From struggling with dyslexia to writing her memoir, Homeless, author K Vaishali’s journey has been a long, tumultuous one. Her childhood and youth were difficult as she struggled academically, making it difficult to meet her parents’ expectations.
“I started suspecting that I could have dyslexia when I was studying to be an accountant and was having difficulty memorising tax laws,” said Vaishali told Scroll in an interview. “I could remember all the words in the laws, but not the numbers in them.”
Alongside with dyslexia, Vaishali was also grappling with her own identity. Throughout her teenage years, girls talking about boys would often leave her feeling alienated since she never felt the same. “Not knowing I had dyslexia, and that I was a lesbian till I was 20, made me struggle a lot in school while feeling alienated, both at school and home,” she said.
Vaishali came out to herself at 19 after developing intense feelings for another person, and to her friends soon. “Most of them accepted me, but it took them some time to grow into the allies that they are today.” But coming out to her family much later, especially her mother, was incredibly difficult and also heart-breaking.
“It took me three years to come out to my mother,” she said. It was a time when they were mending their broken relationship and dealing with the past. “Somehow, at that time, I felt safe to tell her, but it immediately caused a fall out owing to which she completely withdrew and walked out on me,” she said. Vaishali did not broach the subject again for a decade was able to tell her father and grandparents only last year.
“After what happened with my mother, I only came out when I was ready to say goodbye to a family member, when losing them wouldn’t have any consequence in my life,” she said.
Throughout her life though, writing was a constant source of support, helping her survive. “Writing has been a constant companion, sometimes my only outlet to express myself safely and freely as I felt alienated at home and at school,” she said. Her memoir, Homeless, was written at through one of her loneliest phases of life. “Since I was writing it for myself all along, and it helped me survive, I thought publishing it as a memoir would help someone else,” she said.
When did you come out to yourself and then to others? What was that turning point or moment that allowed or compelled you to ‘come out’?
I came out to myself at 19 when I developed intense attraction and feelings for a classmate, and I knew that being with her would make me happy. Coming out to others has been a journey. I came out to my friends after I started this sapphic relationship. Most of them accepted me, but it took them some time to grow into the allies that they are today.
I came out to my family much later. It took me three years to come out to my mother. This was a time when it seemed like my mother and I were mending our broken relationship and dealing with the past. Somehow, at that time, I felt safe to tell her, but it immediately caused a fall out owing to which she completely withdrew and walked out on me. Because of her reaction, I didn’t tell anyone else in the family for a decade. I told my father and grandparents just last year.
I don’t think there was a moment or a turning point that made me come out. After what happened with my mother, I only came out when I was ready to say goodbye to a family member, when losing them wouldn’t have any consequence in my life. Having gone through physical and emotional abuse from my family, I never had a good relationship with them. But because I depended financially on them, I stayed closeted and only came out to them in my late-20s.
How did you get to know that you were dyslexic?
In a sense, I always knew I had dyslexia, and that was the reason I never really saw myself in careers that required me to give competitive exams. I always knew that even though I was intelligent and had a good grasp of concepts, I wouldn’t do well in exams and so I didn’t pursue science after matriculation.
I started suspecting that I could have dyslexia when I was studying to be an accountant and was having difficulty memorising tax laws. I could remember all the words in the laws, but not the numbers in them. When I searched online about this, I came across this quote by Albert Einstein: ‘The hardest thing in the world to understand is income taxes.’ While I don’t think he meant it literally, I remembered Einstein had dyslexia and so I read more about the condition and realised I exhibited many of the symptoms.
I had some trouble getting a diagnosis as the doctors needed my parent’s consent to administer the test even though I was 20 years old at the time. While I was trying to convince my parents to let me take the test, I noticed that my brother exhibited dyslexia symptoms too. Because his symptoms were very obvious, he was diagnosed first, and because dyslexia is hereditary, eventually they let me take the test.
Has dyslexia impacted the way you see yourself and your sexuality?
More than dyslexia, not knowing I had dyslexia till I was 20 has affected the way I see myself. I see myself as an able-bodied person and have unrealistic expectations of myself and get easily frustrated. It has taken me a long time to have empathy for my own abilities and be kinder to myself when I can’t finish things as quickly as I want to. I now try to be more reasonable and realistic in estimating what I can do and in how long.
Living with dyslexia and constantly masking to hide it, has created anxiety issues for me. This was more pronounced when I was in university. I’d get really stressed out and hyper before exams. In turn, this stress gave me eating disorders, resulting in a lot of weight gain around exams. Growing up, due to weight issues, I was also bullied in school for being fat. Due to lack of inclusivity in colleges for those with dyslexia, I failed multiple college degrees. Not seeing any of my efforts materialise, gave me a depressive outlook. My anxiety, eating disorders, and depression have become second nature.
Dyslexia, and the writing disorder dysgraphia, both have affected my relationships because I can easily get confused or communicate confusingly. I also can’t do a lot of things that require fine motor skills like chop vegetables or open jars, so my partner has to help me with these tasks and that can get a bit frustrating. Luckily, I have a compassionate partner who understands my needs and never makes me feel bad about needing her help.
How did you tackle this sort of existence in school, university and at home?
My childhood was quite difficult. Despite being bright and trying really hard, I didn’t do well in school. I had to repeat an academic year, and I didn’t score well in many exams which made it difficult for me to manage my family’s expectations. I also didn’t have a lot of friends since my parents kept moving cities.
Moreover, in my teenage years, most of the girls would talk about boys and that would make me feel very alienated since I didn’t have crushes on boys. Not knowing I had dyslexia, and that I was a lesbian till I was 20, made me struggle a lot in school while feeling alienated, both at school and home.
Things got worse when I joined university and couldn’t cope with all the curriculum and readings that were expected from me and I found the exam papers very confusing. Coming out to my mother in my mid-20s put me in a situation where I was not getting any kind of support from my family and at the same time, my disability made it hard for me to complete a degree or hold a job for too long. This put me in a very bad place where I couldn’t see myself living for long, as I didn’t have a way to sustain myself or any support.
Not seeing examples of dyslexic and lesbian women thriving in India made it hard for me to see myself even survive. It was only when I joined the University of Hyderabad in a course that was practical and assignment-oriented, and where I also met my partner who gave me the support I was looking for, that I could finally live a normal life.
It is quite amazing, as some say, that being dyslexic and a writer is sort of being two things that are at odds with each other. You have more than one book to your name and Homeless, your latest, is receiving critical acclaim. How have you managed this journey as an author?
Yes, it’s been hard being a writer with dyslexia because I find it really difficult and time-consuming to read and write, but as a writer, I have to read and write all the time. I am able to manage because of the passion I have for writing.
I started writing at twelve. It was a time when I was really lonely and didn’t have anyone to talk to. Writing would make me feel like I had company. I turned to writing to deconstruct my emotions and also to express myself in a safe space since nobody knew I was writing.
In my 20s, after trying to finish courses in different subjects and failing, I realised that writing was the one thing I really enjoyed doing despite how difficult it was, and that’s when I thought about myself as a writer more seriously.
It’s been a journey since, trying to make the process of writing more easy for myself. Thankfully, many assistive technologies help me write and read more easily. I sometimes use dictation software to write my first draft. A simple text processor helps me move sentences around and text-to-speech and grammar softwares help me refine what I’ve written. I still write by hand sometimes, when I want to write unhindered by the red squiggly lines of the spellchecker all over my text. Over the years, I’ve found a workflow with these tools that work for me. I feel very fortunate that I live in an age when these technologies are relatively cheap and very good at what they do. I am very excited for Generative AI to make the written word even more accessible for me and other people with disabilities.
What led you to write Homeless?
I started writing Homeless to distract myself. It was a very different book then. At that time, I couldn’t imagine writing a lesbian memoir, when I didn’t even have a means to sustain myself or a place to call home. I was writing a book just so that I can use my creative energy somewhere and have something to think about so I don’t think about my reality and go to a very dark place.
Writing has been a constant companion, sometimes my only outlet to express myself safely and freely as I felt alienated at home and at school. The time I was writing Homeless was one of the loneliest times of my life, so I constantly took to writing to feel better – and that’s how much of the manuscript came about.
After trying many things, I could finally finish a degree and get a job that I could sustain. I also met my partner at university, so all of this made me feel much more secure and free to be a bit more bold with my book and to take it more seriously.
I only considered writing the manuscript as a memoir when I bought a house of my own and I felt like I was in a position of privilege that would guard me from any awful consequences of writing a lesbian memoir. I didn’t write this book intentionally, it just came out of me and I couldn’t stop it. Since I was writing it for myself all along, and it helped me survive, I thought publishing it as a memoir would help someone else.
Having faced discrimination, if you were to choose a path for the community in terms of a priority, would you choose marriage over varied anti-discrimination laws?
I would choose both for sure, but if it has to be a choice, I’d choose anti-discrimination laws. Marriage equality would be ideal when the married couple can live a life that’s not marred with prejudice and stigma, which won’t happen till we have anti-discrimination laws.
Many queer people also face discrimination for their gender, disability status, caste, class, religion, etc. and being in the intersection of multifaceted discrimination could have a dire effect on their quality of life. Anti-discrimination laws are important for all of our community to get a job, housing, and all the other resources required to survive in this world.
Sharif Rangnekar is the author of Straight to Normal and Queersapien. He is also the director of the Rainbow Literature Festival.
This article is part of the Queer & Inclusive series.