Tumbling into this world prematurely and in a girl’s body, Liam Klenk has travelled a long and tumultuous road to gender reassignment and a sense of identity. Susan Platt asks him about the process of penning his autobiography, the use of crowdfunding site Indiegogo, and a search for home.
Welcome, Liam. When I read your autobiography, Paralian, I couldn’t help noticing how many borders you crossed on your journey—both mental and physical. What do borders mean to you?
For me, borders have multiple meanings. Through being half Italian, a quarter German, a quarter French—and also because of my intensive years abroad—political and geographical borders ceased holding any meaning for me years ago. I don’t let them stop me. If I find employment across one of those fictional lines, I’ll go and seize the experience. I am a world citizen, not just a citizen of any one country.
Then there are the borders as in life challenges, limits, gender assignments, societal constructs, etc. They’re there to be overcome. So we can be our true selves.
I firmly believe in equality, freedom and the rights of the individual. I believe in not judging people and more than anything I believe in valuing people exactly as who they are. We erect too many walls and borders that don’t need to be there in the first place. Diversity, change and fluidity are a gift, a privilege, not a threat.
You were born in Germany and moved all over the globe during the last few years, in your search for identity. Recently you returned to live in Zürich for the time being. What is your connection to Switzerland and Zürich in particular?
In 1991, when I came here to study at the Hochschule für Gestaltung, I was a mess. I felt homeless, lonely, uprooted—it had nothing to do with my move to Zürich and all to do with my internal state. Getting away from my rather difficult family situation, making a positive new start (as positive as I could), leaving everything I knew and seeing the world around me with fresh eyes was like being born again.
The discussions at college, my artwork, friends who became a surrogate family—all of it helped me to find myself and overcome. Zürich was my first real home. It was here as well where I finally understood that I am transgender. When I left 10 years ago, Zürich stayed in my heart. So when we left Asia in 2014, it felt only natural for my wife and me to see Zürich as a potential destination where we could make a home. We went to Germany and then to Malta for a while, but all we endeavoured there failed. On the other hand, whatever we applied for in Zürich—job, apartment, my wife’s job—all worked out immediately. So here we are.
Did you have a special writing spot during the creation of Paralian? Are you a writer who needs a quiet spot or do you prefer a stimulating environment, such as a café?
I’m getting better at writing in noisy places like cafés as well but, at heart, I’m a writer who needs solitude and ideally nature all around me to be at peak performance. For the creation of Paralian I found the perfect spot. I quit my day job and dedicated an entire year to writing eight to ten hours, five days a week. My wife and I moved to Lamma Island, half an hour by ferry from Hong Kong Central. In the little village of Yung Shue Wan cars and motorbikes aren’t allowed. All you hear are crickets, millions of frogs, birds and quadrillions of greedy mosquitoes. We found an apartment at the edge of the jungle with a little pond in front of our door. I spent all day sitting at my laptop behind a large window, gazing out at myriad shades of green and bustling fauna. Unfortunately, sitting outside wasn’t an option since the flying vampires would’ve eaten me alive, but what I had was the next best thing. In my breaks I walked to the beach or into the forest, both only minutes away from our house. The setting couldn’t have been more perfect and inspiring.
When did you first get the idea to put your life’s story into a book? Do you remember the exact moment or was it an idea that slowly evolved over a certain amount of time? What was the catalyst that made you sit down and put pen to paper?
It was an idea that slowly evolved, but I do remember the exact moment when I vowed to make it happen one day: I was around 17, still living at home with my dad, utterly unhappy, yet holding on tenaciously. One evening I sat in my little room, listening to Peter Gabriel at full volume, and wrote a short 5-point bucket list. No. 1 was “be happy“ (doing the very best I can at all times). No. 2 was “live abroad” (done and far from finished). No. 3 was “learn to scuba dive” (done extensively). No. 4 was “write a book” (done and ready for more). No. 5 was “learn to fly a plane” (I seriously aim to get around to that rather sooner than later).
To sit down and actually begin writing my first book was an instantaneous decision. I’d been writing paragraphs in my head for many years but had never seemed to find the time to actually get started in all seriousness. Then I sat in the office on the 21st floor of a Hong Kong skyscraper, doing a job I hated and thought, “You don’t need to put yourself through this Liam. For once, don’t endure. You don’t need to prove anything. Just let it be and move on.” Right after that I thought, “Ha, this is it. It’s time to finally write my book!” I resigned the next day and began writing a week later.
The working title of the book was The Fortunate Nomad until it got its definite Paralian title. How did the change of title come about, and does it imply that your nomadic days are coming to an end?
They’re definitely not coming to an end. We arrived one year ago and I can’t deny already thinking of faraway places and new adventures. Being a nomad is in my blood, and thankfully it seems it’s in my wife’s blood as well. Still, we’ll make a home here for quite a few years before moving on. You never know of course, but there’s no need to rush.
The first working title came to me one day and seemed the perfect fit: I am a nomad and I do feel quite fortunate despite or rather because of all the difficulties I have encountered and survived so far. However, writing draft after draft, I developed a concept of naming my chapters after the bodies of water that had been most important to me. My life follows a blue thread so to speak, water being an ever-present, powerful force.
The longer I thought about it, the more it occurred to me how most people (myself included) would associate ‘nomad’ with dry deserts. I needed something more fitting to the water theme that flowed through the pages of my story. My wife was the one who suggested ‘Paralian’ (from ancient Greek, meaning ‘one who lives by the sea’). I instantly loved the idea and the title was set.
All of the chapters in your book carry the name of a body of water in one form or another. Why does this element resonate so strongly with you?
Let me quote a paragraph from my book:
I finally reached the shore, out of breath and delighted, longing for more and feeling intensely alive. I had glimpsed boundless strength and passion within myself. For just an instant out there, in the arms of the Atlantic Ocean, I had felt beautiful.
Water has always been a source of strength as well as a soothing presence. Whenever I felt truly lost, I instinctively went towards the waves, gently lapping, or wildly surging.
Especially gliding weightlessly underwater, I feel in tune with this blue symphony.
Clumsy on land, stumbling, unsure of myself, and perpetually awkward within my own body, I transform as soon as I am in the powerful arms of my blue home. Underwater I am graceful. I feel self-assured, handsome, completely at ease with the world and with my entire self. I’m at one with myself. And it’s the best ‘place’ to be.
As a first-time author you took some unusual measures and launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds and help cover costs for the launch of the book. The campaign raised a respectable USD 10,000. What do you think is the secret of that success?
Transparency, tenacity, reliability and honesty.
I must add that no strangers donated to my campaign. All-in-all about 100 people donated in exchange for a signed copy of my book once it was published. They were all friends, family, buddies, acquaintances and former work mates.
No matter what circumstances they knew me from, they knew I keep my promises. Being true to my word at all times is very important to me.
In my proposal on Indiegogo, I outlined clearly what I was going to write about and how I was planning to go about it. I added photographs and some video footage. Then I proceeded to inform people about the campaign every few weeks via all my social media pages. I was stunned how many people donated. Even work mates I had totally forgotten about. Everyone sent supportive messages. Some people even donated up to three times. I kept my promise a month ago and sent them their books. It felt fantastic and I am eternally grateful to them all! The collaborative nature of my book project has made it an odyssey unto itself. Utterly unforgettable.
Following up on the Indiegogo campaign: On top of being a first-time writer and learning the ropes, how much extra work went into preparing and then tending to all the extras of that campaign? Would you consider another crowdfunding campaign for other projects, and what would you do differently?
Depending on how much people donated, I had promised homemade postcards, bookmarks and of course the signed book. My wife put a lot of work into creating those postcards and bookmarks, and finally my dad, my wife and I spent weeks organising to send those parcels to addresses all over the world. But you know what, in the greater scheme of things it wasn’t much work at all and it was a pleasure. I’d do another campaign any day. And I can’t think of anything different I’d do.
Paralian just celebrated its worldwide release on 28th May. What is next for the book? Will there be an audio version of your tale?
My PR manager and I have talked about a possible audio version. I must admit that I’d rather wait until, hopefully, the book has had enough success so I can have my pick of who will read it on the recording. One of my absolute favourites would be Stephen Fry!
One thing I am hoping for next is translation into other languages, foremost German. Since my publishing company doesn’t offer translation services I am thinking of finding someone brilliant who’ll translate the book for me. I could do it myself but I’d rather direct my creative energy into moving on. I am also dreaming about the book (or at least part of it) being made into a movie. No idea if that’ll ever happen, but I am surely going to stick my feelers out and pitch it to producers.
What’s next for you? Are you going to keep writing?
I’ve got five concrete book ideas in my head at this very moment, and more ideas floating around that could lead to even more tales to be told. So yes, I will definitely keep writing. The challenge is to make and find time to do so.
Over time, there could be entirely different genres. At the moment I am mostly fascinated by human-interest stories. For example, many of the professional acrobats I’ve met over the years have inspired me with their passion and dedication. I’d love to write a book of short stories about their lives.
Another person I’d love to write about is my grandmother. She was born in 1909 and grew up labouring on her dad’s farm. She survived two world wars. Her first husband was run over by a train, leaving her to fend for herself with her little daughter. Later she found love again, had another child (my dad), but lost her daughter due to a medical error. Her difficulties in life didn’t end there … Still, Grandma was a fighter and she was always positive. Whenever she entered the room, the sun began blazing and people’s lives improved instantly.
People with character traits like compassion, kindness, integrity, honesty, courage, grit, loyalty and open-mindedness are my heroes and idols. They are the ones I want to tell the world about in some form or another.
And finally, The Woolf special question: what is one of your favourite works of fiction, and why?
That’s a difficult one to answer. I am an avid reader and, on average, devour one to two books per week, ever since I learned to read. One of my all-time favourites is The Discovery of Slowness by Sten Nadolny. I love the eloquent, compassionate style of the author. The life story of 19th-century explorer John Franklin is a stunning ode to individuality and personal strength.
A recent favourite of mine is The Humans by Matt Haig. I laughed and cried my way all the way through (in the process, freaking out people on my morning commute). It truly is a novel with an enormous heart and is the tale of an alien impostor who thinks humans are repulsive. But to follow his orders and gather intelligence about a human breakthrough in science, he needs to go undercover in the most literal sense of the word: inhabit a human body and get close to the people around him. Quite involuntarily at first, then with ever-increasing openness, he learns to love the ambivalent, loveable creatures we are. It’s a heartbreaking book about what it means to be human. I felt lost when I finished it, longing for more.
‘Paralian’ is Liam Klenk’s autobiography