Sanchari Sur is a PhD candidate in English at Wilfrid Laurier University. Her research focuses on South Asian Canadian Writers (women, to be specific), as well as representations of subaltern bodies in those written works, and how those bodies challenge Canadian multiculturalism. Sanchari identifies as gender queer. Queerness and its representations often find themselves into both her academic and creative work.
She recently started seriously investing time and energy to creative writing last year and has so far been published in Arc Poetry Magazine, Matrix Magazine, The Feminist Wire, The Unpublished City anthology (Toronto: BookThug, 2017) curated by Dionne Brand, and forthcoming in The Rusty Toque. (Wow, right!? All that in a year!). You should also check out this great recent interview she did with Gwen Benaway in The Rusty Toque. Find Sanchari on her blog and on Twitter @sanchari_sur.
Keeping reading to hear Sanchari talk about queerness in South Asian writing, Shani Mootoo, looking for fluid sexuality and gender in books, Naked Heart Festival in Toronto, and more!
What was the first LGBTQ2IA+ book(s) you remember reading? How did you end up reading it (i.e., were you searching for queer books or did you just happen across it?)
My first encounter was with Ruskin Bond’s short novel, The Room on the Roof ([published in] 1956), at the age of 14. The narrative had a gay teenage boy, where moments of homosexuality/homoeroticism between the character and his friend were heavily cloaked. At the time, I had to read the work a few times to even understand the relationship between the two boys properly. The short novel was in a collection of Bond’s work, an omnibus my parents gifted me because I was such a fan of his work. Of course, they were unaware of all of the contents of the collection. There were a lot of stories in the collection that were definitely not PG-13.
My first proper encounter with a LGBTQ book was in undergrad at the age of 19, Manju Kapur’s A Married Woman (2002). The book contained a lesbian relationship between an unhappy married housewife and an activist widow. It would have been an extremely radical book (sorry, spoiler alert!), if it had not ended in the demise of the relationship, where the housewife goes back to the (dis)comfort of her heteronormative existence. I came across the novel because I had just finished reading Kapur’s Difficult Daughters, and was hungry to read more of her writing. It was serendipity, sort of.
I think it took me longer to encounter queerness in literature because I was drawn to South Asian writing (from South Asia and its diaspora), and either those books referred to queerness in passing, as caricatures, or didn’t refer to it at all.
What is/are your favourite LGBTQ2IA+ books, and why?
Aah, so many! These are my five:
1. Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy (1994): I loved the seamlessness with which Selvadurai wrote queerness into his work. The voice of the protagonist stayed with me for a long time.
2. Absolutely anything by Shani Mootoo!: Mootoo’s books have a vigorous and intersectional quality to them. That is, her characters (especially, her queer characters) are not one dimensional. I like the fluidity of gender that she portrays in her work. I have never seen such fluidity before, and it was in her work that I saw a character that came closest to reflecting my understanding of my sexuality.
3. Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976): I read it as part of my course work in undergrad, and was blown by the possibilities of science fiction. Although traditionally, I am a fan and writer of literary fiction, this particular book will always hold a special place.
4. Gayatri Gopinath’s Impossible Desires (2005): This was the first theory book I read on queerness, and it opened up my eyes and mind to a way of thinking that I had not encountered previously.
5. Same-Sex Love in India: Readings from Literature and History (edited by Ruth Vanita Saleem Kidwai) (2000): I had read about an obscure (and rarely talked about, if at all) Hindu myth in one of my undergrad classes, and the excerpt had been taken from this book. It is a rich collection of queer writings that have either disappeared or have been made invisible through time in India. I return to this collection time and again to gain inspiration for my stories.
Which LGBTQ2IA+ book have you read that best reflects your experiences as an LGBTQ2IA+ person?
Shani Mootoo’s Valmiki’s Daughter (2008). The character of Viveka came closest to reflecting my experience.
Which LGBTQ2IA+ book do you wish you could read but can’t because it doesn’t exist yet?
I am not sure if such a book exists, but I would like to read a book where sexuality is not a homonormative idealization, but is a fluid construct. There is a misconception that sexuality remains the same throughout one’s life. Real life instances will prove this false. But I am yet to see such a representation in the works of South Asian (and its diaspora) writers. Shani Mootoo has been quite successful in the representations of fluidity, but I would most like to see a book that explores the variations of gender queerness.
How do you find LGBTQ2IA+ books? How easy or hard is it in your experience finding the ones that you want to read?
It is easier to find books here in Canada. As a graduate student, I also have access to an extensive library system where I can get my hands on practically any book I want. In India, it’s tougher, considering Section 377 of the India Penal Code that criminalizes homosexuality, still stands.
Do you know other LGBTQ2IA+ readers or participate in any LGBTQ2IA+ reading communities (in person or on the Internet)? What’s it like? Why or why not?
I have friends in the queer community who read extensively. I have never been involved with the LGBTQ reading/writing community before as I had not come out to my family (sometimes, this “coming out” never ends, because I get asked the same questions again and again). I am still trying to figure out where I fit in, find the vocabulary for my gender/sexuality. It’s a process, and being a part of the Naked Heart Festival this year was a part of that process. While I have written queer characters in my fiction, I am just beginning to connect with other queer writers.
Thanks so much for sharing so many great books with us Sanchari, especially ones by queer South Asian writers I hadn’t heard of. One of these years I would LOVE to get to Naked Heart festival. It sounds so fabulous.