The source of the ache? Rejection by the traditional culture of the speaker’s family due to homophobia, and rejection by the dominant white cis gay culture due to racism, with hookup apps and late-night dancefloors standing in for the racism underpinning Canadian society at large. The book uses these individual foundations to accomplish something universal: gesturing beyond the confines of the self toward something more joyous, wild and strange.
Many reviews have focused on Ly’s direct, accessible language. For the sake of treading unworn terrain, I’m focusing on the narrative movement presented over the course of the book. This reading is informed by A View from the Bottom by Tan Hoang Nyugen, which examines the long history of desexualization of Asian men within the colonial projects of North America and the legacy of that emasculation contributing to the perceived desirability and masculinity of Asian men in gay culture today. Ly places this within the context of Vancouver’s gay culture, demonstrating its human cost.
At this book’s core is a powerful double wound. First, the speaker is rejected by their culture-of-origin. They remind “grandpa [they] won’t ever have [a girlfriend]/Again” in “Nod and Be Polite,” the titular poem of the first section, which represents the expected filial roles the speaker is expected to conform to.
Second, outside of the family, Ly’s speaker is expected to be submissive and abnegate his needs, by a fetishizing ex-lover (in “Stubble Burn”) and again, more painfully, by gay culture, here metonymized into Grindr and Davie street dancefloors, that promise acceptance to all but refuse to acknowledge their racism as anything other than white men thinking they are “not racist/[they] just have preferences” (“Message Received”).
From the messages received and rejected in favour of self-determination, Ly goes beyond simple self-love as expressed through desire for an Other. Nyugen’s book posits the existence of the “sticky rice” genre of pornography, featuring two Asian leads, as a method of escape for gay Asian men trapped within white gayness’s suffocating hierarchy. For the speaker of Mythical Man, that does not go far enough. After letting another Asian man top them, an act that required self-love and acceptance (“I Finally Learned to Love Myself”), Ly’s speaker is dismayed when their partner thought “sticky rice was cute / To say after [they] fucked / But [the speaker] was hoping for an experience / Where [they] could exist beyond an expression.” To replace an oppressive hierarchy with a different one is not enough. In fact, words are not enough.
In the book’s final section, Ly avoids tired Hellenic mythological reference—a curse of gay poetry—and reinforces the need for transcendence beyond the categories of race, gender and sexuality into something beyond humanity or human civilization itself. The final refrain of the Mythical Man is to seek “every reachable, rusted lock / beyond belonging / beyond what is understood / beyond what can be created or destroyed.” The speaker longs to access something primeval and timeless. That state is something we call being. Could there be a more universal narrative?
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.