Seven years ago, Ember Swift was a queer feminist activist living in Canada with her female partner. She’s still a queer activist, but is living in Beijing with a Chinese husband and two kids.
At the tail end of this year’s Bookworm Literary Festival, Time Out arrives at iQiyi Cafe for a panel discussion on the short non-fiction anthology How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in China. Before we’re even through the door, a striking, willowy figure, the only person in a crowded room to make smiling eye contact with everyone in her path, greets us. She is entirely unmistakable.
While Ember Swift may have ditched her trademark blonde cornrows and studded leather accessories in recent years – perhaps motherhood necessitates a more practical approach to style – she retains a way of catching, and holding, your attention. Two decades as a singer-songwriter – her first album came out in 1996 – have taught Swift exactly how to work a room. During the panel discussion, Swift’s eiderdown-soft assertiveness and her self-effacing candour captivate the crowd as much as her remarkable personal journey.
‘In the last couple of years I’ve really longed for the queer community,’ she begins once the panel has finished, perched on a table as her audience stubbornly resist staffers’ attempts to disperse them. ‘When I first got here, I felt a little bit nervous that people might be heterophobic because I, a queer woman, was in a heterosexual relationship.’
Swift’s concerns are understandable. In 2007, she left Canada, along with her girlfriend of nine years standing, to relocate to China. The same week she touched down in Beijing, she met her future husband, local musician Guo Jian, at the long-demolished (but fondly emembered) Gulou hangout Jiang Jin Jiu.
‘He was the hottest woman I’d ever seen,’ she smiles, describing her unanticipated and fierce attraction to this tall Chinese man with dreadlocks and perfect skin as one would any revelation. Falling in love with a man, as a self-identified queer woman, was a lot to deal with, and it triggered a personal earthquake.
‘There were so many layers of break-up that happened. Some of my fans very vocally stopped being my fans. I’d been a poster child for queer rights. Nowadays I think I’d get a more positive response, but back then I was the Antichrist. I became really gun-shy, and it’s only in the last year that I’ve just said “Screw that, I’m a member of this community and I need to be out and visible.” I’m still hot for women in bars, I’m just not going home with them!’
Swift narrates her transition in Queer Girl Gets Married, a series of blogs that she is now crafting into a memoir. With a confident but reflective humanity, she discusses interpretations of cultural and sexual values as sincerely as she complains about her husband’s laziness, visa worries or clashes with her mother-in-law. Indeed, in many cases, these issues are inextricably linked to one another.
‘My memoir is not just about being a queer woman who marries a man, it’s also about the transition from being a full-time to a part-time musician and full-time mom, along with the Chinese-Western cultural side. I’m 20 chapters in and I wish I had a Post-it board to keep track of all the threads!’
An issue Swift is often forced to revisit is the fact that her feminism sometimes clashes with Chinese conventions of motherhood. She is acutely aware of the struggle queer women in China face, and this is in part what has motivated her to reconnect with her community in Beijing.
‘Here there’s so much expectation heaped on women. A woman's role is a woman’s role, and any agency in an individual woman can be seen as affronting in itself,’ she remarks, adding that reaching out to new queer friends remains a challenge.
‘I haven’t had a militant reaction but I have had people be surprised. Sometimes someone will treat me as if I’m invading a space I’m not entitled to, and I have to go into education mode, and I say that this ‘space’ needs to broaden its definitions, and then I feel really obnoxious, and it becomes a spiral.’
On top of reconciling her heterosexual marriage with queer identity, Swift is also subjected to a ride on the same cultural merry-go-round that all foreigners living in China, particularly those who enter Chinese families, have to experience. Her children, she states proudly, have helped a great deal with this.
‘There are things that drive me crazy about my situation all the time, but my children are growing up with this life as the norm. They’ve become my role models.’
How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in China, including a chapter by Swift, is available from The Bookworm, priced 120RMB.
Follow Swift’s blog Queer Girl Gets Married at emberswift.com
By Jack Smith