Monday, June 30, 2014

Celebrating 10 Years of Being Queer

In gay terms, I am ten years old this year, a young un. I was not out as a gay man to myself for the first thirty-four years of my life, even though I knew since primary school that I was strongly attracted to boys. I had to move from Singapore to New York in order to come out as gay. Unlike many friends, I lacked the courage to come out in Singapore. It was not easy to come out in New York either. I remember walking back and forth in front of a gay bar, terrified of going in. I had to join a coming-out group at Identity House for group therapy and discussion. I was not sick, but you don’t need to be sick to need therapy. You only need to be damaged. The first time I plucked up the courage to attend a meeting of the Gay Asian Pacific Islander Men of New York (GAPIMNY), I made sure I did not cross my legs in the room filled with gay Asian men; I did not want to appear effeminate.

But it was at the next GAPIMNY meeting, which of course ended with supper in a Chelsea restaurant, that I met my first boyfriend. Winston was smart, kind and gentle. We took long walks in the city and talked and talked and talked. I was studying creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College at that time, and could not wait for the weekends when I would take the half-hour Metro-North train ride from Bronxville to Grand Central Station, and then the subway to Brooklyn Heights to see him. Once, watching a movie alone in Bronxville, I decided to surprise him by seeing him mid-week. The visit was more for my sake than his, but he welcomed me, though it was past midnight, and I returned to the campus by train early in the morning.

It was easier for me to come out to my parents when I had a boyfriend. I did not make it easy for my parents, though. After telling them that I was gay, I told them next that he was visiting them in Singapore in three days’ time. They rose gallantly to the occasion. It was very difficult for them, for it was like mourning the death of a son whom they thought they know, but they welcomed Winston warmly. We went out for a satay dinner at Lau Pa Sat, or Old Market. It was harder for my sister, for she was a sincere Evangelical Christian. My parents were Christians too, but they came to Christianity late in life and, anyway, kinship, for them, trumps religion. Still, my sister asked both of us to her home for dinner. It was a magnificent gesture. Not of acceptance, mind you, for her religious belief forbids it, but of love. My parents still attend Faith Community Baptist Church (yes, where the senior pastor is the homophobic Lawrence Khong). My sister and her family are looking for another church closer to their home, the last I heard.

This summer I will visit Singapore, as I’ve been doing every year. Guy my boyfriend will join me there, for the second time. During his last visit, two years ago, he hated the crowded shopping malls, but he loved Little India, for its architecture, food and atmosphere. We will again stay with my parents, taking up one of the two bedrooms in their tiny apartment, my old bedroom, in fact. I’m looking forward to introducing him to my sister and brother-in-law, who were living in New Delhi at the time of Guy’s first visit. I don’t know how my sister will introduce Guy to my young nieces. She and I have not talked about it. We are very loyal to one another, but we don’t talk much. Some things do take time. I myself took a very long time to come to terms with my sexuality. The least, and perhaps best, that I can do is to give others time too.

Coming out does not mean I have all my questions answered, but it does mean that I can answer life’s questions more truthfully. What is the balance between freedom and responsibility? What are the claims and limitations of love? Why do I hit the gym so obsessedly? And it is not just a matter of truth. It is a matter of liberation. For only by understanding the truth about oneself and others can we expand the ambit of our freedom. The Bible has at least this right: the truth shall set you free.

What about the role of the law in guaranteeing our freedoms? The words of Michel Foucault are the lodestone to me in this respect. Asked by an interviewer if he saw any particular architectural projects, either in the past or the present, as forces of liberation or resistance, Foucault replied, “The liberty of men is never assured by the institutions and laws that are intended to guarantee them. This is why almost all these laws and institutions are quite capable of being turned around. Not because they are ambiguous, but simply because “liberty” is what must be exercised.” He does not mean, of course, that we should not try to change the laws and institutions to gain our liberties, but he insists that we cannot depend on laws and institutions to guarantee our freedom. For, as he puts it succinctly, “Liberty is a practice.” We must act as if we are already free.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Osamu Dazai's "Self Portraits"

Translated by Ralph F. McCarthy, Self Portraits: Tales from the life of Japan's great decadent romantic comprises 18 short stories by Osamu Dazai. The long introduction by the translator provides a useful biographical context for the stories. Dazai wrote a form of biographical fiction, which amounted to a light fictionalization of his actual life. The life was certainly decadent. Born into a wealthy and politically influential family, Dazai left his class by marrying a young geisha. He forsook his university education in order to be a writer. He had romantic liaisons with many women. He was addicted to drugs and alcohol. He tried committing double suicides with his lovers, and finally killed himself at the age of 39.

The Tales are, however, not romantic with a capital R; they do not seek transcendence of the mundane. Instead, they are wistful, even comical in places, full of consciousness, and self-consciousness, of life's suffering. They are non-resistant to life. "Cherries," the final story of the collection, is particularly self-lacerating. The shorter stories, such as "Female," "Seascape with Figures in Gold," "A Promise Fulfilled," are shapely and striking. The longer stories are ambitious and complex. His famous "One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji, " though not quite providing the number of views promised in the title, gave a variety of fresh expression of the beauty and meaning of this touristy icon. Not least among these views is a view of art, an ars poetica:

To take what is simple and natural--and therefore succinct and lucid--to snatch hold of that and transfer it directly to paper, was, it seemed to me, everything, and that thought sometimes allowed me to see the figure of Fuji in a different light. Perhaps, I would think, that shape was in fact a manifestation of the beauty of what I like to think of as "elemental expression." Thus I'd find myself on the verge of coming to an understanding with this Fuji, only to reflect that, no, there was something about it, something in its exceedingly cylindrical simplicity that was too much for me, that if this Fuji was worthy of praise, then sow ere figurines of the Laughing Buddha--and I find figurines of the Laughing Buddha insufferable, certainly not what anyone could call expressive. And the figure of this Fuji, too, was somehow mistaken, somehow wrong, I would think, and once again I'd be back where I started, confused. 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Rachael Briggs Reads "A Lover's Recourse"

The wonderful poet Rachael Briggs read and recorded the entire divan of 49 ghazals that concludes my book Seven Studies for a Self Portrait. What a feat and honor! The hero of the ghazals is a man whom I dated only twice, but fell head-over-heels for. The ghazals, however, are also crowded with other lovers. In her dramatic reading, Rachael teased out a great variety of tones and moods. Find a comfy seat. The whole reading takes only 1 hour, 12 minutes and 43 seconds. Let Rachael Briggs take you through "A Lover's Recourse."

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Starry Island

Order information for "Starry Island: New Writing from Singapore," the summer 2014 issue in the MANOA series of international literature published by the University of Hawai'i. Edited by Frank Stewart and Fiona Sze-Lorrain, this issue features the work of over two dozen writers and translators, including Kim Cheng Boey, Philip Jeyaretnam, Jee Leong Koh, Shirley Geok-lin Lim, O Thiam Chin, Wena Poon, Alfian Sa'at, Jeremy Tiang, Toh Hsien Min, and Cyril Wong.

Friday, June 13, 2014


smell of garbage
no garbage truck in sight
the fly follows me inside

Thursday, June 12, 2014


short summer night
in two months I will be tramping
the streets of Edo

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Starry Island: New Writing from Singapore

I'm in this anthology of new writing from Singapore, the 2014 summer issue of MANOA, published by the University of Hawai'i, edited by Frank Stewart and Fiona Sze-Lorrain.

Subtitle and Haiku

I think I may have the subtitle of my next collection: an album of haiku-like pieces.

girl on bike
grandfather on foot
short summer night

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Monday, June 09, 2014

Kafka on the Shore and a Haiku

In alternate chapters, two plots that begin far apart come together. In the first, Kafka Tamura, a fifteen-year-old abandoned by his mother at the age of four, runs away from home and finds refuge in a library. There he meets Oshima, a young transgender man, and Ms Saeki, who may or may not be his mother. Before reaching the library, he also has his first sexual experience with Sakura, who may or may not be his sister. Kafka's father is murdered, and the cops start searching for Kafka. In the second plot, Satoru Nakata lost all his memories, including the ability to read and write, on a mushroom-hunting expedition with his schoolmates. As an old man, he is an expert cat-finder as he is able to speak to cats. His murder of a cat-killer Johnnie Walker, however, puts him on the run. Helped by the young truck driver Hoshina, Nakata tries to find the entrance stone and is drawn inexorably, and mysteriously, to the library where Kafka hides. The novel is a good read, but I find it ultimately unsatisfying. There are many vivid scenes, such as the horrible one in which Johnnie Walker slits open the cats to eat their beating hearts, and the confrontation between Oshima and a pair of self-righteous feminists looking for sexual bias in the management of the Nomura Memorial Library. Also, the sex scenes are frank and stimulating. But the symbolism of the woods behind Oshima's mountain house feels heavy-handed. Telling Nakata's backstory through U.S. Army intelligence reports is also a less than fresh device. Minor characters, such as Oshima's surfer brother, appear incidental to the plot. The novel consists of disparate elements that seem to cohere only accidentally. Fate in the novel, a theme often evoked with reference to Greek Tragedy, is less inevitable than unavoidable.

the rain outside
sounds like white ants
gnawing through the roof

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Friday, June 06, 2014

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Monday, June 02, 2014