In South Asia, queer literature is expansive and varied, and has been around for a long time. Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai’s ground-breaking Same-Sex Love in India: Readings in Indian Literature (2001) traces queer literature in the subcontinent back from the present to two thousand years ago. In the last forty years, contemporary texts have grown to include gay and hijra memoirs, oral histories of lesbians in rural India, and sex workers at risk of arrest, essays that challenge caste hierarchies in queer spaces and events like Pride, scholarship on queer communities around the country and, in the diaspora, and poetry and fiction with a focus on same-sex relationships.
In 2015, Gaysi brought out the first queer graphic anthology, which featured work by twenty-eight artists. In 2017, Moulee C and Violet LJ started the Queer Chennai Chronicles (QCC) which will focus solely on publishing queer literature, and organised their first literary festival in July 2018. Mimi Mondal is bringing to light queer speculative short fiction from South Asia. Akhil Katyal and Aditi Angiras are currently editing a first-of-its-kind queer poetry anthology, which is open to all languages and promises to introduce new and underrepresented voices.
Here are five reading recommendations that capture a small part of the infinite experiences within queer South Asia.
Dirty River, Love Cake, and Bodymap, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
In her poem “Femme Futures”, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha asks and advises,
“Where does the future live in your body?
Of Sri Lankan and Irish/Roma origin, Leah writes both poetry and non-fiction documenting and celebrating the queer, femme, brown and disabled communities which hold up individuals who have been let down (to varying degrees) by heteronormativity and ableism. Her life’s work has been to share the possibilities beyond the models of living that her family – or for that matter many other traditional family units – offered.
Dirty River: A Queer Femme Of Color Dreaming Her Way Home is her memoir about leaving her parents and their town to join her brown, queer lover in Toronto. The Lambda Literary award-winning Love Cake and Bodymap are filled with poems wrought from her attempts at and experiences of love, surviving and owning each marginalisation, and a fierce recognition that “you’re going to find the people you can sketch the secret inside of/ the world with. If you can’t find them you can sketch the secret/ inside of your world.”
No One Else: A Personal History of Outlawed Love and Sex, Siddharth Dube
In 2001, Dube wrote a best-selling book, Sex, Lies and AIDS, which covered the history of the disease in India that impacted millions. In 2015, he returned with a far more personal narrative that takes the reader through abusive boarding school experiences at Doon School in the 1960s – whose trauma persisted into adulthood – coming out to his father to whom he was very close, and the life of a gay man in India in the eighties as the AIDS epidemic unleashed a fresh wave of homophobia and hysteria about homosexuality, and cost him friends. Woven into these autobiographical sections are oral histories from sex workers and others on the fringes of sexuality, arguments for the decriminalising of legal sex work, and portraits of figures from the early LGBT movement in India.
Myself, Mona Ahmed, Dayanita Singh and Mona Ahmed
Dayanita Singh’s first book of photographs, Myself, Mona Ahmed, is accompanied by letters to the publisher from Mona Ahmed who lived in a hijra community in Delhi for many years before she was thrown out. In 1989, Singh was sent on assignment from the London Times to Mona’s community to take photographs. She formed a bond with Mona and photographed her over the years including at the three-day-long birthday parties of Mona’s adopted daughter. But the photographs were not published until Mona decided she wanted to tell her own story in conjunction with Dayanita’s photographs. In one of her letters, she says, “Perhaps with your book people will understand me better. Please make the book fast, I am waiting. Myself, Mona Ahmed.”
Loving Women: Being Lesbian and Unprivileged in India, Maya Sharma
Loving Women tells the real-life stories of women from villages and small towns as well as from the poor sections of cities. Some of them know and own the word “lesbian”. Some of them choose a variation of the word “saheli” (friend) to describe a close relationship that may also be sexual. One adopts the identity and pronouns of a man to more closely resemble a heterosexual relationship. Maya Sharma’s book allows each story to come through in all its complexity in a collection that illuminates the scope of female kinship and the role of class in lesbian relationships.
The Magical Palace, Kunal Mukherjee
Rahul lives with his partner, Andrew, in San Francisco but his relatives don’t know that he is gay and continue to bring him proposals. When Andrew finds out about the prospective matches, he issues an ultimatum – Rahul has to come out to his family if he wants to sustain their relationship. Rahul begins to tell Andrew about growing up gay in 1970s’ Hyderabad where he encountered no queer people and where a classmate was given electroconvulsive therapy because he was caught writing a letter to another boy. Kunal has written a novel that highlights how important family honour is to conservative families in India, and the repercussions it has had for the queer community.