Review | Despair. Hope. Depression. Love. True stories of LGBT life in Asia are unflinching, moving and surprising
- Intimate Strangers: True Stories From Queer Asia is a collection of non-fiction stories about what it’s like being LGBT in conservative Asia
- It’s also a showcase of creative language, the stories retaining each writer’s vernacular English to reflect the diversity of experiences and authors
Intimate Strangers: True Stories from Queer Asia, edited by Carmen Ho and Gregg Schroeder, Signal 8 Press, 4/5 stars
Intimate Strangers manages to be two rare things. It is a collection of unflinchingly honest, revelatory and intimate accounts of being LGBT in Asia, where such voices are often brutally silenced or, at best, subdued and ignored. It is also a showcase of creative English non-fiction from Asia.
The editors say they deliberately preserved each contributor’s vernacular English to celebrate “the variety and richness of English as it is used throughout the Asia-Pacific region”. And that is important: an anthology reflecting a diversity of experiences should allow its contributors to sound like themselves which, in any case, can enrich the language.
For example, the story Divine Comedy contains the line: “My utterance to you of the truth was the release I never knew I needed.” This may sound faintly archaic, but it powerfully captures the moment when Agatha Verdadero from the Philippines came out to her dying, elderly mother. The biblical ring of “utterance” and “truth” is in keeping with how she reconciled her religion with her sexuality.
As Alistair Yong points out in Gift from God, there is a lot of misunderstanding about the make-up of the LBGT community in Asia, and people like himself – who “prefer to lead quiet uneventful lives” and hope to find a life partner – are rarely seen and heard.
Living in such an oppressive environment has led Yong “to the edge”. He writes about his life in Kuala Lumpur becoming a whirlpool of despair, as he falls more frequently into what he calls “the darkness”. On his last night in the Malaysian capital before moving back to his parents’ home in East Malaysia, he looks over the balcony and contemplates “the journey down from the thirtieth floor of the condominium”.
A similar darkness haunts Indonesian Edward Gunawan wherever he lives. In Crows Like Us, he describes being told by his parents that homosexuality either did not exist in Asia or that “people like them” were doomed to a life of misery.
His Chinese-Indonesian parents lived through two waves of anti-Chinese violence in the country in 1965 and 1998, and he writes that he understood why they wanted to protect him from even more “minority stress”. He tries to conform, even obligingly going for hormone tests and gay conversion therapy in Jakarta before escaping to Los Angeles, where he becomes an out, gay actor.
Still, the depression that his parents predicted – a self-fulfilling prophecy given the constant drip-feed of negativity – stays with him.
Even Caucasian expatriates with Western partners are not immune to such stress in Asia. Nancy L. Conyers perfectly conveys the weight of daily, systemic discrimination in Asia by describing what it feels like when this weight is lifted.
“When the caseworker read our applications, she asked to see our marriage licence, made a copy of it, and said, ‘welcome to Sweden’. Simple as that. My eyes welled up and I wasn’t even able to choke out a thank you. That moment was so huge for me, and for Libby and me, but it was just another moment in a typical day for that Swedish caseworker.”
Conyers and her wife had spent years in Shanghai and Hong Kong before moving to Europe, and she is now back in Asia. In Singapore, she has to face extended periods outside the country to avoid being found out by immigration as an illegally trailing spouse.
While this collection of stories is a reminder that Asia lags behind the West when it comes to recognising LGBT rights, the stories are filled with messages of courage, hope and love.
Even those who are well-informed about the state of LGBT affairs in Asia will be surprised and moved by Intimate Strangers.