The Queer Bookshelf is your fortnightly date with books about queer lives and loves from India and elsewhere
The mango tree outside my window is beginning to show new signs of life — a stark reminder that death is not the only reality unfolding around me. The tiny leaves sprouting on the branches assure me that the cycle of seasons remains a constant though a lot has changed because of COVID-19. The universe teaches me, in surprising ways, that death and life are not opposites in nature. They are simultaneous, ongoing, and complementary in ways that can be difficult to appreciate when we are grappling with the despair of a lockdown.
I think of hope and resilience as essential commodities, so I am stocking up. This, to me, is different from what I like to call ‘forced positivity’, which does not allow space for feelings that are deemed ‘negative’. I am allowed to express vulnerability. Keeping myself strong through a challenging time does not mean that I have to shut off my feelings. If there is unpleasantness, discomfort, fear or anger, this is what I do: I acknowledge, name, let myself feel, express if needed, and then watch it all pass. You can call it self-care if you want to.
Reading is a great source of joy for me, and I want to share some of that with you. A book that I recently fell in love with is called The Witch Boy. It is a graphic novel created by Molly Knox Ostertag, and published by Scholastic in 2017. The author lives in Los Angeles, and her interests include “cats, gay stuff, Dungeons & Dragons, and cooking for her wife.” I hope this quick introduction quoted from the author’s website gives you a glimpse of who she is. She dedicates the book to Wayfinder, a summer camp in upstate New York where she first learnt about magic.
Instead of giving you character portraits, I will take you right into that place where the plot thickens. Aster lives in a family that is governed by tradition. All of them are born with magic. Girls are mentored to be witches. Boys are groomed to be shapeshifters. They do not have a choice in this matter. The elders decide for them. Aster is not interested in shapeshifting though his parents are keen on making him ‘a man’. He loves eavesdropping on the witchery lessons the girls are getting. This world is forbidden to him but he cannot help it.
Aster wants to own his identity as a witch even though the existing rules do not permit him to do so. He has a knack for casting spells, is a sincere seeker of knowledge, and has deep respect for witchcraft. He is not fooling around. He intends to use his gifts only to benefit others. However, the elders in the family do not approve of his growing interest in witchery. They are afraid of the harsh consequences that might befall him if he walks away from the normative path. They love him but do not trust his discernment. They are too afraid to let him be.
The Witch Boy was written by an author who “grew up in the forests of upstate New York, where she spent the first half of her childhood reading about fantastical adventures and the second half acting them out with foam swords at a live-action role-playing group.” This information provided in the book helped me understand how she was able to write about magic without resorting to orientalist, anti-pagan and misogynist caricatures of witches. Recognising kinship with nature, and celebrating it in its various forms, is an essential part of being a witch.
Scott Cunningham’s book Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, which was first published in 1988, has been my entry point for learning about witchcraft. The edition that I have was printed in 2009. He writes, “Unlike some religions, Wicca doesn’t view deity as distant. The Goddess and God are both within ourselves and manifest in all nature. Wicca helps its practitioners understand the universe and their place within it...Wicca usually recognizes deity as dual. It reveres both the Goddess and the God. They are equal, warm, and loving, not distant or resident in heaven, but omnipresent throughout the universe.”
Wicca has been a source of spiritual nourishment for many queer, trans and intersex people who have been rejected by the Christian church. However, what needs to be recognised is that the binary language of girl/boy, female/male, Goddess/God, feminine/masculine can be alienating for people who do not identify as one or the other. What is also worrisome is the gatekeeping done by cis-women who identify as feminist but are trans-exclusionary in their practice. Cunningham wrote this book at a time when the vocabulary that is now available to us, was not well-developed. However, his approach seems fairly open.
He writes, “The Goddess and God are equal; neither is higher or more deserving of respect. Though some Wiccans focus their rituals toward the Goddess and seem to forget the God entirely, this is a reaction to centuries of stifling patriarchal religion, and the loss of acknowledgement of the feminine aspect of divinity. Religion based entirely on feminine energy, however, is as unbalanced and unnatural as one totally masculine in focus.” A thorough reading of this book will indicate that his approach is queer-affirmative. According to him, anyone who infuses magic with love can be a witch.
I hope this brief detour enriches your reading of The Witch Boy. It is a special book for me because I, like Aster, have been repeatedly told to play by the rules and stay safe. People do not seem to understand that security is often a mirage, and diminishing one’s own light is not a price worth paying. While I do not identify as a witch, I love the Wiccan idea of reverence for nature. I spend a lot of time looking at flowers, enjoying the warm sunlight on my body early in the morning, and the full moon that lights up the night sky. I like to stare at the sea, hug trees, and soak in the aroma of freshly ground spices.
It is no coincidence that I read The Witch Boy around the Spring Equinox, a time for witches to reflect on the changing of the seasons. The world as we have known it so far is dying, and it is time for us to be more intentional about creating our futures. Whether we identify as witches or not, there are things we need to learn. Cunningham writes, “All nature is constantly singing to us, revealing her secrets. Wiccans listen to the earth. They don’t shut out the lessons that she is so desperately trying to teach us. When we lose touch with our blessed planet, we lose touch with deity.”
Is Aster ‘allowed’ to be a witch? How does Charlie — the “girl from the non-magical side of town” — help Aster hone his gifts? Do the elders recognise the limits of their binary thinking? Is it possible to be a witch and a shapeshifter? What elements of tradition are worth retaining, and what should we let go of? You will get the answers to all your questions when you read the book, and let yourself embrace the meaning it has for you. Magic, after all, is nothing but intention made manifest. May the uncertainty of these times teach you all that you need to learn. May your gifts blossom. May you find the courage to pursue what feels right.
Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher working on peace education, gender justice and queer rights
Updated Date: May 11, 2020 12:59:31 IST