Challenging 'Radio Silence': How Queer & Trans Authors Are Fighting for Space

It is an exciting time for queer writing, say authors, but add that they're still fighting to be acknowledged.

6 min read
Hindi Female

Growing up in Mumbai in the late 1980s, Rutwika, who identifies as a lesbian woman, would go from bookshop to bookshop, looking for a book that would make her feel seen. She wanted to be inspired by those who were fighting to be their true self – just like her. But there were none.

Now, she reads 'Ritu Weds Chandni', a story that revolves around a lesbian wedding, to her niece almost every other night. The book by Ameya Narvankar was first published by Yali Books in 2020.

It is an exciting time for queer writing, say authors, but add that they're still fighting to be acknowledged.

For Rutwika's friend and aspiring author Silo in Bengaluru, who identifies as a gender non-binary person, the go-to book, every time they are feeling low is 'Mohanaswamy', written first in Kannada by Vasudhendra and later translated to English by Rashmi Terdal.

When Silo first came across the book back in 2020, they were left pleasantly surprised. As someone who grew up in a Kannada-speaking household, they could relate to the characters in the book, and they say that the book may have saved them from their 'lowest of moments.'

It is an exciting time for queer and trans authors and for the queer genre in India, say writers, while also stressing that Pride Month is a good time to reflect on how they have been fighting for space and acknowledgement every single day.

"Art, music, and literature are all important means of representation. Spaces in India are opening up to voices, and platforms today are more receptive. When you read people's stories, it makes you more empathetic to their struggles. It makes you understand that there is a world beyond them," Sharif D Rangnekar, author, human rights activist, and founder of Rainbow Awards – instituted to recognise work done around LGBTQIA narratives – told The Quint.


India's Tryst With Queer Literature

Unofficially speaking, English-language publishing's tryst with writings by people from the LGBTQIA+ community may have begun in 1977, with the publication of mathematics wiz Shakuntala Devi's The World Of The Homosexuals – which was allegedly inspired by her husband.

In 1991, Trying to Grow, by Firdaus Kang, made some waves, for the story revolved around a boy, who was born with brittle bones, coming to terms with his sexuality. The book, published by the now-defunct Ravi Dayal Publishers, was seen as a bold move at that time.

In 2000, Same-Sex Love In India, edited by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai, showed through varied texts that the concept of homosexuality was very much a part of the Indian subcontinent's history. Vanita, in multiple interviews, has spoken about how she did not get any grant to do the research.

In 2010, A Revathi's Truth About Me – A Hijra Life Story – became one of the first autobiographical accounts of trans women in modern India.
It is an exciting time for queer writing, say authors, but add that they're still fighting to be acknowledged.

But despite queer writing lining the bookshelves, it is an uphill task for writers to find space in publishing even today.

When queer poet Aditya Tiwari wanted to publish a set of his poems April Is Lush in 2018, he received the same reaction from all publishers he reached out to – 'radio silence.' His poems were about queerness, love, and loss – but no one wanted to have a conversation with him.

"Writing is an avenue to express oneself. For someone who comes from Jabalpur, it is not easy to approach these corridors of publishing in Delhi and Mumbai. In 2017, I was lost and confused, but I was determined to get my story out. I started figuring out what self-publishing is, how I can collaborate with someone, how to design a book cover – I had zero support."

Akshada, who identifies as a queer woman and is an aspiring author, feels that there generally is a bit of reluctance to discuss diverse ideas in established publishing houses.

"I wonder: if my characters are not queer – even though I am against labelling – would there be greater acceptance? Or forget acceptance, would there at least be feedback and conversation?"
It is an exciting time for queer writing, say authors, but add that they're still fighting to be acknowledged.

Struggle Also Highlights Intersectionality

When Chennai-based Dalit-transgender activist Grace Banu began her journey to publish her book, Talks of Grace Banu, in 2017, she faced casteist and transphobic rejections, or plain ignorance from publishing houses. In 2019, she decided to self-publish it.

"Being a queer person, it is super difficult to get your work published. But being a Dalit queer, it is even worse. When I wrote my book, I approached so many publishers and they all rejected my application. Finally I decided to publish it myself," Banu told The Quint.

"Transphobia and casteism are everywhere. When I take my drafts, it got rejected because my English is not as good as other authors. No one sees what is the story I have to tell. So, for the last two years, I have not taken my draft to anyone – because it is really hurtful."

"There are so many stories waiting to be told – stories of queer Muslims, those who face double marginalisation, stories of transphobia, how queer and trans women are sexually abused. There are stories that will keep you awake at night. All we want is for publishers to start listening," adds Rangekar, who has published two books – Straight to Normal and Queersapien.

The Publishers' Idea of What Sells

In India, there is a misconception that all queer writing happens only in English. This is false, says Niladri Chatterjee, who recently translated 'Entering the Maze' – a book on discovering one's sexuality, first written in Bengali by Krishnagopal Mallick and published by Niyogi Books.

He cited the example of Cobalt Blue, first published in Marathi by Sachin Kundalkar, and later translated to English by Jerry Pinto, to highlight the importance of translating regional language books.

"There is queer writing happening in regional languages. Deeply personal stories are being told. But if these stories are to reach across India, the best way to do them is by translating this work in English. This will be the best response one gives to the argument that 'queerness is a western concept.' Bring indigenous writers to the fore."

It is an exciting time for queer writing, say authors, but add that they're still fighting to be acknowledged.

But often, there is also a disconnect between publishers and queer and trans authors.

"Publishers are often unaware of trans and queer issues. Sometimes, when we approach publishers, they want us to tell stories that evoke sympathy, because that sells more. If we talk about rights-based issues or about violence, they are not ready to publish," Banu told The Quint.

In 2022, Banu started her own publishing house – Queer Publishing House – and has already published eight books so far. They are also planning to translate works from other languages and countries.

"Today, publishers are looking for Instagram following and not quality of writing. They are not looking for stories but for personalities. There is just so much talent in India when it comes to queer writing, but barely anything materialises," Tiwari added.

'Recognition Is Important'

But Tiwari points out that there is no recognition of queer writing in India, and it is also only people from the community who support their work.

"They make anthologies of poets in India, but leave out queer and trans folks who are writing in the same genre. They make a collection of short stories, but leave out queer essays. If that itself doesn't tell a story...," adds Tiwari.

This is one of the reasons for instituting the Rainbow Awards, says Parmesh Shahni, author of the bestseller Queeristan, published by Westland.

While he pointed how queer writing is not confined to a particular genre, he added that such awards will start a conversation about the recognition of their work – and will hopefully open more doors for aspiring writers.

"There is incredible work happening. There are collection of personal essays like Footprints of a Queer History by Maya Sharma, poetry by people like Kalki Subramaniam, Kari by Amrita Patil, which is an illustrated narrative book, and there's fiction, of course. Diverse voices are being brought forward, but it is not being written for a selected set of people. It is for everyone."

"While we keep telling queer writers to keep telling their stories, to not lose hope that they will get published – there is also a need to push for everyone to know that incredible work in Indian queer writing is truly happening. Go out there, buy their books – something will change in the way you see the world," adds Rangekar.

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Topics:  Pride Month 

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