Review - Jasmine Nights

My rating:

Jasmine Nights

Jasmine Nights
by S.P. Somtow

Tagged: Trans*

This is one of my favorite books, and the one I'm most likely to recommend to people who ask for something to read about Thailand or Bangkok. Although set in the early 1960s, it still manages to accurately capture the crazy contradiction that is modern Thailand. For those that haven't spent much time in Bangkok, many of the situations described may come across as wildly fanciful, but anyone who has lived here for any length of time will know they are dead-on accurate.

The book description on Goodreads would get my vote for worst blurb ever. Ignore it and read the story. The book is told from the point of view of a young Thai boy on the edge of puberty. It follows the adventures that he and his small multi-cultural circle of friends have in their neighborhood of large family compounds that once lined the small side-streets off Sukhumvit Road. Many of these still exist, so it's easy to imagine the setting of this story.

The reason Jasmine Nights came to mind at this time is due to a flame war currently consuming a number of the authors and readers I follow in the m/m world. I was recently reminded that I've been on-line since the BBS days of the early 90s, a few years before the Internets made their appearance. Yes, I am ancient enough to remember when the only "Firefox" people were aware of was a Clint Eastwood movie.

The thing about the on-line world is that all too often a potentially useful discussion can degrade into pointless name-calling. It's all too easy, it seems, to berate someone you've never met face-to-face. What I quickly learned - the hard way - was that participating in these wars, even if it was to try to inject a neutral note of sanity, was a no-win proposition. People get so incensed that they don't want to listen to reason, or even consider what "the other side" is saying. Even being neutral becomes a negative, as some people in the current situation can attest.

So, my typical reaction to such wars is to lay low, stay on the sidelines, and wait until they blow over, which they almost always do sooner or later. This has proved somewhat difficult with the current brouhaha, as it has gone on for quite some time now, and has seriously affected several people I've come to respect for their writing. I've read some of the blog and forum posts on this topic, and it's especially sad that there seems to be some valid points and concerns on all sides, but rational discourse has long since left the building.

Where does Jasmine Nights fit into all of this? Well, one of the most recent blog posts was by an author that I've come to enjoy on Twitter, although I've so far only had a chance to read a few of his works. In the post, the author 'came out', as it were, as trans, and talked a lot about the issues trans people face, both from straights and gays. This got me thinking, which is never a bad thing in my book. I know some people resent it, a lot, but I like to be challenged.

Where Jasmine Nights comes in is that one of the peripheral characters changes gender over the course of the story. It's not a big part of the story, and that's in part why the book resonates with me. In case you didn't know it, Bangkok is the gender reassignment capital of the world. It's a rare day when a transvestite or transsexual doesn't cross my path in Bangkok. And I'm not talking about cabarets or other places where they're "on show", they're everywhere. On any given day there's a sex change operation being performed somewhere in Bangkok. This 'industry' evolved to meet local demand. Thais are remarkably flexible when it comes to gender identities. I have to admit this disturbs me sometimes. I've met a fair number of Thai men who, apparently, were planning to get a sex change simply because they were gay. Their thinking seems to be that since they like to have sex with men, they must really be a woman inside. That seems wrong to me.

Here's the thing: In the interest of full disclosure I must now admit that I'm a man. I was born that way. When it comes to matters of the heart, my preference is exclusively men. I was born that way too. But, I've never, not for one millisecond, wanted to be a woman. I like my man-bits. I'm rather attached to them, in fact. They've bought me years of pleasure.

So, I have no frame of reference for what it's like to be born in the 'wrong' body. I don't personally know any trans people, so I don't 'get' what it's like to be a trans person. I don't really 'get' straight people either, but at least I know a lot of them. Heck, some of my best friends are straight. Even my parents were in theory straight, although my brother and I recently discussed the idea that our mother might have been happier if she had figured out that she was a lesbian.

Mom was of a place and time when the idea of not marrying a man and having babies simply wasn't an option. I doubt she even knew what a lesbian was until the 1960s, at least. Perhaps I am from a time and place where changing genders wasn't an option.

Nah... not gonna happen.

Of course, just because I don't 'get' where someone is coming from doesn't mean I can't respect them. Does knowing this particular author is trans change the way I think about them? Yes, in all honesty, it probably does, although it won't change my plans to read more from them. Did I need to know this? I think not.

Was there a point to this review? Probably not. It was just a chance to vent, while hopefully staying out of the line of fire.

Do read Jasmine Nights, though, if the subject interests you.

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Posted in Book Reviews on November 17, 2011