On Vidupattavai and the space that queer voices are claiming for themselves in Tamil literature
Gireesh's Vidupattavai is the latest addition to Tamil literature's growing stories about and by queer people | #FirstCulture
Sitting on a chair in a hall that can hold up to 50 people on a laid-back Sunday morning, Gireesh recites the poem in Tamil – the intensity of it reverberating all over.
You all are well seated, occupied with work.
I have 50 steps, to cross you
and reach the lavatory
I am engrossed, unceasingly;
Keenly paying attention to you.
When you take your seat,
When you laugh,
When you speak,
I am engrossed, unceasingly;
Keenly paying attention to you.
From you I am trying to master
Walk the walk like a man
Take the seat like a man
Talk the talk
Laugh out the laugh
…Like a man
This time I will definitely
Walk like a man
These Fifty steps
I walk for fifty twisted hours
gathering all my energy
I walk the man walk
My hands shouldn’t swing
My back shouldn’t sway
My feet should step forward ‘straight’
I almost reached the doors
With a triumphant smile
I push the glass door, where
I see in reflections;
you all are laughing behind me
Again, I miserably failed
(Translated by Sheiji Tadokoro)
This poem from Vidupattavai (The Leftouts) – a collection of writings by Gireesh – could just be the first of its kind in the Tamil literary space.
Vidupattavai doesn’t fall under any particular genre; it has poems, short stories, and responses to homophobia in the society and media. From being fatigued by social notions to challenging caste structures within the queer community, it explores a wide range of subjects.
In being so, it has emerged as a singular voice that was perhaps missing all along.
The collection has been published by Karuppu Pirathigal along with Queer Chennai Chronicles (QCC), a new forum that aims to go beyond ‘official’ documents, news reports, and research studies to bring to the fore personal narratives about LGBT individuals in Tamil Nadu. “I feel that there is a lack of it,” says Moulee, one of the two people who set up QCC, “I come across many young queer people who write brilliant stuff but are unable to get it out due to various reasons. One of the primary reasons is the fear of visibility if they are not out (of the closet). Even if they are, there is the fear of backlash. Secondly, queer writing is seen as just queer writing, and the literary aspects of it are not explored by mainstream publications. The idea of LGBT lives in the mainstream is limited, and anything beyond that imagination is usually not explored.”
LJ Violet of QCC concurs. “Mainstream literary spaces rarely engage with queer writers, and these spaces are often not safe and comfortable. We wanted to create a space where new queer artists will be inspired to express themselves without the inhibitions associated with the existing mainstream and alternative literary spaces. We were talking about the queer literature that is already available on the internet in various forms, and possible ways to publish them. Many of these works cannot be tagged as novels, stories, essays or the usual formats. QCC was a way to connect these works to a wider audience without negating either the queerness or their literary value.”
Tamil literature has had its own contradictions. In the eighth century, Andal spoke of “plucking her breasts by the roots and flinging them at His (lord Krishna’s) chest”. But when women writers in the late 1990s began to write about sex and their bodies, they had to face the wrath of men of their ilk. Considering this, it was perhaps even more threatening for the queer community to put forth their voices.
But Vidupattavai cannot be termed as the first attempt at queer literature in Tamil. “There exists literature and writings in Tamil that are written by queer-identifying authors, or non-queer authors with queer characters as the focus. It would have involved a wider research to identify which of the many expressions in Tamil literature are queer, for all of them do not fit in the many definitions and perspectives we have today. But Leena Manimekalai's poems and Kutti Revathi's short story titled Pink Vodka immediately come to mind. Also, the short story Gomathi by Ki. Rajanarayanan is both widely read in general and loved within the community. Critic T Dharumaraj, in his article on writer Poomani's Anjyaadi, explores the homoerotic relationship between the main characters, and how folkloric storytelling expresses it or hides it,” explains Violet.
Leena Manimekalai says that when she came out as a bisexual in her second poetry collection Ulagin Azhagiya Muthal Penn (The Most Beautiful First Woman in the World), she was attacked by “all kinds of people”. “Even well-meaning feminists and leftists were using patriarchal words to bully me. Right-wing outfits filed police complaints pressing charges on the grounds of obscenity and offending religious sentiments. But all that only created in me a strong desire to come up with an exclusive queer poetry collection. With Antharakkanni I changed ballads from Tamil folklore and oral history rooted in binaries into lesbian renderings. I was grinding my teeth at the notion that queerness is a Western idea. I also added Tamil translations of June Jordon’s I Am Not Wrong, which is regarded as being a lesbian manifesto, and many songs of the punk rock group Pussy Riot. While there was too much drama in terms of resistance with regards to my earlier collections, this one was completely silenced. Not a single literary or mainstream magazine carried a review. The debate was centered on the sexuality of the poet rather than the poetry. But I also wonder if the stronghold of Brahminical masculine binary authorship, readership and criticism is yet to be shaken and broken. Dalit and women's writing in the late 90s did manage to break the bones of the canon in Tamil literature, and I am sure queer literature will be the next fatal storm. As of now, I am happy with the growing base of my young readers who are largely queer. Most of them are still underground and struggling with their gender and sexual identities," Leena notes.
She also thinks Tamil literature's queer voice is still taking baby steps. “We do not have enough vocabulary in Tamil. Tamil is both impotent and ancient when it comes to radical feminist and queer writing. There should be some kind of insurgence to reinvent Tamil as a language. In reality, many brilliant people from the LGBT community who I am acquainted with are still in the process of launching themselves into writing. Taboos are too severe to navigate. When the queer community is still struggling to survive, writing and creating a voice is like fighting a war. The other major drawback is that queer discourse in Tamil civil society is still elite in nature and confined to privileged circles,” Leena says.
The transgender voice in Tamil, however, has been loud and clear for the last several years. There were books written by Living Smile Vidya, Kalki Subramaniam and Revathi A about the lives and activism of the trans-women. But Vidupattavai was important in that it could be "the first Tamil book that is gay-centric and talks about contemporary Chennai and the LGBT politics of the city.”
Violet says Vidupattavai stands out because of the way it explicitly challenges the society’s dominant and oppressive notions on sexuality. “To my knowledge, it is the first book by an openly gay person, and that is important in our contemporary political and literary scenario. This should have happened earlier, but I believe the answer for why it hasn’t happened can also be found in Vidupattavai. Our literary space is not completely free of the prevalent social values and norms. It explains how the dominant society sees and treats queer expressions.”
Gireesh, who hopes to keep writing, says he sees his works as a weapon against the oppression or violence he has faced. “When I wrote those stories or poems, or even essays, I did not write with the hope of publishing them sometime. It was difficult to contain my writings into any genre. But once the book was published, I realised that readers could engage with it. It has different formats of writing, but it could convey to the reader ten years of a person’s life. I really want my readers to see and understand this book as a writer’s oppressed sexual identity. Though of course, the language may essentially differ.”
Gireesh believes his writings give him the strength to express his voice against the daily struggles of the queer community and help him gain the hope to come out of the depression that these struggles lead to.
For QCC, Vidupattavai is no one-hit wonder. Violet and Moulee hope to make literature a space consistently available for the queer community. Next on their list is an anthology by various queer voices. “We knew about a lot of queer persons with stories to tell, who haven’t told them so far, for the lack of a comfortable space or a lack of confidence in their literary skills, among many other reasons. The anthology is an attempt to collect those stories in various forms (poems, stories, comics, photography) and to portray a slice of the queer history of what we know as the city of Chennai," Violet says. The anthology will be bilingual.
QCC also plans to hold Chennai’s first ever queer literature fest in July. Moulee says that existing festivals have limited scope. “They are not inclusive of LGBT literature. A queer litfest would definitely bring some attention to LGBT writers, and I hope the mainstream publications and audiences identify us."
The QCC Litfest will have a special focus on queer literature in Tamil and other South Indian languages, which they believe will connect with a wider audience of queer and non-queer people who haven’t engaged with it so far. Violet hopes the festival will create and sustain discussions about queer expressions in Tamil.
With that, perhaps Leena’s hopes of “reading a poem unapologetically written by a working-class lesbian hailing from some remote village” could soon become a reality.
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