Payal Dhar begins her Young Adults novel It Has No Name with a story of harassment. An old man, seemingly harmless, mutters horrific adjectives when the protagonist of the story, Sami comes near him. From here we see the world of Sami – a young girl uncomfortable with her body and her femininity.
The story will possibly resonate with most women who have gone through the phase in school where everything pink was met with a hateful gaze, as though the cause of all societal oppression lay in the colour of their shirt. Or when mothers forced young girls into tight lehengas and saris for weddings and festivals where the terrifying feeling of being paraded around as a prized goat ran deep and was eventually internalised as the fault of the “outer appearance”.
However, Sami’s discomfiture is deeply ingrained – she is not merely upset about being forced into femininity, she does not wish to be accepted as feminine.
Dhar brings out the subtle nuances of a larger discourse in the understanding of gender through the character of Sami. She is a “tomboy”, an old-fashioned term used for girls who act like boys – and therein lies the underlying tension of the book itself. How is one even supposed to act like a girl?
Sami has short hair, and she dresses in clothes that remain camouflage her gender-signalling body parts. The world shifts under Sami when she discovers the joys of looking at edits which solely focus on the lesbian storyline of what is largely a heterosexual show. Her shift to the small town of Chandnisarai in Himachal Pradesh brings out some dark memories when it comes to the consistent violence of misgendering that she faces.
Dhar understands the angst and the discomfort of experiencing homophobia your entire life without ever being able to put a label on it. In that respect, the concept of the label remains a prominent theme in the book, and its conceptualisation remains akin to a very well thought-out Twitter thread. The words are all perfectly synchronised to create a setting that almost resembles a very diverse tumblr thread, except the caveat is that the author is trying to make this as a very real discussion.
That is where I think Dhar misses a trick to show what things are really like. It isn’t as though these aren’t conversations or problems that take place regularly, it’s just that they seldom reflect the same vocabulary, especially when the one of the points of the novel is to highlight that ignorance of misgendering is a form of gender-based violence.
Who is the protagonist?
How do you even begin to write about gender dysphoria and the very real repercussions of a societal order that always begs to put you into a box? Dhar looks at Gadsby. Hannah Gadsby is an Australian comedian known for her sharp wit – in a recent stand-up act she explains the perils of doing comedy with an identity that is both marginalised and unknown.
A woman who looks like a man and is a lesbian covers practically every form of gender-based marginalisation, but what strikes with Sami is perhaps the confirmation that this too is a form of violence and erasure. But Dhar does not channel the sharp wisdom of Gadsby, which is perhaps an unfair comparison, given that Sami is a confused sixteen year old.
Still, Dhar writes her novel in a way that perhaps in many ways over-simplifies things. The violence remains confined to snide remarks from family and the stray sweatshirt the protagonist dons as a way to complicate the idea of femininity. Dhar did have accessibility, but it is washed away in what seemed like an ambitious project to capture several discourses in a short novel.
Perhaps if the author had stuck to one storyline and fleshed out the pain, Sami would not have been so incomplete and unfulfilling, and reading the book would not have left one with the feeling of “oh not this again”. The incidental storylines somehow seem to be more realised because of the low stakes and effort.
The book seems to have been written with a specific outcome in mind, because while there are no loose ends, there are also no places where the reader is afforded agency. The narrative is so tightly controlled by the author that you keep wondering whether you’re actually reading an academic paper with several tight control variables.
More important, the author misses an understanding of the character itself – Sami is not a person because her character cannot simply be envisioned outside of this singular identity. What will her internal monologues consist of once this tension is rectified? Will Sami cease to be a character because there is not much else the reader knows of her?
Much of literature that deals with queer themes often writes about the lives of characters as simply being the objects of oppression and tension. Sami is not a person without the pain or even outside of it, and that seems to fundamentally underscore the efficacy of presenting her as a protagonist.
It Has No Name, Payal Dhar, Red Panda.