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Blending fact and fiction, Justin Chin’s confessionals cut deep
As Justin Chin points out at some point, perhaps even in the introduction to Attack of the Man-Eating Lotus Blossoms (Suspect Thoughts, trade paperback, $16.95), artists of all stripes are often described as the “angry young ______ woman/man,” with the viewer or reader or listener left to insert the relevant racial, ethnic or sexual group.
Chin himself has been saddled with that title throughout his career as a poet, performance artist, essayist and writer. He rejects it, arguing that there is far more sadness evident in his work than anger, and that the label is a cheap attempt to dismiss the point being made by the artist by writing it off as “anger.”
Reading Attack of the Man-Eating Lotus Blossoms, a collection of his performance art work complete with historical notes, it is easy to see the truth behind those words.
Justin Chin is not an angry man. There is anger behind some of his words, but there is more the melancholia of the outsider, whether as a gay man in predominantly heterosexual Asia, or as an Asian gay man in a San Francisco that at best fetishizes his ethnicity, at worst dismisses it as asexual.
Both are examined at length in his body of work, which runs the gamut from young male prostitutes in Thailand, in love with European men they may never see again, never speak with except for irregular letters, to an in-depth study of the Orientali Castronitus, the scientific name for the Asian Castro Boy.
These strange creatures, according to Chin in “And Judas Boogied Until His Slippers Wept,” fall into a number of sub-species, including the fluffinitus, the withhaolius, the activistus and the alternitivus, the last two being the most dangerous to meet in the wild. Not surprisingly, Chin never categorizes himself in the piece.
That is a continuing thread in Justin Chin’s writing: a confessional disconnected from reality. It is never really possible to determine what, if anything, he writes is true of his own life.
That is, of course, the mark of a great writer, but usually when he is writing fiction. With Chin, the reader or audience member can seldom be certain whether he is writing or talking about himself or someone else, a fictional or real person he created or met, or some sort of Frankenstein’s mélange of bits of his life and those of other people.
Regardless of whose life is sitting there, dripping, bleeding on the page or on the stage, one can always feel for him, sympathize and empathize, like a zealot in an Asian Christian sect being crucified to show their devotion to Jesus. Justin’s pain is our pain, Justin’s characters’ pain is our pain, as it is his pain. There is a connectedness between the writer, the performer, the creation and the audience that transcends the boundaries of the theater and the written word.
Since releasing this retrospective of his foray into performance art, Chin has also completed another volume of poetry, Gutted (Manic D Press, trade paperback, $13.95). The publishers never sent a review copy, so there is a reviewer left at loose ends.
It’s almost like performance art: Lights come up over a cluttered desk, a reviewer sitting behind a large computer monitor. He shuffles through the papers around him, looking for a book that is not there.
Of course, the audience thinks, the reviewer could set aside the melodrama and either e-mail the publishers for a copy, or buy one at a bookstore or online, but where is the art in that?