Book Review: Benjamin Law’s Gaysia

GaysiaGaysia by Benjamin Law

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I like to think it’s a compliment to a book if I’m interested enough in it, engaged or enraged, in order to want to write a review.

I also think (and I could have used this advice when younger) that discussion is better than silence.

I wax philosophical about book reviews because they’re strange beasts. The books that I tend to want to write about are from small publishers and by lesser-known authors (as I don’t feel a desire, usually, to add my opinion to a thousand others who have written about a bestseller).

But this means that the author of the book will most certainly see the review. I know this as an ego-surfing author. Of course you want to know what people have thought after having laboured over for so long. So, reviews can feel strangely personal these days.

Then to consider: do I feel comfortable being critical in a public space? Could it be misconstrued? Can the author involved see a criticism as directed towards a book rather than to the author (although this is often impossible to separate if the book is a personal one)?

Not that this review will be a bad one, for Gaysia is an enjoyable and intriguing read. But still, I remember taking my book reviews far too seriously, with phrases from them stuck in my brain for far too long. And because book reviews can be so scarce or insubstantial, a review can take on greater significance if it’s one of only a few.

But of course I was compelled to write about Gaysia. Being Gaysian and having written and commented on aspects of being Gaysian for so long, I was glad to buy the book at its launch in Sydney (having almost bought the e-book version a week before). I read it through quickly, and felt inspired to review it.

In any case: the book. Gaysia, written by journalist and writer Benjamin Law and published by Melbourne’s Black Inc., is a romp through various cities in Asia exploring various aspects of something related to ‘gay’ – celebrity drag queens in Tokyo, lady-boy beauty pageant contestants in Thailand, HIV-affected sex workers in Myanmar, an anti-gay yoga guru in India, and a formerly gay Malaysian pastor who runs a ‘conversion’ program to turn lesbians and gays straight. The section on China explores how gay men are using the internet, and how some seek marriage, either with lesbians or with straight women, for social acceptance.

In the first chapter, Law travels to Bali, stays at some gay nudist hotels and interviews men who have sex for money… or motorcycles. Law’s tone is set from the first paragraph. With tourists to Bali coming to ‘eat, drink and fuck’, or ‘have foreign strangers drunkenly fondle our inner selves’, Law uses sexually direct or explicit images or turns of phrase to amuse, shock and engage.

But part of his comedy (and Law is a very funny writer) is that he himself is scandalised by the goings-on. He’s wide-eyed at the sex happening among hotel guests. He’s poked and prodded and flirted with in his interviews with his much more colourful guests, and acts the supportive straight man, so to speak, nodding along in sympathy, both pushing the conversation along and then pulling back, an innocent observer.

It’s clear that Law is sympathetic to all of his interview subjects, except for perhaps a few of the anti-gay ones. There’s kindness in his approach. He jumps in to have a drink with them when not suffering from a travel-related illness. There’s no judgement nor trying to fit them into some sort of treatise on what it means to be gay in Asia or to a particular conception of gayness.

This works both ways. There’s only a brief introduction and no conclusion. While the book is called ‘Gaysia’, there’s no broad perspective or analysis on how gay identities are lived in Asia, and little reflection on the issue. For the countless hours of organisation, interviews, research and travel, there is a surprising lack of trying to pull together observations and perspective into narratives or conclusion. Instead, as a journalist choosing an angle for each country, the focus is on the best story – in Thailand, the ladyboys, in Japan, the drag queens. More ‘regular’ gay men and lesbians generally have much more minor roles; it’s hard to find a perspective on their lives.

Still, the book does not aim to provide analysis nor be an academic text – and how would one try to summarise gay sexuality in a continent as crazy and diverse as Asia? Or in countries as complex as the ones being written about? It’s not as if a reader would read the chapter on Malaysia and think: the Malaysian gay scene is dominated by anti-gay conversion therapy.

Or would they?

I wonder about that too, who the readership is for the book. Are they gay? Are they straight? How familiar will they be with the range of issues touched upon in this book and how will they relate to them?

I’ve always said that examining issues of sexuality and identity in countries should not be a minority issue, because how countries address sexual identity has a lot to say about their overall structures and traditions, contradictions and mores.

But I wonder about the book finding an audience, who it is and how it would be understood. And of course, I hope Gaysia has found a readership, as these snapshots of gay men and some lesbians, men who have sex with men, transsexuals, transvestites, drag queens, and gay and HIV activists, do offer an interesting perspective on their countries. The great title and bold cover should also help to attract, and Law is a popular twitter-user and journalist, so he’s using a unique position to get these issues out into the wider world.

Also evident is the strength of Law’s journalism and how he was able to wrangle and record hundreds of interviews and discussions. To his success, Law manages to position himself in a way that I doubt anyone else could have done. He gains empathy with most of his interview subjects as a gay Asian man yet plays along with his two anti-gay interviewees. He is both sympathetic and engaged with interview subjects but at the same time, an outside observer and commentator.

I found this positioning as intriguing as the stories himself. As I observed in his memoir, ‘The Family Law’, Law is a whole generation after me and the people with whom I forged my identity and engaged in gay activism. He happens to be gay. He happens to be Asian. Neither is particularly adopted as an identity. Neither is rejected. He doesn’t fit a gay stereotype of a tragic drama queen who has to move to the big city (and perform in musicals). He’s had a boyfriend since high school, and made a successful career in Brisbane. Why would he have to do or be anyone else?

But when he admits to never having been to a gay pride parade, and feels ‘something closely resembling pride’ while seeing pride march, a part of me asks, how can a writer write about gay issues without being particularly engaged in any way with gay identity or community?

As a writer who has built a foundation on exploring both gay and cultural identity, I feel an urge to know how Law feels about being Asian and travelling in Asia, and about how he situates his cultural identity within it. He does posit that if his parents had stayed in Malaysia, he might have encountered the same social pressures and prejudices of some of the lesbians and gay men he described – but this is really a brief mention.

But there’s the rub. This is a new world that doesn’t ask for coherence or grand narratives. We’re a twittering tweeting facebooking world, made up of pieces and soundbytes. The authority given to academics or other experts has broken down to give way to multiple opinions and voices. The snapshots of his subjects or even of himself seem to represent the diversity of identities and sexuality more accurately than if we’re actually sticking to categories of what it might mean to be ‘Asian’ or one of those letters in the terrible acronym GLBTIQA. These days we read about experiences and make our own analyses, however they fit into our own worlds. Along the way, I’d judge it a good thing to be entertained and engaged by good writing.

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