Writer and editor Helena Lee is the brains behind East Side Voices – a new platform and talk series dedicated to celebrating the often under-represented talent in fashion, literature and more of East and South East Asian origin. Before lockdown Helena hosted two panels at The Standard, London and is working on plans for more once we re-open. Here we speak to the Harper’s Bazaar Features Editor about perception, inspiration and the essential need to showcase these broad-ranging and brilliant talents.
Listen to the most recent talk with East Side Voices on Sometimes Radio now
Helena, it’s been so great having you speak in the Library Lounge Helena… tell us what East Side Voices is all about?
East Side Voices is a platform to raise the visibility of East and South East Asians - mainly living and working here in the UK. There is such a wealth of talent of East and South East Asian origin, and I wanted to create a forum that was open to everyone - to explore, and discuss what it is to be part of the East Asian diaspora, and unlock those shared experiences. For the launch, we had the award-winning writers Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, and Sharlene Teo discuss identity in fiction, and recently, the brilliant fashion designer Rejina Pyo told us about her life - in both Seoul and London - and work. The Whitbread Prize-winner Tash Aw will be talking about ideas of belonging in a future edition.
The platform has such an important message. What sparked the need for it?
I was just very aware that there are hardly any East and South East Asians in popular culture. When I was growing up, there were hardly any writers or artists that had a similar background to me, and so I definitely didn’t think I could become a writer. When you look at films like Pitch Perfect, or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, where the only Asian character in it is played for laughs in a highly disrespectful way, you have to question why that is - and it’s down to a lack of representation. That’s why I’d love agents and casting directors, and writers and artists to come along, so creatives are more invested in exploring these rich cultures and telling diverse stories.
What future do you see for this platform and do you have plans of branching out to other regions?
We have lots of plans at the moment. Given the difficulties we’re experiencing now, we will try to provide a rich social platform online that people can feel part of, and grow the community. I’ve been struck by all the positive feedback, and the offers to carry the message beyond the UK.
In your first talk with writers Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, and Sharlene Teo you spoke on changing identity and cultural narratives in fiction – what’s the importance of this?
I was struck by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s insightful response to a question on why the main character in her book Starling Days ‘Mina’ was Chinese American. ‘Why shouldn’t she be Chinese American?’ She replied. ‘I just wanted her to exist. No one asks why a standard character is white.’ There’s a sense that if there is an Asian character in a novel, then there has to be justification for that.
As a writer, do you have any great places you gain inspiration from?
So many! I do love a chat - nothing quite beats talking to people directly about their loves and motivations. Everyone has a story to tell, after all.
How are you looking to change the perception of East Asian talent within the media for the next generation of writers?
It’s all about owning your story. Because the more stories we tell, the more we can empathise with others and understand what else is going on in the world, rather than existing in our own echo chamber. I’m always looking for new voices within Harper’s Bazaar, where I’m the features director, which can push the agenda - whether for feminism, diversity or just the quality of the arts.
Lastly Helena, what do you have planned for the rest of the year for East Side Voices? We are very excited to see it grow!
So are we! We’re hoping to do more collaborations with the Standard - putting some of the existing interviews on Sometimes Radio, and excitingly, Sceptre will be publishing East Side Voices: a collection of essays exploring what it is to be Asian featuring our contributors (including the Whitbread Prize-winning author Tash Aw and Rowan Hisayo Buchanan). It will be a huge celebration of all the talent that exists out there.