Lattes with Ladies: Jasmine Gui

Jasmine Gui

I finally got the chance to transcribe this exciting interview with Jasmine Gui, translator, editor, and co-founder of the Project 40 Collective. She is a really, really cool lady whose passion for diversity and accessibility in literature have helped to create LooseLeaf Magazine and Col.lab Incubator.

I became familiar with her stuff through Instagram and when I realized she was based in Toronto knew we had to meet up. Funnily enough, it turned out we have mutual friends! I love her approach to reading with intention and making a point to give an audience to artists who would normally not be discovered otherwise.

The best way you can follow her work is to sign up for her Tiny Letter for her literary thoughts and curated art from the Rest (and not the West) on a bi-weekly basis.

[We started talking almost immediately before I turned the recorder on!]

JG: I’ve actually never done a Shakespeare-focused class ever. I did a single Austen for my undergrad and it was for post-colonial [lit]… We did a play of Shakespeare’s as a poem instead of as a play because my prof was a Poetry professor and he didn’t like Shakespeare that much. He loved John Donne, so we did a lot of Donne, and then we did Milton, who he adored… That was the closest I had to a traditional English class. I did a class in Alternative Modernities, which is modern fiction and poetry but from the Australian and New Zealand regions because modernism is very landscaped, so the lens of the class is what does modernism look like when the center of what is modern is a desert? So Catherine Mansfield, Patrick White, and then also Aboriginal writers because their relationship to the land is different.

HPL: I got away without doing a Shakespeare class but I did a subset of rhetoric in digital media. So we did things like board game design based on The Tempest. I love branching out to newer forms of media. There’s so much more available now!

JG: I have an article coming out with a spec fic journal. It’s a conference paper from my graduate program but it’s a critical reading of Full Metal Alchemist using Jacques Lacan! It’s a pretty long piece about Eduardo Cadava, who is a Spanish critical theorist, and Lacan interrogating a subplot theme of Full Metal Alchemist: the relationship between Hohenheim and Homunculus in relation to Lacan’s mirror stage.

HPL: That is just awesome! I did actually bring questions, haha. I know you asked me what the process is, there isn’t really one. It’s mostly just talking, that’s what happens when you put two people who love books together. Let’s start with my low-hanging fruit question. What are you reading right now?

JG: I do a thing every month, it’s called Shelf Life. I pre-selected 17 books for the year, and at the beginning of the month, I just look at the stack. They’re on my dresser, they only go back into the shelf once I’m done them, and I decide which one I’m going to go for. This month it’s actually a Chinese book and it’s my first Chinese title for the year. I’m a bilingual reader and I try to fold a lot more Mandarin titles into my reading, and usually, they’re not mainstream and they’re not translations. So, in English, this book is called Standing Room Only by Joanne Deng 「暫時無法安放的,鄧九雲」. She’s actually an actress as well. In Chinese this genre is called 短篇小說, meaning short stories but they differentiate in Chinese between a longer short story (長篇小說) and a shorter short story, which is like 2 to 3 pages. They are extremely short, it’s almost like flash fiction but with the spirit of a short story still. Very, very, very condensed, the Chinese language allows you to be this condensed.

It’s a collection of short fiction by the author and it’s hand bound. You buy it wrapped in the store and there are many copies of it, each one is done by hand. It’s actually mass produced but all DIY, and the pages are all still attached to each other in some cases as in you have to take a knife and slit them open in order to get the full story… It’s very artistically done, very experimental. The only things that are translated are the titles. Standing Room Only is it’s real English name, but the Chinese title translates more to “the things I can’t safely put down yet.” That’s a more direct translation. It gives a kind of base context, she might be a witness to these moments or she’s not necessarily the voice speaking in them.

HPL: What is the Shelf Life project?

JG: There are two parts to it now. Shelf Life comes out as a once a month book review and there is a twice a month Tiny Letter that comes out now as well, but they’re not related to each other. They just fold under this umbrella of Shelf Life. So, Shelf Life stemmed out of a very active desire to introduce literature that’s not mainstream to the people around me. As somebody who obviously is very lucky to have access through school, while for a lot of people school is what bars them from reaching these texts. Partially because of my choices to study first as a post-colonial specialized English student and then my post-graduate studies, my bookshelf is extremely wide-reaching. Being someone who has deep ties to East Asia and travels there very often, because I was raised there right, and my family has spread out over Asia. When I go home I at least go through a couple of cities each time, so it’s one of my rules to drop by two independent bookstores per a city and pick up something that I can get nowhere else. I look for publishers, magazines, and books that you would not be able to buy even at an Indigo, for example. Most of my Shelf Life titles are non-white writers. It’s very intentional. There are plenty of people doing great reviews of mainstream writers so I was just like, ‘I do have a particular expertise in this area and I also have access.’ I’ve been building up this sort of canon for myself, a repertoire and habit of choosing my books very intentionally. You know when writers write reviews for each other? There are those little blurbs on the covers, even following those usually helps me to discover new writers I wouldn’t normally.

Last summer I was reading, Asians Wearing Clothes on the Internet which is almost like a Ph.D.-turned-book situation and it was all about the power dynamics of fashion blogging. This professor was making a case for fashion blogging being glorified sweat shop labour, and drew a direct line between Asian labour from third-world countries to fashion bloggers. Then I read the reviews in the front and the next week I went to class and that was my professor.

HPL: No way!

JG: Yeah! And I talked to her, and said: “So, you’re in this book.” She was in the credits and we talked a lot. I really like that, so Shelf Life the monthly series is that.

Then Shelf Life the Tiny Letter is a curated selection of shorter things. So articles, music, photography – it’s more of a mishmash of cultural things but it’s the same concept. None of those articles, none of those writers, they’re all preferably non-North American. I think it’s not enough necessarily to read non-white writers or diverse writers if they’re all going to be North American still. A big part of globalization is the power center is stuck in one place and the feedback loop doesn’t work in an equal way. For me, it’s really sad because there are tons of interesting stuff happening – good energy, really great pieces. Like great music, some of them are following the trends and some of them are appropriating trends, and some are creating completely new trends that don’t necessarily make their way back here because to make their way here they would have to go viral. And the only stuff that can really go viral is mimicry, stuff that already sounds like it was produced here.

HPL: I thought I subscribed but I don’t think… it might be in my junk email box. I don’t understand how the Google Inbox app works so it’s possible it’s filed somewhere.

JG: Hm, I’ll check the list. But Shelf Life is essentially that, and I review comic books a lot because I love comic books. I’m just trying to get my community to read more.

HPL: And read diversely. 

JG: Yes! Coming from a Chinese community background, like, they don’t read. It’s one of the losses the immigrant community struggles with because reading doesn’t have immediate gratification and it’s not easily quantifiable what reading actually does. There’s a lot of arguments that can be made for what the actual point of it is and none of them would ever be completely persuasive. As a kid, it’s easier. You’re not going to start reading again as an adult
or it would be much more difficult, and if you do read it’s going to be bestsellers and self-help.

HPL: You know I was worried you’d see me earlier reading James Patterson. It’s not usual for me but my boyfriend’s mom lent it to me, and it’s been so long I thought, why not? But it’s been really hard, the way he writes women is so problematic and the gratuitous violence doesn’t seem to have a point. I just can’t get out of my own head and read it!

JG: Shelf Life also did stem out of me recommending books to friends. I have a pretty extensive bookshelf and people come and hang out at my place a lot and none of them are really sort of serious readers, but being friends with a serious reader and someone who is very intentional about buying – I go to bookstores having done research or if I walk in I will go very specifically to certain shelves and look at publishers, authors – I’m interested in all those things. I think it helps that I’m slightly connected to the local literary scene so I recognize names. Even bookstores, there are certain bookstores I don’t shop at, and I don’t buy from Amazon ever. I have a very specific position on this so a lot of people ask me, ‘What should I read, Jasmine?’ Well, what do you like? Because I’m sure there is something on my bookshelf that you would like to read but you would never imagine you like to read, but I can make that connection for you.