Roland Sintos Coloma
QUEERING ASIAN CANADA
TROUBLING FAMILY, GENERATION, AND COMMUNITY
THE HISTORY OF ASIANS1 in Canada is central to the history of Canada. What this history tells us is that Asians occupy a paradoxical position in Canada: they are needed and rejected at the same time, desired and undesirable for settlement, inclusion, and integration. Asians initially migrated to Canada in the mid 1800s to work in the gold and coal mines, railway and road construction, and the agricultural, fishing, and lumber industries2. Asians— more specifically, the Chinese, Indians, and Japanese—were welcomed for their labouring bodies in service of the economic development and prosperity of Canada. However, when Asians were deemed as threats to white labour and to the social moral order of “White Canada forever,” their immigration was restricted and then terminated, and their civil rights were severely curtailed. In other words, Asians’ economic usefulness and social subservience was their key to enter Canada’s racialized gates of labour, migration, and eventual citizenship.
The photograph of the “Last Spike” in 1885 provides one of the earliest visual representations of the undesirability of Asians generally, and the Chinese particularly, in Canada.3 Chinese bodies and labour were direly needed and aggressively recruited to build the trans-national railroad, but were purposefully omitted in the visual representation of the railroad’s successful completion. The photograph only showcased white male financiers, managers, and workers. Consequently, so long as Asians continue to serve the socio-cultural, economic, and political interests of white Canada, they are tolerated and allowed to migrate, work, and stay. However, once they clamor for what Nancy Fraser4 calls the discursive recognition of their lived conditions and structural redistribution of material benefits, thereby calling into question the nation-state’s balance of power, then Asians are considered ungrateful, disposable, and ultimately undesirable.5
I provide this broad sketch of Asian Canadian history not only to make important connections between the past and present, but also to call into question the dominant analytical concepts in the narration and construction of racialized minorities, diasporic movements, and the Canadian nation-state. It seems that one of the most compelling yet largely unexamined concepts that structure and drive racialized and immigrant communities in general and Asian Canadians in particular is family, especially the heteronormative, patriarchal family. I argue that mobilizing a queer framework on Asian Canadian studies and on Asian Canadian history can open new inquiries into the centrality of family in racialized minority and diasporic groups, and its connections to other intertwined analytical concepts, such as generation and community. In other words, queering Asian Canadian studies enables an examination of race and racialization within and through the framework of sexuality. It marks the presence (or absence) of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender subjects of Asian descent in the diaspora, and troubles conventional understandings of history, family, generation, and nation. As Robert Diaz suggests, “For many queer diasporic communities, inclusion within institutionalized forms of national belonging are often illusive, ambivalent, and unresolved.”6 By rethinking these analytical concepts through queer possibilities and interventions, research into Asian Canada can become more inclusive and transgressive that takes into account complicated and multi-dimensional differences and intersectionalities.
ON FAMILY, GENERATION, AND COMMUNITY
Consider the ways in which the concept of family is mobilized as a central goal, justification, and effect for Asian Canada and diaspora.7 Many Asians leave for employment opportunities elsewhere for the economic security and welfare of their families who remain back home. They send money or remittances to their families for food, housing, health, education, and other expenses. They apply for permanent residency and citizenship so they can sponsor family members and reunify in their newly adopted home. Or they return home so they can reunite with their families after years of distance and separation. Because of diaspora, families are separated, become distant, get connected through travel and technology, come together, or remain apart. Some families splinter, others remain intact, and new families form and emerge. For scholars of history, literature, culture, politics, and society, family is a central analytical unit and concept in studies of racialized minority and diasporic populations.8 For generations and communities, families serve as a glue that bind those near and far. Families often bring up the structures and affects of home, belonging, security, and collectivity.
Yet the configuration of the nuclear family is largely absent in the early histories of Asian Canada. The initial migration of the Chinese, South Asian, and Japanese in Canada was certainly gendered and more specifically more male oriented. The convergence of Canadian economic interests and Asian cultural tendencies generated a preference for Asian men to be the ideal imported labour in various industries in the 1800s and the early 1900s. Historians have documented the lived experiences and working conditions of the Asian “sojourners” and the so-called “bachelor societies.”9 Yet these were deliberately constructed by Canadian political and economic interests who wanted Asian migrants for their labouring bodies, but not for their cultures or their families, and certainly not for permanent settlement and integration in mainstream white society. Different laws and regulations from the Canadian state produced varying family configurations for Asian Canadian ethnic groups. The Canadian government instituted Chinese Immigration Acts from 1885 to 1923 that charged exorbitant head taxes, with the goal of curtailing Chinese migration to Canada.10 The South Asian community faced a similar restriction policy through the Canadian government’s passage of the Continuous Journey regulation in 1908, which prohibited the immigration of individuals who did not come from their country of birth or citizenship by a continuous journey to Canada. The Japanese community confronted similar anti-Asian violence and sentiments as the Chinese and South Asians, and the Canadian government struck a “gentlemen’s agreement” with Japan in 1908 restricting immigration to Canada to 400 individuals. However, this agreement allowed a provision for returning residents and their wives, children, and parents to be permitted entry into Canada, which enabled the formation of relatively more Japanese Canadian families and subsequent generations. Overall, Asian migrants were viewed as temporary workers who are supposed to go back home or go away once their tasks and usefulness have been completed. This type of thinking continues in the current Temporary Foreign Worker Program and more specifically for caregiving, seasonal agricultural work, and food service industries.11 The logics and policies of the Canadian nation-state in relation to racialized migration and labour certainly shaped and continue to shape the formation not only of Asian Canadian families, but also of their generations and communities.
The labour and migration logic and policy to actively recruit Asian male labourers and not Asian women were conscious and deliberate. According to Ena Dua there were debates in the late 1800s and early 1900s about the exclusion and inclusion of female migrants from China, Japan, and India to Canada.12 On the one hand, the majority believed that female migrants from Asia should be excluded to ensure that male workers would be rendered as temporary residents. On the other hand, a small minority argued that female migrants from Asia should be allowed into Canada to quell anxieties about inter-racial sexuality between Asian men and white women and to protect white women and safeguard white purity. Simultaneously, the few Asian women who were allowed to migrate and enter Canada were often depicted as prostitutes. Admittedly, there were Asian Canadian couples and families in the late 1800s and early 1900s, consequently producing second-generation children— some of whom were of mixed race background.
Given these dynamics, I suggest that, given these racialized gender, labour, and migration dynamics, the early history of Asian Canada was queer: queer in the sense that the relative absence of a nuclear heteronormative family produced different types of structured and affective relations, kinships and homosocialities that went against constructs of respectable domesticity, filial arrangements, and sexual hierarchies. These queer ties generated alternative forms of kinships that did not rely on filial ties of blood or marriage. They created and relied on convivial relations within and across generations and communities that served as modes and resources for survival in otherwise hostile environments. There are few published academic studies on queer Asian Canadian history, which foreground non-normative sexual and gender identities and expressions.13 Nayan Shah is one of the few historians who has taken a queer approach in examining homosocial spaces and relations. In his book, on Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality and the Law in the North American West. Shah tracks courts cases involving South Asian men who were charged with deviant sexual acts in the Pacific Northwest.14 It is one of the few historical texts that provide archival details of actual same-sex relations and intimacies within Asian Canadian contexts. Amy Sueyoshi maintains,
While naysayers of queer history cite a lack of sources for its documentation, the real trouble may life in how materials deemed historically significant are collected and catalogued …. The most accessible records, however, can also be the most problematic. Because same-sex sexuality has a longer history of criminalization rather than acceptance, queers most readily appear in arrest records and court proceedings 15
To provide counter-histories of racialized sexualities, there has been increasing interest to collect and showcase archival materials on the histories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Asian Canadians. In Toronto, for instance, the Canadian for Lesbian and Gay Archives carries collections pertaining to various Asian Canadian LGBT organizations, such as the Asian Community AIDS Services, Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention, Gay Asians Toronto, Gay Asian AIDS Project, and Khush (South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association). York University faculty member Andil Gosine curated an exhibition entitled Khush: A Show of Love in 2011 that drew from the letters and other materials donated by Khush founder Nelson Carvalho to the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives. University of Toronto faculty member Robert Diaz, alongside doctoral students Marissa Largo and Fritz Luther Pino, organized a conference in 2015 entitled “Diasporic Intimacies,” showcasing the histories and current conditions of LGBT Filipinx in Canada. Following Gosine and Diaz who have utilized cultural materials to narrate various strands of Asian Canadian queer histories, I turn to artists and cultural producers who provide rich and robust representations of queer Asian Canada. In pursuing research in queer Asian Canada, I am keenly interested in both the documentation and recuperation of LGBT Asian Canadians in history, as well as the deconstruction of the embodiment and enactment of racial-sexual subjectivities.
Following Kevin Kumashiro I am interested in queering as an analytical strategy of troubling Asian Canada. In his book on queer activism and anti-oppressive pedagogy, Kumashiro maintains that we “have an ethical responsibility not only to learn and use the troubling or discomforting research already in existence, but also to engage in further troubling or complicating that research by looking beyond the theories and methods that we already know.”16 He employs the concept of troubling in the adjective form of discomforting and the verb form of complicating. In other words, queering Asian Canada entails providing troubling or discomforting research that centers the non-normative subjectivities and lived experiences of LGBTQ individuals and collectivities. It also entails troubling or complicating concepts that have become fundamental in the analysis of racialized and diasporic communities—concepts such as family, generation, and community. Noting a recent and exciting resurgence of explicitly queer Asian Canadian cultural work, in this article I will examine the film It Runs in the Family (Joella Cabalu, 2015), and Re:Orientations (Richard Fung, 2016) and the 2016 exhibition Not a Place on a Map: The Desh Pardesh Project curated by Anna Malla. These three cultural works not only center the experiences and representations of queer Asian Canadians, thereby troubling heteronormative and homonational formations, but also trouble received understandings of family, generation, and community which fundamentally structure our conceptualization of Asian Canadian life and futurity.
TROUBLING FAMILY IN IT RUNS IN THE FAMILY
Joella Cabalu’s film It Runs in the Family is centered on her gay, younger brother Jay and their search for family members in the United States and the Philippines who are also lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Initially inspired by a 2007 documentary entitled For the Bible Tells Me So (Daniel G. Karslake, 2007) that featured five Christian families in the United States, Joella was interested in addressing questions of queer sexualities and religion from a racialized minority and, in particular, a Filipinx perspective in Canada and beyond. Raised in a devout Roman Catholic family, Joella aimed to “shatter those stereotypes” of Asians and Filipinx as being monolithic and conservative and to provide a more “progressive” account of LGBT individuals and their families.17 Prior to It Runs in the Family, she completed a 10-minute film entitled Stand Still (2014) that showcased Jay and their parents Jose and Maridin Cabalu “talking openly for the first time about their conflicting beliefs” regarding religion and homosexuality. Joella considered these two films as “completely separate,” but Stand Still served as “essentially the jumping off point for [her] to explore all the other relatives in [her] family, in [her] extended family, who are also queer-identifying”18
The search for love and acceptance within one’s family is a struggle that many queer individuals confront. Alice Hom suggests that “sexuality is an issue rarely or never discussed amongst Asian families, yet it remains a vital aspect of one’s life.” In her early study of Asian American parents with lesbian and gay children, Hom finds that some “parents believe their child has changed and is no longer the person they thought they knew.” Many parents go through varying and often conflicting emotions when their child “comes out,” ranging “from the loss of a dream they had for their child to a fear of what is in store for them as a gay or lesbian person in this society.”19 Yet others also believe that homosexuality is not a Western import, and know of same-sex couples in their homelands in Asia. Consequently, depending on their parents’ reactions and attitudes to non-normative sexual and gender identities, LGBTQ youth and adults seek families – at times, develop their own families of choice – where they feel love, acceptance, and a sense of belonging. Due to limited representations of the intersection of race, sexuality, and diaspora in mainstream films and media, Joella felt a “personal obligation to share these stories,” even something as personal, intimate, and difficult as that of her brother and their family.20
Joella affirmed and troubled at the same time the search of family for racialized queers. While her and her brother’s search was a yearning to find queer biological ties, it expanded beyond the nuclear family formation and even beyond Canada, a country deemed as more accepting and progressive on LGBTQ issues.21 Their search to find queer relatives, in fact, led them to travel from Vancouver to Oakland, California in the United States and then to Manila, Philippines. In Oakland, they met their cousin Monica Sales-Cuyong and her wife Jolly, who both live with Monica’s father in the family home. Monica talked about her parents’ acceptance and support when she came out, their participation in her and Jolly’s wedding, and her ongoing involvement in the church. Jay indicated his yearning for such loving parenting in “a modern queer family,” inspired by Monica’s parents who did not focus on the “morality of her sexuality” but cared more about her wellbeing.22 In Manila, they met their cousin Carlo Pasion who is biologically male yet expresses her gender as a female named Jazz. To Joella’s confusion and surprise, Jazz’s father comfortably used the female pronouns of “she” and “her” when referring to Jazz, but still called her by her male name of Carlo. Jazz admitted that she did not mind being called tito or uncle Carlo by her nieces and nephews, would always check the “male” box for her gender, but did not have a gender pronoun preference. Growing up, she was always supported by her parents and siblings who regarded her as the keeper of the ancestral family home. Her father said, “I cannot differentiate between transgender and a gay and a lesbian. They are all people to me.” Jazz’s gender fluidity challenged Joella’s (and the global North’s) dominant views of identity and orientation that are contained and constrained within either/or binaries. In a country strongly influenced by the Catholic Church, with religious stores prevalent in shopping malls, Jay and Joella spent their last day in the Philippines marching in the LGBT pride parade with their cousin Jazz.
Joella Cabalu, It Runs in the Family (2015). Video, 48:00 minutes. Jay and cousin Jazz walk down an alley, dressed for the Metro Manila Pride Parade. (It Runs in the Family is available to view at outtvgo.com)
In the Philippines, Joella and Jay also met their father’s gay brother Cris. Their uncle Cris recalled their grandmother telling him a story about Jay wanting to brush his sister’s hair, and exclaimed, “Oh, it runs in the blood. It runs in the family.” When Joella mentioned that being gay was perceived as being cursed, Cris replied incredulously, “Am I the devil in your face? Am I? It might be a sin in the family.” He asserted not only a biological link to Jay’s homosexuality, but also a personal connection to resisting homophobia within the family. For instance, when Cris was in his twenties, around the same age as Jay in the film, he defied their grandfather when he chose not to reject a budding relationship with a man. Moreover, Cris wondered about public declarations of queerness by coming out. For Jay, “the coming out process is not necessarily to tell you something that you don’t already know …. You’re admitting it to yourself and you’re also admitting it to another human being …. It can no longer be something that you step around. We can now address it in an open way.” However, meeting his queer relatives in the Philippines and having cross-generational conversations made Jay realize that family members “come to the same understanding without words” and “have found a way to mix religion and more progressive ideas”23 about non-normative sexual and gender identities.
The beginning and the ending of the film features Jay creating a self-image collage while narrating previous experiences, his family dynamics, and the journey he has taken thus far. In each segment, he tears small pieces from magazines and meticulously glues them on a canvas, as if each torn yet glued piece symbolizes each experience, producing an intensely personal and multidimensional portrait. For Jay, these fragments reflected the different ways he saw himself, and the entire collage was “the sum of all his experiences up until now.” In their search for LGBT family members, Jay and Joella realized that they might have at least a dozen relatives who were queer. She remembered her godfather, a deacon in a Catholic church, saying that the gay people in their family are “a gift”. Their uncle Ronald, Cris’ brother, confessed to being homophobic because he did not know how to raise a gay child or support a gay brother. Jay came to understand Ronald’s concerns as deriving from a place of love and care, as opposed to fear, rejection, or ignorance.
The search for family by diasporic queers within and beyond the nation is, ultimately, tied to a yearning for home, a place of love, acceptance, and belonging. While home can be a violent and oppressive site for queers, Gayatri Gopinath suggests that the “specter of home —as household, community, and nation—continues to haunt [queers].” Hence, instead of “doing away with home and its fictions of (sexual, racial, communal) purity and belonging, [queers] engage in a radical reworking of multiple home spaces.”23 Interestingly, many scenes in the film It Runs in the Family were shot inside homes. Yet Joella and Jay’s parents were never shown in the film. What does the absence of their parents reveal about the discursive construction of a loving and accepting Asian/Filipinx diasporic family that challenges stereotypes? How does the film trouble such assumptions? Their search for queer family members also took them to the United States and the Philippines. Hence, queering Asian Canada transnational, where ties of home and family cross beyond the Canadian nation- state. Finally, it accounts for intra- and inter-generational dynamics where transnational connections with relatives generate intimate understandings within and across generations, a topic that is explored further in the following section.
TROUBLING GENERATIONS IN RE:ORIENTATIONS
Richard Fung’s Re:Orientations offers cross-generational perspectives on the socio-cultural and political conditions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender Asians in Canada.24 It “revisits seven of the original participants” in his first film Orientations (1984) “as they see anew the footage of their younger selves, and reflect on their lives and all that has changed over the intervening three decades.”25 It also features younger queer scholars, artists, and activists who provide commentaries on the groundbreaking film and discuss contemporary politics and movements. In many ways, both Orientations and Re:Orientations showcase rich historical documentation and analysis of queer Asian Canada by one of the foremost chroniclers of racialized sexual lives in North America. According to Cameron Bailey, “You can choose your Richard Fung. To the queer video crowd he’s the sly provocateur …. To the post-colonial seminar heads he’s the taskmaster …. And to a generation of young Asian artists all across North America, he’s Frida Kahlo. Richard Rung blazed the trail.”26
Richard considered his first film Orientations as “principally a political project. As the predominant images of homosexuals were white, [his] agenda was to speak back to homophobia as well as to the orientalism that exoticized and excluded us within gay and lesbian communities.” 27 He interviewed 15 women and men of South, East, Southeast, and mixed race backgrounds. The film highlights some of the pioneering Asian Canadian lesbian and gay leaders and organizers, such as Prabha Khosla, Alan Li, Tony Souza, and Mary Woo-Sims, who were also vanguards of anti-racist, feminist, labour, HIV/AIDS, and human rights activism in the 1970s and 1980s. It also includes Sylvia Alfonso, Paul Cheung, and Gary Joong who shared their experiences of coming out at the university, cruising in public, and facing racism in the gay community. According to Monika Kin Gagnon, “Orientations (1984) already attests to Fung’s remarkable skills as an interviewer, a testament to how his self-reflexiveness, compassion, and respect have effectively enabled him to garner candid, and often extraordinary anecdotes, insights, and knowledge from his interview subjects.”28
Re:Orientations, in many ways, narrates a queer history by documenting some of the journeys of a particular generation within the Asian Canadian lesbian and gay community. Once again, Richard was able to encourage several original participants, now in their 50s to 70s, to discuss the intimacies of their lives, loves, and losses. He remained “friends with a few of the original participants but found it impossible to track down all of the surviving twelve. Some had moved, a couple no longer identified as gay or lesbian, and others declined.”29 Three died of HIV/AIDS. Since the 1984 film, the participants took different paths in life. Some continued to work in social justice advocacy and organizing as president of a national racialized minority organization, as chief commissioner of a provincial human rights commission, as a race relations advisor in an urban school district, and as a global urban planner with a focus on women. Another participant rose in the corporate ranks as a senior manager of a major bank, while others worked in postal service and in education as an English teacher abroad. Some stayed in Canada, and others led transnational lives and worked in Australia, China, Japan, Mozambique, and South Africa.
While addressing the socio-cultural and political realities of a particular generation that addressed the invisibility of racialized queers in the 1980s, Richard offers a conduit for an inter-generational dialogue that brings together the initial group of participants “in conversation with” a younger group of queer Asian Canadians. I put “in conversation with” purposefully in quotes since the two groups were not filmed meeting and discussing issues with one another. The original participants grappled with issues, such as same-sex marriage and aging, that were not at the forefront of their concerns in the past. In 2005, Canada became the fourth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide with the passage of the Civil Marriage Act.30 Among the participants, three are now married, and two are opposed to marriage.31 Silvia shared her story of getting married on Valentine’s Day, which brought together immediate families and friends. Alan talked about getting married after 25 years to celebrate a milestone in his relationship. Mary believed in the affirmation of relationships, and was married, divorced, and then married again. Both Tony and Prabha did not believe in same-sex marriage. Tony was against the state giving permission about life choices and possibilities, and as a feminist, Prabha was opposed to marriage. For her, missing in the analysis was the impact of hetero-patriarchy and the institutional legitimation of love. In the film, Prabha walks along Toronto’s gay village of Church and Wellesley, with artistic murals depicting messages such as “Gay & Proud,” “100% TransGendered,” and “I’m One Too” that affirm LGBT lives and realities. Yet she troubles these seemingly affirming and inclusive messages that fail to consider homonationalism that renders some LGBTQ subjects as acceptable and included, while others are excluded.32
Richard Fung, Re:Orientations (2016). Single-channel video, 68:00 minutes. Images courtesy of Vtape.
Thirty years after the original film, the participants also expressed different concerns and priorities related to life and aging. They raised concerns about housing and economic insecurity especially after retirement, and about the need for emotional intimacy, sexual desire, and/or companionship as older adults. When Richard asked participants to reflect on what had changed while watching their own original footages, Alan talked about the loss of history and community: “As we get into an age where people can connect in many different ways, people almost take communities for granted. A lot of people can get away with connecting without really forming community.” Whereas Mary took note of the increased number of out LGBT youth, Tony thought that “politics has changed because it has become so mainstream. People don’t seem to remember the struggles it took to get here.” Prabha quipped, “I’m just a lot more impatient around racism and sexism at a certain level. I don’t feel I want to have to explain or make room for it.” Moreover, several participants discussed pursuing solidarity work within and beyond Asian Canadian and LGBT communities, and saw these commitments as intricately connected to their experiences and conditions as racialized sexual minorities. For instance, they advocated for culturally competent HIV/AIDS services, and addressed workplace diversity and discrimination. They also worked in solidarity with Aboriginal communities and against Israeli apartheid, and raised concerns about settler colonialism within and beyond Canada. Some perceived major queer events, such as the annual Toronto Pride and the 2012 World Pride which took place in Toronto, as commercialized without much political significance. Although many recognize the progress made on race, gender, class, and sexual orientation, several participants pointed out that racism is still a major issue.
Richard Fung, Re:Orientations (2016). Single-channel video, 68:00 minutes. Images courtesy of Vtape.
In Re:Orientations, “A dancer, wrapped in hemp rope, face obscured with a white mask, kneels on the floor …. Then he begins to dance, but his movement quickly becomes a struggle with the rope. He flings it off, and begins to tear at the mask …. Standing up, he raises his arms to us, silently asking to be seen.”33 Sze-Yang Ade-Lam recreated the dance originally performed by Pei Lim in the original Orientations video. Although Ade-Lam and Lim never met (Lim died in 1992), this cross-generational dialogue between two dancers set the stage for a younger generation of scholars, artists, and activists to share their perspectives on contemporary cultural politics and movements. Nathan Hoo talked about youth and queer of colour organizing, and Gein Wong examined transgender issues, indigeneity and settler colonialism, care, and healing. Ponni Arasu highlighted the ongoing relevance of critical race feminist analysis, and El-Farouk Khaki dealt with Islamophobia, immigration, and the law. Robert Diaz called for a different view of leadership that took into account less visible yet nonetheless impactful organizing, and Judy Han wondered about a different form of identity-based politics that encompasses various social justice movements.
By bringing a younger generation of LGBTQ Asian Canadians “in conversation with” the original participants, Richard enacts and simultaneously troubles a cultural mode of inter- generational dialogue that fosters knowledge to be passed from so-called elders to the younger members. While it is doubtful that many of the original participants may view themselves as elders, they are cognizant of the queer promise and activism heralded by the younger generation, yet detect its limits especially in regards to forming communities and taking for granted the struggles to reach current conditions. In turn, the younger generation of LGBT activists and cultural workers realizes previous struggles, and builds upon them to forge new directions in racialized queer activism that center a greater range of differences and intersectionalities. In an interview while preparing for the early phases of Re:Orientations, Richard foregrounded the importance of intersectionality:
discrimination based on sex, race, class and sexuality do not operate independently of one another. Racism, homophobia, transphobia and sexism are still present despite the formal protections, and there is greater poverty in Toronto and it is increasingly racialized. So there are continuities and shifts [between the two films], and this is the focus of the project: to identify what has got us to where we are and how to map a better future.34
It is in mapping a different past, present, and future that I now turn to Desh Pardesh. Anna Malla worked with the South Asian Visual Arts Centre (SAVAC), a non-profit, artist-run organization based in Toronto, to coordinate and curate the artistic and cultural exhibition entitled Not a Place on a Map: The Desh Pardesh Project.35 Desh Pardesh, which means “home away from home” in Hindustani, was a “groundbreaking multidisciplinary South Asian Arts Festival that operated in Toronto from 1988 to 2001 … Desh was dedicated to providing a venue for underrepresented and marginalized voices within the South Asian diaspora. Programming and conversations about feminism, class, sexuality, access, disability, race, caste, imperialism, and capitalism were central to the festival’s existence” (Not a Place on the Map). According to Anna, the Not a Place on a Map project was intended “to research the grassroots histories of our organization, to develop these stories into an openly accessible resource, and to use this information to further intergenerational arts-based relationships among and between artists of colour.”36
In its founding objectives and principles, Desh Pardesh was clear in its progressive cultural and organizational politics. It was specifically for “South Asian artists, cultural producers and activists to facilitate new expressions, and encourage the development of diasporic South Asian arts, culture and politics in the West.” Ideologically it was “lesbian and gay positive, feminist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist and anti-caste/classist.” While recognizing the “historical, geographical, linguistic, and religious diversity within the South Asian community,”37 it also worked alongside and in solidarity with indigenous and other racialized minority groups. Although it was based in Toronto, Desh was in its inception a transnational organization with board of directors including representatives from across Canada and from the United States and the United Kingdom. In her opening address for the 1991 festival, Desh co-founder Punam Khosla foregrounded the organization’s purpose: “to bring forward the voices inside the South Asian community that otherwise have no voice either within the community or in the societies in which we live.”38
In her historical analysis of Desh Pardesh, Sharon Fernandez considered its success deriving from “a unique combination of three things: its grass-roots origins at the margins; very strong resistance impulses based on community needs; and the early activists’ radical political vision that in synergistic combination shaped and directed its forcefulness”39 She highlighted Desh’s efforts to mobilize the arts as avenues for community activism, resistance, and coalition building within and beyond South Asian communities. More importantly, Desh enabled organizers and participants to connect cultural engagement to civic involvement. Fernandez argued that “in contexts of marginalization, it is only through the synergetic solidarity of collectivity that this fight for cultural recognition and political clout can begin.”40 Although Desh closed its doors in 2001, “what matters here is not that Desh ended, but that it made a significant impact during the time that it existed, not least in terms of how those associated with Desh began to re-conceive the diasporic will to belong.”41 In 2013, University of Toronto convened a panel featuring Sharon Fernandez alongside author Shyam Selvadurai, sociologist Andil Gosine, and SAVAC artistic director Sharlene Bamboat. Entitled “Home Away From Home: The South Asian Lesbian and Gay Movement of the 1980’s and 90’s,” the panel asked the following questions: “What did Khush, a gay men’s group, contribute towards changing Canada’s lesbian and gay community, as well as the lives of South Asian gay men? What is the legacy of Desh Pardesh, a queer-positive arts festival, in helping shape the arts in Canada? How can it be a grounding point for LGBTQ South Asians today?”
These questions provide compelling starting points for the Not a Place on a Map: The Desh Pardesh Project. As the main curator and project coordinator, Anna was not interested in a nostalgic remembrance of the vibrant transnational South Asian queer community that came together in Desh. She did not want to showcase a romance of the past that glossed over the messy contestations of identities, differences, and power relations. In fact, she was interested in troubling a simple narration of Desh’s history and legacy as well as the communities that coalesced under its name. She aimed to enact a more complicated and multi-dimensional showcase that revealed its rich tapestry of diversity in terms of ethnic, sexual, and national affiliations, among others. She yearned to present Desh both in terms of its successes and accomplishments as well as its tensions and challenges that are inherent in cultural and political organizing. She presented a racialized queer community that was not defined by its co-ethnic singularity or insularity, but rather focused on its robust differences that challenge mainstream understandings of South Asians in the diaspora as well as South Asian heteronormativity that policed the boundaries of propriety, respectability, and belonging.
In its initial conceptualization, Not a Place on a Map was meant to be a multi-stage project that included: oral histories of Desh organizers and participants; an online archive of historical artifacts and documents, interviews, photographs, and video footages; a mentorship program for emerging artists of colour; as well as workshops, exhibitions, and gatherings that address the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, class, diaspora, arts, and politics. Ultimately, the project was meant to capture and perhaps continue the history, legacy, and spirit of Desh:
Aliya Pabani, Not a Place on a Map: The Desh Pardesh Project (2016). Courtesy of SAVAC.
For eleven years, Desh organized an annual summer conference and arts festival (film screenings, workshops, issue-driven seminars, spoken work and literary readings, music, dance and performance art pieces) as well as periodic arts development workshops, community outreach seminars, mini-festivals, art exhibits, and film retrospectives. It also served as a resource centre and referral service to various South Asian community groups and artists, cultural organizations and activists.42
From May 26 to June 9, 2016, Anna staged a public exhibition of Not a Place on a Map: The Desh Pardesh Project in the First Floor Hallway Galleries of Artscape Youngplace in Toronto. One of its main publicity featured a doubled image of the same young, short-haired woman in a loose tank top and shorts wearing oversized boxing gloves and with a cigarette hanging from her mouth. Against an indigo-colored backdrop are scattered white dots and, in between the doubled image, are twelve locational markers that one sees in online maps indicating final direction. Capturing the exhibition theme of Not a Place on a Map, this poster pointed to the ubiquitous yet undefined realities and representations of queer South Asians in the diaspora. The Facebook event page for the exhibition described Desh as being:
known for its bold approach to engaging critical social issues through art and activism. Desh carved out a space for South Asians in the diaspora where art, politics, and community could commingle in powerful—and sometimes messy— ways …. This exhibition invites reflection on the acts of imagination that catalyse radical futures.
The news release from Artscape Youngplace (2016) indicated that the
exhibition will offer excerpts from recent interviews with Desh members, alongside rare photographs and video footage of the festival. It will provide glimpses of the socio-political context into which Desh inserted itself, as well as a series of snapshots of the urgent and complex home away from home the festival served for so many.
The news release also highlighted that the exhibition aims to “facilitate intergenerational relationships between artists and activists of colour,” in line with the history and spirit of Desh Pardesh. Visually, the exhibition displayed festival posters, news and magazine articles, and photographs, while auditorily, it drew from interviews of Desh organizers.
In June 2017, the South Asian Visual Arts Centre (SAVAC) launched the online archive for the Not a Place on a Map project. Its opening statement reads:
We are excited to launch the oral histories as a series of podcasts available on our website and later through the CLGA [Centre for Lesbian and Gay Archives] Digital Collections. The interviews give us an inside look into arts organizing in the 1990s in Canada, from uncovering the racial dynamics of the arts world to the impact of the financial crisis on arts organizing.
At this time, over 20 interviews are available, such as those of Desh co-founders Ian Iqbal Rashid and Punam Khosla, artist/performer Leah Lakshmi, writers Shyam Selvadurai and Nitin Deckha, filmmaker Michelle Mohabeer, cultural arts administrators Sharon Fernandez, Paramjit Rai, and Zainub Verjee, and community advocates Anthony Mohamed and Natasha Singh. The online archive also includes three short trailers from Desh Pardesh festivals: “Eyes” and “Curtain” from 1996; and “Visionary Blue” from 1997. It features a few news clippings, such as prominent LGBTQ leader and author Urvashi Vaid giving a keynote address and filmmaker Pratibha Parmar appearing in a panel discussion on race, gender, sexuality, and class with other South Asian artists. SAVAC is currently working with the Centre for Lesbian and Gay Archives and the York University Archives to deposit the audio and transcribed interviews and to develop research and education resources that will accompany the Not a Place on a Map project.
ON ASIAN CANADIAN QUEER FUTURITY
This essay was written within the context of Canada 150, which celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation in 2017. This “celebration” provided a timely opportunity to ask questions, such as: Which histories are told when discussing the founding and development of Canada as a nation-state? Whose histories are included and excluded, and why? Larissa Lai argues that “marginalized voices emerge from a different relation to the same history as sanctioned, canonized voices.”43 In struggles by racialized minority and diasporic groups to have their histories integrated in the mainstream narratives, which aspects of their histories get highlighted and which ones are minimized or ignored altogether? How do histories of racialized minority and diasporic groups reinforce the dominant perspectives of hetero-patriarchal and socio-economic elites by drawing upon their lives, cultures, and politics as representative of minoritized experiences? In what ways can a queer framework trouble the narration of a nation and offer a more diverse range of historical actors, dynamics, and vantage points that can potentially transform our understanding of both mainstream and minoritized histories?
The three cultural works examined in this essay—Joella Cabalu’s It Runs in the Family, Richard Fung’s Re:Orientations, and Anna Malla’s Not a Place on a Map: The Desh Pardesh Project—provide crucial answers to many of these questions. They signal different ways of queering Asian Canada by troubling family connections, inter-generational dialogues, and community ties both within and beyond Canada. While history provides opportunities to look back and to reclaim a more diverse and inclusive past, it also ushers the potential of a transformed not-yet future that embraces non-normativity as central to individual, interpersonal, and institutional cultural politics. Rinaldo Walcott suggests that “questions of what it means to be human, of queerness, and of citizenship and nation return us to freedom”.44 For queer Asian Canadians, questions regarding their human-ness, their citizenship and belonging, and their freedom remain elusive.
At stake in these questions is their sense and condition of futurity—an Asian Canadian queer futurity, if you will. Following José Esteban Muñoz, I turn to the past to work through “utopian imaginings of another time and place that is not yet here but nonetheless functions as a doing for futurity, a conjuring of both future and past to critique presentness.”45 The cultural works showcased in this essay demonstrate the promise of the not-yet in Asian Canadian queer futurity. They draw attention to the formation of family relations, inter- generational connections, and community engagements that defy and go beyond hetero-patriarchal bloodlines, filial relations, and co-ethnic singularities. They do not rely on traditional biological or legal foundations that depend on blood or conjugality to establish intimate ties that bind. Rather they point to the malleability of kinship formations that transit across conventions to reveal what might be already queer at the core of Asian Canada: non-normative, diverse and transgressive, refusing compartmentalization and definition, always in-process and therefore not-yet.
1 I employ the term “Asian” to designate the heterogeneous, dynamic, and socio-politically constructed grouping of peoples, cultures, materials, and ideas that derive from East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and West Asian backgrounds. It is, admittedly, geographically regional and broadly continental in its articulation. It is attentive to local and global histories, to the legacies and continuations of imperialisms and colonialisms, as well as to wars and conflicts over sovereignties, nationalisms, and territorialities.
It also accounts for the intersection of race with other markers of difference, such as class, gender, sexuality, religion, migration, and citizenship. My use of the term “Asian” in the Canadian context moves away from the dominant emphasis on East Asia and especially on the peoples and cultures of Chinese and Japanese ancestry. Its conventional use often excludes other Asian ethnic groups, such as Indians and Filipinx. Hence, as a discursive intervention, I mobilize the term ‘Asian’ to address the broader and more inclusive grouping, and name particular ethnic groups when specifically focusing on them.
2 Ken Adachi, The Enemy that Never Was: A History of the Japanese Canadians. (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976).
3 Pierre Berton, The Last Spike: The Great Railway, 1881–1885. (Toronto: Double Day Canada, 2001).
4 Nancy Fraser, “From Redistribution to Recognition?: Dilemmas of Justice in a ‘Post-Socialist’ Age.”
New Left Review 212 (1995): 68-149.
5 W. Peter Ward, White Canada Forever: Popular Attitudes and Public Policy Toward Orientals in British
Columbia. (Montreal, QC and Kingston, ON: McGill–Queen’s University Press, 2002).
6 Robert Diaz, “On Queer / Asian / Canadian Critique.” Canadian Literature 227 (2015): 191-193.
7 Rina Cohen and Guida Mann, eds. Engendering Transnational Voices: Studies in Family, Work, and Identity.
(Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press).
8 Franklin Ng, ed. Asians in America: Asian American Family Life and Community. (New York: Routledge, 2013).
9 Nayan Shah, Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality and the Law in the North American West. Berkeley
and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012. Ken Adachi, The Enemy that Never Was: A History of the Japanese Canadians. (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976).
10 The 1923 Act banned Chinese immigrants from entering Canada with the exception of diplomats, foreign students, and individuals with special circumstance.
11 Roland Sintos Coloma, Bonnie McEhlinny, Ethel Tungohan, J.P. Catungal, and Lisa M. Davidson, eds. Filipinos in Canada: Disturbing Invisibility. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013).
12 Enakshi Dua, “Exclusion through Inclusion: Female Asian Migration in the Making of Canada as a White Settler Nation.” Gender, Place & Culture 14, no. 4 (2007): 445-466.
13 In her analysis of queer Asian American historiography, Amy Sueyoshi contends that “Queerness has only just become visible in Asian American studies …. In Asian American history in particular, the number of people specializing in queer studies might be counted on one hand. While five is better than zero and the Asian American LGBT experience is no longer in complete darkness, the field still remains in desperate need of robust growth even as the small number do tremendous intellectual work” (267). A survey of queer Asian Canadian historiography is yet to be undertaken.
14 Nayan Shah, Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality and the Law in the North American West. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2012).
15 Amy Sueyoshi, “Queer Asian American Historiography,” in The Oxford Handbook of Asian American History, ed. David K. Yoo and Eiichiro Azuma (New York: Oxford University Press).
16 Kevin K. Kumashiro, Troubling Education: Queer Activism and Anti-Oppressive Pedagogy (New York: Routledge, 2002).
17 Calvin Jay, “Interview: Joella Cabalu on It Runs in the Family,” SAD Mag, August 17, 2016. http://www.sadmag.ca/blog/2016/8/12/interview-joella-cabalu-on-it-runs-in-the-family
18 Kathy Trieu, “Filmmaker Spotlight: Joella Cabalu,” Foundation for Asian American Independent Media (blog), August 5, 2016, http://www.faaim.org/blog/2016/joellacabalu
19 Alice Hom, “Stories from the Homefront: Perspectives of Asian American Parents with Lesbian Daughters and Gay Sons.” Amerasia Journal 20, no. 1 (1994): 19-32.
20 Zoe Arthur, “‘A personal obligation to share these stories’: Joella Cabalu and the Making of Her Documentary It Runs in the Family.” Women in Film and Television Vancouver, August 3, 2016, https://wiftv.wordpress.com/2016/08/03/a-personal-obligation-to-share-these-stories-joella-cabalu-and-the-making-of-her-documentary-it-runs-in-the-family/
21 OmiSoore H. Dryden and Suzanne Lenon, eds., Disrupting Queer Inclusion: Canadian Homonationalisms and the Politics of Belonging (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2015). Tim McCaskell, Queer Progress: From Homophobia to Homonationalism (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016).
22 Joella Cabalu, It Runs in the Family. Vancouver: OUTtv & Meaningful Films Ltd., 2015.
23 Gayatri Gopinath, Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures. (NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 165.
24 Richard Fung successfully applied for and was awarded a three-year Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council in 2013 to develop the Re:Orientations film project.
25 Richard Fung, “Re:Orientations,” Richard Fung’s website, http://www.richardfung.ca/index.php?/scv/reorientations-2016/
26 Cameron Bailey, “Richard Fung: Images Festival Tribute Puts Self-effacing Video Artist on the Spot,” NOW, April 11, 2002, https://nowtoronto.com/news/richard-fung/
27 Richard Fung, “Re-orienting Queer Asian Identities, 30 Years Later.” CBC Arts, 2016c. http://www.cbc.ca/arts/re-orienting-queer-asian-identities-30-years-later-1.3599970
28 Monika KinGagnon, “Agency, Activism and Affect in the Lifework of Richard Fung.” In Like Mangoes
in July: The Work and Writing of Richard Fung, eds. Helen Lee and Kerri Sakamoto (Toronto: Insomniac, 2002).
29 Richard Fung, “Re:Orientations,” Richard Fung’s website, http://www.richardfung.ca/index.php?/scv/reorientations-2016/
30 OmiSoore H. Dryden and Suzanne Lenon, eds., Disrupting Queer Inclusion: Canadian Homonationalisms and the Politics of Belonging, (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2015). Tim McCaskell, Queer Progress: From Homophobia to Homonationalism. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016.
31 Richard Fung, “Re:Orientations,” Richard Fung’s website, http://www.richardfung.ca/index.php?/scv/reorientations-2016/
32 OmiSoore H. Dryden and Suzanne Lenon, eds., Disrupting Queer Inclusion: Canadian Homonationalisms and the Politics of Belonging. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2015. Tim McCaskell, Queer Progress: From Homophobia to Homonationalism, (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016).
33 Niko Bell, “What does Asian Canadian queer identity look like today?: Re:Orientations Film Unites Queer Asians with their Younger Selves.” Xtra, August 9, 2016. https://www.dailyxtra.com/what-does-asian-canadian-queer-identity-look-like-today-71669
34 Danielle Nicole Smith, “Richard Fung on Experience, Homonationalism, and Equity,” Site Specific, November 19, 2013, http://blog.ocad.ca/wordpress/site-specific/tag/richard-fung/?doing_wp_cron=1500616512.1137719154357910156250
35 The South Asian Visual Arts Centre obtained a three-year Ontario Trillium Foundation grant in 2014 for the Not a Place on a Map: The Desh Pardesh Project.
36 Karina Iskandarsjah, “Anna Malla: SAVAC and the Desh Pardesh Project,” Site Specific, January 11, 2016, http://ocadusitespecific.tumblr.com/post/137097505896/anna-malla-savac-and-the-desh-pardesh-project
37 Desh Pardesh, “Objectives & Principles,” October 1992, https://www.savac.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Mandate.compressed-1.pdf
38 Punam Khosla, “Opening Address.” Rungh: A South Asian Quarterly of Culture, Comment and Criticism 1, nos. 1 and 2 (1991), 5.
39 Sharon Fernandez, “More than Just an Arts Festival: Communities, Resistance, and the Story of Desh Pardesh.” Canadian Journal of Communication 31, no. 1 (2006): 17–34.
42 Not a Place on the Map: The Desh Pardesh Project, https://www.savac.net/collection/desh-pardesh/
43 Larissa Lai, Slanting I, Imagining We: Asian Canadian Literary Production in the 1980s and 1990s. (Waterloo:
Wilfrid Laurier University Press), 118.
44 Rinaldo Walcott, Queer Returns: Essays on Multiculturalism, Diaspora, and Black Studies. (Toronto: Insomnia Press).
45 José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 106