I have been writing ever since I was in my teens, but it was always a very personal activity for me. It was only once I turned forty that I decided to publish my writing. If anything, my struggle has been to “come out” as a writer, since I’ve always been fairly public about the work that I’ve done as a queer feminist activist since my early 20s. Recently however, I found myself the protagonist of a sorry story of rejection, all because of a bio note, and no, it was not on Tinder.
It is a story of transphobia and queerphobia that took place in the weeks just before the landmark Supreme Court judgement on September 6, reading down Section 377 of the IPC. I am a reluctant and wonky protagonist in this story, which is not one of violence or direct aggression. No lives have been lost, or livelihoods as they are still being lost everyday. In fact, I have lost nothing, except a few hours, and as a writer, I have plenty of lost hours.
Why tell it then? Because this otherwise unworthy and minor tale has impressed upon me how much I, a mildly known writer of 47 years of age, can be still scrutinised for my words by a children’s school. It has reminded me of my years growing up, and has made me think about what young children in school must still be going through.
In mid-July this year, I was invited to be a part of the Neev Literature Festival, a literary event for children held at the Neev Academy, an international school in Bangalore. I agreed to participate and the organisers asked for a photo and bio for their website. I sent it to them, not expecting it was going to spark so much debate:
Shals Mahajan is a writer, layabout, part feline, somewhat hooman, queer feminist fellow who lives in Bombay, but mainly in their head. They have been part of LABIA – Queer Feminist LBT Collective for the past two decades. Shals is genderqueer and has worked on issues of gender, sexuality, caste and communalism as trainer, teacher and activist. They have studied literature and have conducted workshops on writing with university students, with people working in NGOs, with women returning to literacy, and queer persons. They have also published a few children’s book, Timmi in Tangles and Timmi and Rizu (Duckbill 2013, 2017), A Big Day for the Little Wheels (Pratham 2017) and co-authored No Outlaws in the Gender Galaxy (Zubaan 2015).
A couple of days later, I noticed that the festival organisers had used the photo but put up a bio that was completely unlike the one I’d sent them, one that used my given name and had misgendered me as well. It was from an old Wikipedia page that I’d forgotten all about. When I brought it to their notice, they immediately removed it and added a “to be updated” in its stead.
So far so good. The next day however, the co-founder of the festival, Kavita Sabharwal, emailed me to say she had a problem with the use of “they/them”, that it was “grammatically very confusing for the readers”. Now, I work with people around gender and sexuality all the time, and this is something that I, like many queer and trans* folks have answered many times. So I thought a phone call might explain to her the necessity of using the pronouns that we choose to. Having assumed I had gotten my point across, I offered to rewrite my bio in a manner that both explained and offered space for dialogue.
I should’ve worried about the other changes too, which were mainly in the first sentence. I figured they did not like humour, though I did wonder what their problem could be. Do you not want to expose children to people who live “mainly in their head” (so I put that back in) or those who are layabouts, or part feline? If anyone can understand being things besides human, it is children, especially younger ones. Stick to the main point, I told myself, no need to get into all of that.
I wrote a bio that was less irreverent and more explanatory on gender than I would’ve liked. But another email soon came my way asking if it was okay to delete some part of the bio: “since this is purely a children’s litfest, I think there is no relevance of mentioning this considering the audience. I think this would also keep people adequately focused on your writing for children while knowing the context overall.”
The highlighted part was all about my work with LABIA and the book I had co-authored with my colleagues. I wondered then if I should just throw in the towel and ask them outright to stop fiddling with my bio, but getting older is making me patient and I decided to see where this was going. So I responded by saying that perhaps it might not be relevant to talk about the collective but I do think it is important to write about my publication on gender.
How wrong I was in thinking we were finally done. A few days later I received a mail with a freshly edited bio that deleted the new sentence on gender (“They identify as genderqueer and use the pronoun ‘they’ even though it trips people but hope that it points to the gaps between our languages (and thought) and human experience”) and also a few others. Apart from deleting “mainly in their head”, another sentence, “In the rest of their more public life, Shals has been working as an activist and trainer on issues of gender, sexuality, caste and communalism,” was also removed.
The reasoning was polite and more than a bit confusing, stating that “we need to carry your profile as relevant for being a children’s book writer...while not leading some of the younger children to content that is beyond their understanding and that their parents may be unable to explain independently.” The email went on to say that the aim of the festival was to “bring into the discussion sexuality among other issues on which we are not inclusive in children’s literature and to treat all the issues with the due respect.”
I had by then, reached the end of my tether. I asked them to either use my original bio or the one I had sent the third time around, making it very clear that I would not entertain any changes from this point on. “I’m wondering whether my invite to your festival is contingent on the ‘acceptability’ of my bio,” I wrote.
But they were persistent, once again suggesting the same changes: “I sense that this is upsetting you and I wish I could respond differently...and I would request you to consider our request, based on the need to balance the diverse requirements of our community.”
“Relevant” is a very interesting criteria to bring up. My sporadic visits to the website of the lit fest revealed that scholarship in certain universities across the world, success, awards and publications in a variety of other subjects, marital status, living with heterosexual partners and dogs/cats, were considered “relevant” to being a children’s writer. But somehow my life, work and experiences were clearly not.
On August 15, after receiving a version of the same edits, I once again informed them that I was horrified at the stand the festival was taking. The only feasible thing to do, since they had taken such liberties, I wrote to them, was to scrutinise each speaker’s bio with the same intensity that they had mine. That everything had to be understandable to “young” children, should be “only about their writing for children” and no extraneous details of sexuality, marital, family and other status be included. After all, I added, “we all do believe in equality, or do we not?”
Their response said it all: “we understand if you would prefer to decline our invitation at this stage even though it will make all of us sad to miss a great children’s writer.” They had just been waiting for me to reach the point of no return.
The ball was in their court, I reminded them. They could disinvite me whenever they wanted. Sure enough, on August 30, the whole sorry saga ended with a final email offering “a thousand apologies” for my “time wasted”. “I hope to circle back to you next year as the festival matures in breadth and depth,” it said. “The school will also have all the senior classes filled in allowing us to develop the festivals in ways we couldn’t this year with younger kids.”
Editor’s note: Kavita Sabharwal responded to a request for comment on this story with the following:
Shals’ activism was well known to us (and probably an important reason for our invite), there were multiple iterations about her bio (but “they/them” was included in final draft), and the decision to not participate was basis Shals reluctance to allow us to delete reference to adult publications that were inappropriate for the event.
We are a childrens’ lit fest with many pre-schoolers and kids below age 8, have no commercial sponsorships, and we only requested dropping some magazine and book references that we felt were not material to her bio for the festival. We consulted some of our parents and faculty outside the organising team to ensure the request was not unreasonable and did the iterations in good faith. We are disappointed that Shals will not be attending or views our discussions with her as evidence of prejudice. We hope that we will be able to build a relationship with Shals over time. We respect her work.
Why is it important?
Why can’t I just let this incident be, I wondered even as I wrote this. It is after all, an extremely minor issue even in my life, let alone in the larger scheme of things. Why do I feel compelled to put it out in the open?
While this story needs to be inclusive of details of who and what, really it is not about them. Or rather, it is not about them alone. It is about the insidiousness of what queer and trans* folk are up against. It is about the intensity of scrutiny that “difference” is put to. No law can change that. So many of us go through it all the time. Routinely. Our bodies, our words and our expressions are continuously scrutinised by the world and each one of us has plenty of hidden and visible scars that bear this testimony.
It is about the experience of growing up while being alone, strange, different, bullied, silenced, feeling alien from the rest of our peers and it is about the intensive work done by schools (besides families and communities) to make us conform in all ways possible.
It is about the collective and individual memories of learning to monitor and control our words and our behaviours very early, of knowing that our differences are to be hidden, and still getting beaten, bullied and punished for that which we were unable to hide or control. And yes, these memories evoke an intense desire in many of us that children today not go through the same. Even when we know that they do.
Who is really being protected?
Schools that use the language of “liberalness” often mask the agenda of normativitising and use “protection of children” as the final argument against difference, much like the right wing does. But it is really the adults who are protecting themselves, their ideologies and their idea of the normal.
Dissent is important. In one of the first Queer Azadi marches in Mumbai, I had the joy of walking with a group of fabulous queer and political persons with “the right to dissent” emblazoned on our t-shirts. The voice of dissent is even more under threat today. Many dreamers who believe in the beautiful Constitution that we are proud to have are being persecuted for their dissenting opinions. Writings, books, thought, all is under scrutiny. While I have no illusions of being in any way comparable to those who are being publicly attacked, their freedom and ours, as writers, as queer and trans* persons, as whacky people who hop to the tunes in their own head, is connected.
Books, especially fiction, have always been my lifeline as I know they have for so many of us. Through our years of growing up aslant, books have possibly given us the support and strength that the world around was constantly taking away from us, when it wasn’t busy hurting us. For me, like many others marginalised and discriminated, books have been a refuge, books have been the world.
I refuse to believe that children who like to read and who were going to be introduced to my writing and ideas around it would be deterred by the brief story that my bio-note would tell them. If the organisers had read the stories I write, they’d have known how important “living in one’s head” is to the people in my books, and how even when the adults do not understand, they can try to let children figure things out and be their own persons. And so for the love of reading and writing and the fiction that has sustained me and many others, and the people who populate my head and stories, silence is not an option.