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.

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Dear Sarah

27 02 2011

I hope you don’t mind me calling you by your first name, even though we have never met. You see, the thing is, I feel like I know you – although I don’t. I only know your writing. And your writing is not YOU but I am having a hard time separating the two right now. But that is only because I am upset.

As your avid reader, I feel like I own a bit of your writing. After all, I have read every single one of your books as well as your inclusion in Granta’s ‘Best of Young British Novelists 2003’. I have also watched all the movie adaptations of your books. I even voted for you and cheered for you when you were shortlisted for the Booker in 2006 for The Night Watch and I am still devastated that you didn’t win.

So you can imagine what I am feeling right now, having just read The Little Stranger, your latest novel.  Like all your other books, I did enjoy this as well. But I just can’t understand why you have deleted lesbians from the book! It is your only book without any lesbian characters or references. And you know better than anyone that there is a dearth of good fiction out there with strong lesbian characters and I was so proud of your work. You made me proud to be who I am. And now you have deleted us! Aren’t there enough authors out there who write about British class issues and gothic novels and scary stories? And since I am not even British or Victorian, those elements of your books are often incidental to me. But not the characters – they are what connect me to you. And you have severed that connection now.  What do you expect me to do? And more importantly, how do you intend to repair our relationship?





Books vs Movies

19 09 2010

Why are books so often better then the movie versions of them?

Have you ever noticed how when you watch a movie made from a book you have already read, it never lives up to the book version? I always get this sense. I have read so many books that were subsequently turned into movies. One of the most disappointing movies I saw that was based on a wonderful book, was Love in the time of Cholera. The book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez was absolutely brilliant. The lead character, in the book was a strong man, with determination and patience. In the movie, he seemed so weak and almost pitiful… that was one big disappointment for me.

Another film I didn’t like as much as the book was The English Patient. (Barring Ralph Fiennes). The same goes for Memoirs of a Geisha, The Lovely Bones and even The Da Vinci Code! More and more books are being made into movies with hardly any time in between the book arriving on the shelves and the movie in the cinema next door to you.

Take a look at the newer books for young people – the Harry Potter series, The Eclipse and the Twilight sagas. I can’t say much about either of these as I haven’t read the Harry Potter series, except for the first book, which I didn’t really enjoy. But I’m a realist by nature and I enjoy a different type of story.

I think the main reason for this recurring disappointment is that films leave little to my imagination. When I read, I guess I’m creating my own movie in my imagination, in a way – my own interpretation of what people look like, how they speak and what places look like. I get to decide these things. This process of imagining and creating and interpreting is so personal, that in a way it’s a creative process of my own. No movie could live up to the books in my head.

If you come across any movies that are as good as the books they are based on, do let me know and I will be sure to look them up!





All time favourite books…

26 06 2010

1.

A word child Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch is possibly my favorite writer and this may be my all time favourite book. It is the first book by her that I ever read, and I like it because it deals with obsession, guilt, human nature, time and love. It is the story of an (anti) hero – a man who works with and is fascinated by words, who is doomed to repeat the most significant mistake of his life. Murdoch writes brilliantly as always, and she always lets her readers draw their own conclusions.

Written on the body Jeanette Winterson

I like Jeanette Winterson’s preoccupations with love, loss, magic and quantum physics. But also because this is one of the few books that ever made me weep.

Tortilla Flat John Steinbeck

This review says it all.

“What it’s all about are friendships and the dynamics of interpersonal dealings between immortal characters. Immortal in that every generation has their Pilons and Dannys, and of having things that you can hold in your own hand versus things that cannot ultimately be bought or sold. The appeal is due in part to the similarities in our own lives and in the lives of others. In every Steinbeck novel is a little gift of insight. This has many.”

Also although the book is set in California, it always reminds me of Sri Lanka and people I have known.

2.

John Irving

Lets just say I love all his books – I love the bears, the sex workers, the boxers and the struggling authors that live in every one of them. He is a master story teller and wonderful entertainer. I loved The Hotel New Hampshire most of all: it made me think about the attraction of the forbidden.

Graphic novels

I love graphic novels. My three favorites are The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel, The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman and Kari by Amruta Patil. Although very different, they each deal with something close to my heart or something I am fascinated with. There is something wonderful about this art form that appeals to me. It’s like reading a movie. When I was a teenager, I read the movie “Grease” as a comic and ever since then I have actively searched for this form of writing/drawing.

Middlesex Jeffrey Eugenides

I loved this book because it made me question my assumptions about sex and sexuality. I read it early in my coming out days and it threw open a whole plethora of questions. The fact that I still remember the story line and can easily recall some of what I felt when reading it, reminds me that it was one of my favorite books!

3.

Daughter of Fortune Isabel Allende

Most times the books we read resonate because of the particular moment we read it in I think. Every time I think of this book, I remember the road to the library in Harlem and the book’s beautiful thick cream pages with large letters. The prose is lyrical; it makes you want to visit Chile, and is sweeter and more romantic in mood than The House of the Spirits. I discovered my love for magic realism with this book.

The Harry Potter series JK Rowling

I love the magic in these books – witches, wizards, beasts that talk, spell making, all of it. I like the author’s use of the many classical mythological references in the naming of things, it adds layers of meaning. My favorite book is the first one and I don’t think the entire series is perfect, but it is still a series I read over and over again, especially when I feel sad.

A short history of nearly everything Bill Bryson

If you are wondering why I am including a pop-science book in this, the answer is I am a geek. The other answer is that it is a well-written book on science and makes things from super-volcanoes to atoms to black holes seem more titillating than porn.





Three things I love

21 02 2010

1.

1. Sri Lankan food.

My idea of a greedy food experience would be on these lines:

(Yellow, red or white) rice.
Dhal with coriander leaves.

Beetroot curry.
Salmon curry.

Potato curry.
Gotukola sambol.

Brinjal pahi.
(MD) Mango chutney.

A fried egg and butter chillies on the side.

Bliss.

2. The sun (but only in Sri Lanka.)

Sri Lanka’s sun is surely one of the loveliest natural characteristics we have to offer. I’ve never experienced sunlight quite like ours anywhere else I have been – its always too blinding or too weak. Ours is really hot, yet mellow enough to lie in, especially if you’ve just been in water. I also love the colours of the sun in Sri Lanka…our sunrises and sunsets are always spectacular.

3. Sex.

Maximum pleasure for the maximum time. (Being in love helps).

2.

1. The sea/beach

I love the sea, and especially the Indian Ocean. I can spend hours just watching out into it and listening to the waves come into shore. I also love swimming in it too, especially without clothes on (some days it’s like a warm bath.) Sadly though this is not always possible!

2. My girlfriend

She may not be perfect, but she’s perfect for me. I thank god – who is definitely female – and my lucky stars for each day together.

3. Thriller movies

Especially those with some action and suspense. I don’t like horror movies even though some suspense thrillers border on horror. Thrillers absorb me completely while I escape into another world, biting my nails and staring at the TV!


3.

I realize they are all things to be consumed, so let it be known that I love looking at the sea as well!

1. Books

I don’t just love reading books. I love looking at them, touching them with my fingertips, and the ultimate – owning them. All of them. My mouth waters when I see books of many colours, textures and prints.

2. Sex

Something to be explored with the person I love. And ‘explore’ I think is the key word. But sex without sensuality has something missing as far as I am concerned.

3. Rhythm

Music and dance. They do things to me. Beautiful music, from the Carmina Burana to Lady Ga Ga sends shivers down my spine, and dances from anywhere in the world can make me feel the rhythm. I can fully understand why music and dance are part of mystical and religious ritual.





Herstories

4 11 2009

A friend of mine was traveling to New York recently and because I wanted to grab the opportunity to order some good lesbian books online and have her bring them back home, I started my search very excitedly on Amazon. I typed in the search words ‘Asian + lesbian’ but very little turned up. I then added the word ‘South’ before ‘Asian’ to the search words… but again not much came up. So I added the word ‘queer’.

This produced far more results than the other categories so I started browsing the titles and reading the excerpts. But sadly in spite of the volume of results of the search, I found very little of relevance to my life…or to what I think is representative of my life.

I tried searching other online stores as well. All of them had a large selection of gay and lesbian literature and many of the titles seemed interesting. Most of the literature was out of America and not by Asian writers. I was looking for something more Asian – more South Asian really and more Sri Lankan to be precise. That would have been perfect.

And I was looking for something lesbian – not male-centric. Comics, novels, novellas, fiction, non-fiction, I searched all the categories but found almost nothing. Two choices did come up though: Facing the mirror: Lesbian writing from India which i have read and have no great opinion of and Stealing Nazreen – a novel which I have yet to read.

Besides these two books there was nothing of real significance – and certainly nothing from Sri Lanka.

And then it struck me. We need to write our own ‘Herstories’!

That is the only way we will gain more visibility through literature. It really is our responsibility – to ourselves and to the next generation of young soul-searching Sri Lankan lesbians – to make them feel less alone and that they are not the first to be this way and will certainly not be the last.

We need to write our stories to ensure we are not omitted from the pages of history. We have to create our own language where none exists – to describe our lives and what and who we are. We can’t keep expecting other people to write the stories of our lives when we are the ones living them. No. We have to write our own stories and our own histories…and the time is now.

So I sat down and started writing…





The Urge

23 08 2009

Belly up

Back curved

Body curled

Feet up

Deep into the night

Guiltily

Far into the morning

Lazily

On too-warm sheets

In the afternoon

With round inky shapes

Long neverending stretches

In the middle of journeys

Waiting in bus-stops

Quickly quickly between classes

And again again and again

And then.

It’s over.

And now again.

The crisp pages

Of a

Many-leaved book.