“I think it‘s really cool to see people not be afraid to wear a little nail polish and a bit of pink.”
“I think it‘s really cool to see people not be afraid to wear a little nail polish and a bit of pink.”
MARIEN BRANDON: It was very important to me to have the opinion of non-binary and trans people on the topic. How do you think the notion or men and masculinity are evolving and being redefined?
YAYA BONES: Big question! And important one… Over the past few years, we‘ve seen cis men in the mainstream aligned with softer aesthetics – I‘ll get on to queerbaiting in a bit- *They laugh* We’ve seen men in the limelight being more expressive and experiments with the way they dress and with the way they use colors. I don‘t know if that‘s actually something new, because if you look back at different eras. My uncle was wearing makeup and had long hair and more expressive outfits. That was very common back in the 60‘s and the 70‘s. I don‘t know if it‘s new or if it‘s just come back around. That‘s why when people, especially in the Queer community, are accusing other people of queer- baiting I think that word gets overused. I think queer- baiting is when you are pulling from the culture and profiting off it. Everyone should have the access to be able to just mess around with gender, but you don‘t have to be gay to do it. We shouldn‘t, as queer community, gatekeep who gets to be expressive. Obviously, we should honor and celebrate where those aesthetics come from, whether it’s from Queer culture or Queer people that are pushing the boundaries which trickles down into cis and straight culture. I think it‘s really cool to see people not be afraid to wear a little nail Polish and a bit of pink.
*They laugh* That‘s more of an aesthetic level, but there is still as many people who are stringently very hard macho and into the negative in a destructive sense. As you see one thing rise, the opposite rises as much. And we might not see that if we‘re in the echo chamber or just around our more creative circles. But it is still there and we see it every day with the rise of attacks on queer people and on trans people. As a trans-masc person there was a part of me that had to accept it, because I raised myself in my teen and early 20s to be a feminist and educate myself to be an intersectional feminist, and then when I realised I was trans. I felt I was a bad feminist. I always was me, I have always been genderqueer, and that doesn‘t mean I‘m not a feminist. Just because I feel more comfortable sometimes around more masculine people or transmasculine people or I feel more comfortable presenting masculine doesn‘t mean I want the bad parts of masculinity. Gender itself is so expansive, we should give it room to breathe. Maybe as trans and genderqueer people, we are able to express parts of masculinity that some cis people aren‘t able to because society raised them to think that they can‘t. Hopefully, if we don‘t gatekeep that, everyone will be able to access different parts of themselves and still identify as a man, as a cis man, but still be able to feel comfortable playing with their gender and with the way they present.
MARIEN BRANDON: There is a huge influence of the cultures where studying genders and it is something that we can also find in your art. Would you say your upbringing helped you explore you own identity?
I‘m half-Chinese -culturally Chinese- but within that we‘re Malaysian and Japanese, Indian but we are culturally Chinese. I was raised within the Chinese culture and use to go to see performances and cultural art. I don‘t speak my language and have only gone back to China once, but I go back to Malaysia where my family lives. I was trained in opera when I was growing up, but it was Western opera. I went to an all-girls school; I trained in classical music up until I was like 17. I sang opera and classical singing (and none of that was ever Chinese singing) but opera is also a huge thing in China and in the Peking Opera. It’s something I am now self-studying and seeing that gender was a massive part of it fills me with joy. They were just messing with gender; all the female parts were played by men, and they sang in a falsetto.
Some of these men were creating whole new ways to sing and reach high-notes that some women couldn‘t even reach. Those grown men with their voices dropped who played these characters as women were actually seen as a perfect way to be as a woman. So, a lot of these men playing women were examples for women on how to live their lives. When I wrote my first opera in 2019, all the characters were genderqueer, but I wasn‘t looking at Chinese opera. And it was an opera based on a Chinese creation myth but I was still making all the notation, baselines and melodies as a baroque opera, because that was what I studied. My brain was colonised, I thought it was just a western thing. I slowly realised the only opera I‘ve ever gone to see was Peking opera Chinese opera. I’ve never seen a Western opera but for some reason, my childhood brain didn‘t see the Chinese opera as such. There‘s a part of you as a young mixed-race kid from the diaspora that often rejects a lot of your culture. That‘s why I haven‘t learned my language even though I was taught it. Now it makes sense why I love opera, because my people did opera, and they messed around with gender. It‘s exciting for me now. I‘m working on a new opera right now actually, to perform in Hong Kong.
My uncle used to play the lead role in this Chinese opera called the Monkey King. He went to art school as he always encouraged my art. He‘s probably one of the reasons why I‘m an artist. My mum is also very, very creative. He‘s from my Malaysian Chinese side. My mum sent me a photo of him in the regalia, in the outfit. He‘s got this painted face and he’s holding a sword. I do Tai chi sword, and he‘s holding a sword really similar to the one that I use. On this photo he looks a lot like me. So, I‘m hoping to pull from the Monkey King Opera story as well for some of my future work.
MARIEN BRANDON: Being such a multidiscipli- nary artist must be freeing, what are the challenges which come with diving in so many disciplines?
The main challenge is balancing all of that with ADHD which I got diagnosed with two years ago now. It was a late diagnosis because my whole life teachers would sit my mum down and say: ”You need to get them a diagnosis.” Now I did, and it‘s nice to know that I‘m not crazy or that I am and that‘s fine *They laugh* I have a lot of options, and it can get very overwhelming. I go to the studio every day and I feel like I could do a drawing, or I could edit a film, or write this book. There are too many options. I often envy artists who could just go to their studio and do a painting and know that that‘s all they‘re doing for that day.
Am I an artist? I‘m a musician? Am I a witch? And then I realised I was all of those things, and that‘s fine. And I don‘t need to be defined. That‘s the same if we want to draw it back to gender. Am I a girl? Am I a boy? Am I trans? Am I an alien? Yes, I‘m all this. I‘m a piece of moss. I‘m a mushroom. I can be everything! I can embody multiplicities, and I don‘t need to put boundaries around them.
MARIEN BRANDON: Can you tell me more about your inspirations and the way you create art?
Now that you‘re mentioning my history and ancestry, I think I am not trying to make art about the diaspora, but it is just my existence. I am someone who‘s constantly trying to make meaning for myself here in this land. I‘m half- Chinese Malay among other things and half-Welsh. I‘m starting to identify a lot more with my Welsh heritage. Because I‘ve always found Wales the most fascinating magical place, full of mythologies and magic, and even more so now. I‘m really trying to learn the language, because that‘s also a dying language. I think from both my ancestry there‘s a lot of myth and both of my ancestries have huge dragon mythologies: the Chinese Dragon and the Welsh Dragon. Maybe I am a dragon. Dragons to me are shape-shifters. They are fluid.
I‘m just constantly trying to find meaning for myself and trying to build futures or even my own future, my own world. A theme or a practice that I talk about in my work is something that I call “Optimystic dystopia.” It’s about finding optimism, joy, nourishment, care within a world that might seek to not give you that care. As a young queer person of color, – I guess I‘m still young, I‘m turning 30 this year- we are inheriting and existing on this world that it is controlled by people that don‘t want the better and don‘t want a better future. They are creating an environment that is imploding and flooding. So, what are ways that I can use my work, my Art, to envision a future that I and maybe some of my peers would feel some sort of utopia? Then I realized, there‘s no such thing as utopia because even for you and me, utopias are different. We might want different things because we havedifferent experiences and interests. I found comfort in the idea of an Optimystic dystopia, because it is like striving in dystopia and finding ways to survive, weaving your own stories and creating your own networks of care. That‘s what I wanted my stories to be. So, the characters that I create and the stories that I weave are all within this realm of Optimystic dystopia.
My work is transdisciplinary, I call it more transdisciplinary as it goes from my speculative fictions and storytelling into real life, into reality, for example with my workshops. One of my longest workshop projects, “Shadow Sistxrs Fight Club”, is a self-defense class which I run with my best friend Venus. That is very much optimystic dystopia because we create this beautiful, nourishing, caring, magical environment where we‘re learning about our bodies and about how to protect ourselves. But then, we‘re doing it because we need to defend ourselves, and we‘re learning how to do martial arts as a defense from potential (and sadly, more common) attacks on us as Queer people.
MARIEN BRANDON: Are you optimistic about a less gendered world? What should be improved?
I am optimistic. We are going the right way and we are starting to see change. It’s going very slowly; I‘ve been out as non- binary since 2017 and I‘ve seen so much change in terms of acceptance and awareness. It has been tricky. It’s not been like everyone‘s gets it from the start. I still have to have the same conversations that I had five years ago to explain or educate. But things don‘t happen overnight. This binary vision of gender is something that is so deeply rooted into society that it‘s going to take people a while to unhook from that. I was really excited because I was thinking: “Wow, the younger generations are really just understanding and accepting.” As those generations evolve, they‘ll be hopefully educating their offspring. Even if I was to become a guardian of a child, -which I am already as an uncle and an auntie- these children are so accepting. I know a lot of children from queer families, and they‘re just really open minded. But then again, is that just me and my bubble? I read an article. I can‘t remember where. About how there is a bunch of transphobic Gens Z. There are Gens Z who are transphobic. There are Gens Z that are Tories. There is going to be evil people in the future, and we forget that because we see all the good parts. Same with people on the right which probably see these evil Gens Z as their future as well. Hoping these people will be fighting transness. It makes me wonder if we are just fooling ourselves that things are getting better or do we just have more access to information that shows us that more people think like us?
That’s why we need to break into the institutions. Even institutions starting to have genderqueer bathrooms or gender-neutral bathrooms. It‘s super simple. The bathroom debate is a huge thing that we‘re all tired of, but it makes sense now. It‘s just really nice to see that there are options for other people. That‘s something really simple that is happening and more and more big companies having gender inclusion policies now. Some companies in America are doing holiday pay and helping some trans staff members to access healthcare. Maybe I‘m just seeing all these good news things that actually are not prolific. But I am optimistic because we need those stories to be uplifted. Then, other people and other institutions will follow suit. Even little things like educating my family. Each year I go back for Christmas. I see that there‘s changes every year I go back and every year I put effort in. If I put the work in, to educate and show my family who I am and show that I still love them, then they will go away and hold on to the love hopefully, because they love me. If it works, they‘ll educate themselves and I‘ve seen it happen from my dad‘s side of the family, which is my Welsh side. Every time I go back for Christmas, and there‘s a little bit of change and a little bit more acceptance and understanding. It’s working little by little.
I think I am optimistic about it because I can‘t not be optimistic. I think that‘s the answer. Some of us are allowed to grieve and are allowed to feel grief around where we are, especially in the UK. For trans people it‘s a really horrific place to be at the moment. I mean most places in the world, but specifically for us right now it’s our reality in the UK. There‘s a daily grief, there‘s little support and it really affects the community. As an artist and as someone who does run community spaces, I want to be the optimistic one so that I can trickle down my optimism and help.
Interview by MARIEN BRANDON
Hair & Makeup by Tilda aka Mug Queens
Picture courtesy of Lusha Alic