Archive for November, 2007

the sex geek’s to-do list
November 29, 2007

1. Apologize to those who feel I’ve dropped off the face of the planet for the past couple of weeks. The recent film symposium, festival and leather weekend were reason enough, but add the ongoing Toronto apartment search (grumble landlords grumble vacancy rates grrrr stupid classifieds argghh) and a crushing workload (any translators out there? 10,000 words in 48 hours. Nuff said.) and there are my excuses.

2. Write about the image+nation queer film symposium and all the wicked cool thought processes it inspired. Queer geek heaven, I tell you!

3. Write about the films of the festival itself.

4. Write about the absolutely awesome experience of giving a seminar with Jacqueline St-Urbain at Mr. Leatherman Toronto this past weekend, not to mention all the other cool seminars I got to attend (anal fisting! cock and ball torture! oh my!) and the actual leather contest itself. So. Much. Fun.

5. Post some personal reflections about submission, service and the joys of bois – especially gorgeous articulate sexy service-oriented bois who carry my bags and clean my boots and just generally make themselves indispensable, and who are wonderfully kind to one another, too. Three of them. Three! Geebus. What lottery did I win? (Never mind that they’re threatening to unionize…)

6. Indulge in some happy blathering about new leather pants and musings on the concept of earning leather.

7. Finish reading Terry Gould’s book The Lifestyle: The Erotic Rites of Swingers, if I can stomach it, and write about that too. There is much to say…

8. Write about the butch books I’ve recently read, after doing some research to get a sense of the public’s response to at least one of them.

9. Write about the upcoming closure of Boutique Mad-Âme, the world’s first lesbian/queer/trans clothing store, and reflect on what that means about dyke fashion, dyke small businesses and more. 

10. Put in a plug for my friend Bear, who’s giving some thoroughly intriguing workshops in San Francisco this weekend. Hey! That I can do right now. Please see below. Anyone from SF reading, please feel free to pass ’em on!

And last but not least,

11. Put in a plug for my own upcoming workshops in my soon-to-be home city of Toronto. Assuming, of course, the whole apartment situation eventually works out. As in, we find one. Gah. I’ll post the details when I have ’em… about the workshops of course, not the apartment. Or lack thereof. Okay! Done!

Now, wish me luck on getting things checked off this list. You will doubtless be the first to know about them!


(Okay, so Bear didn’t bother including a bio in hir mail-out, so I’ll just refer you to hir website and tell you that ze is a fantastic and wonderfully articulate creature full of good ideas and good energy, who has recently published one of the aforementioned butch books I’ve read, this one entitled Butch Is a Noun.)

All workshops take place at the Center For Sex And Culture (sexandculture. org, 415.255.1155) in their new space at 1519 Mission. Please feel free to forward to repost as appropriate. Pls. note, all classes are pay-what-you- can.

Saturday, 1 Dec, 4pm-6pm
A Re-Introduction To The Only-Mostly- Dead Art Of Chivalry
(Now! With 200% More Feminism!)

Everyone’s heard the stories: men who get kneed in the balls for holding open a door, youngsters who sprawl on bus seats while elders stand, the myth of the handkerchief- carrying gentleman, and all the rest. What, exactly, do girls women people want in the world of chivalry? How can a modern gentleperson be courteous without being sexist or a suckup? And while we’re at it – who goes through the door first, again? Talk a little about the principles, and then learn a lot about the mechanics of walking in public (v. walking in private, natch), and a whole lot more.

Sunday, 2 Dec, 2pm-4pm
Writing With and About Gender

A 2hr. workshop designed to get writers thinking about the language of gender, its vernacular and lexicon and ways of making itself heard in writing, and then figuring out personal, useful ways to turn that to their advantage. This workshop is appropriate for any one who can form a sentence, regardless of hir experience as a writer: from novelists
writing transgendered characters to transfolk writing about their experiences to academics tackling queer theory to people still exploring the nature of their gender and sexuality in private writing to absolutely anyone else. Feedback opportunities will be provided but not required.

Sunday, 2 Dec, 7pm-10pm
Theater Skills For Better Sex

People with improvisational theater training know three things you don’t about how to make a scene out of nothing, and/or keep one going if it gets away from you. Excellent for eager newbies and jaded ancients, the straightest of couples and the queerest alike will learn how to seamlessly become new characters, take old standbys in new directions, and incorporate new ideas, handy props, and changes of scene on the fly without missing a beat. Inventive, snappy, and lots of fun – even if you’ve never stepped on a stage in your life!

queer film madness (and a bit of tv)
November 15, 2007

I promise I’ll write something more interesting in a little bit. For now, just a quick update: the queer film extravaganza known as Image+Nation begins tonight. Wheeeee! For the next week, when I post, you can fully expect it to be about queer films. Particularly the documentaries, since there seems to be a really full roster this year and they span a fascinating range of topics. MmmmMMmm. Sooo geeky. Every year people laugh at me for taking notes in the dark during films, and every year I do so anyway with great glee for my own nerdy-girl satisfaction and your, um, enjoyment.

On that note, it would appear that relentless geekiness deserves media appearances: I was called in to do an interview with CBC-TV yesterday, as a longtime fan of the festival in honour of its 20th anniversary. It was a fun interview, and no scary orange makeup or nasty mascara lady this time as it wasn’t an in-studio thing. (Thank. Gawd.) They got me to come to the Impérial – the gorgeous restored theatre on Bleury just above Ste-Catherine, where many of the festival’s films are screened – and stand in front of the dimly lit empty red velvet theatre seats. Very classic. The interviewer asked great questions, too; she really had a clue. Nice. The full piece airs tonight and will feature interviews with Charlie Boudreau (the festival’s director – folks, if I were you I’d tune in for the pure pleasure of hearing her voice, it’s like melting chocolate) and a number of others. I’m told it’ll be on somewhere between 6:45 and 7 on CBC-TV. I’ll be in a meeting, but if you see it, let me know what it was like!

In other film-related news, I’m thrilled to learn that Toronto’s queer film festival, Inside Out, takes place exactly six months away from Image+Nation: May 15-25, 2008. This means I will never again have to wait more than six months between doses of queer film madness. How cool is that? This whole “city polyamory” thing is good in sooo many ways.

Anyway, make sure you say hi if you see me at I+N. By the end of this week, I’m quite sure my ass will be shaped like the inside of a theatre seat, and my eyes will be bloodshot, and I will be surviving on a diet of popcorn and 7-Up… but ohhhh, it’s gonna be good.

pop culture kink: questions and critiques
November 10, 2007

It’s been a while since I last wrote an instalment in my ongoing endeavour to respond to each of the articles in the book Sadomasochism: Powerful Pleasures, by Drs. Peggy Kleinplatz and Charles Moser. But I haven’t forgotten about it… there’s just been so much else to write about!

Today’s response is to the article entitled “Mainstreaming Kink: The Politics of BDSM Representation in U.S. Popular Media,” by Margot D. Weiss. Here’s an excerpt from the summary that gives the basic idea:

“Survey, focus group, and interview data indicate that popular images of SM promote the acceptance and understanding of sexual minorities through two mechanisms: acceptance via normalization, and understanding via pathologizing. Rather than challenging the privileged status of normative sexuality, these mechanisms reinforce boundaries between protected/privileged and policed/pathological sexualities.”

Neat. I like it. Makes sense. In fact I agree with pretty much every political point this essay makes. The author takes a pretty clear political stance about media representation of BDSM. More or less, she says that increased visibility of BDSM in the popular media is not necessarily a good thing in and of itself; that politically, its effects are questionable. Fortunately she stays away from saying “so don’t portray BDSMers at all” and instead simply focuses on the ways in which the current specific forms of visibility are less than ideal.

Indeed, people tend to see visibility as being an indicator of political success, but in truth there’s often a glaring discrepancy between visibility and political progress. Take gay and lesbian visibility for example: “The L Word” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” (just to pick two easy ones) have rendered gay and lesbian existence hugely visible within pop culture, but in the States, queer people and same-sex couples have virtually none of the standard civil rights we enjoy (however recently) in Canada. I don’t have stats or references handy, but there are still many states in which being gay is a totally legitimate reason to get fired from your job; gender expression is protected in only a handful of states; same-sex marriage is still illegal, and in some ways (i.e. legislative amendments etc.) more illegal than it was before groups started fighting for it; same-sex adoption isn’t easy to access; and so on, and so forth.

Now, this particular article doesn’t talk about civil rights per se. But it does talk about the ways in which specific and common forms of BDSM media representation don’t do us any favours in terms of how kinksters are perceived by the mainstream. And that public perception, however difficult it may be to define or quantify, certainly does affect much more concrete questions – for example, the standard responses from law enforcement (in terms of child custody, domestic violence, etc.) and the medical establishment (in terms of psychological diagnoses and treatment) with regard to BDSM practices and practitioners.

In the context of gay and lesbian rights, the States and Canada are definitely on different planes, but in terms of BDSM, not so much. In practical terms I’ve never heard of a Canadian BDSM case similar to the ones that happen in the States – revoked child custody, people losing their jobs, people being tossed in jail as violent offenders and more – but that’s not because our laws are any more progressive. It just seems to have not come up so much, or perhaps it has but so quietly that nobody’s reported it within the BDSM community at large or written about it. At least not in anything I’ve come across, and I have made a point of asking around about this stuff. So I do think that unlike some articles focused on the American end of things, this one’s quite relevant to Canadians too.

Weiss argues that the “acceptance via normalization” media representations make SM acceptable “only when it falls under the rubric of normative American sexuality.” In other words, SM is shown as being not really kinky in a bad/sick/disgusting way; it’s just something mildly naughty and flirty that a happily married couple might do to add some spice to their very reassuringly normal sex life. She also argues that the “understanding via pathologizing” media representations make SM understandable “only when it is the symptom of a deviant type of person with a sick, damaged core.” In other words, people may think they’re gaining an understanding of SM, but what they’re really getting is a deeply flawed psychological caricature which they may then apply to anyone who shows signs of being kinky. In her words:

“When viewers accept or understand BDSM in these ways, they utilize a mode of distanced consumption, where representations of SM offer a tantalizing glimpse of something other (sexy, exotic, kinky) that is safely viewed and evaluated from a detached, privileged and normative position.”

Yep. Agreed. However, the next bit is where her thesis shows some cracks.

Weiss then goes on to say that the mainstream public doesn’t like these representations, alternately sanitized and sensationalized. She writes,

“They are disappointed when these representations fail to challenge boundaries and transgress norms, when instead popular culture presents a disciplined, commodified version of BDSM, already bound by these ideological dichotomies. The continued popularity of mainstream media representation of SM signifies the growing desire of the public to experience something authentic, unalienated, undisciplined, and noncommodified. This article reads this disappointment and desire as a nascent political protest.”

Hm. There’s a problem here. I’m not entirely sure how Weiss manages to read an increased appetite for mainstream BDSM representations as an indication that the mainstream is disappointed with what they’re being shown and wants something different. I’d be much more inclined to see it in the reverse: the mainstream is very happy to remain unchallenged and to continue eating up sanitized / sensationalized representations of BDSM. In fact, they’re so happy with it that they want more of the same.

And why wouldn’t they? Such representations manage to make them feel both titillated and safe at the same time – excitingly transgressive and yet still quite comfortably “normal.” I don’t see many people letting go of the privilege of normalcy when they have it. And many people who aren’t entirely “normal” crave that normalcy, sometimes to a point of ridiculousness. In fact, entire swaths of the queer community are so caught up in wanting to be normal that they bend over backwards to look and behave and shop and vote and live that way and distance themselves from anything challenging or alternative. So the idea that the mainstream public is savvy and self-reflective enough to want more out of their BDSM representations is a little bit of a stretch, in my mind. This is, after all, the same mainstream that watches Britney’s every move, discusses “Survivor” at the office water cooler and shops at Wal-Mart.

Let me be clear, though, that I think Weiss is right. I do think desire and disappointment, in the way Weiss explains them, are a valid spot to begin finding nascent political protest.

I think the problem here lies in Weiss’s definition of “the mainstream.” Her methods for the study include a survey of media representations, a focus group and Internet survey (2001) and interviews with 12 non-BDSM-practitioners (2002-2003), and the respondents don’t strike me as being accurate representations of the mainstream at all.

The focus group “was conducted in a graduate seminar on popular culture in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. (…) Twelve of the participants in the focus group were female, two were male; ten were graduate students, and four were undergraduates.” So first of all, this group is overwhelmingly located among some of the highest educated people in the country. In the USA in 2002, only 15.5% of the population held a bachelor’s degree or higher, and 8.9% of the population had a graduate degree or higher (census article here). While certainly this highly educated segment has great influence over popular culture, I hardly think that a study focused exclusively on their opinions represents the average.

In addition, this wasn’t just any group of highly educated people – it was people who were attending a graduate seminar on popular culture. Presumably these are people who’ve devoted somewhere between one and ten years of post-secondary study to a field that’s at least sufficiently related to the observation and dissection of popular culture that they’d turn up at a grad seminar on the topic – so they’re certainly likely to have a pretty fine-tuned sense of what pop culture is, and what they’d like it to be, and how to critique it. It would be remarkable for such a group not to find something to critique about the representation of BDSM in that context. This is not a group that happily gulps down “Survivor”; this is a group that writes academic papers tearing it apart and analyzing the shit out of it.

Next we look at the group that responded to the anonymous Internet survey. They “ranged in age from 17-58” and “specifically indicated that they were not ‘into BDSM’.” Good so far. But then we find out that “Participants were recruited via e-mail using snowball sampling from my initial social and academic networks.” Of course this is not as glaring an indication of bias as the graduate seminar, but nonetheless, if a person who herself is an academic in the field of pop culture uses her personal and academic networks to recruit study participants, it’s fairly likely that those participants will bear at least some resemblance to her in terms of education level (particularly the academic network) and cultural literacy. It’s hard to picture a pop-culture academic having a network of friends who are all electricians, gas-station attendants and the kids playing basketball on an inner-city street corner, which would be a far more accurate representation of the mainstream, at least according to US census figures. So again – “mainstream?” I’m not so sure.

Lastly, the interviews. Weiss interviewed “12 individuals from the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago and New York who had (a) seen the film Secretary and (b) identified as not being into BDSM.” A bias towards urban dwellers (in cities with large and visible kink and queer scenes) doesn’t necessarily bother me; even a bias towards people who’d already seen the film Secretary doesn’t bother me, because despite being marketed and reviewed quite explicitly as being a quirky, unusual and thoughtful film about love and BDSM, the film met with some pretty noticeable mainstream success, so it’s not a huge stretch to imagine the “average” person seeing it for kicks. But again, participants “were recruited using snowball sampling of informal social and research networks.” Weiss doesn’t specify that such networks were her own this time, but surely they’re not those of a complete (and completely dissimilar) stranger, either, so the same problem still stands.

Weiss also cites certain reviewers’ opinions about Secretary, which include many references to the film being overly conventional and otherwise disappointing despite its ostensible portrayal of edgy sexuality – which she interprets as support for her disappointment / desire theory. Such film reviews are perhaps a somewhat more accurate reflection of the mainstream, in that the places where she found these reviews included everything from TV Guide to The San Francisco Chronicle, which are certainly mainstream publications read by a mainstream audience. But even then, a movie reviewer is someone who critiques film for a living – hardly the average mainstream take on a box-office hit. And it’s extremely common for reviewers’ takes on films to be out of step with those films’ success. I mean, how often does a critic gave a laudatory review of the latest summer blockbuster? That happens infrequently at best. And yet the studios keep cranking out crappy, predictable big-budget flicks with tired plots and way too many special effects, and people – the good ol’ mainstream – keep on paying to go see ’em. 

Add all this together and I can’t really stand behind the idea of this study as being representative of mainstream opinions about BDSM representation in the media. I would love to think that mainstream is disappointed in the current state of affairs and desires to see more nuanced and authentic depictions, but I think it’s probably a lot more accurate to say that a certain reasonably small segment of the population that’s highly educated, interested in pop culture, media-critical and liberal-minded would like to see richer representations. As Weiss writes (emphasis mine):

The respondents and reviewers chronicled in this text are reaching for the out-there, the uncontained, and it is in this reaching that political potential lies. Using the language of disappointment, they are protesting the failure of transgression, decrying the ways sexual strangeness is disciplined out of existence. I find their disappointment hopeful; it suggests that, even as the state dedicates itself to policing and marginalizing alternative sexualities, even as the popular landscape becomes more sensationalistic and media-driven, even as sexuality becomes increasingly bound to consumption, there is nascent protest against these constraints.”

She’s quite right – the people in this text do have a wonderful critique of BDSM representations, and it is politically hopeful. I just think it would be more hopeful still to avoid generalizing by attributing some pretty specific perspectives to a mainstream that did not supply them. Instead, the information gleaned from this study could be used as a starting point for people who want to create or support the creation of richer depictions of BDSM, in the hopes that such representations may infiltrate the mainstream and turn a greater portion of it on to the idea that there’s more available than safety and sensationalism… which in turn could begin to change people’s minds about what BDSMers are really all about.

I have no idea if the mainstream will ever become more interested in such portrayals; in some ways, it seems to me that the mainstream is always going to have more room for simple, entertaining, non-thought-provoking work, almost by definition. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just reality.

So how should BDSM practitioners go about altering the way we’re portrayed such that people have access to images that don’t fit the safe/sensational dichotomy? I’m not entirely sure. It’s a good place to start asking questions. Just as it’s becoming passé to portray “the gay character” as being either endlessly (and non-threateningly) entertaining or pathologically fucked up, perhaps one day SMers and other people on the “next layer out” of so-called sexual deviance will cease to be portrayed in safe / sensational ways. In my opinion, that will be most likely to happen if it’s done in tandem with other forms of political activism – legal challenges; media and PR campaigns; popular education; targeted sensitization work with health care providers, the medical establishment, psychological diagnosticians, and law enforcement representatives; the publication of academic works that de-pathologize BDSM; and so on, and so forth. In some ways, political progress could inspire new types of representation as much as the other way around.

In short, in addition to critiques of and changes to the media’s representations of BDSM inspired by the disappointment and desire of some (if not the majority of) media consumers, BDSM practitioners’ disappointment with the current state of our rights, paired with our desire to see that change, is also a promising site of political protest.

the pleasure of leather, the love of gloves
November 9, 2007

I used to think I wasn’t a fetishist. But sometimes, when my enjoyment of a mundane object is redolent with such an extreme amount of sensuality that it verges on the lascivious, I am forced to admit that perhaps I am.

Fetishism used to confuse me. I’m all kinds of kinky, sure; but to get turned on by an inanimate object? Not so much. I had visions of slobbering weirdos wining and dining a pair of boots or twitching bizarrely when they spot a fur coat across the room, and I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. To me, turn-ons are strictly reserved for people – because turn-ons are about being connected to someone. How the heck could I feel that way about a corset or a shoe?

Midori was a big help with this one, though. A couple of years ago she talked about the concept of “system arousal,” as opposed to the standard sort of sexual arousal. It made a lot of sense to me, and I’ve applied the idea to shoes and other such things in the past. But some recent experiences are bringing the entire thing into focus for me in a new way.

It was a hot day in July or August or perhaps September (I forget, exactly) when a certain delectable and resourceful butch creature of my acquaintance proudly presented me with a gift. It was, in fact, her latest find from a yard sale: a pair of never-worn, thin, butter-soft, inky black kid gloves. Somehow, she had remembered that my hands were exactly the same size as hers, only a couple of centimetres shorter in the fingers (I wouldn’t know how she’d have known that). Somehow, she’d known that I love gloves, even though I only have a two pairs, one of them of rather unsexy polar fleece.  Somehow, even in the middle of a heat wave, she’d realized that they’d make the absolute perfect gift. And fortunately, she had a loonie (!) in her pocket at the time.

Of course, I was touched and pleased. But it was bloody hot out, and while they were gorgeous and fit perfectly, I wasn’t particularly excited about actually wearing them at the time. So I put them in my bag and took them home, and put them in a drawer, and stopped thinking about them.

And then it was October, and it was chilly. So I opened the Warm Things Drawer, and lo and behold, there was the perfect pair of gloves just waiting for me. And now, the process of sliding them onto my hands is not complicated by sweat and heat and that generalized feeling of too many layers that tends to occur when one puts on unnecessary cold-weather garments in distinctly un-wintry temperatures.

Oh, my goodness. I have never experienced the pleasure of leather gloves quite like this before.

They’re tight. Pleasantly so, in the sense of “not baggy” rather than in the sense of “constricting.” Tight enough that I can see the depressions around the edges of each fingernail through the leather. It takes a little work to get them on. I aim my fingers into the body of the glove (in an exquisitely familiar formation that’s usually reserved for rather more intimate moments), and once inside, I spread my fingertips out until each one encounters its proper little orifice.

Then comes the working-on process. The gloves are unlined, so the insides are suede – velvet-smooth but not slippery. There’s no easy yank at the wrist to slide my hand home, oh no. This requires finesse. It requires that each finger be wiggled just a little bit, in combination with a bit of mild drawing-on at the wrist and a deliciously sensual smoothing from the other hand on the outside of the glove.

This is always the part where I always think of that expression “like a second skin.” I run my hand over the leather repeatedly until each finger is all the way in and thoroughly encased right down to the place where finger meets palm, and it feels like I’m stroking my own skin, only… more. 

Next I work the shiny black wrist button through its hole so that the glove stays snugly and elegantly closed at my wrist. There’s hardly any danger that it’ll fall off, but the button provides the perfect final touch to the experience, like just the right punctuation at the end of a well-crafted sentence.

The exquisite thinness of the kid works just like a super-thin high-sensation condom. This means that once the gloves are on, I retain my ability to do pedestrian things like flip the pages of a book, write with a pen, and pick up a dime, but it also means that body heat transfers. So I can hold hands with someone and actually entwine my fingers through theirs and feel each joint and the give of their flesh; I can touch their face and feel the warmth of their skin. And, when someone kisses my hands, I feel the curve and softness of their lips and the heat of their breath.

While I have the gloves on, I feel different somehow. Understated but sexy in a very classy sort of way. Dressed with a capital D, or perhaps more like “attired.” They make me want to touch things, for the pure liquid pleasure of feeling objects under my hands. They make me want to clasp my hands together just to feel the tightness of the fit as the leather pulls all the way taut around my knuckles. When I look at them, I enjoy the skin-like wrinkles that form when I extend my fingers, and the dull, liquid-smooth gleam that spreads over the back of my hand when I make a fist and the leather stretches flat.

And when it comes time to take them off, that’s yet another experience. Often I do this alone, but if I’m with my boi, it’s his job to remove them. I hold out my hand palm up so he can work the wrist button free. Then I turn my hand over as if for a kiss, and he gently draws on each fingertip in turn, one through five, two or three times in sequence, until the leather loosens its hold on my digits and begins to come free. He wraps his hand around my palm and slowly pulls until my hand emerges – never tugging by the fingers, so as not to stretch the leather unnecessarily. Then he smoothes the glove flat, tucks the thumb across the palm, and hands it to me. The kid is so light that if that smoothing and folding doesn’t take place, if the gloves are simply tossed onto the table, they will crumple like so much tissue paper. They deserve better, so I place them together, fingertips touching as though in prayer, and lay them neatly near my coat for the next time.

Sadly, my gloves are not bulky or warm enough to see me through a solid Canadian winter, so the pleasure of wearing them may be reserved for the fall, the daylight hours of early winter, and the occasional fetish night. Because these gloves are most definitely a fetish for me. I’m not a slobbering weirdo or a bizarre twitcher, but if you spot me in the street and I have an inexplicable gleam in my eye, check to see if my hands are encased in black leather, and that may explain a lot.

this place called queer absence
November 6, 2007

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.


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