A Conversation Between Gabriel Ojeda-Sague and Jai Arun Ravine

Gabriel Ojeda-Sague and Jai Arun Ravine are the authors of Oil and Candle and The Romance of Siam, two texts that actively push back against the “racist, imperialist capitalist eye,” (Ravine). In their conversation here, Ojeda-Sague, a gay poet of Puerto Rican and Cuban descent, and Jai Arun Ravine, a mixed race, mixed gender and mixed genre artist, critique the contexts of their books’ creation and reception “to heal this adjacency of self,” as Ravine puts it, even in light of that task’s potential impossibility. This involves asking questions about “consumption and laughter” (Ravine) in relation to audience — when the audience laughs, are we laughing with recognition or just exoticizing? I am a tourist in this conversation, “the non-Latino reader [who] can be wowed and amazed and say ‘I’m really learning! This is some good activist reading I’m doing!’” (Ojeda-Sague). This exchange was not produced for my education. It’s a vulnerable and incisive conversation on craft — a generous gift, especially for QTPOC writers looking for techniques and models or who may recognize the experiences in life and writing that Ravine and Ojeda-Sague describe. For white readers, used to interpreting works by POC writers as being for our education, this can be an occasion to consider the complexity of this cycle of production and consumption and the stakes of our complicity in it.

Gabriel Ojeda-Sague: We (Jai and I) have talked very quickly before about feeling differently raced or between racial subject positions or between argumentative positions regarding race. I think we talked about “adjacent to” which is a phrase I used to describe my relationship to Latino folk magic, or Santería in this case, and I remember you discussing your mixed identity and using a similar term. And like I talk, and write, and think, a lot about being a “white latino” (a term I personally don’t like), or a white-passing latino (a term I do like!) and how that affects my place in poetry/the world. I’m bringing this up because it seems to be one starting point for connection between our works.

Jai Arun Ravine: Yes, I was really moved by how you were talking about “adjacency.” I grew up with a cultural absence or silence around my mother’s immigration story and cultural identity as Thai. As a teenager I would go to the used book store in my hometown and look at books about Thailand as a way to learn something about myself. This is one example of a prevalent feeling I had then and still carry now — an adjacency to self, to experience, to being. When I was in Thailand for the first time, I felt adjacency instead of belonging because the majority of people perceived me as white and American. My barrier to fluency in Thai language is the adjacency I feel when I’m required to gender myself as male or female. This jostling forces me outside my own body.

In your book Oil and Candle, I really resonate with the way you write about your experiences of adjacency through everyday tasks. Like comparing the price of vials and candles for ritual. Or Googling the word for “dispose.” Or uncertainty: “I can’t / stop and get the symbolism / straight what is white / for again and what does / this candle do.” Or mis-hearing: “this / whole time I thought / we were just saying / the name of a woman / ‘Sandima.’” I’m also thinking about the role of American imperialism in this adjacency — immigration policy, assimilation, citizenship, nationalism, war. In your book

you write:

where is my future
in the encyclopedic eye
of the tyrant codes?

if I am reaching for ancestry
it’s just for the

I like this image of “the throbbing envelope.” Even as we try to heal this adjacency of self, those in power are ever-watchful, hungry, and ready to draw our blood, as you so brilliantly write about in your piece “Limpias.” Can we ever be completely cleansed of the racist, imperialist, capitalist eye?

GOS: You’re framing your own learning about your self and heritage along with tourism and tourist reading, which is the idea behind The Romance of Siam. Which makes it hard to say exactly what the answer is to the question “are those books that come out of the imperialist eye, the tourist eye, bad for us.” They’re Orientalizing, exoticizing, for sure, and totally messed up in their goals, but you are describing them as bringing you next to yourself. I’ve been feeling similar stuff about recent Cuba news, after the opening of relations between the US and Cuba enacted by President Obama. The sheer volume of new journalistic writing, media coverage, essays, opinion columns, whatever else about Cuba is impressive. And then there’s the millions of conversations with non-Latino Americans about Cuba.

Maybe a good way of capturing what we are both trying to get at here is the following story. The other day an acquaintance asked me where my last names were from. I said I wasn’t sure, really, but that my family is Cuban and Puerto-Rican, and if you go back enough, Spain, so probably from there. He said “Oh! You’re Cuban. That’s really interesting” and we sort-of talked about that. And then he asks me “are you gonna go back? Now that things are calmer.” Are you gonna go back, imagine that. I had to tell him I’VE NEVER BEEN. My grandparents left Cuba with my father and uncle when Castro came into power. I was born in Washington, D.C., the capital of this country. There is no “go back” for me because Cuba and I have never shared the same space.

But it’s also not exactly strange or false to ask the question, really. This is a very marked difference from your experience, so I’d love to get your reaction and response to this, but in my life Cuba has always been a very much discussed topic in my home and family. Pre-Castro Cuba, pre-immigration Cuba, post-immigration Cuba, Che and Fidel’s Cuba, Raul’s Cuba, contemporary Cuba. It’s basically my grandparents favorite subject, other than family gossip. “Back in Cuba….” So, though it’s completely silly to ask me if I’m gonna “go back” to Cuba, it’s not necessarily without merit, because Cuba has always been America’s ghost for me. My home, Miami, Americanness always just a bit wrong because CUBA. That is part of my adjacency, which seems to resonate with yours.

You seem to get into a similar space in discussing the reading experience of Thai tourism texts, which you imitate in The Romance of Siam, and you personify and embody exploitative invented characters of Thailand, like Yul Brynner’s King of Siam and Street Fighter’s Sagat. What’s the right word for your relationship to these characters and the tourist narrative? Somewhere between disgust and recognition? Offense and empathy? Or am I totally off?

JAR: Definitely, you are so right on. In my piece “White Love” in the book, I talk about hearing this previous Fulbright grantee speak on a podcast about why she chose to go to Thailand. She describes looking through the catalog once and getting a “strange feeling” and that she “just knew.” For me she embodies this white obsession with Thailand that I see everywhere, and I hate and envy her at the same time. But the really messed up part is that I’m having this “strange feeling” too. Weirdly, I know exactly what she means.

I also have a similar relationship with Christy Gibson, this Dutch singer I write about in the book. She sings luk tung and mor lam, which are traditional musical styles from the rural northeast of Thailand. Thai people think she speaks Thai better than Thai people. Horrifically, listening to her music makes me feel nostalgic for something I’ve never had. I became super obsessed with her. Why does she get to have so much access to Thai culture, and how can she attain so much mastery of Thai language, when I cannot?

When I enrolled in a study abroad program in college to go to Thailand, I really did think I was “going back” in some way. I was so young and naïve that it was only after I got there that I realized how wrong I was. I started to feel like the only way I could experience Thailand, and experience myself, was through a tourist’s eyes. Either I try to become the tourist’s object, a polite and skinny Thai femme, or the tourist himself, a gross colonizing white guy. The tourism industry and its welcoming embrace of Americans took up so much space, I felt like I had to fight my way through it to find something I could belong to. Once I fought through, all there was to hold on to was loss. During the years since, in which I’ve continued to define and re-define my identity and develop my racial consciousness, I realized that any kind of quest for authenticity (with its essentializing, Orientalist, and nationalist directives) is impossible. Authenticity does not exist, but its ghost might haunt me even today. I can never hold the country itself, only its travel guide.

GOS: I’m thinking now about a little problem: white American readers (shout out to our white American readers, much love), or American readers that don’t share our inherited cultures. It’s something I think about a lot. If I write a poem about American expectations of Cubanness, about being “tropical” or Caribbean, and a non-Latino American consumes it, does it do anything to my work? Within Oil and Candle I include some vignettes on Santería and syncretic Latino practices that are pretty humorous to me, and I build them up to be a bit more humorous and strange, but when I perform them at a reading and non-Latino American people laugh at them, there’s always this lingering question for me of “are we laughing at the same things?” In those vignettes I’m using humor to deal with my own anxieties about diaspora and about my generational distance from my inherited cultures, and about how a city of immigrants like Miami has come to balance the cultural practices of its people in public. But there is the lingering anxiety that when I tell a story about how, for example, my family prays to Saint Dimas to find parking, or how in Miami a mental alarm bell goes off if you see that your neighbor owns chickens, a non-Latino American may laugh at those stories because they think they’re absurd, or silly. And as a writer who writes about their own cultures, who packages and binds cultural anecdotes in a book and sells it for 15$, I wonder about how the consumption of my specifically child-of- immigrants writing changes under the challenge of an American non-Latinx reader.

Should I be stressed about this? I think a lot of Latino poets realize that this is a challenge of writing texts about our cultures and like to say BIG SCARY things about Latinidad and make large claims about what our communities are and do and can be, so that the non-Latino reader can be wowed and amazed and say “I’m really learning! This is some good activist reading I’m doing!” But I’m sometimes just as invested in the privateness of cultural stories and saying sometimes “this is a story I’d only like him to hear, not you,” as I am invested in challenging the notion that there is any sort of thing as equal-footing in cultural transmission.

Your book is all about American spectatorship, white spectatorship, and (presumably) you’ll have a panoply of white readers, so what has been your approach to balancing whether or not you allow white spectatorship while being so invested in imitating it?

JAR: Consumption and laughter are also fixations of mine. I joke that I would love my book to be mistaken for an actual travel guide, and that I’m waiting for the moment when a white dude picks it up, feeling safe in his Orientalist fantasies, and then something inside him starts to turn and sour, and he starts to question himself. (If only!)

I generally love it when audiences respond vocally during poetry readings, whether it’s laughing or the occasional “hell yes.” I feel charged by that response. Depending on the audience, my “White Love” piece can get lots of laughter and snaps, especially from queer POC audiences, and other times just crickets. I’ve had experiences of white folks coming up to me after my readings and for whatever reason not feeling challenged (“my son went on a Fulbright, here’s his card,” or “have you read this [white male armchair traveler novel], it has a chapter on Thailand,” or “have you been to Thailand? I have…” or “I have this [white] friend who lives in Thailand and teaches English right now, how should I feel about it?”). And then of course there are the people who are afraid to talk to me after I read, who take offense, or have nothing whatsoever to say to me about it. And then of course there are the people who get it, and some of those are white folks also.

The last time I saw you read from Oil and Candle I remember laughing at those parts you mention, and for me I don’t find them silly or absurd. My laughter functions as a kind of recognition of adjacency, a recognition of having felt similar things myself, and for me it felt important to share a sound in that moment to say, “I see you, I see you trying to bring yourself next to yourself.” It’s this absurd distance and diasporic anxiety we experience everyday, but it’s never silly, and it’s never a small thing.

I think it’s tricky when we use humor. I actually never worked with parody or satire prior to writing The Romance of Siam, which is rife with it. I think sometimes humor can be an invitation (like, hey, it’s okay if everyone laughs about this, I’m giving you permission), and I’m interested in that hook, in getting that white spectator to laugh but then go oh, uh, yikes, and think about something deeper, about why they’re laughing. This is why I prefer to offer them their own ugliness, so to say, to eat, instead of my own body. It’s like, here, chew on this absurd mash-up of American Orientalism that manifests itself in pop culture. I want them to identify what’s in their mouths, what they’re actually eating, and start to choke.

But also it’s important to remember that the work is not always, and not only, for white Americans. I like how you talk about being “invested in the privateness of cultural stories”; it reminds me of listening to you read and chuckling. I offer my words to other QTPOC or nonbinary mixed race folks as well, and I want them to taste it and chuckle too, a chuckle that says, “I see you.”

JAR: What is your relationship (if you have one) to Tarot? How do you feel about being a queer person of color with a relationship to Tarot?

GOS: My relationship to Tarot is similar to my relationship with the horoscope. I consider both really interesting psychological interfaces. Both work by telling you who you are, what you feel, what you want, and what you should do. I think you can get a lot out of a Tarot reading because it’s like playing a game against your mind, having something else (the cards) decide who you are and what you want, and later realizing that “something else” was actually still you. I want to exploit that often and the first time I did was in a really early poem of mine called “Daily Horoscope,” which obviously was not about Tarot. For “Abrecaminos” from Oil and Candle I thought that the Ace of Wands, which represented similar values and messages as the Abrecaminos candle, could amplify the theme of “opening paths” that was essential to that poem. So I was making an argument for what the card was going to do. I was deciding this card will be the same as this candle, and they will both help me in opening paths to resistance. I think exploiting a psychological interface (whatever it may be) can be extremely useful for QPOC because it allows for games of resistance and self-reflection that the homophobic/transphobic and racist mainstream world don’t want you to do. I hope that doesn’t seem opposed to more sincerely faithful and magical visions of what the Tarot can be!

Do you have any interfaces and games you like to work with? Tarot?

JAR: I’m a new smart phone user as of this year, so of course one of the first apps I downloaded was Neko Atsume (Kitty Collector). I re-named all the cats in the game to be characters from this collaborative writing project I’m working on with Coda Wei. Now I get to see the characters interact with each other and leave mementos (“You received a bottle cap from Tender Empress”). I also just got on Miitomo and created a Mii for one of the characters. I like to use the app as a weird platform for continuing the collaborative writing, and for watching it morph within that environment. When I answer questions within the app and make Miifotos, I like to answer as the character or otherwise push myself to generate material creatively within the interface.

GOS: Oh my god, big fan of both. That sounds sort of like off-centered avatar-ing. Avatar-based games work on the presumption that people will emote through their avatars, that they will act like as vessels for their real-life actions. But most of the time we like to play around with that, our avatars are really unlike us, and sometimes a joke version of our desires and wants. Like my Mii on Miitomo (which I recently deleted because I kept losing all the drop-games and couldn’t get the baguette headpiece! It was my only goal!) is dressed like a hot dog and says truly inappropriate things to the other Miis that interact with it. And Neko Atsume lets you get these sort of sweet and troublesome cats to hang out with you on their own schedules, which can be nice and relaxing, but it seems like you’ve skewed the Cat Collector world into a simulation of character development, making those little kittens into your characters. I love that!

In Where Everything Is in Halves, the chapbook of mine on The Legend of Zelda and my grief from the loss of my father, I really wanted to play with the idea that I was supposed to be Link, and what it meant to give Link, an assembly of pixels, grief. How cruel that was of me! But it let me destabilize the player-character relationship and insert my grief into a virtual landscape in a way that was helpful and fruitful. Digitizing our emotions can make them stretchier and more palatable, re-presented by systems of function and programming instead of the big mess of lived experience. But I wonder about how to escape from the narrative that people assign to digital technologies, especially video games, in saying that they are escapist, dangerous, superficial, dishonest, don’t teach you how to live life, etc. This is one of the big paradoxes of digital media, that people are both deeply attracted to investing in digitalia but also consider it not rewarding or superficial. You have that great new piece of gifs from “Ambient Asian Space” which employs small screens and gifs to deal with the way digital media extends, prolongs, and forms raced bodies, so I’m sure you have thoughts on this.

JAR: It’s interesting to think about .gif-making as another game in this context. I downloaded GifMe! and started making my own .gifs, because I started to become obsessed with the way the form could loop a tiny moment in time, that it could fix it while simultaneously extending and prolonging it into infinity. This in/finite juxtaposition is fascinating to me, and of course the repetitiveness is unbelievably satisfying. Coda Wei and I are collaborating on a project called “Ambient Asian Space” (or “Ambient American Space”) and as an off-shoot I decided to experiment by making a set of my own .gifs. In the .gifs I was actually mimicking some scenes from a Faye Wong and a Palmy music video. In a dance context I had a friend, Gregory Holt, recently talk about speech or sounding as another limb of the body. So in a writing or text context it’s interesting to think about digital media as another limb that is integrated into the movement and the behavior of language. It’s something we as writers can choose to incorporate into our practice, since really it’s already very much there.

Jai Arun Ravine is a writer, dancer and graphic designer. As a mixed race, mixed gender and mixed genre artist, their work arises from the simultaneity of text and body and takes the form of video, performance, comics and handmade books. THE ROMANCE OF SIAM (Timeless, Infinite Light 2016) is their second book. jaiarunravine.com

Gabriel Ojeda-Sague is a Latino queer Leo living in Philadelphia, PA. His first collection, Oil and Candle (March 2016, Timeless, Infinite Light), is a set of writings on Santería, war, and the precarity of Latino-American lives. He is also the author of the chapbooks JOGS (2013), a re-writing of The Joy of Gay Sex, Nite [Chickadee]’s (GaussPDF 2015), a collection of Cher’s tweets on systematic racism and violence, and Where Everything is in Halves (Be About It, 2015), poems against death through The Legend of Zelda. His work can be found at ojedasague.com