You have to respect a gay male podcast host for doing an entire episode on middle-aged and elderly lesbians! That’s exactly what the WetBoyRoom ( 「潤男的Room」) podcast host did this week, interviewing the contributors to a book about this subject called 《阿媽的女朋友》 (Grandma’s Girlfriends), lesbians from older generations in Taiwan.
If you’re not super familiar with the lesbian scene in Taiwan, many of them of about my generation (30s) tend to identify as either 「T」 (short for the English word “Tomboy”) or 「婆」 (lipstick lesbian). With time, the lines between these categories have blurred just as they have in the male gay community, and many people now consider these terms outdated and being a heteronormative way of perceiving gay relationships (i.e. trying to figure out who is “the man” and who is “the woman” in the relationship). It was interesting to hear in the podcast that this dichotomy was actually a more recent phenomenon in the lesbian community, but a Taiwanese term in the podcast really peaked my interest. At the 10:55 mark, one of the characters is described (in a Mandarin sentence) in Taiwanese as 「漂撇ê穿褲 仔」phiau-phiat ê chhēng khò͘ á (瀟灑的穿褲子/ dashing trouser-wearer). Although I think the host actually said 「穿褲ê」, 「穿褲仔」 or girls who wore trousers, could be identified more easily as lesbians (if they were in fact lesbians) back in the day. So, it can be considered as an older version of the concept of 「T」.
Another handy Taiwanese term in the podcast (which you could likely insert in a Mandarin sentence to compliment a dinner-party host, or, more likely, to mock your friend’s paltry offering of a packet of Lays as an hors d’oeuvre) is 「腥臊」 chhe-chhau (also pronounced chheⁿ-chhau or chhiⁿ-chhau), which is equivalent to the term 「豐盛」 in Mandarin, meaning “rich and sumptuous”:
那天同媽準備了很豐盛的食物，不只是麻油雞，我記得她準備了一整桌非常腥臊 （chhe-chhau click for audio） 的菜。
(That day, Aunty Tong prepared a bounty of food, not just sesame oil chicken, I remember she prepared an entire table of rich sumptuous food.)
Definitely looks like an interesting books to read, will have to add it to my list!
While ostensibly chronicling his family history, from the war-torn Vietnam his mother and schizophrenic grandmother witnessed, to the immigrant experience in the US, the author of this novel provides a breathtaking look at contemporary America, from morphine addiction to racial and class-based inequality and the politics of integration and queerness.
The novel is structured as a letter to the author’s mother, who cannot read in English, giving the author license to say things that he may never have been able to communicate with her in their common tongue, which the author describes as follows:
“The Vietnamese I own is the one you gave me, the one whose diction and syntax reach only the second-grade level. […] a time capsule, a mark of where your education ended, ashed. Ma, to speak in our mother tongue is to speak only partially in Vietnamese, but entirely in war.”
All through the book, the author plays with language in a fascinating way, at times veering into poetry, at times examining language itself, facilitated perhaps by the distance provided by his mother’s unfamiliarity with the English language:
“How often do we name something after its briefest form? Rose bush, rain, butterfly, snapping turtle, firing squad, childhood, death, mother tongue, me, you.”
For me, as well as its emotional impact, many parts of the book have a powerful wit and humour to them which made me linger over certain passages.
The immigrant experience in the US (although one could also say more generally) is captured in passages such as the one that follows, about the nail salon in which his mother works:
“In the nail salon, sorry is a tool one uses to pander until the word itself becomes currency. It no longer merely apologizes, but insists, reminds: I’m here, right here, beneath you. It is the lowering of oneself so that the client feels right, superior, and charitable. In the nail salon one’s definition of sorry is deranged into a new word entirely, one that’s charged and reused as both power and defacement at once. Being sorry pays, being sorry even, or especially, when one has no fault, is worth every self-deprecating syllable the mouth allows. Because the mouth must eat.”
The author later echoes his mother’s self-deprecation, while working on a tobacco plantation, when he meets his first lover for the first time:
“I would know only later that he was Buford’s grandson, working the farm to get away from his vodka-soaked old man. And because I am your son, I said “Sorry.” Because I am your son, my apology had become, by then, an extension of myself. It was my H
But the novel also touches on other issues in the US, like the impact of the marketing of oxycontin by the pharmaceutical industry to doctors leading to drug dependency among wide swathes of the US population and the overdose deaths of many of the author’s friends.
What I loved about the book was how real the author seemed in his thought patterns, in the realistic way memories flitted up during conversation and associations click in his mind, even if they weren’t verbalized by the character at that time. There is also an honesty to the portrayal of his sexual experiences which makes them rawer and more real. Think Peep Show‘s portrayal of sex without the comic aspect. I also liked how real his coming out conversation is with his mother, as the ball is taken completely out of his court as she confronts him with her own truths, which I think is part of a lot of people’s coming out experience.
One of the tidbits of cultural information about Vietnam was about the use of drag performers in funeral processions, which is similar but different to the gaudy performances at Taiwanese funerals:
“City coroners, underfunded, don’t always work around the clock. When someone dies in the middle of the night, they get trapped in a municipal limbo where the corpse remains inside its death. As a response, a grassroots movement was formed as a communal salve. Neighbors, having learned of a sudden death, would, in under an hour, pool money and hire a troupe of drag performers for what was called “delaying sadness” […] It’s through the drag performers’ explosive outfits and gestures, their overdrawn faces and voices, their tabooed trespass of gender, that this relief, through extravagant spectacle, is manifest. As much as they are useful, paid, and empowered as a vital service in a society where to be queer is still a sin, the drag queens are, for as long as the dead lie in the open, an othered performance. Their presumed, reliable fraudulence is what makes their presence, to the mourners, necessary. Because, grief, at its worst, is unreal. And it calls for a surreal response.”
Anyway, there’s so much more that I don’t really know how to describe, but a great read, would definitely recommend.
Just a quick update on what I’ve been reading and what I plan to read over the coming months.
I bought a book called 《斷代》 by Taiwanese author Kuo Chiang-sheng (郭強生) after the salesperson recommended it at the GinGin Bookstore and have just begun to read it. I suspect the title is a piece of wordplay, as it can mean “to divide between distinct periods of history” and by extension hints that the book goes into the division between the older and younger generation of gay men in Taipei and the driving ideologies behind their attitudes (this certainly seems to be the case from what I’ve read so far); in addition to this, however, 「斷」 also means “cut” and 「代」can mean “successor” – which suggests the title also points to the gay experience as the final generation of a family (in that they cannot reproduce). This put me in mind of a passage from Chu Tien-wen’s (朱天文) brilliant Notes of a Desolate Man(《荒人手記》):
Went to an enjoyable book launch today. The book is called 《臺中一姊遇到法國小王子》(The woman from Taichung meets the little French prince). I read the first few chapters when I was waiting to meet the author. The book seems like a charming, light read, on the development of the romance of the author and her French boyfriend (now husband). If you’re asking “why do I care?” right now, the answer is perhaps that Taiwan is still very conservative about what it calls “cross-cultural” relationships, and this book has an important task in offering an alternative representation of foreign male/Taiwanese female relationships to the one that Apple Daily most revels in, ie a nasty foreign guy who is unemployable in his own country, comes to Taiwan, and uses a combination of drink and foreign tricks to sleep with her, robbing Taiwanese men of their birthright (I think Li Ang’s book is having an effect on me). The couple are very charming, and the vocabulary is definitely very accessible for foreign learners looking to pick up their first Chinese-language novel. Of what I gleaned of the tone of the book, it’s not about foreigner worship, or doing down Taiwan, but is rather a comic but sincere look at how relationships like these function long term, which is what Professor Fongming Yang was asking for in this article.
Thanks to my skills with the camera, most of the footage is a little fuzzy along with the pictures, but had an interesting chat with the author (above), and will write a review after I’ve read it, incorporating some of the footage I shot.
I have been jumping from book to book lately, so going to post what I’m reviewing next in the hope that this will put a little pressure on me to stick with one all the way through. I started I Am China by Xiaolu Guo, but not overly impressed by what I’ve read so far – a tired story about a Chinese dissident rocker who is seeking asylum in the UK that right now is seeming a little bit pretentious, somewhere between an Amy Tan novel and Ma Jian’s Red Dust, except not as edgy, equipped with dullish references to the Beat generation (((((Kerouac’s overrated))))) and China’s misty poets – but going to give it a chance, because I completely misjudged Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and ended up loving it – so going to put it on the back-burner, and I am currently nose-deep in the long-awaited counterpart to Li Ang’s (李昂) 1997 work 《北港香爐人人插》 (Everyone sticks it in the Beigang incense burner) called 《路邊甘蔗眾人啃》 (Everybody nibbles on the sugar cane at the side of the road). The new book, published this year deals with men and power, whereas the previous book dealt with women and power. I haven’t read the previous book, but have heard interesting things about the author. I’m also interested to see if the “restricted to ages 18 and over” label stuck on the front is actually warranted, or is just a marketing technique.
The other books I’m lining up are 《馬橋詞典》 (A Dictionary of Maqiao in English) by Han Shaogong (韓少功), recommended to me by Chris Peacock, so looking forward to it.
I’m also going to give Yu Hua a second chance after the average but disappointing 《活著》 (To Live).
Got any recommendations? Reading any books that you are enjoying? Or read these books and want to have your say, comment below and I’ll get back to you.
I’ve also got a review of A Touch of Sin by Jia Zhangke in the pipeline, it’s a great film.