shea, M.F.A., Artist, Photographer, and Veteran For Peace

The photographs are undoubtedly beautiful. There is a very human nobility that comes through in most of the images. There is too a hidden undercurrent behind all the images that is difficult to grasp, but remains tantalizing, insistent and demanding. Thank you.

—    Gordon, in Julie’s guest book at Viet Nam & Cuba, a two-person show with Niki Polyocan at the Newspace Center for Photography in Portland, Oregon, in 2005

Poignant and touching. Almost beyond words.

—    G. Yock, in Julie’s guest book at Viet Nam & Cuba, a two-person show with Niki Polyocan at the Newspace Center for Photography in Portland, Oregon, in 2005

Julie is a beautiful and sensitive photographer. Not only does she have a beautiful sensibility for light and subject matter, but her taste level is impeccable. We collaborated on an exhibition together, and she was wonderful to work with.

—    Niki Polyocan, Photographer, Collaborator for Viet Nam & Cuba at Newspace Center for Photography in Portland, Oregon, Senior Producer at Anomaly

Poetry & Essay

Julie Thi Underhill’s contribution provides a kind of coda to the volume as a whole in asking what remains of bodies after they disappear. Her autobiographical text links sexuality and violence and testifies to how individuals live and die in the face of traumatic events both in spaces of U.S. imperialism and in U.S. domestic spaces, where individual bodies have been scarred by those larger geopolitical events.

—  Sean Metzger and Gina Masequesmay, “Introduction,” Embodying Asian/American Sexualities, Lexington Books, a division of Rowman & Littlefield

Thank you for sharing such a personal and powerful narrative of memories and loss, and bringing into question whether justice can ever be achieved for victims of wars and genocides whose “losses are incommensurable and irreparable.” I believe that your work– your own rewounding– will help in this process of healing.

— Tiffany Long, on Democratic Kampuchea’s Genocide of the Cham

I liked your poetry very much: thoughtful and intense, coolly cerebral, poignantly personal, full of energy, acceleration and striking imagery. Quite terrific indeed.

—   Mikhail Iossel, Author of Every Hunter Wants to Know, Associate Professor of English/Creative Writing, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada; Founder and Director, Summer Literary Seminars

Julie Thi Underhill’s work is very original and filled with intelligence and compassion. All those things don’t always arrive in the same package.

—   F.S. Rosa, Author of The Divine Comedy of Carlo Tresca

You did a remarkable job documenting, tracing and explaining the roots of the Cham people and culture. I also appreciate your honesty in writing this essay, descriptions are brutal at times, but only then, can we clearly visualize the after effects and the cultural trauma the Chams faced as a group of people. I am also impressed by the beautiful photographs you used to document and incorporate into your essay. Again, thank you for a well written and bold essay!

—    Tina, on Democratic Kampuchea’s Genocide of the Cham

You are so intrigued by the beauty of the universe. Your stories prove deep curiosity, sustained passion, persistence, and courage. Inspiring, yet again.

—    Ly Hoang, Visual artist and arts instructor

I’m Khmer and the article you wrote really sent a powerful message to the world! I was told that the Cham Muslims suffered the most and as a Khmer I felt sad that this happened! Cham Muslims are one of the most important race in Cambodia! They are not a minority but a majority like us Khmers! As of 2010, the population is between 1 million to 1.5 million. Heck! Even the Khmer King in the 17th century was Muslim and married a Malaysian Princess! Islam is part of the Cambodian culture and it must be embrace! The Cham race will live on!!!!

—   Tee, on Democratic Kampuchea’s Genocide of the Cham

Some people like you are doing the ‘combat’ for us whereas we need a deeper ‘combat’ with ours to live honorable lives in Peace. Peace needs more work and struggle put into it than war.

—    Dr. E. Lale Demirturk, Associate Professor, Bilkent University, Turkey

I feel grateful to know you and to witness your work of holding up the bodies and stories of the Cham. It’s insanely powerful and ridiculously inspiring to realize what could be possible. Thank you.

—   Jai Arun Ravine, Performer, Poet, and Author of แล้ว and then entwine, Tinfish Press (2011)

Growing up in America was a challenge as I faced an identity crisis as being a Cham American Muslim. As I became older, I was curious of my own culture and seek the history of my people. Thank you for writing a beautiful and informative article on our people. It is a reminder to us all how grateful we should be of our elders who encountered such trials and tribulations and to retain the history of our people.

—  Munir Abdol, on Democratic Kampuchea’s Genocide of the Cham

Julie Thi Underhill’s essay encapsulates in memoiristic form a self that questions the enforcement of Christianity within a refugee context.

— Isabelle Thuy Pelaud, Lan Duong, Mariam B. Lam, and Kathy L. Nguyen, editors of Troubling Borders: An Anthology of Art and Literature by Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora , University of Washington Press, about Julie’s contribution “Corner Shore”



I took Native American Studies R1A with Julie Thi Underhill. My first semester was a little stressful because I had to get accustomed to college life, but having a professor like Julie really helped in making it a wonderful semester. I know for a fact that Julie will be one of the best professors, if not the best one that I will have the pleasure of being taught by at Cal. Julie is a professor who really cares about her students; throughout last semester, she showed us that she cared about us through her words and actions, in and out of class. Additionally, I loved Julie’s teaching style. She answered our questions and also listened to our opinions and point of views in discussion. The editing process that Julie used for our essays is also another thing that makes her an amazing professor because she taught us the skills needed in writing a great paper. I was not a confident writer going into my Native American Studies R1A class, but I came out of the class so much more confident in my writing skills. I credit that to Julie and the time and effort she put into teaching us. Office hours were not awkward either because we could talk about almost everything; we discussed things ranging from school work to family. We could also schedule appointments with her out of her normal office hours. She definitely tried to accommodate every student’s schedule and find time that worked with her own. In my opinion, Julie is an amazing person and professor, and I hope I meet wonderful professors like her in my future college classes.

—   Fatima Kamara, University of California Berkeley student

Julie was by far one of the best GSI’s I have had at Berkeley. She was hard-working, punctual and incredibly understanding and considerate—always going above and beyond what was expected of her as a GSI. For each assignment, Julie made a huge effort to provide guidance and support, making herself available through office hours and extended class periods. She was able to shape a classroom atmosphere that enabled students to be creative in our academic pursuits, always encouraging us to find our own space and voice within this broad academic discipline. And yet, Julie was still able to keep the discussion section structured and organized. But what really sets Julie apart from any other GSI I have had is her enthusiasm and passion for the subject. She taught me to see my education as more than just a degree, but as a doorway to my dreams. She gave me hope that it is, indeed, possible to live out the saying: “do what you love and love what you do.” Seeing her passion enabled me to fearlessly discover and pursue my own passions. Julie gave me more than a classroom education. She taught me life.

—    Emily Zheng, University of California Berkeley student

Julie is the absolute BEST graduate student instructor that I have EVER had. She was thorough, approachable and compassionate beyond words. She gave extremely valuable feedback and was always open to talking more. She is also multi-talented, though humble, and her many other skills added to the richness of her experience and advice. Not only did she enrich and support my learning experience, but her perspective and warm energy were a great help to me during a difficult time in my life. I will be forever grateful.

—    Lajuanda Asemota, University of California Berkeley graduate, Director of Logistics at Singularity University

Julie is an incredible instructor, facilitator, mentor and filmmaker. As a GSI, she is very approachable and you can see how passionate she is about Ethnic Studies and her work on Cham diasporas. Her work is incredibly personal and beautiful, and for that I am truly grateful because she has inspired me to reclaim my own history.

—    Daisy Villafuerte, University of California Berkeley undergraduate

Julie was my Graduate Student Instructor for Asian American Studies 20A. From the beginning of the semester it was obvious that Julie knew all the material extremely well and knew how to teach it to her students in a concise, helpful, and interesting manner that fostered discussion. However, I can say that about a lot of Graduate Student Instructors. The reason Julie stood out from everyone else was the passion and love she showed for the subject matter and the care she showed for her students. Julie’s passion for the subject she was teaching was apparent from the get go and was contagious in its own way. That made my experience with her truly memorable and worthwhile.

—    Jason Jia, University of California Berkeley undergraduate

Julie Thi Underhill was one of the best Graduate Student Instructors that I had during my undergraduate career at UC Berkeley. She was an effective and thoughtful instructor for Ethnic Studies: Humanities Methods. One strength that stands out to me is her ability to engage with each student, and to provide tailored guidance. Every GSI has to provide feedback and be a resource for students when they write papers, but she took the time to really work with me on my final paper. She listened to my thoughts, helped me to organize my arguments and analysis, and suggested sources that I could not have found on my own. Most importantly though, she gave me guidance on how to self-edit by asking myself that right questions about perspective, flow, and critical analysis. Mostly, I am writing this recommendation because that paper was one of the best I have ever written, and I know that I owe a lot of that to her.

—    Kim Ng, University of California Berkeley graduate

As my Graduate Student Instructor for Asian American History, Julie did an outstanding job of not only teaching the subject matter in a clear, concise manner, but provided memorable and insightful personal experiences. Julie was extremely helpful in working with me to develop my ideas and structure for my biographical paper. She has a vast breadth of knowledge in this subject and I can easily say that she is one of the best instructors I have had at Berkeley.

—    Penelope Chuah, University of California Berkeley undergraduate, Pathology Intern at Palo Alto Medical Foundation

Julie was my graduate student instructor for an Ethnic Studies methodology course and was deeply involved in helping me conceptualize and produce my research paper on barriers to higher education for former foster youth. She is truly a mentor who cares about making sure her students have the tools to create meaningful, high quality work. She was incredibly accessible and supportive. In the classroom, she was wonderful at facilitating discussions in a free-flowing and productive manner. Julie is also very open about her own research and uses it to inspire her students. She is definitely the best graduate student instructor I had during my time at UC Berkeley.

—   Cecilia Tran, University of California Berkeley graduate, Field Representative at California State Assembly

Julie is a passionate, dedicated researcher who excels in practically everything that she does. Her poetry, artistry, and writing are outstanding. She is an excellent lecturer as well and a pleasure to work with!

—    Calvin Vu, University of California Berkeley graduate student instructor

Julie was my graduate student instructor (GSI) for two classes at UC Berkeley. I had the opportunity to work with other GSI’s and I had the best experience with Julie. Her learning style and approach made it easier for students to enjoy and comprehend material. Julie is the type of person that commits herself wholeheartedly to the task at hand and is very effective in working with others. Julie overall is a great person and is a great addition to any team and work environment.

—    Julio Navarro, University of California Berkeley graduate, UCLA School of Law

A very inspiring GSI who is very passionate about her teaching and research. She is incredibly personable and is able to reach her students on multiple levels. She also has the ability to break down complex theories and concepts in an accessible way. Highly recommended.

—    Son Chau, University of California Berkeley graduate