*The writer is a cis-gendered queer person hailing from a historically oppressive caste/community.
A little over two years ago, a ‘straight’ friend of mine—straight people often use such qualifiers when introducing their queer peers, then why shouldn’t we?—lectured me about how the overt mention of my lover’s gender in my poem was “inappropriate” and deplorable.
My writerly sensibilities were hurt. Having known this person for a while and not doubting the earnestness of his feedback, I pressed for details as to which aesthetics of poetry did my poem not comply with?
He clarified: “I should be able to imagine my—” he stopped for an intellectually measured pause, “—premika. When you say that it’s a man, then I can’t think of my woman.”
His unwarranted opinion on how a poem should be written reminded me of this dialogue from the movie Aligarh: “You people are so obsessed with the word ‘lover’… at least try to understand ‘love’.” Professor Ramchandra Siras, on whom this movie is based, was a Marathi poet, author and linguist. He was gay too, and his idea of love was found “obscene” by the Aligarh Muslim University administration. His life was lost to homophobia, as Siras’ friend Tariq Islam wrote in the Outlook.
My friend in question works in the publishing industry. Yet, his eyes were not accustomed to the mention of same-sex love; to him, love and lovers inadvertently implied a cis-het narrative. My ‘queer’ poem came as a shocker to him. For a brief period, I considered him a one-off encounter. But, since then, having attended several literary and film festivals where I noticed the pattern among the stories that get published and observed various panels discussing literary topics, I learned that the overarching structure of mainstream publishing primarily caters to cis-het people. Or to put it more accurately: the gaze of the upper caste, cisgender, heterosexual male controls what gets published.
Sample any number of books published at a particular time by any mainstream publication house, and you’ll know what I’m talking about. What’s interesting is how this has come to be.
In an article “Who Cares What Straight People Think” on Lit Hub, Brandon Taylor, the 2020 Booker Prize finalist, writes, “This is how cultural selection works when one inhabits a culture within an overculture.” The overculture decides what must be written for public consumption. It must either be contextualized for the cis-heterosexual audience or must be, what Taylor writes, an “antithesis of straight lives.”
Taylor recalls how during many of the writing workshops that he attended, he was critiqued how the character’s sexuality in his writeup seemed “sudden” and came across as a “startling surprise” to the reviewer of his work. Should there be a prelude to a character’s arc or should the sexualities of the characters in the book be prefaced to caution the readers?
This heteronormative gaze allows the straight account to take the centerstage at all times. Any marginalized narrative—in particular, the stories of and by trans, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people—remains on the periphery. A queer story’s literary merit, economic viability, readership, and cultural value, are all decided by the barometer of the successes of established ‘straight’ narratives. It is expected to be calibrated as a response to this overculture.
Reinventing Queer Writing, Finding New Idols, and Making Publishing Inclusive
Jeffrey M. Elliot, writing about the changing representation of queer writers in literature since the 60s, mentioned that “this change is directly attributable to the influence of the lesbian-feminist and gay liberation movements…Fictive literature is a mirror of the real world. As real-world attitudes change, so does literature.” However, the literature that has come out of South Asia has been slow to benefit from the sensibilities of these social justice movements.
We’ve the illustrious works by Ismat Chughtai, Ruth Vanita, Saleem Kidwai, Suniti Namjoshi, Vikram Seth, Sunil Gupta, R. Raj Rao, Mahesh Dattani and Hoshang Merchant. Though these exemplary writers shouldn’t be blamed, they aren’t immune to criticism either. Some of them, I believe, could’ve used their privilege and influence to drive a culture of inclusive publishing. Coming from dominant socio-economic backgrounds, their upper-caste presence not only sidelined queer Dalit narratives, it cemented the accessibility gap as their stories were predominantly published in English. This limited their readership, which in turn did not help the publisher’s low confidence in catering to the queer gaze, thereby relegating them to the ‘niches’. As the capitalist’s saying goes, it’s just business at the end of the day!
Any queer-themed books published in the past decade can be compared with the formula-driven scripts of the 90s Bollywood. For example, take Devdutt Pattnaik’s books. Do we really need to prove that gods or the ‘Hindu scriptures’ approve of queerness? Many have challenged his mythological knowledge, sometimes to further their Hindutva agenda. Such controversies sell quite well! His work, in my opinion, does more harm than good. Another case-in-point is Aakash Mehrotra’s The Other Guy. It’s shocking: two men fall in love in this story and the only way they could think of living in a homophobic society is to find lesbians and marry them?
Publication of such narratives is thanks to their selection through the cis-heteronormative gaze. Shouldn’t there be a queer person in a publishing house to discuss, edit and publish queer stories? And if at all, some people think that we’re short of editors and writers who are queer, then I’d suggest that the big-five publication houses work on creating queer-affirmative grants, fellowships, workshops, writers’ retreat, etc. instead of publishing books that pander to the cis-het gaze.
Cherishing the presence of those who dare
As much as I’d like for things to change at the publishing front, I am cognizant that such hope often leads to disappointment. With the ongoing pandemic and self-serving, data- and sales-driven discussions happening among the literary circles, it’s best to lower our expectations from the publishing industry if things remain as-is in 2021.
However, there are a few champion publishers, who’re walking the talk by publishing queer authors and prioritizing queer narratives. These are independent presses, run by people with a voice and on a quest for voices that don’t have the interest publishing heavyweights. I reached out to some of these publicationst to ask them about their approach while scouting for queer narratives: What special initiatives do they undertake to gain access to and publish diverse queer voices?
Here’s what they had to say:
Arpita Das founded Yoda Press in 2004 partly to “start a list of books authored by the queer community in India and on the experience of being queer in South Asia. The intent to develop such a list was specific and crystal clear from the beginning. There was no question of avoiding or neglecting or not seeing or invisibilizing. On the other hand, all the focus was on seeking and publishing those very voices. And when the Supreme Court included so many of our titles in landmark judgements dealing with the queer community, it felt as if what one wanted to do in the first place with such specific and clear intent had played itself out in the most rewarding way.”
In January 2021, Yoda is releasing an anthology edited by Chayanika Shah on the politics of space in educational institutions in India. Maya Sharma’s new book on “Queer Life Stories from Gujarat” is also scheduled to be published this summer. With the understanding that “a law changing does not flip the switch on society,” Das continues to prioritize queer voices in Yoda’s publishing endeavours.
Cipher Press is a queer-owned, queer-run publishing house. Co-founder & Publisher, Jenn Thompson, says that Cipher “usually finds new writers either through the LGBTQI+ communities that we are part of, or via the indie publishing scene. Being part of both helps us to find work by writers who are often overlooked by the bigger publishing houses.”
Zubaan, a feminist publication house, is very clear about its mandate: to publish voices from the margins, and the way they understand margins is not only in terms of identity, but also region, which is why they published extensively from the Northeastern states and Kashmir. They actively look for writings by Dalit, queer, trans, nonbinary, minority, tribal writers. Zubaan scouts for various voices via social media, and “makes it known that we are always on the lookout for this kind of writing; whenever anyone suggests an anthology of writers to us, our first question to them is whether this is an inclusive anthology in terms of issues of class, sexuality, caste and so on. … We stay in touch with as many people as we can who are thinking and writing about these issues and our conversations teach us a lot about how to understand, receive and disseminate queer, trans and other voices. Unlike mainstream publishers, we are unable to pay advances and while this sometimes means we lose out on publishing books we’d like to, we also understand how important it is for ‘marginalized’ writers to earn, and for us that is good. Our first ‘go-to’ when we are seeking to publish new writers is the marginal voice, the periphery is actually our center, and sometimes this means being open to learning new ways to read, new ways to listen. We are not always successful but the important thing to us is that we try.”