The Queer Take is a fortnightly column by poet-writer Joshua Muyiwa. Read more from the series here.
In any interaction with another as a queer person — from brief to life-long — at some point, I have had to meet the other person’s inner Simi Garewal. They’ve made eye-contact, leaned forward ever so slightly, locked eyes with me and asked this exact question: 'When did you first know that you were...?' My manner of tackling this line of questioning maneuvers between narrating it like the origin myth of a comic book hero, to super-normalising it, to glee at the opportunity to fine-tune the story this time around. For the longest time, as with any self-discovery as a queer person, I thought I was the only one that could do this, I thought that this ability to tell stories made me special. In time, I noticed that nearly all of my queer friends had this skill too, and they enjoy having it just like I do.
As a poet, I came to be very interested in tracing and recording these shifts in my own story-telling (and even others) across various situations. I’m also certain that each of these versions are anchored in the truth. But embellishing, enriching and embroidering them is the only fun of actually having had these violent experiences of figuring out that one is queer. But as a journalist for more than a decade as well, I’ve also been trained to sieve through this husk for the kernel of truth. It was interviewing some of my friends from the LGBTQ+ community for news articles and features that allowed me to confirm this ability for us to easily tread between the truth, lies and the many splendoured places in-between.
And in my life — as someone who loves living in Bengaluru and moves around the city a lot — I’ve met some of the best of these gay fabulists. I’ve always been drawn to them, have been afraid to actually become friends with them, but have made sure to bask in their glow.
I’ve often wondered: Why are their lies so easy to catch, to expose? Why is their deceit so transparent? What functions do their fables serve in the world?
Many many years ago, on a winter evening, we attended a play of monologues directed by one of them; he essayed all of the roles in that show. From the start, it promised to be a show that would imprint itself into all of the audience’s anecdotes forever. He began the play and then suddenly stopped two minutes in, breaking the fourth wall, and demanded his stage manager dim the lights because they were blinding him. From then on, it was a rollercoaster ride of ridiculousness. The live pianist wasn’t keeping pace, so she was chased off the stage in the middle of the play and replaced with an instrumental cassette. A stage light fell down and a costume change took so long that the music ran out. A very bitchy critic might have written, “Even if all the props of your little child’s nativity play fell apart and they bumbled through the lines, you would’ve watched a better play.” How did anyone give him money to put up this play, you ask? He’d told people he had a tumour in his brain, had Susan Sarandon on speed-dial and was besties with Julia Roberts. He’d spun things. But after this play, we didn’t need a scandal to put up a queer play. I seem to remember that we began to go more of them. I’m not sure if this is true, but in my telling it is.
There was another that claimed to have learned music from a long-dead classical singer and called a commando-boot wearing female academic global superstar “aunty” to her complete lack of recollection. There were others that swiped poems from coffee shops, and still more who added some colour to their stories but didn’t quite have this range or rigour. We, our community, has learned to add sparkle to things.
Through our stories, we are able to meander through the event to arrive at the meaning. Among ourselves, telling stories about men harassing us on the street wouldn’t be painted as just that, it would be tacked on with other layers. The attractiveness of the men was added, the beauty of the individual was confirmed and the entire mise en scene was described in great detail. Through this telling, we learned of each other’s taste and type, we were offered up ways to take care of ourselves in public spaces and we marked out the places to be avoided at all costs or visited for an adventure. This kind of complexity in telling never leaked into interview tapes. On them, the story is told with a moral at the end. The story of harassment would be left at just that level. We can all agree that it shouldn’t happen. But, what does one do in these situations? We can no longer tell each other.
While on the job, I have found that admitting to my friends from the LGBTQ+ community that I make these same shifts in telling stories of myself has allowed for something deeper in our interaction. (I’m not always sure it showed on the page.) First, they had to be called out on it. Not everyone can do this, nor should everyone do this — I could because I am the same as they are. To put in bluntly, I’ll borrow the words of a transmale friend. He said, “Put a recorder in front of us, and we can tell you a story that’ll make you cry”, but in truth, not all of our stories are sad. It is just that we — and I — have been told that sad or striking stories will get us seen. And for a community who has been hidden away for so long, we might do anything to be seen.
Joshua Muyiwa is a Bengaluru-based poet and writer
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Updated Date: Apr 01, 2019 14:57:46 IST