On Editing an English Literary Journal as a Person Of Color

The matter-of-fact, even slightly cheerful, answer: "Have your characters come to the US!"

Hello! (Taps mic…) Our regular blog editors Madeline, Hanna and Nina are on leave today, so I’ll be guest-blogging to continue our daily programming. My name is Yew Leong (yes, that’s two words for my first name) and I’m the Singaporean editor working behind the scenes of the magazine since 2010. I’m thirty-nine this year (the photo of me, above, was taken in a yakisoba restaurant when I was thirty-six).

Some details of how I came to found the journal are mentioned in the interview I share below, so I won’t get into that here. What I will say to preface my breaking the fourth wall is this: After July 2011, I stopped signing the quarterly issues’ editor’s notes at least partly because, as the only full-time member at Asymptote, I didn’t want to overshadow the team’s collective efforts (for the same reason, I also declined to be videoed for our first-ever Indiegogo campaign). For several years thereafter, all editor’s notes were simply ascribed to “The Editors.”

In July 2016, I decided to sign my name after the editor’s note again: Prior to that, I’d seen Asymptote being written off as a mere “platform” by a prominent translator, but specifically in the derogatory sense of “editor X used the platform Asymptote to do Y” (Y being a massive translation project, requiring coordination across the different roles), as if all I had done was create a free-for-all Facebook or Twitter-like interface for providers of world literature. That could not be further from the truth: there is someone leading the magazine (although hopefully not off a cliff!), someone with a vision to boot, not merely a loose collective of editors, contributing whatever they’d like to contribute.

Secondly, I’d started wondering if, by not putting myself out there a little more, I had become complicit in, let’s just say, a certain racial oppression. This year, after six years of editing the magazine, I was happy to be invited to my first London Book Fair panel (actually any event that wasn’t organized by Asymptote, although, as its editor-in-chief, I have played varying roles toward making 33 world literature events happen in four continents), and I remain eternally grateful to the Translators’ Association of the Society of Authors in the UK for subsidizing my trip there (as I could not afford the flight ticket otherwise).

But, few know that, in 2014, about five years into helming the magazine, and surviving those five years by wearing many different hats to keep the journal going, an invitation was received by someone on the team to represent Asymptote at an international conference, with the offer to be flown in from wherever. The invitation was sent to a part-time White Assistant Managing Editor who’d been on board less than seven months, who actually lived further away from the conference than me, based on her current city at that time. I’d left the US many years ago to avoid being an invisibilized person of color, specifically in a literary environment (Junot Díaz and Ken Chen talk about this issue very eloquently), and suddenly there I was being overlooked again.

In this interview that Asymptote Indonesia editor-at-large Tiffany Tsao conducted, the lovely Julie Koh, who recently edited an anthology of Asian writing because she was tired of waiting for reform to happen in the West, pointed out the phenomenon of literature’s “bamboo ceiling”:

Although I’ve been fortunate enough to have had many good experiences with Australian publishers, the fact remains that there are generally few people of color in positions of power in the literary game, and this has a direct impact on the type and quantity of work by writers of color that makes it to publication, how writers of color are promoted, and how their work is understood. This in turn can influence what writers of color believe they must write to get published.”

I agree with everything that Julie says here; I’d gone to an M.F.A. program in New York where I attended a publishing panel and asked a question, “I’m Singaporean, so I tend to write stories based in Singapore. What advice do you have for me?” The matter-of-fact, even slightly cheerful, answer: “Have your characters come to the US!”

I still remember this moment vividly today; perhaps that’s why I chose to leave the US after all, and came to found this journal. And now, I must not shirk from being the person who founded the journal.

Highlights of this past year will be presented tomorrow; it’s 1:18am over here in Asia. For now, I’ll leave you with an interview that was never published in full (only distilled for The Hindu) but which will reveal a lot about Asymptote‘sand, by extension, mymission. If the interview inspires just one of you to sign up as sustaining member, I’ll be very happy! In fact, if we do hit our goal of acquiring 100 sustaining members before the end of the year, I’ll commit to writing a column that shares in greater detail what goes on behind the scenes at Asymptote in the second half of 2017! That’s a promise from me.

—Lee Yew Leong

Radhika Santhanam (RS): How and why did you begin this journal? 

Lee Yew Leong (LYL): I owe a great debt to literature, and I founded Asymptote as a free quarterly journal out of a wish to give back. At the time, I noticed that a lot of ‘world literature’ journals out there were not really living up to their name, being heavily skewed towards European or South American content—often featuring the same circle of well-regarded translators or authors, and presenting works that did not necessarily merit publication as literature. The journal that I wanted to read—a  go-to portal where one discovers exciting and important literature from around the world, curated with a high bar, and a decidedly adventurous slant—was not yet in existence, so I thought I would make a go of it.

That’s the ‘why’. As for the ‘how’, the long and short of it is that it required taking a leap… knowing that I alone would shoulder the cost if the project stumbled. I took a deep breath and invested more than USD50,000 of my own funds into the journal’s web design, content management system, and publicity. I invited a small group of writers I knew to participate as editors; in addition, I accepted a contributing editor who came recommended by someone in the original team, a writer I had never met. Aditi Machado is now poetry editor, and one of only two team members who still remain from the original masthead of six—and I have till today never met her in person, although we have exchanged countless emails in these six years, and talked on the phone (just once). At present, we are more than twelve times its original size, with team members based in five continents. Our offerings have expanded accordingly to include a daily-updated blog, a fortnightly newsletter, a monthly podcast, and educational guides accompanying each quarterly issue; we’ve also organized more than thirty events on five continents—all to catalyze the transmission of world literature. Although it is regrettable that the original team did not work out, this turned out to be ultimately for the best, as Asymptote’s international setup has become its very strength, allowing us to continually seek out and publish the freshest, most exciting work from around the world.

RS: Translating regional literature in one country is challenging enough, but given that this is a premier site for world literature in translation, it must be a bigger challenge. How does the team work?

LYL: To compound the problem of being spread across multiple time zones, and having no centralized office to operate from, the whole team essentially comprises part-time volunteers, most committing between four to eight hours a week. Insofar as I do not draw a salary myself, I too am a volunteer but also the only person working full-time behind the scenes for six years. (And being full-time means I’m the one to whom most of the work accrues when someone quits suddenly, misses deadlines, or does not deliver quality work.) Till date, it’s a great point of personal pride that we’ve never been a single day late releasing a quarterly issue.

I am very lucky that my project has attracted, for the most part, amazing team members who very much wish to see Asymptote flourish, and even volunteer outside of their primary roles from time to time. But there have been quite a few instances of people signing on for the glamor of being associated with a literary journal, or simply to pad their CVs. That’s why we’ve developed structures to maintain Asymptote’s standards: after the two-hour orientation that I personally conduct for each new team member, we ask for weekly check-ins to ensure that actual work is done, and he or she is only confirmed upon fulfilling the three-month probationary period.

RS: The website says that Asymptote is “incorporated neither in America nor in Europe, unaffiliated with any university or government body, Asymptote does not qualify for many grants that other like institutions receive.” The works, I see, can be read for free. What is the financial model? How are you able to sustain the journal?

LYL: The financial model? It’s not what you think: despite our being around for five years, donations to the website still make up a trickle, at this point, covering only web-hosting and bank costs, and the publicity packages we have only started offering this year, leveraging on our Translation Tuesday showcases at The Guardian, aren’t generating anywhere enough to provide a full-time salary for any single individual. Most of these six years, I’ve survived by moonlighting as a translator and spending as little as possible on myself— one of the reasons I moved to Taipei in July 2011 was for the lower cost of living. In the past, we’ve conducted successful crowdfunding campaigns, but, wary of the stress that always accompanies these fundraisers, we’re now asking readers to voluntarily sign on as sustaining members (at just USD5 a month) to keep the magazine going. So far, less than twenty have registered; I suspect there is a perception issue: we’ve been around for so long, and our offerings keep expanding—to our readers, we must be doing well. In fact, a respected translator even tried to hint to me that I should spread around the wealth I must be accumulating: the trick is “not to get too rich,” she said. It’s gauche to talk about money to someone you’ve just met for the first time, and hold in high esteem, but in this case I thought it quite necessary to clear up the facts, as diplomatically and as tactfully as I could manage it, in case even more people became misinformed about the magazine’s true situation. Once undeceived, the  translator kindly passed on a lead to a European foundation that did offer funding regardless of citizenship. The moment I don’t have so much pressing magazine work to tackle, I intend to follow through on this lead. 

RS: Do you have your own team of translators? How many and in how many languages?

LYL: We have contributing editors (working from five or six languages)—one of them is Howard Goldblatt, who translates Mo Yan, the 2012 Nobel Prizewinner in Literature. We feature work by these contributing editors from time to time, but up to twice a year at most. Having seen journals whose content is produced entirely in-house, by the same team of translators issue after issue, I want to avoid the perception that our community is a closed one, as inclusivity is extremely important to our mission. In fact, most of the work comes in cold through the transom or as a result of our many direct solicitations to both well-known and emerging writers and translators: many of the articles, not just translations but also interviews, reviews, and critical essays are commissioned from scratch. It’s worth mentioning that reading through the slush pile, as well as research into work from underrepresented languages and regions both constitute a large part of our editorial activities.

RS: Given that there is such a vast variety of language writing, each steeped in its own culture and modes of thinking, how do you choose works to be published? 

LYL: I’ll speak for the section that I edit: fiction. Although I like to curate by theme, so that the pieces talk to one another within the same section, literary merit is by far the most important criterion; in this case, the original matters as much as the quality of the translation, because we are above all a journal of literature. I don’t believe in showcasing a piece of writing simply because it’s from a language or from a country that we’ve not featured in our pages, or simply because it’s by a much talked-about writer, and would be good for the issue’s marketing. If the work does not pass muster, even if we commissioned it—all my editors are told never to guarantee publication—, then we reject it: it’s as simple as that.

Each issue, we run a special feature, sometimes country-themed, and although it would be much easier for us to appoint an external editor for such a feature—one with existing connections and knowledge of the local literature, we do not do so, because the task of quality control is too important for us to outsource.

In relation to this, I want to point out a problem in publishing that few speak of, but seems nonetheless endemic to me: publishing work to receive a favor or in order to return one. Editing an English literary journal out of Taipei—which is as isolated as it gets—is thus ideal in one very valuable way: even as it cuts me off from funding opportunities, my not being part of New York or London publishing scenes gives me greater freedom to edit the journal that I want to present to the world and to build an archive of quality world literature.


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