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


East Side Voices boasts contributions from a dazzling range of east Asian and south-east Asian public figures, from Eternals actor Gemma Chan to model Naomi Shimada. It grew out of a salon convened by the book’s editor – and acting deputy editor of Harper’s Bazaar – Helena Lee in February 2020, just before the pandemic that Donald Trump branded the “China virus” and “Kung flu”, fuelling a wave of racist violence against east and south-east Asian people.

The anthology describes instances of racism in all its forms: crude vilification, sexualised exoticism, entitlement, self-righteous ignorance and insularity. But it also reaches back through centuries of colonisation, exploitation and migration and reminds us that in the sweep of human history, there is often no fixed motherland and no fixed resting place.

Many pieces reference meagre cultural representation and insulting stereotypes in TV and film, such as the contribution by Katie Leung, the Glaswegian actor cast as Cho Chang in the Harry Potter films. A private school rebel turned art school cool girl, Leung is as far from the cringing, sniffling Cho Chang as it’s possible to be. Yet her success is racialised: “I was not considered [for roles] unless race came into it.”

All the anthology contributors are incredibly successful: society’s winners, global third-culture kids. As Chinese-Malaysian novelist Tash Aw writes poetically“: “We revel in the three-dimensional nature of our hybrid cultures and languages, rejoicing in the fact that we have an instinctive understanding of how the south-east Asian archipelago weaves its cultural connections.” Yet many of the testimonials demonstrate that no amount of privilege protects you from the racism of others.

The essays are sharpest 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 exotification: “Once, a man followed me down a platform at Paddington station, chanting ‘ni hao, konnichiwa, sexy sexy’ and I told him to get lost – only for him to start shouting and running after me.”

The most powerful and disturbing piece is by novelist Claire Kohda, who describes her philistine English grandmother’s treatment of her: “When my cousins once visited my nan and grandad at the same time as me and my parents, they received little bags of sweets and chocolates, while I sat and watched empty-handed from a corner of the room.” The piece centres on a portrait her grandmother paints, in which Kohda’s features (her mother is Japanese) are whitewashed.

The strength of this slim collection is in its nuance. Many essays do not speak just of racist stereotypes or attacks, but also of internal conflicts, self-censorship, self-disavowal, embarrassment and shame, of initially pushing away questions of heritage and identity.

East Side Voices is a thoughtful, painful reminder of the grand narratives that get buried under belittling stereotypes, of how progress can also regress and how self-actualisation, self-discovery and personal excellence still grate against the perceptions of strangers.

East Side Voices, 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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