Why I Write Under a Pen Name

My first blog as Kawika, “Kawika & Mun”

In my early twenties my mother told me that she had intended a different name for me. For all my life my given name — “Christopher Benjamin Patterson” — sounded nothing like the names of my family in Hawaii. Their names actually reflected our mixed up Hawaiian/ Polynesian/ Chinese/ Filipino heritage, with names like Kanakini, Kamela, Aihwa, Mari. So I asked my mother, why did I get such a boring, typical name? She told me:

“You know, I actually wanted to name you Kawika, but we chose Chris instead.”

My mother’s answer threw me. I was already a man of many aliases, some invented as video game avatars, some as roleplaying personas, some as masks I wore while traveling around Asia, and some just as imaginary alternatives to get as far away from my given name as possible. But now I had this name, “Kawika,” my little secret.

I inhabited Kawika like I was an alien taking on my human body, “Chris,” just for gags. At first I used the name only when chatroom roleplaying, referring to my other name, “Chris,” as my “mun,” my mundane self. Kawika was the muse, the queer heir to everything that I had previously been.

I was given my legal name, Christopher, because I was born after my mother and sister moved from Hawaii to live in Portland, Oregon, the whitest big city in the U.S. My twin brother and I were to be the only non-white people in our entire grade, from Kindergarten until middle-school.

So I don’t think my mother was wrong to name me Christopher. The name has, it must be said, gotten me out of a lot of binds. Whereas “Kawika” is recognizably Hawaiian and “Guillermo” recognizably Spanish (my mother’s maiden name via The Philippines), “Chris” kept a question-mark over my head. In pasty-white Portland I was sometimes Indian, sometimes Arab, but my name gave me a pass into the white churches. When my family moved to Las Vegas in 2000, Mexicans assumed we were Mexican and Filipinos assumed we were Filipino, which did wonders for building friendships and cruising through social groups. When I migrated to South Korea in 2006 to teach English, my name was an important gateway into a profession that notoriously refused to hire people of color (Korean private schools often ask for headshots to verify if you are really a “native speaker”).

When “Kawika” came along, I tried to imagine my life with this name. I cherished it, and took the plunge to using it more often, letting live this little secret of mine. I started using it when I traveled around China, India, and Southeast Asia, calling myself “Kavi” for short, and I became happily beside myself when others used the name.

It wasn’t until the year 2010, when I started publishing fiction under this name, that I wished I had never known it existed.

In 2011, some months after publishing my first story as Kawika, a fellow author offered me the chance to co-author a romantic novel with him based on the Amish experience. But the novel would not be published under either of my names. Instead, my prospective co-author and I would write collectively under an Amish pseudonym, Ava Troyer.

The novel would be an autobiography of Ava Troyer as she leaves behind the Amish community for the romance and buzz of New York City. I knew nothing about the Amish community, and the invitation to write a fake autobiography under an Amish pseudonym was a startling introduction into the world of literary colonization. It became clear that taking on ethnic pseudonyms was the norm in the literary world, and I became increasingly anxious that, by using a pseudonym, I had marked myself as the kind of author who fakes names, steals stories, and ethnicizes myself in order to publish.

Then, as I started sending out more stories for publication, other problems began to emerge. While I saw “Kawika” as a way to account for my diasporic histories and marginal roots, the name signaled to readers that the stories I wrote should be read as the “authentic” representation of the Filipino American or the Hawaiian male. I received some fan-mail, but mostly questions. Why was I writing about magicianshamsters or Nazis, and not “my own people”? Why was I using a fake pseudonym? Why was I stealing from the history and stories of others?

Since I made no attempt to hide either of my names, many people presumed that I was the same as white authors who claim the artistic privilege to write the life stories of others. Writers like Michael Derrick Hudson, who in 2015 published under a Chinese name, Yi-Fen Chou, simply because it would increase the likelihood of publication. Writers like Lionel Shriver, who in 2016gave an infamous speech defending the right of writers — implicitly white writers — to voice characters of ethnic, cultural, or sexual identities other than their own. Writers like Hal Niedzviecki, who in 2017 argued that Canada should have a “cultural appropriation prize” to encourage white and middle-class writers to “relentlessly explore the lives of people who aren’t like you” because “the readers will know” if a work incorporates other culture’s respectfully.

Naturally, all of this got much worse as I progressed through the evaluative eyes of graduate school. I grew embarrassed by the name my mother gave me, just as she feared I would. I stopped announcing publications, though I kept on writing. I gave up on publishing my novel Stamped.

For six months I excised “Kawika” from existence. I published one story under my so-called “real” name, “Christopher B. Patterson,” and felt like I had destroyed something beautiful.

I write as a form of self-therapy, to think through problems, the deep and the real and the inescapable. So when Kawika was drowning I wrote him back to life. I wrote about Kawika in interviews. I wrote about Kawika in my academic work. I wrote about her in blogs and I even, Han Suyin-style, inserted Kawika into my novel as a flesh-and-bones character.

Through writing I realized that “Kawika” was no more an identity than my given name “Chris.” Distance remained whether I wrote under my father-given name, Christopher B. Patterson, which hid my racial and sexual difference, or whether I wrote under my mother-given name, Kawika Guillermo, which amplified my difference with its curious combination of “Kawika,” the native Hawaiian word for the colonizer’s name “David,” and Guillermo, the first name of the Spanish friar who my family once worked for in the Philippines.

I began to write fiction as Kawika again, and I tried again to get my novel published under this name (which would take three years). I learned not to value myself based on the whims of a white liberal literary market, with its false pretenses, its own myth that pretends as if the “literary culture” or the “literary audience” would know the difference between a respectful, committed writer and one looking to cash in on ethnic authenticity.

I began too to question why I thought so highly of the literary market in the first place, which I learned was a political canyon-leap away from the novels of Ellison, Morrison, and Beatty. In terms of real diversity, literary culture is bottom of the barrel. 88% of the books reviewed by The New York Times are written by white authors. The staff of best-selling literary journals are almost entirely white. Awards committees, even for minority writers, are routinely white. 79% of the literary industry identifies as white (almost all white women), as do 89% of book review writers.

And the stories of successful people of color in literature often come with sub-plots about how they had to “play the darky” or cook “authentic Asian food” for white editors and agents. In my own experience, every single literary agent I have ever interacted with has been a white woman. The literary market pretends to be the arbiter of liberal tolerance, but considering its gatekeepers, you’d be much better off getting your diversity education from video games, whose industrial diversity is slightly better at 76% white-identified developers, than by going to your neighborhood Barnes and Noble.

And yet, these are the people we trust to decide which of our stories are worth telling, and which belong in the rubbish heap? These are the people for whom I drowned Kawika, the name my mother had given me?

I realized then that “Kawika” would always cause pause to the gatekeepers of a publishing world that is nearly 80% white women. These are the people we ethnic authors have to write for — even worse, we simultaneously have to pretend as if we’re not writing for them, so that they feel like what they are reading is an authentic, “true voice,” and they can thus live vicariously through our alterity. We have to write for white people in a way that masks the fact that it’s written for them.

At some point I had to decide for myself that this is not the kind of writing I would ever participate in. And as Kawika Guillermo, under my mother’s name, I can disrupt this system. I can refuse the ethnic story. I can remain obtuse, obscure, difficult, frustrating, silly, trite, nonsensical. Instead of invoking a question mark, my name will invoke a middle finger.

I now take pleasure in having few but dedicated readers, a small audience who in a punk rock, gen-x spirit, join in railing against the mainstream. In turn I am amazed by the few authors whose writing has somehow leaped the gulf of these expectations, and the publishing houses run by people of colorwho seek to change this inescapable paradigm.

I carry both names with me. My legal name, Christopher B. Patterson, where I publish scholarship and other academic work. Then my preferred name, Kawika Guillermo, where I write short stories, poetry, and reflections like this. These are not names but roofs: sometimes refuges, sometimes spaces of focus, sometimes places to kick back with friends and talk-story. Both names are a process of thinking through my experiences as a descendant of mestizo Chinese, Filipino/as, Irish, and Germans, and to understand my own role living in Asia but still seeing the world through a Western gaze.

Writers say they write under pseudonyms to free their writing. But when I write as Kawika I am not free — I feel the burden of history, the weight of unrequited pasts. Kawika becomes not a person but a ghost, taunting me in a cynical voice, “you’re a fake, this name means nothing to you, you are a plastic glossy face, a cardboard cutout, an empty house.” But this ghost comes from the future as much as it does the past. And it does not always mean me harm.

This story was originally published on Anomaly. Parts of it are taken from the author’s book Transitive Cultures and a subsequent interview. All font images are from fontmeme.com

On Trump and Colonial Travel

I was on an airplane when Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. When we landed in Hong Kong, I was so sure that “H” had already won, that when I saw my friends turn white from reading their phones, numbed by the news, I thought a bomb had dropped. I recall the faces of those around me–the Hong Kongers and mainland Chinese, coming direct from Vancouver, Canada, each one speechless, as if the light from their phones induced them to silence. Then I looked forward, to the first class and business class cabins. There was a group of Westerners, silent not from shock, but from trying to conceal their smiles. One of them, a man in a dark blue blazer, stood up straight and closed his eyes, straightening his body in place as if to keep from jumping for joy.

Four days later, I saw what lied behind these smiles at an Open Mic poetry reading in Central, Hong Kong’s old colonial district. A dark-skinned poet from Canada read a poem about his deep sadness after the election. Immediately after, an outraged man (white) spoke on stage, shouting that we needed to respect Trump and his wife–since she knows four languages, he pointed out–and “Fuck you” to anyone who writes badly of them (his finger pointing to the previous poet). The Open Mic became a literary war zone. A young woman (Asian, diasporic) took the stage with her personal poem detailing her fear and hope for the future after Trump. Then a man (white, American) asked his Russian girlfriend to go on stage and read his poem, which included the phrase “I was chatting with this chink from Vietnam,” and ended with complaints about how American women were too fat and Asian women were just right. A friend of mine, a visiting poet, asked me if it was appropriate to kick his ass.

It took me two months to fully process these reactions to Trump’s election. Even as a travel writer, university professor, and teacher, I have never been able to let go of the notion that travel, and living overseas, can make you a better person. Better at understanding different cultures. Better at appreciating different ways of life. Better at loving those around you. But for the past year, since living in China and Hong Kong–and since beginning this blog–I’ve come to the opposite conclusion. Travel, if anything, makes you more certain of the prejudices you have. It couples your ignorance of others with the certainty that you already know everything about other cultures, and that they are just as despicable as you are.

Sound too dramatic, too simplistic, too reactive? Fine, I don’t mean that everyone who travels becomes a bigot. But those who travel, particularly those who write and talk about their travel experiences, often do so with the clamor of a medieval knight errant spouting tales of how they rescued a local damsel from the evil barbarians.

OK, so I don’t mean all travel writers. I have in mind a type of travel writer, the new colonial writer, represented in one particular author–C. G. Fewston, an expatriate author in Hong Kong who claims to have been nominated for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize and the 2016 PEN/Faulkner award for a novel, A Time to Love in Tehran, (evidence on both of these claims has been entirely absent, but I invite anyone to assist in fact-checking). Not long after Trump’s election, I got into a Twitter-spat with this author when he started trolling the writer Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the actual Pulitzer Prize nominated (and won) novel, The Sympathizer. Nguyen is a Vietnamese refugee, which Fewston (who has lived in Vietnam) sees as a reason to disqualify him from the Pulitzer:

 

As an admirer of Nguyen’s work since I was a graduate student, I responded to this stream of tweets with deserving vitriol:

 

This was enough for Mr. Fewston to ban me from his Twitter account. In time, however, I began to get word from fellow Hong Kong writers that this author was “at it again,” posting a slew of tweets against Nguyen, Junot Díaz, as well as refugees, immigrants, and people of color generally:

 

I won’t bother dissecting these piece-by-piece, except to say that Mr. Fewston is clearly one of thousands of American expatriates in Asia emboldened by Trump’s wall, Trump’s refugee policies, Trump’s white nationalism. It isn’t Mr. Fewston’s political position that interests me, but his means of using travel itself to legitimate anti-immigrant rhetoric that masks itself with “#love,” and with his own standing as an immigrant in Hong Kong. His knowledge of Viet Kieus is deployed to name a refugee as un-American, and if you disagree, it’s because you don’t know what a Viet Kieu is (he will educate you). His knowledge of “Vietnam’s Civil War,” as he calls it, erases America completely from the picture. His self-named “travel writer” position allows him to spit this nonsense while claiming to be “apolitical” (the haven for those whose politics ally with no communities or peoples). His travels give him an enlightened “worldview,” which others cannot begin to comprehend, trapped as they are in their American racial identities.

We are all familiar with this. Mr. Fewston’s travel is the type of travel of the colonials, old and new; of the traders who once worked for the East India Company but now work for J. P. Morgan; of the religious zealots like Marco Polo who now seek to rescue Asians from themselves (especially beautiful female Asians); of the travel writers who created barbarians and cannibals and who now write of exotic women and tyrannical Asian men. These travelers have always used comparisons to justify hate. They see hate and bigotry in other countries, regard it as a fact of life, and see racism in the U.S. as no big deal.

 

How to Travel like a Colonial (Hint: You’re Probably Already Doing It)

There are many ways one can travel. But in the 21st century, like in the age of colonialism, imperialism, and chattel slavery before it, most travel routes are fixed to make Westerners more certain in their own prejudices. Industries of tourism, English-language learning, and colonial enterprises have set-up travel as just another scheme to reward arrogance. And in an era of identity politics, when we all want to be minorities, it’s a way for the most privileged among us to have their own stories of prejudice to tell.

I’m a traveler of sorts, and I’ve heard the same rant from white Americans in every major Asian city, from #Seoul to #Shanghai to #HongKong. It’s the “we are the minorities now” rant, where Westerners fantasize that they are being harmed just for being white. At a time when immigrants and refugees are under attack in the U.S., this takes on a particularly sinister form of colonial arrogance. Claiming that because you were an expatriate in South Korea you know what it is to be a minority in the U.S. would be like taking a tour of the Grand Canyon and claiming that you really know what life is like “living on the edge.”

But the white colonial experience in Asia, as much as some of us would like to believe, is not the same level of social integration expected (demanded, forced) as a Muslim refugee in the US. It’s not even “same same but different.” Sure, you may have suffered loneliness (even among the women available), you may have suffered time (filling out multiple Visa forms), you may have suffered financially (paying double taxes), but think–are these anywhere similar to the terrors of the police, the FBI, the lynch mobs, the courts, who have always protected majorities over minorities? Were you ever vulnerable to an omnivorous prison complex targeted at you and your family? Were you ever told to change your religion, your values, your language?

In the age of identity victimhood, travel can offer everyone a part to play. No wonder the most privileged of us obsess over the types of travel that offer instances of fabricated danger–in camp sites, in tourist cities of Thailand, China, Cambodia, in music festivals, in clubs, in casinos, in drugs. We embrace these moments as memories of “risk,” when really we were no more taking risks than a family visit to Disneyland. We pretend that after wallowing in a hostel in India we are suddenly equal victims as those black bodies living on the streets of Baltimore, Washington D.C., or Detroit. We get food sickness and pretend we can now understand the dysentery plaguing the starving. These attitudes bring us no closer to those we now claim to understand, but merely widen the gulf with our newfound arrogance. And in that arrogance we go on, guilt free, back into the dream made for everyone and no one.

Some of these colonial authors will use stories of pretend oppression to fold back into protecting their American heritage. They will insist that Americans join the rest of the world in racist exclusions. They will see how Koreans protect Koreanness, Japanese protect Japaneseness, and our writer in turn will move to protect Americanness as a white cowboy Christian mythology. They will say, straight-faced, that if Asian countries can protect their mythical national race, why can’t we? Victimhood, migrancy, historical marginalization–these are mere games for these players, these movers, these managers, these writers, these travelers. But the pieces locked into the board are not playing along.

The biggest question for the traveling writer is not about the space itself but why we are inhabiting it. You the American traveler, who came armed with the world’s highest-valued passport, who could afford to burn cash and jet-fuel on a prolonged vacation, you who reside in a land that belongs to others but has been ready-made for you, with a job just for you, an inhabitance just for you, and people willing to risk social stigma just to spend time with you. What are you doing here, really? What do you hope to take from this place, really?

 

Self-Tourism

Travel can expose the dark sides of the world, so it is natural that it can make us more prejudiced. By being exposed to atrocities, we can walk away believing that, by acting on our prejudices, we are merely matching the prejudice of the rest of the world. Yes, there is racism, bigotry, and hate in every country. But there is also protest, struggle, and organized resistance. In every country you will meet those who are part of the struggle for justice, whether they are trying to impeach a president (as in South Korea last year) or are writing editorials that will make them targets for censorship and state violence (as in China, the Philippines, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia). And in every country there are those who see hate everywhere, who have traveled just to come back and say “they do it over there, so why can’t we?”

For those of you living in America, who see the writings of colonial travelers and say, “at least they’re not in the U.S.,” I have a wake-up call for you. These travelers and expats, who might be LBHs (“losers back home”), are well respected in Asia. Many of them are educators, entrusted to represent American history, culture, and politics. They are “young professionals,” poets, writers, artists, intelligentsia. Now, with the election of a man who seeks to rid the U.S. of non-Christian, non-Western elements, they are emboldened. They seek to represent America’s voice to the world, as expert travelers of the world. And here, people are listening.

Hong Kong Domestic Workers in the Gallery

Six months ago I visited the Hong Kong contemporary art gallery, Para Site, when it hosted “Afterwork,” a collection of work about migrant domestic workers. The blog I wrote then was about the (mostly white) audience who patronized the gallery on its opening. I feel this was a mistake. The artists themselves had little control over how the expatriate community would receive their work. The anger I felt distracted me from the art itself, which I hope to rectify in this installment.

Only six months later, in retrospect, does it become clear how these artworks were pushing against the grain. The artworks flat-out rejected ideas of migrant workers as heroes celebrated on Migrant Workers Week and applauded in Hong Kong when they’re not caught stealing or going to bars. But it also rejects the Human Rights version of them as helpless victims. The introduction to the exhibit selects work that shows “how the Southeast Asian ‘other’ has been approached in Hong Kong and more broadly in Chinese culture.” It does not cater to the audience, as I presumed in the previous blog. The collection plays with the audience’s desire to hear the maid’s story, or to provide rescue. Its introduction reads, “Afterwork does not, however, mean to patronizingly give a voice to or be the vindicator of the struggles of migrant workers.” In Hong Kong migrant workers are seen as either unruly, willing and ungrateful thieves, or as church mice stamped with the oil of heroism and self-sacrifice.

The activist artist Daniela Ortiz’s contribution was titled 97 House Maids. Ortiz took Facebook photos from upperclass Peruvians that unintentionally caught glimpses of their migrant workers. The frames display the erasure of migrant domestic workers as mere background or as props to hold up and support the family narrative.


The background labor is necessary to the storyhood of the family, yet the workers’ presence is effectively erased.

The Taiwanese artist Jao Chai-en’s REM Sleep (2011) addresses the difficulties of dissecting life stories from migrant workers who themselves are paid to perform as puppets resembling religious purity. Chai-en does not simply interview migrant workers to discover their real story, but has them recite their dreams during REM Sleep, the only time when their strings aren’t being pulled, and no performance is being demanded from them.

In this cruel reality, free thinking is only permitted during deep sleep. Their stories are meandering depictions of their own dreams: dreams of freedom, of family, of anger.

In Sun Yuan & Peng Yu’s Hong Kong Intervention (2011), the voice of the domestic worker becomes visible only through a final destructive act of anger and (presumably) vengeance: a grenade left on a kitchen counter, paired with the domestic worker who wishes the family harm, her back turned to keep herself anonymous.

The un-knowable migrant body positioned next to the grenade shouts resentment and anger, but also threatens my own gaze staring at her, hoping to access her life story.

The solidarity presented in these works crosses national, racial and gendered borders. The ubiquity of migrant domestic work broaches into disadvantaged nations. These artists’ works immediately resonated with me. Isolated from Filipino and white communities as too mixed race, and called an “island hopper” even by close friends, I had accepted early on that I would remain a cleaner or service worker for most of my life, where I belonged with the other brown-skinned mulattos. In Las Vegas I worked jobs for $5.50 an hour where I cleaned, smiled, and absorbed all the stored-up resentment from every customer. If I was interested in a girl, that too was colored by race. If it didn’t work, I felt it was because of my Asian-ness, and if I got lucky, it was because she was looking for an exotic spin among the jungle hybrids. Even my small successes were taken away from me. After three years of applications, I finally got into graduate school, only to hear my best friend tell me (totally sober) that “I wish I were Asian like you, then I’d have everything given to me.” I never spoke to him again. I never spoke to a lot of people again. For years I have preferred isolation and estrangement. Why was everything, failure or success, sex or unsexed, blamed on my race? Was I really just a mere puppet, with this invisible being, “race,” pulling my strings?

Perhaps this is why, as a traveler, I’ve always felt more at home with locals or low-paid immigrants than with expatriates. Black, Asian, and other minority travelers I’ve met seem to feel the same. Leaving America is a political choice, it’s getting away from that pigeonholed identity, from the puppet master who forces you into exile even when you are home. As minorities we are always exilic, and it’s not a question of finding home or of fitting in but of just waking up one day without feeling his strings tugging at your every limb. But as travelers we carry new identities with us: upper-class, whimsical Americans, who can breeze in and out, armed with English and passports and ready-to-work jobs that make us indispensable.

Domestic workers in Hong Kong are the expatriate community’s Others. Where we always make above minimum wage, they always make well below it. Where we are pushed into isolated apartments, they are kept under twenty-four-hour surveillance by their adopted families, often living in the same rooms as the children. Where we can stay for months at a time with no explanation, they are kicked out after two weeks without a sponsor. Where we can gallivant in clubs and mix with locals, they are hunted down for any sexual trespass, and their mixing (in terms of pregnancy, prostitution) leaves them vulnerable to forced deportation. Where we are seen as contributing to the “globalness” of Hong Kong, they are seen as third world parasites. In the literary world, works like Jose Dalisay’s 2008 novel, Soledad’s Sister, and Mia Alvar’s short story “Shadow Families,” are unique gems that tell us different stories. And even in the garish business of the art world, there are still a few gems.

This blog was originally published on decomP

References

Daniela Ortiz’s 97 House Maids

Jao Chai-en’s REM Sleep

Sun Yuan & Peng Yu’s Hong Kong Intervention

Art Spaces in Phnom Penh

Spoken Space

We (you and I, let’s say) stroll along Street 308, an “up and coming” (read: gentrifying) area of Phnom Penh, speckled with packs of foreigners and tourists armed with open-carry bottles of wine and thin needles of hash, their bodies attached to tall resident walls like seaweed wavering to and fro against a stream. The street directs us to the dawdling Mekong river that flows from southwest China, bordering Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand, before drifting through Phnom Penh and into Vietnam.

But the street comes to an end at Cloud bar, a “unique culture, art and music venue,” according to the googlemaps reviews I looked up, which also recommend the “excellent homemade punch.”

We squeeze into the back row of a shark-fin shaped room, where Kosal Khiev, the renowned refugee spoken word artist, will perform. A refugee to America at one year old, tried as an adult at sixteen for attempted murder, imprisoned for fourteen years, and at thirty-two, named an “alien” and forcibly deported to Cambodia, Kosal’s very survival is stunning. That his heart still beats after so much pain, that his mind still functions after fourteen years in prison, that his head still holds high after eight months in solitary confinement. That he’s not only here, but that he exudes a force both calming and energetic, alluring yet visceral.

 

 

One of Kosal’s students, Conrad, introduces him as a survivor: “He was one of the survivors of the Khmer Rouge, he was a survivor of the war, he was a survivor of freedom, of the American dream, whatever you want to know, he is a survivor of violence, more importantly he’s a survivor of the system.” Conrad mentions Kosal’s community work, too long to list for a simple introduction. What comes first? His mentorship of young artists? His work with Cambodian children? His national stardom at the 2012 Olympiad? His starring role in the documentary Cambodian Son? In a city that has become a symbol of survival, he is its offspring.

Kosal KhievKosal takes the stage. He’s a scrawny man in a black hat and black T-shirt. He makes room for himself, removing the microphone stand, the lectern, the chairs, forcing a circular space where he can spread his tattooed limbs. Then the words flow out of him in a soulful song, “I’m on a midnight ride on a rail of a beaten down trail / I got my hat down low and I just made bail,” then the words push us down, submerging us, his rhymes splitting us against a barnacled floor more shallow than we could see from above:

call me a murderer, a homicide, I just died by a pack of wolves dressed up as the uniformed service, a flock of crows purposefully moving with guilty verdicts, executing and shooting anyone moving with purpose.

Kosal lunges out, hands shaped like glocks towards the sky, words charging in bullets. His face captures us, dense in desperation and prayer, wrinkled from an age apart.

 

Dancing Space

It’s Kosal’s face that haunts us as we jump into a tuk-tuk towards the weekly drag show at Blue Chilli’s bar. The show has become a ritual jaunt in Phnom Penh, an event that pleads to us more than the killing fields, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the markets, the river itself. Speaking of: our driver follows the Tonle Sap river north, against its stream, passing hand-in-hand pedestrians, jostling youth, and women exercise-dancing near the river walk. I watch the water’s unstable darkness and remember there is a drought in Cambodia’s countryside. The worst in fifty years, the dry wind and dust has left tens of thousands in need of water and food.

Naked colored bulbs welcome us into a rectangular bar overflowing with alcohol. We watch the queens slam things into the ground: their heels, their asses, their wigs. We drink and shout to new friends over loudspeakers. We duck below coiled wires leading to electric lights. We grip each other, facing the dancers like flags fluttering in trade winds.

Miga, the queen of Blue Chilli, takes the stage with a looming intensity. Her eyes flutter. Her body seems weightless as she breezes up and down a silver pole. Like Kosal she wears black–black dress, black bouquet. You spy something odd about her hat–not a hat, but a revolver, held onto her hair like a perched bird. We can’t help but gawk at it–a symbol of American cowboys, of violence, whisked easily into a drag queen’s ornament.

Miga

Miga

Like Kosal, Miga has been a community pillar. The amount of events she headlines, teaches at, and supports, is a testament to what the “community artist” can really do. Her pride in drag coupled with her unstoppable talent and energy has made her a powerful symbol for the LGBT community. She is a drag queen who has appeared on national television and hosts fashion events. Her makeup tutorials have brought her to issues of wildlife (The Jungle Project), and her fem performances have brought her to breast cancer awareness groups. Given this dedication, it’s no surprise that she has also been violently attacked in clubs by, as she calls it, “people who hate sissys.”

 

I Am What I Am

Miga featured in the 2015 campaign, “I Am What I Am”

As we talk to Miga, I notice he never uses the word “survive.” He explains himself without this word. He has no lovers, but loves only his passions, his community work, his performance art, and his full time job as a barista. All of this, and he never makes it sound like a struggle. These things bring him life. It’s not merely a way to survive–but to survive well, to inspire, and to exclaim: “We are here.”

This blog was originally published on decomP

“Research” in Myanmar

The traffic into Yangon is abysmal, and it doesn’t help that the taxi driver won’t stop trash-talking the city; the only solace from his ranting comes when hawkers come to sell fruit and music CDs. We pass pagodas, where women young and old clasp their hands, repeating prayers, their mouths moving quick like film. The men meditate like the male Buddhas who the women pray to.

Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda

Luckily, on my first night in Yangon I meet a fellow scholar from NYU who works for an LGBT NGO run by locals (but supplied by foreigners). I meet many within the research community, which is populated almost entirely by anthropologists who seem to still be reaching for the “undiscovered tribe” and/or the “transitioning tribe” who will soon lose their authentic values to be further integrated into global capitalist markets. While these academics are welcoming, they grow offended by my entire field of study, as both a literature person and as someone seeking to compare the postcolonial anglophone literature of Burma with India, Singapore and Malaysia. Of these later three countries, these academics seem to know very little (many do not even know that Malaysia was colonized by Britain). In that wider regional ignorance, they seem to read only ignorance in me. At any rate, like good expat migrants we drink and try to outdo each other over how many places we’ve been.

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We venture later to an art gallery, which I will have to leave unnamed as it was really a cover for an unofficial set of historical archives that the Myanmar government has censored. The archives, run by painters, poets and journalists, has boxes full of British colonial documents, and many on the state of prisons and the ethnic-run areas where the British were afraid to go. I stay with these archives for days, where I take over a hundred pictures of information, and send many of the Chinese-language newspapers to my two helpful research assistants in Nanjing.

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During my research process in the archives I habituate myself to certain cafes and diners where journalists and English-literate locals hang out. It seems Burma is often the last explored place in Asia, a gnawing unchecked box on a long list of Asian countries. There are no new travelers here, it is the anti-Thailand – not sexy, not easy, and mostly riddled with complaints about the food rather than compliments.

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I meet a journalist who is so adept at the language and knowledge of local politics that I feel embarrassed to tell him what I do (literature), and embarrassed further to admit that I write fiction about travelers in Asia. He gives me the third degree, and, satisfied that I’ve at least read enough journalist accounts of Myanmar, he takes me gallivanting from one journalist-packed expat pub to another, telling stories of all the things that fascinate him about this region. At one pub I meet three Chinese-Burmese people, none of which have official documents (they could flee and be refugees but choose not to be). These connections inform me of Myanmar’s political climate in the past twenty-years and the effects it has had on “unofficial minorities,” where Chinese-Burmese are not recognized and therefore cannot be citizens.

Girl making Beetlenut

Girl making Beetlenut

The next week I travel throughout Myanmar, to Mandalay and Bagan, and with some “wanderlust”-based inspiration I begin to write again.

Bagan Temples

Bagan Temples

After this research excursion, I spend another couple of weeks in Hong Kong thinking through the experiences and archives I had encountered in Yangon. For a country with similar colonial histories as Malaysia, India and Singapore, the lack of literature in English is a testament to its recent postcolonial history (see Ne Win). While the anthropologists I meet may not seem to care for the wider regional history, I find that Burmese really do — they see the People Power movement of the Philippines as inspiring their many student-led movements, they constantly keep up with Lee Kuan Yew’s government to look for similarities and methods towards gaining traction, many follow Indian politics like it’s a soap opera. And of course, their gaze is laser-beamed onto China, the historical actor who has been both “big brother” and “abusive step-father.”

Mustache Brothers in Mandalay

Mustache Brothers in Mandalay

Most of the work in English I studied was in local cookbooks, translations of Burmese myths, journalistic accounts (Like Empire of Jade) and testimonials/auto-biographies written by political leaders and diasporic refugees. But nothing seemed to exist that cultivated literature in English on a local level. Perhaps because the authoritarian government has massacred students on the steps of past English-language institutions. But this does not mean that Burmese Anglophone literature does not exist. To be able to access it means shifting the definitions of anglophone literature itself to merge the postcolonial/colonial field with that of ethnic literature and diaspora, otherwise we lose the meaning of these stories under nationalist understandings of canon making and ways of reading.

Luang Prabang II

Today I had to find a sign of civilization.

I don’t mean to put Lao down, but after a week without seeing anything worth feeling prideful for being a part of the human race, I craved something innovative, something industrial, technological, anything! I’ve walked absolutely everywhere in this city, and there’s a temple about every block, which is…kind of industrial, kind of impressive.

I walked five kilometers to the airport, and got to see big planes landing! Yeah! That was cool! Humanity–hellz yeah! Then I had to walk another three kilometers to find the first bridge that wasn’t made out of wood and rope! It was made of stone and reinforced by steel! Sweet steel bent into hollow tubes, so beautiful!

I went to a Lao theater and watched some of their traditional dancing and “acting”. Man oh man, what the hell was that? They glorified the trickster myth, the monkey who goes wrecking havoc on any form of greatness that humanity achieves. Really? This is the “idol” that this country needs right now?

Otherwise, as for urban exploration, this city was determined before I got here. It’s a tourist city.

There are direct flights to Luang Prabang from Australia and New Zealand. It’s a UNESCO world heritage city–not site, city–and there’s an “elephant sanctuary” just within city limits, and there are hordes of tour agencies on every city street. I wish I loved trekking, jumping in waterfalls and riding elephants, I wish I was just out of college, living off of my parents money like most of the tourists here.

I got so sick of the tourists today that I had to cross the bridge into unknown territory, which is off the tourist map. There I found schools, technical colleges and the like. That was very heartwarming, to see the Lao people excited about secondary education. There were no tourists on that side of the bridge, and the kindness of the Lao people was relaxing in itself. It was odd though just how many nude children were running about without anyone watching them, pissing in the street and running away from the roosters and cows, which were also free to do what they wanted.

Then I had to come back to the tourist spots. It might seem like I’m exaggerating, but I was proved the essence of this place in a social experiment–sitting in a bar alone. This is not a bad way to meet people. In Vientiane, Bangkok, Beijing, and most every city I travel to, I find cool people in the first ten minutes. The theory goes like this: Whenever I’m with a group of people, preferably drinking, and I see someone young and a bit unattached sitting alone at the bar, I ALWAYS go and talk to them. I usually discover that this person is traveling, or sick of their usual group of friends, or is so into their own work and other passions that they don’t usually go to bars enough to have “a group”. In other words, they’re always people worth knowing. By reversal, I find that if there are cool people to be found in the nightlife scene, the best way to meet them is to sit at a bar alone, and almost always someone interesting–not like the usual crowd, someone who DOES NOT find safety in numbers–will come up and chat. This almost always works, in every city.

In Luang Prabang and Viane Viang? I sit alone for an hour, then leave.

One reason is the French people here don’t speak much English, so I don’t really “chat” with them at the bar, we drink together and dare each other to try the LaoLao alcohol. The second reason is, again, the gigantic groups of Australian and New Zealanders who take their summer vacations here, with hardly any interest in meeting anyone apart from the group that they came with (especially a southeast-Asian, or anyone who looks like one). The other reason is my attitude. The Australians annoy the hell out of me because they think it’s so cool to be drunk and stupid, and they continually remind me of my race. So I act like a dick to them.

The rays of light are the people from the U.K. Maybe it’s because we share an imperial past, maybe because the rest of the world doesn’t seem to like either Americans or the British, or maybe because both of our countries are becoming overwhelmingly multi-cultural, but the Brits are incredibly friendly people and so much fun to hang out with–as well as the French, the ones who can speak English at least.

The nightlife in Luang Prabang is almost non-existent anyway. The only bars around here close at 11:30, and I have yet to walk into a bar and see both Lao and foreigners hanging out together. That’s what you get in tourist cities–it’s incredibly hard meeting a Lao person who doesn’t immediately want your cash, because thats what they expect and the tourists rarely want to meet the locals anyway. I went to maybe four bars last night, and the only Lao people I saw were the ones working there. It was very, very sad. I never see the white people treating the Lao like human beings. They treat them like a spectacle, like props for their cameras, like objects of ridicule. I highly doubt I can penetrate any groups of young Lao people, when there’s an unsaid antipathy between them and the tourists.

I keep bringing up the nightlife because it’s incredibly hot during the day-times here, and I’ve become somewhat nocturnal. God, I want to go to Hanoi already! Where’s my Visa!!