The Gay Novel: Passé in America, but Cool in India

The Gay Novel: Passé in America, but Cool in India

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DOMA, or the Defence of Marriage Act, is dead. Same-sex marriages are on. Not surprisingly, at DesiQ, an international conference for LGBT South Asians held this month in San Francisco, marriages and baby carriages were very much in the air. While the usual angst about being desi and gay has not evaporated, it seems increasingly relegated to spoken word performance pieces.

Local city officials and White House officials like public engagement advisor Gautam Raghavan and Mira Patel with the State Department were on hand at DesiQ, either in flesh or by video, to lend their support — an indication that the desi LGBT community seems to be nudging its way closer and closer to the mainstream rather than being on the fringes.

Being gay these days in America, in the afterglow of the Supreme Court verdict overturning DOMA, is more about celebration than anguish. That begs one question – while all this respectability and progress is great for the movement, is it good for literature? As the gay movement goes resolutely mainstream, is the “gay novel” dying as a genre?

Ten years ago when Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla wrote Ode to Lata, he says he saw it as “essentially a gay book and I take pride in that”. It had all the classic elements of a gay book – the troubled protagonist, banker by day, Los Angeles club kid by night; bathhouses; a fraught mother-son relationship, all with an added immigrant and Bollywood touch. It was, he says, clearly a coming out story for himself. “I dedicated the book to my mother,” says Dhalla. “I was basically telling her you won’t get grandchildren, but this might just live longer.”

Ode to Lata was difficult to publish because publishers didn’t know if there was a market for something that was South Asian yet gay. When the Los Angeles Times did a big spread on him, the book took off. Now there is a film version as well. Ten years later when Kunal Mukherjee tried to pitch his novel about a young boy coming of age in Hyderabad, publishers in America were not interested because they still felt it was too niche a market. And Indian and gay didn’t have novelty value anymore.

Mukherjee didn’t want his book to be regarded as a “gay book” either. “As a writer I want to write about life,” he says. “I was scared I would end up in the (specialised) little purple tag section of the store.” In the end, Mukherjee’s novel, titled My Magical Palace, was picked up by Harper Collins India. Mukherjee — who left India over two decades ago and settled down in the gay Mecca of San Francisco — had never imagined his book would be first published in India, the very country so many gays and lesbians left in search of a more open lifestyle in the West.

For example, Suri writes in an essay for Granta, “Since the idea of exploring my sexuality in India seemed so impossible, in 1979, at age twenty, I came to the US. (Though this was not the reason I gave in my visa interview.)”

This year Suri returned to India to launch The City of Devi, his first novel with a gay proatognist. He was warned against reading the gay scenes, especially gay sex scenes at the book launch in Kolkata but did exactly that. Much to his bemusement, no one batted an eyelid. “I am really surprised at how blasé everyone seems to be,” says Suri. “I don’t know if it’s an act and they are all seething inside.”

India is sensing a niche for gay and lesbian fiction that seems to be drying up in the United States, although it must be noted most of the novels out recently have been gay-themed and not lesbian. Indian publishing houses are taking a chance with books like Rahul Mehta’s Quarantine, published in India by Random House, because they are something different. Tranquebar pushed the envelope a little further with an anthology of queer erotica, Close, Too Close. Queer still has some novelty value in India, a bit of a cool factor, whether or not the sales match up.“More queer fiction has come out in the last two years than ever before. It shows society is changing and that there is a market for such books,” says Shobhna S. Kumar, who started a digital bookstore just for LGBT literature.

Kumar’s Queer Ink has already published its first anthology, Out, and is working on Out 2. “The book has been stocked in the New Arrivals section of Crossword, not just smaller independent bookstores,” Kumar told The Hindu.

Mukherjee says mainstream newspapers have had no problems running reviews of My Magical Palace. “Some reviews don’t even mention the word gay,” he says. He admits that’s a bit “appalling” since the book has at its centre a young boy on the cusp of discovering his sexuality (and his passion for Rajesh Khanna) in 1970s’ Hyderabad. When it comes to the gay novel, writer Dhalla says it’s the United States that feels a “stronger need to categorize and label.”

In India, while no one seems fazed by the content of the books, there is still a bit of squeamishness. Suri says though he was happy to discuss his own sexuality, many interviewers in India steered clear of it. “I was at a reading in Delhi and the person there kept saying we don’t discuss these kinds of things in India,” he recalls. “I told him say it, ‘homosexuality’, so he had to actually say it. I gave him brownie points each time he used that word.”

Mukherjee says he isn’t too worried about all this talk about the end of the so-called gay novel. “Perhaps they will just be less about coming out,” he says. Dhalla agrees. “Perhaps the themes will change,” he says. “We are not writing gay characters as much as characters who happen to be gay. They will fall in love just the same. And betrayals will be just the same.”

So now that marriage is becoming a reality, can we look forward to a gay Pride and Prejudice in the near future?

“There was a golden age of gay fiction. That sort of has ended,” said Manil Suri, author most recently of The City of Devi, which has a gay/hetero love triangle at its centre. “It sort of petered out in the 1990s.” In his book Gay Male Fiction Since Stonewall, Les Brooks writes that the 12-year span between the Stonewall riots in 1969 and the first reports of AIDS in 1981 is often called “the golden age of gay liberation”. Post 1980s, there was another burst of novels centred around AIDS. “The central entreaty of gay liberation was to ‘come out’ and the vast expansion of gay literature in the post-Stonewall period is in part a response to this call,” writes Brooks.

But now AIDS feels more under control and coming out feels passé, at least in literature. The movement is focussed on marriage. The classic gay novel was essentially about a sort of sexual outlaw, the misfit, the man on the margins. In today’s America, that character feels increasingly anachronistic.
 

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