An evening with Kai Cheng Thom opens doors

The Central Vancouver Public Library is celebrating works written by and about trans, gender-variant and Two-Spirit people in an engaging group discussion on Dec. 6. The event features writer and performer Kai Cheng Thom with facilitators Molly Billows, Ivan Leonce and jaye simpson in partnership with PeerNetBC, Qmunity and Vancouver Park Board.

After growing up in Vancouver and spending so much time in the library as a kid, it’s like coming full circle to be the keynote at VPL’s Open Book event,” says Kai Cheng Thom, author, psychotherapist and speaker.

This year’s Open Book event began as a bigger part of the VPL’s mandate to echo the UN’s declaration on Human Rights and its emphasis for equal rights and fair treatment for the LGBTQ and Indigenous communities. Since September, the pilot project has featured a writer/poet each month with the year-end finale coalescing all the writers plus Thom as the keynote in a panel discussion as well as an audience Q&A.

Stories as survival

Kai Cheng Thom, author of a place called NO HOMELAND. | Photo by Jackson Hagner

Ia place called NO HOMELAND, Thom builds on her adult writing from Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir. Meanwhile she has also written the popular children’s book from the stars in the sky to the fish in the sea, which is often checked out and rarely available in the library. Books have played a huge role in where Thom finds herself today. She never thought she would be a writer. She establishes that it was more about determination and timing.

“Stories were important to my survival as a young trans person growing up. I never said to myself I want to be a writer,” says Thom.

With her post-secondary studies in social work, she has also become a well-established therapist in her community. At the same time, many of her books involve concepts of pride in personal identity choices. Learning to accept and love oneself, and knowing that as humans we aren’t perfect, is one of her mantras. While juggling the many roles in her life, she feels that focusing on reasons to hope and to love is the future.

“I want to contribute to a social paradigm where we are choosing to love each other as opposed to hating one another,” says Thom.

Through the arts, social work and her personal life, this objective has been her raison d’être.

Finding community

As a facilitator and poet, Billows presented her slam poetry for the Open Book series in September.

“This was a chance to provide an opportunity to people who are new to these themes, to hear these stories for the first time,” says Billows.

Billows identifies as two-spirit, which has different meanings for different people. Being Indigenous and gender variant or non-binary is a component of two-spirit identity. The creation of the term “two-spirit” is attributed to Albert McLeod, who proposed its use during the Third Annual Inter-Tribal Native American, First Nations, Gay and Lesbian American Conference, held in Winnipeg in 1990. Some roles of two-spirit peoples were and are as mediators, social workers, peacemakers, healers and doctors. The cross-gender identity was recognized in over 155 Indigenous North American tribes before colonization.

“Using the term two-spirit for me reflected not only my queer identity but also my identity as an Indigenous person. I found it helpful for finding community,” says Billows.

During their studies at UBC, Billows found poetry to be a conduit for processing all the learning and unlearning that was happening during their Indigenous studies. Through these experiences, poetry became an avenue to viscerally connect others to knowledge and story.

The response to the series has been great so far, commented VPL staff. They are hoping the community-led initiative can become a regular part of their program offerings for 2019.

“It’s important to have stories and poems as they give agency and voice,” says Thom.

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