Sitting in the Cantú GLBTI Resource Center, Joël Barraquiel Tan gesticulates as he tells students the current happenings of San Francisco’s queer community. Later that evening, he shares his poetry to a much larger crowd at the Living Writers series on campus, but at the moment, he tells his personal stories in a more intimate setting with a much smaller group. The conversation jumps from politics and writing to Filipino and Filipino-American culture.
Tan, who was born in Manila, is an openly queer Filipino-American and has actively participated in the queer community. Deeply rooted in activism, Tan worked for years to develop HIV/AIDS prevention programs such as the Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team, before retiring from AIDS work in 2004. Currently, Tan works as the director of community engagement at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, where he does community outreach through art.
Tan does not see his role in the community, his work as an activist, and his work as a writer as unrelated to one another.
“I don’t think of activism as a separate thing — [it’s] more of an impulse,” Tan said. “Whatever it is that’s driving me towards something, it is just to create more avenues of joy, hopefully.”
Tan said that he doesn’t see himself as “dystopian” and that instead he is ultimately interested in being a positive force looking forward, or a “futurist.” Tan doesn’t want to look back to define identity, but is interested in those “who will speculate on who we’re going be.”
Tan also sets his sights on the future as a writer and an academic. When discussing identity issues, gender studies and critical thinking, he explains that he wants to hear something new from academics.
“We’re in the middle of this incredible [cultural] shift and we’re still saying the same thing,” Tan said. “It’s wasted paper, it’s wasted language, it’s wasted scholarship.”
Tan’s energy extended to his reading later that night as the audience interacted with him, asking questions and laughing at his quick responses. At one point, when discussing his writing, Tan joked that he has “an ongoing battle with the mango,” referring to his fight against Asian stereotypes and the stock images of the exotic islander.
Throughout the evening, Tan read from his book of poetry, “Type O Negative,” a fictional autobiography that he describes as “operatic” and a “composite fictional history.” The book is heavily influenced by his father.
“My dad wrote it,” Tan said. “After he died…he came to me in dreams. We had a really fucked-up relationship.”
Overall, Tan’s work was well received by students and faculty alike. Literature professor Karen Yamashita, who described Tan as “provocative,” said that his book of poetry “deserved a wider readership.”
Yamashita hoped that Tan, as a queer Filipino who is “relaxed and very open” about who he is, would “open doors for students that are trying to work out their own issues on identity and gender,” she said.
Weston Tate, a fourth-year literature major, said he “enjoyed how [Tan] doesn’t hold to standards” and “mixed [Tagalog and English] languages.”
Desirae Karmazin, a fellow fourth-year literature major, enjoyed the ambiguity in Tan’s work and follow-up discussion.
“It was hilarious that [Tan] didn’t answer all the [student] questions but left it up to the reader,” Karmazin said. “He gave it some mystery.”
Despite the heavy topics Tan tackles in his writing — sexuality, abuse, family turmoil, AIDS and death — his reading was engaging and interactive.
Tan is not the only writer who will be visiting this quarter. Every Thursday of the quarter through Dec. 2, the Living Writers series will host an author reading. Upcoming visiting writers include Linh Dinh, James Maughn and Earll Kingston. The last event this quarter will be a reading of student work from the creative writing department.