Friday 3 June 2022

Making a Scene: Literary magazines and the editors behind them

For all its prestige, the editor's role is one that often goes unsung. 

Frequently serving as proofreader, designer, gatekeeper and publisher (all rolled into one), these individuals – like the vast majority of staff who keep our publications running – are often unpaid volunteers. Those who have spent years in the job accumulate stories of strange writerly encounters, while picking up a host of unlikely skills (e.g. HTML coding, customer support) along the way. Yet, they also gain some of the sharpest perspectives on our literary landscapes, and help shape the platforms that define movements and nurture new voices. If poems are the best words in the best order, they are the ones who place them in their best light. 

In this month's poetry column, we go behind the scenes with some of the editors at beloved publications like Wasafiri, OF ZOOS, Mekong Review and the newly-launched PR&TA(Where these individuals are part of larger editorial teams, their comments represent their personal perspectives.)


Asian Books Blog: In a few words, how would you describe the role of journals and magazines in your respective literary scenes (however you define these)?

Minh Bui Jones – Founding editor, Mekong Review: 

Mekong Review is what is commonly known as a little magazine, that is, one that is founded on and kept going by a labour of love. It is often said that little magazines are vehicles for political, social and cultural causes, and that is what we are. We’re in it to push the cause of a regional voice in the broadest sense of the idea. So, we don’t just publish writings from people who live in the region, but also those who have a deep and discerning knowledge of the countries and cultures of Asia.

The other quality about little magazines is they tend to push the boundaries of form and content. In our case that’s magazine and Asia, respectively. We’re able to do this because, ironically, we have nothing to lose, being relatively dirt-poor and unknown. To wit, being clueless about commercial imperatives, not being politically aligned and not affiliated with any institution allowed us to do what we love and sometimes go where others fear.

Tse Hao Guang and Kimberley Lim – Co-editors, OF ZOOS: 

We think the "little magazine" is essential to literary scenes everywhere. In its ability to take chances on new writing/writers, it is also a snapshot of what "the literary" could look like in the future. 

OF ZOOS (est. 2012) is an electronic literary magazine by Singaporeans for Singaporeans, and everyone else. Our yearly themed open calls seek playful, collaborative creative work. We lean into OF ZOOS's electronic nature by moving away from a strictly "Singapore" or "US" lens, and by coming up with unusual prompts and presentation formats. Reading for OF ZOOS sometimes feels like we're in a playground of possibility and potential, and it's been so wonderful to watch how our contributors have in turn played a major role in helping us to define and shape what we look like ten years down the road. 

"It is often said that little magazines are vehicles for political, social and cultural causes, and that is what we are." – Minh Bui Jones

Gopika Jadeja – Editor at Large, Wasafiri; Editorial team, PR&TA: 

It is difficult to define my ‘literary scene’ or even my ‘literary scenes’. I am from India and have lived in Singapore for a decade. I find myself a part of both literary scenes and also on the edge of both. In India, it is actually difficult to define a singular literary scene, as there is a multiplicity of languages and even within those languages several different literary cultures, practices and communities. This can apply to Singapore as well, with its four national languages and literary spheres which do not necessarily intertwine or overlap. Within these contexts, I am interested in the position of English and the relationships between the languages. Wasafiri is one of the earliest journals of postcolonial literature in the Anglosphere. In the Anglophone literary and academic sphere where it is located, Wasafiri does valuable work in creating space for dialogue and writing across cultures. Its focus ranges from “After Grenfell’ (referencing the Grenfell fire in London in 2017) to “Trans literary activism”, “Human Rights Cultures”, “Writing Hong Kong” and its latest issue on “Afterlives of Indenture”.

PR&TA: Practice Research and Tangential Activities is a new journal of creative practice based in Southeast Asia, with a focus on Southeast Asia and giving impetus to a Southeast Asian imaginary. PR&TA is unique in its emphasis on both practice and scholarship. The interface between creative practice and scholarship is something that interests me, as does the undoing of rigid disciplinary boundaries and national and cultural divides.

Writers writing in English (or translating into English) from Southeast Asia tend to move towards the centres of publishing in the Anglosphere like the UK, US and even Australia. There is a prestige attached to being published in journals and by publishers who are considered important in these regions. PR&TA is a challenge to these metropolitan centres. It is also a place of dialogue between the region’s many different literary spheres, which otherwise exist in isolation. PR&TA is an endeavor to build a community of creative practitioners in the region, who can speak with and learn from each other. 

"I want writing that is of here and now, of the world in the light of where we stand"  Gopika Jadeja

Asian Books Blog: What kind of writing would each of you like to see more of? 

Gopika Jadeja: I want to see writing that pushes the boundaries of genres, that turns upside down and inside out, that makes the reader think, rethink and question the world around them. I want writing that is playful, that is aware of its idiosyncrasies. I want writing that engages with language, with languages, bringing the flavours of one tongue to another. I want writing that situates itself in the region, is of the region and transcends these borders, having conversations with other places on the map, with literatures and writers from other parts of the world. I want writing that is of here and now, of the world in the light of where we stand. 

Minh Bui Jones: I would like to see more people writing about their local neighbourhood, that is where they live, work and play. I like reading about the streets, towns and cities where writers spend most of their time. Tell us the colour of the house across the street, the smell of the open market, the din of the traffic. Who else could better guide us through the history, the stories and myths of their country?

I would also like to see more writers writing for a Western audience. Asia, in the English language, has long been written by outsiders for outsiders. It’s high time we refine this epistemological habit: insiders for outsiders.

Tse Hao Guang, Kimberley Lim: The truth is we'll really know it when we see it; or perhaps in other words we would like to see more writing that surprises us even from line to line, writing that defies expectations. 

Even so-called "experimental poetry", a tag we increasingly dislike for being poorly-defined and -used, seems to have its own conventions and can easily cease to surprise. And while we do find ourselves tending toward such poetries that try to do something different, what's ultimately important is not different for different's sake, but that the work strikes some kind of core – tells its own particular story.

[Current open call – OF ZOOS 10th anniversary issue: ARCHIVAL PAPER. Calling for creative engagements with our archives and/or with paper as a medium. Submit to by August 15.]


Gopika Jadeja is a bilingual poet and translator, writing in English and Gujarati. Her literary writing and translations have been published widely. Gopika is committed to translating writing from marginalised communities and is working on a project of English translations of Dalit and Adivasi poetry from western India. She is Editor at Large for Wasafiri: International Contemporary Writing and Editor for PR&TA: Practice Research and Tangential Activities. She currently lives and works in Singapore.

Minh Bui Jones was born in Danang, Vietnam, and came to Australia in 1978 as a refugee. He has worked as a researcher and producer for SBS-TV and as a journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald. He was the founding editor of The Diplomat, American Review and most recently, Mekong Review. (Photo credit: Nick Coffill.)

Kimberley Lim is a freelance book editor as well as the managing editor of Gaudy Boy, an NYC-based indie press that publishes Asian voices. She also coedits the online literary magazine
Hao Guang Tse (谢皓光) is the author of The International Left-Hand Calligraphy Association (Tinfish Press, 2022) and Deeds of Light (Math Paper Press, 2015), the latter shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize. He is a 2016 fellow of the University of Iowa's International Writing Program, and the 2018 National Writer-in-Residence at Nanyang Technological University. His poems have appeared in Poetry, Poem-a-Day, Pain, Big Other, Hotel and elsewhere. He was born and raised in Singapore, where he continues to live and work.