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Reading The World That Belongs To Us – An Anthology of Queer Poetry from South Asia proved to me that being queer is a very personal and complex experience that defies labels.
Reading this book was both a cathartic and a revelatory journey for me. I ‘came out’, so to speak, in my late twenties. I identify as queer now, but this identity was an evolutionary process which had started with me thinking I am ‘bisexual’ and then ‘pansexual’. But, as I grew, ‘queer’ made more sense to me. It is a deeper, more irreverent, more comprehensive term that represents who I am and what I stand for. Queer is what I am, and the sight of ‘queer poetry’ pulls me in like few other forms do.
I read this book in one day, the poems dominating my thoughts at different times of my waking hours. I didn’t plan it this way, but I just flowed with the pages. What I felt was a grand mix of emotions.
After I finished reading, I realised that my mind had latched on to a few references more strongly than others. A product of a deeply cruel home, my sensibilities tend to wander into the corners where family or parents are being discussed honestly.
Which is why I loved Las Vegas-based queer poet from Delhi, Sreshtha peeping into the crevices of motherly influences in her poems, The Sonneteer Gets a Heartbreaker’s Haircut and This Is Not Yet Another Poem About My Mother. The mother’s silences and words travel through your veins and there is no cure for it. It’s an ailment that you love and despise in varying measures.
Family rejections, and acceptance said and unsaid – these stuck to my clothes almost as I read through this book. Artist and activist Santa Khurai, a nupi maanbi from Manipur, has contributed two incredibly deep poems for the collection. My Father is her moving tribute to a father she wished to have had and had actually had. The poem is a zone of conflict, composed of painful memories of rejection, and of death being the painful equaliser.
Riddhi Dastidar’s I-am-done-with-the-apologies poem, Queer As In spoke to my own reality of accepting my queer-dom, my ‘weird-dom’, and the full stop I put to explanations for the benefit of those-not-me.
In What is Queer?, queer, agender trans research scholar Chand writes on the visceral protest that that word encompasses. “Queer is the magic of the term Bahujan, I have embraced with every fibre of my being,” they declare.
Love and intimacy, naturally, find a wide-range of representation on the pages of this book. Bangalore-based poet, writer and columnist Joshua Muyiwa writes on the smells and tastes that dot the memories of our lovers. “So much these orifices register.”
Indeed; I remember!
There is so much more of soul searching in here. The simple, sparse prose of some of it talks of re-writing and rebuilding all the structures that make open love difficult. Is it only possible in one’s imagination?
But love, you know. That funny thing that we all talk about but do not agree on a universal form of? What does it look like, exactly? Smita V. declares that “People say ‘I love you’ all the time”, and we can’t but agree. We find ‘love’ – or some approximation of it? – every day in mundane questions and unsophisticated banter. Shakti Milan Sharma’s Hinglish pulls us in the same direction of thought and makes you LOL. Even as a splinter of worry jabs your heart. How do you clean up evidence of the unaccepted things that you are and do?
As may be clear by now, you ride an emotional roller coaster with The World That Belongs To Us. One emotion though, on its own, decided to cling to me and did not leave me for a while.
Sadness. Profound, as I felt it. And I embraced it whole-heartedly.
Poet and social geographer Dhiren Borisa’s Should I mourn a little longer? (after Rohith Vemula) is a heartbreaker: “would you care to note them down, should your ink be darker, your hand stronger…”
Vijayarajamallika’s Posthumous (translated from the Malayalam by N.P. Ashley) felt like a punch in the stomach. Kiran Toliya’s words (translated from the Gujarati by Dhiren Borisa) in I keep searching for a self seeped into my pores, with its determined tone of both resignation and hope. I, too, await the upheaval Kiran speaks of, that churning that will reveal all.
The poems in The World That Belongs To Us are not split into chapters or identity markers. Which is great, because what we need much less of is labelling and boxing.
In the foreword, Aditi and Akhil speak of the excitement and the steadily-rising complications of putting a book of this sort together. South Asia is home to a still-fully-unexplored variety of queer identities and expressions, so who are we to categorise them?
I appreciated this editorial humility and the decision to not dilute regional terms/names using forced English translations, even as the poems themselves are presented mostly in English. Our understanding and engagement with queer terms and realities needs to break from convenient and often colonial ‘universalisation’ and embrace language that is rooted in experiences closer to our homes.
Being queer, and feeling queer, is such a complicated experience. You cannot separate yourself from the words you are reading, while at the same time, you mourn for or laugh with these persons offering you their honest words. I have had the privilege of having met a few of the contributors and recognised many names as being part of the larger queer circles I am part of. Their words rung in my head as I thought back to my interactions with them; made me fill another colour into my mental picture of them.
The feelings the words evoke, the images your head gets filled with as the stories play out, these are indicators of the kind of book you are reading. And, this, is a good book.
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Image source: Delia Giandeni on Unsplash and book cover Amazon
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Shruti Sharada (She/Her/Hers) is an award-winning Queer Feminist Writer and GBV Activist.
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