Features | The stories we carry

An interview with Kai Cheng Thom

Cw: sexual violence, abusive relationships, trauma.

Kai Cheng Thom is a writer, spoken word artist, therapist, wicked witch, and lasagna lover who divides her time between Montreal and Toronto, unceded Indigenous territories. Her poems and essays have been published widely in print and online, and she has performed in venues across the country, including Verses International Poetry Festival and the Banff Centre for the Arts. Her first novel, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir was released by Metonymy Press in 2016, and her debut poetry collection, a place called No Homeland, was released by Arsenal Pulp Press in 2017. Her book for children, From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea, was published in October of the same year. Kai Cheng was also a featured columnist for The McGill Daily from 2012-2014, writing about race, sexuality, and gender. She sat down with us on a sunny Saturday morning to talk about queer community, #MeToo, sinning, living in diaspora, dreams, love, and radical healing. This interview will make you laugh, cry, and really want to sit down and talk with Kai Cheng.

The truth of the heart

Arno Pedram (AP): Hello.

Kai Cheng Thom (KCT): Hiiiii.

AP: So my name is Arno.

Tai Jacob (TJ): I’m Tai.

KCT: I’m Kai Cheng Thom. I wrote some books that all came out at the same time. I didn’t mean for that to happen, but they all came out last year. I also write for the internet sometimes. I used to be very much involved in, like, Montreal activism and queer activism culture, and now I’m not so much, partly because I moved to Toronto, and partly because I am getting older, and I’m like, I don’t know what I’m doing with my life! Also, I’m visiting Montreal right now because my wife Kama La Mackerel lives in Montreal.

TJ: That’s a name drop! (everyone laughs)

KCT: Giant name drop. I’m married to someone famous! And yeah, Montreal is always going to be the city where my heart came into being and where I found myself and also was destroyed, and found myself again.

TJ: That sounds a lot like the story of Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars, which was one of the three books that all came out at the same time. I was wondering, in what ways is this book an allegory for your actual life experience?

KCT: Oh, not at all.

TJ: Really?

KCT: I don’t know, it’s really funny. People ask this question in different ways a lot and I love answering it. So Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars, the subtitle of this novel is “A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir,” and when you put the word memoir in the title of your novel, people are always like, “Hey, oh my god, I’m excited to read your memoir!” And I’m like, “It’s not my memoir, it’s the memoir of the character who is fictional.” But of course, people notice certain superficial similarities, like this character being an Asian trans woman growing up in a city where it’s always raining on the west coat, and moving to a city where everyone is speaking French and smoking cigarettes. I used to be an English major in theatre, and my favourite play that we studied was Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, a classic play about an aging Southern belle who’s also, like, a deep racist and you know, a horrible person. But Blanche DuBois, that aging Southern belle, has a line where she’s being accused of being a pathological liar, which she is, right, she’s lied to everyone in her life and kind of tried to trick everyone into seeing her as something that she’s not. And she says, “I never lied in my heart.”

AP: “Never inside, I didn’t lie in my heart.”

KCT: Yes, oh my god! (Laughter)

AP: It’s my favourite line.

KCT: I love it, I love it. And that’s what Fierce Femmes is about. You know, it’s the truth of the heart. And so, nothing that really happens in the novel “happened” — and I have to also say that for plausible deniability, which is the joke I always make — but that novel is the truth of what happened to me in my heart.

Sin and punishment

AP: Okay, so let’s get into activism and queer spaces.

KC: Sure!

AP: Having read your article “Righteous Callings,” I was wondering: how do we manage accountability in social spaces, activist space in particular, in the context of a call-out culture, and how does shame fit into that?

KCT: Mhmm, just like a nice, light question. Oh god, I don’t fucking know, but I’m gonna take a try, because you asked me the question. Whenever this question comes up in any kind of interview context, I’m like, let us set the stage, why am I being asked. And I think people are asking the question because I write about it a lot, and I just want to make it really clear that because I write a lot about accountability does not mean that I am an expert in accountability. It just means that I think about it a lot and, also, that I put these thoughts on the internet. All that to say, I think we live in a culture, in addition to call-out culture, of celebrity culture, in activist space. And we do this thing where we’re like, oh my god Kai Cheng Thom, Kim Katrin Milan, Mia Mingus, all the big names, and some names are bigger than others obviously. And we’re like, “Those people are perfect and the example of how we should live our lives.” And that is terrifyingly similar to certain religious communities, where beautiful ideas around accountability and goodness are then pinned to people who are actually very fallible. Because, I mean, scratch the surface of any celebrity and you will find a sinner. All this to say, I have done bad things. I’ve been called out for some things that I think are fair, others that I don’t think are fair. So take everything I say with a grain of salt! Coming back to accountability in social space, the truth is, I think we’re obviously going through a crisis of accountability in all space right now. In so many countries, in so many places, with the #MeToo movement. And I think the powerful and amazing thing is that the veil is being ripped off of the shame of survivors, and, like, the shame of people who have experienced violence, who have been silenced for such a long time. Maybe this is the first time in history that this particular kind of movement is happening. But I think we are conflating the conversation of punishment with the conversation around accountability and justice.

TJ: I have questions about this actually. Specifically, about that really good article you wrote for GUTS, called “#NotYet,” in response to #MeToo. How do you work at the intersections of the work surrounding sexual violence and work surrounding prison abolition?

KCT: So I think we have a really powerful and beautiful statement, a beautiful activist truism, now blowing up in the mainstream, which is: “I believe women, I believe survivors.” This is a really important statement, in that survivors and women have not been believed for a long time. And that statement, I think, finds its greatest use in situations of support. Whether you’re providing a social service in an institution, or you’re providing support for your friends, the thing you don’t want to do when your friend is like, “I’ve been hurt,” is to say, “Really? Can you tell me exactly how? Does it fit into a legal standard?” And this comes from a history of women’s shelters operating in the United States and Canada where, by law, the definition of sexual assault excluded sexual assault and violence between married partners. But believing survivors has taken on, I think, and maybe I’m wrong about this, but I think it’s taken on a different kind of meaning when we talk about justice and accountability. I think in the mainstream there is a move to conflate, “I believe survivors,” with, “And that means the person who is the perpetrator should go to jail, or go through some kind of punishment.” And we really have not figured out how to separate the idea of punishment from the idea of justice. So like, if I have been harmed, that means the only way for me to feel like that harm has been seen and addressed is that the person who hurt me is being punished. And that is really hard to let go of. To be honest, like I really wish that some of the people that have hurt me would be punished. But from a place of values, when I really think about that, then I’m like, okay, that doesn’t solve the problem of violence. Carceral solutions to violence only displace violence into the prison system and also disproportionately affect vulnerable people, because the truth is that punishment doesn’t happen to the powerful. Punishment only happens to people who can’t stop it, who don’t have the power to stop it. And the activist response to that, which is shunning, or to remove people from social circles, only displaces violent people into other communities, and those people are then angry and traumatized by the loss of their community and so the cycle just spins and spins. And then the secret truth, I think, about activist communities, in the same way the secret truth about religious communities is, is that all of us are sinners. And the extent of the sin varies, it obviously does. But I think all of us, if we were to look into our past, would find something bad that we have done. And it’s so important to talk about this. I’m actually really happy, in a weird way, that the Aziz Ansari story is unfolding the way it does, because the reason there has been so much pushback around that story is that Aziz Ansari, who in his own way is sort of like a figure for liberal and leftist communities, what he did is actually normal — not good, but normal. And when we start to understand that violence is normalised and normative, and happens all the time, we can realise that, actually, most of us are participating in it in some way, from either colluding with the perpetrator to being the perpetrator. Then, I think we can start having a discussion about shame: shame is a normal and healthy response to having done something bad, but it cannot stop there, and we cannot let shame silence us. The most important truth that we need to come to terms with, as believers of justice, is the truth of the harm that we, ourselves, have caused, and not the harm that we think other people have caused — because the truth is, the place where we will have the most impact is in our own hearts and relationships. And I say that as someone who has, you know, a trail of shattered relationships behind me. So there you go.

Being bad

KCT: As a therapist I have the privilege of speaking to people in an intimate way about things that they’ve done that are abusive, that they know are abusive, and the pattern that always comes up is, “Look what you made me do!” The desire to shift blame onto another for one’s own personal pain, trauma, behavior, taken into its extreme, is an abusive pattern. The best part of the movement/moment we’re in is the part that says, “Look at yourself, and also love yourself.”

TJ: Something that I value so much about your work, specifically the article “Righteous Callings” is the way that you incorporate yourself into your analysis, and you start off “Righteous Callings” with this line, “I have always believed that I’m a bad person,” and that’s also been a theme in this interview, the idea of sinning, being bad, and religion. It keeps coming back! But I wonder if perhaps this is the wrong framework, if perhaps we could move beyond sinning and badness to just, “This is who we are.” Because sinning still implies that it is wrong, what if it isn’t wrong? What if it is just who we are and we’re constantly working towards something… ?

KCT: What I’m terrified of about this thought, what I struggle with in moving towards this thought is this: “What if I’m just trying to let myself off the hook for being bad?”

TJ: I know, that’s exactly why I stopped my question halfway, because I thought, “We’re actually bad.”

KCT: So much of the righteousness, self-righteous part of social justice is like, “See how you’re bad! See how you’re racist!” and the right response is, “You’re right. I am a racist,” and that’s of course true in some ways but also, there is this desire in me to be like, “But also, this is a human being human and growing up surrounded by a giant fucking terrifying system of trauma and systemic oppression, and this is all of us!” Does that mean I’m not being accountable? I guess we could question the framework of accountability itself, that, you know, we should do at some point. But also I’m like, “If I said that, what would happen next?”

TJ: I’m wondering what the motivation is? I guess the desire to be good, constantly, actually is a utopic desire — a place that is actually no place. What if we can think of goodness as always inaccessible, and that being okay?

KCT: That would be amazing! And you see people trying to create homelands that are free of sin: like with the Islamic State, a perfect caliphate, similarly with the cultural revolution in China, creating a communist land free of the sin of bourgeoisie. Whoever is doing that is creating this trap of desperately trying to be good, never getting there, blaming everyone else, hurting everyone else. I would love that to be able to say, “It’s okay…not to be good,” but then how do you respond to things that are violent? That need to be changed? But I think those two things are not incompatible!

Kill your heroes?

AP: I feel like a lot of queer culture has built itself around guides, and the history of queer communities often is: in your life you meet certain people who allow you to get further and further into your exploration of queer identity. Should we seek to have no more guides? Or should we try to keep it in a spiritual, social, kinship way?

TJ: That’s really interesting when looking at the similarity between religious communities and queer activist circles.

AP: And also in relation to fame.

KCT: I think it’s always most illustrative and interesting to talk about how I’m actually impacted by this. I often talk about the hypocrisy of celebrity culture and how much I hate it, which is, you know, kind of burning the ship that you’re sailing in, because, obviously, hello?! So much of what I have in my life is because I’m a micro-celebrity. I became a micro-celebrity, basically, as an alternative to becoming a sex worker. I’ve never said that out loud before, but that is true. The options that I felt were open to me in my life, as a trans woman of colour, were sex work or doing the queer celebrity gig. And I chose queer celebrity because, honestly, I found sex work too difficult to get into; I didn’t have the skills. I also found a different career path in social services, but that too is really tied to my queer celebrity. Part of the problem with queer celebrity is that it’s a neoliberal culture — it’s a brand! I’m sorry to pick on fellow micro-celebrities, but most of us are making anywhere from a tiny amount of money, to a moderate size amount of money from speaking, running, touring, modeling, all these other things. And so many of the queer youths that I work with have this in mind: “Oh I could be a YouTube celebrity, I could be a speaker/ writer/ artist/ whatever lifted by the activist community into the realm of fame.” Because it’s neoliberal, and we have to make money, so we’re always trying to be the next critical thing. And I just want to be suspicious of that as someone who is also, supposedly, anti-capitalist, and also, this is how I pay most of my rent guys! When it comes to guides: who doesn’t look up to someone and say, “I wish that were me/ could be me?” That’s so powerful! I don’t want to take that away from people! And I couldn’t!

TJ: And it’s more than that too, that person is helping you survive.

KCT: Yeah! This person is helping you maybe not harming yourself, or ending your life. What I do want to speak against is the concept of infallibility. Because that is so scary both for the people who have idols and for the idols. “Kill your heroes.” The thing queer communities love is celebrities, but the community also loves to hate celebrities. What if we set up a system where we don’t kill, or eat, or burn anyone? Inherently, the idea of having a hero that you then kill, or burn, or eat is disposable, disposability culture. So I’m wondering if we could allow for there to be guides, celebrities, with an understanding that people are humans and actually do some terrible things in life to survive, and also humans do some shitty stuff in life all the time, because they’re human.

No homeland

AP: I’m wondering how identities of queerness, being in a diaspora, not being able to speak your language as you would like to, intersect. I found this in a place called No Homeland, and I particularly resonated with the part where you have this recognition of someone that you see as part of your (diasporic) family, and you feel the need to bond because diasporic identities are so lonely and unique. But even then, we come to feel a tension between our diasporic identity and queer identity, we could ask ourselves: is queer identity a Western identity, a white thing?

KCT: a place called No Homeland is my favorite piece; I wrote it over ten years! That topic is the primary theme of the book, as the title indicates: feeling connection to different places, but also massive disconnection from those same places, and language and identity is so much a part of that. I do not really speak Chinese very well, even though I’ve taken some courses, but there are many different kinds of Chinese that vary between generations, even within my family. What we’re trying to access is a homeland that is frozen in time, a fantasy, that actually doesn’t exist anymore: you can never really go back. But there are different ways of accessing homeland. In some ways the homeland that is really yours is your immediate family: parents, siblings, uncles, which can also be full of trauma for some people. And there are different things we do, like making different foods, trying to access different pieces of culture. The truth is, living in diaspora and being queer means we are so many shades removed, and that can be a terrible and painful thing. It also is, I think, an amazing and powerful gift, when you realise that what is happening to you is the result of your family’s resilience, and a breaking of the narrative of nationalism and homonationalism that entrap most people and most queer culture. When you walk into a queer community, you immediately disrupt it as a person of colour, and when you walk into queer cultures in “the homeland,” you bring this Westernness. I think something interesting is that contemporary Western identity politics are actually very based on essentialism, which feminism and post-modernism tried to break out of for a while. People now are really hammering down, “Are you a POC? Are you a BIPOC? What kind of person of colour are you? How much do you pass? What is your white skin privilege? What is your adjacent-ness to whiteness?” All these terms are coming up, right? I think if you just take a second, it’s easy to realise that everything is fluid and that your experience is your experience, the story you carry is the story you carry, and there is something very freeing about that. When I run into queer Chinese people from the mainland, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong: it’s always different, and there is always a point of connection. What you get to have is a memory, the ghost that your parents gave you, and you get to let the past go, and I think that’s really important actually — to embrace living in this “place called no homeland” is to be able to let go of the past.

TJ: Also living in diaspora is constantly living in a liminal space.

KCT: Exactly. I am of the opinion that all things are happening at the same time — that all traumas are happening past and future, and I love that — when we are talking about diasporic people, the past is always going to be with us but the future is with us too! And we’ll always be a part of that.

AP: I have a hard time writing in my first language, French, or my second, English, in relation to what I am discovering now about this whole part of my Iranian heritage. It doesn’t have to be, but it’s like English allows at the same times that it limits diasporic creativity. How do you feel about English, what do you think English has allowed you and what do you think it is pushing away?

KCT: Another hard hitting question. I love it! Yeah, I have a complicated relationship with English, like most diasporic writers. And English is so much my first language and my best language. So I was raised speaking Chinese and English, and then, you know, more and more English, and then I really stopped speaking Chinese at all, and then I learned French when I moved to Montreal. But yeah, language is so complicated and does have its limitations, and is such a form of colonization, right? And I think the truth is, I might not be a writer if English were not my best language, because I feel like with English I’m always trying to figure out how to say things that don’t exist yet. And maybe they would exist for me if I spoke my mother tongue more fluently. So I think English pushes me, to find more ways of expressing meaning, and to find new ways of saying things. Also, most of my literary exposure has been through English, some through French also, but like, all of my major references are to English writing, even if the English writing is diasporic or post-colonial. I’m so shaped by that. And I actually do sometimes wonder how limited my politics are because so much of them are in English, and therefore also from the American canon.

Dreams and nightmares

TJ: What are your dreams?

KCT: So, I’m not gonna lie to you! I have a really strong dream that keeps coming up. Literally, when I’m sleeping, but also its a fantasy life. So I am currently married to Kama, but I am also dating a white guy, whom I love, who is definitely the dude who has treated me the best in all the world of all the dudes I’ve ever met, and he’s in tech. And I have this fantasy that he’s going to become a tech millionaire, that we’re going to live in Silicon Valley, and that I’m going to be like a tech millionaire’s trophy wife, and host parties and be disconnected from the world and just float in this billionaire’s palace for the rest of my life.

TJ: Wooow. Wait, I’m sorry, but this happens for a moment in Fierce Femmes.

KCT: It does.

AP: It does.

KCT: It does. And sometimes life is very fascinating because I didn’t meet this boy until right after Fierce Femmes was published. And like, the names are also very similar. Anyway! So, I have this fantasy dream of being lifted into wealth and into heterosexuality and into safety, out of queer community, out of activism, into like the 1 per cent, living a life of safe luxury. That’s a fantasy. It’s also kind of a nightmare, obviously. Because what happens in the book, Fierce Femmes — oh, I guess I can’t spoil what happens in the book — but you know, the character in the book who has that for a moment, doesn’t really enjoy it. And I don’t think I would enjoy it if I had it, either. But I think this says a lot about what I fear right now. And to be really honest, what I fear is queer community and I fear this political moment. At the same time, all of my loves are in queer community, and all of my strengths and all of my gifts come from queer community. And all the potential to change the world in a positive way comes from this political time. But it’s terrifying. Let’s be honest, I think we’re all fricking fucking terrified!

TJ/AP: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

KCT: Because, you know, a despot, like a nationalist despot, is in control of the most powerful nation in the world. All of our idols are falling from the stars, for good reasons maybe, but are still falling, and I think we’re all kind of falling with that. And the longing for safety is ingrained in us, and I think it’s an essential thread in white, queer American community, this idea of safety also being tied to economics and if you can just be wealthy enough and married enough and heterosexual enough, then you can be safe. When of course, everything that Fierce Femmes is about is releasing these ideas of safety to seek out transformation, to seek out justice, to seek out connection, to seek out magic. So I guess the shadow dream to my dream of becoming a tech millionaire’s trophy wife is the dream of continuing this life and finding more freedom in that. The dream of being a tech billionaire’s wife is embracing the unknown, and I think that’s what we all grapple with, right? And we have the choice of being assimilative or upwardly mobile, in the same way that my parents really, really tried to fit in — this is like the dream of a different kind of world.

 

Forgiving and being forgiven

TJ: What is the role of relationships and friendships in healing in social justice movements? We kind of touched on it before, but could you expand? I’ve been thinking about friendship as the root of freedom and the communities that we form being alternative universes.

KCT: If we can return to a cliché for a moment, it’s been said that love is the answer, that our relationships are the answer, that within the microcosm of our intimate partnerships and chosen families we create these spaces of not constantly having to experience otherness, of not having to experience non-consent. But we know the truth about a lot of our friendships and family relationships, especially at this age, is that of course violence is replicated in queer family, how could it not be? We are traumatised creatures trying to build, and when we are doing that we are going to fuck it up, a lot. So I think the revolutionary potential in relationships is the potential for honesty, for saying, “Wow you really fucked up and hurt me badly,” and for forgiveness. And this is what trauma takes away from us: the potential to be forgiving and forgiven. When we live in traumatic environments with parents or caregivers, we are taught to believe that making a mistake will erase us from the possibility of having love. There’s this horrible, beautiful quote in the God of Small Things where this child is being chastised by her mother, and her mother says, “Do you know what careless words do? They make people love you less.” And there’s this terror in queer communities of being loved less because of careless words. You say something that’s a microaggression, or you do something that is politically incorrect, or is problematic — that’s the word, right — then we will be loved less and less and less, we live in terror of this, right? And one thing I wish was more present in queer community, that actually was present in a weird way in the Christian community I grew up in, is this idea that you could be forgiven if you were honest about your mistake. I mean, it didn’t work out for the Christian community that I grew up in, but it was an idea that was around, and I feel like it is actually not that much around in queer community right now. But now as a therapist, what I know is important for recovery from trauma is the ability to break a relationship and to repair it again, and to have faith that we won’t lose each other.

Returning to the body

KCT: It’s so human that we fuck up and people leave us and it SUCKS, right? And then there’s just that moment of totally being lost in the pain, and there’s something about how pains returns us to the body that is so important. And I think we have to listen to that, the body tells us things, that people are important and that it’s bad we fucked up, for one thing, and also that relationships are changing. You know, as we’re talking about this experience of getting into these close relationships, and you hurt each other and you love each other again, I think sometimes people resist that idea for the good reason, because I think a key factor of abuse in intimate violence is someone saying you have to forgive me, and things have to be the way they were again. Like, if I said “I’m sorry, now we have to be friends exactly the way it was,” and that’s actually not possible. When you hurt someone you do change the relationship forever, and sometimes we change it in a way that is better and more close, and sometimes we change it in a way where it’s time for it to be over. And forgiving and being forgiven, or having forgiveness as a value, does not mean someone has to still be your partner after you’ve hurt them or still be your friend, or even that you have to like each other. It just means that you’re allowed to exist together, right? And that grief and that pain is what transformation feels like, but also is what allows us to change. Pain is what tells us, “Okay, I really have to change my patterns,” or “Oh, that person was really important to me, and I grieve that loss.” I think we spend so much time trying to avoid that pain that we end up sometimes locking ourselves into really difficult and sometimes violent patterns.

This interview has been significantly edited for clarity and length.


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