Where are the gay Asian literary voices?
Is South Asian LGBT literature a niche too far?
What are the perfect ingredients for the modern South Asian novel? Spices, saris, marriages, mangoes… sex? What about people of the same sex, having sex?
Gay characters - or to be more precise, representations of homosexuality - are still something of a taboo in South Asian literature. Despite homosexual themes and scenes permeating the great scriptures, tales and novels over centuries, are they are a niche too far for today's publishing industry?
How do intersecting identities of race, religion, culture, gender and sexuality play out in British publishing today? Is it just publishers who are cautious about 'controversial' South Asian characters, or are authors wary too?
In an effort to find out, I decided to put together an event as part of the DSC South Asian Literature Festival. Having focused on queer South Asian writing for my MSc thesis (and being a brown lesbian writer myself) I pretty much thought I had it nailed. I knew the books, the issues, the history, and the writers, and so figured it would be as easy as a 'screw a lightbulb/pat the dog' Bollywood dance routine.
And where better to do this than cosmopolitan London - a place with a huge South Asian contingent, a loud and proud LGBT presence, and an endlessly loquacious literary scene? Although there are a few 'famous' openly gay contemporary South Asian writers (most notably Vikram Seth and Neel Mukherjee) I wanted to bring in a whole new crop of young, sexy, up-and-coming ones - to say, 'Look they're out there, you're just not listening to them.'
Well, it turns out that's not entirely true. They may be out there, but it seems they ain't talkin'. Finding openly gay South Asian writers to take part in this event turned out to be the biggest challenge. When I contacted writers who fit the bill, some were loath to 'out' themselves, while others appeared reluctant to be ghettoised as 'gay writers' in addition to being seen South Asian ones. Whether it was for personal or professional reasons, going public with their homosexuality was a bête noire.
So now, the panel and readers aren't necessarily gay themselves, but their writing addresses issues relating to homosexual identity and desire. And I'm delighted with the line-up. The panel debate has independent publisher Bobby Nayyar, Time Out's own Paul Burston, and the outspoken feminist journalist and writer Bidisha. Spanning the worlds of media, publishing, editing, and writing, I hope that between them they'll be able to discuss how homosexuality manifests in South Asian literature, and pinpoint reasons why there's such a scarcity of gay South Asian writers around.
The panel discussion will be followed by an evening of gay stories, poems and performances from South Asian writers. They include NSR Khan who has just been published alongside Bidisha in the anthology 'Too Asian, Not Asian Enough' - a collection of new contemporary fiction by British Asian writers which aims to break common stereotypes (arranged marriages, culture clashes etc) about South Asian writing.
Journalist Faarea Masud will regale us with excerpts from her drafted novel 'The Lassi Lesbians', hot young playwright Akkas Al-Ali will be seducing us with a monologue and queer activist and poet Rohit K Dasgupta will read work which deals with the realities of being gay in India.
To top off the night, we have the legendary DJ Ritu, longstanding hero of London's South Asian LGBT night Club Kali, spinning some spicy tunes.
At a time when relations between different cultures and sexualities in the UK are fraught, it's my hope that these voices will bring whole new swathes of identities into the mix. With more visibility, we change the dominant stories. Let's have less of the iconic couple from Indian mythology, Rama and Sita, and more of Sita hooking up with a vampy Hindu goddess.
With more visibility, it will become easier for gay South Asians to come out to their families, for families to be supportive of this more readily, and for people to feel they are not alone. It'll also encourage queer communities in the UK to be more understanding and accepting of the unique struggles faced by South Asian LGBTs.
I hope a space like this will encourage more people to write, more people to come out, and more people to love. Maybe those voices might just be there after all.
Same-Same - Sex, Love and Other Queeries is on Tue Oct 18 at the RVT.