South-East Asian LGBTQIA+ Literature Recommendations
By Katrina Reed and Carly Bennett
For the last issue of 2022 we want to shine the spotlight on South-East Asian LGBTQIA+ literature, looking at everything from a 1990s cult classic to sapphic young adult fantasy.
Before we sign off for the year (how is it almost the end of 2022 already?), all of us in the team which spotlights the LGBTQIA+ community want to wish all of you a cosy festive period and we can’t wait to be back with more features and recommendations in 2023!
Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin
Notes of a Crocodile is based during the post-martial law era (戒嚴時期) of the late 1980s Taipei. Author Qiu Miaojin depicts college student Lazi’s perspective on how it felt to be queer and first discovering love, friendship and artistic affinity at a challenging period of Taipei’s taxonomy developing towards a periodic regeneration. Throughout the novel, Lazi’s narration is explicitly expressed through aphorisms, letters, diaries and satire to convey her fatalistic attraction to Shui Ling, an older woman. Afflicted by societal oppression and her own emotions towards Shui Ling, Lazi seeks refuge in her friendship group: wealthy but turned criminal Meng Sheng and his self-destructive gay lover Chu Kang, as well as the bored overachiever Tun Tun and her artist girlfriend Zhi Rou.
Coming out of the post-martial law era, Qiu Miaojin experiments and highlights the resurgence of postmodern liberation and idealism faced by South-East Asian groups. Overall, Notes of a Crocodile is an intimate and insightful read which exhibits a singular voice amid societal oppression of LGBTQIA+ groups.
Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan
Natasha Ngan’s 2018 Girls of Paper and Fire is the first in a sapphic young adult fantasy trilogy, inspired by elements of South-East Asian culture and diasporic identity. With themes of feminism, sapphic love and generational trauma at its core, Girls of Paper and Fire tells the story of Lei, who is chosen, along with eight other girls, to serve as concubine to the Demon King of Ikhara. Set against a backdrop of horrors the chosen girls experience at the palace, Lei finds herself falling for one of the other concubines and the two girls forge a love that has the power to change the face of Ikhara forever.
Ngan gives readers an absolute masterclass in world-building and Ikhara is truly one of the richest fantasy worlds I’ve had the pleasure of diving into for a long time. From the costuming and fashions to the food, the caste system and the descriptions of the palace itself, it is effortless to step into the world of Ikhara as you read – although it’s not the most hospitable of fantasy worlds, it’s certainly one of the most vivid.
Girls of Paper and Fire is the stunning first instalment to a series that should be on every queer fantasy fan’s radar but do check content warnings before you read as there are potentially triggering themes in all three books. If you enjoy Girls of Paper and Fire then you’ll be heartened to hear that the entire trilogy has already been published so there’s no year-long agonising wait to get your hands on the final two books in the series: Girls of Storm and Shadow and Girls of Fate and Fury.
Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So
So’s debut collection of short stories, published posthumously after the writer’s death in 2020, tracks the lives of various Cambodian Americans living in California. Afterparties blends humour and emotion to create a reading experience that brings this diverse cast of characters to life. Unafraid to shy away from real world events, Afterparties touches on generational trauma in the wake of the Khmer Rouge genocide and seeks to untangle (and, perhaps, re-tangle) the complexities of the diaspora experience.
Taking on everything from sexuality, love, family (biological and chosen) and race, there is something for every reading mood in Afterparties. One of the beautiful things about short story collections is the ability to dip in and out without losing the intricacies of a novel-length plot, though the characters and their stories are so compelling here that it’s hard to step away after just one story.
While not every story in Afterparties centres someone from the LGBTQIA+ community, the collection features a number of queer protagonists. The story to jump to if you’re looking specifically for something that examines the possibilities and intricacies of queer relationships is 'Human Development.'
Community is a key theme throughout Afterparties, shining a particular spotlight on the collective understanding of shared history and trauma that draws many Cambodian Americans together. In 'Human Development,' we see the protagonist question his reasons for entering into a relationship with another man who shares his history, and the idea of close bonds with friends that become more akin to chosen family is peppered through Afterparties’ stories.