Gaysia, Benjamin Law: book review

Gaysia, Benjamin LawPop culture has offered endless navel-gazing into what it is like to be a white gay man in Western countries. But what is it like to be an Asian gay man in Asian countries? It’s a mystery!

At least until you read Benjamin Law’s fine travelogue Gaysia. (Or unless you are an Asian gay man in Asia, in which case: just read this book anyway, OK.) An Australian child of Chinese migrants, Law ventures into Asia to learn how life for homos there is different (or the same) from life in his homeland, with each chapter exploring a different country or region.

Some chapters, while intriguing, are more or less what you’d expect: Law meets ladyboys in Thailand and explores sex tourism in Bali. Others reveal unexpected facets of Asia’s gays: Particularly interesting is the chapter in Japan, where Law explores how gay celebrities are “permitted” to be out and proud – as long as they’re men, sexless, and content with being entertainment for straight people.

Two chapters are particularly bleak. In Myanmar, Law explores the devastation wrought by HIV and AIDS. Even those who know how to get treatment – and that’s a short list – are unlikely to get it. It’s a terrible portrait of what happens when you mix poverty and oppression in one terrible soup.

The India chapter is bleak for a different reason. Law is positive about the country, which he visited after it overturned the section of its penal code outlawing homosexuality (laws dating back to the 1861, introduced during British rule). But in December 2013, India’s Supreme Court over-overturned that decision, so homosexual acts are illegal again. It’s a depressing, disappointing reminder that progress is not always permanent. Most of the anti-gay people Law interviews in India (and in Malaysia, too) are mostly motivated by their religious beliefs – unsurprisingly, and frustratingly.

Law doesn’t dive into the historical complexities of the countries he visits, but nor does he make out like he’s trying to paint a full picture of his destinations. Some of these places he visits, after all, have more than a billion people in them. Instead he meets people, talks to them, sketches a lasting impression of what life is like.

He’s also the world’s nicest travel companion. I relate to his buttoned-down brand of innocence – particularly when he politely-but-deftly deflects old leches in Bali then dares to (gasp!) go skinny-dipping. What could be termed his conservatism puts a compelling and often powerful spin on Gaysia: Law is a true observer without casting judgement, writing about his subjects with affection and respect.


Book review: Boys and Girls, edited by Paul Burston

Boys and Girls, Paul Burston

There isn’t really a definitive gay experience of life, any more than there’s a definitive heterosexual experience of life: stereotypes aside, homos come in so many colours (a whole rainbow, as it were! Ha ha ha) that you can’t really sum us all up in one uniting story.

Boys and Girls is a collection of short stories by gay and lesbian authors that touches on some of those many facets of homosexuality. Split by gender, these tales are sometimes funny, sometimes touching, sometimes sad. (But not always brilliant – after all, no short-story collection is completely without one or two less-than-stellar entries.)

I picked up the book for the short story ‘Exit Through the Wound’ by North Morgan – aka London Preppy – who’s a terrific writer. ‘Exit’ follows a Londoner’s drug-assisted return to a home country and a culture he no longer connects with, and the sense of disaffection and alienation is powerfully articulated. (If there’s one thing Morgan is great at, it’s disaffection and alienation.) But it’s funny, too! I’m super-keen to read Morgan’s debut novel, also titled Exit Through the Wound.

Boys and Girls, Paul Burston

Other standouts in the boys’ half include Kristian Johns’ ‘Dying and Other Superpowers’ about an 18-year-old who develops superpowers after he’s diagnosed with HIV. It’s a shame this is just a short story, because it’s a great concept that’s constrained by its teensy word length. ‘The Unbearable Bear’, written by the collection’s editor Paul Burston, is also neat, about the mild-mannered narrator’s (inexplicable) acquaintance with a narcissitic, shallow, approaching-middle-age homosexual; it’ll resonate if you’re acquainted with a narcissitic, shallow homosexual of any age.

My favourite story is in the girls’ section: it’s V.G. Lee’s ‘Knitting for Beginners, 1960’, the tale of a 10-year-old English schoolgirl and her crush on the most popular girl in her class. Talk about a nostalgia hit to the adorable naive innocence of my own prepubescent infatuations – that raw urge merely to be liked by the object of one’s affections. It’s just lovely.


Book review: Will Grayson, Will Grayson, John Green and David Levithan

Alternate title: In Which I Write the Words “Will Grayson” over and over and over…

There’s a lot to like about Will Grayson, Will Grayson: it’s strong and honest and funny, its teen melodramas feel so authentic (when you’re a teenager everything is so! important! and! dramatic!), and some of its characters are truly likeable.

But… I’m not sure I liked this book.

That’s because, despite its title, Will Grayson, Will Grayson isn’t actually about someone called Will Grayson. The dominant character is Tiny Cooper, an ironically named high-schooler whose body is almost as big as his personality. Tiny is the long-time best friend of Will Grayson, a pessimistic introvert who’s determined to avoid any sort of emotional experience. By a strange quirk of fate he meets another Will Grayson: this one is starting to open up about his sexuality, and entranced when he meets the openly and extremely gay Tiny.

The book wavers between the viewpoints of Will Grayson and Will Grayson (Green wrote from one point-of-view, and Levithan from the other), and it’s cleverly written – it’s a book with gay characters, though it’s not a gay book. (Not that there’s anything wrong with gay books, as such; I mean it’s not a Problem Novel about being gay.)

(For the record, the gay Will Grayson was my favourite Will Grayson.)

I found Tiny annoying, and it annoyed me that the other characters fawned over him so much – the book literally ends (spoiler!) with scores of people declaring to Tiny how much they appreciate his sheer awesomeness. If you’re like me and don’t buy into Tiny’s awesomeness, this is a serious problem. I didn’t really get why Tiny, who’s so overbearing (not to mention gay to the point of stereotype; he reminded me of “too gay to function” Damian from Mean Girls), is so important to these characters.

That said, I did like that the straight Will and Tiny have a friendship where sexuality is not an issue. And a crucial part of the adolescent experience is having at least one friend who is kind of a dick. (Years later, you reflect on your teenage years and wonder why the hell you spent so much time with so obvious a jerk.) Perhaps this is what Green and Levitan are really writing about – major kudos to them if so, though such an analysis seems like a bit of a stretch.


Book review: The Knife of Never Letting Go, Patrick Ness

To quote Nuttymadam, this is an amazing book.

And really one of those books that spits in the face of the (stupid) idea that books about kids are just for kids. Sure, the story told in Knife is an exciting adventure – but it’s also complex, and mature, and a lot bleaker than you’d expect if you didn’t know a lot of about so-called young adult literature.

It’s also a story I’ll shy away from saying too much about, since half the joy of reading it is unravelling it yourself. Basic premise: it’s the tale of Todd Hewitt, a boy fast approaching the birthday that will make him a man. All his life Todd has resided in Prentisstown, a place ravaged by the Noise: a germ that broadcasts the thoughts of men to everyone around them. And it only affects men – all the women in Prentisstown are dead.

You’d think that there couldn’t be any secrets in a world where men hear each other’s thoughts, but very early on Todd discovers this isn’t so – everyone has been lying to him, even his loving guardians Ben and Cillian (a gay couple whose homosexuality is only cleverly alluded to), and these lies propel Todd out of his hometown with a vicious enemy on his heels.

The sheer momentum of The Knife of Never Letting Go is even more unrelenting than that of The Hunger Games; every time I put this book down I felt a restless impatience till I opened it up again, and even while reading it I frequently had to resist the urge to skip ahead to the next page. But Knife has an extra depth reminiscent of His Dark Materials, not to mention some scenes that are genuinely traumatic – after one bit I literally had to put the book down for a while (and if you’ve read the book, you’ll know which bit I mean without having to be told).

Todd has a vivid, memorable voice overflowing with ain’ts and (intentional) mispellings, though Ness also excels at writing support characters – the best of these is Todd’s talking, pooing dog Manchee, though even people who only appear for a couple of pages (such as Hildy, and the mayor of Prentisstown) are deftly drawn.

Knife is the first entry in the Chaos Walking trilogy, which I reckon I’ve started at exactly the right time – by the time I’ve finished with book two, The Ask and the Answer, it won’t be long to the release of book three, Monsters of Men.


Internet’s most interesting

A sampling of the online goodness that caught my eye this week.

More of my shared stuff here.


The same-sex version of ‘You Belong With Me’ is totally overrated

Since climbing up on my gay high horse yesterday, I figure I might as well stay here for a bit longer.

In the last week or so a lot of my friends have shared the same-sex version of Taylor Swift’s ‘You Belong With Me’ clip. If you haven’t seen it, it’s pretty much what it says on the tin: recreation of the music video, but with two dudes instead of a girl and a dude. Check it:

The verdict generally seems to be that it’s the cutest little video ever. And it is cute. But it’s also totally overrated, because the guys don’t kiss at the end.

Taylor’s original incarnation of the clip ends with her pashing Lucas Till. The same-sex version just… fades to black. That’s kind of a boring finish, but it also robs the clip of any conviction to its message. It becomes merely “Boys have crushes on boys, and that’s fine, but eeeeew we don’t want to see them kissing!”. Which is a shame, because it started so well.

This isn’t about me wanting to see two cute guys locking lips – it’s about me getting peeved that the creators of the same-sex remake kinda pussed out on a great idea.

(Also, the wicked girlfriend should totally have been played by the cute nerd in drag, and not by an actual girl.)

(Also, my absolute favourite bit of ‘You Belong With Me’ is about 22 seconds into the song, when there’s this little snare bit that reminds me of ‘Kitty Cat Dance’, aka the internet’s greatest song about cats.)


Kurt from Glee: still annoyingly gay

I’m super-mega-psyched about the return of Glee next month (and desperately hoping the four-month hiatus won’t have killed the show somehow). However, this spoiler bothers me:

Kurt will concoct a Parent Trap-like plan by setting up his dad with Finn’s mother. But true love isn’t actually on his agenda – Kurt just wants to bunk up with his beloved jock.

This isn’t the first time Kurt has attempted to seduce Finn, and the storyline is just as annoying as it was the first go around. The “gay dude tricks his way into straight dude’s pants, hur hur” plot is lazy at best, and dangerous at worst, if you’ll pardon the hysteria. Straight guys get uncomfortable if they think gay guys are plotting to get hold of their junk, while gays get irritated at straights who assume they’re homo-catnip simply by virtue of having a penis.

It staggers me that Glee, a popular show with a strong gay sensibility and a large gay fanbase, would stoop to a plot like this – especially since series co-creator Ryan Murphy is a proudly gay man who says he was a proudly gay teen. I want the show to do better than this, because I know it can. Maybe, fingers crossed, there’s more to this story than that one-line spoiler indicates. I hope so.

(Not that I blame Kurt for wanting to get it awn with Finn. Cory Monteith is way cute.)


Gay pride!

Do I really need to explain why the lifeguards are my favourite part of the parade? Image: pinched from

While I was watching the Mardi Gras last night (on TV – watching it in person inevitably means battling sweaty crowds comprised of either loud bogans or screaming gays or loud screaming gay bogans), it occured to me that those homophobes are right when they insist that being gay is a choice.

They’re right, but not for the reason they think they’re right.

Being gay is not in itself a choice. No one chooses to be gay (or lesbian or bi or queer, or whatever; for simplicity’s sake I’m bundling them all up under “gay”); that’s decided by the genetic lottery. But every gay person chooses to live a gay lifestyle.

After all, no gay person has to live as an out gay person. You could acknowledge you’re gay but spend your entire life living in the closet. Or you could suppress your homosexuality altogether – get married, have kids, settle down into a life of permanently suppressing your true identity.

But both of these choices are deplorable, and it’s really sad that thousands of people believe it’s the best path for them, or worse, that they’re forced down that path by the people around them.

Sometimes I hear people questioning gay pride. “Why would you be proud of being gay?” they ask (and I’ve heard this from both gay and straight people). “It’s like being proud of having brown eyes.”

But gay pride isn’t merely about taking pride in being gay. It’s taking pride in choosing to live a gay lifestyle – choosing to live as yourself in defiance of all those hateful fuckwits who believe homosexuality is evil and wrong, or in defiance of the many people out there who “merely” have a dull, low-level scorn for men who kiss men.

The Mardi Gras, for all its ridiculous flamboyance, is a pretty great way of expressing that pride. What’s not to be proud of?


Gays on Glee

I love Glee. Love love love. I download every episode as soon as I can wait patiently for each episode to air on Australian TV. I listen to the soundtrack so much it’s worn out my iPhone. I have a picture of the cast next to my desk at work. Et cetera.


Something about Glee bothers me. This:

No, not by Chris Colfer. Chris Colfer is rad. I interviewed him when he and the rest of the cast were in Australia in September, and he seems like a lovely, sweet kid. (People have asked me if he talks the same way in real life that he does on TV. Yes, he does.)

I’m bothered by his Glee alter ego (his alter Gleego?), Kurt, the only (openly) gay character on the show. I don’t mind that he’s sensitive and soft-spoken. Plenty of guys are like that, gay or straight. I guess I can swallow the fact that Kurt is way into fashion. There are guys, gay and straight, who are way into fashion. But almost everything else about him is so screamingly stereotypically gay that I have a hard time resisting a full-body cringe when he prances onscreen.

In one episode where the Gleeks were split into male and female teams, Kurt tried to join the girls’ team (and later sided with them to sabotage the boys’ team). And in the latest episode, Kurt helped Finn (Cory Monteith) out solely in the hope of seducing him – as if gays only befriend straights as a shortcut to getting them into bed. (That’s only true some of the time!)

It’s a blot on an otherwise wonderful series – one which should be busting gay stereotypes, not wheeling them out dressed in fancy new outfits. Glee ought to do better, both as a show co-created by a gay man and as a show with such a strong gay following. More Kurt teaching the football team ‘Single Ladies’ and bonding with his macho dad, and less Kurt prancing about in two dimensions, please.