Asians, how are you feeling today? Gabrielle Widjaja collects uplifting stories from the diaspora in the wake of the Atlanta shootings
We Are Still Here is a digital scrapbook of Asian resilience, free to download now.
- Jyni Ong
- 12 April 2021
- Reading Time
- 7 minute read
As hate crimes towards East and South East Asian communities soar in light of the pandemic, Gabrielle Widjaja captures a fraction of what people from the Asian diaspora are feeling in a new zine. Free to download, the New York-based designer and illustrator tells us how We Are Still Here came about, and the emotion behind it. A healing collection filled with uplifting and heart-wrenching stories, Gabrielle takes us behind the scenes of the 140-page zine.
What prompted you to create We Are Still Here?
When I woke up on the morning of Wednesday 17 March to the news of the Atlanta shooting, like many others in the Asian community, I felt a thick fog of grief heavy in the air. It felt difficult to breathe or even say anything, I think a lot of us were just processing. I decided to engage with my Instagram community as I scrolled through the barrage of posts of collective outcry. I posted two questions on my Instagram story: the first was, “Asians, how are you feeling today?”. I don’t know why I asked this first question, maybe to rationalise the amount of hurt I was personally feeling. The feeling of being gaslit into thinking our community has no real problems is very real. Amongst the many answers that came in were: “vulnerable”, “Tired”, “Helpless.”, “Numb”, “Lost”, “Fearful”.
As I was looking through these answers, I felt surprisingly better to know that we were communally grieving. At this time I was also in my childhood home visiting my parents, so things felt even more real to me; the fear that my parents might be next, and my parents also feeling afraid for me. I remember looking around my room as I was working through my emotions and seeing this super vintage photo of my parents in their youth, my mom bouncing me on her lap and my dad holding my teeny hand. It was one of those super staged family pics. I thought about what my parents went through to bring me to The States, for us to be treated this way after hoping for a better life. I felt angry but then I felt a surge of courage after looking at this photo. The fear of being Asian suddenly melted away by a fire of indignation.
I felt I had to pose a new prompt to the Instagram community: “Now tell me why you’re proud to be Asian”. In a moment where it felt like the world wanted us to be afraid, it felt cathartic to declare, even to myself, that throughout the strife our community has faced, we are still here. I got even more answers to this prompt than the first. Answers started coming in quickly; it was as if I had lit a small candle, and it quickly spread into a wildfire (at least, in my inbox). I teared up at a lot when reading the responses I identified with, and sat in awe of other peoples’ answers that I wouldn’t have thought of. “The richness of our cultures”, “Our food”, “Our family values”, “Respect of elders”, “The neurotic commitment to being generous”, The one that made me laugh was “Pineapple cake,” because it was so simple and true. One word kept coming up over and over: resilience.
I felt a surge of unfettered happiness at this inundation of online community gathering, I wanted to share it and give it back to the community. I shared screenshots of the pages of answers I received, but it didn’t feel impactful enough. That night I lay awake, leafing through one of my family scrapbooks, looking at the vintage photos of my mom and dad in their early 20s before they had me. They told me stories of the things they had lived through, the good and the bad. And I had the sudden idea for a community family scrapbook since I felt the idea of ‘community being family’ is salient to Asian culture. I wanted to know more about the family stories of the people who had replied to my questions. I quickly sent out another Instagram story: “Email me an old family photo, your ethnic origin, and why you’re proud to be Asian”. From there, the project took on a life of its own.
The point is that everyone, no matter what their story is, deserves to be here and not only that, but we are declaring that we are here to stay.
GalleryGabrielle Widjaja: We Are Still Here (Copyright © Gabrielle Widjaja, 2021)
What was a highlight in putting together this uplifting zine?
Technically speaking, I love the scrappiness and the urgency of it. This zine is such a reactionary response to recent events. I wanted to work with that energy. I didn’t spend too much time on the design, I just followed my instincts for each spread. The pages came together almost in the order they appear in my email inbox. I had to design quickly, work with what I had. It was incredible having so much valuable content to work with. There are short, one-sentence responses, and there are paragraphs of responses. There are grainy photos and newer ones. I picked two typefaces that I felt spoke to this simple/vintage vibe, and I picked the colour red because it’s associated with luck across Asian cultures. I also couldn’t bear to not use any of the content I received. I’m almost certain I used every single entry that came into my inbox, even the ones with no stories and just photos attached. I interwove screenshots of the initial Instagram responses that I received. I really wanted to keep them because that limit on word count made for some nice, short answers to punctuate the longer, more elaborate narrative.
What was a difficulty (emotionally or creatively) in putting it together?
Oh my god, it was so difficult. I felt like I was having a cathartic cry every ten pages that I designed. Each story is just so precious, the photos are even more precious. You rarely get to see family photos like this unless you go to a friend’s house or walk through your own house; even then, they’re probably tucked into the depths of your garage or attic storage. It really is like being able to leaf through personal tiny vignettes of strangers’ lives, and yet I feel like all these stories are linked by our thread of identity. I also feel indebted to everyone who chose to be vulnerable with me and share their stories. I heard from people who said that even writing their submissions or looking at old photos gave them a good cry. It was kind of like we all reminisced collectively. Perhaps selfishly, I put my own family photo that I described earlier as the cover, it felt right since it was the catalyst for this project idea. But now every time I look at the cover it kind of brings me to the verge of tears; I can’t even look at it for more than a few seconds honestly I just scroll right past it.
Were you surprised by the responses you received?
Yes! I was intending to make this a zine around 30-40 pages; I didn’t think many people would respond to my call. I’m grateful that I heard from voices all over the Asian diaspora, not just the East Asian (though that was the predominant response). My main concern was to be as inclusive as possible; the AAPI community is so incredibly diverse and I wanted to avoid making it seem like this zine was just a monolith of East Asians. I was so grateful to receive submissions from people with intersectional queer identities as well. It was interesting to see how different these stories are though there are similar links between them. That being said, this zine is only a tiny preview of what the AAPI community looks like. I wonder if I could make it an ongoing project.
My favourite thing by far is just looking at the variety of responses. There are some that are pithy and concise like, “We have great new wave music” which I agree with because most of the music I listen to personally is also of this genre. Someone wrote, “Why the fuck would I not be proud to be Asian?” Someone wrote a short poem, which I put on the very first page. There are stories of parents who were refugees, or parents who came here for college and better opportunities for their children. Not all the responses are from people who settled in the US – it includes people in the UK and even one from a Chinese-Peruvian person. Notably, this person submitted what looked like four cards which looks like a deck of cards. But on further examination you can see that each card has a family member on it and they almost look like different card suits! It is marvellous.
What would you like audiences to understand from the zine?
I think the most important takeaway is that it doesn’t really matter what your story is, how much or little your parents suffered to be here, we don’t need to justify that we deserve to be here. The zine is just a way of declaring that we have been here, and we will be here to stay no matter what happens to our community.
The main audience for this zine is fellow Asians of the diaspora; a little bump of serotonin/ collective healing after a particularly difficult few months (or an entire lifetime). I hope they feel a sense of validity, connection, and collective resilience. We refuse to not absolutely THRIVE. I am aware there are a lot of very serious political and racial issues to discuss when it comes to why this violence happens and around Asians’ position in society in the US and other diasporas, but this zine does not address those. I feel I am ill equipped to talk at length about them because I am still processing and learning. Hell, I even had the hardest time writing the intro for the book. But emotionally and spiritually, this is what I felt like I could do to help the community.
GalleryGabrielle Widjaja: We Are Still Here (Copyright © Gabrielle Widjaja, 2021)
Gabrielle Widjaja: We Are Still Here (Copyright © Gabrielle Widjaja, 2021)
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.