Interview with Founder of The Brown Orient: Elizabeth Ruth
In the inaugural issue of The Brown Orient, an arts and literary journal focused on South Asia, founder Elizabeth Ruth writes an editors note that immediately resonated with me. She opens the note by saying that The Brown Orient was born out of her "frustration" (a very understandable one) with how the media portrays the Asian continent. She explains in her own words:
"The so-called Asian representation that they boast about are but patches of what really is. Oftentimes, the closest we get are worn-out stereotypes and fifteen-second screen time. When someone mentions “Asian”, I’d be willing to bet that the first nationality that comes to mind won’t be Indian, Filipino, Malay, Pakistani. While that does not make us any less Asian, lack of recognition simply means underrepresentation, and we—the ones I’d like to refer to as Brown Asians—deserve so much more."
Not only did this excerpt inspire (word for word) the title of our current issue, but it made me instantly invested in devouring whatever art was enclosed in hopes of supporting my Asian sisters. The Brown Orient certainly did not fall short of sharing a diverse set of works; for its inaugural issue, it brought the works of over 30 female and non-binary Asian writers and artists from all over the continent, including works of poetry, prose and visual art. As I write this, The Brown Orient has just closed its submissions for its upcoming second issue and I really cannot wait to see the works to be featured. So, without further ado, below is our interview with Elizabeth Ruth:
Tell us about yourself, and how and why you founded The Brown Orient. Who are you aiming to reach with this project?
Hi! I am a writer, poet, and editor from Laguna, Philippines. I recently got my Bachelor's degree in Communication Arts, with a focus on creative and critical writing. Currently, I work as a research assistant for the sole open university of the country's premier state university system.
A year ago, I discovered the independent literary community through Twitter, and immediately fell in love with how warm and supportive most writers and editors are. As a creative writing major, I did not receive as much support from peers as I had been criticized, albeit constructively. At some point in my undergraduate years, I actually began to lose taste for creative writing. I felt like my general viewpoint of literary arts did not match up to the expectations of the academe, and I resorted to focusing my efforts to learning more about critical writing instead, which is also one style of writing that I really find interesting and worthwhile.
However, when I chanced upon a couple of literary magazines and had a couple of my work be selected for publication, I decided to get to know the community more. I found opportunities to join some editorial teams; I first became affiliated with small journals such as The Cerurove, Monstering, and Minute Magazine, and eventually found my way into relatively established publications such as Rag Queen Periodical, where I now serve as Prose Editor, and L'Ephemere Review, where I contribute as Film Writer. Essentially, the community saved my passion for creative writing, and I will always be grateful.
Since then, I knew that I wanted to create my own platform; I've always dreamed of becoming a chief editor and founder of a magazine that did not exude the elitism that most lifestyle magazines do, and instead showcase some of the facets of culture that I hold dearly—art and literature. The idea for founding The Brown Orient specifically sprouted from this frustrating realization that my sister, who was eight at the time, actually thought that we Filipinos were not Asian. She thought that Asian people were only those from East Asian descent. This mistake was brought about by her exposure to Western media, online and in films and TV shows. True enough, the generic portrayal of Asians according to Western media truly centers on East Asia only. Ask people what nationality first comes to mind when "Asians" are brought up and I bet that you won't ever hear them say Indian or Thai or Malay first. We're known for our own nationalities, but not for our identity as Asians.
Simply put, The Brown Orient is a response to the apparent underrepresentation of Brown Asians in the global narrative, even in the literary community. I chose to limit our demographic particularly to women and LGBTQIA+ individuals for the similar reason: I know that a great part of Brown Asian culture is veiled with conservative, often discriminatory, ideals, and women and queer folks are sidelined even within their own communities. I want to host a platform that is specifically theirs—a place for their bold artistic expression.
You’ve just released your inaugural issue! How do you plan on expanding The Brown Orient as a community of readers and writers? Do you plan on bringing The Brown Orient to the printing press?
Yes! I have so many plans for The Brown Orient—from holding contests and workshops to releasing micro-chapbooks to creating an online community of our own. These are some things that readers and followers should keep an eye out for! As for print issues, that has always been part of the plan, and hopefully we get to pursue this idea later this year.
What and who are the stories and writers from Brown Asia resonate that with you most? And how have the works from your contributors and featured writers inspired you as a writer and individual?
Ah, all of the pieces featured in our first issue are very inspiring! The volume of submissions itself was truly overwhelming, and I love the strong reception. I've received messages of thanks from submitters, and those were really encouraging and a strong proof that the project has so much potential and purpose.
I especially loved Anita Goveas' fiction piece and Anna Vangala Jones' nonfiction, both tackling the similar subject of changing themselves and concealing their Brown Asian identities for them to be respected and accepted in a eurocentric social environment. This says so much about what Brown Asians in the diaspora experience day-to-day, since they were kids and perhaps until adulthood, even after finally coming to grips with who they really are. Rimsha N. Syed's story about Syria was also moving and powerful; the piece may be a work of fiction, but it successfully portraying the rawness of the situation, the tragedy.
Having the opportunity to showcase works such as theirs is such an honor. They inspire me to write more about the pains, struggles, horrors, and triumphs faced by common Filipinos, and share them to the rest of the world. These voices are ones that deserve to be heard the most.
How has your upbringing in the Philippines inspired your work as a writer and community builder and yourself as an individual?
My artistic work mostly centers on explorations of identity, often of the self, but I aim to relate them to societal issues and cultural identity as much as I can. Filipinos are known for the concept of kapwa, or "togetherness", which refers to how we tend to tie up our individuality to our identity as a member of a community. The affinity for this concept often manifests, one way or another; this is no different to my case. I plan to start a project that probes on the current societal issue in the Philippines which is the incumbent administration's drug war campaign, and the negative repercussions that it brought—heightened death tolls due to extrajudicial killings and the police force's abuse of power. I intend to discuss this issue by relating it to my own experiences with psychiatric disability. I also want to start a column comprised of nonfiction entries about stories from different indigenous tribes.
Beyond this, the biggest influence to my writing remains to be my academic training in creative writing. We were taught to always use literature in conveying social issues and the stories of common Filipinos. However, in the pursuit of this track, expression of personal sentiments became, more or less, questionable—themes of individual grief and passion are deemed as ordinary. My aim is to write about the intersection of self-exploration and discussion of societal issues, primarily to prove that they can and do go together.
As the editor of an online publication that centers the voices of brown women and queer folks, do you see yourself as an activist of sorts?
Honestly, I'd like to think so. I came from a university known for its strong affinity with social activism. Protests and demonstrations were often held on campus, specifically forwarding the rights of local workers. I've never been part of such a physical activity before, but I try to utilize other forms of forwarding my advocacy. I strive to be as active in pushing for women empowerment and LGBTQ+ rights, sex positivity, mental health for the common Filipinos, rights of indigenous peoples, and representation of Brown Asian peoples. While alternative venues for activism are often criticized, I'd like to think that they are valid and effective.
How can readers support your featured writers and your publication?
We regularly share our contributors' works on social media, so readers can follow us for more updates. We can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @thebrownorient, on Facebook at facebook.com/thebrownorient, and on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/company/thebrownorient. Other news about our publication (calls for submissions, new segments, etc.) will be shared on social media.
Our site can be found at thebrownorient.weebly.com, where they can also read our inaugural issue and archive of blog posts, which are well-curated articles mostly tackling Brown Asian culture and current affairs.
We'll be creating a Facebook community for Brown Asian creators, readers, and followers where people can share among one another their projects, achievements, invitations, and other things worth sharing. Readers can join this group once it's set up so they'll be in the loop.
Finally, we'll be needing financial help from followers for us to be able to produce and distribute future print issues, so if people can donate to our project, that would be really spectacular. We have pages on Patreon (patreon.com/thebrownorient) and Ko-fi (ko-fi.com/thebrownorient) if anyone would be interested.
You can also download the inaugural issue of The Brown Orient here and follow them on twitter/instagram on @thebrownorient
Editor's note: I would like to also note that after conducting this interview with Elizabeth, follow the halo and The Brown Orient decided to jointly curate the content for our current issue titled "Brown Asia". I am so grateful to have worked alongside Elizabeth to curate such strong and wonderful works from across the continent and I couldn't have had a better partner. I want to extend me sincere thanks to The Brown Orient for helping us better represent the Asian continent by co-curating with us!