Real Inclusion Means Centering Voices, Not Just Bodies—Especially for Queer Chinese Americans
Our lives are often important tools for the plot, but agency is nowhere to be found
As a queer New Yorker who enjoys making bad choices for good stories, with queer friends who also regularly make and support bad choices for good stories, there is a fundamental joy that comes with reading the 2021 wildly popular novels Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters and One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston. There we are, on the page, reproduced: messy choices and nontraditional chosen families; the hookups—oh the hookups!—and the strange New Yorker-ish weaving into someone’s life for a short time by way of their fascinating apartment. In these novels, the queer joy reads like a sunny Saturday at Jacob Riis Beach; like a 24-hour diner across from a techno club where queers dressed in leather harnesses order food; like walking into your local pub where they remember you and your order.
As a writer, I felt only happiness for the inclusion in Peters’ and McQuiston’s glorious stories. There it was, nothing scrubbed: the sex work, the shitty apartments, the Daddies, the subway makeouts, the indulgent prose—all of it so antithetical to what publishers claim the market wants. As a reader, I latched onto the characters who looked, talked, and thought like me: Jane, the hot Chinese American lesbian featured in One Last Stop who is covered in zodiac animal tattoos, enjoys talking to strangers, and rides the Q train; and Katrina, the biracial cis woman in Detransition, Baby who has a Chinese mother, is fed up with heterosexuality, and works in advertising. There’s some of me in both of them—a hot (indulge me, please) Chinese American queer tired of heteronormative institutions, with arms slathered in tattoos, unfortunately working in advertising, thriving happily and messily in New York City, living by the Q train, enjoying befriending strangers despite the New Yorker stereotype.
Though neither Katrina nor Jane are what Gen Z and literary lingo call the main characters of their novels, the plots entirely hinge upon them. They are essential. In Detransition, Baby, Katrina accidentally becomes pregnant with Ames’s baby, and together they work with Ames’s ex Reese to explore the possibilities of three-way co-parenthood. In One Last Stop, Jane is displaced from the 1970s into the current 2020s, where she is time-stuck on the Q train. She meets and falls in love with August, who, armed with a healthy side of pancakes and drag queen adventures, helps her break free into the present.
Without Katrina and Jane, there would be no Baby, no Q train romance, no novels—novels which rely on their bodies. Detransition, Baby is structured by the amount of time that has come before or after conception inside Katrina’s body, and Ames and Reese, the two protagonists, only reunite and reflect on their past after finding out about the pregnancy. In One Last Stop, August, the heroine, begins to blossom once she embarks on a journey to rescue Jane’s time-stuck body, a body whose strength is reliant on August uncovering more of Jane’s past. Despite Katrina and Jane’s importance to their respective storylines, we are never directly given their perspectives or personal histories. We only learn about them through the ears and eyes of Ames, Reese, and August—the white main characters. Yet Katrina and Jane’s bodies are tools for the plot and the other white characters’ growth.
Despite the joy I felt reading these novels, I can’t help but reflect upon how Detransition, Baby and One Last Stop are two more popular stories in which Chinese American characters are reduced to plot tools, to objects of affection—the body, and the body only. I am acutely aware of this reduction in novels, in history lessons, in current day events. How could I not be, when so much of our history reveals our bodies’ disposability on the railroads, in the cotton fields, in the Gold Rush? When even our proud and much-loved literary journals are titled with names like The Margins, showing where our bodies and stories reside in the literary landscape? When our elderly are beaten up in the streets like their bodies are nothing but punching bags?
In fiction, the writer weaves certain characteristics and happenings into the plot to help the reader understand the character and their motivations. As the novels progress, we learn, through conversations and events, more about Katrina and Jane’s lives. Katrina is divorced; traumatized by the remains of her miscarriage she had to flush down the toilet; a girlboss-type advertising executive who, to Ames’s surprise, is rather freaky in bed and grew up in rural Vermont with hippie parents. Jane is—as described by the book’s sleeve—dazzling, charming, mysterious, impossible; a punk rock lesbian; a wanderer in every sense of the term until she becomes stuck in time; a leather jacket wearer; the kind of charismatic person diner sandwiches are named after.
While both women are lovely full-fleshed characters, their backstories are only seen through the white protagonists, making Katrina and Jane’s centrality to the storyline wrenchingly painful to read. Because when I reflect on the things that make me lose my grasp on my own body, from the debilitating eating disorder I suffered from 2015-2019 that left a gaping black hole in my memory; to the subsequent club drugs I did in an effort to dance away the calories on weekends; to the daily smothering of my cigarette cravings; to the strangers who grab my arms to examine my tattoos without permission—all of these attributes and happenings in my journey made and make my body feel like it’s not mine.
Throughout these experiences, I was technically the main character. This was—and is—my life! These were all my choices, yet I felt like the side character to my own main character experience, because I was never fully in control. I was beholden to whatever constructs and judgements seemed more important than what made me feel at home in myself.
I am mostly sober now by choice. I am enamored with my life’s queer messiness, and I dance to K-pop in my apartment and techno in clubs, not because I want to lose calories but because I truly do enjoy it. Perhaps most importantly, I spend my time doing what I want—my choices are conscious because I am now aware of what makes my body mine. There is such joy in agency, a freeing sensation that comes with reclaiming a body, discovering what Melissa Febos calls “the bounty of time“—time spent reading and writing and ruminating and making art, instead of “orienting to the desires of others, profoundly obscuring my own.” These bounties are free for us to explore on a personal level, but also help expand our notions of what we can do and have, from the kind of art we make to the chosen families that support us making it—aspects of queer life explored in Detransition, Baby and One Last Stop, and in recent greater cultural discourse.
I’m continuing to embrace my body agency, which makes reading Katrina and Jane’s lack of it all the worse. Both characters are aware of their lack: when discussing their shared parenthood, Katrina points out to Reese and Ames that she could simply become “some vessel … to grow his ex-girlfriend’s dreams inside.” And during a fight with August, Jane emphasizes that “she’s not just a fucking case to be solved,” though Jane’s memory and existence is directly dependent on August’s goodwill. Katrina and Jane’s recognition of their potential autonomy happens in conjunction with their failure to seize it. Their warring inner states remind me of my own past failures.
To be clear, I know neither of these novels intended to focus on Chinese American characters or Asian American angst (or joy!). Those would be entirely different books. And I wholly enjoyed both stories—Detransition, Baby is a wonderful, vulnerable novel about trans women, detransitioning, gender constructs, and the failure of traditional heteronormative structures. One Last Stop is a fun and sexy New Adult romance novel meant to make the reader squeal rather than reflect. I know fiction should not be judged by how much the reader can “resonate” with its characters, and I am not arguing that white writers should never write across difference. I also know that nearly everything and everyone mentioned must primarily serve the main characters in novels, especially novels based upon Western empire craft expectations for fiction.
Therefore, it is simply, truly, the sheer delight of reading these two novels which compels me to analyze Katrina and Jane through the lens of my own life. The relegation of these Chinese American characters’ bodies into tools, into objects, is precisely why I cannot let go of them. I have seen us become objects far too often. I want so much more for Katrina and Jane, for myself, for my community. I want us to free ourselves from the weight of narratives we have been cursed to live under. Our bodies deserve autonomy. Our bodies deserve our selves.
Perhaps my wanting is why I adore Chinese American retellings of popular tropes, especially in the frontier genre. They represent a reclamation of agency, especially during a time in history when our bodies were used as tools to build railroads, pluck cotton, and mine for gold. We have been recently blessed with a wealth of what Lavinia Liang calls the “Eastern Western“—Asian American Westerns, or what Shing Yin Khor calls, the Asian yeehaw agenda, from C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold, to Khor’s The Legend of Auntie Po, to the Cinemax/HBO’s Warrior television series—three works of art featuring queer Chinese American characters. But aren’t these kinds of retellings the greatest sort of corrupted freedom? To take on someone’s culture and wear it as a costume, draped over the body you own completely?
At the end of One Last Stop, Jane is no longer time-stuck, her body freed from the subway. She and August embark on a road trip to find Jane’s long-lost family. August is given everything she ever wanted: a beautiful girlfriend, a new chosen family, a renewed relationship with her mother. But Jane’s only support system is the girlfriend who released her, and though Jane is excited about the possibility of finding her family, it is likely her parents are dead and her siblings old—a depressing reality disguised as a happy ending. One Last Stop asks the reader to imagine what will happen to Jane and August on the road. How will their relationship blossom as they travel? Will Jane reunite with her family? Will she be able to adapt to the contemporary timeline she now finds herself in?
It is unfair to me that we got so many pages of August’s past and present, yet only as the novel ends are we given a storyline centering Jane that does not hinge upon August’s collaboration or Jane’s static body. The reader is left imagining the possibility of Jane’s freedom, of the Chinese American queer now free to move. But I no longer want to imagine a queer Chinese American character or self that is free. I want to read, write, and live as a queer Chinese American whose body is free, and whose novels are entirely their own.