Queer literature worldwide has seen immense shifts that are hard to articulate. Owing to multiple factors, including resistance movements, literary works by LGBTQIA+ writers are increasingly getting published, gaining visibility, and winning accolades. While it can’t be denied that queerbaiting and profiteering have influenced the newfound inclination of publishing houses to commission a book by a queer writer or two every year, their sheer presence and publication frequency signal a huge change.
Over a decade ago, when I found a recent edition of Ruth Vanita’s and Saleem Kidwai’s pathbreaking book Same-Sex Love in India: A Literary History at Amrit Book Co in New Delhi’s Connaught Place, or Akhil Katyal’s The Doubleness of Sexuality: Idioms of Same-Sex Desire in Modern India in May Day Bookstore, Shadipur, New Delhi, there was no dedicated “LGBTQIA+” shelf in bookstores. A few works by queer writers could be found in the “women’s or gender studies” or “academic books” section.
This has changed, and so have the narratives.
The shifting of tides
Though Vanita, Kidwai, and Katyal’s books were introductory texts for me, it was only when I read John Burbidge’s The Boatman: A Memoir of Same-Sex Love, that I truly felt an instant connection with the story. In a foreign land, the author was experiencing many ways to express his newfound desires. Along with the description of the 1980s’ and 1990s’ India, he captures how queerness was peppered across locations in India’s major cities.
While Burbidge’s record is urban-centred, Maya Sharma’s focus has been on unearthing stories from the un- and underprivileged parts of India, particularly Gujarat. Her book Loving Women: Being Lesbian in Unprivileged India broke new ground in feminist discourse. In her latest, Footprints of a Queer History: Life-Stories from Gujarat, she shares long and revealing narratives of the specific experiences of lesbians and transmen. Her works continue to remind us why it’s more important than ever to keep our ears to the ground, because unseeing and avoiding queer experiences from non-mainstream cultures severely impacts queer-feminist discourse.
The world over, the evidence of what happens when histories are forgotten is apparent. Memoirs like American artist and author David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration and Modern Nature: Journals 1989-1990 by English writer and filmmaker Derek Jarman come to mind. Their eerie resemblance with the mismanagement during the peak of the coronavirus outbreak is not only heart-breaking but also a reminder to excavate the past to re-inform the contemporary world of the undocumented and forgotten.
Olivia Laing has been doing it for a long time. But it’s the younger scholar Kit Heyam’s work Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender that attracted much attention last year. Much like in Mark Gevisser’s The Pink Line: Journeys Across the World’s Queer Frontiers, the focus of the book is not on one particular region but on an aspect, which happens to be the queerness that was lost on people of the time when heteronormative systems were challenged world over. The famous “impersonators” or traditional Islamic singers or the Hijra community in South Asia are but a few of the people Heyam cites in their book to make the point.
Queering Tribal Folktales from East and Northeast India by Kaustav Chakraborty runs along the same lines. It notes how oral stories, mainly from four cultures – Toto, Rabha, Lepcha, and Limbu – were inherently queer. The researcher, who studied the various tribal folklore and tales from the eastern and north-eastern parts of India, constructs a “counter-discourse of an indigenous queer” in this book. And in doing this, he not only shares a queer reading of the oral traditions, but also questions the obvious heteronormative understanding of these stories, which according to him was a spin-off. These tales were anything but cis-het in nature, he concludes.
Can queer futures be foretold?
This is the central argument of two books that unknowingly cover the universal. They articulate queer anxieties, traumas, joys, and experiences by studying them from a particular angle. While Adam Zmith’s Deep Sniff: A History of Poppers and Queer Futures does it by keeping amyl nitrite at the centre, Gay Bar: Why We Went Out by Jeremy Atherton Lin does so by centralising the experiences queer people have at a site that’s more often than not threatened by extinction: the gay bar.
Zmith describes the origins of amyl nitrite and captures through it how the chemical came to be associated with the formation of gay subcultures and identities back in the day, and further argues how the futures of queer and nonbinary bodies can be determined from a “forty-five second” high from sniffing poppers. Atherton Lin, on the other hand, in his exceptional account, notes the formation of a sense of “community” through the “fleeting, gently pervy interactions” and “unaccountable version of agency” in the many experiences he meticulously describes and dissects with the abandon of a theorist in his book. It is interesting how such vastly different works approach the formation of the experiences that fundamentally unite them.
Zoë Playdon’s The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes: The Transgender Trial that Threatened to Upend the British Establishment is yet another investigative project. Ask yourself: What would the world be like if a major development, say, the knowledge of the production of vaccination against a virus, was concealed from the public? The hiding of Ewan Forbes’s file that noted his gender-reaffirmation surgery was one such event. Classified files were unearthed and a journey to reconstruct a purposely hidden figure underwent in the writing of this remarkable work that points to an opportunity lost – that its public knowledge may have done the job of the fourth wave of trans-feminism in the earlier waves itself.
Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me (Bloomsbury, 2017) by Bill Hayes, on the other hand, is an inward-looking book. It explores the aloneness, loneliness, and grief-stricken state the author found himself to be in when he reached New York only to fall in love with one of the iconic writers, neurologist Oliver Sacks. While the latter talked little of his sexual identity and barely discussed his sexuality in his memoir On the Move: A Life (Knopf, 2015) except for how strongly his mother reacted to learning his queerness, through Hayes’s book we get a glimpse of the sort of intimacy Sacks desired in his life that came late to him. And when life appeared promising for both, Sacks was diagnosed with a life-threatening disease.
But from loss, Hayes extracted wisdom. He developed an understanding of why we go on despite loss, failures, and disappointments, and documents it in the book through different artists and vantage points. A genre-defying book in every sense of the way, it is a must-read for every queer writer in my view.
While Insomniac City had photographs and diary entries along with prose, Sunil Gupta’s Wish You Were Here: Memories of a Gay Life, exposed itself to me as a collection that presented vulnerability so uniquely that it was heartbreaking to sift through the book. Before Gupta’s book, I hadn’t come across any documentation of the queer scene of the 1980s from the migrant, diasporic viewpoint. And besides that, the thriving sociality and intimacy he’s able to inject into his creative work led me towards his other works too.
Be it eclectic works like the ones listed above or soul-baring memoirs by popular figures like Onir, A Revathi, and Akkai Padmashali were inspiring, informative, and inventive, I cannot help but argue that nothing like Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir by Akwaeke Emezi has ever been written. Born to a Nigerian father and Tamil mother, Emezi describes themselves as an Igbo spirit.
In this sense, the memoir challenges the very aspect of the memoir – the personal, for there’s no such thing there. In other words, this self, this homebody doesn’t exist. From this outrageous entry point to taking its readers through body image issues and dysphoria, becoming an overnight success to living unapologetically in a sprawling bungalow, Emezi’s book is not only genre- but world-bending. Their work is a reminder of what happens when the axis of study is twisted, inverted, or changed.
Shapeshifting in fiction
Works of fiction are not far behind when it comes to being a shapeshifter. A few examples include Cobalt Blue by Sachin Kundalkar, translated from the Marathi by Jerry Pinto, which serves as a reminder of how effectively women’s and queer people’s bodies have forever been policed. Their desires are hypersexualised, and their movements are heavily monitored, forcing them to meet societal expectations and fit in.
Barring the similarity with the 1968 Italian movie Teorema by Pier Paolo Pasolini, the story is unique in the way it lays bare the hypocrisy of a traditional Indian household. In the sense that the owners’ daughter is forbidden from interacting with the male tenant, but their boy can visit him at odd hours because queerness doesn’t naturally seep into their everyday to be vigilant about. A relationship between two men, if any, is harmless to them, but a daughter must not even think of hanging out with a man. As it happens, the tenant gets intimate with both of them. The way the book uncovers and weaves the desires into the narrative makes it unlike any other book that has been published in recent times.
One cannot not mention Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters when it comes to highlighting unique works. Peters’s book is funny, full of trans joy, fights, and nastiness, but it’s also a reminder of how several forms of oppression interact with each other and present themselves in front of a select group of people in a way that further disenfranchises them.
Then, Selby Wynn Schwartz’s Booker longlisted novel After Sappho is an immensely innovative book as well. It appears to be a collection of vignettes of the most iconic feminists of the past two centuries, but it weaves their stories in a manner that exposes the sexist publishing industry, remarks about women’s, in particular of lesbians and bisexual women’s, exclusion, and notes how a world that thrived on their labour was constructed, and in more ways than one challenges what a novel can or should be.
Laurie Hashim’s historical fiction A Paradise of Illusions was a tale waiting to be told. For a long time now the Eurocentric telling of World War II narratives has dominated the literary sphere. But in Hashim’s multicultural setting, queerness not only comes out as natural but also as an inevitable part of the lives of the very people that inhabited this diverse region in which the story is set in. The classic way in which she tells this story would remind many of Dickens and Austen.
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s work My Father’s Garden is an interesting, non-urban depiction of same-sex love and desire. It’s stunning how powerfully and effortlessly the book propels in its first part like an adrenaline rush someone experiences in an act of intimacy. Jerry Pinto’s documentation of the same-sex desires in men’s washrooms of specific railway stations in Murder in Mahim and capturing the existential crisis a teenager faces growing up queer in Mumbai in The Education of Yuri are examples of how queer narratives from India have moved from the “same-sex couple having fun until one of them marries a cishet woman” to a nuanced understanding of everyday queerness.
Be it How Many Countries Does the Indus Cross or Like Blood on the Bitten Tongue: Delhi Poems, a collection illustrated by Vishwajyoti Ghosh, when it comes to poetry, I find Akhil Katyal’s imagery consumable and his liminal prose precise enough to capture a moment of intimacy, loss, aloneness, and nostalgia as if it could only be experienced through his verses. But like me, many queer people would say they live that experience many times over reading his works.
A queer-affirmative shift
It’s interesting that many works increasingly weave in a character or two who’s queer. How much of this is necessary, or is forced into the narrative, can be easily judged. In Teen Couple Have Fun Outdoors by Aravind Jayan, The Anatomy of Loss by Arjun Raj Gaind, and Manjhi’s Mayhem by Tanuj Solanki this happens rather organically. Or perhaps purposely in a way that seems central to the story. And much to the disappointment of my queer friends and allies, I believe that any writer should freely write whatever they want to write about.
The only thing that must be kept in mind is what Shehan Karunatilaka noted in an interview with me for Deccan Herald – that “you do it with empathy, respect, and skill. The idea of fiction is to inhabit the minds of other beings, for both the reader and the writer. But if you do it lazily or offensively, you should be ready for the flak.” In that sense, it’d be a disservice to not include and celebrate the above books, and Karunatilaka’s The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida and Tomb of Sand, written by Geetanjali Shree as Ret Samadhi in Hindi and translated by Daisy Rockwell in this queer-affirmative shift. It’s noteworthy that both put South Asian narratives on the global map, created a stir by kickstarting meaningful conversations that compel the publishing industry to look towards the global south, and, of course, won major awards – the former won the Booker Prize, and the latter won the International Booker Prize and the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.
The many hues of queer literature
What excites me most, however, is not these awards or the visibility that queer works are attracting, but the immensely talented writers writing queer-themed books for young readers. Works like Me, My Dad and the End of the Rainbow, written by Benjamin Dean and illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat, Ritu weds Chandni, written and illustrated by Ameya Narvankar, The Many Colours of Anshu by Anshumaan Sathe, and My Paati’s Saris written by Jyoti Ranjan Gopal and illustrated by Art Twink, make me want to be a kid again and have the privilege to encounter, read, and celebrate these books. Each one is a reminder of how inherently gendered the upbringing of children is, and how wonderful and liberating experiences can be for them if their worldview is not restricted by categories and boxing of any kind.
There’s an increasing need for works like Trying to Grow by Firdaus Kanga to challenge the ableist mindset; The Right to Sex by Amia Srinivasan, which reintroduces the questions of pornography and sleeping with your students; Love and Reparation: A Theatrical Response to the Section 377 Litigation in India by Danish Sheikh, which presents a done-to-death subject interestingly; Girlhood: Essays by Melissa Febos, which makes even critical assessments appear effortless and accessible; or the sci-fi novel Machinehood by SB Divya, where even bots are either nonbinary or genderfluid. It’s paramount that LGBTQIA+ writers be supported by grants and the will to invest in their stories for stipulated and standard heteronormative structures to be shaken up by exciting books.