An extended hand, a clenched fist. A lifeboat, a suicide note. The personal turned political, the political turned personal, the person turned human, and more. Poetry, like identity, is a many-feathered thing.
Aditi Angiras and Akhil Katyal, poet-editors of The World That Belongs To Us: An Anthology of Queer Poetry from South Asia, seem all too aware of this. But the realisation that the margins one seeks to centre are multiple and messy is far from painless for any progressive-minded anthologist, let alone one of queer South Asia, home to a blinding variety of desires.
It requires the anthologist to reconcile their attempt at diverse representation with the difficulty – if not impossibility – of being diverse enough. Far from denying this difficulty, Angiras and Katyal confess to the limitations of the task at hand as well as their own locations (geographical, social and linguistic), pushing boundaries without laying claim to their complete erasure. The result is a brilliantly – even if imperfectly – diverse and self-reflexive anthology featuring more than 100 contributors (poets and translators) from South Asia.
The majority, if not all, of the featured poets are alive. Some are established names, but many are being published for the first time. They write on themes ranging from intimacy to loneliness, body to family, discrimination to resistance, in forms such as free verse, ghazals, haikus, sonnets, prose poems and rhyming poems. The poems, although published in English, originated in over ten languages, including Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati, Marathi, Kannada, Malayalam, Hindi, Urdu and Nepali.
One poem has been exempted from translation: Shakti Milan Sharma’s “Laaga Jockey Mein Daag”, a queer response to the popular Hindi song sung by Manna Dey, “Laaga Chunari Mein Daag”, which has been published in its original Hinglish form – an editorial decision that displays respect for and the willingness to prioritise the spirit of a poem over considerations of consistency.
And indeed, if one were to take a snapshot of all the poems, the emerging picture would, in all likelihood, resemble the cover of the anthology, which depicts a heterogenous set of people standing amidst foliage, peeping out like flowers. It appears to take seriously the etymology of the word “anthology”, derived from the Greek words “anthos” (flower) and “logia” (collection). It says what we know but forget too easily: No two flowers bloom in exactly the same way.
Crucially, the display of diversity in the anthology is enabled by its flexible relationship with the terms around which it organises itself: “queer” and “South Asia”.
The purview of The World That Belongs To Us being what it is, one is compelled to ask at the very outset: What is a queer poem? Is it a poem written by a queer-identifying poet? Or is identifying as queer a sufficient but not necessary condition for writing queer poetry? If that is indeed the case, then is a queer poem one that engages queer themes? What are queer themes? What are non-queer themes?
Similarly, what does “from South Asia” signify? Do poets need to be residents of South Asia in order to be included? Or can they be citizens or nationals of South Asian countries? And what does one do in cases where national identification is complicated for reasons of politics or conflict? Can regional identification, then, overcome the narrow trappings of national identification? These questions animate the anthology from start to finish.
In the preface to the anthology, Angiras and Katyal say that when it comes to such matters, they have chosen to “[err] on the side of being catholic in [their] choices, of including rather than excluding.” (This is not the same as claiming to circumvent exclusion altogether, and one might even argue that every act of inclusion is also an act of exclusion.)
This impulse informs their treatment of “South Asia”, whose purchase as a signifier no doubt stems from the shared colonial histories of countries in the region. The anthology includes poets who belong to South Asia’s many diasporas, as well as South Asians of mixed-heritage. In choosing not to fetishise ideas of racial or national purity, the anthology exhibits a deep understanding of immigration, including its complex relationship to colonialism.
It also allows contributors to identify with whatever South Asian geographical formation they please – not necessarily a nation-state – or none in particular, opening its doors to poets who might prefer alternative forms of identification. Poet Santa Khurai, for instance, chooses not to identify as an Indian transwoman or North-Eastern transwoman, but rather as an “indigenous Meetei transwoman from Manipur to stand for nupi maanbi”.
Such a capacious approach to South Asia allows for coalitions across and against various kinds of borders, including those of the nation-state – an undertaking of no small political import in the age of raging nationalisms.
Expanding the queer
Angiras and Katyal have been similarly broad-minded in their dealings with “queer”. They do not require poets to identify as queer in order to be included in the anthology. (There are poets who have chosen not to mention, in their bios, their sexual or gender identification.) This marks a move away from an exclusively identity-based understanding of queerness, which has several related and valuable implications for both the anthology in particular and queer imaginings more generally.
In addition to relieving queer poets of the burden of compulsory identification, it expands the ambit of what they can write about. On the one hand, it does so by putting pressure on assumptions about what constitutes a “queer issue”, which is traditionally thought to mean an issue pertaining to non-normative gender and/or sexuality, often at the expense of considering other, sometimes intersecting axes of marginality. A number of poems in The World That Belongs To Us challenge such a parochial outlook: Rajiv Mohabir explores queer sex in relation to race; Dhiren Borisa mourns the death of Rohith Vemula; Hadi Hussain reflects on being fat shamed as a brown gay man.
On the other hand, in not demanding queer identification from the poets, the anthology throws open the gates for what anyone, queer or otherwise, can write about. This means that queer-identifying poets are able to write about subjects that are often excluded from the arena of “queer themes” – love (unqualified), a city, cooking, eating, shitting. In other words, the book does not treat mundanity as the prerogative of non-queer writers. (This article could have just as easily been titled “Queer people get to be people, too.”)
Conversely, poets who do not identify as queer (including those who do not identify themselves as queer to the reader) can write on “queer themes” – a category whose contents are expanded to include a wide range of resistances to different kinds of normativity, majoritarianism and violence.
This multi-pronged proliferation of queerness is reflected in several poems: Gee Semmalar discusses the perils and possibilities of globalisation; Fatimah Asghar writes from the perspective of a sassy Pluto who has been demoted from planet status for being too “chaotic”; Raqeeb Raza lists the many kinds of dissenters in India who are unwittingly brought together by the label “Pakistani”.
Ultimately, the vision and force of queerness that the anthology places before us, allowing us to share in it, is one rooted in building bridges across diverse realities, struggles and publics. This is perhaps best-encapsulated in Chand’s poem “What is Queer?” which, addressed to the narrator’s mother, discusses queerness in relation to not just gender and sexuality but also caste.
“Queer is the end of structure
and the resistance to the epistemological violence
Queer is being the lowest of the low
the absolute scum of the earth
the bottom of the sexual pyramid
and somehow still taking pride in it
Queer is the galaxy of endless possibilities
situated just behind those prisons of the binaries
Queer is me realising I can be everything and nothing
that I don’t have to choose
Queer is the driving force that makes me
want to break the fetters I am bound in
Amma, Queer is me
I am Queer, Amma.”
The World That Belongs To Us: An Anthology of Queer Poetry from South Asia, edited by Aditi Angiras and Akhil Katyal, HarperCollins India.
Manjari Sahay is a freelance writer and editor.