TW: Makes references to and mentions of transphobia, physical abuse, casteism. Views are the author’s own.
We are all talk when it comes to celebrating Women’s Day. It is often made out to be about cis-women from oppressor castes, disregarding trans rights, queer issues and other intersectional matters of feminism.
Lihaaf is one of those rare South Asian texts that represents the identity of being both queer and a woman. Though I enjoyed this short story by the legendary writer Ismat Chughtai, I was bothered by the burden we allow it to carry in literature. Having said that, I am neither interested in defining ‘real’ work nor compelled to enlist books that locate themselves between the experiences of queerness and womanhood.
With this listicle, I try to present books that contain within themselves a myriad of experiences of being a woman. I have read these books, which is why they are included in this list. The business of recommendation is tricky, and murky sometimes. I am writing this with complete awareness of this fact. As always, this is not an exhaustive list but just a selection of a few of my favourites.
Disclaimer: This author received review copies of titles 2, 5, and 8 in this list from Simon & Schuster, the author, and Zubaan Books themselves, respectively. This author confirms that he was neither paid nor compelled to add these titles to this list.
So, here we are, in alphabetical order:
1. A Life in Trans Activism by A. Revathi (Zubaan Books, 2016)
“I became a trans woman because I had always felt that I was a woman.” — A. Revathi
A. Revathi is a prominent name in trans activism. She tells her story to Nandini Murali, whom she calls her sister from a past life. She shares the story of her journey from discovering her identity as a woman to experiencing life as a sex worker in a variety of hijra-gharana settings in Delhi and Mumbai, from being beaten for being who she is to being invited to international fora to discuss trans and queer rights.
In this eloquent memoir, she writes candidly about the need to have open and accessible conversations around sex, gender, and sexuality.
2. An Educated Woman in Prostitution: A Memoir of Lust, Exploitation, Deceit (Calcutta, 1929) by Manada Devi, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha (Simon & Schuster, 2021)
“I was not neglected, because I was a girl.”
How often do you get to read or hear a sentence like this? At least, I don’t.
Manada Devi’s the author, comes from an affluent, oppressor caste, Bengali family. In an unfree India, she writes about being ‘free’ in a way many might not relate with. Her desires made her leave home at the age of 15, which she later repents. After becoming a prostitute, initially out of economic destitution and later out of choice, her life changes drastically. From being a rebellious teenager who’d give in easily to her desires, she learns to woo ‘babus’ and becomes one of the most sought-after prostitutes in 1920s Bengal.
Manada Devi’s identity is contested. Many say—and even the translator, Arunava Sinha, agrees—that this book may be “primarily a commercially-oriented venture,” but it’s arguably a text of historical and sociological importance. It is also one of the most engaging and naturally flowing texts I’ve read, but it ends abruptly when you want more of it. Why does it happen? For that, there could be several explanations, many of which are in this book for you to consider.
3. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (Hamish Hamilton, 2019)
Around 2019, I began noticing the craft that goes into writing. Around the same time, I discovered a work of fiction that executed it seamlessly: the book was Girl, Woman, Other.
With this book, Evaristo became the first Black woman ever to win the Booker Prize. Evaristo’s characters in this book, 12 in all, are related to each other. The story is a rich tapestry of intergenerational stories about their upbringing, desires, as well as racial & gender politics. This book is one of the few that reimagines the way we discuss race, feminism, womanhood, inclusivity, and culture.
4. From Transgender to Transhuman: A Manifesto on the Freedom of Form by Martine Rothblatt (Martine Rothblatt, 2011)
First off, I am not through with this book yet. I have but read a single chapter that delves into the gender-bias faced by professional sportspersons. It was a compelling read and it piqued my interest enough to want to read the whole book.
This book reminds me of Dutee Chand’s story of coming out to the country she represents as an athlete. I had written about her fight against institutional bullying because of sports authorities’ new ‘testosterone rule’. In one of the chapters in this book, Rothblatt touches upon a similar theme and reimagines a world where there’s no distinction based on sex. She writes: “In a world free from the apartheid of sex, there would be no sex testing because there would be no sex-segregated athletic competition.” She argues that such segregations are maintained “to avoid male humiliation at losing to women.”
5. Principles of Prediction by Anushka Jasraj (Context, an imprint of Westland, 2020)
The only short-story collection in this list, Principles of Prediction is exceptionally curated by two-time winner of the Asia-region Commonwealth Short Story Prize, Anushka Jasraj.
Her prose is chiseled and the stories present a myriad of possibilities for its readers to consider. Several of Jasraj’s characters exhibit non-heteronormative desires. You could call them anything but straight. I am delighted that the characters in this book go beyond the ‘lesbian,’ ‘gay,’ ‘queer’ tropes. By avoiding the compulsion to box characters and their desires, she not only exhibits her understanding of the vastness of queer experiences but also carries forward the baton of fiction in queer writing—which for me, at least in the Indian context, has remained fairly limited thus far.
6. Samira and Samir by Siba Shakib (Arrow Books, 2005).
Siba Shakib dons several hats, but essentially, she is a storyteller. And a remarkable one at that.
Samira and Samir happens to be one of my first reads. It introduced me to the story of a woman in Afghanistan who was brought up as a man by her father. Later, she explores her desire for a man and yearns to become his wife.
Having learned the arts and crafts that are considered masculine in the traditional sense of the word, Samira is conflicted about leaving her identity as Samir to form a union with her love. With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that it’s a book that discusses the cost of freedom a person is willing to bear to fulfill their desires.
7. The Lonely City by Olivia Laing (Picador, 2016).
Loneliness, writes Laing, “run[s] deep in the fabric of a person.” I read this in the summary of an article on Brain Pickings and was drawn to read the book.
Before the countrywide lockdown was announced in March 2020 to contain the spread of coronavirus, I read Lonely City. Although I was in Dehradun surrounded by friends, I was going through a phase of questioning and a uniquely lonely time. It’s the queer underpinnings of this book that drew me toward it, rather than its (false) motivation, as evident from the title, to ‘explain’ urban loneliness. I, anyway, wasn’t looking for anything preachy when I bought this book some two years ago, when I was depressed. All I wanted was to surround myself with books, and what better than an engaging text, recommended by none other than Maria Popov.
Laing’s interest in arts was piqued by observing Edward Hopper’s paintings. She gravitated toward them and couldn’t help but locate the clarity of lonely characters in it. As a product of urban loneliness myself, I am interested in knowing and reading about its many forms, discussing art and isolation, and this book exceeded my expectations. That would explain why it has a place in this list.
8. Unruly Visions: The Aesthetic Practices of Queer Diaspora by Gayatri Gopinath (Zubaan Books, 2019).
2 years ago, I had reviewed this book for Feminism in India. A scholarly work by Gayatri Gopinath, Unruly Visions “is a quest to study, evaluate, and meditate upon queer studies and diasporic areas through different avenues of visual culture—movies, texts, photography, etc.”
In her work, “[t]his queer excavation of the past does not seek to identify or mourn lost origins; nor do queer visual aesthetic practices necessarily aim at visibility or coherence.” Gopinath draws immense pleasure from this curation of sorts: to care, not to heal, and presents to its reader a visual culture that makes even the most ‘everyday’ things exciting by elevating their relevance and revaluing them by “associating their past in the reading of their present form.”