Last night, I ran a meeting of the Queer Ladies’ Reading Society, my dyke book club. We were discussing Lydia Kwa’s novel This Place Called Absence. (Spoiler alert! Though it won’t really kill your enjoyment of the book if you choose to read it, I only give away a few minor details. Really, this post is not about the story, nor is it a book review; today I’m writing about queer politics.)
Just to give you a short summary of the story, it’s about a Vancouver psychologist whose father commits suicide, and how she deals with her own feelings in the aftermath of that. She’s of Singaporean descent and she’s a lesbian; she talks about her split with her ex-girlfriend, and during the course of the novel she has an oddly drawn-out fling with one woman and enters a relationship with another. Her story is interspersed with the stories of two ah ku, or sex workers, from Singaporean brothels in the early 1900s; the two female characters fall in love with one another and have a rather passionate sexual relationship. We also hear from the psychologist’s mother and her own feelings about her husband’s death.
Well, that would be my summary of the book, at least.
Let’s pretend you never read my summary. Let’s pretend you went and picked up the book from the shelf of your average bookstore, and you were trying to decide if you were interested in it. You flip open the inner flap of the book jacket to get the description. It reads:
“This Place Called Absence is a lush and intricately layered novel that interweaves the lives of four women, spanning time between the early twentieth century and modern day.
“Wu Lan is a contemporary woman – a psychologist now living in Vancouver who grew up in Singapore. She is on a leave of absence from work, trying to come to terms with her father’s suicide. Mahmee, Wu Lan’s mother who is still living in Singapore, is haunted by the ghost of her dead husband, Yen. Her voice is suspended between the worlds of the living and the dead. Yen visits Wu Lan as well. His ghost drives her to seek knowledge in new places – including library texts – to learn more about her past and to try to understand him better.
“The other two women are voices from the past, young ah ku who worked in the brothels in Singapore. Their tale of resilience and passion is revealing. Lee Ah Choi was sold into prostitution by her father and supports her family at home, while Chow Chat Mui was lured into the sex trade after she ran away from her Chinese homeland to escape her father’s sexual abuse.
“Meeting by chance, Ah Choi and Chat Mui give each other love, strength and hope as they help each other to survive their brutal circumstances. This is not enough to hold back their deepening sense of despair, however, and both Ah Choi and Chat Mui fall under the powerful spell of opium.
“Kwa transports us between the past and present, merging tradition and modern life. This is a heart-breaking tale of despair and hope and the transformational power of the imagination.”
So. Would you guess, from that, that three of the novel’s four main characters are lesbians? Okay, so only the psychologist actually uses the word “lesbian” to describe herself in the story itself, but in practice, and intrinsic to the story line, so are the ah ku, even if the vocabulary isn’t the same.
You might be able to read into the words “tale of resilience and passion,” or figure out that giving “each other love, strength and hope” means they fuck. But really, that’s a bit of a stretch. And nowhere in the description do we understand that Wu Lan is a dyke, or get any sense that the ultimately successful manner in which she might transcend the numbness she’s feels following her father’s death would be to get her new lesbian lover to give her a good solid fisting.
You might then turn to the author’s biography at the back of the book. It reads:
“Lydia Kwa was born in Singapore and came to Canada in 1980. She has her B.Sc. in psychology from the University of Toronto and received her M.A. and Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Kingston. She has written a book of poetry, The Colours of Heroines. Her poetry appears in the anthology Swallowing Clouds, and her fiction in the anthology Hot and Bothered. She now lives in Vancouver.”
Perhaps, if you were a lesbian or a queer of another persuasion, you might know that Hot and Bothered is an anthology of lesbian erotica. Maybe. The title implies sex, but the lesbian part is not obvious.
The biography does include a rather detailed description of her academic history – and sure, given the main character of this book in particular, that history is of some relevance, but in that case Kwa’s sexuality is too, to at least the same degree if not more. Her cultural background is also highly relevant, and only briefly mentioned in the bio, but the bio is accompanied by the author’s photograph, which certainly makes it visible. But queerness? Nowhere to be found in writing or by other means.
Kwa doesn’t mention anything about the queer nature of the story in the novel description on her website, and her queerness also doesn’t come up in her biography there. Then again, she doesn’t say anything in that bio about her cultural background, either – even less so than in the book jacket bio - and they both seem to inform her writing to an extensive degree.
Now, I recognize that there are some instances in which the queer element of a work of fiction (or other work) might be of limited relevance. And there are definitely lots of instances where a writer’s personal proclivities aren’t particularly significant to their work. And there is something to be said for a public figure’s right to a certain amount of privacy. And perhaps you could chalk all of these noticeable absences up to a certain take on identity politics, in which some people feel that their backgrounds (cultural, religious or otherwise), sexualities, whatever else makes them unique, and their life choices should not be factored into anyone’s judgment of the work they produce, and thus are seen by the producer in question as just none of anyone’s bloody business.
Fair enough. I don’t pretend to be the identity-politics police. I do believe that people can transcend the identity boxes that have informed their lives, and create wonderful work (writing, teaching, artwork, whatever) about topics with which they do not have firsthand experience. I often think back to the women’s studies professor who first really got me excited about feminism way back in early CEGEP studies. His name was Claude Lafon, and he was an old white heterosexual (or at least, married to a woman) man. In terms of identity politics, old white heterosexual men are the enemy, don’tcha know! But that’s bullshit. He did an amazing job of opening my mind, introducing me to new concepts and language, and feeding my resulting hunger for knowledge, and I’ve been grateful to him ever since.
Certainly there are a ton of cautions to keep in mind when you’re discussing experiences outside your own; cultural appropriation (or perhaps more widely “experiential appropriation” since not all minority life experience is cultural) is an insidious thing, and it’s incumbent upon all of us to be vigilant about it. And certainly there’s a numbers question as well. If all of my subsequent women’s studies professors had been old white heterosexual men, I would have begun to question a system which privileged the contributions of that specific group of people even when teaching about the experiences and politics that make their home or take their source with a very different group. But that’s just not how it worked for me. I’ve had tons of professors of various genders, ages, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, sexual orientations, physical abilities, and so forth. In fact, thinking back, I believe Claude Lafon may very well have been the only old white heterosexual male women’s studies professor I’ve ever had – and perhaps the only male-born and male-identified one, period. So it’s hard to see his presence as being somehow oppressive.
So… yes, identity labels are not always the primary indicator of someone’s knowledge or competence or level of political awareness. And they’re not always relevant, or at least not always of prime relevance, to the work they produce.
But let’s face it, there are choices at play here. When I read a novel that’s dripping with lesbianism on virtually every page, and in which the vast majority of the story line is directly informed by the characters’ sexuality, to me that’s relevant to mention in a book description. And that, in turn, makes it relevant for me, as a reader – if for no other reason than a very average and genuine sort of curiosity – to know what element of the author’s life might have informed the creation of such a story.
So when such a significant feature of a book is so glaringly absent from its description, and the potentially equally significant feature of the author herself is similarly absent, I can’t help but wonder what motivated those absences, and turn my suspicions to some sort of “ism.” If it were a feature with neutral political value that might be different - for example, a book in which mushrooms are frequently used as a metaphor or plot device does not, in my mind, make me wonder if the author might have grown up on a mushroom farm or suspect mushroom-phobia if that information is absent from the book description or author bio. But to neglect to mention lesbianism or queerness anywhere? Yes, that does make me wonder, very much so.
Far be it for me to accuse Lydia Kwa herself of harbouring or perpetuating an “ism.” I’ve never met her and wouldn’t presume to know what role she plays in these things; in theory at least, she could be anything from a sing-it-from-the-rooftops activist to a person who’s prey to her own viciously internalized homophobia. She’s one author; there are all sorts of reasons why this information might be conspicuously absent that may have nothing at all to do with her, but rather to heavy-handed publishers, opinionated editors, cowardly or bigoted marketing firms, and any number of other people and forces that may have come into play. But regardless of who or what my tentative accusation is directed at, it’s an accusation nonetheless. Perhaps a wide-ranging accusation aimed at a system that’s still clearly affected by homophobia, regardless of the specifics of who’s propagating it.
Kwa’s short story “Soft Shell” appeared in Nairne Holtz’s 2006 anthology of Canadian lesbian literature, No Margins: writing canadian fiction in lesbian. In fact that’s how the QLRS first encountered her work, and it’s what motivated us to pick up her novel for our recent meeting. When I interviewed Nairne for a Mirror article this past summer, I asked her a number of questions about the anthology, and one of the things she said (which didn’t make it into the article itself) really struck me: “There were some [authors] who declined or pulled out of the project, in some cases because they didn’t think it would help their careers to be associated with something lesbian. I’m not sure why.”
That, to me, is testament to the existence of homophobia – whether in the authors themselves or their publishers or their marketers or their parents or their colleagues or who the heck knows who else. It pisses me the fuck off.
The good news? Things do change. This Place Called Absence was published in 2000. Kwa’s more recent work continues to be heavily influenced by queer and gender-queer themes, and that’s becoming more visible – while the book jacket description of her 2005 novel Walking Boy does not contain a specific queer reference, it does describe the main character, who is intersex, as having been “born both male and female,” (not entirely accurate but better than nothing), and the description on Kwa’s website calls it a “queer and quirky” novel. Kwa’s 2006 and 2007 entries in the News section of her site don’t shy away from mentioning her interest in queer themes and queer literary events or her work’s appearance in queer-specific publications. And she clearly was not one of the authors who pulled out of Holtz’s anthology for worry that her public identification as a lesbian would handicap her career.
In fact, her writer notes in that anthology make her position fairly clear: “Queerness isn’t fixed. Queerness is more than who sleeps with whom. Being a foreigner or outsider informs much of my imagination. In my writing, I like to create – or hint at – such experiences and locate them in the so-called centre, rather than at the margin, without explanation or justification.”
I like it. I get it. I just wish that locating queer experiences at the centre also included locating them in the descriptions of her work, too, centrally or otherwise. And I wish that Kwa’s clearly voiced politics held enough weight with the other forces that go into the publication of a book, such that the centrality of the queerness weren’t erased in its packaging.