Event review: Queer Asia Book Launch

Somak Biswas – PhD in History Department (University of Warwick)


‘Queer’ in Asia

Queer History Warwick recently hosted the editors of the new volume ‘Queer’ Asia: Decolonising and Reimagining Sexuality and Gender (Zed Books, 2019). J Daniel Luther and Jennifer Ung Loh, conveners of the hugely successful ‘Queer’ Asia platform for inter-Asian collaborations, conversed with Warwick’s very own Goldie Osuri (Sociology) and Somak Biswas (History) on their new book.

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Based on a selection of presentations in ‘Queer’ Asia conferences over 2016-2019, it is an ambitious collection of academic papers, reflections and interviews that analyse and represent a multiplicity of queer lives and lineages around Asian landscapes. Over cakes and coffee, Danny and Jenny discussed what made them launch the Queer Asia project in 2016: ‘it was the continuous marginalisation faced within disciplinary academia as well as normative queer spaces.’

Within Asian studies, there was little to no cognisance of LGBT history; in queer studies, there was fierce domination of white/western understandings of what it meant to be non-binary. It was these dual closures that determined the initial work of the collective. Based institutionally in SOAS, but also supported by others such as the UCL and British Museum, the first conference drew an unexpectedly huge number of 500 participants/attendants.

Over the years, the annual ‘Queer’ Asia event in London became an amazing gathering of artists, activists and academics, later extending to Warwick. In these gatherings, the many meanings, trajectories and contexts of ‘queerness’ in Asia were presented, proffered and contested. Theatre performances, art installations but also more conventional academic presentations characterised these proceedings. Danny and Jenny pointed out the precarity of the project, the lack of any stable funds and how it had led them to consider innovative methods such as crowdfunding and soliciting unspent funds that institutions might have at their discretion. Their painstaking efforts, together with a small but dedicated crew of volunteers, paid off in the fascinating diversity and richness of offerings. The book volume is a gesture towards consolidating that effort.

Yet, as Jenny reminded us, the volume was in no way an attempt to present an essential Asian queerness, but rather open up further conversations. LGBT was too western a term to fit the complexities of the Asian queer experience, the editors felt. ‘Queer’ Asia aimed to recover, rehabilitate and historicise this diversity; record and rupture the ways in which such identities, such as that of the hijras in the Indian subcontinent, refused or exceeded western categories but nevertheless constituted the history of (queer) sexuality.

Goldie, commenting on the novelty of the project, was appreciative of how rooted it was in contemporary geopolitics such as the Israel-Palestine conflict and underlined the phenomenon of ‘pinkwashing’. She raised concerns on how ‘homonationalism’ has emerged as an influential formation and formulation in contemporary Asian politics. LGBT groups, seeking to consolidate and mainstream themselves, often end up supporting the hegemonic aspirations of their respective nations, as for example in Israel, India and China around interventions in West Bank, Kashmir or Hong Kong. The radicalism of queer politics is often lost in making such compromises, which is in no way a guarantee against the larger homophobia that is runs rife in these societies.

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Somak noted the remarkably diasporic quality of the project. Written, run and mediated primarily by queer Asians who are not themselves in Asia, in what ways did such dislocations shape the nature of the project? What kind of ‘Asia’ did such a book/project try to imagine, invest, historicise and mobilise? The editors reflected that the volume captured the phenomenon of ‘theory moves eastward while people move westward’ where Anglo-American and western institutions have increasingly become desirable in the global academic marketplace. That is, even as queer conceptualisations and knowledge on ‘eastern’ geographies are proliferating, people from those very locations are travelling westward for accumulation of knowledge, career and pursuit of aspirations. The hierarchies of global knowledge production very fundamentally inflect circuits of queer knowledge, art and notions of freedom. Yet, as many contributions in the volume constantly point out, queer migrant bodies in the West face a constant marginalisation owing to both their queerness and their minority identity. From asylum applications to racialised immigration protocols, queer immigrant bodies are perpetually at unease, at home and in diaspora.

In that, ‘Queer’ Asia represents a constantly shifting and mobile set of bodies and borders, riven by anxiety, conflict and ambivalence. It is a productive tension, and as our guests and their interlocutors pointed out, capable of deep and often painful insight. What is at the margins, or is marginalised, tells us so much more about how and what the ‘centre’ is, and is constituted by. ‘Queer’ Asia is an apt and timely reminder of that.

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