Troubling the Surface of Identity11 min read

Coming into queerness in the diaspora – M. Huang

While home alone one day, when I was still in secondary school, I happened to channel-flick to E4 and catch the episode of the Canadian show Being Erica that featured Anna Silk as Cassidy Holland. Cassidy was the titular character’s best friend in grad school: we learn that she is gay and had, in 1999, and in keeping with the trope, fallen for her best friend. In one scene, she tells Erica plainly, “I think you are beautiful. I’m really attracted to you. And I know you just want to be friends and that’s cool, but in the spirit of being frank? I have wanted you since the moment we met.” Her eyes are intent and piercing. It must have been 2009, and I didn’t yet have the language to describe or articulate what it was that I was seeing. All I know is that, watching that episode, I felt something, and although I didn’t know it at the time, that something would stay with me.

Years later, in 2014, after remembering that moment out of the blue and seeking out Anna Silk’s Wikipedia page by way of googling Being Erica, I would start watching Lost Girl, a show in which Silk plays a bisexual succubus. At this point, although my keen interest in queer media, as well as Morgana (Katie McGrath) from BBC’s Merlin – and, prior to her, One Tree Hill’s Brooke Davis (Sophia Bush) – confused me, the thought that I could be queer hadn’t yet crossed my mind. Queerness, as I knew it then, ill-equipped with words, and in all its haze, didn’t recognize me, and it didn’t automatically speak to me. Queerness didn’t look – had never looked – like me. Or so I thought.

Queerness didn’t recognize me and it didn’t look like me”

I would later learn that the phrase yútáo duànxiù (餘桃斷袖) refers to homosexuality and in fact comprises two allusions drawn from ancient Chinese history and legend: yútáo, the half-bitten or “leftover” peach Mizi Xia shared with his lover and state ruler Wèi Línggōng; and duànxiù, the “cut sleeve” of Liu Xin (Emperor Ai of Han), a reference to when the Han dynasty emperor, having woken up and about to leave for a meeting, cut off his sleeve so as not to disturb his partner Dong Xian’s sleep. There are also records of women’s organizations that included lesbian or bisexual members, such as the Qing-era Golden Orchid Society (Jīnlán huì 金蘭會) referenced in Hu Pu’an’s 1773-74 Customs of China (Zhōngguó fēngsú 中國風俗). This association provided alternatives to heterosexual marriage, including oaths, pacts, courtships, partnership or marriage contracts, and ceremonies between women. Also writing in the Qing Dynasty was the poet Wu Zao (1799-1862), who was famous for her lyric poetry (XX) and who, in a song-poem addressed to the courtesan Qing Lin, describes how the addressee’s smile renders her speechless and causes her to forget her every word, how she desires to possess “your jade body / and your promised heart,” to buy a red-painted boat and sail away with her.

But, in the past, when picturing and encountering queerness, I didn’t have recourse to these images and histories. From my place in the diaspora, I didn’t know I – so tied to a prescriptive “ethnic” narrative – could give home to, or find a place in, queerness. In 1985, during a panel discussion at the Tyler School of Art on ‘Image/Imaging,’ the poet and art critic John Yau expressed a fascination for poetry’s capacity to “make a picture with words,” but that he had “always had difficulty with the structure… of images that you’re allowed to produce.” Associating image with stereotype, he commented that “the way the world reads Third-World American writers is that you have to fulfill a stereotype that, basically, a white male culture acknowledges as correct.” The way the world reads people of color, sometimes, is that we do not always make for believable queers.

Critics have sought to pigeonhole Yau’s own writing into the category of “ethnic writing,” and then to criticize his literary and critical output and his image for failing to conform to the imposed limits of that category – determined, of course, by dominant American reading culture. Marjorie Perloff would find it important to note that in Yau’s earlier work, and to its detriment, “there was no indication… that the poet is in fact Chinese-American.” And yet she expresses “unease” where he does employ “ethnic” markers – which she suggestively labels “silk-and-pagoda images” – in his Genghis Chan: Private Eye poems because, in her view, “they don’t quite grapple with the poet’s own conflicted identity, his own relation to an Asian-American community.” Perloff’s comments point to a certain mode of reading “ethnic writing”: you read in search of an authentic “ethnic” feeling, one authenticated by the language of ethnicity and its one-to-one correspondence with an “ethnic” (auto)biography.

Some things, it seems, just don’t mix. For a long time, I felt far removed from queerness”

Christina Mar has observed, in relation to Yau’s work and its reception, that “ethnic poetry is often constituted in a disabling opposition to poetry that is engaged in the politics of aesthetic innovation by resisting representation and refusing the tyranny of the signified.” Some things, it seems, just don’t mix. For a long time, I felt far removed from queerness: unable, and later hesitant, to claim first the concept in its broad strokes, and then the word, foreign to me until sixth form and my induction into Tumblr culture. When friends started coming out as gay in secondary school (before I had even encountered the term “coming out”), I remember asking myself if I might be gay and quickly thinking it impossible: someone like me couldn’t possibly be gay. At the time, I don’t think I was fully aware of what it meant to be gay, let alone queer, but already I couldn’t see myself in that word and its world. Perhaps this was partly down to a vague awareness of the negative connotations of the label. Secondary school was for me – and continues to be for so many – the era of hearing “that’s so gay” and “you’re so gay,” of running into callous gossip, and sometimes blatant expressions of disgust, in classrooms and corridors. I’ve been so lucky in recent years to have been able to form queer friendships and find, cultivate, and exist in spaces where “gay” is not a slur but a tender, smiling stamp of approval, a well-worn, self-directed joke, or a whole-hearted, euphoric, and collective yell of appreciation.

When I got to university, I met a girl I came to really like. I liked her from a safe distance; she flustered me, but she couldn’t have known; and, somewhere along the way, my mind quietly replaced the words “unusually intense fixation” with the word “crush” (still with a question mark at this point). A silent crush, which drummed a little too hard in my chest and rang a little too loud in my ears. Despite the change, it took a while for me to catch up and register that something in my thought had shifted. I wanted desperately, I think, to put off catching up. My first-year crush was the first queer crush I vaguely acknowledged as such, but somehow it wasn’t until the summer of first year that it rapidly began to dawn on me – reeling from a second, summer-abroad crush – that I wasn’t straight and that I would have to find ways of navigating the ever-growing aftermath of this realization. 

This was terrifying to me, and I would waver between wondering if I was bisexual and telling myself that I was confused, that I was making things up, that it was all in my head. And I was confused. The thing is, it being in your head doesn’t have to make it any less real. I had so much self-doubt, so much uncertainty. Moreover, I was so afraid of words, scared that if I used them, if I gave them to other people, I wouldn’t be able to take them back: scared of how people might weigh them against me; scared to be unintentionally caught in a lie; or, maybe, scared to have no one believe me.

A silent crush, which drummed a little too hard in my chest and rang a little too loud in my ears”

When I first began looking into queer spaces in the UK, I was met with the surprise and watchful gaze of the people in those spaces. I felt conspicuous, like an impostor, uneasy in my skin. Both in and out of these spaces, people are often interested in how I reconcile being queer and Chinese, as if the two are inherently oppositional or antithetical to one another. Perloff made similar demands of Yau; wanted him to write the believable – also the exotic. There seems to be the expectation that I will have to choose between the two: for example, that, in order to be queer and “free,” I should break away from my family and my “culture” – the fixed and all-too-persistent image of an “ethnic” family mired in an alien and conservative “cultural tradition.” And it’s not that I haven’t encountered family-related tensions and difficulties – like many of us, whether queer or not, whether of color or not – but I’ve grown more careful with my words, for fear of the swift and simplistic demonization of my loved ones, and people of color more generally, in relation to queerness. Happily, I’ve since learned that I don’t have to comply with (white) Western liberal models and narratives of queerness, which are quick to deny people of color their individuality, humanity, and history, and which do not always easily recognize people of color in their midst.

Earlier this year, at a free LGBTQ+ book giveaway in Toronto, I picked up a copy of The Very Inside: An Anthology of Writings by Asian and Pacific Islander Lesbian and Bisexual Women, edited by Sharon Lim-Hing and published by Sister Vision Press in 1994; and it took me back to how I felt, partway through university, flicking through the pages, and attending the launch of daikon* zine’s ‘Queer/Trans’ issue for Southeast and East Asian non-binary people and women living in the diaspora. A decade after the release of Lim-Hing’s anthology, said to be the first of its kind, the director Alice Wu would gift us with the film Saving Face, a queer romantic comedy drama, as tender as it is delightfully awkward, set in the Chinese-American communities of New York City. Every time I come across these voices and stories, whether in the form of media or conversations with people in a room, I feel that I am coming into community, and I’m reminded of how people have long been resisting and defying categorization, working to create new communities and re-envision existing ones.

I wonder about Perloff’s expectation that Yau should, firstly, by dint of being simultaneously Chinese and American, wrestle with a “conflicted identity,” and, secondly, that he should lay bare her vision of his identity – the imposition of an identity not necessarily his – in order to produce satisfactory poetry. A few years before Perloff’s review came out in the Boston Review in 1997, Yau had already fathomed something of a response. In his 1994 essay ‘Between the Forest and Its Trees,’ he asked: 

What is identity? What is an Asian American? What is a chink? What is an immigrant? a refugee? …Am I the names you have given me? …Should I tell the story of my life in words that you would accept to convince you that I, too, am a poet, a human?

An Oxford interviewer in a wood-panelled room once asked me if I felt that being British-Chinese had been a source of internal conflict. Then 17 years old, I said yes and proceeded to paint for her a simple picture of two sets of cultural values at war in my body. Today I think maybe the source of those feelings of identity-related conflict might just be an image, or two: a false competition of images, which we rarely expect to overlap or converge; a stark choice between stereotypes. I am thinking of Yau’s poetics of refusal: the possibility of rejecting these images and making new ones, or new “picture[s] with words.” At 17, I had felt frustrated by stereotypes and had frequently wished to retaliate, but I didn’t know what was possible for me, what I was reaching for. It’s difficult to separate yourself from a past and ongoing proliferation of images, from other people’s projections. I don’t know if we can ever fully shake them, but we can still try, and we can imagine better and more dynamic images – new avenues – into being. ∎

This column was made possible by the generous support of Stephen O. Lesser on Patreon. Header image: Reclining Female Nude by Florence Yee, reproduced with thanks to the artist.