by Alex Valente
Content warning: suicide
On the evening of Friday, 18th October 2019, I attended Massy Books launch of Kai Cheng Thom’s latest book I Hope We Choose Love – A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World, a collection of non-fiction and short poetic pieces that together form a net of radical hope-building for a time – and it has been a long time, as rightly noted in the introduction – when all hope seems lost. I follow Kai Cheng’s work online already, but I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from the event. I’m glad to say I’m still not entirely sure what happened.
We were introduced to the author by local film maker and artivist (and cousin to the author!), David Ng, and welcomed to the traditional, ancestral, unceded, and occupied territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations by Sḵwx̱wú7mesh council representative and activist Khelsilem. I thank him for doing so, and for answering my questions at the end of the event.
The acknowledgement of the land we occupy – as settlers in general, as people attending the event specifically, and as humans walking the earth universally – was used as the opening point by Kai Cheng to link land and bodies, and acknowledging our presence and weight in both. In a room almost entirely populated by a queer audience, this was an exercise in grounding (along with the opening song we partially joined in for) that brought us together as a community in a way that just saying the words probably would not have done.
Especially when the words used in the book are often sharply directed at the community, be it the queer community at large, or the smaller communities and chosen families we join during our lives. Kai Cheng starts the book (and the reading) by saying that when we ‘live in a community of queers, anarchists, and activists, crisis is the baseline and stability an outlier’; it’s easy to lose one’s faith in such an unstable support network.
a tapestry of eloquent and emotional speech punctuated by soundbites and text-readings
The book itself develops these ideas further, highlighting the importance of reframing the concept of consent/care predominant in queer spaces when dealing with complex situations, such as suicide – the author brings a specific example from her studies and social work experience in the essay ‘Stop Letting Trans Girls Kill Ourselves’ – and reaching a turning point in that redefinition, one where ‘love and care might mean following someone, even after they have rejected you […] reaching out, and failing, and then reaching out again and failing, again and again.’ The difference, Kai Cheng argues, is between ‘not shaming or pathologizing a suicide and being complicit in it.’
Queerlandia – that utopia where ‘only perfect people – perfect victims, perfect survivors – can live’ is deconstructed and its bones laid bare, in critical approaches to its true dystopian nature and roots (‘were told different, wonderful things, and they were not true; we weren’t raised en masse to overthrow the system, and so many teenagers now are’), and in exquisite gut punches provided by the small poetic compositions that live between the longer reads. This is very much an indication of Kai Cheng’s presented style, too: the evening was a tapestry of eloquent and emotional speech punctuated by soundbites and text-readings, one I had yet to encounter this genuinely in a writer dealing with the public.
Her style, her genuine emotional, incisive intelligence is then perfectly matched to the reconstruction part of the book, and the core of her thesis: transformative justice. A system where love and hope are not the fluff words that an institution or individual will wash over to disguise punishment, but truly the heart and the pulse of a new idea of community, of society. A whole new politique where hurting isn’t an option, be it shaming, be it physical incarceration, be it the skewed cancel culture and who it actually succeeds in targeting: her choice of examples, in the book and in speaking, dealing with trans women of colour was justified as they are ‘the ones who, once they leave, never come back’, the ones for whom the world has ended already, and keeps ending, incessantly.
These concepts were seeded, and the soil was nurtured during the second part of the evening, where Kai Cheng responded to some truly insightful and complex audience questions. She spoke of the role of artists is not marginal but unique in telling the truth, as we are storytellers different from scientists or journalists (who have their own truth to tell). She spoke of creativity, and how sometimes survival is the creativity, the ways in which we manage to persist, ‘born from mania, and trauma’, and how we choose love.
keep reaching, and never burn in love alone
She reminded everyone, including herself, that ‘we don’t need to be martyrs’ and that we must honour the fear we feel at putting ourselves out there, whatever the situation – but to keep reaching, and never burn in love alone: after all ‘it’s the end of the world; who do we want to be?’
As I said, I attended a book launch, but I experienced something entirely different, entirely new, and I had to write it down in words to try capturing what Kai Cheng Thom facilitated in the course of one hour and a half. In the same way that she wrote in words in this book – one that breaks and that mends, that challenges some deep-rooted beliefs while trying to plant the seed of something else, something truly radical.
I Hope We Choose Love is available from Arsenal Pulp Press, and can be ordered from them in most English-speaking countries.
Featured image by Alex Valente
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