‘Shapeshifting in the Year of the Monkey’, by Lia Incognita


Photo by Jonathan Kos-Reed. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic Licence.

There’s this game. It’s the sort of exercise you might do as an icebreaker in the first meeting of your direct-action affinity group or whatever. It goes like this:

You tell everyone three facts about yourself – two true, one false.

Everyone tries to guess which is the lie. They discuss their reasoning out loud.

Then you reveal the truth.

So I could say: “I used to be married to a man; English is my first language; I’ve been to every continent except South America and Antarctica.”

You win when the most important things about you are invisible.

I could say: “I’ve never completed a Rubik’s Cube; one time I hitchhiked three thousand kilometres in two days; I’m an only child.”

It’s the sort of getting-to-know-you game where there aren’t supposed to be winners and losers. But if you’re competitive enough—and I am—you can make a win out of anything.

I think that you win when no one guesses your truth. You win by defying expectation. You win when the most important things about you are invisible.

There’s another game: If you could choose any superpower, which would you want?

For me there are only two real contenders – invisibility or transformation.

It’s four days to the new year now, the Year of the Monkey. I’ve been waiting for months, building up my own private superstitions, loosely based around the myth of Journey to the West and its monkey hero, Sūn Wùkōng. On the second day of this current year, the Year of the Sheep, I went to an international symposium about Indigenous perspectives on queerness at the University of Wollongong on the land of the Wadi Wadi people. An academic from the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, Dr Alex Wilson, spoke about Weesageychak, a trickster and teacher in Cree origin stories who “shifts gender form and space to playfully teach us about ourselves and our connection to the wider universe, land and waters, living things and each other.” Dr Wilson suggested that many cultures have some form of trickster spirit whose magic is located in transformation, who engage in a form of serious play.

My mind immediately went to Sūn Wùkōng, who is both a mischievous monkey and a faithful Buddhist disciple, journeying to India in search of scripture. I have begun to fantasise that this coming year will brim with transcendent power, challenges that demand strong comrades, and eventual enlightenment.

You can achieve invisibility, so long as you’re only seen by people who don’t know what they’re looking for.

Sūn Wùkōng is usually imagined as male. But as Sūn Wùkōng is a shapeshifter with seventy-two possible forms, born from a stone, I tend to think that ‘his’ gender has been read as male only by default in a patriarchal culture.

I think of Sūn Wùkōng as someone who has seventy-two aspects – each equally real, each potent in the right situation.

Sūn Wùkōng doesn’t technically have the power of invisibility, but can morph into unassuming objects, such as blades of grass. The myth taught me that invisibility is a relationship, not a characteristic. You can achieve invisibility, so long as you’re only seen by people who don’t know what they’re looking for.

On the second day of the Year of the Monkey, I will move to China. I haven’t lived there since I was four. It will be a shock in terms of invisibility and hyper-visibility: I’ll go from being questioned about my origins on a regular basis to looking like I belong – and then having to explain why I’m illiterate.

It’s something I’m kind of used to. I’ve said before, “The only way to look queer is an act of seeing.” Visibility is not the same as recognition, not the same as understanding. But some things are hard to put into words, especially when your family is split across three continents and often your common language is silence and avoidance.

The last time I saw my grandpa before he died, it was the Year of the Snake turning into the Year of the Horse. I was rugged up for the Shànghǎi winter in layers of flannel shirts, wool jumpers, jackets and scarves, even long johns under my pants, but I’d stupidly got a fresh fade before I left Melbourne, so my head was freezing. I borrowed my grandpa’s flat cap, and then bought myself a replica. Strangers kept calling me “先生” (xiānsheng, ‘sir’). Grandpa kept calling me “小男孩” (xiǎo nánhái, ‘boy’), delighting in how I looked. It delighted me too – we took photos in our matching outfits. I loved that he loved Han Hong, a butch Tibetan singer known for wearing loud, patterned three-piece suits. I appreciated that he’d given me a gender-neutral name, and after he died I returned to it. I realised, and relished, that I’ve never been called a gendered pronoun in Chinese.

But then one day he called me “boy”, called me his “grandson”, and my aunt whispered, “He would never say it, but he must regret never having had a grandson to carry on his name.” And suddenly I felt like I’d betrayed all the women in my family – most of all my grandma, whose firm, quiet feminism was the reason my grandfather would never have admitted such a thought.

Western medical discourse understands gender to be authentic only when you can demonstrate that it is independent of social utility or purpose – e.g. the Chinese legendary warrior (and Disney ‘princess’) Mùlán is not trans, because Mùlán lives a man’s life in order to serve the duty of filial piety. Yet gatekeepers of transition technologies and treatments also reinforce social convention, homophobia and gender normativity, expecting trans people to produce a particular kind of linear, binary gender – e.g. Mùlán is not really a man because Mùlán falls in love with a man and has sex “like a woman”, whatever that means.

In traditional Chinese Confucian philosophy, identity is relational and embedded in social order. Mùlán is the child of their parents, and Mùlán’s desire and identity outside of that duty is no more authentic than their identity inside of that duty. You are not more real when you are alone.

As I prepare to move and pack up my wardrobe, I realise that I’ve been wearing more dresses since I became celibate. I can’t decide which clothes to take to China without thinking about whether or not I might start dating again. I can’t pretend for a second that my feelings about sex, gender and body are independent of how I want to position myself in relation to other people, what I want them to guess about me, what feels safer, what feels easier.

Have I been wrong all along – do you win when you’re recognised and understood?

It’s a bit like the game: two truths and one lie. Every day I reconsider what winning is: is it when no one can guess your truth? Or have I been wrong all along – do you win when you’re recognised and understood?

Two truths, one lie: Where I come from is not something you can read on my face. Where I come from is a place that doesn’t exist anymore. I am going home.

I have seventy-two faces and then some. There are still so many things you can’t tell by looking at me, but I’m starting to learn that that can be a kind of superpower.

This piece is adapted from a performance at ‘The Invisibles 2: Misread, Unclocked, or a Case of Mistaken Identity’, a spoken-word night as part of Midsumma 2016.

Lia Incognita is a Shanghainese cultural commentator, media maker and poet-provocateur who’s been living in Boonwurrung and Wurundjeri country for the last two zodiac cycles (twenty-four years). Ey has written for Overland, Peril and Right Now, made multilingual queer radio for 3CR’s We Weren’t Born Yesterday series, and done poetry on airwaves, walls, stages and pages.