Eileen Liu is “fighting injustice through storytelling.” The full-time writer, podcast host, and author of four novels founded Queer of Colour, a storytelling platform, as a way of reclaiming how queer people of colour are represented in society and by extension, how they see themselves.
Through long-form interviews and photographs, her work gives space for the kind of sincerity and candour people often yearn for online. Eileen reaches out to friends and strangers across different communities, inviting them to tell the stories of their lives. From there, she often meets participants in parks across the city where, sitting across from her for a few hours, people unfold themselves. They share their passions, struggles, careers, upbringings. “I always tell them that if there is a question they don’t want to talk about then we don’t talk about it. They have full control over what they want to say. But up until now, no one has refused to answer a question,” Eileen explains, smiling.
Joining CSI as a member after participating in the fall 2020 iteration of the WOSEN Start program, Eileen says what she thought would be a how-to on business management quickly turned into an eight-week, therapeutic deep dive into her purpose. WOSEN gave her the opportunity to sit with her “overarching why?,” a question, incidentally, she’s more used to asking than answering since she started Queer of Colour last February.
Continuing to carve out her “why?” through storytelling, Eileen is set to start a second round of interviews for the project soon. Before she does, we sat down last week to chat about Queer of Colour, the nuances of intersectionality, and the power of telling your story in your own words. Here are hers.
N: What is Queer of Colour? What made you start this project?
E: Queer of Colour is a storytelling platform for queer people of colour, primarily in the Toronto and GTA area, to really take control of the narrative of their own stories and to share their stories on their own terms.
It grew out of the recognition that the stories that we tell about ourselves and that are told about us are really powerful. Stories can shape our role in society and shape how we live. So, rather than having systems around capitalism and white supremacy and colonization tell our stories, it’s an exercise in reclaiming the power of storytelling and reclaiming our own stories so that we take control of what we want our lives to look like.
N: Why these stories?
E: The idea of intersectionality is really important when it comes to social hierarchy and where people fit in, in society. The reason I focused on queer people of colour is that 1) that’s my own identity and 2) it’s this intersection of being a person of colour in a white dominated culture and the struggles and challenges that come with that, as well as being a queer person within a family or community of colour where being queer might not be as widely accepted or as talked about as it might be in mainstream culture.
So, I’ve talked to people who find that they don’t fit in no matter where they go. They’re in their families or their communities or whatever culture they’re from and they’re afraid to be themselves. They’re afraid to be out because of stigma, because of how their family and their friends and their community members might react. And then they go into a queer space and they find they don’t really fit in there either because they are a person of colour and they get treated differently than their white counterparts. Focusing on this intersection of people who have to navigate those two types of marginalization – and there are a lot of other marginalizations – but focusing on these two particular marginalizations and sharing the stories and having people talk about their experiences, both positive and negative, is important.
To be able to put words to some of the thoughts and feelings they may have is definitely a cathartic, therapeutic experience. It can exist outside of us so we can step back and process and understand what those stories mean to us and how we are shaped by those experiences.
N: What resonated with you most during this process?
E: What has really stayed with me in these interviews is the similarities between all of the stories and my own experiences around mental health. Depression and anxiety. Ideas around suicide. That’s a huge thing that almost every single person has experience with.
Another theme is the lack of mentorship for queer people of colour. One of the questions I ask is: do you have a mentor? Do you have a role model? Do you have someone you can go to, to ask questions? And most of the time, the answer is “no.” When they have questions about their sexuality, they just Google things or they have friends who are going through similar stuff and they just figure it out. And while I wouldn’t say it’s a shame, it’s a missed opportunity. When we think about cultural inheritance and how we inherit things like language, belief systems, religion, values and history from the people who raised us, we can see how cultural heritage gets passed down. But for people in the LGBTQ community, if they don’t have older elders from the LGBTQ community, none of that gets passed down. So, they don’t know the history of LGBTQ rights in this country. They don’t know the significant events that have brought us to where we are today. They don’t know definitions of various identities and how those identities can be lived out in real life. They all have to figure that out themselves. It’s like every person has to start from scratch rather than build on what’s already been done. I do think that’s a missed opportunity. That’s what has really stuck with me the most: seeing that theme across so many different stories.
N: You mentioned that participants often talk about both positive and negative experiences. That’s what resonated with me when reading their stories; it feels like they are sharing their whole selves.
E: In my own experience, as an immigrant and as someone with an East Asian background, there is so much pressure from family, from society, and from myself, to be perfect. To embody what I am supposed to be or should be. The truth is, nobody is perfect. Everybody makes mistakes. And that’s one thing I appreciate about the storytellers in this project. They are open to sharing their mistakes and the crappy things that have happened to them. The things they did that maybe they regret or the things they did when they were younger when they didn’t know any better. But also, how they moved through it, how they learned, how they are older and wiser now. One mistake didn’t completely derail their life. We have multiple chances and we can pick ourselves back up and rebuild our lives. People have agency to say, “I don’t like what my life looks like now and I want it to be different.” They can make decisions and try to make it different. They are not just subject to whatever the world is putting on them.
That’s also something I carry through in my fiction writing as well. This idea that queer people deserve to find love. Most of my characters are East Asian queer people and again it’s those intersecting marginzalitions. They deserve to be messy people just like anyone else. They don’t have to be the token Asian or the gay character that gets killed off first in the story. Those are very common things we see in the media. I want to bring these people into the centre so that they are the main characters. They are the heroes. For Queer of Colour, the queer person of colour is the main character in their story. They’re not the sidekick or the comic relief. They get to go on the journey and they have agency about where they end up.
N: Storytelling is powerful.
E: Language in general is really powerful. In the last however many years, with more exploration into trans identities and the asexual umbrella of identities, [we are exploring identities using language that] people who are a generation or two older than me didn’t have. That’s not to say those identities didn’t exist. It’s that they didn’t have words to describe them. Now that we are developing this language around it, it’s really empowering and really opening up questions like: what does sexuality mean? What is sexual identity? What is gender identity? It’s really challenging the idea of gender binaries and sexual binaries.
I read an article recently that said Gen Z is a lot more queer than previous generations. It’s kind of a misnomer because I don’t think they are a lot more queer, they are just a lot more aware and open about it. They have the language now and they’ve grown up in a society where it’s normalized to claim those identities and to use that language. I think what we are starting to see is there are a lot more queer people around than we used to think.
N: What do you hope people take away from this project?
E: I think the most important thing is that the people who participate in the project and the people who are the audience for the project feel seen and heard.
It’s really important to have the stories shared publicly for other folks who are in similar situations to know that they’re not alone, that there are others who have been in the same situation or who are going through the same things. Maybe they can find solidarity in that and feel hope that there is an end to whatever challenge or struggle they are going through.
[These stories also] help us understand people we might not normally come in contact with. It’s pretty common for folks to surround themselves with people who are like them. Most of my friend group has shared the same experiences as me and that’s probably the case for most people. When we have these stories of people who are different from us or that we think are different from us, we hear their stories and we think, “hey, they’re actually not that different’ or maybe there are aspects that are different but that helps me understand them more. And that’s the first step towards things like reconciliation and community-building. If we really want to create bonds in society that help to increase equality, inclusion and diversity, it’s really important for people to at least understand where people are coming from and to think, “maybe I don’t experience that myself but that experience is still valid.”
N: What’s next?
E: I need to do more interviews. The first set of people I talked to were from my network or certain Facebook groups. They all have similar demographics. Mostly in their 20’s, a lot of them are artists and Asian and that’s because of the groups I reached out to. I’m going to be starting the second phase soon. One of the things I want to be conscious of is talking to people from more diverse backgrounds. I want to talk to a lot of older people. I want to talk to people who work in other industries and obviously, different ethnic backgrounds. That’s something I want to explore.
In addition to founding the Queer of Colour project, Eileen is a full-time author and podcast host. She primarily writes queer romance fiction, among other stories. Her latest novel, Hard Sell, came out on Tuesday under her pen name, Hudson Lin. She also co-hosts the podcast, World of Stories, about how stories shape our lives. The second season, focusing on how we live, work, and process a pandemic, is out now on all major streaming platforms.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.