Isabella "Izzy" Cho is a student and writer from Wilmette, Illinois. She is the recipient of the 2020 Lin Arison Excellence in Writing Award, and her work has been recognized by the National YoungArts Foundation, the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, Princeton University, the Sejong Cultural Society, and the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, among others. Izzy is particularly passionate about fostering a constructive, welcoming space for young writers and democratizing the rich diversity and socio-political urgency of the contemporary Asian American literary canon. Some of her favorite things include cafes, fancy soaps, and Korean dramas. She will attend Harvard University in the fall.
I had the pleasure of conducting this interview with Izzy, the founder and editor-in-chief of The Heritage Review. As described by its team: “The Heritage Review strives to foster introspection, community, and change-making through artistic excellence. We are particularly passionate about equipping young writers with the skills and guidance necessary to develop their craft, broaden their literary horizons, and actualize their creative potential.”
In this interview, we discuss the emergence of The Heritage Review, the navigation of cultural identity in art, and what the Asian diaspora means for the future of creative work.
Jonathan Truong: Describe your journal in 10 words or less
Isabella “Izzy” Cho: Fostering introspection, community, and change-making through artistic excellence
JT: Can you discuss what motivated you to found The Heritage Review? What differentiates you from other literary magazines?
IC: Our desire to found Heritage emerged, quite simply, from an impulse to extend our passion and energy surrounding artistic expression to a broader community. Writing can be a necessarily solitary and introspective process; we thought that creating a platform that not only published but, perhaps more importantly, fostered virtual dialogue and companionship amongst young writers would be immensely worthwhile.
I think that rather than attempt to pinpoint what differentiates us from other literary magazines, we were more particular about guarding and fostering elements that we thought make not only a great journal but a great virtual nexus for dialogue, affirmation, and sharing. For instance, in a literary community growingly bent on exclusivity and elitism, a culture where lower acceptance rates are conflated to signify prestige and excellence, we wanted to emphasize our journal’s commitment to the inclusive democratization of young people’s work, rather than a commitment to or objective of hyper-selectivity. Lastly, we were intentional about emphasizing our journal’s commitment to amplifying the voices of marginalized demographics; though we accept work from writers of all ages and backgrounds, we were particularly eager to share with the world those works that celebrate previously suppressed, dismissed, or delegitimized stories and truths.
JT: On your website, you state that The Heritage Review aims to share art that explores “themes of identity, belonging, personal agency, and the power of creative expression.” Do you believe that these themes are inherent to all writing? Or, does it take a concerted effort to navigate identity and belonging in creative work?
IC: That’s a great question. This may sound like the easy way out, but I really do think the answer to that question is both.
On one hand, art that deals intimately with political issues or cultural belonging at large often demands exacting emotional investment, introspection, and auto-interrogation. This sort of art may require one to reflect deeply on broader national, socio-political events or introspect on the body as a site of grief, absence, displacement, or longing, as a sort of archive that stores important information about critical ideas including agency, homeland, safety, violence, and revival.
On the other hand, at times it can be challenging - if not impossible - to divest the socio-political or cultural from the artistic, and vice versa. Sometimes, simply the act of creating art - as a marginalized individual, as a survivor, as a person whose experiences or entire existence has been suppressed, derided, questioned, or delegitimized - is a political gesture; it affirms that one is present in this world and demanding to be heard, demanding that one’s truth be accommodated, no matter what others may say. In short, I think that the act of involving the themes of identity, belonging, heritage, and personal agency in artistic material falls on a spectrum ranging from the subliminal to the laboriously intentioned; with each piece of art we create, with each lived experience we internalize, our location on this spectrum dynamically and inevitably shifts.
JT: In regards to your Review subpage, you discuss your intent to democratize the contemporary Asian canon in the often unilateral world of literature. How do you believe Asian voices in literature today have been misrepresented, misunderstood, or altogether silenced?
IC: There’s a harrowing yet deeply resonant quote that I stumbled upon in Wesley Yang’s The Souls of Yellow Folk: Essays. Yang writes, “as the bearer of an Asian face in America, you paid some incremental penalty, never absolute, but always omnipresent, that meant that you were by default unlovable and unloved; that you were presumptively a nobody, a mute and servile figure, distinguishable above all by your total incapacity to threaten anyone.” I think that the perverse dynamics elucidated in Yang’s articulation continue to remain true for many Americans of the Asian diaspora today. American culture at large has long perpetuated images and narratives that falsely limn Asians as both physically and figuratively small, servile, odd, overly opportunistic, parasitic, and incapable of being “assimilated” into the institutionalized jungle of white patriarchal America. Another toxic message frequently conveyed is that Asians - and, by extension, literary and artistic material generated by Asians and Asian Americans - are apolitical, necessarily and irreversibly disengaged from issues involving the American racial binary.
There is a lot to unpack in this presumption, one that requires us to reflect deeply on certain Asian communities’ history of racism and xenophobia against other minorities and marginalized groups. That being said, I think that breaking these patterns of misinformation, racism, and false judgement begins with celebrating and educating ourselves about the deeply and often inherently political art and literature created by Asians and Asian Americans.
JT: Tell us about your contests. What do you look for in The Poetry Identity Prize or The Heritage Review Prize for Fiction & Short Story that might differ from general Submissions?
IC: We keep an open mind when evaluating submissions for these awards and are most excited by writing that startles us by virtue of its novel, vividly evocative ideas, structure, organization, or images. As the name suggests, we are particularly drawn to pieces that engage questions of heritage in all its forms, whether that mean interrogating emotional, socio-political, geographical, or intellectual landscapes of belonging and orientation.
In other words, more than us pre-planning what we look for in submissions, the submissions themselves shape our listening and instruct us what to look for and where.
JT: Your journal takes a unique approach to the author’s biography. Can you tell me what role the biography plays in our magazine? Do you read blindly?
IC: Yes; the identity of the author does not factor in any way into our evaluation of their pieces. The biographies exist for us to honor and share information about those who have been selected for publication, and to spread the word about their art.
JT: As a fellow unaffiliated and youth-driven publication, do you find it harder to earn the respect of older writers? Do you primarily publish student work?
IC: When we began the publication, we did make it our mission to deliberately extend ourselves to younger writers; we thought that they were most in need of a space for discourse, sharing, and affirmation, and that together we could build something special as they grew and continued their journeys. That being said, we do not restrict our submissions to writers of a certain age group, and welcome all writing.
I think that, contrary to what some may think, the writing community at large is supportive and willing to accommodate new voices. Many older writers look on with support and enthusiasm for new projects initiated by younger writers and scholars, and I think that dynamic is wonderful; it compels everyone to strive toward greater things, improve, and bloom together.
JT: How do you personally find the balance between being an editor and being a
successful young writer?
IC: I think that, rather than view the negotiation of these two roles as an exhausting labor, I view it as a privilege and an opportunity. Being both an editor and a writer is a necessarily synergistic and iterative process; one learns so much from experiencing the work of fellow writers, and those gleaned insights become instrumental to the way one approaches personal craft.
In my opinion, it’s similar to the benefits of other instances of reciprocity; for example, the best teachers are often those who vividly remember the experience of being a student. When we see and internalize what occurs on one end, we can more empathically and critically approach our own roles on the other end.
JT: Who are you reading nowadays? What was the last piece you read that stuck with you?
IC: I love talking about reading and sharing recommendations! A novel I read recently that deeply challenged me both intellectually and emotionally was Little Gods by Meng Jin. It’s her debut novel, and she experimentally and unflinchingly engages notions of anguish, displacement, intimacy, and temporal linearity. Since I mostly write in verse, it was so constructive for me to utilize Meng Jin’s text not merely as a means of experiencing a compelling story but, perhaps more importantly, better understanding how the structural organization of a text can drastically alter its flow, thematic undercurrents, and core messages. As a female Asian American second-generation immigrant myself, tracing Liya’s story felt oddly and expansively personal; there were glimpses of luminous prose that resonated so deeply with me that I felt compelled to grab my notebook and write them down as a way to internalize them more intimately.
Another book I read during quarantine that provided a lot of food for thought was bell hooks’ All About Love: New Visions. In the book, hooks employs a sociological lens- in addition to her characteristically trenchant cultural critique - to interrogate the function, nature, and implications of love, both for intimate domestic spaces and communities at large. In it, she contends that love has the capacity to heal not merely people but nations. What’s so compelling about her argument, however, is that it’s not grounded in vague allusions to the mystical power of love; rather, she equips herself with the vocabulary to articulate what love should be, and through that cohering definition seeks to enact a more equitable and accessible vision of love.
I just purchased Toni Morrison’s The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Speeches, Essays, and Meditations, as well as If Not, Winter, a book of poems by Sappho organized by Anne Carson. I look forward to reading the former for its deeply enduring resonance with any literary citizen, as well as its rich implications for today’s Black Lives Matter movement; I’m eager to read the latter because, besides being an avid student of the Classics, I’m eager to see how Sappho utilizes the physicality of language as a vehicle for argument and introspection.
JT: Lastly, what advice do you give to emerging young writers—specifically to those who may be underrepresented in the publishing world?
IC: Ooh, there’s so much I want to share, but at the same time I feel like I’m not really in a
position to provide advice, so take everything with a grain of salt:
First, trust in your work. So much of today’s writing culture - particularly the teen writing culture - is externally oriented. We’re taught to care a lot about publications, acceptances, and competitions, so much so that the reason why we gravitated to the written word in the first place - as a vehicle for introspection, self-discovery, emotional vulnerability, healing, and expressive liberation - can dissipate. More than any external organization or publication, you are the one who holds the dimensional capacity to evaluate your own work, who reserves the right to decide its worth and unique, inviolable merit. In times when external sources or groups seem to be turning away or not providing what you need, look internally.
Second, strive toward the weird, toward those images, thoughts, or ideas that seem too experimental, grotesque, esoteric, or strange to ever see the light of day. No matter how much we want to deny it, there are particular styles and conventions that are more widely celebrated and well-received than others; that being said, some of the most deeply resonant, memorable writing that I’ve encountered are those pieces that refuse to conform to these preconceived boundaries and assert their own rules. That critical resistance to and skepticism of convention can be highly attractive in a piece; it signifies that the writer, more than orient themselves around external ideals, is digging introspectively for direction.
Lastly, HAVE FUN. So often, we buy into the perversely romanticized notion that writing - and the creation of art in general - must be an act of excruciating and draining labor to be “significant,” “worthwhile,” or otherwise “noteworthy.” Don’t get me wrong; the creation of art is a necessarily exacting and enervating process. That being said, so often I feel that we - especially writers who may be particularly eager to get their writing published or recognized, and trust me, we’ve all been there - lose sight of the intrinsic joy and triumph that comes with the mere act of creating, with the endeavor of translating our innermost thoughts onto the page. That in itself is a victory, an accomplishment, an affirmation of our existence, and we should never lose sight of that. The act of writing is an act of celebration, of remembrance; grasping that intuitive yet elusive truth holds great power and will assist in the cultivation of a more sustainable and successful writing practice.
More information on The Heritage Review can be found at https://www.heritagereview.org.