Surrounded by family and friends at Little Sister’s bookstore in Vancouver, Andy Quan takes the stage, having flown in from Australia for a whirlwind book tour of the Pacific Northwest, and reads from his latest collection of poetry, Bowling Pin Fire. He needs no introduction, having already received acclaim for his first book of poems Slant, his short story collection Calendar Boy, several anthologies and his erotica writing. But the store owner insists on the intro, tearing up with pride while going through the list of Quan’s accomplishments and contributions he has given to the gay community.
One of those contributions is the online campaign he and a friend started called Sexual Racism Sux (www.sexualracismsux.com) which targets racism in the online gay chat room community. Go into any online gay chat room and you’re still bound to see people typing in “No Asians!” in their list of likes and dislikes. However, things have certainly changed from a few years ago when it was much more rampant. These days, you’re more likely to see the banner “Sexual Racism Sux!” with the link attached for people to click on and grab a clue.
“In some ways the success of it was because it was focussed on a specific issue,” Quan tells me, during a sit-down interview in East Vancouver, where he grew up. He has brought some sunny Aussie-land weather with him as he plops down on my couch in shorts and a sleeveless top. “We weren’t focussed on getting rid of all sexual racism in the world. We really just focussed on: ‘How can we get the gay internet sites and chat lines and relationships lines to be less racist and more open?’”
Even though the idea sprouted while Quan was in Australia, the word got out and the site spread like wildfire, with articles written about it from all over the world. “I’m really proud of it,” he says. “What it’s taught me is you have to try to not take things personally and you can’t respond to everybody.”
He relays a story of a young Asian guy from Melbourne who had written to him about the site. The email contained phrases like: How dare u write about this, you’re too good looking, you’re not Asian enough, you have white muscle boys for friends. The person was alluding to Quan’s own website, where he had posted photos of himself and his friends. “Of course you put up really good pictures of yourself!” he exclaims, noting a picture on his site that showcases a bicep or two. “I have lots of Asian friends and white friends. He said I didn’t have enough Asian friends, so how can I possibly talk about racism against Asian people?”
Whoever might be in his social circle, if you’ve read his books, there’s no denying that Quan has every authority to discuss racism. In Bowling Pin Fire, several poems touch upon the unique experience of growing up as a Chinese-Canadian, including “Quiet and Odd” which compares the narrator to other Chinese boys in the neighbourhood and “Spit” which recollects an encounter on the Second Narrows Bridge between the narrator’s father and another driver. “For this collection, I had a lot of poems that were certainly more mature, older, wiser,” he says. At 38 years old, Quan reveals he is jealous of writers who can produce writing on a regular basis. “I’m not very good at routines.” Instead, he uses short breaks from work, holidays, airplanes, and deadlines or calls for submissions as places and catalysts for getting his writing done.
“Whenever I read a poet I liked, I would aspire to write my own experiences down and see the world in a poetic way,” he says, professing his admiration for and inspiration from other poets. “In terms of short fiction, I was interested in writing stories about being gay and coming out. For me it was important to try to break that canon and put in a different set of experiences. Gay lit is now very diverse but at the time it wasn’t, so it was important for me to get my voice out.”
With Calendar Boy, Quan shook things up in the world of gay literature, and has even received comments from straight readers who have told him that the book is a universal story, in that we all search for the acceptance that Quan describes. Despite that, Quan doesn’t feel it crossed over to the mainstream and has stayed firmly in the gay lit genre.
“My journey as a writer has been: how do I write as a gay writer, an Asian writer, a gay Asian writer? How do I deal with those issues in a way where I can use those to an advantage to break stereotypes but not become a stereotype and not be seen as using these categories to get attention, which overshadows my writing? The more labels we give to ourselves, the easier it is to break down those labels.”
One way that Quan chose to do this is through his erotica, which was published in the form of the book Six Positions: Sex Writing by Andy Quan. Wanting to do something different and instead of just doing stuff to get people off, Quan chose to write erotica in an eloquent way and infuse a strong storyline with Asian characters to show something that hadn’t been seen before. And although his parents are supportive of his career, this is one book he tells his folks they can skip.
Quan’s family often make cameo appearances in his work. “I feel sorry for my whole family because sometimes they appear in poems without their permission but they are all accepting and surprisingly so,” says Quan. For example, in the poem “Oath” we get a glimpse of Andy and his brothers smoking a joint, alongside a list of ailments that have plagued his family in recent years. This poem is read aloud at the Little Sister’s book launch, where I am sitting in attendance with his brother Walter behind me, and their mother at the front of the room. “I’m always interested in his work,” Walter tells me. “I know many (but not all) of the source stories – some of which provide the tiniest germ of an idea for him to riff on, and some of which are a complete re-counting of an incident. Like many stories, especially family ones, there are other points of view or interpretations but until I’m out there writing and publishing my versions, I generally love to hear what Andy is saying or what his take on a situation is.”
So what’s his take for up and coming writers trying to get established? “Work with people who know how to get published, volunteer for magazines,” he lists. He then adds, “Understand why you are writing. Are you writing to get published, to be famous, to create something?”
Creation seems to be at the root of much of Quan’s work, having also recorded two music CDs in addition to his written materials. He hands me his latest one, Clean, at the end of our interview. It’s described on his website as being “cabaret-folk” and features just Quan and a piano. It’s no surprise that the music and lyrics are all written by Quan, who wrote his first song at age 16.
After the book launch is over, Quan’s plans include a stopover in Hawaii to visit his other brother, before heading back down under. “Sydney’s like a bigger version of Vancouver,” he says. “Great weather, fantastic food. Vancouver is where I was born and it feels familiar to me, but I’m not someone who likes familiarity.”
With Quan’s anti-racism work online and in print, I ask him about racism in Australia. “If you move out of the major cities, it’s very white,” he answers. “The discourse and ability to talk about racism is complex and subtle and has not really entered the public forum the same way as in Canada. Though, the idea that Australia is racist is very overplayed and comes from a particular time.”
Despite his new found residency in the land of Oz, Quan admits he does miss Canada for the culture, noting Australia’s conservative government and the lack of support for arts as of late. He also says that Australians tend to read a lot of the “big blockbuster books released by Aussie writers and a lot of non fiction,” making it that much more challenging for artists like himself to get noticed. “My friends in Canada are all reading the latest book nominees in literature. Canada’s very literate compared to Australia – not that Australians aren’t intelligent – but they don’t channel it into arts and culture in the same way. I miss the vibrancy of young writers that I see on the bookshelves when I come back.”
Andy Quan’s Bowling Pin Fire can be found on bookshelves now