To be Asian in a Western-oriented world is to straddle two worlds, tight-walking the dichotomies between the reality and the stereotype – ie. an innate fondness for Hello Kitty, a penchant for bubble tea and keen abilities when it comes to math. The pulse of this very narrative can be felt throughout the experiences of the wider Asian diaspora, manifesting in a desire to be seen as individuals rather than perceived as a two-dimensional pastiches of our vibrant selves.
In a new book series titled, FAR-NEAR, editor-in-chief Lulu Yao Gioiello sets out to challenge these Western conceptions of Asia. By presenting a unique and beautifully curated selection of creative expressions that highlight genuine, less-discussed perspectives of the Asian experience, FAR-NEAR blurs Asia’s own boundaries which are often thought to extend only as far as the red sun rises (over Far Eastern Asian countries like Japan, China and Korea, while those in countries like Iran, Georgia, Sri Lanka and Yemen are glazed over apathetically.) The result is a curated cross-cultural publication that broadens views of Asia through image, person, idea and history to progress the unlearning of the inherent dominative mode.
Born to a Taiwanese mother and Italian father, Lulu grew up with her father in New York and sought out any opportunity to see herself reflected in the culture around her. Her own understandings of Asianness, culture and ultimately self-identity have culminated here. Hero chats with Lulu about the birthing FAR-NEAR, unearthing the depths of authenticity as we writhe in this sense of becoming.
Lindsey: Initially what was the whole impetus for starting the project? You’ve been working on it for about a year or so now and did you feel like there was a gap in what was out there and what you wanted to see represented?
Lulu: I would say that it came from two things. Two years ago, I made my first photo book that was a result of photographs I had taken while I was in Tokyo and Taiwan. I wanted to provide the viewer with an experience of Asia as I see it – as someone who is simultaneously an insider and outside. I wanted to diverge from the cliché or fetishes of the Western eye but still accept its existence in an Eastern world. I still want to do that. When I look back at this book, although I am happy with it, I already see how much my perspective has expanded and how I was even a bit limited and stereotypical myself when taking my photos. I think, somewhat indirectly, that this magazine is the evolution of my objective for the photo book. The other thing that inspired me is a book I read called Black Boy Feelings, a submission-based book for black guys. The submissions were very broad – drawings, photos, poems, message transcripts – and it was a perspective that I hadn’t previously known about. Once I read it I immediately thought, “Why isn’t there something like that for Asian people?” Of course, there is some really great stuff out there like Banana Mag and Sukeban Gang, but I started to think that what I wanted to do was something a little different, something more curated, really showcasing creatives and intellectuals in a mindful way; highlighting the unique ways in which we’re unified that aren't the stereotypes that are given to us. I also decided I didn’t want to limit it to Asian Americans or Asian Europeans.
Overall, when someone seeks out publications on or about Asian cultures, it’s often not really created by Asian people, but instead a bunch of European creators writing and photographing their experience, or requesting from Asian iconoclasts what they [the westerners] want to see. In turn it only really depicts Asia from a European perspective. What I want to show is Japan from Japan’s perspective, Korea from Korea’s perspective, etcetera. But not only that. As I have been further researching, talking to different people of different upbringings and heritage, getting submissions from them and finding what interested them, I am recognizing that even the more genuine representation that is out there is catered mostly to only one specific section of Asia, Chinese, Japanese, Korean representation.
Lindsey: Yeah like East Asian people
Lulu: -- Far East Asian people, yeah, but there's a lot less recognition for Iranian, or even Georgian or Turkish or something like that as being considered Asian. I wanted to have people reassess what their perception was of Asia by including a wide range of heritages. You’re already going to have a more open mind when you’re looking through this book because it’s not the expected things that you would see as and for Asian artists.
Lindsey: And when you mentioned the whole stereotype thing, it’s interesting because that stereotype is usually only based on caricatures of Far-East Asians. Taking it a layer deeper, Asian people also seemingly stereotype other Asian people more than any other racial community, reflecting the fact that we’re all kind of separated from each other. It’s more of a us them situation and we don't’ share the same identity
Lulu: Yeah, definitely. I’ve learned that Asia wasn’t really a “continent” until Westerners decided that Asia was a concept, that the people in Asia were Asian. Before that, and still even now, China considered themselves the “Middle State,” for instance. Each group was not considering itself in relation to the other. But once the West started to expand and perceive Asia as a body of people, then these groups started to have to consider their neighbors similar to them in comparison to the west. That's the other interesting thing, as you mentioned. It's another mission of ours to have the contributors and the readers look at their work in and out of context- to see the non-stereotypical similarities we share with each other through art and personal experience.
Who you’re similar to and who you’re not is made up - it is really relative even though it feels so certain. That’s how nations are generally built, by pinning yourself against the other. Throughout history, the East has been considered this mystery, this exotic place. It's not always in bad connotations but in this book Orientalism by Edward Said, he talks about how the West has used Asian people to project their desires onto, especially the Near East or Middle East. That to the west, Asia is this exotic mystic place to study and fantasize over, and this idea of Asia as they see it in their mind does not exist so drastically. There are certain aspects that come from reality, but it’s an extreme single-minded depiction of a multi-dimensional vast and diverse group of people.
Lindsey: Right but expanding on that, I’m wondering if you got a feel for how artists in places like Iran and Turkey viewed themselves? Did they identify as Asian? There are so many labels slapped onto that region of the world seemingly without asking those who live there how they identify themselves, which is essentially what should matter.
Lulu: I think it really depends on the person. It’s interesting to talk to the “non Far-Eastern Asians” because they are often categorized in so many different ways. I had a great conversation with Iranian artist Pouran Jinchi for our first issue. She was describing to me all the different ways curators have categorized her art – Islamic even though she isn’t personally religious, Contemporary Iranian, and Asian– which often includes ancient Asian works – and it all made me think, why are non-white artists categorized in culture-centric ways? Her work is just as contemporary and abstract as the white artists around her but instead it is categorized by her heritage. Why do we have to do that? Everyone’s heritage and upbringing is important to their work but why is it some are categorized by that specific factor? It this because we are seen as particularly different to a Euro-centric world? This shows how many societies struggle with where to “place” certain Asian countries within categories. It would be amazing to come up with completely new categories that don’t necessarily refer to our cultures when describing our work. But I don’t know what that would be and I think we are still in a transition moment where it is still essential to champion our heritage.
Lindsey: Obviously you’ve done your research and you had to educate yourself on these topics and I’m wondering if you can explain your own background growing up? And being aware of something like this, I know for me at least growing up in Hawaii, everyone’s Asian so you don’t really question anything but in a place like New York, you’re just exposed to a lot more diversity and nuances of the diaspora. Is that how and why you moved into this space you think?
Lulu: Yeah I think it’s a part of it. But, you know, I didn’t grow up with my Asian side. I grew up with my brother and Bronx-Italian dad in New York. But I look Asian. In my life, I have found that I identify as being Asian and I think that started because other people identified me as being Asian. But because of that I searched for things that were Asian in New York. I didn’t necessarily latch onto a single culture, like I wasn’t specifically into Taiwanese culture as I had no real connected to it, which I think has lead to my interest in this kind of overarching idea of what Asian is.
In New York, it’s very much more diverse. Especially in public schools. I didn’t really consciously think about race until middle or high school when I started consciously acknowledging differences between families. I saw that some of these differences came from culture. And I also saw how sometimes differences in culture could create distance between two people.
Lindsey: That’s kind of a heavy thing to dive into because it’s kind of an overall understanding of who am I? Where do I come from? I think that really ties in nicely with the theme of movement that you chose for this first installment of FAR–NEAR
Lulu: Initially my own perception of things was pretty surface level. Even though I could say that I’ve spent time in Asia and I’m someone who actively looks for content that is Asian, movies and things like that. I don’t think I really started thinking about it more heavily until this last year, right before I started the book series. Once I actually really researched intellectually what Orientalism is, and through talking to people I wanted submissions from, I understood the differences of what they think versus what I had been assuming. I’m not necessarily the person to decide what they think about their own experience. I was reaching out to Asian Americans and then reaching out to Asians living in Asia, Asians living in France and so on, and each person had a different experience, a different way of thinking and attachment to their culture and that’s been really interesting.
Also, the way each person reacts to stereotypes and their attachment to their own “culture” is a really interesting thing. I find that a lot of people’s parents who immigrated here or to Europe, they kind of go from not thinking about their culture to really wanting to go back and find their roots when they’re older and that becomes a very, very important to them. Whereas obviously, for someone living in Asia, it doesn’t really go that “deep” because they’re living it. So they’re more so exploring themselves or their society as a whole instead of personal histories. But these are generalizations, haha. Something to consider but not to live by.
Lindsey: It’s interesting because for the people who are living away, it is such a choice to be where you are and still want to connect with your roots in that environment. With that in mind, how do you define authenticity? There are so many subjective understandings of that in relation to people’s own experiences. I’m imagining it must be hard to validate these experiences when you’re curating stories and that seems like a challenge for FAR–NEAR being submission based.
Lulu: Yeah I did find it a somewhat challenging situation because I don’t want to be the one deciding what’s authentic and what’s not. That’s the problem with what’s out there already. And especially since I still am coming from a Western perspective in this situation. I just try to give some sort of guidance in the sense of what I am looking for and envisioning overall for the book, and most people give me either something they were already thinking about or something we discuss.
The only time I ever say anything to challenge the contributors is if I feel their direction is made with the intention of showing it to somebody else instead of from their own experience. Maya Angelou said a really good thing, specifically about the “black is beautiful” movement. Although it’s definitely controversial, she said, I already know black is beautiful, why do I have to proclaim that? Who’s the audience for that? It’s not for black people, it’s you trying to convince white people that you’re beautiful, in a way. It’s complex to grasp without misinterpretation, but I tried to avoid directly using stereotypes as concept. I don’t think it is a very effective way to fight stereotypes. I don’t think that’s the best way to change someone’s perspective because it reinforces the generalizations
Lindsey: Does that then answer the question of honing in on Far Near’s authenticity? It’s a matter of who it’s for and the answer is then, it’s for us.
Lulu: It’s for us, and then it’s also for anyone who’s not Asian to look at. I don’t even want people to immediately recognize it’s only by Asian creatives when they look at it because how is that done? Through intentionally culturalizing the design and wording. I want people to be looking through it, be interested in the content – the creations and the personal stories, and then eventually come to the understanding that oh, these are all people of Asian heritage, they’re all from these 48 countries or heritages and it’s not what I expected of it. I don’t want them to pick it up and be seeing the stereotype of Asia already ready for them to come into and assume things.
Lindsey: That’s difficult, that in itself is a difficult task and that’s the whole problem in the first place. Every time that anyone picks up something that represents one ethnic or racial group publication or they see it as such. Going forward what realities are you looking to create in an ideal world? What does equality and representation look like?
Lulu: The easy answer would be that I want FAR–NEAR to be a really compelling magazine that just happens to be driven by Asian people. I want it to have that awareness that we’re lifting Asian creatives by having them specifically make things and show things, but that the topic doesn’t have to be Asian unless it makes sense. That’s what I want to do. I just want it to be a really amazing magazine that shows unique art, photography and stories with a spine of Asian support
Lindsey: I also feel sometimes these communities are very closed up, they sequester themselves and they want to be in their own communities per se, hence the genesis of Chinatowns. There’s this struggle of breaking out and presenting ourselves to a world in which many times Asian narratives are swept under the rug, hidden, by choice and a muted voice. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing but it seems like now though more people are wanting to share stories.
Lulu: I definitely found that. One photographer I spoke to, her family is from Vietnam but she grew up in France. She had a desire to go back and find out about her history and her roots because she really didn’t know anything about it. As she was getting older her family was getting older and she saw that she had less of an opportunity to know what happened in the past. But her enthusiasm was met by a challenge because her family didn’t want that sort of digging, they didn’t want anyone outside of family to know about their family. She was explaining to me about how Asian families in general don’t want their family history to be out there for everyone to know.
I never experienced that growing up. I don’t know if it is necessarily an Eastern characteristic though most family members on my Italian side are completely ready to tell you their life story from generations past, the good and the bad. But it could also be a generational thing – I find our generation, the younger generations, we basically want everyone to know what’s kind of going on. Some of the stories that are in this book are really, really personal and I really respect the perspective people are willing to reveal, something that is not really out there in the world right now, a view of heritage that is much more personal than the 3rd party documentaries that depict it.
Lindsey: Yeah documentaries are so formal versus being able to pick something up and read a first person, verbatim account. In your curation too, it’s beautiful by the way, and it does have a distinct look and feel. I feel like aesthetic kind of also then becomes an attitude right?
Lulu: Originally I just wanted to take submissions from anyone and everyone, which I still think is really interesting, but I realized I wanted to control the look and feel of it at all. I realized my biggest priority was showing perspectives that don’t already have a voice, and that means I would actually have to curate it. I also think the concept I’m trying to explore is already so complex, it doesn’t lend to a scattered aesthetic. I’m trying to link an entire continent, the biggest continent in the world together without being stereotypical. Plus I want to include everyone who has migrated as that is a whole other piece of the narrative. That’s a lot of perspective.
Lindsey: For you, as the EIC, what have you gotten out of this and how have your understandings of your own identity and Asian culture evolved?
Lulu: I’ve already learned so much! It’s great, because this is really my passion. I’ve always been interested in Asia as a whole and how culture cross-communicates and mixes and evolves. The best thing that I’ve gotten from this is that I just keep learning more and expanding my perception of it because I didn’t even know I was in a narrow mindset in regards to what Asia is. I only realized it as I started hearing from more people, and having people maybe even disagree with me about what Asia is. It’s good because it keeps growing and I feel like there’s so many different things to talk about and learn about from these different cultures and experiences, it’s going to be an endless growth.
Lindsey: Anything else you wanted to add?
Lulu: Yes! FAR–NEAR showcases a mix of up-and-coming artists, writers and people who are developing their creative identity but also put them among stories and interviews of established creatives who may be a bit more seasoned. I think this balances out the types of perspectives and opinions we see. It is not just coming from youth nor is it just coming from the recognized.
Lindsey: Yeah and within the pages you’re creating conversations that currently don’t exist in the same space perhaps.
L: Yeah it’s taking them out of certain contexts and putting them into a new context where you can see the overarching situations that everyone has.
Support the Kickstarter here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1037922233/farnear-a-book-series-broadening-the-perspective-o