A South Asian queer poetry anthology seeks to represent the community's everyday realities

An anthology of queer poetry which focuses on South Asia is currently in the works. It will be published by HarperCollins and is edited by well-known poets and activists, Aditi Angiras and Akhil Katyal. Submissions have been sought from those who identify as trans, lesbian, gay, hijra, intersex, khawaja sara, asexual, bisexual, jogappa, drag king/queen, Meyeli Chele — encompassing all identities across the spectrum.

There is also no restriction in terms of form — songs, shayari, lyrics, prose-poems, haikus, scribbling, free-verse, page-poems, and stage-poems have all been welcomed. They can also be in any language of the subcontinent, and will all be translated into English. Firstpost recently caught up with co-editor Akhil Katyal, who shared more details about this upcoming anthology, and spoke about some of his favourite queer literature.

In your post seeking submissions for the anthology, you say that, “Gender and sexuality are not the only factors that determine a queer life.” How do you hope this will reflect in the poetry that you receive?

In many ways, hopefully.

Open the Grindr app and you'll find some gay guys asking for ‘only Brahmins’ or ‘only Rajputs.’ They need a caste certificate before a b***job. Or think of the fact that many urban queer relationships are also default same-caste ones. Why is that the case? Or that many gentrified spaces, such as gay clubs or saunas profile your class before you can enter that space, or price it accordingly to keep many, many people out.

akhil katyal 2

Akhil Katyal

There have been big city Pride Marches in India, whose organisers have publicly distanced themselves from activists raising banners against the communal agenda of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. And there have been queer/feminist voices from conflict regions such as Kashmir, who are rightfully suspicious of the solidarity of the mainland queer activists who tend to downplay the 'political conflict' in the region when they extend a hand of solidarity.

See, caste, class, religion or region are not tangential to LGBT identities, they're not last-minute garnishing; they are far more in each other’s bones, co-constituting each other. Hopefully, many poems we get will try and understand and reflect some of this; what better genre to understand that which seeps into our bones other than poetry?

But frankly, we're also open to being surprised. We don't want the poems simply to stencil all our desires but also spill over them. Write that which feels 'queer' to them. We’re hoping we’ll get there.

Your call for submissions makes it evident that you want a diversity of experiences when it comes to sexuality and sexual orientations. Do you feel this sort of diversity was lacking in the past?

See, the definition of a bad anthology is when the editors just go to their friends, and friends of friends, and ask them to contribute—where you just end up reflecting your own social pin code in anything you represent. What a sorry book it will be if it had mostly 'people like me'—Indian, Delhi-based, cis-gendered, upper-caste, middle-class, English-speaking queer poets. Dig me a grave, if that happens, and push me in.

Some of the bravest and most worthwhile queer organising in South Asia is happening outside metropolitan cities, in non-English languages, and by people who don't occupy privileged social positions. If a book is calling itself 'queer', then it better reflect everyone who's pitching in, in whichever region of South Asia today.

That's the hope. Hopefully, we'll be able to make such a book.

Was the decision to call for poetry representing South Asia rather than just India a conscious one? What motivated this decision?

Yes. The idea was to get behind queer poetry from 'our part of the world'. Our commissioning editor at HarperCollins, Sohini Basak, and my co-editor, the poet Aditi Angiras, who often works with poets across South Asia, were of the same mind.

See, amazing queer poetry is not just being written in India, so it would be a pity if we ended up only reflecting that work—considering the challenges facing queer people across South Asia are both similar and different. We have lessons and images and metaphors to learn from each other. Our queer poetry will definitely be richer together.

Different regions in South Asia, Pakistan or India, conflict regions such as Kashmir, or Sri Lanka, Nepal or Bangladesh, among others—we're different from each other but we also share the debris that British colonialism left us. This debris—along with intractable pre-modern prejudices that our part of the world still carries—resulted in very vitiated positions for queer people who are often viciously attacked on cooked-up social or moral grounds. So, let's write our poems against such attacks together. That's the idea.

Also, this is a bit of a personal fantasy for me—thinking specifically about regions in South Asia that are locked in an unending slow war, such as Pakistan (where my grandparents are from) and India—imagine queer poets from either side of the border fantasising about queer worlds together in one book. One sitting in Karachi, one in Kolkata. One in Islamabad, one in Indore. Two nuclear powered nations who rage against each other but won't be able to stop queer poems cuddling up next to each other in a book. That's also what queer poetry can do—make the 'enemies' kiss, from that side and this.

There are no rules regarding form or language. How difficult will this make the curating process, and how enriching will the final product be?

Our commissioning editor, Sohini Basak, has been a boon through and through in this regard. The call has already been circulated in English, Tamil, Malayalam and Gujarati. She has made that possible by getting in touch with different translators. The Hindi and Urdu calls will be out soon as well, besides a few other languages of our part of the world. We have started getting submissions in different languages as well.

See, this where you have to be slightly guerrilla. If we get a submission in a language which none of us editors are familiar with, then we reach out to different readers and translators that we know—or we find one—we figure it out. Some of it will be smooth, some of it not so much. But that's the point. If you're saying South Asia but getting only some IIC type English poets, then we have lost the plot, haven't we? Queer poetry is being thought, written and recited in different languages. So, an anthology must reflect that.

Can you comment on queer literature as it stands today, and how far it has come? Who are some of your favourite queer poets?

Honestly, making any large comment on ‘queer literature as it stands today’ is outside the scope of my abilities, but I will quote from some of my favourites. I often read Kyla Pasha, the exemplary feminist poet from Pakistan, who for instance, writes “for p.” in her ‘Poem on a Paper Aeroplane Floated Across the Border’ that “She danced all night and suddenly / it was all about being / loved like a woman ought / and I thought I would die / of gin and adoration”.

Also, I could read this ghazal by the Allahabad Urdu poet Firaq Gorakhpuri (1896–1982) a thousand times: “gham se choot kar ye gham hai mujhko / kyun gham se najaat ho gai hai / iqrar-e-gunah-e-ishq sun lo / mujh se ik baat ho gai hai”. Oddly enough, he is grieving the loss of grief. He is confessing to the sin of love. He says he’s been up to no good. Firaq’s life and writing, in undivided India and later on, was a complex and zany testimony to his ‘disreputable’ desires.

Or note the Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali hand-dipped in lust in his poem about ‘The Jogger on Riverside Drive’ where he notices that the “dark scissors of his legs / cut the moon’s / raw silk” and Ali is transfixed seeing him “now suddenly free, / from the air, from himself, / his heart beating far, far / behind him.”

Or the gay diva poet from Pakistan Iftikhar Naseem (1946–2011) who wrote of the indelibleness of what our lovers leave behind when they leave us, for others, or in death. “Ittefaakan mil gaya toh pooch lo mausam ka haal / kyun nahin milta wo hamse poochna achha nahin / Choom kar jisko khuda ke haath saunpaa tha Naseem / uske baare mein hamseha sochna achha nahin.” The rough paraphrase would be, that by coincidence, if you were to meet him now, talk only of the weather. No point asking why he doesn’t meet you anymore. If you had surrendered him into the hands of God with a last kiss, it would do you no good to keep thinking of him. Or Naseem’s other memorable lines such as “Kise ke haq main sahi, faisla hua toh hai / mera nahi, wo kisi shaks ka hua toh hai.” Naseem is consoling the inconsolable. The judgment of his lover has come. He’s chosen someone else. Naseem consoles himself in the certainty of that decision, even if it’s not in his favour.

These are only a very few of my utterly favourite queer poets. However, there are many, many more fierce queer poets writing today. Whether it is the poet Chandini Gagana, Vijayaraja Mallika, Gireesh LS, Vikram Seth, Living Smile Vidya, Hoshang Merchant, Dhiren Borisa, R Raj Rao, Joshua Muyiwa and several, several others. Some that my co-editor and I know and enjoy reading in original or in translation, several that we don’t know but want to reach out to get their submissions to our inboxes. I look forward to expanding my list of favourites.

What effect do you hope this anthology will have—in terms of amplifying queer voices and showing a range of experiences?

I hope it will be joy and succour for a lot of queer people in my part of the world. I hope many of them would find themselves reflected within its pages or exhorted into other, larger imaginations of being queer. I hope some of our grief, challenges, struggles, disagreements and joys find their way into these poems—all our flights of fancy and all our depths of despair.

Like all good poetry, I hope it breaks our heart and joins it together again.

I also hope that after having read the book, folks don’t go away with any simple, flat idea of what being queer in South Asia is like. I hope these poems front all sorts of things, things we’re trained to see as ‘queer’ (like that half-moving, half-mawkish coming-out poem many write) and things that might surprise us when we see them within the fold of ‘queer’ poetry. We will know this as more and more submissions pour in. As of writing this in early June 2018, around hundred submissions lie in our inbox. More are rolling in every day.

Your recent poem 'Dilruba' was based on an old television serial Shriman Shrimati. How did you identify the queerness in this everyday character of a house husband?

Dilruba of that 90s television hit Shriman Shrimati was a bit of an open secret, no? Everyone around him made fun of him and thought of him as ‘that kind of person’. He was this gorgeous big, femme guy, always shown as wearing colourful clothes, he worked as a house husband, he allegedly crushed on a neighbourhood woman but never really made anything of it, and he had that amazingly homophobic (when others fetishise it) and joyous (when we do it) signpost of queerness, a limp wrist. I was all these things except I crushed on no woman, unless it was to be like her. So, of course, one gravitated to that kind of figure on TV. He was both the object of fascination and fear, holding in his hands both an invitation to hug him and a memo as to why so much of the school bullying happened in those years. It was strange because Dilruba the stereotype could be the homophobe’s dream caricature, but in my eyes, that stereotype had its little hook in truth that I was toying with every day in childhood—which is why years later one went back to him. Here's the poem:

Dilruba: A Ghazal

I must have been nine when I first saw Dilruba,
the show “Shrimaan Shrimati”, year 1994. Dilruba,

who loved his neighbour’s wife, quite inexplicably,
’coz the joke was the limp-wristed, see-saw Dilruba.

In one episode they said he was born on 6:6:1966,
such a “Chakka”, the whole room was like “Haw Dilruba!”

The worst is I remember I found it funny, I laughed
and yet felt a dread that took years to thaw, Dilruba.

Each morning, the school ground was fifty yards of fear,
a senior had yelled, “Hey,” as if finding a flaw, “Dilruba!”

And yet they named him ‘that which ravishes the heart,’ this
was also his meaning, Akhil, just that you never saw Dilruba.

The deadline for all submissions is 31 July, 2018. To submit, read the complete guidelines here

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Updated Date: Jun 18, 2018 18:15:13 IST

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