Claire Schwartz interviews Kai Cheng Thom about how queer people of color birth themselves anew, protest politics in Canada, and the poetic beauty of complicated relationship.
Image taken by Jackson Ezra
Kai Cheng Thom and I settled into a table at Le Cagibi Café, a hipster haunt in Montreal’s Mile End neighborhood. Outside, the tricycles of Hasidic children and the bicycles of hipsters jockeyed for space. Inside, on that bright Thursday morning, the back room of the coffee shop was sparsely populated, the quiet barely nudged open by subdued chatter and the tapping of laptop keys. The Sunday before, the room had been dark and packed for “Hard Femme, High Power,” a music and poetry performance. When Thom—a Chinese Canadian trans woman writer, performance artist, and social worker—had taken the stage that night, I had been thinking of Lucille Clifton’s poem: “won’t you celebrate with me / what i have shaped into / a kind of life? i had no model.” Then Thom began, and the rhythms of her language held me wholly in the present. Her poems were epic in a classical sense; they unfurled in story and gathered us around their song. For a brief spell, we were not lonely, not strange to each other.
Kai Cheng Thom earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in social work from McGill. Her chapbook, Giving Birth to Yourself: Poems for Combat was released in 2015. She has two forthcoming books: a novel, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars (Metonymy Press), and a poetry collection, a place called No Homeland (Arsenal Pulp Press). Her essays and poems have appeared in BuzzFeed, Everyday Feminist, xoJane, Matrix Magazine, and elsewhere. Thom has held residencies at the Banff Center for the Arts, Eventual Ashes, and Anchor Archive. She is the co-founder of Monster Academy Montreal, a radical mental health initiative for youth.
When we spoke, Thom was on the brink of a move. She was headed to Toronto, where she’ll be a counselor for queer and trans youth. She’s sad to leave Montreal, “the city of my adult life,” but energized by the work ahead “and, you know, dental insurance.”
— Claire Schwartz for Guernica Daily
Guernica: I want to start by asking you about the title of your chapbook, Giving Birth To Yourself: Poems for Combat.
Kai Cheng Thom: The concept of giving birth to ones self has been brewing in queer people of color communities in North America for at least the past few years. Historical conditions that a lot of people of color on this continent have experienced—diaspora, colonization, indentured servitude, slavery—mean that, often, we’re cut off from tradition. We have no context for ourselves. At some point in our lives we’re forced to reckon with who we are and where we come from. Being queer intensifies this sense of rupture because so many diasporic and indigenous communities in North America have been severed from traditions of queerness and gender variance.
When we enter queer community, again there’s no context for us because queer community in Canada is often very white, and often very rejecting of people of color—particularly anti-indigenous and anti-black. When you begin to define yourself as a queer person of color (qpoc) and transgender or transsexual and of color, you have to, in a sense, give birth to that. You have to invent who you are, and decide how to conceptualize yourself and your connection to tradition.
As the child of a migrant lineage, I have heard so many times in my life—as so many people do—this idea of living for the future. Your great-grandparents suffered, and your grandparents suffered, and your parents suffered—all with the hope that someday someone down the line would grow up in a happy, or at least a not-entirely-horrible, way.
The work I—and a lot of other qpoc artists do—is about envisioning first what our ancestry is and who we are, and then what our future can be. That piece around the future can be enormously difficult for a lot of folks in our community to imagine. We’re seeing a lot of speculative fiction right now. I think that’s because of this powerful desire to see something beyond the apocalyptic—or non-existent—future that is handed to us, particularly to trans women of color, who are disproportionately subjected to violence and early death.
As the child of a migrant lineage, I have heard so many times in my life—as so many people do—this idea of living for the future. Your great-grandparents suffered, and your grandparents suffered, and your parents suffered—all with the hope that someday someone down the line would grow up in a happy, or at least a not-entirely-horrible, way. As a queer person who does not necessarily have access to that model of family, one has to wonder: What is the point of one’s ancestors’ sacrifice? What is the point of one’s own existence? This is the work, I think, that we are doing.
Guernica: The concept of delayed satisfaction that you mention with reference to migrant communities is so fundamental to the structure of capitalism in general: this idea of endless deferral. “One day this will all be worth it. Maybe not in your lifetime, but…” You wrote a great article in Buzzfeed, “How Trans Women are Reclaiming Their Orgasms,” which insists on your pleasure against structures that would deny it. How do you see queer communities of color both envisioning futures, but also holding the now as something worthy, urgent?
Thom: Because the challenge of survival is ever-present in so many queer peoples’ lives, queer communities are good at catching the now in our vision. And we have to be specific. I really mean queer people of color—particularly trans- and femme-identified black, Latinx, and indigenous people. Many of these folks are really struggling for basic necessities. So when we do art or organizing, we have to talk in a material way about what’s happening right now.
Recently, there’s been a tendency in queer culture to be very apocalyptic in our view of the future. One can never be too focused on present needs, but I do think one can be too focused on present suffering. We sometimes get trapped in an echo chamber of only negative storytelling, which is terrifying. I remember reading an interview in Guernica with Dean Spade. The introduction begins: “The average lifespan of a transgender person is twenty-three years.” I was twenty-one. Think about reading that. Or, there’s this trend of counting trans women’s murders in the States. “This is the seventeenth, eighteenth. We beat 2015’s record!” It is important to know that. But who’s telling young trans people that they’re going to live? Who’s telling young trans people that they’re going to have a future they’ll enjoy? Who’s promising to make that happen? Certainly, people are working to make that happen. So that message needs to be there, too.
I’ve been a nihilistic, angry activist. It can be very effective in bringing about upheaval.
Of course, sometimes it feels empowering to turn to a politics of anger or a politics of destruction. I’ve been a nihilistic, angry activist. It can be very effective in bringing about upheaval. Certainly we saw that in the 2012 student strike [which sought to counter the proposed tuition hike for universities in Quebec.] I was an undergrad at the School of Social Work at McGill at the time.
Guernica: How was that experience formative for you?
Thom: I learned how to go on strike. I learned how powerful a strike can be. Employers or institutions will tell you all kinds of things. They’ll say, “According to the constitution of the university, we’ll have to fail you all.” But, if a whole class of people says, “We’re not going to take this exam, which means that you can’t pass us, which means your numbers are going to fuck up, which means you can’t admit a new cohort and collect new undergraduate fees,” suddenly, the exam is canceled regardless of what the constitution says. I was twenty-one at the time. It was important for me to learn how to hold steady.
It’s so valuable—and also very traumatic—to see the powerful, beautiful, amazing, damaging, abusive, regressive interpersonal dynamics of an activist community in a process of revolution. Women were doing so much of the work. Making food for these massive community action meetings; organizing discussions; taking care of the black blocers, who were throwing bricks at the cops. And who profited from the student strike? Young, white, francophone, political leaders. Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois became a figurehead. Léo Bureau-Blouin became an elected official—and for a conservative party. Now, they’ve published books and they’re doing speaking tours. What happened to the people who got their arms broken? What happened to the people who were tear-gassed? What happened to the people who are still paying student loans? A lot of students were expelled from universities on disciplinary action. There was also so much racist discourse coming out of the movement itself. Ultimately, the strike failed in even its most basic aim, which was to stop the tuition hike. Those failures were also an important lesson.
Guernica: Your discussion of intra-movement dynamics echoes a question of consent that runs throughout your work. In your essay “(Tired of) Loving you Long Time,” you quote Ninotchka Rosca, who writes that “consent is only possible all things being equal.” At the same time, you hold open the possibilities of intimacy across difference. Where are you with questions of consent right now?
Thom: I’ve backed down a lot. I don’t consider myself an activist anymore—partially because of these questions around consent and coalition-building. I have felt really exploited within different movements. I’ve experienced tokenism, as well as more direct forms of sexual harassment, violence, and objectification. As many people do. I’m now trying to work through these questions of consent on a personal level, which, obviously, is still political.
There’s so much abuse within activist communities. So many political leaders and figureheads, people we really believe in—Gandhi and Malcolm X, if you want to go with the obvious examples—were also really abusive in their intimate lives. Yasmin Nair wrote an article called “Your Sex is Not Radical” about how queer sexual relationships are not helpful in any way to any kind of political movement. I disagree. I think that the simple act of two people having sexual or romantic congress in a way that is striving for consensuality and sexual pleasure at the same time is very political, very important, and so rare.
I recently got out of an abusive relationship that lasted a few years. I told a friend, “I just got out of my abusive relationship.” He said, “I wouldn’t call your relationship ‘abusive.’” I had a flash of anger: “How dare you deny—? Why would you say that?!” And then, “Really, though, why would someone take it upon themselves to define my relationship for me?” The only answer I can come up with—there may be alternatives—is that this person has witnessed what I was describing in his own community—and perhaps in his own life. It was important for him to be able to classify something as abusive or not, with a tendency toward excusing certain things. That says a lot about the rape culture that we live in.
Then, once a community has decided that abuse has occurred, the go-to tactic for dealing with it is social exclusion. For a lot of trans people, social exclusion is tantamount to death. The stigma of being an abuser—or someone who has done something non-consensual—in queer and activist community is really intense and terrifying.
We have to move beyond the survivor/abuser dichotomy. One of the most important—traumatic, but also healing—experiences I’ve had was a partner telling me that they felt I was putting pressure on them to have sex. At first, I was angry. I’d had other partners who had done things to me on a regular basis that I thought were worse. I thought, “I sucked that up, and didn’t confront them about it! So why do you get to confront me?” I had a discourse around it, too, because this person was white. I thought, “How dare you impose your ideas of comfort on me?” Maybe there’s some merit to that, but I think the truth of the matter is that we should all be able to express when something is not feeling consensual or safe in our intimate relationships, whether that is sexual, romantic, parental, sibling, whatever. We have no healthy or healing models for moving forward in community with processing abuse, violence, non-consensual [behavior]. We have no models that make room for multiple experiences of the same event. That’s what I’m trying to explore in my work.
My forthcoming novel, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars, is about a gang of vigilante trans women of color who beat up cops. It explores the valorization of violence in many activist communities, especially punk. In many ways, Montreal is such a punk city. To be queer in Montreal, I think, implies that you’ve been touched by punk politics, including a valorization of violence. If we valorize violence in our revolutionary struggles, then that necessarily will come across in our struggles to revolutionize our intimate relationships. All that to say: hurt people hurt people. When you’ve been taught that the only way to survive is by enacting violence, that’s what you’re going to do. We need to take a good, hard look at ourselves. What are we doing? How can we organize to do intimacy better?
Guernica: You’ve spoken about language as homeplace, and your forthcoming poetry collection is entitled, a place called No Homeland. What does home mean for you? How does language figure in your conception of home?
Thom: It’s such a resonant question for queer people and people of color. Most of the queer literature I’ve read has, in some way, had a thematic element of home. Home and longing. Longing for home. Queer people are displaced. Whether you grow up queer and urban or queer and rural, you feel like you don’t belong. And obviously, adding diaspora or colonization to that discussion adds another level of complexity.
As a child, I had the luck of having access to a lot of books written by diasporic Chinese people. Especially Laurence Yep. He writes beautiful children’s books that have very mature themes around belonging and home and poverty and class struggle for Chinese people in America. He weaves myth and Chinese fairy tale into the stories. There’s one fairy tale where a young man wakes up lost in the forest. He goes to the home of an ogre princess and falls in love with her. In order to marry her, he has to steal her heart, literally. So he does. But after he steals her heart, she doesn’t want to marry him because their children would be half-ogre and half-human. (That’s a fascinating theme!) So, he goes back to his village only to find that a thousand years have passed. Everybody he knows is dead. There’s a version of this story in every culture and, in every one of these stories, there’s a reason the hero left home. They were already marginalized. The hero: the one who needed to leave. So, you leave because you didn’t fit. And you found somewhere, but you didn’t fit there either. Then you come back, and even the things that were once familiar are gone.
The moment you start to dream of a homeland is the moment your homeland ceases to exist. It becomes frozen in time. You become frozen. You look back, and you’re turned into a pillar of salt. This is the terrible emotional struggle for a lot of queer people of color.
In the titular essay of Imaginary Homelands, Salman Rushdie talks about the “imaginary India” of writers in exile. Rushdie writes about how writers in exile—exiles in general—have this obsession with looking back, finding the root. The moment you start to dream of a homeland is the moment your homeland ceases to exist. It becomes frozen in time. You become frozen. You look back, and you’re turned into a pillar of salt. This is the terrible emotional struggle for a lot of queer people of color.
There’s an idea of promised homeland that is also, I think, very powerful. Chinese people call North America gum san, golden mountain. There are similar names for Jerusalem. And Medina. You exalt this promised place but, when you get there, it doesn’t accept you.
I like to think about homeland in exile. The nation of exiles. We have to release these unfulfilled fantasies and live with the tribe of lost children. We have to accept that the past is lost. The present is lost. Homeland is not something you can have in the way that it was promised to you. This is what a place called No Homeland explores. It’s about: How do you create a homeland of the heart? It’s cliché, but ultimately that is what people are looking for. A homeland of the heart.
Guernica: In the poem “blessing,” you write: “Blessed are the haunted, for they are never alone.” So much of your work is a reminder that even as there are ruptures and displacements, the body is never wholly emptied. We carry so much. Would you say more about haunting? Does haunting have a place in the nation of exiles?
Thom: It’s important to think about context. When we talk about a nation of exiles, a nation of diasporic people, we have to think about nations of the indigenous. We’re haunted by the ghost of colonization. Indigenous communities are experiencing colonization currently, as well as ripple effects of colonization from the past. Same thing for enslaved communities and communities that lived through indentured servitude—to various degrees and with different effects. We are materially haunted. To this day, indigenous and black communities don’t have access to the same standards of healthcare or education that white people have access to, and certain classes of immigrants have access to. We are emotionally haunted, too, by the stories we don’t have, the languages we lost, the names we don’t remember, the names that were given to us that we can’t pronounce. It’s very real.
Haunting is a bit of a cliché in diaspora literature. The idea of the ghost—being haunted by the past, being haunted by trauma, the body being occupied by something other than oneself—is almost always there. We carry our ghosts. We also enact our ghosts. The idea of possession is about feeling that one has to live out a story that is both past and prophecied.
We’re compelled to repeat the past. And we wonder why this is. In our trauma, a lot of people—particularly queer people—see that we’re repeating things. We’re not stupid. We notice, “I’m dating the same shitty dude over and over again,” and think: “I guess that means I’m broken.” Or, “I guess that means I can only date shitty people.” I love trauma theory for the idea that we repeat not because we’re broken, but because we’re trying to heal. In the act of repetition comes variation. And within the minute variations that occur in the repetition of acts, we are slowly able to create space for transformation.
I’m thinking about a particular case of a very traumatized child I worked with in play therapy. Non-directive play therapy is about opening a space to play, letting the child do what they want within a framework of safety, and really not imposing too much. This child would enact an abuse narrative over and over again. Over many, many, many sessions. It kind of felt like, “Oh god. Are we just retraumatizing?” But several months into therapy, I was slowly able to introduce concepts like, “If this character is locked in a room, are they crying? Should someone go and help them?” Slowly, the narrative changed from one of rejection of the child to one of care. Eventually this game of abusing this baby character became a game of being mother to this child—very, very slowly, and in incremental steps. “Should someone hold this baby? Should someone wash this baby? Should someone hug this baby?” Never going to far from the previous enactment, but over time becoming something completely different. And I think this is so much of why we are preoccupied with trauma: our brains and our bodies already know how to heal, and we need to give ourselves the space to do that. We have to let ourselves heal.
Guernica: There’s so much repetition in your poetry. How do your formal choices relate to a broader social practice that your work participates in?
Thom: I love this question. I don’t get to talk about technique very often. Because I come from the family and class background that I do, it was never an option to consider an arts program in my studies. It was always: make money; take care of yourself; take care of your family. That’s why I’m a social worker. I have never formally studied writing.
I have had mentors and teachers, like D’bi Young and Jason Selman. They come, very often, from black traditions of poetry like dub and jazz poetry and spoken word. In oral traditions, repetition is very important because it keeps your audience awake. You can’t drift too far into esotericism or into compressed experimental uses of language unless your goal is to confuse the audience, which it can be. But if you’re trying to entertain—which you generally are—you have to keep the audience with you, and repetition is powerful way to do that. Rhythm is fundamental to human consciousness. It’s heartbeat. It’s breath. It’s sound. It’s embedded. It’s sacred. Rhythm can elevate you to a different place. Think of catechisms, for example. Prayer. Mantra. We are trapped in a cycle of capitalist rhythms that entomb us, and new rhythms allow us to shatter that and, for a moment, to break free.
Guernica: What is the world your work envisions?
Thom: I’m not really trying to imagine a world on a grand scale right now. That is to say: I’m trying to be humble. There’s a prevalent culture of leadership. Be a leader; create change; or you’re no one. The exceptional are important and valuable. Poets are important and valuable. Prophets are important and valuable. Politicians are. They can envision a new world for everyone to live in and give birth to that world. I’m not trying to give birth to a world. I’m trying to give birth to myself. I’m trying, in my work, to construct and deconstruct, to examine, imagine, explore, dream into being a way to have relationships with people that is revolutionary; that is healing and consensual; that is honest, untrauamatized, generative, and sustainable.
I think of writing and performing as a process of creating a relationship. When I perform in front of an audience, when I maintain my Facebook page, when I answer fan emails that come at two in the morning that say, “I’m trapped in an abusive relationship. I’ve never met you, but could you please help me?”—these are the kind of emails I get—I’m creating a relationship with individuals. Or my friends, who I write about sometimes. Or my relationship partners, who I write about. Or people who come up to me and say they’re inspired by my work. People who come up to me and say they’re jealous. People who come up to me and say, “You’ve been a shitty asshole to me in the past, and it sucks that you get so much attention because you’re a writer and I don’t feel like I can criticize you in public.” Those are all real relationships. I’m trying to have real relationships through writing in a way that feels honest and healing, if not always good and comfortable. No relationship is always good and comfortable. If you can feel that your own relationship with one person is not lost, not terrified, not beaten, not bruised, then you know you have the fundamental skills necessary for engendering that in a larger space. If I know how to heal my own relationships, that becomes a model for healing relationships between communities. And that becomes a model for healing relationships in general. That’s the world I’m trying to move toward.
Kai Cheng Thom is a writer, performance artist, and social worker based in Montreal and Toronto, Canada. She is a regular contributor to online platforms such as Everyday Feminism, Autostraddle, and Buzzfeed, and to literary magazines including Asian American Literature Review, Plenitude, and Matrix Magazine. Her first novel, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars, is due out from Metonymy Press in Fall 2016, and her first book of poetry, a place called No Homeland, from Arsenal Pulp Press in Spring 2017.
Claire Schwartz is a PhD candidate in African American Studies, American Studies, and Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Yale. Her poetry has appeared in Apogee, Cream City Review, Prairie Schooner, and Tupelo Quarterly, and her essays, reviews, and interviews in Electric Literature, the Iowa Review, the Virginia Quarterly Review and elsewhere.