Art and literature climb out of the womb of desperation, either to express or communicate the tides that relentlessly push you against the world; it is as much a plea as it is an invitation. Nothing exists as intimate and vulnerable as ink smudged on paper, as words forming themselves into sound, as stories taking space in the world and yet so many shelves lay only crowded with ignorance.
Queer literature is as much for the allies as it is for those who belong to the community. In allowing it to ourselves, we form a more humane and sensitive understanding of the struggles that lie outside the legal battles, of identities that are continually obscured by societal provisions and the lives clouded under the guise of normality. How far can humanity walk while stomping on hearts it doesn’t understand?
“I had decided to allow no room in the universe for something which shamed and frightened me. I succeeded very well—by not looking at the universe, by not looking at myself, by remaining, in effect in constant motion.”
Set in the 1950s in post-war Paris, Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin walks in the shoes of David, an American with mundane plans of a conventional life with a woman named Hella. While Hella is in Spain, David chances upon Giovanni, a bartender, unfurling into a long romantic relationship that continues to please his passion and displease his notion of masculinity leaving him at crossroads. Baldwin managed to raise controversial opinions through his explicit and obturate delineation of homosexuality, and yet his inexorable boldness and lyrical prose fuse into an indispensable classic in the history of queer literature.
The urgency of emotions and continuous oscillation between adherence to gendered cultural norms and the freedom of owning and accepting his sexual identity tear apart David’s breaths in two- incessant give and take between two identities, neither leaving him whole. “There opened in me a hatred for Giovanni which was as powerful as my love and which was nourished by the same roots.”, Giovanni was the physical embodiment of his sexual identity forcing him to recognize himself for who he is, standing at the intersection of fear, shame and longing; this discomfort forced David towards denial and remorse and evoked sympathy and compassion even for unappreciated projection of his agitation on those he loved the most.
“I remember that life in that room seemed to be occurring beneath the sea. In the beginning, our life together held joy and amazement which was newborn every day. Beneath the joy, of course, was anguish and beneath the amazement was fear; but they did not work themselves to the beginning until our high beginning was aloes on our tongues. By then anguish and fear had become the surface on which we slipped and slid, losing balance, dignity, and pride.”
Much of the novel whirlpools around the mention of water bodies, or water itself, much like in A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White- a closely autobiographical novel, set in the 1950s as well, treading along the coming-of-age journey of a nameless protagonist while he entangles his way through the web of sexual identity and societal expectations- another pivotal book in the history of queer literature. The repetitive mention of water denotes the fluidity of human emotions and desire, the non-binary and transcendental course of sexual identity- an exploration in the journey of the flow. While David suppresses his truth and White’s protagonist is revelatorily frank in the language of his desires, their identities remain haunted under the weight of a heteronormative society. From “Children of broken homes were known to grow up wounded, their sexuality damaged.” to “Would I become a queer and never, never be like other people?“, White’s protagonist questions himself throughout the text while through the mention of “his eyes, behind his glasses, were like the eyes of a dying man who looks everywhere for healing.”, David sees himself mirrored in every look of pain. The expanse of the sea and lake is David’s words, “For nothing is more unbearable, once one has it than freedom.”, taking form into something tangible- equally dreadful as it is calm.
Ignominy weaves through both novels like a thread through a fabric- one pull, and the fabric shrinks to something it was never intended to be. “The medical smell, that Lysol smell of homosexuality, was staining the air again as the rubber-wheeled metal cart of drugs and disinfectants rolled silently by. I longed to open the window, to go away for an hour and come back to a room free of that odor, the smell of shame.” White’s protagonist is equally besieged by shame as David. This circle of shame and fear encloses and traps these characters deep within themselves, forced to face their inner conflicts and self-rejection- a noose around their necks wherever they go. This conflict between who they are and who they represent pulls apart their identity and hopes of love- their queerness separated from their being time and again. What privilege it is to never know shame in the context of love.
The idea of masculinity defined by the heteronormative society is the root cause of all the doubt and confusion thrusted in the face of both the characters. The father figures remain dominant in both texts setting standards of how a man should be, leaving them both in a continual horror of their sexual identity being a threat to their masculinity as reflected in A Boy’s Own Story,
“A POPULAR QUIZ FOR MASCULINITY IN THOSE DAYS ASKED THREE QUESTIONS, ALL OF WHICH I FLUNKED:
(1) LOOK AT YOUR NAILS (A GIRL EXTENDS HER FINGERS, A BOY CUPS HIS IN HIS UPTURNED PALM)
(2) LOOK UP (A GIRL LIFTS JUST HER EYES, A BOY THROWS BACK HIS WHOLE HEAD)
(3) LIGHT A MATCH (A GIRL STRIKES AWAY FROM HER BODY, A BOY TOWARD – OR PERHAPS THE REVERSE, I CAN’T RECALL).
We have been taught how to act and behave in black and white and everything grey is a stain on our binaries, every mundane action, a declaration of who we are and where we fit. Society’s continuous attempt at putting people into boxes only leaves them feeling belonged nowhere- the walls closing in with every passing day. As Jacques, David’s friend says, “Somebody,” said Jacques, “your father or mine, should have told us that not many people have ever died of love. But multitudes have perished, and are perishing every hour—and in the oddest places!— for the lack of it.”
Both these books were far ahead of their time, unapologetically owning up to their self-awareness causing riptides of controversial uproar and yet, marking a name in history. While A Boy’s Own Story is known to be semi-autobiographical, and Baldwin openly identified as a homosexual, anonymity continues to surround many authors’ identities, a proof that queerness continues to be a battle. While it claims its space in the arena of literature, people from the community are still standing outside the expanse, looking in. The participation of queer people writing about their own lives stands largely unwelcomed in the less progressive spaces of India and abroad and it is essential to let them have their voice, to know from those who fight, what they fight against. This boy’s story and Giovanni’s room might not be mine but it can be anyone’s, it is someone’s, and in writing this and reading this, we might not get any closer to their battle, but we are taking a step ahead to fight with them.
Written by Resham Sharma