Friday, October 07, 2016

Booknote: Gaysia

Benjamin Law, Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East. Berkeley, CA: Cleis Press, 2014. ISBN: 978-1-62778-036-0.

Genre: nonfiction
Subgenre: Asian studies, LGBTQIA, travel writing, queer studies, sexuality
Format: trade paperback
Source: Berea branch of the Madison County (KY) Public Library

This is a book that I've wanted to read for a while now, so I was glad to see my public library got it. This is definitely a great travelogue and observation of the LGBTQIA experience in Southeast Asia. If you were to travel that part of the world, then Benjamin Law would make a great guide. He has a great ability to observe, which he combines with great writing plus a very descriptive and evocative style. He makes you feel that you are right there in the moment. He can be skeptical but also shows great empathy and acceptance. He writes with a strong sense of humanity and wonder.

The book covers seven Asian nations: Indonesia, Thailand, China, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar, and India. We get a range of the queer experience from Bangkok ladyboys to Melaka preachers claiming they can cure homosexuals. Through it all, Law observes, reflects, offers knowledgeable insight, and moves along with grace. This is definitely one of the best travel books I've read recently.

The book makes a good selection for public and academic libraries. I'll be ordering a copy for my library. Whether you read LGBTQIA books or not, if you want to learn a bit about this part of the world, this is a book for you. You are not going to find this kind of good travel narrative in sanitized sources like The Travel Channel. This is great travel writing and great queer writing. I am glad I got to read it and learn a few things along the way about the world.

5 out of 5 stars.

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Some additional reading notes:

As is often the case in life, truth is often more complex. You can't just judge or condemn something, be it sex work or something you may disapprove of due to morals by glance. For example:

"Often the dynamics of male sex work in Bali were more complicated than basic exploitation. For some moneyboys, it was a quick and creative way out of poverty, if you played your cards right" (35). 

Furthermore on the above, the Catch-22 of Bali's tourism:

"I was a little conflicted. Bali's tourism had lifted the island out of poverty, but there were other costs. The island's entire tourism model was a Catch-22: the pace of tourism steadily eroded Bali's native culture, environment, language, and religion, but economically Bali couldn't live without foreigners. Tourism was the island's lifeblood" (38). 

On the ladyboys' beauty pageants, this was a nice observation:

"I couldn't help but stare. Some of the girls caught my eye and smiled. I felt myself blush. It didn't matter whether you were attracted to men or women. Sometimes there were people in the world so gorgeous, so remarkably beautiful, that they made you feel as though you didn't belong in the same dimension as them" (48). 

And to wrap up this review, we have Japan, the land that gives us things like hentai and tentacle porn treats queer topics as taboo. When you ponder it, you do have to agree with the author, there is a certain sinister element:

"Sure, homosexuality was legal in Japan, Western-style homophobia wasn't rampant and TV programming was relentlessly faggy, but coming out as gay or lesbian in real life was still very difficult. Talking about sexuality-- actual queer sexuality, what being gay actually meant-- was generally taboo. Seen in a bigger context, the situation struck me as slightly sinister: queer celebrities going on-screen to have millions of viewers laugh at them, but knowing viewers couldn't care less once the TVs were off" (134). 

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This book qualifies for the following 2016 Reading Challenges:

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