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from the June 2013 issue

An Introduction to Our Fourth Annual Queer Issue

This June, Words without Borders publishes its fourth annual Queer issue. The United States is celebrating LGBT pride month. The country’s Supreme Court is scheduled to deliver verdicts on two landmark cases relating to gay rights in America, both concerning the rights of same-sex couples to marry. In France, the new Socialist president François Hollande signed a “marriage for all” bill into law in late May. In response, massive demonstrations erupted around the country, and on May 21, a seventy-eight-year-old man shot and killed himself in protest on the altar of the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

The queer world is shaking; though more countries seem constantly to be realigning themselves with the rights of their LGBT citizens, the crowd opinion, or at least that contingent willing to protest, is unwilling to accept these changes as signs of progress. In this month’s issue Quentin Girard writes from France about the divide between gay-rights activists and their anti–gay marriage counterparts, comparing the two factions to warring civilizations: “Blind to one another, two empires face off across a vast expanse, vigilant, each one convinced that the other is populated by decadent barbarians.”

Depending on your perspective, the barbarians in question are today on one or the other side of a moral debate about the treatment of LGBT people. But on any given day one could just as easily find a hundred other reasons to reject the perspective of another culture as barbaric, inchoate, dissolute. It is as an aid to crossing these yawping divides that literature serves us and translated literature fortifies us. The writers in this month’s issue share perspectives that can make the world seem like a smaller, and yet vastly variable place. Whatever name it is known by, whether foreign, strange, unusual, or queer, writing from beyond our ken provides us with a heightened vantage over the broader world of human experience.

This thought came to me as I read the Marathi writer Vaishali Raode’s account from the life of Lakshminarayan Tripathi. Lakshmi, as she is known, is a hijra, a name given to various groups of female-identifying men in many parts of the subcontinent. Raode’s candid book, published in India as Mi Hijra, Mi Lakshmi (I am a Hijra, I am Lakshmi), illuminates the life of a community that is often mistreated and willfully misunderstood in India. The details of Lakshmi’s story will seem especially vivid to anyone who has lived in India, seen hijras at weddings (where they are often invited to perform badhai, the blessing of the bridal couple) and on trains (where they sometimes solicit money from passengers).

I can recall sitting with my face pressed against the bars of a train window, parked in a rail yard outside what was then still called Bombay. A group of men is standing between the tracks below me in the narrow alley between the stationed trains. They are dressed in saris; some are balding. They tease and fawn on each other in exaggerated kindness as they board. One of them stretches his arms back in a preparatory gesture; his choli tightens against his flat chest and he smiles extravagantly at the window audience above him—a mixture of traveling high-school students (of which I am one) and middle-class families.

The first thing I hear as the hijras enter is the short clapping sound that fills the car. Unlike the sound of a slap or the cupped echo of applause, this noise is flat and rude, a report like clattering steel, a clap to divide the air. As they scatter through the car the hijras shower out-of-tune benedictions on the handsome young men who can surely spare some change, wish malefactions on the sala tightwads who stare stoically ahead under the concerned gazes of their dismissive, shooing wives. They invoke the names of all the Bollywood macho men of the day as they flirt with every teenage heartthrob. I wonder who this display serves more—the hijras or the studiously shrugging never-would-be paramours.

I watch quietly from my window seat, holding back a cold sweat, as each of them looks at me and makes only a half-hearted essay in my direction. As a teenager I could only sit still, awash in relief and disappointment as they skirted me. The way I saw it, being singled out by this company of mysterious androgynous men conferred a special distinction on those who got to parry their advances—an imprimatur: now here’s a man worth troubling! But in the muddle of adolescence I could barely bring myself to long for that attention—what if, instead of petting and cossetting, they looked at me and recognized something else worth shouting about? Years later I look back and wonder if, in the middle of all those young couples holding sweaty hands, they had indeed recognized me, like a disguised accomplice who finds you unexpectedly in a hostile place and lets you pass without remark.

The world can still be a hostile place for LGBT people, but I’m glad that there are opportunities now to share stories like Lakshmi’s, and that we are closer to banishing the notion that these experiences cannot be plumbed for insight into what is universally human or literary. Ever more writers are unhitching themselves from the taboo of addressing queer issues in their work, raising a din and clapping their hands, and writing about the world seen through a queer lens.

In his essay on the roots of troubling and widespread legislation opposing gay rights in Russia, the poet Dmitry Kuzmin writes about the importance of proclaiming his sexuality. He says, “As long as the image of the enemy is being concocted out of gays, I must make all my public statements exclusively as a gay man,” a determination that serves as a talisman for other writers whatever their provenance or identity, a reminder of the merit in serving one’s aesthetic and moral priorities even in the face of opposition. And opposition, too, always lingers. The Jordanian writer Fadi Zaghmout, in an extract from his novel The Amman Bride, writes about the indignities visited on gay youth in Egypt and the lengths to which gay people will go to “pass,” unmolested, in society. After a raid on a local gay nightclub, the police begin to release their captives under pressure from influential friends and family. When they finally have to decide who to release from those few unconnected wretches who remain, they decide that those wearing white underwear, the traditional color in Egypt, are excusable—all others are presumably under the influence of Western decadence and are detained in prison.

Mistaken notions can have catastrophic consequences. Tatiana Niculescu Bran’s novel The Confession is based on the real life of Irina Cornici, who died after a brutal exorcism in a monastery in the remote mountains of northwestern Romania. The book and its events inspired the Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills. The circumstances behind Cornici’s death are complicated, and it is unclear what spirit the exorcising priest hoped to rid her of. Yet in the section we publish this month Niculescu Bran pictures the rigorous expiations that the young Cornici is made to endure for her litany of sins, including those of touching another woman, fornicating with the devil, and of despairing of God’s help and pity. “'I despaired . . .’ Irina repeated. She had never thought despair was a major sin.” And perhaps justifiably, since it seems a most human transgression, a greater act of weariness than malfeasance.

And yet, the shadowy land beyond this weariness is where LGBT people are forced to live in many parts of the world. It is where Mara, the protagonist of Suzana Tratnik’s “Letters without Envelopes,” finds herself. She lives in a remote corner of Dalmatia in the 1990s, and thinks that she must surely be “the only lesbian in Yugoslavia.” Even when she meets a woman and falls in love, it is on the turbulent stage of the wars tearing through the region, and the two are soon separated. So begins a prolonged epistolary romance, brokered by their common pen pal, who has to act as a go-between for the pair. Obstacles contrive to separate the women; the wars keep them far from each other, and the climate of fear around them makes them suspect even the innocent—“Children know!” her girlfriend once says to her in horror. In the days before the wars, Mara wonders what price is too high to pay for love. Why, she wonders, have there been no women in literature who have sold their soul to the devil? Could she not be the first? Does he accept her bargain because he, too, is closely concerned with human despair, or is his figure, the specter of a dark man who stalks Mara’s dreams, merely an inescapable fact of the era, a time when the price one paid for love was high, indeed?

But as much as times stay the same, they are always changing, too. Perhaps in courthouses, and public squares, but also in the daily lives of queer people, and this is borne out by queer writing that explores the personal and the everyday. For every story about the larger implications of queer life in politics or the public square, there is a story or a poem that turns to its minutia, to the chamber dramas of sex and relationships. Two writers in this issue, the Austrian Josef Winkler and the Cuban Anna Lidia Vega Serova, act on this impulse to startling and invigorating degrees. Winkler’s story, from his book The Graveyard of Bitter Oranges, follows the narrator as he encounters a group of young men in a Roman piazza and then breaks away with one of them for an escapade of public sex in the hidden courtyards and alleyways of the city. The story is a graphic tour de force and the reader can’t help but stumble after the couple. Anna Lidia Vega Serova’s story, “The Harpooned Woman,” describes the sparring, livid courtship of two women. Narrated in a violent dream of mania and obsession, it feels like a provocation toward extremes, an attempt to fully exercise the fantasies and paranoia of a fevered and volatile relationship.

Someday it will be easier for us to discern that the impetus that drives queer literature forward isn’t a distinct species of inspiration. Someday queer themes, and queer writers, will form a standard part of the grand rumble of world literature. And there are signs of it already, in Håkan Sandell’s exquisite poem about an insouciant youth who comes to a party clad only in a woman’s fur coat: naked as Joseph when his brothers had stripped him. And in the Chinese poet Jing Xianghai’s “Very Cheesy and Also Rather Blah,” which, perhaps deliberately, makes no revolutionary gestures in its account of a lost relationship. But the delicacy and wistfulness with which its narrator remembers the backdrop to a photograph from a long time ago fill the poem’s few lines with a quiet melancholy, unfurling against a scene of distractions. As they stand for their picture and smile, he says, behind us a lake brimmed with the noise of crows.

It is a new world of queer literature, and I’m delighted to present our newest dispatch from it. 

© 2013 Rohan Kamicheril. All rights reserved.

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