Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 13, August 2006

Daniel Gawthrop

The Rice Queen Diaries:
A Memoir


Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2005,
252 pages; ISBN: 1 55152 189 X (paper); price: $US16.95.


Reviewed by Brian Curtin

     
  1. Daniel Gawthrop's ambitions as a writer are not represented by the billing of The Rice Queen Diaries as a memoir. True, the fact the book recounts experiences from over a decade is its most obvious feature but the author's preface, and the approach to writing which follows, claim a significance beyond divulging the consequences of his attraction to Asian (or 'Asian') men. The preface states that The Rice Queen Diaries is premised on disrupting a stand-off between prevalent narratives of sexual objectification for interracial desire and the politically-sensitive school of writing borne of post-colonial theory. He describes the latter as reading as if 'crafted by committee' (p. 12). The Rice Queen Diaries has the appearance of an academic tract, with indented quotations from a variety of popular, literary and otherwise sources, while largely reading as a first-person recollection of predominately sexual experiences across three continents. Gawthrop splices the two approaches and The Rice Queen Diaries can be understood as aiming to deconstruct predominant notions of the 'rice queen' in terms of testing personal experience against received ideas and stereotypes.
     
  2. The narrative of the The Rice Queen Diaries departs from the author's early discovery of his Grandfather's complicity, as a civil servant, in the internment of Japanese in Vancouver and the Lower Canadian mainland during World War 2. Gawthrop writes that he was struck by 'an unsettling irony' two generations later in that he had been 'targeting East Asians for special welcome to those very same coastlands' (p. 22). The author asks 'if I went far enough back in my own history, perhaps I could learn just how and why this peculiar desire for Far East Asian men had ever risen to the surface' (p. 24). Looking back, Gawthrop writes of his sexual interest in Bruce Lee, his recognition of Chinese classmates beyond stereotyping as nerds and, in one of the most engaging passages in the book, his secret viewing of a sexualized initiation rite involving high school jocks and an Asian student. Any analysis is low-level ('As a lapsed Catholic, I can't help but see.') and instead Gawthrop inserts discussions of or references to related texts; Yukio Mishima's Confessions of a Mask provides a partial contextualization of the latter event (pp. 35-41).
     
  3. The book proceeds with accounts of the author's re-location to Vancouver (in a section titled 'Hongcouver'), a four year relationship with a Filipino, a three month vacation in Southeast Asia and a two year stint working in Bangkok. All chapters move in various directions; descriptions of countless casual sexual experiences, meditations on a variety of dead ends in terms of relationships, personal insights into the habits and beliefs of the cultures he engages with, and multiple referencing. The references include historical notes on Southeast Asia, academic research on sexuality and gender and disparate notes on literary and extra-literary texts. The Rice Queen Diaries concludes with the author back in Canada and awaiting the arrival of a Karen man he has fallen in love with. 'Love' provides the full-stop; what the author declares ultimately demystifies his fifteen year deliberations on what it means to be a rice queen.
     
  4. As well as being sentimental, this 'answer' is conventional and hardly worth the word count of the preceding chapters. While Gawthrop largely accounts for the questions (' how and why this peculiar desire for Far East Asian men had ever risen to the surface') and preoccupations he sketches at the beginning he oddly misses, as a certain breed of academic is likely to phrase it, an interrogation of the nature of his own desire. This is odd given the nature of his approach—a contextualised account of experience—and a result of the fact that he uses all the references and quotes to illustrate that experience and to try and legitimise his assumptions. For example, as means of framing his relationships with Asian immigrants in the West, Gawthrop cites Dennis Altman's problematic claims for a universal (read American) gay identity and its tension with 'Asian-ness' (pp. 92-93). He uses the example of Roger Casement to talk about the risks of sexual indulgence in a foreign land (p. 237). When he meets a caucasian in Thailand who was distraught at being unable to find the Thai lover he had exchanged emails with for over a year, Gawthrop 'couldn't help thinking of' an anthropological essay which described the efforts of a Thai bar-boy to maintain the interest and financial support of 23 foreign men simultaneously, and he smugly notes the white guy's naivety (pp. 158-59). Personal insights are sometimes so inane as to beggar critical belief; further to being snubbed by a Thai man he had had sex with, Gawthrop writes 'It wasn't what I has done that was the problem; it was what I hadn't done' (p. 121). And the rest.
     
  5. In a word, nowhere are the references in tension with his experiences or assumptions and therefore no critical space is created that might challenge, deconstruct, how Gawthrop thinks he sees himself and his 'others'. This is the central issue—how desire is produced in relation to an Other—and what The Rice Queen Diaries purports to examine. Alongside the examples above: further to accepting an invitation to the family home of a Thai trick he writes 'I was continuing a grand tradition that had begun with the old explorers of the imperialist project' (p. 134). Seeing himself in these terms, the conclusion of the book should come as no surprise, Gawthrop has not gained critical understanding or provided analysis; he has merely found a means to possess the object of his desire.


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This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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From February 2008, this paper has been republished in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific from the following URL: intersections.anu.edu.au/issue13/curtin_review.html.

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