Maybe it’s just me, but when I pick up a novel featuring a Chinese-Canadian lesbian protagonist written by a straight white man my guard is immediately up. So I admittedly came into The Wild Beasts of Wuhan with quite the critical eye. It’s not that I think straight authors can’t write queer characters but I have no tolerance whatsoever for anything problematic I find with their portrayal. In a way, I guess I hold straight writers to an even higher standard—if you’re going to make money writing about a minority group you don’t belong to, you better make damn sure you do a brilliant job. Let’s clarify: I’m talking about the Ava Lee series by Burlington, ON-based author Ian Hamilton, who is cis male and neither queer nor Asian. I’d like to ask him why, actually, he choose to write about a queer Chinese-Canadian woman. Overall, while on some levels I enjoyed this book, I have to say it did not withstand my critical lens. Also, as someone’s who’s white I don’t really feel qualified to comment on how race is portrayed in the novel; if anyone has some insight on that (especially the depiction of Ava’s family structure, which consists of a father with multiple wives in different continents), I would much appreciate it!
I want to admit upfront that this novel (third in a series, by the way) would be classified as mystery and/or detective fiction, genres I don’t normally read and haven’t ever particularly felt affection for. This is clearly clouding my judgement here as well, although I found myself surprisingly intrigued by the plot as I walked to and from work (I had an audio version of the book). Actually, I felt the genre and the audio format worked quite well; in the past when I’ve tried audio books I’ve found it really hard to orient myself. The straight-forward writing and plot-focused nature of the book made the audio version really easy for me to follow. Also, the woman who reads it is pretty good at accents, and Ava is all over the globe in this book: you hear English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh accents as well as Canadian, and English as a second language spoken by people from China, Russia, the Faroe Islands, and Denmark.
Okay, so the fact that Ava, the heroine, is a lesbian is surprisingly irrelevant for most of the book, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Although I found it strange that while travelling Ava’s sexuality didn’t come up more often; I know when I was travelling and in strange places, I was constantly aware of it and on the watch for homophobia and sexism. This seems to me something that a straight man just wouldn’t understand. Maybe you should talk to some lesbians about their experiences travelling, Ian Hamilton. It would also be relevant to talk to some Asian women about their experiences travelling in white-dominated parts of the world.
Also, for me as a reader, human relationships are the most interesting part of fiction (of life?), so the glimpses you get of Ava’s home life in Toronto as she trots around the globe chasing down millions of dollars owed to her wealthy Chinese clients made up a disappointingly small proportion of the book for me. (I realize that mystery-lovers might feel exactly the opposite about this issue, though; they would rather focus on the plot rather than characterization.) Ava has a girlfriend at home, who’s recently out, originally from Colombia, and wants to move a little bit faster than Ava does. We don’t really get to know much more than that. Also, Ava has a one-night stand with a hotel manager while she’s on the road, something she jumps into without much thought. It’s a fade to black kind of scene as soon as Ava invites her to take off her clothes and get into her bed. Having not read the previous novels, I’m not totally sure if this is characteristic of her or not, but it does fit in with the commitment-phobe thing I got a sense of in her email interactions with her girlfriend. It is a detail that the novel oddly never references again, though.
Here are the problems I have with this book: one) when Ava’s physical appearance is described, it’s explicitly specified that she isn’t butch, despite her friend making some kind of comment about her pants and collared shirts being a kind of butch uniform. The fact that she isn’t butch is not a problem; however, I sense a don’t-worry-she’s-a-lesbian-but-not-one-of-those-kinds-of-lesbians thing going on here. Reassuring what I’m guessing is a mainly straight readership that the protagonist is gender-conforming does not sit well with me. It would have been a much braver authorial choice to make her butch, actually. It’s not “fighting lesbian stereotypes” when popular culture consistently almost only gives representation to feminine queer women who are palatable to a heteronormative (male) audience. Note that it’s not that I think feminine queer women shouldn’t be represented or that the idea they somehow don’t look queer (i.e., that masculinity is so privileged in queer women’s communities) doesn’t need to be examined. But I’m tired of people praising ‘positive’ depictions of queer people because they look straight.
Two: At one point in the novel Ava kicks some serious ass when some drunk Russian sailors attempt to sexually assault her and the manager of a hotel she is staying in (the woman she ends up having a one-night stand with). This is awesome. What is not so awesome is the way she deals with the Russian captain the next day when he comes to talk with her and apologize on behalf of the men. Ava brushes off his apologies and in fact actually apologizes herself for what she says was likely an overreaction. She acts like sexual assault is not a big deal and that she wasn’t more than justified to physically defend herself and the other woman. I have a serious feminist problem with this. The interaction with the Russian boat captain is portrayed as if, hey look how cool and suave Ava is, just brushing off this attempted sexual violence. A feminist heroine would never let men off the hook or pretend like it’s not a big fucking deal. For me, this is the most serious flaw of the novel and I would urge Hamilton to seriously reconsider writing scenes like this. It’s just offensive.
Three: This is a relatively small part of the novel, but again, it just didn’t sit well with me. At one point, one of Ava’s clients tells her about an extended metaphor her husband used to explain his feelings of betrayal after being sold dozens of fake paintings. The metaphor is that finding out these beloved paintings are fakes is like courting a woman for a decade and then finding out she’s really a man when you finally marry her. This metaphor is just too close to transphobia for me to ignore it. It’s too close to that “trans people need to disclose their gender identity/status before you date/sleep with them” imperative. The metaphor isn’t explicitly referencing trans women but the fact that Hamilton is totally unaware of the possible implications is telling.
Four: In one review I read, someone called this book “lifestyle porn,” which I thought was a particularly apt description. If you like reading about a high-class world of people with more money than they know what to do with, then you’ll enjoy this book. Frankly, this is not really my kind of porn but I wasn’t particularly adverse to it either. But, the frequent name-brand dropping of the designer clothes Ava bought in Hong Kong and the Starbucks brand instant coffee she drinks (really, if you had a huge travel budget would you drink that shit?) gets pretty annoying after a while. How much did those corporations pay to have their brands mentioned so frequently? This book, in a nutshell, is very pro-capitalist. If you have even a healthy dose of anti-capitalism or anarchism in you, you will not like this book. At all.
Like I said, it’s not that I didn’t like the ass-kicking and sleuthing part of this novel for what it was, but the queer and feminist problems I had overshadowed any enjoyment I felt. It wouldn’t be hard to combine the parts of this novel that work with some more thoughtful queer and feminist politics; in fact, I know there are other novels that do this. Why can’t this one?