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In Conversation With Beni Xiao

It’s a quiet afternoon in the scorching heat, so it feels time for lazing in the sun with a friend and some boozed up clam juice. The Lido just opened their outdoor patio last year and though it’s facing Broadway, the vined fencing makes it feel like a garden getaway and the traffic noise is cut in half. The rustic round tables and flowers made me feel like we were wandering into someone’s yard and I’m learning this summer that’s what makes a good patio—so homey and intimate, you feel like you could be trespassing!  

Today, I’m excited to chat with the wonderful poet, Beni Xiao. Beni and I have a lot in common—from our love for Anne of Green Gables to a love spice in our caesars.

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Our drinks are made with gin, and the bartender tells us after this, we’ll never want vodka caesars again! The caesars come with lime, paprika sea-salt rim, two olives and pepperoncini. The extra tobasco also adds a perfect kick.

Beni, what do you think of this caesar?

Love the gin. And these olives are really good.

I agree. They have a good firmness and brine.

I had the honour of reading your poetry chapbook manuscript because you’ve agreed to let RG Press publish it. We are so excited!

Thank you. Me too!

What I love about the way your work looks on the page is a lot of the titles are long lines that drift into the body of the poem.  

I usually think of my titles first and work from there.

I really have trouble with titles. I also love the title of your piece in Room Magazine—”Ben Stiller’s Face Gives Me Mild Anxiety”

The origin story for that poem was I was on an airplane and literally six of the screens in my periphery were all playing The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  And I really don’t care for Ben Stiller and so it was a weird experience. I wrote that poem way after that though when my brother made me watch the movie with him and I hated it.

Ben Stiller doesn’t have a very reassuring face.

No and I don’t get it. He’s so serious and sombre all the time yet he’s a comedy actor which doesn’t compute in my mind. I contrast him with actors like Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly who have super rubbery faces. I feel like you could stretch their faces and find a secret!

That’s why their faces are so rubbery…They’re full of secrets! How long have you lived in Vancouver for?

Four years. I’m originally from the suburbs of Toronto in Burlington. I don’t really miss it there.

Were you writing when you were living there?

A little bit. I was a kid who kept a diary but poetry wasn’t really a passion of mine until I started writing it at the end of grade twelve in my writer’s craft class. I enjoyed it and continued writing poetry on my own time. Part way through university, I realized I had lots of work and kind of thought: Oh, wow! Guess that’s what I do now! Growing up, I was strong in the arts. I could competently do theatre, piano, visual arts and it was always enjoyable and I was good at those things but I never challenged myself like I do with writing.

When I started out writing, it didn’t matter if I was good. Even when things didn’t go my way like not getting into programs I wanted, I kept on. It never mattered if I saw rejection. I still had the drive to do it. That’s when I realized writing is what I wanted to stick with.

You have such an awesome and distinct poetic voice. Creative writing was your minor in your undergrad?

Yes. I think being forced to write is a great place to start even if you don’t love the work you’re writing for class.

And you get linked up with like-minded writers.

I met some of my best friends in creative writing classes. And we still talk about our projects. But I don’t belong to any out of school workshops.

So you’re fine post-school to write and set goals and navigate with your own compass for your work?

I write when I feel moved to. I think I do need more of a schedule sometimes but mostly, writing when I’m just feeling inspired has been working for me.

I think also if you force it too much, it takes the joy out of it. That can actually be the danger with creative writing mixing with academia is that if the writer feels too much pressure and they’re not in a good place to be creating, it can be really hard and stressful.

Especially writing in a genre you’re not comfortable in. Fiction and nonfiction were challenging for me in class.

You’ve done some readings in Vancouver like the Sad Mag launch and Real Vancouver Writer’s Series. How do you feel about getting up in front of an audience?

It’s never been something that scared me because of my theatre background as well as I did a lot of piano recitals as a kid.

Whenever I’m at a reading that’s kind of awkward, I always think, at least we are not at a kid’s piano recital!

Hi I am playing Sonatina in G!

I had a terrible time performing on the piano actually because there’s not anything I could really do to fix nervousness. When reading, you can slow down or correct any mistakes. It’s way easier to adapt when speaking than with an instrument.  I rely on the fact that I can be charming so when I’m underprepared for public speaking, I can speak spontaneously and I feel I didn’t get to rely on my personality in that same way while playing music.

And you’re reading at Pride in the Word in Victoria?

Yes, I’m excited for a writing event outside Vancouver and it will be my third time reading at the same event with Billeh Nickerson and I really enjoy his work.

And Adèle Barclay and Jillian Christmas will be there. You’re among good company.

Yes, I loved hearing Adèle read at Aja Moore’s Paper Hound reading. And that was the first time I met Aja too!

New friends!

Aja just read my natal chart for me and I’d never looked into that before.

What were your results?

I’m pretty earthy. My sun and my Venus are Virgo and I’m pretty sure my rising sign and moon are both Capricorn. Capricorns are steady, persistent, and passionate. And my Sun sign’s a Virgo. And I wasn’t surprised about any of my results. My major sign that isn’t earth is an air sign and that’s associated with Libra. My sister is a Libra and we grew up close and having so much in common and I thought it was strange I had a lot of air qualities despite being an earth sign. I think growing up so close to a Libra brought out my Libra in me as well!

That’s really interesting. A good method to get in touch with yourself and kind of dissect your personality. Aside from your forthcoming chapbook, what poems are you writing right now?

Im working full-time right now so I’m finding writing a little slower than usual. But conveniently, I do write poems initially on my phone so that’s helpful in that my process can occur pretty much anywhere.

Really? That’s so cool!

Then, I’ll go sit down later, look at what ideas I wrote on my phone and maybe develop those into poem on my computer screen. And I edit on a computer because the formatting looks different. I need those bigger pages.

I notice your poems are wide in shape so I imagine for scale, the computer would be easier. What’s your submitting process like?

I’m really bad at submitting. Room was the only magazine I submitted to and it was a simpler process because I was solicited. But I did just submit two poems a few weeks ago to a lit mag so we’ll see! I’d also love to be published in an American journal and then eventually have a full-length book.

So you’re narrowing in and being selective in your choices. I want you to submit more though! You’re so good!

I just find the submitting process can often be overwhelming.

Some of those contest fees or sometimes reading fees are quite high. And I understand those fees support the magazine and are integral, but I also understand a writer being discouraged and unable to fund that for themselves sometimes. The waiting period can be anxiety-inducing for a lot of writers too.

And I was working on my undergrad degree until recently so balancing school, homework, poetry and submitting was beyond my capacity at the time. Maybe that will be something I worked toward now that I’m done school.

I think we need more work like yours! Also I think more and more, space is being made in Can Lit mags for diverse voices and diverse content.

Beni Xiao isn’t my legal name. It’s my public booking name and when I was picking it, I was very conscious about how “white” my name sounded or didn’t sound. My legal name is Chinese but it’s more ambiguously Chinese-sounding and if someone read my name without knowing the context of my background, they wouldn’t necessarily know I was a writer of colour. If people could mistook my legal name and assumed I was white, I might have a better chance of getting published in certain places and that is why I chose a harder name from an english perspective. I wanted to challenge people and be true to myself and my heritage. If there’s going to be any prejudice involved in the publication process, then I don’t want to work with those places.

Xiao means ‘little’ in Chinese. Originally, I picked the name Xiao as a first name but I didn’t love the sound of it so I made Xiao the last name. Beni is close to my legal name and also honours my mom’s maiden name.

Do you go by Beni in most contexts of your life?

Most of my friends call me Beni but at work I go by my legal name. And a lot of friends from childhood call me by my legal name.

When did you decide to incorporate Beni into your life?

Three years ago. I came out as genderqueer around the same time and I started going by Beni Xiao on the internet. And I think a lot of people assumed Beni Xiao was my chosen name in terms of my gender and renaming myself and that wasn’t really the case. I changed my name for writing purposes so I’m not offended when people call me by my legal name because to me, it’s not my dead name. 

So you came out as genderqueer in University?

Yes, in second year.

Have you ever written about that experience?

Not explicitly. But there a few pieces where I shift and play with pronouns especially if I’m writing in first person perspectives. I’ll move from he, she and they. I don’t write about many things explicitly but maybe I will as I keep going. I feel like there are things I could use my voice/position as a writer to say that aren’t really being said, or written right now, that could help those who have a similar intersection as me, or help open people’s eyes to life as a queer person of colour that would reach people in a positive way, but for the time being, stylistically, that’s now how I approach my poetry.

Maybe that would be something to explore in your full-length manuscript if you felt comfortable. But you don’t need to push yourself for the sake of it.

Exactly. I don’t want to write poems about being genderqueer because I feel pressured to. It’s something I’d like to write if it feels like the right time for me.

Are there times where people lack understanding of your preferred pronoun which is they/them?

Absolutely. It’s interesting to me because I don’t feel comfortable correcting people I don’t know if they misgender me. I feel like a lot of people are good about correcting others if they get misgendered but for me, it’s a pick your battles scenario. I don’t want to endanger myself or have to answer questions or defend my choices. I don’t like having that conversation. I’d rather be misgendered than have that conversation which is a very personal thing for me.

It’s also strange for me because I was designated female at birth and I have an androgynous face so when I do get misgendered, it’s not always “she.” I get “he” as well depending on how I’m dressed or if I’m wearing make-up. Transphobic people may say that I’m a woman because to them that day, I look like a girl. That’s because of their preconceived notions and stereotypes in their heads but I have also been perceived as a man by transphobic people so what does that mean then? Where does their argument fall when that’s the case?

Whose role is it to help make sure people are working harder not to misgender people and make an effort to use the right pronouns? It shouldn’t be on the shoulders of genderqueer and trans folk. I think it’s everyone’s responsibility!

There have been some cases where a friend or someone I know will try to help someone after getting misgendered but then they just kind of out you as a trans person which can put a lot of unwanted attention on you.

So what would you say is helpful?

I do this with my other friends who are transgender. If you’re in a situation where you’re introducing people, I might let people know ahead of time and inform others of their preferred pronouns. A lot of people don’t mean to misgender, but they do. It’s also nice when people upfront ask and then you know that’s a space you can answer honestly and be comfortable. Overall mindfulness.

I think more and more, we should use ‘they’ until we narrow in on what the person would like to go by when we meet someone new.

I always do that. When meeting someone new, I use ‘they’ pronouns if I don’t know explicitly their preferred pronouns and that person lets me know otherwise. At the end of the day, it’s an easy thing to do and it goes a long way.

And when there are people who argue that it’s a hard thing to do and reject trying or making that effort, I think that’s absolute bullshit! I always say to those people that them changing their traditional pronoun habits for someone else makes an individual feel safe, welcome and comfortable. Why wouldn’t you want to do that??!!

Exactly.

What’s your experience being a genderqueer writer in Vancouver?

As much as Vancouver is a strange city, overall, I’m so comfortable as a queer person here. I grew up in the suburbs and that’s not somewhere that I felt I could be out and safe and totally comfortable. The people I grew up around were very conservative. Moving away into a more liberal, multicultural and diverse city really helped me. I feel like I wouldn’t be at this great place I’m in now if I wasn’t living here.

Which is probably a terrifying thought for you in a lot of ways.

I think the reason why I came out so late was because I was living somewhere where it wasn’t possible for me. I think as far as being a genderqueer writer in Vancouver, there is a great community of queer writers, writers of colour and an intersection of both. I never feel like I’m a tokenized here.

I’ve been thinking a lot about tokenism lately. And an example that comes to mind are when cisgender male writers loudly state that they are only reading female writers for a month, that kind of thing. There’s a belittlement in the performative aspect of that. I think there’s an issue in people not knowing how to celebrate and appreciate diversity while leaving tokenism at the door.

I think a lot people who are consciously and vocally trying to be inclusive or thoughtful are actually really bad at being called out or pushed further. In their minds, they might feel they are making their efforts known for the group they’re trying to read more of or talk about. You should just be doing it in the first place.

And I think it’s the announcing of those efforts for a group that’s problematic. If someone has never read a woman of colour writer before and begins to do so, that’s great. But the problem lies in how it’s discussed, presented and delivered. Whether it’s a social media post, a mention in workshop, it just doesn’t work for me. I feel like that misses the point and makes the conversation more about seeking thanks or approval instead of celebrating the work that that individual is exposing themselves to for the first time.  Read diversely. You don’t need a “like” or a blue ribbon for doing that and the person or group you’re reading don’t need your privileged thumbs up for their work to matter. Okay, rant over!

Is your plan to stay in Vancouver?

Yes for the foreseeable future. I don’t plan to quit my job but I don’t know if I’ll be here forever.

And it’s a tough city for millennial artists and well, most artists. We have such a good writing community, I don’t want to leave it.

I totally agree. If I think about moving somewhere else, I think of what I’d be losing. It’s hard to find or start a new community elsewhere.

Sometimes, I worry we’re cliquey.

I think maybe from the outside, some people may think the Vancouver literary community is cliquey but I went to two events before I’d published or read at anything and I met some really welcoming amazing people. As a new writer when I came here, I didn’t find it cliquey. I met Dina Del Bucchia and after a couple of interactions she asked me to read at Real Vancouver Writer’s Series. I felt so honoured and it was such a good opportunity.

I also feel looking back, I experienced the same open arms and kindness. So if we continue to welcome new writers the way we were welcomed, we’ll continue to be a healthy, strong community.

Anything new on a social aspect is intimidating. And in an artistic community, it’s neat because you may have not met those writers in person before, but you may know their work really well. It’s not like meeting a stranger. You know who they are and you’re not sure if that’s reciprocal.

Or if they know that you know who they are! A strange, good situation. I love meeting a writer when I’ve already read their work.

I feel like I meet a lot of friends from different walks of life in this community. Everyone is accepting and friendly.

I think a lot of walls created by society regarding age, economic situations, gender, or race come down for our artistic community. I’m also wondering if you can share a book you’ve just finished or are enjoying or not enjoying right now?

I haven’t done a ton of reading lately which is out of character for me but I’ve been thinking about Peter Pan a lot. J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. The stories are written for children but they’re very poetic and lyrical and they’re really sad. Every spring, I get emotional about Peter Pan. 

I thought Peter Pan was originally a play.

Peter first appeared in a chapter in an episodic novel Barrie had written for adults and then later that chapter was later reprinted on its own as a short story, then it became a play and then the longer novel for children. The voice of the narrator is very matter of fact in a storytelling way and I think that’s what makes it both really sad and beautiful.

And the world-building of Neverland is probably stunning I would think.

Last time I read it was last summer. But it’s on my mind and I get emo about Peter Pan every spring.

I love that you have seasonal books you return to.

When I find stories or works I like, I’m really bad at letting go. I cling to the work I like. Every summer since I was eleven, I reread all of Harry Potter and the Anne of Green Gables series. That takes up all my spring and summer.

I’m a DIEHARD Anne of GG fan. This is awesome! I was her 7 years in a row for Halloween.

People don’t know it’s a series of 8 books and the last 2 aren’t even about her!

No, they’re about her daughter Rilla! I love Anne’s authority issues because I’ve always felt we shared that streak and I had no other characters to connect to in that way. A lot of female heroines I was exposed to were docile, needy, or complacent and that pissed me off from a young age.  So you read all 8 in your seasonal book forecast?

Yes, but Im usually back in Ontario for the summer where I own all the books. I may need to acquire a Vancouver set but Anne and Harry are thankfully in almost every thrift store! I will put together a makeshift collection soon.

Now I want to end this conversation with my fav Anne of GG quote told to her by her teacher, Miss Stacy: “Tomorrow is always fresh, with no mistakes in it…Yet.” It’s a good quote to linger on mid-week!!

 

Happy hour is almost over and Beni and I finish our drinks.  Beni, it was wonderful to chat with you today. You are a true ‘kindred spirit’ (Anne of Green Gables reference AGAIN) and I’m so excited to see what you do next in your writing endeavours and for your forthcoming chapbook! I hope you get to your summer reading list soon!

 

Beni’s Caesar Ratings:

Flavour – Gin 4.9/5

Garnish – 4/5

Rim – N/A (wish it was celery salt so didn’t even try it!)

Patio – 4/5

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Beni Xiao is a recent UBC graduate whose work has been featured by Room Magazine, Sad Magazine, The Real Vancouver Writers’ Series, and Can’t Lit. In their spare time they like to nap and snack. They are very into fruit.

They can be found on Twitter and Facebook @verysmallbear, and on Instagram @flaccidick.

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