[REVIEW] Gaysia by Benjamin Law

Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East by Benjamin Law

From the Blurb…

Benjamin Law considers himself pretty lucky to live in Australia: he can hold his boyfriend’s hand in public and lobby his politicians to recognise same-sex marriage. As the child of migrants, though, he also wonders how different life might have been had he grown up elsewhere. So off he sets to meet his fellow Gaysians.

Law takes his investigative duties seriously, going nude as required in Balinese sex resorts, and taking Indian yoga classes designed to cure his homosexuality. The characters he meets – from Tokyo’s celebrity drag queens to HIV-positive Burmese sex workers, from Malaysian ex-gay Christian fundamentalists to Thai ladyboy beauty contestants – all teach him something new about being queer in Asia.

Commentary

This book was a going away present from a friend, and it turned out to be perfect reading material for my first few nights in Tokyo. Benjamin Law has a wonderful style: readable, funny and honest. He is at once a journalist, a tourist and an anthropologist as he travels to each new location and peels away the layers of its local LGBTI community.

But Gaysia doesn’t pull its punches: it lays bare the prejudice and contradictions faced by contemporary Asian queers, and doesn’t oversimplify or force a positive spin on sombre situations. And though Law doesn’t really answer some of the larger ethical questions that crop up during his travels, this book is less about ideas and more about people, their stories and their cultures — wonderfully so. Law has an incredible talent for storytelling, and the anecdotes told to him by his diverse cast of interviewees are as riveting and illuminating as his own first-person accounts. Occasionally I found his personal narrative veering a little to much into the indulgent, and at other times I was left frustrated by his refusal to engage with — or at least condemn — the damaging bigots he encounters (if not in person then at least elsewhere in Gaysia’s pages). But by the same token, Law never lectures or moralises; he lets people speak for themselves.

Even if you’ve never had cause to wonder about some of the obscure pockets of the world Law delves into with aplomb, Gaysia is a fascinating read. And just when the dire situations he illustrates threaten to overwhelm the book’s tone, Law shows off his sharp sense of humour through vivid descriptions of local settings and people. The rooms at a Bali resort catering exclusively to gay men, for instance, were reviewed online as “‘horrendously camp’ and ‘if Liberace had designed a hotel, this would be it’. That was unfair. The rooms felt more like Jean Paul Gaultier and David LaChapelle had been jointly commissioned to design a wonderful sex dungeon”. The religious leaders promising to cure their congregations’ homosexuality don’t escape unscathed either. In Malaysia, while leading his followers through a medley of upbeat Hillsong-esque numbers, the pastor “placed an open palm over his heart and balled his other hand into a fist, pumping violently as if he were angrily milking an uncooperative cow”.

But Law is never intentionally cruel. One of the author’s — and by extension Gaysia’s — greatest assets is his compassion. And while the book never seeks tidy, happy endings, it never loses its sense of hope either.

Recommended?

Even if you have no prior knowledge of or particular interest in gays in Asia, Gaysia is a witty, interesting, funny and enlightening travelogue that makes you feel like a better person for having read it.

Advertisements

Comments

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s