Friendship as Social Justice Activism examines unconventional forms of kinship as catalysts for change
How do people who meet as part of movements navigate desire, love and heartbreak? Friendship as Social Justice Activism: Critical Solidarities in a Global Perspective offers similar conversations.
The Queer Bookshelf is your fortnightly date with books about queer lives and loves from India and elsewhere
“The beauty of queer relationships is that the heterosexual binary of potential lover or potential brother isn’t the only framework we use to make meaning of the people we cherish in our lives. I hope that, in the next couple of days, we both make our feelings known to each other and move to a place of connection that we find generative, beautiful and non-threatening.” This is an excerpt from a love letter I wrote earlier this year. Luckily, I saved a copy for myself and could go right back to it when a book I just finished reading — Friendship as Social Justice Activism: Critical Solidarities in a Global Perspective — reminded me of that beautiful person.
This volume, published by Seagull Books in 2018, features writing by academics and activists in a variety of genres, styles and registers. The connecting thread is that they all examine how living with friends and political organising within friendship circles can offer new ways of dreaming and struggling for social justice. The book has been edited by Niharika Banerjea, Debanuj Dasgupta, Rohit K Dasgupta and Jaime M Grant. Their collective expertise comes from disciplines such as geography, media studies, sociology, gender and sexuality studies, and they have been involved in grassroots activism as well as policy-making apart from producing scholarship and teaching.
Why did this book remind me of my love letter? Well, this is what I wrote in it: “You are someone whose presence I really enjoy, someone I respect for the work they do in the world, someone I want to be friends with for a long long time, someone I might be falling in love with. I know you rejoice in our shared politics and the values they embody, and care about me, but I don’t know how you feel about me and about us.” A collaborative piece by Mary Adkins-Cartee and Karni Pal Bhati, which features in this book, explores the role of attraction in friendships and the possibility of conceiving alternative ways of being. This involves taking the risk to be led by one’s heart, to be drawn to someone’s intellect or idealism, and to resist being guided by reason when it comes to relationships.
In their introduction to the book, the editors lay out the scope of this unique publication. They are interested in how building a life structured around friendships can disrupt the heteronormative codes of family and marriage. They wish to document how unconventional forms of kinship inform social justice work and how people who meet as part of movements navigate desire, love and heartbreak. They are keen to show how misfits, imposters and border-crossers survive and thrive by claiming the fierce power of friendship in their lives. It isn’t all hunky-dory; it does get messy. Read the book to find out.
Let’s go back to that love letter I was sharing about. “What I find absolutely adorable is that, when I think of you, it’s the splendour of your being that lights up my heart. And I haven’t encountered, even once, the desire to make you mine in a way that would somehow shrink you into a scripted way of relating to me...I just want you to know that I love you, and the meaning of that is something I’m happy to discover with you.” Leaning into uncertainty with acceptance, even poise at times, is a gift that queerness has given me. Queer folx know what it means to be rejected not only by potential lovers and beloveds but by family, employers, colleagues, once-upon-a-time friends and society at large. Victimhood bleeds into resilience.
In an untitled piece that features in this book, Alexis Pauline Gumbs reminds us that “the black feminist lesbian warrior poet” Audre Lorde used to send small gifts, especially from her tax returns, to her “sister and brother comrades” to support their literary and activist pursuits. Gumbs has been fortunate to enjoy the friendship of many people who have supported her in similar ways, and this support has meant more than monetary assistance. She writes, “These are people whose existence helps me to love the revolutionary parts of myself and whose very presence on the planet is a cause of joy and celebration for me.”
In these times when mental health mantras about self-care and boundary-setting are flying thick and fast not only in intimate conversations but also on social media, we need to pause and think about whether these practices help us recognise our interconnectedness or if they simply push us to build walls. Does disconnecting for a while help us replenish our energies, or does it only make us consume mindlessly because we are slaves to capitalism? Are we afraid to share our emotional lives with people we seek political alliances with?
This book includes a collaborative essay titled Con Vivere: Friendship as the Means to Live Fully written by Nila Kamol Krishnan Gupta and Shamira A Meghani, who celebrate the act of cooking for friends and sharing food they prepared together around big tables usually in the privacy of someone’s home. Being in company with other queer folx of colour who were scholars, activists and allies not only helped them rediscover inherited tastes and flavours but also got them to talk about how this inheritance sat in relation to their commitments to animal rights and environmental food politics. The domestic setting of the kitchen also became a space to strategise about initiatives to challenge patriarchal violence and racial injustice.
Since friendship as a concept is so fluid, expansive and ambiguously defined, it is wonderful to see each writer in this book spell out what they mean by it. Susan Raffo, in an essay titled What Happens in My Body When I Choose You, writes, “Friendship isn’t a single state — it’s a continuum, a process, a biological reality. My neighbour’s cousin who ‘friended’ me on Facebook because she likes craniosacral therapy is a friend in the light sense: there is some kind of intimacy exchanged, a feeling of connection that is meaningful to her...she reached out with a virtual tap and we are connected.”
This friendship is simply based on mutual interests and there is much less at stake than with the friends that Raffo does not hide from — the tiny number of people she depends on for having her back in the long term. She relies on them to remember her family story and refer to it. These are people for whom her life and her existence matters — “no matter how shitty I am, no matter how many mistakes I make, no matter how pissed off they get at me,” she says. This kind of friendship means “staying in for the hard work and not leaving unless it is dangerous to your body to remain,” and it happens when, “at the most cellular level, I become part of you and you of me.”
Do you have such friends? How does this level of closeness make you feel? I imagine that the sort of friendship Raffo has described here could evoke a range of responses. There are people who yearn for this quality of connection, and there are people who find it extremely unhealthy. Of course, these are not the only two responses. My point is that, instead of judging people for what they seek in friendships, we can learn how different people have different needs. If you are someone who makes a strict distinction between the personal and the professional, the idea of dating a colleague might sound like a complete no-no. However, it is helpful to know that there are people who produce their best work only in spaces where they are surrounded by friends who are also lovers, thought partners and political comrades.
This book consists of 27 chapters, excluding the introduction, so it is impossible to share the beauty and brilliance that I witnessed while engaging with each piece of writing. However, I want to make a few special mentions. Alok Vaid-Menon’s piece titled My Summer in Cape Town offers a rich commentary on how the researcher-subject dichotomy produced by American academic settings, with its “pretensions of professionalism and ethics,” can foreclose possibilities of friendship. Debanuj Dasgupta’s first-person narrative The Unruly Grammar of Friendship, presented as a queer epistolary exchange, highlights how friendships can be vital to recovery from addiction, especially in a country where most drugs-related offenders are white but most people imprisoned for drug offenses are not.
Before I conclude, I would love for you to think about whether all queer spaces are nurturing for all queer people. I do not think they are. In the essay Enqueerying Friendships: Radical Ramblings, Paramita Banerjee writes, “Bisexuals are variously labelled as being greedy/opportunistic and/or confused even within queer circles.” She feels more accepted by heterosexual friends who have not changed their opinion of her after they got to know of her sexual orientation. Queer people, like other human beings, find several ways to discriminate, exclude and make others miserable even when they have the capacity to understand each other’s suffering.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer-researcher working at the intersection of peace education, gender equality and queer rights
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