BEYOND STR8TUS QUO: URBANIZATION AND QUEERNESS IN THE TROPICS

(Note: Below is an abstract and first chapter of a paper I had submitted in October 2016, in response to the International Day of the Tropics. It’s based off my Masters thesis, and was published in the Electronic Journal of Studies in the Tropics – https://journals.jcu.edu.au/etropic/article/view/3545.

Special thanks to the wonderful Professor Anita Lundberg for inviting me to submit this paper after our brief chat in French class.)

In response to the International Day of the Tropics, I have chosen to focus on the relationship between urbanization, locations and bodies in the tropics.  Through a comparative review and analysis of film and literature in the tropical region (specifically the Southeast Asia region including Greater China, as delineated by the State of the Tropics report), I argue that urbanization continues to perpetuate heteronormativity and patriarchy even as economic indicators show progress in measurable terms. The trajectory of progress towards diversity and inclusion in the tropics remains fraught with challenges, especially when we examine how bodies interact with spaces and we continue to observe oppression and restriction of non-normative expressions and performances of bodies and sexualities. The questions that guide this paper are related to the relationships between urbanization, bodies and queerness, and how space enables or disavows the challenging of heteronormativity and patriarchy. How do certain places facilitate, aid or impede performances of queerness? How is queerness “located” in certain spaces that may not always be recognized in normative cultures as “queer”?

WRITING FROM THE TROPICS: TO KNOW WHERE I’M COMING FROM

“With very few exceptions, the idea of the tropics as a place of pestilence has dominated European thought and action. Indeed, the temperate world’s interpretation of the tropics has lurched from pestilence to paradise, but rarely has the zone been taken on in its own terms.” (State of the Tropics 1)

There is growing academic and cultural interest in the burgeoning fields of literature and cinema from countries previously excluded in the hegemonic Western canons and schools of thought. While attention has been directed towards the state of national literatures in various countries in Southeast Asia, and many areas in literary studies have been considered, deliberation in sexuality studies has been a shortcoming. In terms of literary studies in this region, a workshop on the literary canon in Southeast Asian literatures was organized in 1995. The workshop’s main thesis stemmed from a desire to reflect a tension between those who reckon that the literary canon is a chronological arrangement of famous authors and major works which “have stood the test of time”, versus those who argue that the traditional literary canon is “essentially a social construct which, in its exclusions of certain minorities, reflects power relations rather than aesthetic values” (Smyth vii). The discussions culminated in a volume of essays that included ruminations on Buddhist hagiography in Indochinese classical literatures, the novel in Malaysia and the Philippines, and Burmese prose writing. This diversity in research interests demonstrates increasing academic interest in the literary compositions from this often-neglected geographical region. Writer and critic Shirley Geok-Lin Lim adds to the conversation about literature in Southeast Asia, with her book Writing S.E./Asia in English: Against the Grain, focus on Asian English-language Literature, positing that these works demonstrate that “South East/Asian subjects writing in English, against the grain of national languages and national canons, have much to tell us about place and region, about the peoples formed within the place and region, and also about the nations that their imaginations press upon from the outside of linguistic borders” (Lim xii), pointing to the importance of cultural specificities and peculiarities in bodies of literatures outside of a traditional Western canon, some of which are highly influenced by Western aesthetics and thought. However, even as both volumes devote their energies and critical attention to the literary works of Southeast Asia, an area that remains under-researched amongst the issues they identify and discuss is that of gender and sexuality, and in particular queer literature. It is this paper’s aim to address and fill that critical gap in literary and film research in this region.

Likewise, while there has been much written about queer films from a Western or Eurocentric theoretical perspective, there remains room for a more robust conversation about queer Asian films. Stacey and Street note in their book Queer Screen: A Screen Reader that the emergence of queer perhaps differed for various disciplines in the academy in that it is often associated with specific theorists or books (such as Judith Butler and Elizabeth Grosz in Philosophy, or Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in English Literature), whereas in film, “queer entered the arena through discussions of specific films and videos and often through their directors” (4), pointing out a difference in the way queer discourse works in literary and cinematic frameworks. Andrew Grossman notes that “sexual minorities are universal, but their interpretations, and more so their politicizations, are not” (Grossman xvi) in his framing of his work on queer Asian cinema, effectively situating the importance of interpretation of queer expressions, and moving beyond discussions of queer identities.

Given that so much attention has been given to queer cinema in the Western theoretical context, Stacey and Street concur that their work is less than international, noting that their volume “could not have done justice to the diversity of national and transnational cinemas beginning to emerge in the area of queer studies” (8), which acknowledges that there is a need to also give voice to queer cinematic works that have proliferated in regions outside of Western academic attention, something that this paper tries to address.

Queer artistic and cultural expressions from Southeast Asia have received relatively little academic attention, even though they have begun to proliferate in various forms, from novels and short stories to stage plays and movies. Given this burgeoning body of literature and films that explore queer-related issues and embodiment, this paper aims to question and examine how urbanization continues to perpetuate heteronormativity and patriarchy even as economic indicators show progress in measurable terms. I analyze literature and film from Southeast Asia to explore the relationship between urbanization, space and emergence of queerness.

In light of its grammatical function as a verb, noun, adjective, this paper sees queer not simply as an identity category, but more as a strategy that can be employed to situate bodies “within postmodernist and/or post-structuralist frameworks which decenter normative notions of sexuality” (Johnston & Longhurst 13), which points to myriad possibilities of how gender and sexuality norms can be challenged and debated in the framework of a postmodern consciousness in the twenty-first century. Instead, as a strategy of the performativity of sexuality, queerness can be embodied in other ways, through seeking alternative familial arrangement, for instance.

The texts selected for analysis were produced over a time period from about the late-1980s into 2010s, a period filled with rapid modernization, urbanization, political changes, cultural awakening and liberalization for countries in this region, even as some archaic laws remain. In countries that were former British colonies like Malaysia and Singapore, the penal code 377(A), which criminalizes homosexual acts between men is still in existence, together with laws governing media and artistic content. Thus, while queer literature and film are not always banned, the line that writers and film makers in Singapore tread on is usually a thin one, balancing between being critical and staying within legal boundaries. In Indonesia, the criminal code was revised when the Dutch East Indies was a French colony under Napoleon, so there was never a need to decriminalize homosexual acts (Oetomo 1996), but a conservative and subtle approach towards LGBT politics is generally adopted as a result of it being a moderate Muslim country. But while there is still tension between local attitudes towards alternative sexual practices and a more widespread acceptance of queer literature and film in public or in subcultural groups[1], globalization and transnational cultural discourses (queer or otherwise) seem to make it inevitable that desires and sexualities get increasingly intertwined with issues of geographies and locations, which makes this paper’s inquiry into urbanization, space and queerness valuable.

[1]             See introduction to GASPP: A Gay Anthology of Singapore Poetry and Prose for a sense of history of queer literature in Singapore (9-14), as well as introduction to Body 2 Body: A Malaysian Queer Anthology

 

 

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