Justine Abigail Yu created a literary community to give voice to hyphenated Canadians
If timing is everything, then Justine Abigail Yu’s timing was just right.
In 2018 she launched Living Hyphen — a literary community and multimedia platform that celebrates the diverse stories of hyphenated Canadians — out of her Toronto home, grassroots-style, with a literary journal.
Since then, things have taken off, with a podcast, a stage play, an upcoming third issue as well as ongoing cross-country cultural programming and training for students and interested Canadians.
Through short stories, photography, poetry and illustrations, the journal shares intimate human experiences tied to migration, immigration, displacement and settlement exploring ideas around connection to a homeland, ties to past generations, and finding a sense of self somewhere new.
“Hyphenated Canadians are anyone who calls Canada home, but might have roots elsewhere,” Yu, 32, explains. “This is a very fluid and open definition. We prioritize the voices of Black, Indigenous and people of colour, but it captures many different experiences.”
The inspiration behind Living Hyphen is personal. As a Filipina-Canadian, growing up Yu did not see herself reflected in books or movies or on television. It wasn’t until her early 20s that she discovered literature connected to her identity, while also appreciating the nuances among others’ migrant stories. “When I started reading different writers of different identities,” she says, “it opened up a whole world for me.”
In 2015, while attending a writer’s conference, Yu heard a Japanese-Canadian author talk about an editor who called her novel not “Japanese enough.” “That scared and unsettled me because so many of the stories I write touch upon my identity as a Filipina-Canadian.” says Yu. “I can’t separate myself from that.”
Yu realized that Canadians living between cultures needed a place to tell their stories in their true, authentic forms — not weighted down by judgment or expectations. “We’re a community of diasporas, and also Indigenous people,” she says of Living Hyphen, “that explores questions around home, identity and belonging, which are rooted in the systems of oppression.
“The migration stories of ethnic groups are so drastically different,” she adds. “I wanted to honour that.”
Living Hyphen’s first edition, “Entrances and Exits,” received more than 200 submissions from across Canada, and sold out of its 1,250 copies. As editor-in-chief and content curator, Yu narrowed down the contributions to more than 50 writers and artists (who receive an honorarium for their work). The second issue, “Resistance Across Generations” was published in July, and both are available via Living Hyphen’s website and at Indigo Bay and Bloor, Queen Books and Glad Day Bookshop.
When the pandemic hit, Yu was unsure how Living Hyphen would evolve. But out of uncertainty came opportunity.
Workshops, storytelling nights, keynote speeches, and equity and anti-racism training — delivered in partnership with public libraries, school boards and universities — expanded virtually. To date, 90 workshops have attracted more than 1,500 attendees from coast to coast, and a new magazine, “The Stories of Us,” sharing experiences of newcomers to Canada, is being produced in partnership with the Department of Imaginary Affairs.
Financial support for the project initially came from Yu’s mother, Jocelyn Yu, Living Hyphen’s publisher and angel investor, and is now sourced from journal sales, sponsorship and training, and Patreon — the membership platform that helps content creators earn income.
“Being able to reach people across Canada has connected this community in a way that we weren’t before,” says Yu. “And that has changed us.”
In eight episodes season one — “Homestuck” — of Living Hyphen’s podcast has brought to life stories of hyphenated Canadians who found themselves homebound during the pandemic. And last August, on the High Park’s Summerworks stage, contributions from “Entrances and Exits” were adapted into a play titled “nowhen.”
“What is so powerful about Living Hyphen is that people see themselves as part of it,” says Yu. “And are empowered to take this idea and breathe new life into it in a way that resonates and connects with them.”
As Yu looks to the future, she says new avenues to share stories about hyphenated Canadians will be explored, “taking cues” from the community, which is at the root of Living Hyphen’s evolution and success.
“Whatever happens we will be free and open. We want reach people where they are, wherever that might be,” she says. “It’s how we will move forward, working together to lift each other up.”