Interesting interview and sounds like an even more interesting book. Must add it to the reading list.
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.