Queer is normal – Payal Dhar’s Eternal World

3 07 2011

“Well, irrespective of what anyone says,” said Noah, “Stephen’s family consists of Jan. All right? Stephen and Jan.”
[13 year old] Maya digested that. “Stephen and Jan?” she repeated. “Are you sure? They’re always fighting”.
“Absolutely sure. They’ve been together for twenty-five years or so
[…]
“I mean”, said Maya thoughtfully, “like, are you sure? That’s a funny kind of family.”
Noah shrugged. “There are all sorts of families. Parents and children, husband and wife, brothers and sisters, friends. All sorts.”
“Oh”, said Maya. “I thought you had to be related.”
“You do. You relate through love and responsibility, and a commitment to take care of each other.”
Maya nodded reflectively. “Stephen and Jan” she said. “That’s good. I like them both”.

Now, you may not be one of those people who like to read fantasy fiction. But I am. I read a particular kind of fantasy fiction – mostly written by women and preferably with leading female characters. The kind that has witches and wizards and dragons and enchanted things and different worlds. Nothing gory or bloody. Basically, books that my friends’ children would read.

I read them mostly because I lurve these alternate worlds of magic and colour; it is a kind of utopia for me. But I am also interested in how fantasy fiction is written. And while I read, I keep an eye out for characters that are not resoundingly straight. Recently, I re-read A Shadow in Eternity, The Key of Chaos and The Timeless Land – a set of books written by Payal Dhar – and was again struck by how simply and sweetly she has introduced a gay relationship and a non-homophobic world to her young readers. It is ingenious because there is no sudden and didactic introduction of homosexuality into the story and no admonitions to refrain from stereotypes or name-calling.

Instead, what you find is a gradual unraveling of how Jan shares life and home with Stephen, Maya’s Healing teacher and Noah’s friend. We, along with Maya, see the two men cooking, sharing household responsibilities, arguing about life, and caring about each other and the people around them. It is the only family shown up close – other than Maya’s own – and the most ‘normal’. And Maya gradually (and sometime after the conversation quoted above) understands and is told about the relationship between Stephen and Jan.

Gay characters are not unknown in this genre of writing, though queer female characters are rare. Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and Trudi Canavan’s The Black Magician Trilogy are two other instances that come to mind. Maya is an inhabitant of both our world and the Eternal World and there is much interaction between the two worlds. This is different to Le Guin’s and Canavan’s alternate worlds which are very different to our world in geography, climate, customs, etc. The similarity and interaction between our world and the Eternal World normalizes different romantic relationships to the Maya and the reader. The acceptance accorded to queer relationships is highlighted by the questions that Maya asks because of her own realization that it is not possible ‘back home’, which is a successful literary device in this instance. Jan and Stephen stand out for me because they don’t stand out in the story.





Becoming normal

12 06 2011

A friend living in a Scandinavian country recently told me of his difficulties in locating and meeting other gay people to hang out with. It is so normal to be gay in that country, he said, that they are difficult to find.

I found this highly amusing. What would happen, I wondered, if we actually became so normalized that we would disappear into the woodwork? Would we feel less special?

Lost in a crowd

I imagined life where you just walk into a pub with friends, queer or straight or whatever, and just have a ‘normal’ time with no complaints about people staring. Your commitment ceremony or marriage evokes the same tediousness as does your straight friends getting married now. Your queer friends have babies and you forget to visit them till the baby’s first birthday. You hold hands in public with your girlfriend and no one gives a fuck! There are few gay bars and not many gay parties (not secret anymore either), there is no need! Finding out if film stars are gay never occurs to you and coming out is a quaint thing that previous generations used to do.

Somehow, I can’t imagine my community of gay men and women enjoying that much normalization.





The sucking sound of lips

26 05 2011

“I leap to attention an inch from her face”

“the sucking sound of lips on lips, with saliva exchanged”

“she entered the cinema and felt a line of current run through her body”

Once you’ve read Rajpal Abeynayake and A.S.H. Smyth on Blue, there really isn’t much more to say. Sri Lankan English writing is generally amateurish and there is no reason to expect anything radically different from this. There are a few interesting stories in it – Marti’s and Ameena Hussein’s stories for instance. But beyond that, the critics’ views hold hold true. We can’t be expected to like anything and everything in the name of erotica and there is a reason why sites such as Writing World and The Erotica Readers and Writers Association give you advice on writing erotica.

From a queer perspective, however, Blue is interesting – it is the first time that a number of queer short stories have appeared in a collection of Sri Lankan short stories. In a collection of about a dozen short stories, four stories bring us sex between women and one describes a sexual encounter between men (albeit one very young one). Even if you consider Blue only as “fiction” and ignore the “erotica” side of it, this is significant in the Sri Lankan context, because queer desire is represented rarely in literature.

Whatever its literary merit (or paucity of same) it also raised a discussion on the nature of erotica as a genre. I have heard various questions consequent to Blue: is erotica the same as porn? Is erotica as explicit as porn? Should erotica have a storyline? All I can say is that I need a lot more sex, a lot less purple prose, a lot more finesse and a lot less description of the setting for it to be erotica.

‘Scorching’ the publishers claim it to be. The wrong adjective I think.





The Dish Campaign

25 02 2011

Dear Owner of the Elliptical Reflector Dish,

Congratulations. You must be feeling quite smug now!

I am writing to ask if you can tell us where to buy this Dish? It seems such a good idea!

I am not sure, of course, that we can use it regularly here in Sri Lanka. Our problem is a little different to yours. Most women who have sex with other women can’t make any noise, leave alone a gasp and a screech. Either they are living with their family, in which case, sex is really silent. Or they are boarded in someone else’s house, which is not very different from living at home at the end of the day. Which leaves a few lucky women with their own space who still have to be mindful of the neighbours. And believe me, those neighbours will dislike the screaming for an entirely different reason than you did.

So you can see now why I am asking for information about this Dish. How wonderful it would be to use Elliptical Reflector Dishes, at some pre-arranged time with all the other women who can’t sigh, gasp and scream loudly during sex. We could just flood, flood the country with the noise of women having sex with each other. Sigh.

Sincerely,

Vak





Since when did the lesbians colonise merging?

10 02 2011

I am constantly struck by how self-obsessed we are as a community, we lesbians. This time the moment came on when I was surfing online and saw the words LESBIAN MERGING.

‘We are lesbians. We have to beware of merging. You don’t want to wake up walking, sounding, dressing like your girlfriend. It is like a sickness, this dreaded merging that happens. It kills your romance and turns you into two old aunties.’ Since when did the lesbians colonise merging?

People merge all the time. Some groups of people – children, women wearing chador, people in uniform – are forced to merge. Some aspire to it – when you are a teenager you want to look just like your two best friends, same hairstyle, same skirt length, same brand of jeans. Have you seen those generic young men walking around Colombo wearing their hair like they were electrocuted?

Then you become a lesbian and discover lesbian merging. You want to get your navel pierced while you are staring at it?





The infamous queen

4 02 2011

One thing that always irritates me is the lack of diverse sexual practices in our historical accounts. What I mean is, most of the historical texts seem to be devoid of anything other than kings with many wives and extra-marital affairs by royalty.

The only person of interest seems to be the queen Anula (47-42 BC). She doesn’t get much coverage in historical texts, the Rajavaliya refusing to even name her. The Mahawamsa is the only text that gives a detailed description of her and has this to say:

“After his death king Mahacula’s son ruled three years as king, being known by name TISSA. But Coranaga’s spouse, the infamous Anulá, had done her infamous (consort) to death, giving him poison, because she was enamoured of one of the palace-guards. And for love of this same palace-guard Anula now killed Tissa also by poison and gave the government into the hands of that other.

When the palace-guard, whose name was SIVA, and who (had been) the first of the gate-watchmen, had made Anula his queen he reigned a year and two months in the city; but Anulä, who was enamoured of the Damila Vatuka, did him to death with poison and gave the reign to Vatuka. The Damila VATUKA, who had been a city-carpenter in the capital, made Anula his queen and then reigned a year and two months in the city.

But when Anula (one day) saw a wood-carrier, who had come to the house, she fell in love with him, and when she had killed Vatuka with poison she gave the government into his hands. TISSA (Daru Bhatika Tissa) , the wood-carrier, when he had made Anula his queen, ruled one year and one month in the city. In haste he had a bathing-tank made in the Mahameghavana. But Anula, enslaved by passion for a Damila named Niliya, a brahman who was the palace-priest, and eager to be united with him, did Tissa the wood-carrier to death giving him poison and gave the government into (Niliya’s) hands. And the brahman NILIYA also made her his queen and resigned, upheld constantly by her, six months here in Anuradhapura. When the princess Anula (who desired to take her pleasure even as she listed with thirty-two of the palace-guards) had put to death Niliya also with poison, the queen ANULA herself, reigned four months.”

I can only admire a queen who lived the way she wanted and didn’t care for the conventions of the day. The descriptions of her numerous consorts of varied origin serve to distract us from the fact that even though she took the throne after a tumultuous time in the country’s history, no wars or rebellions are recorded in her time. We can only imagine what this might mean.





Porn you said?

15 01 2011

I went to my first porn book launch last night. Before I left for the event, I told two friends, who were not so fortunate as moi, how I was going to the FIRST PORN book launch. They were awe-struck of course – “in Sri Lanka?”

I should say ‘adult stories’ but porn is so much nicer a word, don’t you think? The word has such a seedy, sordid, lascivious feel to it. Wanton, depraved, libertine connotations. Red drapes and billowing lace curtains all around, I thought. Black and red silk somewhere around. Erotic images surrounding me. Darkened audience and mood lighting on the stage.

Instead I walk in on a launch that could have been of any other book in English published in Colombo. Groups of people walking sedately around greeting friends. No billowing drapes of any colour. Yellow lights glaring on audience and readers alike. Some small photos on the far wall. And Blue wrapped in newspaper.

I suppose the entire burst of creativity was taken up with the publication of adult stories. It is the first after all. One hopes the stories don’t emulate the mood of the launch.