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As you are, AS I AM

JOSE BARRERA // APRIL 27, 2018 

So what is AS I AM? AS I AM is an Asian-Pacific Islander Diasporic publication which is making a comeback this year. I had the privilege of interviewing some students involved in its resurrection on what the publication is about, and their mission as it moves forward. Jenn Lin (she/her/hers), Lyala Khan (she/her/hers), and Elise Hardebeck (she/her/hers) are part of AS I AM’s revival team. They shared a few words with me regarding the publication coming back to life, as well as about issues of representation on campus and in the world.

“It is the Asian Pacific Islander Diaspora literary magazine,” Hardebeck says. “We provide a platform for APID identifying students to share their art and creative content. Most of what we know about the history of AS I AM is from speculation and archival data, so we can only really speak for the evolution of the current iteration.”

Lin says, “We are trying to decentralise East Asian voices and experiences more than in the past. This was part of our move to change from Asian-American centric to the diaspora. The word Asian-American can be perceived as ambiguous. We’ve noticed in past issues from the 90s to the early 2000s kind of a reflection in these discussion about Asianess in America. Our understandings of these concepts continue to evolve.”

It’s important to have characters in popular media represent their audience; it is important that we see ourselves as well as portray ourselves. Providing a platform for different identities is important as our world continues to reach people in different, exciting ways. It takes a lot of work. In our Oberlin community, we find the publication AS I AM, an initiative to publish the voices and arts of Asian and Asian-American students on campus and thus draw attention to their presence on campus and in the U.S. “Our publication exists to provide a space where Asian Pacific Islander Diasporic artists will not be overshadowed by white artists,” Hardebeck begins. “In a society where our narratives are often overwritten by others, I think our work is particularly important because we're bringing out voices who want to and do take back ownership of their experiences.” Khan adds, “Our existence is political and definitely relates to identity struggles but the work that we accept and publish isn't necessarily about identity. The magazine is about showcasing art made by APID artists.”

AS I AM was on hiatus between 2013-16, but the team is back and in the process of shaping their mission statement. “The mission of AS I AM is constantly evolving with the changing needs and wants of the community,” says Lin. And that’s not a bad thing. “We try to structure our magazine to evolve along with the community and to cater primarily to the needs of the community,” Kahn says. “We aim to foster solidarity within the community and also share our narratives with the larger Oberlin community.” I asked how they believe AS I AM fits into the Oberlin community, and Hardebeck replied, “We’re still growing and finding our place here. We are still relatively unknown within the APID community and working to establish ourselves.”

AS I AM recieves submissions from students, and “is for students who identify as APID,” says Khan, “but we are very aware of the fact that we do to represent the whole community.” Hardebeck discusses the kinds of submissions they recieve: “This semester we received a lot of visual art - we usually get prose, poetry, visual art and some film/music. We don’t usually reject any pieces but we do have a vetting system and sensitivity readers.” Once reviewed, the covers and overall layout of the magazine are designed, followed by the mission statement and letter from the staff. Once everything is laid out and ordered, the final print is sent out, with usually around 150 copies distributed.

I ask the three what it means to them to be an APID publication in terms of accessibility, diversity, and authenticity. Khan begins by saying that, “Being an APID publication, we struggle with representation often...our staff and submissions are largely East Asian-centric and we struggle with maintaining diversity without tokenizing marginalized populations. We can't force people to submit.” Lin follows, saying, “We are trying not to police peoples experiences, and I feel like we try to reject the idea of authenticity because we can’t often know what it means. I think that’s why we try to accept all work sent to us because you can be an APID artist and not make art centered in identity… often, [APID] artists can be tokenized and misrepresented in media; we are trying to change these dominant narratives by bringing voices from within the community.”

Hardebeck continues, saying, “Something we’re discussing now within our staff is whether or not to include the Pacific Islander in our label as an APID publication. The history of Pacific Islanders in the U.S. and Asian-American communities is complex and often undermines PI communities, yet at the same time there are so few spaces for PI students on this campus that taking that label out would be even more limiting. We also must recognize our position of power as a relatively more numerous and represented group as Asians, so this omission is not a decision for us to define; to come to a conclusion amongst ourselves would be hypocritical and damaging, nor would consulting only one or two members of the PI community be responsible. I guess for us there is no assured state of perfectly representing all of the APID community, as Lyala said, but rather than try to force it onto people and paint ourselves as a united front, we’d like to be mindful about the diversity and relations that occur within the larger APID community and take up only the space that is appropriate for us. That may or may not mean dropping the PI.”

I was curious about how AS I AM fit into the discourse regarding the lack of representation of diverse cultures in media and the public eye. Organizations such as Wong Fu Productions have recently gained spotlight attention for offering platforms for different perspectives and bringing attention the issue of representation. I ask Khan, Lin, and Hardebeck how they see AS I AM functioning as a platform, and how that platform can benefit from community support: What first steps can other multi-culturally based organizations and communities take to begin that process of establishing a platform? What can people from outside communities, especially white people, do to support those communities in a transformative, meaningful and intentional way? Hardebeck begins by saying “A lot of people on the outside who don’t identify with this community will probably see our publication and Wong Fu as niche things. That’s probably the hardest part of our struggle. We think that people see us as niche because of the impression that our magazine is entirely about identity.” Khan affirms that submissions should not be restricted by topics of identity. “This art could be anything, and a presence in the magazine is not supposed to force people to conform to or be limited by an identity.”

Speaking to the publication’s reception on campus, and AS I AM’s plans for the future, Lin says “So far, we have been lucky to get support from many organizations on campus. We are in the process of getting chartered and I think people are excited to see where the magazine goes.”

“Coming this summer, I’ll be working on a website and an archival project to make the magazine more accessible to students and alumni. We’re hoping to bring a speaker in sometime next year, and we’re hoping to expand our workshops and membership. Hopefully by distributing our publication to all parts of the Oberlin community, we can inform our peers about our experiences without certain distortions that would skew representation,” says Hardebeck.

The three allowed me to see a couple of submissions from students, and, believe me, they are powerful. There is a unique vitality in images, words, and expressions that come from personal experience. AS I AM may not be the ultimate solution to solving issues of representation, but it is certainly an inspiration for those voices that get lost within their diaspora to share their art with the larger world. I am not suggesting that artists owe it to the masses to share their stories, but I do believe in the power of public narratives. Art can be many things; there’s no criterion for what is “proper” art. Art comes from what doesn’t tear the heart apart; it comes from a place of wanting to rebuild, of wanting to grow. I am not of the Asian/Pacific Islander diaspora, but I am of the Latinx diaspora, and we share that which many other diasporas share - the constant struggle of figuring out what identity and inclusivity means for all of us. I believe the promotion of artistic platforms, such as AS I AM, is one way of beginning to figure that out.

Lin adds, “Keep an eye out for our next edition which will be released sometime in May! You can also reach us with questions and comments via asiamoberlin@gmail.com.”

Contact contributing writer Jose Barrera at jbarrera@oberlin.edu.