These Queer Poets Are Reimagining Resistance In Southeast Asia Through Poetry

Poetry retains the essence of self, who we are, whom we wish to be, what we try to conceal. Even in the most absurd and oppressive realms of our lives, resistance and reclaiming identities remains a spectacle in poetry, while finding new means of articulating the connection to self, culture, and language.

I recall Joyce in these times—”Squeeze us, we are olives”—generating a new poem for the tragic, the wounded, the abandoned, and those left unattended.

Poetry with a voice is everlasting. So, I reached out to 6 young queer poets from Southeast Asia to ask them what poetry meant to them, and how their words mark their resistance.

Performing poetry and exploring intersections of our identities

The distinction between performing and writing poetry is essentially subjective. However, performing poetry awakens words and manifests in the unique voice and tone of their creators. Seeing audiences captivated by the recitation in the flesh is a vibrant affirmation of how poetry works as an exchange between the poet & audience, one of deliverance and expectation.

Among many Singaporeans queerness continues to be taboo. I remember reading an article about the ways in which queerphobia pervades modern-day Singapore, with the country’s Prime Minister calling the demand for Gay Rights as an “uneasy compromise.”

Despite this, Ng Yi-Sheng, a gay man in his early 40s,  seems to have found his niche of ‘performing poetry’ in the city-state since 2003. He paints himself as an attention-loving theatre kid who often performs wearing “coke-bottle specs and school uniform shorts.”

Ng Yi-Sheng is a Singaporean writer, researcher and activist. His books include the short story collection Lion City and the poetry collection last boy (both winners of the Singapore Literature Prize), SQ21, Loud Poems for a Very Obliging Audience and Black Waters, Pink Sands. He tweets and Instagrams at @yishkabob.

According to him, poetry helps reclaim a path of understanding of our own distinctiveness. It is often transitional and tries to establish a balance between the predominant ideologies and the evolving. For instance, Yi-Sheng’s poem “Lan Caihe” refers to a Taoist historical account about a beggar who is a queer icon and an “androgynous [person] singing in the street”, making a modern commentary about gender freedoms in the region. 

Like Sheng, Delhi-based student and performer, Anureet too believes that poetry can help queer individuals “morph into something else” than what is imposed. For them, poetry has become a language to explain their own identity.

Anureet Watta is a poet based in New Delhi. Their works have been published in South Asia Today, the Bombay Review, Esthesia magazine, Marias at Sampaguitas, Ghost Heart Poetry journal and several other platforms. Currently they head the Delhi based artists’ organization, Forbidden Verses. They have recently finished their first collection of poems and hope to get it published someday. IG @alooreet.

Quoting Jeanette Winterson- “Poetry isn’t a hiding place, it’s a finding place,” Anureet highlights that many queer poets, including themself, use their art to flesh out their identities by breaking the barriers of language as well as the normative barriers surrounding their identity in the real world, to weave their own narrative that represents both the real and ideal.

This is in the hope that they can offer encouragement to other queer folx to explore these worlds themselves or better yet, eventually find and make their own.

Play of language in communicating queerness

We are often told that there are myriad rules for writing any sort of literature, but there’s always a way to know them and then bend them deliberately. For instance, then play with the words and overturn what they say. Many non-native English writers tend not to italicize their native words, in the present day. This questioning of language itself is a tool, a weapon for questioning everything as we know it, everything that has been taught. It makes us all reconsider boundaries and what breaking them, especially in poetry, could mean to us communicating our identity.

Singaporean poet and linguistics graduate, Marylyn Tan believes that this is “both a tool of insurrection and of comfort, of familiarity and of potential. The language we use or reject paves the way”.

Marylyn Tan is based in Singapore. She describes herself as a delicious, slutty, large-beasted, queer linguistics graduate, poet, and artist, who has been performing and disappointing since 2014. She is invested in good girls, bad queers, enabling legally-ambiguous hijinks and shenanigans, and alienated, endangered body parts. Her first child, Gaze Back (published by Ethos Books; Lambda Loser), is both bible and shitpost. The same book was nominated for the annual Lambda Literary Awards, a prestigious U.S. grant for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender works. It is nominated in the genre of lesbian poetry category, won by great poets like Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde. @marylyn.orificial.

Dwelling on how poetry reflects cultural idiosyncrasies while remaining universal in experience, Sanah Ahsan, a Pakistani poet and psychologist says that poetry has given them “a means to constructing and authoring” her own reality. Sanah’s work reflects the various multiplicities of being, while having a marked sense of distinctiveness. It indicates that her own blended identities are a mosaic. Ahsan says “poetry has given me a means constructing and authoring my own reality.”

Like many queer poets of colour, Ahsan’s poems serve as a work of both “imagination and resonance”. Ahsan hopes that her poems offer others a “space for landing as they grapple with the same issues.”

Sanah Ahsan is a Queer, Pakistani Muslim womxn, a HCPC registered clinical psychologist, an award-winning poet and all-round disrupter. Sanah’s psychological practice is rooted in liberation and community psychology, her poetry has been published in several anthologies, and has been featured on Channel 4 and BBC 2. @sanah_ahsan.

A contemporary queer poet’s efforts to write is often inspired by the need to rethink and, sometimes, revisit the vacuum of invisibility that coloured queer women and non-binary individuals are often relegated to. To be intersectional is to explore the blind spots of exclusion in the politics of identity and the spaces that they produce. To strike a line or doodle through the blended maps of culture, religion and queerness often help poets and other word-weavers to navigate the intersectionality of their history and their evolving self.

When Ahsan performs the poetry written by her, she “breathes life into it, [transforming it into] a prayer and creates room for connection”.

Poetry as a means of active resistance

Resistance in queer literature aims to create a new brand of aesthetics and emotional mechanisms that lead to new languages appropriate for the expression of emerging energies of defiance. It is fundamentally opposed as it operates against hegemonic values and status quo systems, while still seeking to build on the shoulders of the old to transform it into something new and needed. It becomes an agent of self-awareness for the culture – if not an agent of transformation – under the strain of time. It marks the early whispers of resistance in society, without announcing its intentions  out loud.

Topaz Winters remarks that poetry is not enough on its own.

Topaz Winters, the pen name of Priyanka Balasubramanian Aiyer, is 21 years old. She was born in the United States and now attends Princeton University. She is the author of three novels, “Heaven or This”, “The sound of heaven before thunder” and “Portrait of My Body as a Crime I’m Still Committing.” Making her the youngest author to be published by Math Paper Press and the youngest Singaporean nominee for the Pushcart Award. @topazwinters.

She highlights the importance of the word-weavers as they inspire and pulley real change into action. Poetry, beyond its beauty, should question our own biases, strive to reform laws. It is, after all, a narrative of our effort to emancipation, without being its sole purpose.

Writing poetry operates not only at the scale of concept or material but also via its form and presentation, that galvanizes the resistance its expresses. That’s probably why the avant-garde remains relevant in protest poetry as well as in other art forms.

Parth Rahatekar makes an effort to process visibility of queerness in performance poetry. They state:“When I say, ‘I am here. I am who you didn’t want to see’, people are confronted with the reality that they’ve tried to ignore.”

Parth is a poet and visual creator from Pune. Their work is almost always stuck in a summer haze by the sea, and explores queerness, cities, and the many ways heartbreak finds its way into all of our lives. “If my poems heal people along the way of my own healing, I’m happy.” @parthrahatekar

Contemporary Indian poetry by people of marginalized genders, dalits, queers and other activists are revolutionary, not only because they raise fresh problems, but that they explore buried and obscured themes of inclusion, societal rights, self-love and sometimes the utter naturality of all sexualities and genders.

As Parth aptly summarized it: “I have always believed that the existence of queerness is transgression…Maybe it is against the cis-heteronormativity and  it’s black and white mundanity or against the romanticizing of the travesty that is the monsoon”.

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I am an art dilettante, into bilingual poetry, learning to philosophize and comprehend spaces for differences to coexist.

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