Queer characters have been present in speculative fiction ever since the inception of the genre, perhaps because of its interest in depicting alternatives to what was considered the “normal” human experience. Most of those earlier representations were negative, often demonising, like the murderous lesbian vampire from Carmilla or the morally ambiguous un-aging protagonist from The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Thankfully, both those works are over a century old, and while it hasn’t been a particularly easy century for queer people, it has also been a century of many triumphs –more and more instances of people coming out of the closet, demanding dignity, acceptance and rights, including the right to be fairly represented in literature and the media. The speculative fiction community has progressed right along, and it’s hard to find a science fiction or fantasy story these days that is openly homophobic in its plot or insinuation.
And it’s not only the foreign or white writers who are writing these queer speculative fiction stories – many South Asian writers are writing them too. For Pride Month, I bring you a list of five queer short stories by contemporary South Asian speculative fiction writers. Some of these stories hinge on the queerness of their characters, but there are others which do not – because queer people also do other things in life, like rule kingdoms, travel to other planets, have loving relationships with their parents, siblings and friends.
Jump Space, Mary Anne Mohanraj
Sri Lankan American writer Mary Anne Mohanraj has been building a South Asian-flavoured universe spanning several planets and species, in which the humans exist in polyamorous marriage contracts. Jump Space, written in 2009, is the earliest story set in this universe. In it, a spacefaring family deals with the introduction of a new member to their fold. This story is followed by Mohanraj’s novel The Stars Change (2015), other short stories titled “Communion” and “Webs”, and more stories expanding the universe that she continues to write.
The Padishah Begum’s Reflections, Shweta Narayan
Shweta Narayan has been – over several stories – meticulously rewriting the history of India, inserting a tribe named “mechanicals” who build themselves, run on gears and heartspring, and put robots to deep, uncouth shame. The stories sparkle with well-researched detail. The protagonist of this story is Jahanara, the eldest daughter of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who remained the Padishah Begum of the empire throughout her life. It begins as Jahanara receives a French embassy sent by Napoleon within the Diwan-i-khas, and flows through multiple historic timelines towards its unexpected but tender end.
Other stories from this series have appeared in the anthology The Clockwork Jungle Book and Lightspeed Magazine. Narayan writes poetry and fiction, and was for many years the co-editor of the small, beautifully crafted speculative poetry magazine Stone Telling. Her writing is erudite and controlled, often bilingual – each story and poem being a work of postcolonial, feminist, queer interpretation of Indian history and mythology.
Lavanya and Deepika, Shveta Thakrar
Indian American writer Shveta Thakrar writes young-adult fiction laced with an Indian fairy-tale atmosphere, and fantasy stories for older readers that nevertheless retain a sense of childlike wonder. A few of her stories are based in a historical time or place.
Thakrar grew up in the US, and her stories and sensibility are drawn from the fairy tales that were told in her family, resulting in a style of immigrant myth-fiction that brings together both cultures in a way that is distinctly different from South Asian fiction from the subcontinent.
“Lavanya and Deepika” is in some ways is a retelling of the classic German fairy tale “Snow White and Rose Red” (less popular these days than the other Snow White story, but equally old, and not connected to it), but in other, significant, ways it’s not. Lavanya and Deepika are princesses of fairy-tale kingdom, and the story is about sisterhood and other nice things that break fairy-tale conventions, including marrying the prince at the end.
A Moon for the Unborn, Indrapramit Das
Indrapramit Das – occasionally writing as Indra Das – is from Calcutta, and I have read his short stories for several years before he published his first novel, The Devourers, in 2015. Earlier this month, The Devourers won a Lambda Literary Award, which is awarded in the US in celebration of LGBT themes in literature. Queer characters have existed in Das’s stories even before the novel, portrayed with a subtle, sympathetic, wistful touch that can almost pass as poetry.
“A Moon for the Unborn” is an elaborate tapestry of light and dark, which takes place partly in brightly lit, hot Calcutta, and partly in a twilit, ominous planet called Akir’s World. It is a story about many things like love, heartbreak, trauma, and faith, which a young couple must negotiate as they struggle to survive a baby they lost and other realisations about each other.
Six Things We Found During the Autopsy, Kuzhali Manickavel
The longest story (not this one) I have read by Kuzhali Manickavel was five book pages long. It is hard to pin down the fiction of this elusive, quirky writer, who once described herself as a “South Indian Experimental Fiction Writer,” but only half in jest. Her tiny stories are like eccentric gems, catching the light at odd angles and flashing them in your eye when you least expect it. Yet another reclusive writer who barely has an internet presence any more, and who is part-awkward and part-ironic in her interviews, Manickavel writes stories that are all about the absurdity of fixed definitions and identities in today’s world.
“Six Things We Found During the Autopsy” is the title story from Manickavel’s third collection, published by Blaft Publications, Chennai. I am not sure I entirely understand this story, but it’s grotesque and delightful and sad in ways that make me want to quietly weep into my pillow, and I’m sure that’s a good thing.