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Allied Arts & Media

Between Worlds, Right at Home

Justine Abigail Yu, founder and editor-in-chief of Living Hyphen. Photo provided. 

Justine Abigail Yu (she/her) is the founder and editor-in-chief of Living Hyphen, a community and magazine that explores what it means to live in between cultures as a hyphenated Canadian – that is, an individual who calls Canada home but also has roots elsewhere.

On Living Hyphen’s website, Abigail writes: “From the Haitian-Quebecois commuting along the Montréal Métro to the South Asian trans man applying for permanent residency, from the young Filipino-Canadian woman texting her immigrant mother to the Plains Cree and Métis man meeting a traditional healer, this magazine reveals the rich inner lives of Canada’s diverse communities.”

Abigail recently launched the Living Hyphen podcast during the pandemic, a collection of “stories from a multitude of different storytellers across what we now know as Canada to explore this concept of “homestuck” – whatever home might be, whatever one’s relationship to their home(s) might be, and whatever being stuck can mean.”

We spoke with Abigail about the new podcast, storytelling during a pandemic, and finding community while living between worlds.

LiisBeth: What is your origin story?

Justine Abigail Yu: I am a Filipina-Canadian. I was born in Manila, Philippines and moved to Toronto, Canada when I was just four years old. I was constantly in this tug of war as I was growing up, always going back and forth between these two identities, places, and cultures I hold so dearly. That all these truths about me could exist at once is something that has always boggled my mind. And it’s something that I tried to hide or quiet when I was younger in an attempt to fit in.

It’s only as I’ve gotten older and more comfortable in my own skin and more unapologetic in exercising the power of my voice that I’ve come to realize, accept, and hold pride in the fact that I am not simply fragments and pieces of these two cultures or places. I am fully and wholly both. I am Filipina-Canadian.

LiisBeth: How did the idea for Living Hyphen come about, and what are you hoping to achieve through it?

Abigail: The seed of this idea was born in the fall of 2015 at Toronto’s Feminist Art Conference when I attended a powerhouse panel about (the lack of) diversity in Canadian literature. The panel was stacked with writers of colour with tons of experience to share about the publishing industry. I listened to these writers talk about the difficulties they faced in getting their work published, simply because their stories did not conform to the “Canadian narrative.” Either that or their stories were not “ethnic” enough.

As a writer and as a woman of colour, this deeply unsettled me. I didn’t want to have my story filtered through the lens of a homogenously white editorial board that actually has no idea what it means to live in between cultures. In that moment, I decided that I had to build my own house – by and for writers of colour. And so, the seed of Living Hyphen sprouted.

Since the launch of the inaugural issue of our print magazine in October 2018, our mission has always been to reshape the mainstream and amplify the voices that often go unheard.

Our inaugural issue featured the stories of more than 50 artists and writers from all across what we now know as Canada and who hail from more than 30+ ethnic backgrounds, religions, and Indigenous nations. We’ve since grown to include cultural programming by way of writing workshops and storytelling nights to cultivate, nurture, and mentor writers and artists who have been told for far too long that their voices don’t matter.

LiisBeth: What made you launch a podcast, and what was the process of creating the episodes like?

Abigail: Last August, I got a random email from Trisha Gregorio pitching me on the idea of turning Living Hyphen into a podcast. I didn’t know who she was. We had never met. It was a straight up cold email. But she wrote to me with such a clear vision of what she wanted to create, a deep understanding of what Living Hyphen is all about, and a confidence of her skillset and qualifications that I knew I had to at least take a meeting with her.

At the time, I had just finished reading through hundreds upon hundreds of submissions for our upcoming second issue and listening to so many incredible storytellers from our writing workshops. It would be impossible for Living Hyphen to publish them all! Print is so expensive and time-intensive. But these stories are so powerful and beautiful and important that it would be such a loss to the world not be shared.

And so Trisha’s email came at the right moment. I had been looking for new ways to share the stories that people entrust us with, and podcasting felt like a natural progression.

It’s been an interesting process working on this podcast in the time of COVID. I’ve never met Trisha (in person), but we’ve been working so closely together over the last few months – brainstorming audio formats, developing a concept for this season, curating stories, recording remotely with artists and writers all across the country and with each other, and then meticulously editing everything together! Trisha is really the mastermind behind this podcast as both co-host and producer. She has managed to capture the essence and the heart of the Living Hyphen brand and community and I am just so humbled to have her on our team.

LiisBeth: What role does podcasting play as a medium when it comes to storytelling and building community?

Abigail: For those of us in the diaspora or who have been displaced in some way – whether voluntary or forced, abroad or right here on this land – we have not always had the luxury or privilege of having our stories or histories captured across time through written texts. We are largely a people of oral traditions, and it feels so natural and authentic to tell our stories through this podcast.

As my co-host Trisha Gregorio says, “With the audio format we’re able to dial in on a different kind of intimacy. Living Hyphen has always been about the closeness and warmth of having a storytelling community to belong to, especially for those of us from underrepresented communities. So, there’s something so special about getting to hear all these stories in the podcast directly from the voices behind them, and to be able to bring these, in this form, to listeners.”

LiisBeth: What’s next for Living Hyphen?

Abigail: We’re launching our second issue this July called, “Across Generations,” which we are so excited about! It’s full of intergenerational stories of resistance and healing. We’ve also been working with Canadian Stage to develop an adaptation of some of the stories that can be found in our magazine. It’s called nowhen and it’s set to be on stage at the High Park Ampitheatre from August 5-12. Fingers crossed that lockdown restrictions will lift by then to allow for outdoor performances! We’ll also continue to deliver our many writing workshops for emerging writers.

It’s hard to believe how much we’ve already accomplished in just 2.5 years. We’ve grown and expanded in ways I never expected, and I’m just hoping to continue in this trajectory and doing what we do best – amplifying the voices of those who have all too often gone unheard.

LiisBeth: Thank you for sharing your story and your work with us.

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Allied Arts & Media

Anthropology for Non-anthropologists

Photo by Milton Ramirez

 

The first time Anya-Milana Sulaver (she/her) went back to visit her extended family in former Yugoslavia, she was trampled by a herd of pigs while picking tomatoes with her grandmother. It was the early ‘80s. Her grandmother had taken her there for the summer. She recalls how different the whole experience was for an urban girl who grew up in the West. 

Years later, the culture shock from that first trip made her realize how different her family’s upbringing and context had been from her own. 

This realization fascinated her. On subsequent trips there, Sulaver found herself increasingly interested in culture and communities. The duality of her experiences, that she was living through two cultures, drew her to “spaces of translation”— where she could understand the interconnectedness of her family’s history and identity with Yugoslavia and her own identity as a Canadian.

Anya-Milana Sulaver, founder at Peeps Magazine. Photo by Franzi Molina.

After completing her first degree,  Sulaver started working as an associate producer for a company that focused on telling the stories of Indigenous communities in Canada. The documentary she’s most proud of investigated the signing of Treaty 7 by speaking with elders from the Blood, Siksika and Peigan reserves who retained the treaty’s oral history. The final documentary was broadcast nationally and shown to students from Blood 148, a First Nations reserve in Alberta that was established under the provisions of the treaty.

“The course of the work that’s followed has supported [my] lifelong ambition to ensure that when you’re speaking about a culture or peoples that those people [are] given the opportunity to ensure that representation is true to their values.”

The path that followed included getting two more degrees: a BA in International Development and a Masters in Interdisciplinary Studies (Anthropology, Humanities and Film), culminating in the founding of Peeps Magazine in 2015. An independent digital publication, Peeps shares insights into people and cultures around the world. 

 

Photo by Christopher Pike for Peeps Magazine.

Tapping into Deep Research

Peeps, supported by Ontario Creates funding and a membership subscription ($21 quarterly/$70 annually), is produced by a team of 14 design, development and editorial staff, along with two curatorial managing editors who are experts in medical anthropology, and race and gender studies. Initially a print publication, Peeps transitioned to an online platform to reach a wider audience, providing readers with long-form articles that are often described as anthropology for non-anthropologists.

Sulaver founded Peeps because she wanted to bring knowledge to lay readers that was trapped in academic conversations, journals and conferences. Peer-reviewed and verified research takes years to trickle out to mainstream media—she estimates five to 10 years. She had a hunch that people were hungry for the information, especially published by an organization that takes care to verify the facts. So she built Peeps to help fill this gap.

A Peeps story, based on solid research and verified information, provides context and history to help readers gain that understanding.

Examples of this include the ways residents of post-apartheid Johannesburg, South Africa, confronted social inequalities in shared spaces; how “a clan of femcees” or female rappers were united by “a drive to dismantle gender stereotypes” in Iceland; or the role superheroes play in understanding contemporary society and how women are perceived. Authors bring hyphenated experiences – anthropologists/artists/filmmakers – to the writing of the stories.

The magazine was shortlisted for the Stack Independent Magazine Awards in 2016 in two categories—best launch and best original non-fiction story, “Winning and Losing in Modern China,” which investigated online vigilantism and gaming culture in Hangzhou, China. Written by Graham Candy, a PhD candidate for anthropology at the University of Toronto at the time, the article was also awarded Best Special Interest Story by Magazines Canada.

Sulaver describes Peeps approach to story telling as “participant observation.” Writers are usually historians, ethnographers and anthropologists who have spent decades in a particular community, bringing an academic rigour to frame their understanding of their experiences. Accurate analysis coupled with empathy, personal accountability and discipline are hallmarks of their storytelling.

A recent feature looked at the New Zealand government’s recognition of the Whanganui river as a living being, possessing human rights. Written by Anne Salmond, a distinguished professor of Maori Studies and Anthropology at the University of Auckland, the article recounts her personal relationship with the Maori community and how Maori chiefs, mayors, ambassadors, and local residents pressed to have the world’s first waterway gain this “person” status, considered revolutionary in placing the vital waterway “in a new relationship with human beings” and securing economic and legal support to protect it.

Sulaver says the editorial team confirmed permission from the Maori community, especially elders, to publish photos from Salmond’s time there. The Peeps team, led mostly by feminist women, are focused on building relationships, empathy and trust through their work. “We don’t want to prescribe solutions for people with the information—do with it what you will,” says Sulaver. “We’ve given you the information. We’ve given you resources to learn more about this. You know who the expert is on this. You can ask them on our website. But by not being prescriptive, the point is still there: the point is learning about other people and being an active listener to how they are in the world and how they see themselves in the world.”

She adds, “The goal is to have a product that people read and go, ‘I feel like I know those people so much better.’ Rather than, ‘Okay, this is how I invest my money, or this is how I can do this.'”

Combatting disinformation

As the publication enters its sixth year, Sulaver says Peeps remains devoted to verification as antidote to the exponential growth of disinformation in journalism. “We knew that fake news was a big problem six years ago—soon to be seven years—when we first started developing the core concept for the magazine. And it was something that I was adamant that we have an answer to in our infrastructure.”

The problem of fake news began long before The Donald was elected president of the United States, and Sulaver believes it will continue to exist long after Trump leaves. “This conversation is not new. I think that Trump is simply the giant snowball at the end of an avalanche. And [it] isn’t just the media—it’s politics, it’s academia, it’s all of our institutions that have been run by people who look the same, and who forgive the same flaws and sins in themselves. And over time, cumulatively, that adds up.”

For Sulaver, combatting disinformation moving forward involves giving people the power to share their stories and culture in a way that’s research-based and verifiable. With a small, devoted membership, she believes Peeps provides a platform to do just that.

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