East Side Voices, edited by Helena Lee review – reflections on exile and exoticism | Trials

Elatest side vocals boasts contributions from a dazzling array of public figures from East and Southeast Asia, Eternals actor Gemma Chan to model Naomi Shimada. It grew out of a salon convened by the book’s publisher – and acting deputy editor of Harper’s Bazaar – Helena Lee in February 2020, just before the pandemic that Donald Trump called the “Chinese virus” and the “Kung flu”, fueling a wave of racist violence against the people of East and Southeast Asia.

The anthology describes examples of racism in all its forms: gross libel, sexualized exoticism, righteousness, self-righteous ignorance and insularity. But it also goes back through centuries of colonization, exploitation and migration and reminds us that in the course of human history there is often no fixed homeland or fixed resting place.

Many plays reference poor cultural representation and insulting stereotypes in television and film, such as the contribution of Katie Leung, the Glasgow actor played by Cho Chang in the Harry Potter movies. Private school rebel turned art school cool girl, Leung is as far removed from the grumpy, sniffy Cho Chang as you can get. Yet his success is racialized: “I was not considered [for roles] unless race comes into play.

All of the contributors to the anthology are incredibly successful: society’s winners, children of the third world culture. As Chinese-Malaysian novelist Tash Aw poetically writes: “We revel in the three-dimensional nature of our hybrid cultures and languages, rejoicing in the fact that we instinctively understand how the Southeast Asian archipelago weaves together cultural. “Yet many testimonies demonstrate that no degree of privilege protects you from the racism of others.

Essays are sharper when various forms of objectification intersect – for example when sexual and racial abuse combine, as with novelist Sharlene Teo’s excellent self-lacerating piece on exoticification:ni hao, konnichiwasexy sexy’ and told him to get lost – only for him to start screaming and running after me.

The most powerful and disturbing article is by novelist Claire Kohda, who describes how her Philistine English grandmother treated her: “When my cousins ​​visited my grandmother and my grand -father along with me and my parents, they were given small bags of sweets and chocolates, while I sat and watched empty-handed from a corner of the room.The room is centered on a painted portrait by her grandmother, in which the features of Kohda (her mother is Japanese) are whitewashed.

The strength of this slim collection lies in its nuance. Many essays are not only about stereotypes or racist attacks, but also about internal conflicts, self-censorship, self-disavowal, embarrassment and shame, pushing questions of inheritance and identity.

East Side Voice is a thoughtful and painful reminder of the grand narratives that are buried under denigrating stereotypes, how progress can also regress, and how self-realization, self-discovery, and personal excellence still clash with perceptions. strangers.

Voice of the East Side, edited by Helena Lee, is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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