Maeve: Hi, I’m Maeve Marsden, and you’re listening to Queerstories. This week, Kaya Wilson is a writer and tsunami scientist whose work has been published widely. In 2019 Kaya was the recipient of the Writing NSW Veruna Fellowship, where he completed his first book As Beautiful As Any Other, A Memoir Of My Body published by Pan Macmillan. Kaya has not only performed at Queerstories before, he and his friends have been regulars in the front row of the monthly Giant Dwarf events for years. So much so that at one point I politely asked if they might let someone else sit there because the photos looked like the same five people were the only ones that showed up each month, like we’d staged it. It was wonderful to be part of him launching his beautiful memoir to the world, when he performed this story at Sydney Writers Festival, and at Queerstories in Canberra. This story is an extract of his memoir, and I’m sure after listening to it you’ll rush out to buy his book from your local independent bookseller.
Kaya: We walked around Kathmandu the evening we both arrived in Nepal. My mother from England, me from Australia. Meeting somewhere that felt about halfway.
We walked through narrow roads of endless shops with hiking clothes and woollen hats. Electric wires gathered on poles like galaxies. We ate at a courtyard restaurant and mum leant back in her chair telling young backpackers about how she had climbed Kilimanjaro.
Mum called me she and they looked at me, then let it go. They told us how cold it could get and it was hard to imagine there, in the courtyard, with the gentle, dusty breeze.
The next day we figured out the logistics and made it out of the city and the towns on a long road to villages where there are few tourists and the mountains sit quietly on the horizon. We found somewhere to stay with hot water and wifi and I fell asleep that night with mum tap-tapping away on her phone, sound still enabled, reading glasses on.
It was early morning when we first met up with a guide called Lal who we found through someone we know. On the first walking day we climbed up a hill’s worth of steps after a suspension bridge, where some kids kicked a football to me. Dried blood was spattered over a concrete mound and pairs of horns were tied to the roof of a small temple. There was a festival three days ago, Lal told us. They sacrificed sheep, he said. Goats? asked my mum. No, sheep, he replied, as if that was not something that could ever be confused.
It was a hard ascent and the guide and I took turns carrying my mum’s bag.
Good job, I would tell my mum as we reached a mountain pass and she would be dismissive. You can tell you had American teachers, she would say.
We arrived at a beautiful village with blue shutters and orange mud on stone walls. Young goats jumped along the walls and women carried water from the village tap. We ate lentils and rice with a small bowl of mutton curry that was mostly bone. I had a cold bucket shower.
The houses we slept in had swept dirt floors and low doorways to duck through. Our clothes were dusty and it would be cold at the end of the day when the sun found a mountain and our bodies were no longer moving. The women in the house would talk to Lal and ask him questions with the rhythm of a culture; they would be the same questions over and over that I learnt to hear on our arrival. How we were related to each other was something everyone wanted to know. Ama, chora, mother, son, was spoken and echoed, over and over by everyone around us. Ama, chora, ama, chora, ama, chora.
My mother said to me: I keep looking for you but you’re right next to me and I don’t recognise you.
Screaming out to an empty landscape or a valley or a canyon has a release all of its own. I remember the scene in Cabaret, the movie my father loved, where Sally Bowles teaches Brian Roberts to scream under the bridge as the train passes above.
It was fun to be alone and scream in Nepal, on the mountain pass between landscapes of forest and grasslands, white Himalayan horizons.
There were still parts of me I hid. Parts I feel are less loved. I shaved alone and silent, once hurriedly cutting my chin. Once in the dark, once by a river in the freezing ice melt. Shaving was also a pleasure I wanted to protect. I changed my shirt facing away.
Do you have scars on your chest?
Was it painful? No.
During the days, my mother walked ahead and I walked behind and took photographs if I saw something I liked; a new way the light had been sliced by the mountains.
In the guide’s village where we rested for a couple of days, we washed our clothes and ourselves, walked around slowly and gently through the fields terraced into the hills. A small child came with us, by all appearances a little girl with earrings and a bob, not quite talking and somewhere between walking and being carried. She was Lal’s niece, whose name he couldn’t remember when I asked. And I remember learning the way people there didn’t really use names, just their position in the family; ama, chora, ama, chora.
The child was niece, Lal was uncle. And, as we spoke about her, Lal told me, I don’t know his name. He is maybe two or three years old. He is my brother’s youngest child.
He for girls, she for boys. And it made me smile, to be on the other side of a Poisonwood Bible cultural misunderstanding.
There were times that he misgendered my mother, which only made it better.
It’s just so far out of the realm of my experience, my mother had told me of my transition.
After the highest pass and the sunset and sunrise across mountains and a plain, an unexpected night in the herder’s hut on the emergency blankets, we came to a seasonal village. Empty but for an old man hitting a rock with a hammer.
We were lying in the sun, waiting for the family who would appear to cook us a meal, when two men arrived, one English, one Nepali – a Brahmin, Lal told me later, approvingly. The Englishman, over six foot and speaking of allotments, was like an apparition out there. Mum, excited to talk to him, called me she and he looked at me for a moment. And the sentence I had in my head, the one I was calmly composing for her, It is important to me that you make the effort to call me he, became in a moment alone an angry, whispered, When you say she, you’re the one who looks stupid.
We ate in the hut, lentils and rice, again, some dried mutton taken from the ceiling above the fire. The Nepali man flirted with me and I wondered if Mum noticed.
We parted ways in the morning and mum and I began our descent. We found an easy way of talking, when you’re walking all day. No one has to, and you’re not always able to. Then the day comes that you’re going downhill for seven hours and it’s slow and deliberate but your breath is returning more and more, and your layers are coming off every hour or so, as you descend to the oxygen and the warmth.
And as the mountains fell from before to after, I would say good job and she would say, You are encouraging.
Maeve: This was an audio extract of As Beautiful As Any Other, written by Kaya Wilson, published by Pan Macmillan Australia, recording copyright Pan Macmillan Australia 2021.
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