Gay Star News interviews Australian author Benjamin Laws about his book, Adventures in Gaysia, that explores different aspects of queer life in Indonesia, Thailand, China, Japan, India, Malaysia and Burma.
With vivid depictions of a transexual beauty pageant in Thailand, a gay nudist hotel in Bali, the ugly forefront of the fight against the HIV epidemic in Burma and a happy-clappy Sunday service at a ‘gay cure’ church in Malaysia, Adventures in Gaysia has more color than a Pride march in Mumbai. It’s also hilarious and serious.
Gay Star News talks to Australian magazine journalist and author Benjamin Law about the inspiration, the ups and downs and why there’s no need to take notes on penises.
Why did you decide to write this book?
First of all, I've been gay and Asian for as long as I can remember. My parents are both Chinese, my dad was born in the south of China and my mum was born in Malaysia and they moved to Hong Kong at a young age and spent a lot of their youth there before moving to Australia.
I think most of us with an imagination wonder what it would've been like if we had been born during our parents' time. When you're a child of migrants that question is magnified to another level where you often ask, what would my life be like if I'd been born in another country?
A lot of the news stories I'm interested in are queer stories set in Asia: queer events in China being shut down mysteriously, the decriminalization of homosexuality in India. And whenever I read news stories, my instinct is always to wonder about the human side. I want to know, if there is a transexual beauty pageant going on in Thailand, what are the lives for those transexual women actually like?
How much traveling did you do? How long did you spend in each place? How long were you travelling for in total?
Overall I spent 18 months going in and out of Asia. I didn't do it all in one block. I found I needed to come back to Australia to get some perspective.
When it came to the countries I set myself a minimum of a month in each country. But a month's quite short as well so in some countries I found I had to spend longer. For China, I spent two months in Beijing. But I was glad for that because China proved more difficult to access their queer stories. In a place like India, everyone wants to talk but in a place like China, you really do need to earn people's trust.
What were the most challenging countries to travel in and to write about?
Every country posed different challenges. Japan was super easy because the infrastructure's so great as it's a developed nation. But so few people spoke English fluently and Japanese society is very much quiet and reserved. They're not necessarily willing to confess their entire life story and secrets.
So Japan was an easy country to move around in but really difficult for the interviews. Whereas a place like India is so challenging as a traveler sometimes, but, great for interviews, because everyone's so animated and they've got such great stories.
One of the most challenging countries was Burma or Myanmar as I call it in the book. I've traveled in Asia quite a bit before writing this book but Myanmar was the first country where I felt quite a bit of culture shock. When I was there Aung San Suu Kyi had just been released from house arrest, but no one was allowed to be the country as a foreign journalist. It was in that transition stage. The country's so poor as well, I don't think I'd experienced that level of poverty before.
When I started speaking to people, the chapter on Myanmar focuses on HIV infection, just trying to digest the extent of the horror there when it came to people's health was difficult for me. At the end of that chapter one of my interviewees who was an HIV positive transgender sex worker, turned the tables on me and asked me what I could do to help.
When you go to write a book like this about important issues you think ‘well I'm doing a very noble act by writing a book’. But you realise when people turn the tables on you and start asking questions like ‘what are you doing here and how can you help us?’ that writing can only get you so far. The enormity and the sheer scale of the HIV situation in Myanmar still plays on my mind.
Has the situation in Burma/Myanmar improved with the political opening up of the country?
I think it can only get better in some ways. I think it would be very hard to get worse. When I was there it really felt like things had hit rock bottom. A couple of years before I arrived a lot of the non-government organizations like Medicin sans Frontier (MSF), who are the biggest distributors of life-saving antiretrovirals in the country, had to literally turn people away.
I can't imagine what that's like to be a foreign aid worker. You’re in a country to save people's lives and then to get there and say to people 'we can't help you’. That must've been devasting for everyone involved.
With opening dialogue between Myanmar and other countries, more transparency and willingness to discuss different kinds of democratic reform, it can only get better. In some ways I'm concerned that opening up tourism at such speed will only increase sexually transmitted infections. But on the other hand, opening it up, must also open up channels for aid as well, hopefully.
There’s a particularly shocking moment in the Myanmar chapter when you realise that an HIV prevention NGO worker you are interviewing regularly solicits the sex workers. What was your reaction when you realised what was happening?
Umm, a whole new world! You’re very aware that you're an outsider parachuting in so you want to take everything on face level to give people the benefit of the doubt. It’s not until you actually step away from the situation that you realise this is fundamentally strange and wrong. But you're in a completely different culture, a completely different world. In that situation I was thinking: ‘Is this ok? It must be ok it's happening right in front of me? It’s not ok at all!'
You’re a very funny writer, I laughed out loud many times reading Adventures in Gaysia, did you find it hard to write some of the more serious parts?
My way of accessing readers is through humor. My main bread-and-butter work is magazine work and I think I'm known for giving a slightly comedic touch to serious issues. I think it's a really important way of accessing a broad readership. If you can make them laugh, then you can tell the truth.
The book Gaysia is a hard sell. It's about queer issues, in Asia. It’s looking at minorities within a minority and at some points looking at pretty grim issues as well. I was really really conscious of making sure that the book was readable so that it wouldn't just be limited to a gay, lesbian, transexual audience. The way that I wanted to do that was to find the inherent humour in some of these situations.
I mean, you can't go to the world's biggest transexual beauty pageant in Thailand and not laugh. There is just something inherently hilarious going on. You can't talk to gay men who are going through sham marriages with lesbians and not laugh. When they tell you the details of how they did it, it’s hilarious, tragic and hilarious.
And those are the stories that always appeal to me. Stuff that's funny but completely tragic as well. And I think that those two things are usually quite intertwined. At least the way I see it.
I have a question about your writing process. You bring quite a few scenes to life in the book with novelistic detail, but as it’s all taken from real experiences I wondered how you remembered all the details, of for example your night out in Bali? Do you make notes on the night or just hope you remember and write it up the next day?
It depends on the situation. For instance at the gay nudist resort in Bali where there were naked men all around me with their penises just flopping about, those images just get burnt into your memory. I can never unsee this. My brain is writing notes for me.
Other places I'm very upfront and I say ‘look I'm a writer, can I talk to you? can I record this conversation?’ and people often respond well to that because, maybe their stories haven't been heard before and they want other people to listen to them.
I'm old school in a way because I always carry a pen in my pocket. I always lose pieces of paper, but one thing you can't lose is a limb so during the writing of this book my entire arm and hand was always stained with ink.
Which was the hardest chapter to write?
The easiest chapter was probably Thailand because it was my first stop. It was a journey with these women and it was so fun. A beauty pageant gives you a narrative arc as well.
The hardest chapter to write was probably Japan, because I got really sick with whooping cough there. When you're trying to interview one of the country's most famous TV personalities and they've only given you an hour of your time and you're using translators and everyone's being very polite in their questions and answers and you're coughing so violently that you think you're going to be sick during the interview - that's really hard.
I found Myanmar difficult just because of the subject matter. Just knowing that statistically four out of the five men or transgender people that were HIV positive would not receive antiretroviral treatment, and would die. It wasn't the writing that was difficult. It was trying to comprehend that fact.
But they all came with challenges. And that's the thing with Asia. These countries that are geographically close to each other are so vastly different in so many ways. Getting my brain around each country, as an outsider, was a really great challenge. I'm really grateful for that opportunity to just dive in and for people to share stories with me.
In the chapter on Malaysia you visit a church run by an ‘ex-gay’ minister who says he can ‘cure people of the homosexual lifestyle’, just like he says he has been ‘cured’. You stop short of condemning the church out-right, because you say the people you talked to who were there to be ‘cured’ seemed happy. Do you think going there is the the best option for young gay and lesbians in Malaysia?
I don't think it's as simple as that. I’m an openly gay person myself. I come into this story and I already feel that any sort of ex-gay therapy is one, false and two, damaging. It's people trying to change themselves out of something they won't really be able to change themselves out of.
I spoke to these people, a lot of them younger people in their twenties or early thirties who have been through such traumatic experiences. They've been through being restrained in psych wards, being heavily medicated, being verbally or physically abused by family members and having run-ins with the police. These are damaged people and they said to me 'we are happier here, getting healed out of a gay lifestyle through the church'.
At those moments, and of course this isn't professional at all, I wanted to reach over and grab their arm and say: 'I'm your age, I look like you and I have a great relationship with my same-sex partner and we live happily and our families like each other. In some ways the coming out process was hard for each of us in different ways, but we got through it and it gets better’.
The difficult thing for me talking to these people was, maybe it wouldn't get better. Maybe this was it. Through circumstances, through geography, through culture, through religion, they didn't have many other options. I didn't think that it was a good option at all for them to go through ex-gay therapy. But I had to take it on face value that it was.
That for me was heart-breaking, the idea that this might be the best of several hideous options. It doesn't make it any less hideous, but it might be the only one for them.
Are there any other parts of ‘Gaysia’ you want to explore?
This is book that is conducive to so many sequels because I only visited seven countries and I had to pick and choose what topics I wanted to focus on and in what countries. I could have easily written about HIV in China or India. I could have written about the queer rights movement in Japan. I could have written about transexuality in India and in Burma rather than Thailand. So I really had to curate this book quite tightly.
I think Asia could still be done. I think that this book could go on forever. I could be writing it into late age really.
But at the moment I'm interested in Africa because when it comes to homophobia, when it comes to people fighting for the right to live the way they want to live, in countries like Uganda they're discussing the options to legislate state killing of people who are gay or lesbian. Or in South Africa where there are widespread corrective rapes of lesbians - just really fundamentally hideous stuff happening.
There’s just so much going on around the world. No country has gotten it quite right yet. So I think the concept of the book is something that could be extended to every country of the world really. I'm a little be exhausted now after all my travels so I hope other people pick up the mantle.
I really wanted to go to Iran for this book. But the more research I did into Iran, the more I talked to my friends who had lived in Tehran, the more I realised that at this stage that was going to be a pretty impossible chapter for someone like me to write.
Where in ‘Gaysia’ do you think gay people have it best?
It's good in different ways and different countries and bad in different ways. In China and Japan you won't be physically abused, harassed and yelled at for being gay, but instead you're invisible. In some parts of the country you could argue that they don't even have a vocabulary for talking about queer identity. That's incomprehensible to me, the idea that you might not even know yourself who you are and how you express your identity.
But in Burma queer identities are probably more visible, especially in the cities, but you have a rampant HIV rate. So there are different scales of horror, different dimensions of them.
How has Adventures in Gaysia been received so far?
The main readership, because it's published in Australia, are Australians and what I found really heartening and really surprising is that a lot of the readership is not just queer people. I mean a lot of the readership is queer people, but there have been a lot of people who have been coming to this book just interested in this subject matter, which I'm really grateful for.
The response has been really really warm and generous to the point where a lot of people have come up to me. A Burmese woman was at one of my book events in my hometown of Brisbane and her brother had died of HIV and she'd never heard anyone speak about HIV in Burma. So that was quite an emotional encounter for both of us I think.
What are you writing about next?
I always tell myself that I really don't want to write a book for a while after I've written one. And yet I already find myself putting notes together for the next book. I'm not sure what it'll be yet. I have a rough idea. It's embryonic but soon it will be fetal, ha.
What did you think about the recent gay marriage debate and vote in the Australian parliament?
Even Australians who don't particular support same-sex marriage concede that it's inevitable. The majority of Australians support it and they have for quite a long time now in every survey. And the numbers only go up, not down. We're also at the point where the majority of Australian Christians also support same-sex marriage.
So it's a matter of time. And I think as is the case with most countries with democratic parliaments, politicians are always a little bit older than the rest of the population. Not to be completely harsh but, old people die. And they get replaced by younger politicians who will really champion this reform. There are people even on the conservative side of politics who vocally support it but have been blocked by their party leaders from voting for something they believe in.
So once those party mechanisms are out of the way I think you're going to see quite vast change in Australia. I wouldn't be surprised if it happens in the next five years. It's definitely on it's way.
Find out more about Adventures in Gaysia by Benjamin Law here.