Memory and migration are the recurrent motifs in Queer writers Minal Hajratwala's and Kazim Ali's works. Tinged variously and at different points with nostalgia, longing, identity, desire and the experiences of “otherness”, both Minal's and Kazim's works take the reader through a journey of the labyrinths of the mind, sexuality and identity.
The duo read out excerpts from their books at a gathering at PageTurner's bookstore last week. Minal's and Kazim's stories are similar, yet vastly different: similar in shared experiences of alternate sexualities and the inner conflict and resolving of identity and different in creativity and the themes of their stories. “I was a typical, suburban child. I liked rainbows and unicorns,” says Minal, who read out excerpts from the many poems she's written about Unicorns.
“I was fascinated by them. I searched on the internet about them too,” she said to laughs. “I found out,” she continues, “that the oldest Unicorn symbols were found in the Indus Valley Civilisation. I also read that there are textual references of the legacy of Unicorns in ancient Greece.”
She places Unicorns in several creative contexts; she's written poems for dummies — a term she has used in a humorous, not derogatory way — about Unicorns and has even imagined a race in which Unicorns and horses compete, dividing one half of the poem expressing the horse's point of view and the other, the Unicorn's.
A Fulbright Senior Research Scholar, Minal Hajratwala, a graduate of Stanford University, came to India to research on Krishna's devotee Mirabai who believed she was married to him. Minal read out excerpts from her poems on Mirabai that examine the unexplored aspects of her life. “The erotic content in her songs have been somewhat repressed, which I found interesting,” says Minal, the author of “Leaving India: My family's journey from five villages to five continents.”
Minal contends that Queer Literature, at least in America, has evolved over stages, which are not necessarily chronological. “Initially, it was more literature on ‘coming out', but now has matured to explore themes other than sexuality.” She even says that the term “queer” has metamorphosed to include the mainstream. “It's not super politicised anymore. As for in India, I have noticed, from the submissions I receive for ‘Out! Stories from the new queer India', that queer literature is innovative.”
Kazim Ali — poet, essayist, fiction writer and translator — entertained with both his sense of humour and his poems, which are highly nuanced with a sense of history. He read out three poems on the Greek God Icarus and excerpts “Bright felon: Autobiography and cities”. “I wrote this at a time when I came out to my family. It chronicles my life living in different cities where I stayed,” says Kazim, who is the associate professor of Creative Writing and Comparative Literature at Oberlin College and teaches in the Masters of Fine Arts program of the University of Southern Maine.
Regarding the themes he writes about in his works, Kazim says: “In America, I'm considered a writer who writes about spirituality, religion and God.”
The erudite Kazim spoke with admiration about queer writers of the past. “It was courageous of them to have expressed themselves despite the challenges they faced. In India today, Queer literature has still to overcome the politics of language. Queer writers in English have more readers than regional writers. This ought to be addressed,” Kazim argued.