My first short story to be published (“How to Cook Chinese Rice” in 1993) became the opening story of my first book, a collection of short fiction, Calendar Boy, published in July 2001 in Canada by New Stars Book and January 2002 in Australia by Penguin.
Calendar boy / Andy Quan, ISBN 0-921586-82-5, Vancouver: New Star Books, 2001, 240 pages, Paperback 20.00 · $CDN
ISBN 0-014-11734-6, Sydney: Penguin Australia, 2002, 232 pages, Paperback 22.00 $AUD
On the edge of adulthood, self-discovery, coming out; in university towns, Europe, Vancouver, Toronto, Sydney, the protagonists of Calendar Boy unravel cultural heritage, community, identity on the road to – they hope – love, happiness, and self-acceptance. Set around the globe, sixteen adventurous stories weave fictions with real-life smarts, guts and oomph underpinning them.
Throughout, Quan shifts gears effortlessly from street-smart colloquial voice to rapid-fire monologue to the bemused, exhilarated tone of immigrants new to Canada or to gay male culture. With one foot in urban Canadian life and the other in the global village, Calendar Boy will hit home even as it makes you see the world in new ways.
Reviews – Excerpts
(One excerpt and two short reviews – full reviews are at the bottom of the page)
Richard Labonté. Lambda Book Review.
There are 16 stories in this debut collection from well-traveled Canadian writer Andy Quan, and therefore more than a dozen good reasons to appreciate its charms, its snarls, its several voices and its singular center, its moments of coming-out poignancy and racial -politics perception and immigrant-outsider displacement and sexual-play eroticism… Not one flat tone, this book, but a symphony of cultures, gay and Asian, and of communities, Canadian and global, and of emotions, longing and lusty.
A strong and witty debut – by David Alston (amazon.com reviews)
An excellent debut – I’d read Andy Quan’s “How to Cook Chinese Rice” in an anthology several years ago, and it struck me as inventive, adventurous and every tightly written. This debut collection more than lives up to the promise. Quan’s writing is culturally aware and very smart, but also very playful and unafraid of quirk and humor, and throughout he creates worlds where a refreshing directness, and an occasional willingness to jab at topics most writers (or most gay men) would prefer to dance around makes each of the se stories very tough, in the best of ways. The wonder of “On the Paris Metro,” or the what-needs-to-be-said qualities of “What I Really Hate are other high points – all-in-all, a strong debut. I look forward to reading more of Quan’s writing.
When I grow up, I want to be Andy Quan – by Marshall Moore (amazon.com reviews)
In reviews of this book, much is made of the author’s race and sexual orientation; little has been said about his talent for fashioning words and sentences into crystalline, jewel-like stories. Quan explores themes of self-discovery and the search for identity among shifting layers and labels, and accumulates a number of exotic literary passport stamps along the way. This is fiction the way fiction ought to be written. Quan’s prose is poignant, taut, and lucid: he finds just the right way to put things, free from excess, and achieves small miracles with this minimalist technique… his writing is so transparent, non-writers overlook his technical skill to yap about the politics. This does the book a disservice. Check this one out. Andy’s a hell of a storyteller, and the themes he explores speak to a broad range of human experience. I had to get a friend to send this book form Canada well before it was available in the States, and it was worth the effort. This is a writer to watch.
For those of you who haven’t bought the book yet (and what are you waiting for?), here’s a sample story: Hair
Where to Find it
Since Calendar Boy was published in 2001, it’s pretty easy to find around the world. The best thing to do in Canada and the USA, is to ask your local bookstore to order it in if they don’t have it.
But of course, these days, it’s also easy books through the internet – at amazon or otherwise – and you can get a used copy cheap that way as well. Same goes if you live internationally, internet ordering is the way to go.
In Australia, copies are on sale at my favourite bookstores:
The Bookshop Darlinghurst, (Sydney), Better Read then Dead (Sydney), or Hares and Hyenas (Melbourne). You can also order it through the Bookshop Darlinghurst’s online store!
The Australian edition is no longer available (though a few copies might be floating around used bookstores). In May 04, I received the unfortunate news that Penguin accidentally pulped all copies that were remaining at the time of the Australian edition… But that’s a story for another day. My kind and generous Canadian publisher ships copies out to me of the Canadian edition which I then sell here in Australia.
So many years ago, when Calendar Boy first came out, I was obsessed with reviews. Understandable, as a first-time author. It reviewed lots of attention and so many reviews, which I should have been more thankful for at the time…
When I posted them on my website, I gave myself the right of reply: not the sign of a mature writer who understands that reviews, whether good and bad, are a reflection of the reviewer and whatever baggage they’re carrying at the moment. Transferring them over from old to new site, I’ve kept some of the commentary, probably more as a snapshot of who I was at the time rather than anything to be read seriously.
Though I still tend to agree with Dave Eggers and I myself try to write only reviews of books I like. Unless an author is really established, or the review is joining into an interesting political or cultural discourse, what’s the point of trashing someone’s shiny new book that has been so difficult for them to get published?
“Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a fuckload of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but, Christ, that is what matters. What matters is saying yes.”
-Dave Eggers in the Summer issue of “The Harvard Advocate.” Eggers’ memoir is A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. (and the wonderful Rob Breszney put this quote up in his Free Will Astrology weekly newsletter.)
Other Voices – Tony Maniaty, The Weekend Australian, May 11-12, 2002. p. 8-9
(Appearing in a review with three other books, I couldn’t have been more pleased with this review. This newspaper probably had the largest circulation of anywhere I’d been reviewed in)
Andy Quan’s Calendar Boy (Penguin, 228pp, $22) tours the world in search of sex. “Anyone could have told me that the gay life I was seeking would not be found in Peterborough, Ontario.” Now settled in Sydney, Canadian-Chinese Quan offers 16 stories about men seeking men and men seeking something beyond sex: identity. He avoids unwanted pick-ups: “Fat man, his eyes like an outstretched hand. No. Shake my head once. Quick like the flick of a chopstick. Like cocking a gun.” He’s rough and tough: “What I really hate are gay Asian clubs. They’re the worst. I mean, what a bad joke: a race of people who can’t handle alcohol.” He listen to his beating heart: “I want to be that, what I’m listening to: dark, earthy, red, dynamic, unthinking.”
If you like sharp and clever writing, with a cross-cultural gay perspective, Quan is your man.
“Strike a Pose” – Lambda Book Report, July/August 2001, by Richard Labonté
(Richard’s been a great supporter of my writing – his publishing of my stories in the Best Gay Erotica series was what lead to my collection Six Positions. Check out the original review on the web (moved to my website, which has an author photo (of me with blond hair) and rather nice layout)
There are 16 stories in this debut collection from well-traveled Canadian writer Andy Quan, and therefore more than a dozen good reasons to appreciate its charms, its snarls, its several voices and its singular center, its moments of coming-out poignancy and racial-politics perception and immigrant-outsider displacement and sexual-play eroticism.
Consider the title story, “Calendar Boy”, like several in the book set in the world of a young Asian teen fumbling with the essentials of coming out and being queer: It’s January: Gary’s shopping for a calendar, but the bulked-up bodybuilders are just too much muscle, the couples calendar is reminder that he’s too single, the policemen and Latino men nice but too limited. It’s February: Gary is working out, through March his chest adds pecs, his arms thicken, his legs fill out the black Levis.
It’s April: Gary, more confident about his body, his sexiness, approaches a blond in a bar, says “hi”, hears a blunt “no”, through May harbors the hurt of the rude white-boy brush-off. It’s June: Gary runs an ad for “hot Asian men to pose for a calendar”, in July he poses, both proud and shy of the buff brown body he’s molded, and by August he has photos of four men, Malaysian, Japanese, Thai, Chinese, presents his concept of an Asian-model fundraising calendar to his Asian support group.
It’s September: the group nixes the idea, fretting that it’s not “the right message,” that sexy images of muscled Asian men aren’t what “we want to get across to the community.” It’s October: Gary spots Asia, a calendar produced in Hong Kong, an AIDS benefit effort, thinks “scooped, my idea, damn those skinny politically correct geeks.” It’s November: Gary’s in a small business class, hits on the idea of using the photos for a line of cards. It’s December: Gary gets a call from the support group that offered no support, hears their concern that the local weekly gay rag has featured just one black and two Latinos and no Asians in 52 issues, and has nominated Gary to be a cover model.
In this one wry story, the punch and the finesses of Quan’s politics and prose are nicely expressed, the issues which infuse his fictions-racism, self-acceptance, sexual need and availability-are handled with an endearing poise and a defiant bravado which is neither caustic nor cocky nor confrontational, but rather smart, bemused, and sometimes, with genteel but steely firmness, unsettling.
And it’s just one among many good reads in Calendar Boy’s wide-ranging contents, which avoids the failing of many one-author collections by virtue of its eclectic settings (several Canadian cities, several European cities, Australia) and its varied voices, including the reflective “Sleep”, a consideration of dating, monogamy and sleeping, really being able to sleep, with a man; the modulated crankiness of “What I Really Hate” (everything from the narrator’s name, Buster, to “ugly old white men (who) chase young Asians in bars”); the muddled messages of romance during a nude day at “Wreck Beach”; the mixed signals and muffled longings of a traveler for a Polish lad on “The Polish Titanic”; the soul-sating cruising “On the Paris Metro”; the rueful, pointed metaphors in “How to Cook Chinese Rice”; and the standout story, “Immigration”, the most introspective, in which Quan skillfully draws on the emotions of an early 20th Century Chinese immigrant to depict the Millennial coming out of Albert Quan, whose ancestral name was Gwan, “a dip in the voice as it is spoken,” rendered Quan “in the language of the white ghosts . . . a long flat tone.”
Not one flat tone, this book, but a symphony of cultures, gay and Asian, and of communities, Canadian and global, and of emotions, longing and lusty.
RICHARD LABONTÉ IS AN EDITOR/AUTHOR AND LONG TIME CONTRIBUTING EDITOR TO LBR.
QP, Brisbane, Queensland (Lesbian and Gay community newspaper) February 2002
(A short and sweet review that included a book give-away for the first five readers that called!)
The sixteen short tales in Canadian-Australian author Andy Quan’s Calendar Boy offer up a tasty and diverse multicultural and multi-dimensional stew. Set around the globe from Vancouver to Paris to Quan’s adopted home of Sydney, each story explores notions of culture, community, identity and eroticism. But while these common themes are woven into each of the stories, Quan switches voice as frequently as he switches locale, ensuring no two tales are too similar. Quan’s short stories have appeared in twelve anthologies including Circa 2000: Gay Fiction at the Millennium, Best Gay Erotica 2000 and Carnal Nation: Brave New Sex Fictions..”
“Sincere work” – The Canberra Times – Reviews – Tuesday, 30 July 2002. Kaye Roberts
Andy Quan’s Calendar Boy boldly tackles issues of gay identity in his 16 stories about youthful insecurities, self-discovery and racial prejudice. Set in diverse locations from Paris to Sydney, Calendar Boy is a sincere and straightforward work. Each of the characters, from naive first timers to sophisticated city dwellers, are on the search for self-acceptance and individuality in a white world swollen with stereotypes, suffocating conventions and foreign prejudices. Like Quan himself, the main characters are Asian and gay.
This allows dual viewpoints, from the outsider longing to fit in and have a voice to the gay man developing his own distinctiveness and sense of self-happiness. Quan writes intimately about the disruptions and influences that play across the character’s lives affecting decisions and evoking both joy and loss. His language is sharp and honest and the stories can, at times, be excruciating as mistakes are confessed. Overall it conveys the fragile human condition and deep wish to be accepted. Poignant and funny, these contemporary stories are to be enjoyed.
Quill & Quire Review: July 2001
Andy Quan’s preferred style in Calendar Boy, his debut collection of short stories, is the confessional. It’s a voice that is especially popular in queer fiction, in part because many queer writers are interested in questioning how sexuality informs personal identity. In the hands of a writer like Edmund White (A Boy’s Own Story), the confessional allows for a fascinatingly tangled psychological portrait. Quan is more transparent: his narrators are almost all Chinese Canadian, gay, and desperate to be desired.
Their dilemma is that they don’t fit in. As gay men they are isolated in Chinese communities; as Chinese they are isolated in gay communities that idealize the muscled white man. The book’s title story (one of the few that isn’t in the first person) sees self-conscious Gary gain confidence through body-building, though he’s unable to persuade the city’s gay Asian association to support a plan to cobble together and sell a calendar featuring erotic pictures of Asian men.
As Gary well knows, images of gay Asian men are few and far between. The same need to represent gay Asian lives drives these stories. Quan is genuine and earnest about this need, but he’s rarely subtle. Instead, he chews on the problem until it’s flavourless (“when has he seen an Asian man as an object of desire, as part of a club, the club of people who fall in love and lust and have sex with each other?”), or resorts to melodrama (“I felt as if made of glass, and whatever it was I really wanted slid off my surfaces. Nothing could grab hold.”).
The strongest story in the collection, “Almost Flying”, is, interestingly enough, the only one focused on the lives of a straight couple. Here Quan’s language is more relaxed and filled with colour and nuance. Ayumi, a Japanese woman hoping to put the misery of unfulfilling jobs and a suicide attempt behind her with a new life in Australia, is more alive than any of Quan’s confessional stand-ins. Freed from the burden of speaking for a community, Quan is quite a writer.
-Mark Pupo, a Toronto writer and editor.
(This review drove me crazy. It was similar to a review I got for my poetry book, Slant. The first paragraph sets up the category of writing that I fit into, gives examples of award-winning well-established writers who I compare badly with, and then points out some minor promise. Compare me to other young writers, not Edmund White’s whole oeuvre.
He says “freed from the burden of speaking for a community, Quan is quite a writer.” Wait a minute. The other reviewer said that I didn’t take on the burden of speaking for my communities enough. I decided that the reviewer was some straight white dude who couldn’t connect with the voices in the stories, whether they are gay, Asian, both or neither.
What irked me most was that the two examples from the text that he chose to illustrate how flavourless and melodramatic my writing are were sentences from the book on which my editor and I had disputed. The first, I had suggested taking out but he’d thought it important to keep for the plot. The second, he had highlighted and written “melodramatic?” So, what really annoyed me was that someone had read my book so closely but not really liked it.
In the same issue, my friends Shani and Francisco get glowing reviews of their new books by grad students. Why couldn’t I have gotten a perky grad student, I whined to someone. To top it off, while breezing gay magazines at a bookshop, I find out that the reviewer is the editor of a Toronto gay-zine. He IS gay. He just didn’t like the book.)
“Calendar Boy” Red Salamander Review – November 2001. (www.redsalamander.com – now defunct). Daniel Gawthrop
A few years ago, a Yale graduate named Eric Liu published The Accidental Asian, an eloquent series of essays tracing the young author’s quest to come to grips with his Oriental heritage after growing up under the Euro-dominant influence of continental USA. That book now seems rather quaint beside the Canadian-authored Calendar Boy. It isn’t just Andy Quan’s value-added “otherness” of queer sexuality that gives this book more edge – although some of the bitchy irony that drives these stories surely arises from that. It’s rather that Quan is a lot funnier about cultural disharmony, less forgiving of polite society and more aggressive in taking the piss out of PC earnestness. In “What I Really Hate”, there’s as much disdain for the cha-cha-cha-ing Chinese dancers as for the drooling rice queens. His take on fetishism is refreshingly inventive, as in “How to Cook Chinese Rice” and “Hair”, and yet there’s a haunting sort of beauty in the darker subject of a Japanese girl’s attempted suicide (“Almost Flying”). With a disciplined, poet’s eye – short, punchy sentences and well-rendered visuals – this book’s a keeper.
“First Fiction on First Love Strong on Charm” –Georgia Straight: July 26th – August 2nd. Vancouver, Canada. John Burns
Writing about love is hard, every word a contest between imagination and regurgitation. Writing about first love is doubly hard: generations of film and a million maudlin songs have already bemoaned the ingénu’s half-choked, trembling et ceteras. And first fiction about first love…how sorry a lot is that?
Andy Quan-Vancouver-born, now in Sydney-puts his shoulder to love’s wheel with Calendar Boy. (His first collection of short prosy poems, Slant [Nightwood Editions, $16.95], is also just out.) If it is his brief to charm and seduce through the cute-but-doesn’t-know-it sighs and quiverings of his various nicey-nice narrators, he has succeeded and can doubtless look forward to much book-tour nooky. Literary achievement, however, is more elusive.
These are short pieces-16 in just over 200 pages-and whether told in first person or third, almost all the stories address the inner conflicts of an insecure, young, Asian-Canadian gay man. Love falls from the sky, or at the clubs, passive yearning rewarded with brief attention, and sometimes sex. For characters upset to be considered nonsexual in an unconsciously racist world, they are themselves weirdly coy: “I remember him lifting me up in sex the first time we were together, the ease with which my weight rose into the air above his arms” is as nasty as Quan gets. “The first time we were together”? Titter.
Stories arc toward maturity, coming-out, acceptance. The best rise above look-at-me gay pride to track anger or (too rarely) other characters. One feints to strength: “I’m checkerboard. Through and through, two-tone abstract art, multi-coloured swirl painting. Plaid, baby, I’m plaid, so out of fashion I’m in fashion and so stylish I’m on my way out. I don’t go with anything you own.” He’s showboating, sure, but at least there’s passion.
Innovative structures-intertwined narrative and a recipe for perfect rice, or a two-step between then and now-show glamour, and Quan, in his weakness for simile, sometimes scores: “The wind blows against my face like a hand dipped in ocean waves.” But arousal and escape from passivity don’t endure. Passion spent: put it down to youth.
(Georgia Straight is Vancouver’s weekly entertainment magazine. I was horrified by this review, especially when I realised that the nicey-nice characters that he criticised are not the ones in the book but the person who left him a message on his answering machine requesting that he consider my book for a review. How dare I do that? A friend thought it was just a regular smart-alec review but at the time, it felt like a very personal attack. And he missed the point in a way that felt blindly privileged – rather than recognising the character’s insecurities as caused by racism or homophobia, he demanded them to be tougher. Rather than a search for identity and acceptance, sexuality all became about “first love.”)
Sydney Scope Magazine, Vol 3 Number 8, February 2002 – Books by Lewis Wolfe
(With two crappy reviews in free entertainment magazine, I was thrilled to get this one. While I wasn’t sure what constituted the “bulk of [my] literary predecessors”, Wolfe made it clear that he enjoyed the book, but didn’t have to be gay or Asian to do so. He got it. Yay.)
For a book primarily concerned with issues important to a gay male of Asian extraction, Canadian-Australian Andy Quan’s debut is surprisingly good. Not that being of Asian descent and gay persuasion is a recipe for literary terribleness – simply that Quan could have reclined in the political easy-chair provided him by his genes, as the bulk of his literary predecessors have done, and he has not… Sidestepping the expected traumas of ethnic/homosexuality acceptance in favour of dilemmas more immediate and unexpected, Quan writes with a muscular adaptability, his voice changing pitch more than a dozen times as he races us through a series of vignettes at the end of which, for the most part, the narrator himself is either too confused (“Wreck Beach”), exhausted (“Sleep”) or disturbed (“What I Really Hate”) to pass clear judgement… First novels are notorious dumping grounds for an author’s long-harboured political views, and Quan’s are certainly here. But they’re buried; popping up like gravestones disturbed as the author already hauls earth for new foundations. All round, Calendar Boy is an exciting book, particularly if Andy Quan is going to write another.
“Sex and drugs: The gay life, and addicted lives, depicted in two releases” – Victoria Times-Colonist, October 7, 2001 (daily newspaper from Victoria, B.C.) – Tim Chamberlain
(Matched up in a review with “Addicted: Notes from the Belly of the Beast” a non-fiction collection of 10 Canadian writers exploring the topic of addiction.)
You can argue all day whether the personal is political, but is it art? Andy Quan’s collection of short fiction, Calendar Boy, catches the gay zeitgeist of modern life in a manner reminiscent of TV productions such as Queer as Folk. His characters grow up, fall in love, become educated, travel … in other words, they do everything straight people manage to do.
This is confident writing that doesn’t shy away from the various characters’ (and the author’s) sexual orientation. Furthermore, Calendar Boy, never lectures and manages to avoid the curse of overt political correctness. However, Quan’s collection does risk becoming insular at times. While there is nothing wrong with chronicling the ups and downs of gay men making their way in the world, some of his stronger selections do incorporate elements of straight existence as well.
For example, The Polish Titanic, describes a stormy trip on a ferry in the Baltic. The protagonist develops a chaste shipboard friendship with a man called Piotr, a friendship that transcends the bounds of any notion of sexual orientation. Since all shipboard friendships are finite by definition, the ending of this story is bittersweet: this is a touching story, deriving much strength, I would argue, from its portrayal of worlds colliding at several levels.
Quan has a slight tendency to contort metaphors – a stylistic tic he may want to keep in check. In Hair, an otherwise excellent story, he explains that “hair… sprouted about my penis, all twisty like the shrubbery that grows next to the ocean, the curves and bends eluding the sea wind, rooting itself into place.” At times like this, a judicious editor should step in and delicately prune.
Cover Notes – The Sunday Age, Melbourne, 27 January 2002 (Major daily paper). Lucy Sussex. Books Section, p. 11
Collections of short stories are currently rare in local publishing, especially by new authors. Calendar Boy, though, is a Canadian-Australian production, as is its author. Its theme is marginality, of being Asian and gay in a straight, white world. Despite the magenta cactus on the cover, there is nothing pornographic here. Andy Quan is a lucid social observer, although not in the Armistead Maupin class. Penguin does not list where the 16 stories were previously published, although it would seem the earlier stories appeared first, given the Canada-Australia progression. As a whole, Calendar Boy is uneven; its hit singles are the title story and Almost Flying in which Quan abandons his authorial persona to write about a heterosexual Japanese woman. (LS)
(Exciting to get a review in the mainstream press though not a sparkling review. My friend Crusader thought that Lucy just didn’t get the “gay thing”. At the time, I found the review a bit irksome – a phallic cactus is misleading? Why are the stories uneven? But at least I got a review… Again, I was compared to a famous, established writer, and Almost Flying was chosen as a favourite. Speaking of Crusader…)
“A Date to Cherish” – Melbourne Star Observer – January 2002 – Reviewer: Crusader Hillis
Traditional wisdom suggests that a writer must start with a novel, perhaps two, then those fabulous short stories that have been collected over the years might be considered by a mainstream publisher. Canadian writer Andy Quan turns this wisdom on its head with his first book Calendar Boy, 16 short stories that move in time through Canadian cities, Eastern and Central Europe and Sydney. The book was first published in Canada a couple of years ago and achieved local success there. Now living in Sydney where he works in the HIV/AIDS industry, Quan’s book was accepted by Penguin, who possibly saw some parallels with their great gay success story, Timothy Conigrave’s Holding the Man. Both books are incredibly compelling, and both offer that rare feeling in reading when you feel fully immersed in the inner lives of its main characters. Both are propelled by open-ended search for acceptance, and a seeming desire to tell things like they really happened.
Calendar Boy, however, is not strictly autobiographical, although it is likely that the concerns of many of its protagonists are the same that have faced Quan in his life as a person born in Canada, though always perceived as ‘Asian’. Often when you read a collection of short stories there’s a tendency to pause between; it’s often too jarring to move onto a new story until the weight of the preceding one has settled. This is not a problem here. The main characters share so much similar history that at times it’s like reading a novel or series of interconnected stories. This may be an unintended result, but it gives the book a powerful momentum, and also occasionally brings you up short as you grasp the differences in outlook and personal details of the characters. It is a reminder of our tendency to homogenise individuals into groups or even stereotypes on the basis of shared characteristics. In his fluid writing style, Quan seems to initially encourage this only to pull the rug from beneath us, making us pause and examine the ways in which our own histories determine how we see others.
None of this is done in a heavy-handed fashion. Quan’s touch is gorgeously light. He gets the tone just right all of the time. He’s a wordsmith with a wide-ranging eye, keenly observant of the ways in which people act and their possible motivations. There’s also a deeply felt disconnectedness and sadness imprinted in his stories. At the same time that he rejoices in the personal freedoms of being gay, he reminds us that the gay world is neither a democracy nor a meritocracy, but a beautocracy. His descriptions of the continual rejection and invisibility suffered by those perceived as ‘Asian’ in the gay community are deeply moving and anger-inspiring. It is also shows how such treatment works to isolate its targets, even to the point that most of his characters are incapable of seeing their own beauty and are unable to recognise that the majority in the queer communities, most of whom don’t come up to the right beauty standards, suffer from this very same, self-perpetuating prejudice.
Calendar Boy is a gorgeous collection and presents a very talented and insightful writer. Let’s hope we can keep him in this country for his next book.
Andy Quan is a special guest at Midsumma’s Word is Out, 24-30 January at the Trades Hall, Carlton. He appears in Love Gone Wrong on Saturday 26 January and launches Calendar Boy on Sunday 27 January at Hares & Hyenas. Contact the bookshop on 9824 0110 for bookings and details of other events.
(I’ve since become friends with Crusader since his review of this book, and he and Rowland have been incredibly supportive of my writing through Melbourne’s Hares & Hyenas bookshop. Looking it over so long after it was published, I see that his comment about “our tendency to homogenise individuals into groups or even stereotypes on the basis of shared characteristics” is a better response than I could give to some of the bad reviews, and even some of the good ones.)
Book Briefs – Seattle Weekly. December 13 – 19, 2001.
SOMETIMES life’s a beauty contest. In Calendar Boy, Andy Quan’s collection of short stories about gay men, we’re reminded that in the Darwinian environments of dance clubs, it’s what’s outside that matters most in the primal chase: If you’re hot, you score the muscle boys. If you’re not, you merely observe others and go home alone.
Throughout more than a dozen stories, Quan’s protagonists seem the same: All except one are gay, Chinese-Canadian, college-educated, and insecure about their bodies. Even the star of the titular story, who’s ballsy enough to publish nude pictures of himself, is consumed by feelings of inadequacy. It’s enough to make him go to the gym every day and mark his progress on a calendar, writing “Chest and Arms in some boxes, Legs and Back in others. Abdominals are every day, they go in each box.” And as any fashion slave knows, beauty is often about conformity. In “Hair,” the narrator, aptly named Samson, muses on the gay trends of bodybuilding and shaving: “I started to wonder why they looked all the same, as if put through an assembly line to make parts of cars: hubcaps perhaps, or fenders.”
Such details have the makings of a funny book, but unfortunately, Quan misses the opportunity for levity. Rather than going with the humor and bounce that would have allowed his characters to be more likable, the author dwells on the idea that being Asian is another cross to bear. The protagonist in “On the Paris Metro” is convinced that being a minority has made him timid. “I realized that I have never stared at anyone in the street. Perhaps because I was slight, perhaps because I was Asian usually in non-Asian environments. . . ”
Quan’s ethnicity is certainly an important aspect of his writing, but why must he always portray his Chineseness as a handicap? The back of the book says that the author was born in Vancouver and currently lives in Sydney. From his stories, one could safely assume he’s spent time in Europe. It would be interesting if Quan ever traveled to Asia. Perhaps he would realize then that even when you fit in lookswise you may still be rejected on the basis of your dull personality.
(Seattle Weekly was “Seattle’s most read weekly newspaper”. The nasty review in the Georgia Straight somewhat prepared me for this. Here’s an Asian reviewer who just doesn’t get the “gay” thing. However, she’s so fixated on the issue that all the characters in the book become the same – even though many of the characters are not identified racially, nor are all of the gay Asian characters the same. They’re the same to her though. She has so many problems connecting with the characters that she can’t see any personality… except she thinks they’re not proud enough. Also, they’re not funny enough. Ha HA! I seemed to be having trouble with reviews in weekly entertainment magazines?)
“young boy shows promise” – Ubyssey Magazine, Friday, September 7, 2001, p. 12 (student magazine from the University of British Columbia). Carly Hollander
(A positive review. I’m not sure I particularly like the headline – though the review does focus on the themes of youth and coming out. This review is another lesson for me on the pitfalls of mixing fiction and auto-biography. The auto-biographical voice is so strong in “Calendar Boy” that it seems to overwhelm the purely fictional stories. As this comment has been echoed in other reviews (sameness of characters, all the characters being gay and Asian), it seems that some reviewers either 1. don’t connect enough with the themes and stories to sustain their interest for the whole book; or 2. expect a short fiction collection to feature a cast of different characters rather than similar characters exploring different themes. Should I have grouped all the mostly auto-biographical stories together in one section titled “kind of me”? An interviewer who told me how varied the characters were suggested that people who suggest all the characters are the same are not reading the book through in order, but instead dipping into the collection in random order.)
Whether it’s in a small family home in Saskatchewan, or on a nauseating boat ride in Gdansk, in Calendar Boy, Andy Quan finds some where in the world to take his readers on a journey through self-discovery.
Calendar Boy is an anthology of sixteen stories in which characters struggle with cultural, sexual and identity issues in a society unwilling to accept anything either strange or generic. These stories are poignant pictures of love, friendship, self-awareness and the struggle for happiness. Quan writes with truth and ease. The prose flows easily, yet with profound emotion. He is an honest writer – real and bursting with youth.
Similar themes appear throughout the anthology. Each story is a monologue by a young gay male of Asian descent. The common thread in each story is the search for the character’s identity and his role in society. Quan writes about the problems these men have finding a place in the Asian and gay communities. For Quan’s characters, it’s not just about being gay; it’s about fully discovering oneself in the context of sexuality.
In one especially heartfelt story, “Hair,” the character experiments with different hairstyles as his self-discovery progresses. When he first comes out, his hair is long and shaggy – something he can hide behind without exposing his true self to the world. At a point of self-acceptance, he decides to shave his head. He talks about the lightness of being exposed, showing his true self. This story has universal themes for many young people today. It’s not just about issues of culture or sexuality. It’s about finding ourselves and being proud to show ourselves to the world.
Despite the emotional truths of Quan’s characters, the characters’ voices often don’t distinguish themselves from one another. Nothing makes one character truly stand out from another, except for a different name or a slightly different experience. For the first five stories, it was barely recognizable that more than one character was speaking.
As a relatively new writer, Quan has made a great debut to the writing world. His writing his honest, true and emotional. He chooses his words well and uses dialects to add some personality to his characters. Unfortunately, Quan’s characters have too much in common. Nonetheless, Quan has created a wonderful medley of stories with ideas applicable to all.
“Calendar Boy, Penguin, 2002” – Journal of Australian Studies, Issue 7, July 2002. Reviewed by Simmone Howell, Director, Vandal Press.
Whoever said there are only five stories in the world was pushing it. In Andy Quan’s debut collection Calendar Boy, sixteen short stories fall into each other so completely that ultimately it seems Quan only has one story: it’s about a youngish, insecure, Asian-Canadian gay guy and his search for love and acceptance in the modern world. Neal Drinnan’s blurb suggests that Quan writes of open wounds and allows the reader a bit of a poke around — but this reviewer got the feeling that the author was holding something back.
Calendar Boy reads more like a memoir than fiction. If it were a film you could imagine the opening scene (ah, those clean, cigarette-butt free streets of Toronto) complete with voiceover (James Duval?) before the old Vaseline-round-the-lens trick takes us back in time: ‘It was a time when middle-class Canadian kids went off traveling. A year before university, a summer during, or maybe even a year between …’
In ‘Travel’, Reese reflects on his relationship with Laurie — they meet on an airplane, go off on separate adventures, meet up again, life happens … Though the story itself is sketchy, in the final passage a dead cat inspires prose that is elegiac, symbolic and resonating.
It may be organic material, fur and bones, a complex cluster of immobile cells, but it would take many years and many rains for the corpse to seep into the ground, the bits of fur to fly away in the wind, and the neighbourhood gulls to carry the bones into the sky, one at a time, like the steps of a ladder.
Fragments such as this one, where Quan’s poetic voice renders his ‘story’ voice merely perfunctory, occur several times throughout the collection.
‘I will never again receive something I know exists but cannot describe…’
It is in this both spare and spacious kind of writing that one hopes for little epiphanies, and sometimes Quan delivers: ‘I’d found freedom and it was suffocating me’. But more often, his words degenerate into fortune cookie fodder: ‘sometimes you’ve just got to take notice of how rare the world can be’. Deepak Chopra has a lot to answer for.
Twelve out of the sixteen stories are written in the first person. It is impossible to read these stories without making a protagonist out of the author’s headshot on the back jacket. The character is likeable and accessible, understandable even, but if you’re hoping for the kinks to come to the fore, you’ll be disappointed. This is a guy who smiles too easily and says ‘Phew’ a lot — like an Asian-Canadian Charlie Brown, who also happens to be gay. Quan’s voice never deviates from being clear and reflective but the overriding tone is somehow tame. This would be a good book to give your homophobic neighbour because it has an almost Christian edge to it, a wholesomeness, a niceness. Beige can be beautiful, right? This is not the seamy underbelly of the subculture John Rechy or Dennis Cooper saw fit to expound and explore. ‘My heart is bursting like popcorn’, Quan’s narrator thrills in ‘How to Make Chinese Rice’. And the hills are alive with the sound of music. Calendar Boy goes against the myth that ‘gay’ fiction is somehow different to ‘straight’ fiction. That it is by nature subversive or reactionary or satirical. At times, Quan’s prose feels like reportage — he makes it easy for the reader to enter his world. If the unqueering of queer literature means taking off the tinsel, you’d better hope there’s something solid underneath. Quan the man is an activist and clearly passionate about his beliefs, but that passion does not come across in his fiction.
In the stand-out story ‘What I Really Hate’, the incongruously named Buster Tennyson Chang rails against the uncool-ness of gay Asian clubs, from the entertainment (‘Gay Asians suddenly hauling out the karaoke machine’) to the patrons (‘demure, giggly and oblivious’). Checking out the free but un-enticing snacks, Buster sneers, ‘Asians are so cheap’. It’s a clever, revealing piece of writing that’s set to combust, but just when you think you’re going to get some real ire, Quan pulls his head in and Buster comes on all nature-boy:
I went back … each time hoping that somewhere in that room would be the person who was looking for me: a guy who happened to be Asian and an Asian who happened to be me.
The majority of the stories in this collection focus on coming out, then coming together, and then coming apart. In ‘Meeting Henri’, the narrator fantasises about the elusive Henri — the set-up that never was; in ‘Wreck Beach’, the narrator tries to ignore his boyfriend’s wandering cock. In ‘On the Paris Metro’, the narrator fantasises about a handsome passenger; in ‘Signs’, the narrator tries to ignore the fact that his relationship isn’t working. In ‘Sleep’, the narrator is proud that he ‘held back the torrent of talk, of confession’, but I wish Andy Quan had not been so reticent. I prefer the writer who spills his guts and leaves it all in a mess than the one who hides his burp behind his dinner napkin.
In a country where the short story form is actively discouraged by publishers, it does not surprise me that one of the few books to slip through the cracks is not going to break any records for inventiveness. Calendar Boy is best read in fits and starts. V S Pritchett defined a short story as, ‘Something glimpsed from the corner of the eye’, but reading Quan’s stories back-to-back made me feel like I had matchsticks keeping mine open.
(I think this is one of the most interesting of the bad reviews. She justifies exactly what she doesn’t like about the book in a well-written and well-reasoned piece although she intimates that the book should be a certain way because that’s how she likes her books. Does she want the book to fit her idea of what a “gay” book should be, or does she just use that argument facetiously to say my stories bored her? Her main criticism seems to boil down to her not liking the tame, nice-guy characters, but that’s not a question of inventiveness or quality, it’s a question of what she prefers in a book – We had an interesting interchange a few years later where, upon publishing her own book, she apologised for not focusing on the positive instead of the negative.)
Melbourne’s Midsumma Cabaret Culture – Jonathan Marshall
(An excerpt from a review on the net of the “Love Gone Wrong” event that I took part in as part of the Midsumma Festival’s literary program in January 2002)
“Though ostensively a para-literary event, the Word is Out program had a cabaret ambience too. Writers recited texts in some cases written for performance in a relaxed manner, amongst the barely theatrical surrounds of a former Trades Hall meeting room. . . Andy Quan’s selections from Calendar Boy… were rich, expressive passages wrought from the simplest of elements. He employed a relatively unadorned, observational style which kept the emotional content at a certain remove. This proved intensely affective though in his study of the dangers of love, following a character who only barely avoided an abusive relationship. There but for the grace of God go I, seemed to be the message…[a] perplexingly moving objectification of the personal.”
“Hyphenating Minorities” – Canadian Literature: Issue 180 (for full review on the web, click here) – Reviewed by Philipp Maurer
New Star Books $20.00
Flesh Wounds and Purple Flowers: The Cha-Cha Years.
Arsenal Pulp Press $17.95
Are there minorities within minorities? Is a Canadian-born Asian gay man a queer Asian Canadian or an Asian Canadian queer? Is there such a thing as Asian Queer Canadian? A Latino Canadian Queer? Are those differentiations relevant? Are they noticeable? Are they sensible? These are some of the questions that arise in Calendar Boy by Andy Quan, and Flesh Wounds and Purple Flowers: The Cha Cha Years by Francisco Ibañez-Carrasco.
Andy Quan was born and raised in Vancouver and now lives in Sydney, Australia. Calendar Boy is a collection of short stories dealing with aspects of queer and immigrant life all over the world. Some of his work has appeared in anthologies such as Contra/Diction, Queeries, and Queer View Mirror. When asked for an author’s statement for Contra/Diction, Quan wrote that for him, “being included in a collection like Contra/Diction is about challenging a monolithic view of what it is to be gay or queer in Canada or the world in the nineties. But I don’t believe there is a monolithic view. Or even anything more than a contingent cultural or communal norm.”
This is exactly what, in a nutshell, Calendar Boy is about. Quan’s stories challenge a monolithic view not only of being queer, but also of being the descendant of Chinese immigrants. They deal with being Asian in Canadian gay subculture; with “coming of age,” “coming out” and “going public”; with racism and self-acceptance.
Quan’s debut contains sixteen stories revolving around these issues; their tone is sometimes aggressive and threateningly sharp, sometimes ironic and subtle. All the characters seem to be facets of the same person in a way; they are travellers in a geographical as well as a figurative sense. Quan uses simple and yet incisive metaphors in stories such as “How to Cook Chinese Rice,” a recipe as well as an observation of coming out as an Asian gay man, or in “Sleep,” a story on the nature of monogamy and trust in a relationship. His stories portray “Asian-ness” against a backdrop of being queer – and vice versa, as in “Immigration,” in which Quan sensitively draws a parallel between the emotions of an early twentieth-century Chinese immigrant and those of a Chinese Canadian gay man coming out at the turn of the millennium.
In addition, stories like “What I Really Hate” illustrate Quan’s views on the politics of queer minorities and pseudo-multiculturalism: “Why do we have a separate club night anyways? Does that put us into the category of leather night, rubbermen, underwear parties? Are we a fetish or are we a theme party?” This kind of questioning of identity politics reappears throughout the book. Quan’s stories seem to reveal that multiculturalism and the embracing of difference are substantially less developed in gay subculture than in Canadian mainstream culture.
Granted, Calendar Boy is one more publication in a long line of books on identity and the questionable concepts of community and cultural heritage, yet what makes it special is that it applies both to being Chinese and to being queer.
Both Calendar Boy and Flesh Wounds and Purple Flowers deal with minorities within minorities. Francisco Ibañez-Carrasco’s novel is the AIDS memoir of a Chilean-Canadian protagonist Camilo, who, from his hospital bed, recalls his life, during which he has often and even easily crossed all sorts of borders and boundaries between countries, and has defied many norms and values. Ibañez-Carrasco was born in Santiago, Chile, and now lives in Vancouver. Flesh Wounds and Purple Flowers takes place in various locations in the Americas: Chile, Cuba, Canada and the United States.
Camilo leaves Chile for New York, on the way stopping by chance in Vancouver, where he decides to stay. The story of his life is an odyssey of emigration and immigration, of love, sex, and self-discovery. For Camilo, his disease is both plague and revelation. Like Calendar Boy, Flesh Wounds and Purple Flowers deals with racism and ethnic origin, and yet Ibañez-Carrasco’s writing differs considerably from Quan’s. Apart from being considerably more lascivious and erotic, (which among other things confers on it a certain touch of “gay nostalgia”), his novel is a virtually closed unit, or at least one that can hardly be entered. Access is granted selectively through the use of “Spanglish,” which emphasizes cultural differences and keeps boundaries in place: some readers are intentionally left outside. Quan deals more directly with the exclusionary effect of language: in the title story “Calendar Boy,” the protagonist Gary (a Chinese Canadian) is pitied by Hong Kong Chinese people for his inability to speak Cantonese, and is intentionally left out of conversations.
One could further elaborate on what the two works have in common and what sets them apart; the deeper one steps into the layers of detail and metaphor, the more aspects of difference and mutuality one finds. Yet they share one fundamental concept: the notion of splitting what was commonly considered non-fissionable, the elementary particles of the queer atom – minorities within minorities. In the course of their skilfully crafted works, both authors construct and at the same time challenge and deconstruct “hyphenated minorities” As one of Quan’s characters delcares, “I’m checkerboard. Through and through, two-tone abstract art, multi-coloured swirl painting. Plaid, baby, I’m plaid, so out of fashion I’m in fashion and so stylish I’m on my way out. I don’t go with anything you own.”
Review of Andy Quan, Calendar boy by Happy Ho in Word is Out, Issue No 2, March 2002
(The now-defunct Word is Out was a Sydney-based online journal for gay, lesbian and queer liberation. Their Word is Out issue no 2, March 2002 featured a wonderful positive review of Calendar Boy by Happy Ho, a local Asian lesbian celebrity – a doctor, performer, comedian and activist. I had to search around to find the review archived on ‘Pandora – Australia’s Web Archive’.)
Andy Quan is a writer of note and this is an impressive book. It deserves an important place amidst the myriad contemporary gay literature that abounds, because never before has the complexity of being gay, and Asian and being in the Western world been so cleverly presented. It is deserving not only because of the content but also, and perhaps even more so, for the quality of writing. The prose is wryly elegant, confident in the short story form where an immediacy and empathy with characters and situations are established within the first paragraph of each story. The reader is presented with a elucidation of Chinese culture, the wit is sometimes so sly it is stiletto-like, at once incisive and illuminating, and altogether uproariously funny – ‘layer of exposed skin above belt like fat steamed chicken’. The reader familiar with the Chinese culture will find a resonance that is gratifying; those who are not will be treated to the gloriously sardonic and oft-poignant secret world of Chinese in-jokes.
A common theme running through the various stories speaks of the dispossession and isolation felt by the gay Asian person translocated in the Western world. In ‘How to cook Chinese rice’, he speaks poignantly of the invisibility of Asian identity within the Western gay culture, at once made more so by the negation of this by an academically inclined gay friend. ‘All the posters and advertisements for the university’s gay and lesbian dances featured stills from either black and white Garbo films or lesbian vampire thrillers. When I complain about this introduction to gay life a few years later, I’m scolded by a master’s student named Barry: “That was camp and camp is not ethnocentric!”.’ The characters open doors gingerly into the Western gay world, hiding their vulnerability, aloneness and trepidation, sometimes with bravado, sometimes with shy dignity, only to have the door slammed in their faces by the culturally insensitive outer world, already comfortable in their self-generated ghetto.
Quan is blisteringly honest, courageously exposing the insecurities, the internalised homophobia and internalised racism felt by a marginalised people within another marginalised culture – gay in a hetero-dominant society, Asian in a Western world. In ‘What I really hate’, the protagonist, with the unwieldy name of Buster Tennyson Chang, rallies against the antiquated, anachronistic Anglo names given to Chinese children by parents who are unfamiliar with Western thinking, the ‘forced togetherness’ of Asian gay clubs despite the fact that the members come from vastly different countries and cultures, the geekiness, the predatory white men who come to these bars, the isolation of being Chinese but unable to speak Chinese, among other things. This vitriolic piece would shatter political correctness except for the heartrending cry of the character so desperately searching for that elusive sense of être bien dans sa peau (feeling easy in one’s skin) – ‘And I guess, really, that’s why I hate gay Asians. And I guess that’s why I hate myself.’
The following stories, in particular, lift the book from good to brilliant, in that Quan speaks of the many heartaches and humiliations suffered in quietude, the underbelly of one’s vulnerability exposed and subsequently shrouded with dignity born of the need of survival but never self-pitying. In ‘The Polish Titanic’, the male bond between the protagonist and a Polish traveller flowers despite language and cultural barriers, then to flounder like the ill-fated ship when the Polish traveller discovers that the protagonist is gay. In ‘Maintenance’, he fails to negotiate time with his best friend, because his best friend’s girlfriend refuses to validate the bond between the two men. In ‘Wreck Beach’, his Caucasian boyfriend flirts constantly and sleeps around and the protagonist, uncertain of the worth his sexual currency because of his race, bears the indignities in silence, even rationalising and excusing the behaviour before he finally plucks up the courage to end the relationship. In ‘Higher learning’, he is charmingly naive around the ‘choreography’ of cruising and courtship. In ‘Calendar boy’, the syn-titled short story, the protagonist finds that his own Asian community is as equally oppressive around the subject of Asian male beauty as the general gay community, albeit for their own political agenda.
This is a wonderfully engaging and impressive debut, not only for the breadth of the themes explored, but also of the flair with which they are presented. Bravo Mr Quan, I look forward to your next exposé.
© Happy Ho, 2002.
Happy Ho is a medical practitioner and political activist in Sydney. She is one of the founding members of Sydney Asian Lesbians, a past Board member of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, current co-director of Asian Lesbian and Gay Pride, and a performance artist and writer who has written her own TV comedy episode for SBS, ‘Aussie Jokers’, and performed in several art festivals around Australia.
word is out e-journal, no.2, March 2002.