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Justine Yu’s publication, Living Hyphen, is being adapted into a play called nowhen with Canadian Stage at the High Park Amphitheatre this summer.Stefinda Levin

From her home in Toronto, 31-year-old Justine Yu has launched a literary arts empire, but she’s not 100 per cent sure how she did it.

“To be perfectly honest, so much of the growth – that was not intentional,” she enthusiastically says when reached via phone. “A lot of it just grew on its own. A lot of it I’ve been going with the flow. I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s true.”

Yu is the founder of Living Hyphen; an arts community and multimedia platform that explores what it means to live in-between cultures for ethnically diverse people, or “hyphenated” Canadians (Yu’s hyphen for example is Filipina-Canadian). It launched as a literary magazine in 2018 after Yu sought out submissions through social media, with particular outreach to communities of various ethnic backgrounds. The first issue, Entrances and Exits sold out its initial 1,250 copies, and the second issue, Resistance Across Generations, hit shelves this July and already sold almost 350 copies. The organization has since expanded to community programming, offering writing workshops and storytelling nights for BIPOC creatives.

Yu, whose day job is marketing communications strategist and freelance writer, says the Canadian arts and literature industries are still a “very homogeneously white male space.” A 2016 Hill Strategies survey of Canadian arts diversity found that only 12 per cent of women hold leadership positions compared with men and that women earn less than men (82 cents on the dollar). The numbers go down for racialized artists (72 cents) and Indigenous artists (68 cents). A 2018 Association of Canadian Publishers report found that only 18 per cent of paid positions in the Canadian publishing industry are held by BIPOC individuals, resulting in a lack of fair representation amongst editors, designers, publicists and other positions.

“I really wanted to create a space for myself and for others like me. I decided that I didn’t want to wait for other people to let me in, and rather just wanted to build my own house.”

The first issue of Living Hyphen saw more than 200 submissions from hyphenated Canadian writers itching to share their stories, and Yu compiled, edited and distributed the issue all from her living room, along with the financial help of her mother Jocelyn Yu, whom she calls her “angel investor.” Yu partnered with designer Josh Layton, who now serves as the creative director, and committed to paying each contributor an honorarium. During the pandemic, their community programming shifted online and the small team has been able to hold more than 90 virtual workshops for more than 1,500 attendees.

“It showed me how many people were hungry to share their stories,” she says, adding that their community, which grew organically, presented them with opportunities and possibilities not originally on their radar; like expanding into audio journalism.

“The podcast is something that just kinda fell into my lap,” she says with a laugh, explaining that the idea was the brainchild of Trisha Gregorio, a recent audio broadcasting and journalism graduate.

“She had read the magazine, was so impacted by the stories, and wanted to turn it into a podcast,” she explains. “We had a call and I just felt that she really understood the vision and the values of Living Hyphen.” The podcast, also called Living Hyphen, is available on the organization’s website.

This by-hook-or-by-crook method of expansion is how both issues of the magazine became available at Indigo’s Canadian flagship store in Toronto (one of the magazine contributors was an Indigo bookseller who connected Yu to Indigo’s consignment manager), and also how the magazine was adapted for the stage in a new Toronto theatre experience offered by Canadian Stage theatre company.

The idea for the play came from York University Theatre and Canadian Stage MFA candidate Alison Wong, who after messaging Yu on Instagram to float the suggestion, became the creator and director of nowhen.

Described as “immersive” and “different,” nowhen (on now until Aug. 15 in Toronto’s High Park) eschews the traditional play structure of a stage, a proscenium arch and a backstage. Rather, the performers, who are York theatre students, are in and amongst the audience, and they lead spectators from different entry points in the park through specific stories, all adapted from the magazine. Act two of the show sees the audience ultimately led to the High Park amphitheatre.

For Yu, that non-traditional structure was important to her vision. “I think that speaks to the non-hierarchical nature of Living Hyphen and what Living Hyphen is all about – just having everyone in community with each other – as opposed to this hierarchical nature that so much of our world is built upon … I don’t want Living Hyphen to replicate these exploitative structures that a lot of other businesses or organizations have.”

Yu takes that one step further, rejecting #GirlBoss rhetoric, a phrase coined by business mogul Sophia Amoruso in 2014 with the debut of her autobiography of the same name and that has come to refer to female entrepreneurs chasing capitalistic success, often at the expense and abuse of employees. Instead, Yu insists her organization belongs to the community, and not just her. “I don’t like saying ‘I’ because even though I’m the founder, even though I lead much of the progress, I don’t know if Living Hyphen is mine.”

That inclusive, community-driven business model makes Yu something of a pioneer, one who prefers partnership and collaboration over ruthless competition. “There’s a power in working together with people who are already doing similar things instead of competing with each other,” she says.

Some of those partnerships include various cultural and academic institutions (public libraries, the York and Toronto Catholic school boards, the University of Waterloo and University of Toronto – Mississauga) and travel magazine Atlas Obscura in order to fund the enterprise. The organization has also branched out into anti-oppression consulting and keynote speeches and launched their own Patreon, a platform that lets subscribers donate funds to support their favourite artists, with all contributions reinvested into the business. Living Hyphen’s financial sustainability holds the key to its future.

Case in point: The first season of the podcast was made possible by Rising Youth, a program run by non-profit Taking It Global. Future key sponsorships are crucial to their survival.

“It’s really important to find sponsors that are really aligned with the work that we’re doing and not just as a performative act for them,” Yu explains.

While her staff and contributors are paid, Yu at present does not allocate a salary for herself – something she hopes to change by expanding into television, script development and even a talent agency representing Indigenous, Black and other artists and writers of colour.

“My vision really is to continue serving our mission of amplifying the voices that all too often go unheard or untold,” she says, “and to reshape the mainstream narrative of what it means to be a hyphenated Canadian.”

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