Feature Reviews

The following (wonderful) profiles were written at the time of publishing Calendar Boy and Slant. Since they deal with both books, I didn’t want to tack them onto the end of the ‘Calendar Boy’ and ‘Slant’ pages, so they get their own page…

Cover Boy (from Loop Magazine, August 2001) by Anna Nobile

Slant, Nightwood Editions, $16.95 / Calendar Boy, New Star Books, $20

Andy Quan celebrated his 32nd birthday the same day of his Vancouver launch for his two new books. That’s right, two new books. “It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?” says Quan as though he can’t quite believe it himself.

Calendar Boy, a book of short stories, and Slant, a collection of poetry, touch on subjects near and dear to Quan’s heart: identity, race and sexual politics, and what it means to be a gay Asian male in a white-hetero dominated world. Both books probe gently, yet incisively, into these issues and are highly readable and enjoyable. Unlike some writers who insist they are a writer first and gay second, Quan doesn’t mind a hyphenated identity. “I like to play with that,” says Quan cheerfully. “Third generation Chinese-Canadian, fifth generation Chinese-American, gay, writer, poet, musician, activist. It’s more accurate. I don’t agree with people who throw up their hands and say ‘Why do we need these labels?’ We have to identify our ways in relation to society. The problem is if you make the categories simple or leave them undefined. Its important to define yourself according to the context you’re in.”

And Quan should know. For the past six years, the Vancouverite that grew up at Arbutus and King Edward streets has been living abroad, most recently in Australia where he works as an international policy officer for the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO). While living in Brussels and London, Quan noticed that Europeans had a difficult time with the concept of a Chinese-Canadian. “I couldn’t be both,” he says. “If I was Canadian, I couldn’t be Chinese, even though it’s obvious that’s my racial makeup. In Australia,” he continues, “they have an easier time with that, so I’m often Canadian first.”

Though not explicitly political, his writing can be seen as an extension of his activist work. “The writing, particularly the short fiction, takes aim at trying to change and expand gay culture. I loved the books I read as a teen, but it was mostly white American guys talking about a particular time. But there’s a very rich international thing going on now and I want to be part of that. I want to write down the experiences of a gay Asi an male.”

His work at AFAO has him travelling a lot as he deals with treatment access issues for people living with HIV and AIDS and helps define policy on international issues related to AIDS. He did a lot of research in preparation for the recent AIDS conference at the United Nations that saw the passing of a resolution to help those fighting the disease. Despite his busy work schedule, Quan has always “found time to create here and there. It’s a great joy to me,” he says simply. “I feel awkward if I’m not doing something creative.”

This article (c) Anna Nobile first appeared in the August 2001 issue of the loop magazine and is reprinted with permission from the author. Loop Magazine was ‘Vancouver’s monthly urban culture resource’ and I think ran from the late 90s to the early noughties. Not sure when they closed down.

A BLOSSOMING LITERARY FIGURE – (Reprinted with permission from Capital Xtra, Issue 94, June 2001)

A publishing double-whammy – Story by Sylvia Pollard

Within the span of June, Andy Quan’s first two books will be published. It is a remarkable accomplishment and coincidence in itself, but even more so considering the books are being published by two different publishers in British Columbia.

Slant, a collection of his poetry, published by Nightwood Editions.

Calendar Boy, a collection of his short fiction, will be published by New Star Books.

This two-way publishing coup places Andy Quan directly in the Canadian literary spotlight.

From obscurity to instant recognition? Hardly!

Queeries. Queer View Mirror. Carnal Nation. Contra/Diction. Quickies. Quickies 2. Take Out: Queer Writing from Asian Pacific America. Circa 2000: Gay Fiction at the Millennium. Best of the Best Gay Erotica.

Andy Quan’s short fiction has appeard in all of the above anthologies; his poetry in a myriad of literary magazines, including Canadian Literature, GRAIN, PRISM International, and Ottawa’s own ARC: Canada’s National Poetry Magazine.

Way back in a 1993 Arsenal Pulp Press anthology entitled Queeries, Andy Quan contributed a work of short fiction, partially in recipe format, called: “How To Cook Chinese Rice” . Later that year it was reprinted in GEIST magazine.

After eight years, “How To Cook Chinese Rice” has come to rest in its rightful and honourable position as the opening story in Andy Quan’s first book of short stories, Calendar Boy. About his particular selection, New Star Books says, it “yields insight into what it’s like to be young, Asian and queer in Canadian society.”

Andy Quan was born in Vancouver in 1969. Through a few generations of Chinese-Canadian and -American sides of the family, his lineage can be traced back to villages in Canton.

Andy lived in Vancouver until he made the “neo-hippy” decision (referred to in Calendar Boy’s “Higher Education” ) to study at Trent University in Peterborough, graduating with honours in International Studies. During and after his years at Trent, he travelled to Ecuador with Canada World Youth, studied at the International People’s High School in Elsinore, Denmark, and worked at Expo ’92 in Seville. He then returned to school, completing a master’s degree in Political Science at York University. After that he travelled again, working at Rubberstuffers, an HIV prevention agency in London (UK), then, working for the International Gay and Lesbia n Association, managing projects in the Baltics and Russia, and visiting Brazil, Japan, Finland, Spain.

Andy is also an award-winning editor. He and Jim Wong Chu co-edited Swallowing Clouds, Canada’s first anthology of Chinese-Canadian poetry (published by Arsenal Pulp Press), which received a BC2000 Book Award.

Andy Quan’s poetry appears in the current OUT/BACK issue of HEAT, a literary magazine published in Sydney, Australia, where Andy now resides, working at the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations as their International Policy Officer.

Very intimate, very autobiographical-sounding; the sixteen short stories that make up Calendar Boy are perfect creations unto themselves, and unite to form a body of work which flows. Andy Quan seems to be a natural at balancing scene and summary. The dialogue shifts deftly from gossip to introspection, producing an overall effect of an unassuming soul with a natural understanding of psychology. These stories may not be entirely autobiographical but they feel that way, which is a testament to the first-rate sense of observation permeating all of Andy Quan’s writing.

The stories in Calendar Boy are multi-layered. Quan captures the current trend in fiction writing; these are light tales with a deeper resonance. In one story, the experience of immigration in 1905 is juxtaposed with “this love for men. ” In another, the making of perfect Chinese rice is interspersed with anecdotes from different years and locales.

There is raw emotion and vivid imagery in Quan’s poetry. Slant blooms with an honesty and clarity that make it accessible, and intimate.

In Slant he experiments with the design of a poem on the page with the lovely, “Names of Fuschias” , a bittersweet poem that comes to the conclusion: “that blooms of desire or choices in life are singular.”

In both genres, the writer struggles to take action. Passive in personality, yet very emotional, he is a keen observer; looking for possible points of entry into the lives of others, and his own.

His narrators, even Buster Tennyson Chang from Calendar Boy’s “What I Really Hate” , strive to make connections. The end result is writing which is at once inventive, witty, and insightful.

In both Calendar Boy and Slant, Quan does not rely on ancient mythology to serve his poetic ideas; he identifies his own reference points, and in doing so sees the world with an original purity.

There is a dignity about Quan’s writing, even during the frequent, highly personal, graphic, and/or unflattering moments.

An Email Interview with Andy Quan in Oz

Sylvia Pollard: What most often inspires you to write?

Andy Quan: Inspiration comes in different forms and at different times. For many of the stories in Calendar Boy, they are simply about observing and understanding the world, finding my place in it, and telling my story since others weren’t telling it. Many stories were written to tackle not only prejudice within the gay community, but to tackle simplicity. To counter all the ways that society expects individuals to either be all the same, or to remain with a particular identity or construct. So, I want to raise issues that people might not have thought about–racism in gay culture, sexual prejudice–in a way that makes people look at how we form communities, how we identify ourselves and how we value ourselves.

I also want to shape gay culture so that it is not a uniformly gay white urban existence dripping in camp and Bette Davis movies. I don’t think being gay or straight is a particularly “natural” thing. We learn how to act accord ing to the codes of the worlds we line in. So, I want those elements too, not just a celebration of a gay culture, but a challenge to it as well: how do we make it more diverse , more accepting. I also want to show a particularly gay or gay Asian experience and let people place that within universal stories–friendship, jealousy, loneliness.

Sometimes, the writing has just been for the pure pleasure of words or wanting to get a good idea down on the page. And I’m often inspired by reading writing that I like , a lot of my poems have come out of reading some really good poetry by someone else and being inspired to write something myself.

S.P.: What passages will you be reading from at your book launch in Ottawa?

A.Q.: Gosh, hard question, I haven’t thought about it yet. I just looked over my galleys, will have to ask my publishes on how long I should read for, and if they have any suggestions too. The answer for now:

I will be reading a mix of selections from Calendar Boy as well as some poems from Slant. From Calendar Boy I think I’ll be reading a passage from “Hair” where the narrator shaves off his long hair and suddenly finds that other gay men notice him! Or possibly a similar section from “On the Paris Metro” where the narrator gets coaching on walking and dressing before going to a Swedish gay bar.

If I can figure out the right section from “What I really hate”, I’ll do a bit of that–it’s energetic and funny, though pointed.

Book Launch and Reading

Look for Andy Quan and John Barton at a joint reading at the Polo Lounge.

David Rimmer, owner of After Stonewall, says, “John Barton is Andy’s mentor. Oh, yes, Andy has know John for ten years. He really admires John’s work.”

The Burning Library by Joanne Cey: “The Asian-North American Queer Experience”

From: Trade – Queer Things, Winter 2001, Volume 2, Issue 4, Editor: Jon Pressick (Toronto-based queer-zine, now defunct)

(Andy’s comments: A smart, analytical review on things queer and Asian by a writer who follows one of my favourite rules: in giving an opinion, you identify who you are first and what position you’re speaking from so there’s no pretense at objectivity. She focuses not only on my poetry collection “Slant” but also the anthology “Take-Out” in which I have two short stories. Trade was a great zine — the issue in which this article appeared was chock-full of smart, sassy and really intelligent stuff. )

Does that title offend you? It should. There is no more a single experience of queerness for Asians than for whites. My experience is completely different than that of someone coming out now because the world has changed drastically for queers in the last fifteen years. It differs from that of my friends because we grew up in different places and are different people. To be sure, there are commonalities, but that diversity is something that we should celebrate rather than push off to the side.

Those of us who are white and queer have the privilege of not reflecting on race when we think about our experiences as queers. We recognize that there are similar factors to our coming out, as well as ways in which we all experience our queerness differently, but for the most p art we don’t consider how our ethnicity impacts on those experiences.

When I am ‘other,’ it is because I am a dyke. My whiteness is a way in which I belong.

Even when this fact is taken into consideration by white folk, there is a tendency to assume that race or ethnicity adds a single factor – a single, common axis of experience, lived similarly – to that of being queer. This diminishes the diversity of both ethnicity and queerness.

I’ve been reading some work by queer Asian writers this month that il lustrates the diversity of both Asian and queer lives, Andy Quan’s book of poetry, Slant (Harbour Publishing, 2001), addresses variously the experiences of diaspora, queerness, AIDS, death, living in many countries, and how to be a man (“Don’t cross your legs like a woman!”). Quan concisely conveys sadness and joy belonging and otherness, desire and despair. His experiences are mine, and they are not. If I remember my English degree accurately, that’s what poetry is.

“Mr. Wong’s Children” speaks to ‘otherness’ in ways that tie us all together, but also bring racist experience to the fore.

“we learned how/ not to stand out/ from insults what/ not to wear // we waited for/ silence to tell/ us that we/ were good students // though speaking/ with no accent/ was as easy/ as water the eyes/ were a little/ hard to hide”

When white culture does not dismiss or alienate difference, it often fetishizes that difference, particularly differences in ethnicity. Thus an Asian is seen as exotic – a prize. This theme app ears several times in the wonderfully eclectic anthology Take Out (Temple University Press, 2001). For gay men, objectification seems part and parcel of the queer experience. The raw rage against this dismissal is clear in a number of pieces in the anthology where Asian men are either picked up as exotic rides “on the Orient Express” (SLAAAP!) or told “I only date white guys” (Noel Alumnit).

For lesbians, the issue is further clouded with the expectations of femininity. The work of the collective “SLAAAP! ” (Sexually Liberated Art Activist Asian People) addresses this with a photo of a traditionally dressed South Asian woman captioned “When you look at me what do you see?” The accompanying text is: “I am a femme South Asian dyke, in a world telling me that my femininity, my queerness, and my South Asian self contradict each other.”

As North Americans, we are taught to compartmentalize. We are ‘educated’ by the media to think in terms of binary oppositions – off/on, win/lose. This simplistic world-view push es to see anyone that isn’t exactly the same as us as immeasurably different. Rather than connecting with experiences of Asian queerness that resonate with experiences of straight Asians, or queer Blacks, etc., North Americans see only difference. Recogni zing that limiting ‘mainstream’ queer experience to white experience is a way of giving in to this simplistic world-view allows us to become more open to diversity of experience and opens us all to so much more.

The stories, plays, poetry and visual art in Take Out encourage this breadth of view. There is no single thread here – not even queerness. Of course, it is precisely this fact that engages the senses when indulging in this feast. There are go-go boys, students, businessmen, sex-trade workers and m a ny others in the pages of this anthology. All of them have something to say to me- yes to me whether or not I am Asian and queer – as long as I have learned to listen. After all, it is the magic of books that they take us to places that we cannot go in our own skin.

Joanne Cey is a PhD student currently employed as an accountant.

Lavender Rhinoceros – October 2001 – “What a Word’s Worth” – p. 19, Victoria, B.C. Canada

Review of Slant and Calendar Boy

Andy Quan’s stories and poems reflect a restless search for understanding that takes this young writer around the world and back and forth in time. Quan asks all those questions of identity that plague those with contemplative tendencies: What does it mean to belong to community? Be excluded from that one? What does it mean to be a Canadian? Of Asian descent? Single? Gay? Male?As is so often the case viewing one’s self through the lens of travel can bring into sharper focus who we are at home. In the short fiction collection, Calendar Boy, stories set on a Polish ferry, on a bus headed for Saskatoon, in the Paris Metro, at the ‘First European Gay and Lesbian Business Convention’ in Budapest show young gay protagonists (generally Asian) as they undertake various journeys. In many stories, chance encounters and missed opportunities serve as catalysts for reflection and lead to further exploration of paths inner and invisible. Quan deftly brings to consciousness those nagging questions that lurk just below the surface and examines them against deceptively simple backgrounds. A hairstyle becomes a symbol of growth, change, freedom, and self. A lover’s large ears are alternatively described as ruffled wings, rounded pink half moons, extra sexual organs, direct pathways to the mind (the places where we think and feel), and ultimately, become a symbol of unattainable fantasy.

Memories of former lovers, places, and friendships left behind colour the experiences of these wandering souls; each comes to us with a family, a past, and sometimes, a complex multicultural history spanning generations and continents.

Themes echo and repeat across stories and though this provides a certain cohesion to this collection, unfortunately, the narrative voices in the various stories are very similar. A couple of stories stand out when Quan takes some risks to play with voice and leaves behind the type of character with who he seems most comfortable (young, gay, Asian, male).

In Almost Flying his narrator is a young Japanese woman called Ayumi who manages to escape the straightjacket of Japanese society, though not without paying a steep price. Immigration is another stylistically interesting piece where Quan alternates two narrative voices. The first voice is that of a Chinese immigrant who leaves Canton province in 1905 to seek his fortune in Gold Mountain. The second voice is that of a young, contemporary man, and the story he tells is his coming out story and journey to self-acceptance and a place within the gay community. At first glance one might think these two characters and their stories could not be more different. Quan skillfully weaves the two together, cleverly echoing images and experiences, sharing observations of exclusion, and exploring the nature of, and the individual’s role in the creation of, community.

Prose writers who are also comfortable as poets are easy to spot. These multi-talented writers often create dense, multi-layered imagery in their fiction. Quan’s writing is rich with metaphorical images and an awareness of, and passion for, the language itself. It takes a particular kind of poetic sensibility for a writer to be able to look at a decomposing dead cat and find beauty and grace as in this passage from Travel:

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 to a ladder.

Of course, like any self-respecting poet, Quan uses this particular image not to meditate on the nature of dead cats per so, but to reflect the deeper concerns of loss, grief, and healing central to the theme of this particular short story.

In Slant, a new collection of poems, the reader is treated to Quan’s keen observations and persistent questioning. Travel, time, the family, history, and the search for a place to belong (both physical and metaphorical) are the themes explored in this strong collection. Quan’s poetic voice is direct, bold, and uncompromising as he reflects on life in the gay community, his Asian roots, and his Canadian identity. As in Quan’s short stories, poems inspired by his travels in Austria, Malaysia, Australia, Raratonga, Stockholm, and points beyond often say much about life back home even as they describe Sydney’s Mardi Gras or the fuschias in Schonbrunn park in Vienna. Add this one to your collection and watch for future volumes by this talented young voice.

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