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Redefining Asian Identity: Art and Literature Across the Chinese Diaspora  – US-China Today

When Jiaqi Kang co-founded Sine Theta Magazine as a high school student in 2016, she knew she wanted to provide an artistic space for Sino creatives. 

Sino, a term that has its roots in Latin, typically refers to China and Chinese identity. Sine Theta’s use of the word “Sino” instead of “Chinese” is strategic, as Kang believes that the label “Chinese” is typically associated with connotations of citizenship and nationality. The magazine’s name Sine Theta is based on the visual design of the math term sinθ, which can also appear like the word “Sino.” 

For Kang, who identifies as Sino-Swiss rather than Chinese-Swiss, “Sino” is a more inclusive term to describe Chinese-ness. It’s also especially relevant for those who may not necessarily want to identify themselves through political terms. This underlying framework is part of Sine Theta’s commitment to a more complex recognition of diasporic identity. 

The magazine, which marked its fifth anniversary on March 6, began as a Tumblr project inspired by Kang’s appreciation of Sino culture and her experiences in the Chinese government’s “root-seeking” camps, which is a program for overseas Chinese youth. 

For about two weeks in this program, campers learn about Chinese history and culture, and participants can communicate with fellow Chinese students to continue learning through cultural exchange. These state-run camps are intended to connect the past to the present and define a collective Chinese identity. For Kang, who serves as the editor-in-chief, those camps not only served her entryway to her understanding of Chinese culture, but also affirmed the importance of solidarity across the Sino diaspora. 

“[That experience] was really important to me because it made me discover that there are so many more kids like me out there in the world,” Kang says. 

Sine Theta is part of a global trend of literary organizations and magazines dedicated to exploring Chinese identity. All take different approaches to identity and diaspora, but emphasize literature as a fundamental means of connection.

Conceptualizing Community and Creativity Across the Diaspora

For Angela Rong, an undergraduate student at the University of Southern California, that idea of diasporic community is especially important. 

It’s why Rong is the Art Director of USC’s new Descent Magazine, a digital literary magazine dedicated to Asian American, Pacific Islander and Desi American (APIDA) youth. Descent follows in the footsteps of USC’s previous Asian American publication Bamboo Offshoot. 

For Rong, magazines such as Sine Theta sparked a sense of recognition that there was a broader Chinese creative community out there. Sine Theta’s existing work encouraged them to think more critically about the act of presenting oneself as a Chinese writer.

“If you just look at Sine Theta, just the idea of the magazine itself, the cover tells a story,” says Rong. “I think the literary magazine is very uniquely suited for that idea of curation and finding artistic and cultural communities of connection.”

Jiaqi Kang

Similar to Kang, Rong echoes the need for a borderless approach to Chinese identity as both a literal and figurative concept. That means acknowledging its politicization, but also shifting gears to more radical ideas of solidarity through community. 

Establishing community doesn’t come without its challenges, however. Instead, it’s part of a larger process that grapples with the implications of a racialized Chinese identity and more specifically, the politics of representation.  

Rong considers that tension an inevitable challenge, especially when producing writing and art can carry the added responsibility of being labeled as “spokesperson” for one’s race or ethnicity. 

“When we see Chinese American writing, it’s always going to carry that veneer of you’re speaking on behalf of someone whether you wanted to or not … Chinese American artists have always been operating with that foresight,” says Rong.  

Nancy Liu founded Descent Magazine and serves as its Editor-in-Chief. She looks at the literary magazine as a unique yet fundamental way to expressing a broader Asian American identity for an Asian American audience.

“We really consider what is important to [the APIDA community] and what can help that audience in particular, and I think that really is a huge part of creating a magazine like that,” Liu says.

As a creative publication dedicated specifically to USC’s APIDA community, the editorial board’s goal is to not only spotlight and affirm Asian creativity, but also showcase the diverse range of Asian cultures and experiences. Descent’s first issue, set around the theme of “Liminal Spaces,” will be released later this semester. 

Engaging with Identity through Storytelling

After the “root-seeking” summer camp, Kang developed a newfound commitment to actively spotlighting members of the Sino diaspora. She and a few of her friends curated a selection of art and poetry and released it. Since then, Sine Theta has published articles about Sino creatives as well as poetry, stories and art from members of the Sino diaspora. The print magazine comes out quarterly. The magazine currently has over 1,000 likes and followers on Facebook and Twitter, respectively.

Each issue’s theme centers on a single Chinese character that must be written the same way in both traditional and simplified Mandarin characters. Sine Theta’s most recent theme, “High Noon (午),” intends to explicitly challenge the ideas of frontiers, borders and relations. 

Challenging borders is an important personal idea to Kang, who believes that diasporic positionality is more than struggling with political conceptions of belonging to nation-states. 

“Instead of being like, ‘Oh, I’m torn between two worlds, I don’t know where I belong,’ you’re actually saying [diasporic positionality] is where I belong, and this is a really productive position from which to imagine a future in which there are no borders,” Kang says.

The magazine is committed to dismantling existing binaries through work of the imagination — specifically art and creativity. Its borderless identity stems from the global nature of its staff and contributors, who come together all over the world through interactive virtual meetings and public events about virtual community-building. Members of the editorial board currently live in Switzerland, Sweden, the United States and other countries. 

Sine Theta’s former themes have included “Gate,” “Echo” and “Sticky,” each theme evocative of distinct ideas, senses and imagery. Sine Theta accepts creative work ranging from poetry and prose to work that, like the magazine’s borderless outlook, blurs conventions of genre. This includes photo essays and hybrid art installation projects. 

In terms of intended audience, Kang expressed that it fills a space in a larger literary ecosystem where submitters don’t have to worry about whether their material is “too Chinese” for their audience. Likewise, it also invites contributors to explore other avenues not necessarily related to Chinese identity. Its submissions page states that creative work does not “necessarily have to pertain to the diasporic experience.” 

Sine Theta is definitely a very niche magazine … we create a platform for members of the Sino diaspora to be themselves without really having to paradoxically be super self-conscious about their identity,” Kang says. 

Recently, the magazine has provided an affirming platform for Qianze Zhang, who had her short story “Mandy’s Mary Sue” selected for publication in Issue 17. After being nominated by Sine Theta, the piece won the 2021 PEN America Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize

Other writers of Sino descent published in Sine Theta, such as Nancy Huang and K-Ming Chang, have found similar levels of validation in the literary community at large. Both have published books; Huang, a winner of the 2016 Write Bloody Book contest, is the author of the China-centric poetry collection Favorite Daughter, while Chang is the author of the New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice novel Bestiary.

Huang, who had one of her earliest publications in the magazine, expresses that Sine Theta allowed her to navigate her identity at a time when it was still unclear to her. To Huang, the fact that Sine Theta intentionally publishes writers of Sino descent regardless of where they live is evidence of its revolutionary approach to dismantling boundaries. 

“I will forever be proud to have one of my earlier pieces in an issue,” writes Huang in an email to US-China Today. “The sheer range of what art Chinese folks are working on, the graphics and visual practices that go into the magazine, the interviews and photography and essays and poems … [the team is] a small operation but somehow they’ve woven this global thread.”

While publication in Sine Theta isn’t a direct route to literary achievement, its roster of former contributors is a testament to the talent that Sine Theta attracts. It also reflects the support for external validation that the platform provides to creatives across the Sino diaspora. 

Other platforms celebrating diasporic identity in all its forms include Kundiman, a nonprofit literary organization headquartered in New York where Asian Americans can address challenges of the diaspora through reading, writing and art. It also doubles as an educational space that hosts a variety of programming from writing workshops to fellowship retreats.

Kyle Lucia Wu is Kundiman’s programs and communications manager. She heard about the organization after receiving a Margins fellowship, a year-long writing residency and mentorship program from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. This was the first time Wu was part of a literary space dedicated specifically to Asian American writers.

Kyle Lucia Wu

For Wu, it affirmed that as a biracial Asian American, she was a part of the Asian American literary community, an idea that Wu had struggled with before being accepted as a fellow.

The desire to transition from publishing to nonprofit work encouraged Wu to begin her current job at Kundiman, which has changed her perspective on the accessibility of Asian American literature. 

“Working within the community has really shown me just how many incredible writers there are from so many of our [Asian American] communities,” Wu says.

At Kundiman, Wu helped organize Wikipedia edit-a-thons, gatherings where volunteers ensure the digital accessibility of Asian American resources by adding pages to Wikipedia on Asian American literary magazines and storytellers, among other subjects of interest. In the 2018 Wikipedia edit-a-thon, volunteers added over 20,000 words to the site.

Wu is the author of Win Me Something, a novel coming out later this year. Wu says the biracial protagonist of her novel shares some of the same insecurities that Wu struggled with growing up. Part of the conflict the protagonist faces in the novel is the perceived “authenticity” of her narrative — specifically whether or not she is “Asian” enough.

Win Me Something focuses on the story of Willa Chan, a Chinese American woman who becomes a nanny to a wealthy family’s daughter, Bijou. Eventually Willa moves in with the family, who becomes a microcosm for larger struggles she’s faced in her own life. 

The story is a larger exploration of class disparities, strategically juxtaposed with Willa’s own childhood caught between her father’s wealthy Chinese family and her white mother’s working-class family. It features thematic tensions of the in-between and the conflict of a biracial identity. 

“Growing up, I definitely didn’t see a lot of biracial characters in fiction, and I think [the book is] a really specific exploration of identity,” says Wu. “[The protagonist] is between things and because of that, [the book] focuses a lot on the liminal spaces she inhabits as a biracial person … she’s always existed on the margins of an identity.” 

Those racial influences have shaped Wu’s writing and her work. Wu says that many parts of Win Me Something were influenced by different writing exercises she participated in at Kundiman. One of the novel’s chapters was inspired by Ligaya Mishan’s Food Writing Intensive, while other sentences are drawn from guidance in Kundiman’s Mentorship Lab or generative workshops in staff meetings.

For Chinese Americans who are always thinking about liminal spaces and moving beyond them, workshop spaces like Kundiman can serve as the entry point to thinking about the broader frameworks that have shaped Asian American literature. 

Muriel Leung

Muriel Leung views these organizations and publications as necessary to the Asian American community at large. She’s a current Kundiman poetry fellow and a USC doctoral student whose second poetry collection Imagine Us, The Swarm is coming out this May. 

The Asian American Writers’ Workshop and Kundiman were formative experiences for Leung. They brought her to spaces where Asian American voices weren’t tokenized, but actively celebrated. 

As a Kundiman fellow, Leung was invited to take part in Kundiman’s annual retreat for Asian American writers. The retreat offers coveted writing consultations and instructive masterclasses with established Asian American writers, along with communal “writing circles.” Participating in the retreat was the first time Leung discovered the complexity of literary craft.  

She was exposed to many Asian American writers working across genres and gained a stronger awareness of her own writing through experimentation. In that space, Leung was able to establish close relationships with Asian American writers, future mentors and others who shared resources for graduate school and other literary opportunities with her. 

Through those connections, she was able to recognize her own strengths and contributions to Asian American literature. Leung also became uniquely conscious of the power that Asian American literary organizations and publications hold.

“As far as the larger literary world goes, these voices, this form of support-making, our language — they’re not commonly celebrated or uplifted,” says Leung. “To have those platforms is to create a space where [a literary magazine] is something that’s highly visible and it’s curated and it’s put side-by-side like conversations so that it becomes something that has very intentional meaning.” 

Writing as Radical Solidarity

The Kundiman approach is “radical love.” For Wu, it’s not only about writing as radical love, but about forming an Asian American diasporic community from radical love, especially in the context of rising anti-Asian violence. 

“I think that telling our stories is a political act, and I think caring for each other and practicing radical kindness and community is also a political act, because it’s hard being out here, and it’s hard having to live with these news stories and this hate day after day,” says Wu. 

For Leung, her writing isn’t only concerned with domestic Asian American politics, but has a subject matter that is more global in nature. It has an element of transnationalism in her identity as a Chinese American living in the context of her family’s immigration. 

“There was a different set of politics in China that [my parents] had to grapple with … their departure very much had to do with perhaps this idea of a safer and better life in the U.S., so if I didn’t think about politics I would be ignoring their origins,” Leung says. 

Her poetry folio “This is to live several lives,” published in Nat. Brut Magazine, is included in her forthcoming book Imagine Us, the Swarm. It features lines about her father’s migration and the collective myths recreated from generational memories.

“Another myth: my father swimming across the bay from China’s mainland to then British occupied Hong Kong. When he was caught he disappeared for a while into the fields,” Leung writes. “One can say he worked there and discovered the body as an ox that could keep on even if / the migration as a broken history / that we don’t talk about.”  

This kind of personal approach to politics plays out in Leung’s writing frequently, in the way she thinks about genre conventions. As a poet who is largely experimental with her work, Leung thinks about blurring literary boundaries as a process that, unintentionally or not, takes into account the blended nature of her content. 

“You can’t talk about immigration without talking about globalization, without talking about how immigration patterns are a result of imperialism and colonization of the U.S., the complex history of U.S.-China relations,” says Leung. 

This idea is part of a distinctive diasporic literature, where writing across the Chinese diaspora means reflecting on the global and cultural histories that have shaped identity. It is simultaneously about dismantling borders as it is about negotiating with them and acknowledging the interconnectedness of shared experiences. 

Diasporic literature today follows a long tradition of Asian writers, and it is complex and ever-evolving. Historically, for example Amy Tan’s exploration of mother-daughter relationships in her novel The Joy Luck Club has been viewed as a pinnacle of Asian American literature. Now, those mother-daughter relationships might be more subtle, as in Celeste Ng’s novel Little Fires Everywhere. Ng’s novel centers on a Chinese mother’s legal battle and the cultural ethics of transracial adoption

At the core of diasporic literature is how it can inspire solidarity on racial, ethnic and cultural levels. This idea of community-building is evident in the missions of youth-run literary magazines, new voices that are cultivating new artistic platforms across the diaspora. Yet community-building is fundamentally based in the imaginative power of writing as an art form. 

For Leung, the definition of writing is also evolving, and while she might have thought about it as representation in the past, it’s become a more multi-dimensional concept. Now, it’s about constructing a future for marginalized writers as a whole.

“That’s kind of the dream, to think about one’s writing and artistic voice as just seeing beyond being able to imagine something beyond what was already prescribed to you,” Leung says. “I think about [writing] as what’s beyond representation, what creates a vision of a future that makes us yearn for more for everyone else too.”