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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Blogging: The fine art of the confessional

11 06 2011

For most of us, the idea of sharing the intimacies
of our life with a stranger would be anathema.
Yet confessional bloggers feel compelled to reveal
everything to everyone. Why do they do it?

And what are the private costs of living a life so publicly?
Plus, three bloggers explain their passion for posting





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.





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?





I came out for this?

25 01 2011

Am still laughing, having just finished reading I came out for this by Lisa Gitlin. The book is about this older woman –who comes out as a lesbian at 47. She is madly in love with someone called Terri. But Terri is too busy delighting in temporary multiple relationships, and having been ‘through” the author,  has fast moved on. The book  traces the author’s ups and downs as she moves cities to be close to the one she loves and obsesses about. And all this, while not realizing that true love is right under her nose in the form of someone else. In many ways, it’s a coming out story where someone 47 feels like she is an adolescent and just can’t see the obvious.
The book is written as a diary, (where she writes awkward, embarrassing mishaps that are never meant for others to read) spread over the period of one year. It is easy to read, fast paced and full of humor. It left me with a feeling of “I’ve been there, I’ve done that”.
However the one failing of the book was, in my opinion, the lack of exploration of the other characters. I wish the author had delved into the characters a little bit more, to give the reader a better understanding of how she met the one she loves so much and the nature of their relationship before it became this one-sided obsession. I was also curious to better understand what her mother thought of her! But the book is written in the first person, so you don’t get to know anyone very well except the author!
Nevertheless, a fun light read for any lesbian starved of good lesbian fiction.




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.





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.