Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Whistling in the Dark: Writing Gender (Jaipur Literature Festival, gay fiction, queer theory)

[Published in All About Book Publishing, forthcoming issue]

So what was happening at the Jaipur Literature Festival before the gallant four distracted everybody with their readings from Rushdie’s Satanic Verses?

Raj Rao and Hoshang Merchant, JLF 2012

The festival really began with remarkable observations on shifting attitudes towards various genres today and, of course, discussions on the latest trends in writing and publishing (as usual) – one of them being perceptions and perspectives on writing gender (as usual), except that they weren’t talking feminism here (perhaps not so usual).

R Raj Rao (professor of English and Queer Theory at the University of Pune) and Hoshang Merchant (professor of Poetry and Surrealism at Hyderabad University), both recognised as leading writers of gay fiction in India, came together to discuss gay fiction, queer theory, and the business of being a writer, at Diggi Palace on 20th January 2012.

Interestingly, some significant points were thrown up by both the speakers during the session: that what used to be gay writing earlier is now queer literature; that there is a difference between queer and queer theory (studies challenging social constructs regarding sexual identity); that gay writers do not find the same place in the writing circles or the society as other writers.

Essentially, the term ‘gay’ was changed to ‘queer’ since ‘gay’ was considered restrictive and left out the three significant others – LBT. According to the speakers, over time, there’s been a shift in Literature reflecting these changes in trends. There has also been a de-centring of normativity (largely heteronormativity or the belief that heterosexuality is ‘normal’ while homosexuality is not). Queer theorists the world over have challenged those assumptions.

Given the current trends, and India’s own pride parade – a rather vibrant one at that post Section 377 repeal -- it was interesting that Raj Rao should say the gay movement and gay writing are moving in opposite directions – the former towards acceptance, the latter away from it.

Both the writers agreed that gay writers still do not find the same place in the society as other writers. Merchant said, ‘It’s difficult to be noticed when you’re on the margins. I’m a writer. Why am I a gay writer?’

Rao said, ‘The fact that you’re a writer is overlooked. We’re literary scholars.’ Yet, a dilemma does exist – to assert one’s identity while, at the same time, trying to meld into the conventional stream. It was obvious from his next sentence. ‘If I say that I aspire to be a mainstream writer, I’m denying I’m a gay writer, which is also not the case.’

Rao offered the example of Vikram Seth and said that, as a writer, one should try one’s hand at everything. His statement was immediately and vehemently opposed by Merchant who declared Seth as ‘an enemy in my camp’ because he believed/believes Seth shouldn’t be writing mainstream fiction. That was an interesting moment at the venue since a woman from the audience was up in arms immediately, and more comrade hydra heads would have popped up within seconds had the moderator not put an end to ‘comments’ from the audience and diverted attention right away.   

Regarding ‘self on the page versus self lived’, the authors confessed that it was difficult to say which was more authentic. ‘There’s no “authentic”. There’s been enough platinising. We’re also playing roles,’ said Merchant. ‘Genres are foisted upon the author.’

Addressing the same question, Rao brought back the issue of queer theory. He explained that that is precisely what it is about – insincerity, projection, and skirting the core issues.

Raj Rao and Hoshang Merchant, JLF 2012
Both writers also admitted that there has been a constant element of fear in their writerly lives. It is unsurprising in those who have lived under the cloud of Section 377 for several years, first grappling with their own sexuality, and then grappling with talking about it through the medium of their script. Merchant described sitting and weaving together a coherent text as an act of heroism. ‘When I started, there were no gay presses, so mainstream publishers had to take up my writing,’ he said. ‘My autobiography was more open … I was afraid to write.’

‘Whatever has to be said has to be said in the writing,’ said Rao. He mentioned that his first short story appeared in Debonair in 1986, when he was starting out his career, and the first question he faced from a friend was, ‘Aren’t you afraid?’

Merchant referred to himself a fascist homosexual and a high-class Parsi communist, with a laugh. He maintains that globalisation is blurring the lines between heterosexual and homosexual everywhere but in bed. He was categorical about the fact that he is what he is and will remain that way. 

It is good to see more writers speaking up in the same vein that we witnessed as publishers of Mahesh Natarajan’s Pink Sheep, a collection of short stories (gay fiction) published sometime ago. One of the reviewers wrote, ‘Pink Sheep may remind you a little of RK Narayan’s Malgudi, except that the protagonists are homosexual.’ It’s indeed not their extraordinariness but ordinariness that is striking in these works. Hopefully, these writers will not be left whistling in the dark in the times to come.


  1. This post is really wonderful Divya. Historically, gay literature came out as a concerted effort made by a team of people in Mumbai and Delhi, who had been mulling over it for ages, in a book called "Facing the mirror" edited by Ashwini Sukhthankar and Published by Penguin India, when David Davidar was here in India. It truely was and is a wonderful literature on and by women LGBT in India. In any forum, men have always found it easier to be heard, women not and hence, as a woman I value and treasure FTM a great deal.

    The Queer movement and literature are not going in opposite directions - in fact, both are "activits" moving in the same direction of urging peoples and Governments, Policy makers to recognise Queer as legitimate and a basic human right to expression of love.


  2. I'm still learning from you, as I'm improving myself. I definitely liked reading everything that is written on your blog.Keep the posts coming. I loved it!
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