Justine Abigail Yu Bruha

Interview With A Trailblazer: Talking Artistic Diversity (Or The Lack Thereof) in Canada With Living Hyphen’s Founder Justine Abigail Yu

When we found out our good friend and kick-ass Pin@y Justine Abigail Yu was launching Living Hyphen, an intimate journal sharing diverse stories of Canadians and the ways our hyphenated identities shape our lives, we were excited to say the least.

Living Hyphen is exactly the kind of publication our community has been waiting for. I myself have struggled to come to terms with my own hyphenated identity as a Filipina-Chinese-Canadian. In fact, I make my own appearance in The Living Hyphen’s inaugural issue with my piece entitled ‘Only Some Doors Open’. In it, I talk about learning French instead of Filipino as a child, and the jigsaw mess of identities ultimately tied to language and the words we speak.

For a limited time, Living Hyphen’s premier issue ‘Entrances & Exits’ is available for purchase through Cambio & Co. We chatted with founder and editor Justine Abigail Yu about the inspiration behind Living Hyphen, her journey as a Filipina, and what she’s learned about herself along the way.

Tell us about your global Filipina journey. How has being Filipina shaped you?

I feel like a quote from the Pinay community organizer Faith Santilla (from Ruby Ibarra’s track ‘Us’) would be appropriate here:

“Pinays have always been part, and parcel,
if not, imperative and critical to the struggle
Filipinas are no strangers to wielding our own power
Of all the privileges that exist in this world,
none of which you may be a benefactor of
There is at least one you bear
And that is the privilege of having been born a Filipina.”

It would take a lifetime for me to articulate just how my roots have shaped me but suffice to say - my Filipina roots have everything to do with who I am today and there is no aspect of my life that it does not touch.


Justine Abigail Yu

We loved reading about the inspiration behind Living Hyphen When you talk about 'building our own damn house', what do you mean? What do you envision for the Living Hyphen?

Canadian arts and literature is a homogenous, typically White-dominated space. And I didn’t want to have to wait for those gatekeepers to let me in to tell my stories (and other artists/writers like me) – that is, if they would ever let me/us in.

That’s why I say, “we built our own damn house.” I wanted to create the space I wanted to see in the world, instead of being beholden to the ones that currently exist – ones that are typically exclusionary and elitist.

Justine Abigail Yu wearing a barong

I want Living Hyphen to be a premier space in Canadian arts and literature, one that celebrates all the complexities of diversity. I want to reshape the mainstream and to turn up the volume on voices that often go unheard.

Narrative scarcity of diverse voices (a.k.a. our lack of representation) in the mainstream media is something I think about constantly. It’s an industry I want to disrupt and dismantle. Viet Thanh Nguyen, the author of the Pulitizer Prize-winning book, “The Sympathizer”, captures so perfectly what I want to achieve. He says, “we want narrative plenitude, but we can only achieve it when we have control or influence over the economy of narrative.” Living Hyphen is but one small, but powerful act of taking that control.

It’s a bold and ambitious vision, but we’re doing it already with this inaugural issue! One step at a time!

Justine Abigail Yu on Breakfast Television
Justine featuring Living Hyphen on Breakfast Television

We know a lot of thought and consideration has gone into your first issue. What kind of stories were you looking for? What was your criteria?

I’ll be completely honest with you both. When I first put out the call for submissions, I didn’t really have a plan. I don’t have a formal background in publishing; this is my first time putting together a magazine or any kind of publication. I just knew my idea was important and that I needed to put it out there. And so, I was ready to receive a handful of poems and short stories from my friends or those in my extended network, and that would be that. But instead, I received over 200 submissions from artists and writers all across Canada. I was completely floored by this response.

Although I wasn’t ready for that kind of response or to have to sift through that many submissions, I knew from the get-go that I was looking for a diversity of stories, for many varied slices of life. And when I say that, I don’t just mean a diversity in the artists’ and writers’ ethnic backgrounds, but a diversity in the stories themselves. I wanted this magazine to be full of stories that are heartbreaking, joyful, mundane, frivolous, celebratory, and infuriating. I wanted stories that ran the gamut of emotions because well, that sums up the human experience. And at the heart of it, that is what this magazine is about: the very real, very human experience of looking for home, belonging, and identity.

When people hear that this magazine is about hyphenated Canadians – they ask me, “oh, so is it about hardship?” And it stuns me that that is the first thing that comes to mind. I mean, of course, it’s about hardship. But it’s also about opportunity, about falling in love, about losing love, about travel, about learning languages, about taking the subway to go about our everyday lives. To be a hyphenated Canadian is not any one thing.

Our stories are uplifting, heartbreaking, contradictory, and constantly unfolding. And so those are the stories I looked for and chose.

Editor Justine with Creative Director Josh LaytonLiving Hyphen has been over a year in the making. Here's Editor Justine Abigail Yu with Creative Director Josh Layton.

The first issue of Living Hyphen includes pieces from artists and writers across Canada from over thirty ethnic backgrounds, religions, and indigenous nations combined (so amazing!). Did you uncover any of your own biases in the process of putting this issue together?

I love this question! I’ve been meaning to talk more about this and even write about it. To answer your question simply and explicitly: of course, I uncovered my own biases. And you’ll see that in my selection. You’ll see that although there is a diversity of voices included in this first issue, Filipinos are very largely and generously represented. How could they not be? I’m a Filipina-Canadian and the stories of Filipino-Canadians always hit me on a visceral level. I know so intimately our stories of migration, of separation, of reuniting and reconciling with our families – and reading stories/seeing art around that – well, it’s just so real to me, I can almost touch it.

On a broader, more existential level – I want to make clear that curating the stories for this inaugural issue was a revelation to me. I saw for the first time the very real and very serious power that editors and publishers have as gatekeepers of stories in our society.

Do you know how uncomfortable I felt in this position? Over 200 people submitted these deeply personal, wildly intimate, and beautifully vulnerable stories. And I spent so many hours debating over which ones to include in this magazine. I kept thinking – who am I to say whose stories get published, printed - and ultimately - told? Who is any one, really? I don’t care what kind of credentials you have in the publishing industry or how many years of editing experience you have, no one person and/or no one group of people should exclusively hold that kind of power.

I don’t have the answers yet – but I do know that the answer lies somewhere in having a diversity of people in these positions of power so that that diversity can be better reflected in the stories we tell.

On a personal level, is there a piece within Living Hyphen that resonated with you most?

There’s a poem called “First Generation” by Erika Barozzo, a fellow Filipina-Canadian, that makes me cry every damn time I read it. I don’t want to give too much away because I won’t do it justice, but it’s about her relationship with her parents growing up – the conflict of adjusting to a new values system here in Canada while her parents held on to the traditions of the Philippines, the misunderstanding of what parental love looks like, and reconciling our intergenerational differences. It’s a stunning piece that I know many of us with hyphenated identities can relate to all too well.

Living Hyphen Magazine on a Coffee Table

What are other publications or spaces that inspired you?

The Feminist Art Collective was the foundation for this idea. I’m one of the organizers and our 2015 conference is where I first conceived of Living Hyphen. You can read more about that here on our blog.

Other key influential spaces for me have been the Festival for Literary Diversity (the FOLD), Project 40 Collective, Kapisanan, We Need Diverse Books, and Stories of Ours – just to name a few.

We were so excited when you reached out to us to carry Living Hyphen! Why did you choose Cambio & Co. as your distribution partner?

I’ve been low-key creeping Cambio & Co. for a really long time now! I first learned of your work when you did a talk at a NextDayBetter event years ago, when you were still called Choosesocial.PH. I’ve been a huge fan ever since!

I love the work that Cambio & Co. is doing to amplify the craftsmanship of Filipino artisans from the Philippines. To put a spotlight on our culture, our artistry, and our people straight from the source, our motherland – that’s something I have such deep respect for. The talent of Filipinos – not just of the diasporic community but of those back home – is one that is just waiting to be unleashed into the mainstream, globalized world and you are leading that movement!

I know that Living Hyphen doesn’t quite fit into your usual product or partnership model. We are a diasporic initiative and one that includes not just Filipino voices, but many others. And I just feel honoured that Cambio & Co. would consider running our magazine in its marketplace, alongside such phenomenal brands from my home. That is so very special to me.

Purchase Living Hyphen’s inaugural issue ‘Entrances & Exits’ online at Cambio & Co. (available for a limited time). Living Hyphen is an annual magazine that explores the experiences of hyphenated Canadians – individuals who call Canada home but with roots in different, often faraway places. Through short stories, photography, poetry and illustrations, Living Hyphen uncovers what it means to be a part of a diaspora in this country. Living Hyphen’s aim is to reshape the mainstream and to turn up the volume on voices that often go unheard.

Gelaine Santiago

Gelaine Santiago

Gelaine is a social entrepreneur, an online storyteller, and a passionate advocate for diversity and ethics in business. She’s the co-founder of Cambio & Co., an e-commerce fashion company working with Filipino artisans to celebrate Filipino craftsmanship, culture, and heritage. Gelaine is also one of the founders of Sinta & Co., the world’s first conscious Filipino wedding boutique. She was named one of RBC’s Top 25 Canadian Immigrants of 2019. Find her on Instagram @gelainesantiago and www.gelainesantiago.co

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