Book Review: Room/Ystafell/Phòng

When I explain to people the premise of Parthian’s recently published Room/Ystafell/Phòng, they always comment on how it is a rather odd alliance. Indeed, the book pulls Wales and Việt Nam, two countries on two sides of the hemisphere, and who seemingly have little to do with each other, in conversation. But here they are, under one premise: queerness. The anthology is purple, pocketable, and slim, feeling more like a zine or pamphlet in your hands.

Room/Ystafell/Phòng. From its title, already, there is a hint to a polyphonic, pluralistic existence. We are guided by Welsh writer and poet Joshua Jones, as he introduces us to the writers he has handpicked to populate one of the first queer Vietnamese-Welsh anthologies, with the support of the British Council. The presence of all the three languages which appear in the book, being building blocks for its title, prompts me to never just call the book “Room.” It feels like cutting off a part of its limb, violating its wholeness. And refusing to curtail its name, an atypically dashed long title, is to me to embrace and celebrate its complicated, prismatic identity. No doubt, a very queer name for an anthology.

It is difficult to review anthologies as each contribution holds its own weight, and thus, you have to strike the balance of talking about each in equal measure. But I found reviewing Room/Ystafell/Phòng rather seamless, perhaps thanks to the formatting of the book. The different contributions are interwoven by what seem to be transcripts of online chat rooms. It is in these atemporal, liminal spaces that all the contributors, through various workshops led by Jones, muse about queerness, queer ecologies, capitalism, forced heterosexuality…. It is from these workshops that derive some of my favourite passages. Having read-up on queer theories in my sociology seminars, I see Butler’s and Puar’s words come alive within these chatrooms. Room/Ystafell/Phòng is queer theory out there, in practice and through lived experience, where queer stories are not “metaphorical,” as Leo Drayton reminds us in his poem, but embodied and concrete. These chatrooms to me function almost as panels, where the pieces are put into context of queerness.

Room/Ystafell/Phòng is critically invested in verbalising, documenting, picturing the embodied experience of living in that queerness. It felt more like going around a table of interesting characters, each with a story as odd and captivating as the next.

There is the complicated nature of having pride in a revitalised Welsh identity, and not being able to hold your loved ones within that same language. In the poem “My Cymru, My Heart,” Lauren Morais laments how she cannot speak of her gay friend and his “silver seed” soul in Welsh without calling him a “gwrywgydiwr,” man grabber. Viet queers can also recognise this complicated grief. As Xuan Tùng denotes in his essay “Toả bóng – the divine shade,” the Vietnamese way of referring to gay people is “bê đê.” Derived from the French word pédéraste, it is an old-fashioned, antiquated word with predatory undertones, bordering on slur. And I say border, because my Vietnamese aunts, uncles, friends use “bê đê” so off-handedly, casually and naturally; there is no other colloquial way of referring to them but in this pejorative way. “Cenedl heb iath, Cenedl heb galon. / A nation without language, is a nation without heart,” starts Lauren’s poem. How do queers live within a language, a nation, a land that actively villainises, bastardises, jettisons them? How can we, queer people, and especially queer people of colour, imagine ourselves and speak of ourselves when our mother tongues do not hold us in them?

Tùng puts a pin in queer communities’ tendencies for échappade, through music, art, dancing, spirituality. He problematises that: “Why is it that the mystic and exotic is the only choice of place where us queers can feel love and fulfilment?” To this, queers answer: we can make our own world, our own language. Just like how queers have reclaimed the slur “queer,” just how they reclaim the queerness that has always existed in these spaces, as shown in Maik Cây’s “dreams,” and Tùng’s “đạo mẫu.” There is something radical about seeing such a queer corporeal existence engraved on the scorched earth of the Vietnamese countryside, as one can witness in Kai Nguyễn mixed-media poem. There is a prevailing sentiment that a new world must be made to truly encompass our queer subjectivities. In one of the workshops, Tùng imagines queerness as an “unclaimed land,” and I find this really beautiful. Tùng goes on to muse that:

I feel like queer or not, we all dream of queer spaces
It’s hard to be queer in the current pace of capitalism
So we all dream of places to be “more queer,” even if you don’t
Want to call it that

The anthology re-roots queerness in these supposedly traditional, unqueer spaces—the communist, developing Việt Nam, the rural and backwoods Wales. It is a testament to how queer people are not a monolith, do not celebrate the same way, embody queerness the same way. There is the day-to-day coexisting of grief and loss as a discriminated community, and the freeing joy and celebratory nature of queerness. This line from Joshua Jones’ poem conceptualises this towing of the line aptly; “I wanted to write a happy poem. / Instead, I became birds.” You can feel it as Leo Drayton hopes for more roses to be given to trans people, not just at their funerals. (At the time of writing, as we celebrate the legacies of Alex Franco, Reyna Hernandez, TK Hills and countless others lost too soon, this feels even more painful. We fight for a future where trans people do not just appear in headlines as another statistic.)

I feel that, importantly, this anthology contributes to the decolonising efforts that continuously challenge ways of being queer. Modes available to “act” or “appear” queer are often modelled on Western ways, because all of the queer representations we can access are too-often: white, middle class, cis, able-bodied. For a long time, I felt like an imposter in the queer community as I do not outwardly show pride. I do not appear gender transgressive, despite feeling it. There are not many queer Asians on the screen or around me that showed me the possibilities of embodying my queer, complicated and inarticulable feelings.

The complicated layers of colonialism, gender, sexuality are a trifecta that weigh on the bodies of this anthology—how colonial powers punished porous and fluid gender expressions, and our countries, recuperating from the loss of colonial pillaging, are now seen as “backwards” or intolerant when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues. This collective fighting for existence is also strengthened by the shared commonality of Việt Nam and Wales—of resisting colonialism powers that have remoulded indigenous, native ways of life.

“Take away my voice and I’ll weaponize my words to fight against your blindness,” writes Drayton.

The book is a pocket of that—a vision of how queers have remade a new world for their own, within our current present.

The idea of Room/Ystafell/Phòng was not conceived when Joshua first received funding from the British Council for their season in Việt Nam. It was conceived on the road, as Joshua travelled to Việt Nam and befriended Vietnamese queers, creative practitioners and writers. He witnessed the fight for a queer life, and recognised how, despite the different strategies and needs that were distinctly regional, it was in many ways the same fight of his Welsh communities. The writers in this anthology, Room/Ystafell/Phòng, teem with promise, possibility and force. And their voices are made stronger when they are brought together.

Edited by Joshua Jones, featuring Xuân Tùng, Joshua Jones, Kai Nguyễn, Leo Drayton, Maik Cây and Lauren Morais
Parthian Books

Flitting between Asia and Europe—between worlds, scapes and bios, Anh Thư (they/them) adventures beyond the taught binary and given present, as they find it inadequate to fully represent them. They have published poetry in Koening Zine, Sledgehammer Magazine and Tiger Tea Zine as well as co-founding their own magazine GENCONTROLZ. They were a previous professional bookworm at Stanfords bookshop and has been diligently translating and book reviewing in the hopes of bringing voices in from the margins.


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