The premise is simple. Come to the Vancouver Public Library and choose a title to check out. It’ll be something like “The Boy’s Department” or “Content Warning: Real Hot Girl Shit.” Instead of taking out a book, though, you’ll get a person—and they’ll tell you their story.
But Zee Zee Theatre’s annual storytelling event is more than just a human library. Each year, the company’s story collections are specially curated to address specific topics.
This year, the event features the Queer Asian Stories Collection, focusing on the intersecting experiences of Asian and LGBTQ2S+ identity. It came from wanting to respond to the ongoing rise in anti-Asian hate that really swelled during the Covid-19 pandemic, and to combat the one-dimensional ideas people can have.
“For people who don’t identify as queer or Asian, there’s always going to be a preconceived notion about a one-word identity,” says drag artist and mother of the House of Rice Shay Dior. “These stories are meant to let the listener dive deep and learn different experiences and how individual each person is… But at the same time, we are all living in the same life, so we do share so many experiences that may be parallel and related.”
Dior worked alongside co-curators Yanting Qiu, co-founder of Theatre as a Second Language Society, and theatremaker Jaylon Han, to find willing storytellers with a diverse set of experiences. That includes persuading some of their drag children to come tell their tales.
In all, there’s around a dozen different storytellers participating in the four-day event, bringing personal tales about experiences ranging from a trans woman fleeing her homeland to a biracial couple discussing their love story. One of Dior’s favourites is a mother coming to terms with her daughter’s queerness.
“Her story is about her relationship with her queer daughter when she came out,” they elaborate. “So much about queer POCs is often about how to rebuild a relationship with a parent, so this is coming from the other side, which I think is very beautiful.”
Part of the appeal of the human library is using the form to break down stereotypes. The one-on-one conversations aren’t distanced by stage or screen: they’re immediate, forging human connections that encourage empathy. Zee Zee has run a series of workshops to help the performers polish their tales, though part of the joy of live storytelling is the way it can be different every time, especially depending on how the audience (of one!) responds.
That said, Dior acknowledges that speaking about personal things to complete strangers is kind of intimidating.
“It’s nerve wracking, a little bit,” they laugh. “But I host a lot of drag shows; I often treat the audience as just a friend. That’s how I get comfortable. I don’t imagine them as strangers, I just pretend like I’ve known them my whole life and I’m having a little kiki and hanging out, and I love a good heckle.”
Both Asian and queer are huge umbrellas, and there are plenty of different identities within them. Neither is a monolith, and distinctions are important; Dior says there’s lots to be gleaned by embracing that diversity.
“I’m Vietnamese, and I always found like there was a separation between South Asian and East Asian, and me being Southeast Asian, I felt like I was kind of a bridge between it,” Dior says. “I was trying to get a couple of South Asian storytellers in this, but people said they felt intimidated by the whole prospect—but I do continue to want to bridge that gap.”
Dior also co-founded Ricecake Events, and spends a lot of their time considering how to create strong connections and celebrate different types of queer Asian experiences. As with the Queer Asian Stories Collection, making space to uplift diverse stories helps foster understanding, strengthening the bonds both within and across different communities.
Or, as Dior summarizes with a rueful smile, “We just want to be human and connect. People are just people.”
Queer Asian Stories Collection
When: November 18, 19, 25, and 26, 1pm to 4pm
Where: Vancouver Public Library