Interview by Aysia Tse
Meegan Lim is an illustrator based in Brampton, Ontario whose practice meets at the intersections of food, culture, storytelling, and social change. Since graduating from the illustration program at OCAD University in 2021, she has been working on zines, comics, illustrative work, various public and community art projects, and editorial initiatives. She was recently awarded the “Best Political Zine” for her publication Harvest Garden by the Broken Pencil Zine Awards in 2021. Lim spoke more about her love for food, zine-making, and the sometimes-bumpy journey of reconnecting to your cultural identity through art.
You create personal and socially engaged zines that explore your cultural identity through discussions with food. Can you speak more about how you came to develop your practice at the intersection of these topics?
During school in my second year, there was more autonomy with the projects that I was able to tackle. I saw it as an opportunity to explore my cultural identity, but by food, it was kind of an epiphany moment I would say. I’ve always been a big foodie, always loved the Food Network as a child, and of course, familywise has been a way for me to connect to my own culture, but I never thought to combine it with my art. When I did, it was an obvious pairing. That was the start of it, it was just right in front of me and then I realized that there was just so much more beyond my own culture, of course. It’s beyond the actual physicality of food and tastes, it goes back to memory, it goes back to history, and it carries so many different meanings for all kinds of people. That’s what keeps me going back to it.
In your zine called MSG: the Craving for Cultural Embrace, you reflect on the Asian minority trope and resisting these definitive boundaries of identity. Can you speak more about your reflective process when digesting these topics and then having them as a part of your creative projects?
I didn’t dive into these tropes or these histories until I moved away from home. That distance forced me to think about it more, I was researching on my own and trying to make it make its way into my own schoolwork as well, in my conceptual focus through my illustration work. I got into a big wormhole of the internet, going through big journals about all of these tropes, the history of Chinese restaurant syndrome. It threw me into a little crisis because it was the first time where I sat with those ideas and those concepts. I didn’t have that context, so once I was able to identify that, I wanted to document it because I have a hard time feeling my feelings.
I don’t know if it’s like an Asian thing, but it was something that I just really wanted to capture in my art form, and it coincidentally lined up when I was visiting my family back in Malaysia. I wrote the majority of MSG while I was there. It was a mind trip of sorts because I was writing it in the same environment where I was experiencing those first cultural identity crises. The first time we went back to Malaysia I was maybe seven or eight years old and having that realization that you can’t fully communicate with your family, or you feel that big disconnect culturally, it’s an interesting feeling. It was like art journaling of sorts. I was not able to speak the language, but I [could] still understand that my family was talking about me, about how Westernized, how white, or banana I was. So, it was interesting to reflect on that 10 years later.
I love the colorful and playful aesthetics of your personal risograph zines. I loved to hold it when I experienced it in person. What drew you to zines as the medium for the topic you address? I’m curious as I know you’re also a drawer, painter, and illustrator.
It’s exactly what you described. It’s the feeling you have of that physical item in your hands because it’s just so intimate. You’re like really intimate with the person, that person who’s reading it. I love how it can sometimes feel like those little notes your friends pass in class. It’s almost like having a direct conversation with the people who pick [it] up. I’m allowed to be as personal as I can. Zines were like a journal for me—It’s like art therapy of sorts. I had a box of zines where I just used old copy paper, no one has ever seen them, but some are just doodles, and some are just a bunch of words. It’s very much a very cathartic medium for me.
Using food as a medium for storytelling can be the source of a very meaningful conversation for other people.
Are there specific things that excite you about using food as a jumping-off point for storytelling?
When I was identifying that food was something I wanted to focus on, I was also a bit nervous because with illustration, you can be focused on having a certain style or you get pigeonholed into certain topics or aesthetics. I was worried I was going to be known as the food illustrator, but also, I don’t mind it now. There is so much more than just food. Using food as a medium for storytelling can be the source of a very meaningful conversation for other people. It doesn’t really matter what my initial intention is with the illustration or the zine, it’s what carries on afterward because who knows what other people are going to get from it. I know you’re Singaporean, so you were able to get lots out of it [since] it carried back some other memories. And that’s something that I didn’t initially intend through sharing my mom’s recipes, but it happens and it’s really cool.
Yeah! In (Red) Pocket Recipes you share Chinese-Malaysian recipes, some of which are nostalgic for me, as I was born in Singapore! You included Laksa, a fish-based rice noodle soup that brought me back to some of my own childhood memories. Can you speak a bit more about your love for recipe sharing?
Recipes always just made their way through my childhood. Being able to share my mom’s recipes and some of my own recipes with other people, it’s the satisfaction of seeing other people create it or resonate it, or be like, “thanks for sharing this recipe with me, it turned out really good.” It’s almost a level of trust. Recipes are a form of oral and written history that isn’t captured a lot, especially in my family. It took a lot to get my mom to sit down and write the recipes with me. I locked my bedroom door and said, “sit on the bed” – we’re getting teaspoon, tablespoon measurements out of her.
It means a lot to be able to capture that because I’ll never hear the end of my aunts saying “oh, you better get your mom’s recipes, because she’ll go someday and you won’t have that.” You won’t be able to capture your heritage if you don’t actively practice it, right?
Do you have any advice for other artists who are just beginning to explore and reconnect to their cultural identity through art?
I mean, I’m still figuring it out. My main point of advice would be to go at your own pace and be kind to yourself because it can be very emotionally heavy to discover all those different layers that you might not have realized were there when you were a kid. So just take your time. It can be hard to digest and uncover a lot of those memories that can be triggering and weird to uncover when you’re an adult.
I guess my second advice point would be to just look to other artists, creators or educators who are talking about similar experiences, not only for comfort and relate-ability but also just inspiration for your own work. You’re most definitely not the only person experiencing that, so it’s important to recognize those other people, and use those avenues to understand what has already been shared, that way you’re able to really explore your own intricacies and details of your own experience.
When I was initially exploring it in my own art, I was very hyper-aware of self-tokenization and how it can impact how others see you. That shouldn’t be how you go about things, but it is something to consider, especially in an Asian community where tropes easily develop. After I published MSG, I was very hyper-aware of the lunchbox moment and I was like, am I just repeating the same thing in an echo chamber? So that’s something to be aware of but try not to let other people dictate how you are experiencing your own cultural identity because it is different for each person.
What’s next for you?
I don’t think I’m going to stop drawing food anytime soon. I keep saying there’s going to be like a Red Pocket Recipes Two or I that I’m going to post new recipes, but it’s so hard to sit myself down to do that. Hopefully, I’ll be able to make that time in the next year or two to really distill all those recipes. I want to fulfill my own personal creative goals through those home recipes from my family. In terms of the rest of my practice, I just want to learn more of other cultures and how food is very much a catalyst for all those histories and memories. I’m consistently learning more and more, and it’s humbling because of course I’m not going to know the world’s culinary history. It’s very motivating to know that there’s always something new to learn.
I am doing illustrations for a Dumpling Anthology. It’s been really cool because I’ve been able to read essays from all these food writers about their favourite dumpling from their family. Dumplings are such a universal food! Hopefully, I can take on more projects like that.
Check out What We Talk About When We Talk About Dumplings, published by Coach House Books. You can follow Meegan on Instagram @meeganlim and see more of her work by visiting her website, www.meeganlim.com.