Why, when I try to pin my Asian face to a location
I think of food and sex. Carnality as a proxy
for acceptance, the silence around it the same
concealment of curiosity, disdain, interest or
hostility. Eating is done done done to death this
cliché about Asians and food but smother me
in roast duck drippings, lay me down on a bed
of edible jellyfish. I’ve wandered Chinatowns
in London, Toronto, Sydney, our tiny Promised
Lands in each of earth’s pockets. I breathe in a
life-long familiarity but if questioned: What?
As if I can get away with whipping out an identity
card and saying my skin is yellow. I’ve known
racism. I eat quantities of pork belly. Everyone eats
pork belly these days and white Sydneysiders
cook better Chinese food than me or my mother.
What I’m really trying to say is I was so obsessed
once with place that I shed locations and countries
like weight, regained it in different shapes and
now in a happily monogamous relationship
have no interest in affairs. Happy though to spin
the globe, a game from childhood though chances
are you end in water. It’s enough to say something,
isn’t it? To go along, not feel offended, not look for
offense, not try too hard, to be who I am, where
I am while noting that ‘I’ and ‘here’ are constructs
but what most of us work with, most of the time.
Andy Quan, Canadian-Asian-Australian poet and author, has been well represented in anthologies and individual collections that attest to his critical and cultural engagement with life as a gay man and as a person of colour. To simplify his work, however, to mere niche identity politics (which would still be of great interest – at least for me), would be to gloss over the beautiful, compressed narratives of his poetry, which manages to be both vernacular and accessible and still reach out to a more universal question – how does the act of writing both shape and shape-shift the world?
He notes that issues of identity were key to his early writing career: “to define myself as an Asian writer, to speak from my own experiences, and to tell my own story, as a way of actively adding to Canadian literature and to gay literature.” This strategy, both an honest reflection of his own life and an active desire to promote diversity, is explored particularly in his short stories, which often deal with the intersection between being gay and being Asian. These themes, which reoccur in Andy’s work, have at times been a double-edged sword. Having focused specifically on being Asian and being gay, he has at times found himself pigeon-holed by his own definitions. Yet an exploration of the questions of community and identity remain key to his writing – Andy’s work frequently asks “who are we?” and “how do we belong?” Indeed, they are powerful questions. For Andy, race is illuminated within the context of society: “When one is forced to examine identity as a deep and complex thing that includes racial, cultural, national and sexual identities.”
The piece featured here, “Place”, which so directly answers the question asked by Peril’s theme of terra, is a lovely example of Andy’s work, rejecting and still engaging with the limitations of the theme, before moving to a position of gently unresolved “going along, not feeling offended”. Pinned to Gallery 4A, a beautiful art space in Chinatown, Sydney that fosters Asian Australian art, it reflects Andy’s appreciation of the interpersonally ambiguous. Gallery 4A was the location at which he launched his second book of poetry, Bowling Pin Fire, but is not a location for him of particularly intense personal connection. Andy acknowledges a previous obsession with the concept of place and location, one that required precise gradations in the definition of place, say, for example, comparing himself as a West Coast Canadian to those in Central Canada where he did his university studies. Having moved from Canada to Europe, Europe to Australia – these places form the emotional, psychic and intellectual map of his life, but finding a specific location in Australia that has deep cultural meaning was somewhat more challenging for Andy.
Perhaps this is reflective of the fact that, having lived so long with the issues of identity and place, he finds that he no longer spends as much time talking about “being Asian or being gay”. But he acknowledges that defining his cultural background has always been an important part of his life, with clear overlap in his artistic career.
As he says, “I don’t think anyone growing up as a cultural minority can get away from the question ‘what are you?’, growing up, and while this used to annoy me, I recognise that if I meet someone that I know is from a different culture, I want to know where they’re from too. It’s not a bad thing to be curious and open. The problem is if, race, as such a predominant concept, becomes the primary lens that we see each other through. I have found it discomfiting when meeting people who have a need to immediately culturally fix who I am – the second question after asking my name. It can feel rude and limiting.”
Beautifully, however, he acknowledges that that process of identification depends on time and place. If he has the space to do so with those who ask, he explains that he is third-generation Chinese-Canadian on his father’s side, and fifth-generation Chinese-Canadian on his mother’s side, with roots in the villages of Canton. He explains that he was born in Canada, but possesses an American passport through his mother, and is now very proud to have Australian citizenship.
In relation to this current chapter of residency, he says, “My sense of belonging is not a matter of whether I ate lamingtons while I was growing up, but that I am making an active choice to belong, and to choose where I live… and vote.” In addition to this engagement as an Australian in the civic sense, a recent anthology by Puncher & Wattman, Contemporary Asian Australian Poetry, featured Andy’s work alongside a swathe of accomplished and emerging Asian Australian writers. While for Andy, inclusion in the anthology is an honour, not least of all because it “shows that ‘Australian’ as a concept embraces both those who were born here and those who have emigrated here”, perhaps it is a sign more broadly that Australia has adopted him, at least for poetic purposes, happy to construct him as Asian Australian in the “here”, at least for now.
– Interview with Eleanor Jackson, Peril Poetry Editor