Digital Juxtapositions and Diasporic Legibility

The Redesign of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Website

• June 2019

In Bushra Rehman’s short story “Corona Halal Meats,” published in the Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s online magazine the Margins in 2017, the narrator recalls a daily childhood ritual of serving afternoon tea to their father in his butcher shop on the corner of 99th and National Streets in Queens, where older men gathered to chat before they left for evening prayers. The narrator’s father has kept a book in his shop listing debts owed by community members he has fed for free over the years: “At first, people only owed small amounts, but when they realized my father never asked them for payment, the sums got larger and the items went from packs of roti to burlap sacks of flour. From half a chicken to a whole goat.”1

I was revisiting the story recently, not on the current AAWW webpage but on the test site for an upcoming redesign of the organization’s web presence, scheduled to launch later this year. A nonprofit literary arts organization working under the belief that Asian American stories deserve to be told, AAWW is dedicated to literature at the intersection of race, migration, and social justice. With live events held most weeks in our performance space, the online magazines the Margins and Open City, fellowships awarded to emerging writers, and programs run in public high schools and senior centers, the organization’s website bears a heavy responsibility to hold, express, and direct visitors through many different expressions of our work.

The variation in expression and form exists even within the writing we publish in our online magazines. Bushra Rehman’s short fiction had been accepted as part of a call for submissions around the concept “Bona Fide Relationships”; we asked for work responding obliquely to the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Muslim Ban earlier in 2017. As I scrolled down to finish reading the story, published in the special issue of the Margins in late 2017, I took a look at a feature of the redesigned site that sat toward the bottom of the page: three linked images of recommended pieces that had been published elsewhere in the magazine and that had been suggested based on keywords or search terms those pieces shared with Rehman’s story. Among the links was one to a long-form reported article from Open City, AAWW’s editorial project covering the Asian immigrant neighborhoods in New York that are home to one million people, nearly 13 percent of the city. The long-form piece, by former Open City writer and fellow Humera Afridi, narrated a visit to the first organic halal slaughterhouse in southwestern Queens, Madani Halal in Ozone Park. Also among the recommended links was a conversation in Open City with Queens historian Carl Ballenas and a round-up in the Margins titled “Here to Stay: 14 Things to Read as You Stand by Undocumented Immigrants,” curated by assistant editor Yasmin Adele Majeed in September 2017 on the heels of Donald Trump’s announcement that he would end DACA. If I refreshed the page, three new links would appear, all loosely tied together, all either about Queens or circling around the subject of immigration, but with genres and forms that varied widely.

The “recommended stories” or “read more like this one” feature in online magazines is not new. Its logic, we assume, is to keep a reader engaged, to guide them deeper within the magazine. Publications that subsist even partially on ad revenue monetize such metrics of engagement. But for an online magazine published out of a not-for-profit literary arts organization like the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, those “clicks” have a different relationship to funding. They might be used to corroborate the importance of the work we publish—to insist, as we do, that Asian American stories deserve to be told.

I think those “recommended stories” do something more, too. As part of a redesign that brings together for the first time stories published in both the Margins and Open City—which had until now been understood as two separate magazines published by AAWW—they juxtapose different forms and registers of writing that we had previously kept at a distance from one another.

At a recent editorial meeting, our team reflected on how we define the growth of the magazines. We were trying to get at what it would look like to grow while not just becoming larger. One definition felt especially salient as I began to reflect on the redesign process: that to grow as an Asian American publication is to allow for space in the literature we publish to take on the new conversations and tensions that emerge when we engage with the political and collective term “Asian American.” The term came out of the Asian American movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, a movement that called for solidarity across struggles for racial and gender justice in the United States and the end to American imperialism in Asia and across the world. It was a term that emerged from politics, and if we embraced that history, to publish and grow in that spirit would mean to build a collective space that expands political horizons rather than trying to nail down a singular Asian American ethos or identity.

One of the first ways we brought this spirit online was through Open City, which launched in late 2010 as an interdisciplinary neighborhood blog and community project. It brought together oral histories, commentary, and essays emerging from Manhattan’s Chinatown in the Lower East Side, Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park, Brooklyn. On the opening page of the blog, which at that time lived separately from what was then AAWW’s static page, the editors had spelled out the project’s goals: “We hope that Open City will act as a model for community and research-based cultural work [that] seeks to creatively bring together the world of new media and blogging with local, place-based activism and the everyday life of neighborhoods.” That year, five writers were given fellowships to write for the blog. Former Open City editor Lena Sze, reflecting on the blog’s name, wrote in the inaugural post, “Open City suggests that the city in which we live and work is not something settled and known, but rather that its many lives, places, and possibilities are dynamic and incredibly contested.”2

True to this vision of the city as dynamic and contested, the next eight years would see Open City go through several transformations. The project adapted to the conversations happening in immigrant communities across New York City as questions of gentrification, housing precarity, policing of immigrant neighborhoods, antiblackness in Asian immigrant communities, and anti-Muslim violence persisted. It also adapted alongside the shape of AAWW’s work and changed editorial hands thrice; it is now under the editorship of Noel Pangilinan.

I joined the AAWW as managing editor and editor of the Margins in 2013. The year before, AAWW’s online presence had been transformed by the work of editors Kai Ma and Jane Kim and executive director Ken Chen, who together with the help of designers and developers reworked the AAWW website to house Open City as well as the Margins, its new arts and ideas magazine launched in 2012 and that today publishes essays, interviews, cultural criticism, poetry, and fiction by Asian diasporic writers. The site I stepped in to manage was far from the static page of 2011. The sidebar listed upcoming events held in our performance space. And on the top global navigation bar, alongside a yellow circle containing one of our taglines—“Inventing the Future of Asian American Intellectual Culture”—read the names of AAWW’s special projects, including Open City, which had by then turned from a blog into a magazine. It retained the model of a fellowship-based publication but still lived separately from AAWW’s main homepage at aaww.org.

The Margins grew in the years that followed, as did AAWW as a whole, which more than doubled in staff size and budget. Funding the work of a nonprofit literary organization like AAWW relies on the support of individual donors and arts funders, many of whom have moved away from general operating support and toward project-based funding. For many nonprofit organizations, creating new projects to justify new sources of income only produces new costs. For AAWW it pushed us to imagine new projects that would take shape online through the Margins and speak to the conversations we wanted to see happening in our space and beyond: conversations that included questions of translation and the place of Asian American voices in a larger critique of our carceral system.

One of those conversations led to the launch of a special editorial project within the Margins, the Transpacific Literary Project. TLP was initially inspired in part by new ideas emerging from Transpacific studies, which insisted that we can’t think about Asian America without thinking about the Pacific world. A literature in translation project, TLP was led by inaugural editor Jeremy Tiang and now by editor Kaitlin Rees.

Another project that emerged in this fashion is A World without Cages, an editorial and programming initiative led by Daniel A. Gross that centers conversations about and experiences of the incarcerated, with an emphasis on connecting literatures of immigrant detention and prison literature.

These new projects produced works of literature that look and read very differently from one other and forced us to ask what it meant for this larger, more disparate body of work to fall within the shape of an online magazine. When it came to the website, Open City had remained separate. Would these two new projects develop along similar lines? Or would their arrival change the way Open City related to the Margins?

An early impetus for this year’s website redesign was a fear that our readers were being splintered by the division of the Margins and Open City. Some readers might first resonate with the reportage and place-based nonfiction of Open City and have trouble finding their way to the literary work on the Margins, and others might start with the Margins but never make it to Open City. The division even made it more difficult for us to see the connections between the work we publish. But the split also implied something about the lines we draw around forms of writing and what that says about our assumptions of the capacity of our readers to imagine what a magazine is or can be.

Reflecting on the redesign, it felt important to create the possibility of reading work in multiple ways, in part as a way to invoke the messiness of publishing in the context of an Asian American organization. Future readers of our newly redesigned site might encounter Bushra’s short story, for example, as part of “Bona Fide Relationships,” a special issue of the Margins that includes an editor’s note by Zaina Arafat pointing to the conversation the piece joins. Or they might first encounter it as a recommended story at the bottom of another piece in the magazine, connecting it to a different moment in time. The redesign allows for pieces published across all our special projects to appear together on the homepage, which will feature an infinite scroll of pieces we have published. Unlike a print magazine, in which pieces are all published in the same moment in time and collected in each edition, the juxtaposition in the digital space could lead to a sort of time travel and a chance to mine the archive.

At the foundation of an experiment like this is a concern over the role of legibility. Would bringing all these projects together make the Margins seem like a random assortment of ideas? Does ceding some control to readers to make meaning from juxtaposition make it harder for a reader to anticipate or define what we publish? These are questions that continue to activate our work, questions that informed our approach to the website redesign. The process has been a careful dance between listening to those concerns while also trusting in a reader’s capacity to see something greater in the whole of what we publish.

A similar anxiety over legibility animates conversations around the meaning of the term Asian American. What do all these people and places have in common, some ask? Does the danger of perpetuating absences and silences outweigh the work of building something new inspired by a political legacy? If you begin with the premise that Asian American stories do matter, that does not resolve the question of why and how the category is significant. For that we return to its history in politics, to the questions it has always churned up. What seems to be and very likely is a problem—What do these voices have in common?—we hope to turn into a productive, generative space.

AAWW recently acquired from the Asian American Arts Alliance a near full set of the legendary Bridge magazine, published out of the Basement Workshop (1970–86), an umbrella organization for Asian American arts and politics in NYC. Among the issues of Bridge is one from November 1975 titled “Vietnam in Retrospect.” Another, published less than a year later, was devoted to Asian American poetry, publishing early poems from legends such as Kimiko Hahn. Flipping through the issues of Bridge, I felt stunned by the richness and breadth of work—spending time with the daring political and artistic voice of the publication was like becoming intimate with an ancestor who appeared from the shadows. At first I felt almost envious of Bridge—an issue of a print magazine organized around Asian American views on the Vietnam war communicates a carefully packaged analysis to its audience, as if it were announcing a project of what Asian American writing of the war could be in that moment. Not only that, but the organization of a print publication around issues felt reassuring, like stable ground for readers to work through and explore. It would be tempting to assume that the ways Bridge seemed legible to me were products of its form as a print publication. But with the issues spread out before us, something else emerged: I found myself making new meaning of the juxtaposition, of the context in which I was engaging with this archive. What seemed legible and stable was definitely not static.

If, via the connections encouraged by the new design of our platform, we cede some meaning-making and control to our readers, what remains in our hands is a responsibility to build trust. A trust we earn from a reader that we are taking them somewhere with the work we publish, that there is a larger story to be found—or made—in the juxtapositions.

 

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank the AAWW staff, and in particular the editorial team, for ongoing conversations that were critical to the writing of this essay.

 

 

Jyothi Natarajan is the editorial director at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, a national literary nonprofit that works at the intersection of race, migration, and social justice. At AAWW, she edits the online magazine the Margins and runs the Margins Fellowship for emerging Asian American writers. Jyothi is on the board of IndyKids and has previously worked as an editor at the Caravan magazine in New Delhi and at the New Press. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

 

 

1 Bushra Rehman, “Corona Halal Meats,” Margins, 13 October 2017; forthcoming in Corona: Stories of a Queens Girlhood (Tor/Macmillan, 2019).

2About the Project,” Open City, 2010; Lena Sze, “Welcome to Open City: Blogging Urban Change!,” Open City, 1 October 2010.

 

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