Interview & photos by Vivek Shraya.
I think of Jaime Woo as a kindred spirit—even though we mostly only know each other via Twitter. Self-publishing is a lonely path in the lit world and hearing that Jaime had self-published his first book too was definitely a point of connection. Jaime also often uses his platform to speak about racism which I am always grateful for.
Spending a Sunday afternoon in the city getting to know Jaime a bit better was the loveliest, and a good reminder of the importance of IRL.
Describe your personal style.
My personal style is mostly elevated basics. I don’t think style needs to be expensive, and I’m definitely not embarrassed if people recognize I’m repeating outfits. Clothes are so great at expressing personality, but I also think there’s a reasonable limit to how often we need to change up our look. I think of that piece on Buzzfeed and how it’s engineered to continually allow for the adoption and shedding of identities, and it makes me think of fast fashion.
It sounds exhausting to keep up with trends, and I think it’s also a way to get lost in the busyness of identity with actually thinking about it. It’s not to say that fashion is frivolous — not at all — but we’ve become a fast food nation style-wise. How disposable should our clothes be?
How does being a person of colour influence your relationship to style?
Seeing an Asian man on fashion runways was incredibly rare until in recent years. While I don’t think it made me feel unattractive, it was a reminder that many spaces had gatekeepers there to maintain the status quo. This is all changing as the hunger for luxury brands in China is changing fashion houses’ minds: money really does talk. While this is some progress, sadly, it still means my brown and black brothers are still underrepresented.
I know nothing about the videogame world. What is it like navigating this world as a person of colour?
The videogame world in North America is dominated by white men. There is quite a lot of privilege to being male in videogames, so race plays out in a more subtle, yet still imbalanced way.
Because videogames are huge in Asia, there is a decent population of Asian men in videogames; however, what gets frustrating is the incorrect assumption that white privilege and Asian privilege are one and the same. If you look at leadership in the industry it is still very white.
(Actually the LA Times just wrote about the glass ceiling for Asian Americans.) At the same time, I will note that brown and black bodies have extremely low visibility in games, and it’s frustrating because the lack of diversity hurts the industry.
You MADE a video game OMG. And you wrote a book. How different/similar were these creative processes?
I actually made a physical game, because I wanted to demonstrate that even without knowledge of programming a person can participate in the games world. Making a game and writing a book are two very different journeys. In a game you are trying to craft as interactive an experience as possible, and you create rules to bound the experience and then you let it go out into the world. A book is very different in that you are responsible for almost every part of that experience from content to font to form factor and so on. You are building a linear experience for people that must feel satisfying whether they read the book in 30 minutes or over three months. The similar part would be the unease that comes with releasing work into the world and seeing how people respond. I assumed people would hate both Gargoyles and Meet Grindr, and surprisingly the opposite happened. I haven’t created a follow up game nor book yet, maybe because I’m afraid of the sophomore curse!
In examining Grindr for your book, what was the discovery that surprised you most?
For me it was the patterns that become very clear once you have the intention of looking for them. The scripts that men all use, including the keywords that lead to a successful interaction. It’s amazing how effective “bored and kinda horny” is on Grindr, and as a writer you unpack why that phrase works, with its mix of emotional detachment and ambiguous arousal, and it tells me something about ourselves and about the culture the app exacerbates. I don’t think it’s a surprise that the app reinforces transactional behaviour, but I think what is worth thinking about is how passively queer men have accepted it without really advocating for themselves the different kinds of sexual attraction that exist. Even when we think about something as relatively simple as being horny, when you think of the concepts of spontaneous desire and responsive desire, it’s clear that Grindr is framed around the former, but what about the latter? And I think there’s a real opportunity for a platform that can better include responsive desire.
Given racist dating practices in the gay community, how did being a person of colour inform your approach when writing and researching your book?
Being a person of colour meant I had a more critical eye.
When you’re at the top of the food chain, as white men are in the gay community, you’re going to have much fewer negative data points to work with, at least in terms of race. You’re less likely to experience being reduced to a fuckbot as black men are or rendered invisible as many Asian men are.
It’s not to say that white men can’t understand the problems in the culture, but they may undervalue how much an issue it is. At the same time, I was aware that race (among other issues) is a sensitive topic and if I wanted to open worldviews I had to approach in a way that wasn’t preachy. It was more about having men inspect their own beliefs and hopefully work through how they got to them. There’s a lot of change that still has to happen.
I definitely see you as an artist but you mentioned your hesitancy using this word. Can you say more about this?
I see myself as more of an artisan, because I tackle my work in a very systematic way. Maybe I believe too much in that stereotype of the artist as needing volatility to find some higher level of creativity. The Jackson Pollocks and Virginia Woolfs of the world. I’m a pretty boring person who is just trying to figure out how the world works.
I’m not afraid to be seen as an artist (and I appreciate that you see me as one) but I guess in a way I feel like I haven’t earned it emotionally.
You are moving from Toronto after living here your whole life. What won’t you miss about this city?
I won’t miss the winters, that’s for sure! All kidding aside, I think any life-long Torontonian loves the city while being able to see its flaws clearly.
We are absurdly risk-adverse and while that makes sense for our banking system it’s terrible for a lot of other sectors. How many reports are we on now for Toronto’s public transit system? Which wave of the food truck movement are other cities on while we dither about having them? We worry about backing the wrong horse so incumbents stay longer than they should and newcomers often leave to find success elsewhere before they can return home to get their propers.
It could also just be the age I am and the place in my career that Toronto doesn’t feel like it quite fits. I assume that at some point I’ll return to this city, because I do love it.
What will you miss about this city?
I’ll miss the people. There are genuinely good people here. It seems almost outdated, since popular culture seem obsessed with antiheroes and Housewives of wherever, but Toronto is filled with many people with integrity. I have a sense of chosen family here that I’m hoping to find elsewhere. I’ll miss the walkability of the city. I like that the core isn’t too big and that you can walk from Dufferin to Church if you have the time. I’ll miss the Asian food here because it really is some of the best you can find value-wise. I’ll miss the familiarity I have with the city, and how I can’t really get lost in the core. But maybe that’s why I have to leave it. Being too comfortable at my age is probably a bad thing.
Interview & photos by Vivek Shraya.