This is extraordinary! Not only do we have Sanctuary, a book of 18 gay short stories in English from East Asia, including Taiwan, but there’s also a companion volume, Intimate Strangers, consisting of 15 gay “creative nonfiction” narratives from the same publisher, Hong Kong’s Signal 8 Press.
And examining the notes on the contributors, it’s striking to see how many of them are creative writing professors, authors of wider collections of stories and generally prominent literary people from the Philippines, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.
In an introduction, one of the editors points out that queer-tinted fiction was relatively common in Asia before the colonizing powers arrived from Europe with their disapproving moralities. But the modern wave of queer narratives appeared to have sprung up in the 1980s with the publication of novels such as Crystal Boys in Taipei.
Taiwan’s Hsu Yu-Chen contributes a story, Teatime. Hsu was born in 1977 and is the author of many short stories, including those in Purple Blooms (Ink, 2008). He won first prize in the 2010 New Taipei City Literature Awards and his work won the award for best story in the 2008 United Daily News literary awards.
Teatime is a powerful, though muted, story about a married 35-year-old Taipei man who meets another man, much younger than himself, online. They have online sex, then the older man arranges to meet him in a hotel. He rather resents being called Daddy but looks forward to their assignation nonetheless.
The story ends on a question mark rather than any decisive dramatic development, somewhat akin to a James Joyce story in Dubliners, but this is a sign of Hsu’s sophisticated technique
Lover Boy by Lakan Umali, from the Philippines, is the opening tale of the book. It tells of an affair between two adolescents in a college dormitory and is altogether perceptive and dynamic.
The Boys from Rizal Street by Ian Rosales Casocot is another strong story from the Philippines. It tells of how the narrator finds himself drawn only to teenagers from a particular street. He meets three in all, and has sex with each of them, despite all three having active sexual relations with girlfriends. This story is long, convoluted and highly memorable.
In Names and Labels Fatema Bhaiji from Pakistan describes not being allowed to play football because she’s a girl, while in Banana Drama Hong Kong’s Dino Mahoney features a Western man saying goodbye to his lover’s auntie, who is in a care home.
In The Heart of Summer by Filipino Danton Remoto presents someone who’s idolized but who never gets to know his opposite’s existence, while Hi Adam is a retrospective account of an affair written as a letter to the beloved. The author is Andris Wisatha from Indonesia.
Macau makes a surprise appearance in Miodrag Kojadinovic’s My Last Night in Macau (That Barely Anyone Knew About). This story is short but very distinctive. It’s told by a trans, or would-be trans, narrator and involves a murder. To say more would be to spoil this exquisite fictional item.
Nature Calling by Ash Lim from Singapore is set in a male gay sex-sauna and contains many of the numerous permutations that can happen in such places, generally focusing on the more sordid of them.
Meanwhile in Layers Hong Kong’s Arthur Lewis Thompson describes an initially tentative relationship between an Englishman and a local estate agent who comes to realize there are many things the foreigner doesn’t understand about the Chinese.
In The Draughtman’s Snow Globe by Singapore’s Desmond Kon Zhicheng Mingde a woman who’s planning to die the next day confesses to crimes she committed under the rule of Cambodia’s Pol Pot. Her auditors are a Tibetan priest, a Christian clergyman, and a female therapist who was a former lover. There is much in the way of moral discrimination, but the “former lover” reference seems to be the only gay element in the story.
The best story in the book for me was a highly-charged lesbian narrative from Bangladesh. Called Hourglasses, by Abeer Y. Hoque, it pursues the narrator’s intimate relations with several other women with extraordinary vividness and honesty.
As for Intimate Strangers, the most horrifying item there is a description of anti-gay violence in Indonesia, beginning in 2016, described by a Norwegian lady who later went on to marry her female Indonesian lover back in the safety of Norway.
The founder of Signal 8 Press is Marshall Moore. He’s also the author of a novel, Inhospitable, a ghost story set in Hong Kong from Taiwan’s Camphor Press, which was reviewed in the Taipei Times on Sept. 20, 2018.
Sanctuary, then, is an unusual and valuable collection. The surprising thing about it is that there aren’t any stories from China, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand or South Korea (something from North Korea would be too much to hope for). But maybe more tales are even now in the pipeline.
Bradley Winterton’s gay-themed novel ‘The Mystery Religions of Gladovia’ is now available in paperback from Almas Books, Taiwan.
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