Monday, August 20, 2012

Benjamin Law on writing Gaysia: Part 2

Benjamin Law discusses the experience of writing his second book Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East. (Read Part 1 here.)

Because I’m a bit of a moron, I originally envisioned that Gaysia would be this landmark book that would reveal What It Is Like To Be Queer in Asia. Then I guess I got sober and realised that task was impossible. When you think about it, there’s no such thing is a singular, definable queer experience in any country. What you can find though are specific human stories that illuminate bigger truths, which are the kinds of stories I wanted to sniff out for Gaysia.

Contestants in a transsexual beauty pageant in Thailand
For months, I subscribed to RSS feeds of news stories that focused on LGBT issues in the region. Some stories presented themselves straight away (I mean, who wouldn’t want to spend a month behind-the-scenes at the world’s biggest transsexual beauty pageant in Thailand?), while other stories were trickier to nail down. Reading news reports from Australia, it wasn’t exactly clear the extent to which the Chinese government censored queer content on the internet, or how badly HIV was affecting Myanmar’s queer men. Sometimes, I wasn’t sure if there was even a story to pursue at all.

Still, the internet is a wonderful thing. It’s surprisingly easy to track down people you’ve read about using email, Facebook, phone or Skype. Once I chatted with people and got a few leads—confirming my hunch that there was something interesting going on—I arranged cheap flights, booked dodgy accommodation, stocked up on anti-diarrhoea medication and armed myself with Moleskines, phrasebooks, a dictaphone and screenshots of directions for local cab drivers.

Ben in Japan
Over 18 months, I travelled to roughly 15 cities across seven countries, interviewing hundreds of people on record and dozens more on background or off-the-record. Half of the interviews I did were pre-planned; all the others were arranged once I hit the ground. Some countries, like India, were often hellish from a physical endurance point of view, but yielded the best interviews. In contrast, a city like Tokyo had the most exceptional living standards, but presented logistical nightmares for a non-Japanese-speaking writer like me.

Along the way, I got intense gastro in Mumbai and Bali (you haven’t lived until you’ve violently emptied your guts into a public toilet in Mumbai, let me tell you), scalp-to-toe heat rash in Yangon and whooping cough in Tokyo. I learned to write anywhere and everywhere: airport lounges, cross-regional trains, a Balinese nudist resort, a windowless hostel room in Kuala Lumpur, a desk in Melaka with a kitten warming itself with my laptop, a Tokyo art studio, a Beijing apartment, couchsurf host rooms in Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore, and hostels in Yangon and Mandalay, where I wrote on encrypted files, just in case.

Gaysia cover imageOne of the great things was how most of these conversations caught me off guard. Someone as frightening as a Malaysian fundamentalist Christian pastor, who was converting “broken” gay people to heterosexuality, could also be unintentionally hilarious. Gay Chinese men had supremely weird tales of marrying lesbians to please their parents. Transsexual beauty pageant contestants in Thailand—so animated and smiley on stage—had the saddest stories to tell away from the lights.

After a while, culture shock is an easy thing to shake, but even now, it’s still hard for me to shake off the shock of some of their stories.

 – Benjamin Law

Gaysia is out now in print and ebook! Read Part 1 and Part 3 of Benjamin's blog posts about writing Gaysia.

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