Ryan Kai Cheng Thom on Writing and Dreams Coming True

Ryan Thom, local spoken word poet, has many names.

At birth, Ryan—who prefers to be referred to by third-person plural pronouns—was given an anglophone name, as well as Kai Cheng, their Chinese name. Only Ryan made it to the birth certificate, however. Recently, they have started performing under their drag name, Lady Sin Trayda.

Ryan told me about the Greek myth of Artemis, who was bounced on the knee of Zeus and asked what gifts she wanted. One of these requests was to be given many names, in case she ever got bored with one.

“A lot of older people in my family were dying, and my name, Kai Cheng, was dying too—a whole self!”

So Ryan uses all three names.

“‘Sinful’ is always involved in my stage names,” they said. “I started as ‘Sinfully Gaysian’ at Sinfully Asian,” a restaurant on the McGill University campus.

“I love the imaginary royalty in the rap world and the spoken word world. Lady Sin Trayda is a play off of ‘skin trade.’ Skin trader is a reference to sex work, or prostitution, because that is how people are using that expression.

The reference is more than skin-deep, however; Ryan sees a parallel with their spoken word work, too.

“People often make analogies between sex work and art. You give and the audience takes, pays for it, the audience uses you for emotional catharsis.”

Ryan told me about how their process of growing up was shaped by another area of aesthetics—beauty.

“When I was little, I thought I was ugly. I hated mirrors. Being beautiful was all I ever wanted,” they said.

“If people liked me, had sex with me, they got to decide if I was beautiful. It took me a long time to know I can be pretty. Three years ago, I started wearing make-up and writing things. […] I always wanted to be beautiful when I grew up—and I am beautiful. That’s why I am a grown-up!”

It’s a powerful claim to make, according to Ryan. They believe that “narcissism and self-love have revolutionary potential. Marginalized bodies are seen as unlovable. Beauty is an infinite process. It is a world that you explore and make that is often denied to people. I want to show it to people. Sometimes you have to re-learn it and come back.”

I asked Ryan to describe themselves. They challenged me to say a word, and they would reply with a word, and we would go back and forth describing our respective identities.

They started with “smooth.” We listed feelings, book titles and sensations.

I finished the list with “exasperation,” a reference to our earlier discussion about educating others about our identities.

Ryan is studying at McGill University, getting an undergraduate degree in social work. On Nov. 8, 2012, they opened for internationally celebrated Jamaican-Canadian dub poet D’Bi Young at La Sala Rossa.

Originally from Vancouver, B.C., in April, Ryan will be heading west to be an artist-in-residence at The Banff Centre in Alberta, where Young will be teaching.

“A dream come true!” Ryan said. “She’s an inspiration to me and I’ve been following her for a long time […] she pushed me to go beyond myself and deeper into myself. I always thought, ‘I will learn poetry on the streets and nowhere else!’ And then I found out that D’bi is teaching at Banff and I decided to learn in the classroom.”

Despite an upcoming performance Jan. 20 with the Throw Poetry Collective at Le Divan Orange, Ryan’s hoping to edge away from poetry a bit.

“There is magic in the stories of dislocated people of colour. I want to write a sense of legacy and placehood for people of diaspora. People of colour, freaks, monsters,” they said.

“[Salman] Rushdie writes in Imaginary Homeland about a homeland of not having one, an India of the mind, between minds for me and people I know. [My] homeland exists between people and not necessarily rooted in the land in the world. It belongs to a story instead—a story I, my sister, my parents and friends created.”

The Throw Poetry Collective featuring Ryan Thom / Jan. 20 / Divan Orange (4234 St. Laurent Blvd.) / Doors 7:00 p.m., show 8:00 p.m. / $5.00 students, $7.00 general / Twelve spots for poetry slammers / Four open mic spots available

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