Trans men question Invisible Men author Nandini Krishnan's presence on panel discussing queer writing at Kala Ghoda Festival

The opposition to Nandini Krishnan’s book, Invisible Men: Inside India’s Transmasculine Network, witnessed another development on 9 February 2019 in Mumbai, where the author was scheduled to participate in a panel discussion at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival (KGAF).

Following multiple critiques by trans men featured in the book (Gee Semmalar, Vihaan Peethambar, Bittu Karthik, Jamal Siddiqui) and an investigative piece by Firstpost on ethical violations committed by the author in featuring the testimonies of trans men, a “group of individuals and collectives” wrote an open letter to the organisers of the KGAF, opposing Krishnan's participation. In the open letter, the group called upon the organisers to disinvite the author as “Krishnan’s privilege has meant that she appears at art and literature fests where she is lauded as a gender justice champion and as a gender expert, though the marginal community she misrepresents is crying out against her”. They urged the organisers, in the event that they couldn’t disinvite her, to “at least put one or more of the men who are critiquing her work on the panel to face her”.

How Not To: Trans Edition, an archive that attempts to “document misrepresentation and mistranslation of trans lives”, e-mailed the open letter to the organising team for literature events at KGAF on 6 February. Responding to the open letter, the organisers declined from removing the author from the panel as they “did not consider Nandini Krishnan as a representative of Trans Men and therefore, by inviting her to speak on the platform, they did not see her as speaking for Trans Men”. Another reason they cited for their inability to disinvite her, was that denying her a voice at the eleventh hour would be unfair and against the principle of free speech.

Eventually, after a volley of mails between the organisers and representatives of the queer community, the organisers offered to accommodate a separate session on ‘representation in queer literature’.  This was turned down as last minute by the dissenting group. Finally, the organisers agreed to let a representative of LABIA - A Queer Feminist LBT Collective put forth a statement at the end of the panel.

An hour before the panel was to commence, LABIA requested the organisers to let their representative speak either before the panel commenced, or at its conclusion while the panellists were still onstage. Speaking after the panellists dispersed would serve no purpose, LABIA added, as there would be no engagement between the author and those critiquing her. The organisers turned down this request as they felt doing so would disrupt the manner in which the panel was planned.

The panel in which Krishnan participated was titled “Queer Scapes: The Written Word”. Shobhana Kumar moderated the conversation while Raj Rao and Bindumadhav Khire figured as co-panellists.

KGAF-nandinik

During the course of the discussion, the author brought up the opposition to her book several times.

When the moderator posed a question regarding the abysmal numbers of queer literature published in India, Krishnan said:

“There have been protests about me being on the panel and about the fact that I’ve written a book about trans men while not being trans myself.  You spoke earlier about letting people in from the outside. Initially I reacted to the criticism in a very angry and defensive manner. I felt, why am I being judged in this way and why are there personal attacks against me... Because these people were abstractions to me earlier, you have friends who are gay or trans or lesbian, but then their lives — as long as they intersect with yours — do not include a lot of the conversations they have among their groups. From becoming abstractions to becoming acquaintances or friends, when someone consumes them as a reader, you want them to be humanised so that you can see them in all their fallacies and their pain and their happiness, so you don’t feel sympathy for them alone but you also feel, ‘Oh they are normal people like me'.”

This line received a round of booing and cries of ‘Shame’ and ‘Oh my god’ from the audience.

Continuing to defend her book, undeterred, Krishnan referred to the practice of adversarial readings and hinted that the criticism against her was coming from “people who tend to read in the manner that Paul Ricoeur and Jacques Derrida spoke of, deconstruction for instance”. Krishnan termed this as an attempt to “look for underlying motives that the author might have” which she felt made the reader look at the author (in this case Krishnan) as an adversary.

Explaining how she saw the mounting critiques against her book, she continued:

“I’ve realised that what a lot of people have been upset with, is not so much about the allegations of me having done things without consent, those are not really true. I am not a well-known author and my publisher's legal department would never pass anything unless I could prove my integrity pre-publication.

But I think whats hurt a lot of people is perhaps the perception that I’ve not understood them or that I’ve portrayed them in a poor manner. That can happen when maybe someone says that ‘Oh look, she has written this about you’. And these people have let me into their lives, in portraying themselves in all their fallacies, in all their beauty and in all their ugliness. And when someone says ‘Oh look she has written this’, the focus becomes on ugliness or something which seems wrong. Like ‘Oh, is this how she saw me’ or ‘She saw you as this and she saw you as that’. This again has to do with living in an echo chamber and being concerned about how the community is portrayed. But the community is not an individual and the community is not a single organism. It is a collection of individuals, each of whom are very different.”

The panel concluded without a Q&A. After the panellists descended from the stage, Mridul, a trans man and member of LABIA, read out his statement, which has been published here in its entirety:

“We want to talk about the ethics of representation, specially when we are talking about queer lives. Actually lives of any marginalised community but specifically in this context, we are talking about queer lives. The context that I mention is Nandini Krishnan’s Invisible Men. That needs to be understood and read against the larger backdrop of an increase in the number of conversation that are happening about queer lives. Unfortunately, many of these conversations are still deeply problematic. Part of the problem is that the content of the conversations is itself a lot of misinformation. Unfortunately.

But another problem is — who gets to have these conversations? Who are the people whose voices get heard and get lauded as the official voice on something as personal as someone’s gender identity? I forgot to mention in my introduction that I am a trans man myself. So, who are these people who get to be the agency, and who gets doomed to being just a poor subject? In this particular example, who gets to be a panel such as this and who ends up negotiating... to get a five-minute slot to make a contextually relevant statement?

As some of you might know, there are serious problems with the book. There have been accusations of multiple ethical violations committed by the author while writing this book and these are valid criticisms. Not just a story of someone getting hysterical because they got offended. Of course the book is offensive but it is also problematic because it reinforces prejudices and structural oppression that trans people face. And it does that in a very cis-voyeuristic way.

Since the book has come out, there have been multiple stories of the book triggering people, invasion of their privacy, outing without consent, withdrawal of critical support that trans people had, and an increase in vulnerability at work, home, other environments.

Which is scary as we — unfortunately — live in a world where trans people are more prone to all forms of violence, not just at the hands of people we know but also people we’ve just met or we don’t know at all. All of that, over and above self harm and suicide rates. All of this because of deeply held prejudices, oppression and misrepresentation.

KGAF-nandinik (1)

In that context, it pains us to say this, but it's important to: that this particular book has wreaked further violence on a community that was already invisibilised and marginalised. Everyone who is still willing to turn a blind eye to this, be it the author, the publisher or festivals such as these, is party to the same crimes and bears the same responsibility with these violent and dehumanising effects.

Multiple attempts were made to engage via civil critique with the author and the publishing house. The response has been half-hearted: ‘Oh, I am sorry you got offended’, ‘Oh, I am sorry it pains you but it is not really my fault’. This reminds me of the apologies made by those accused of sexual harassment during the #MeToo movement.

Sitting on this panel is proof that she has not even begun to understand the damage that has been caused.

As problematic as this book might be, this is not the only one. There have been others in queer and subaltern literature that have created problems. Unfortunately, the disproportionate burden of physical, emotional, financial and political labour required of those who are already marginalised, to counter these misrepresentations, is ignored.

As those denied speech and visibility of all kinds, and as a collective that has struggled hard to visibilise our lives and words, we cherish freedom of speech. Years of political engagement has taught us that solidarity is important across our lived realities. We learn constantly from others who are marginalised in ways different from ours. Most critical in this endeavour, however, is how we do this.

With that said, I want to end with two questions. One is for the organisers and one is the author.

I’ll start with the organisers. It is very simple. As someone who isn't an organiser, it is not our right to question why you’ve invited certain individuals. But as a trans person whose life has been affected by the book of this author, I would like to understand how one gets to be on a panel of queer writing. It was briefly touched upon during the panel that as queer people, we get very territorial and we react when someone who isn’t queer, writes [about] anything queer negatively. It isn’t really about territorialism. It is not about who you are but what you are saying.

I would really like to understand how the author gets to be on this panel because there is just one book on queer issues that the author has written. And that book has received so much criticism. Then how does she get to be on this panel over queer and trans people who have written books on queer and trans lives? Off the top of my head, the three I can think of are by Living Smile Vidya, A Revathi and one by my friends — two of whom are here — who wrote No Outlaws in Gender Galaxy. The last one is not strictly speaking about trans lives but it talks about gender trajectories in the lives of queer people assigned gender female at birth.

And yes, Nandini, as trans men we are people assigned gender female at birth. We are not women, we were never women, we are not women who got our breasts cut off. That is not who we are. We are men.

Second question is ...

[Organiser interrupts: May I say some something? We did request you not to make it a castigation and make it a constructive discussion about how to make your voice heard going forward.

Mridul:  Just one last question.

Organiser: We did tell you not to ask her anything directly.

Mridul: You didn’t say that.

(Booing and slogans of ‘Let him speak’ from the audience.)

Organiser: We did ask you not to castigate her but to make it about literature.

Mridul: It is about literature, it is about how literature affects the lives of those who are marginalised.]

I just have one last question for the author and I am done. Through everything that has happened since the book has released, all the interactions that you’ve had with trans men, whether they were a part of your book or not, is there something that you’ve learnt?

[Organiser gesturing to Nandini: You don’t have to answer that.

(Lights off.)]

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Updated Date: Feb 11, 2019 20:12:10 IST