Interview: Payal Dhar, Author, It Has No Name – “Online spaces have been my lifelines at various points.”

On her book about a gay teenager in the context of survival, representation, legal reform and queer politics in India
Payal Dhar (Courtesy the author)
Payal Dhar (Courtesy the author)
Published on Nov 05, 2021 06:05 PM IST
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ByChintan Girish Modi

Payal Dhar’s tenth novel It Has No Name, published by Red Panda, is described as “the coming-of-age story of a gay teen in modern India.” Though it revolves mainly around Sami, whose gender identity is a question mark for many who meet her, it is also about her fears and her friendships and about being raised by parents who are unhappy in their marriage. The author speaks to us about her book in the context of survival, representation, legal reform and queer politics in India.

It Has No Name is a befitting title for a book about teenagers resisting labels foisted upon them. How did Sami, Murad, Vidhi and Laila take shape in your imagination?

Laila, Murad and Vidhi existed in an earlier novel of mine – Hit for a Six (2017) – which is set in the same school and town. Sami was a character that had been simmering separately for a while. To a large extent, she is what I would have loved to be as a teenager — brave, confident, entitled to my space on my terms. I do acknowledge that Sami’s character and her story overall is quite idealistic — being an obviously queer teen is still dangerous — but I wanted to give Sami and her bunch of people a safe space and happy ending.

352pp, ₹399; Red Panda
352pp, ₹399; Red Panda

It Has No Name seems to be in conversation with Himanjali Sankar’s novel Talking of Muskaan (2014). Both revolve around the bullying of Indian teenagers based on their gender identity and sexual orientation. In that book, the narrative voice belongs to the bullies and the bystanders. In your book, the bullied take control of the storytelling…

Both, Talking of Muskaan and my own book Slightly Burnt – Himanjali was the editor on that – which came out together, were very much stories about cis-het people and how they were affected. In neither book did the gay character have a voice. Not to say they weren’t important books — the bullying in Talking of Muskaan was such a viscerally disturbing depiction of how unsafe the world can be for queer kids — but I would say they weren’t truly representative. I felt that I need to fix that, give my queer protagonist the reins. I will never again make the mistake of using a gay kid’s trauma as a plot device for their straight best friend’s journey!

Talking of Muskaan was published before the Supreme Court of India read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code whereas It Has No Name released in a post-377 environment. Do you think that these books reflect the changing reality for LGBTQIA+ people in India?

Yes, definitely. My sense is that the reading down of Section 377 has made it slightly easier for publishers to think about queer-themed books. I was recently reading The Boy in the Cupboard (2021) by Harshala Gupte and Priya Dali. While I rarely like picture books, I loved this, and some dust mysteriously got into my eyes… Who’d have thought back in 2014 that you’d have a queer picture book?

Did the Supreme Court verdict influence how your manuscript was received by various publishers? I remember you making a public statement about how challenging it was to work with homophobic distribution and marketing staff when Slightly Burnt, which had two queer characters in it, was released in 2014.

It’s possible. Not that homophobia has magically vanished with the 377 verdict, but my guess is that it is probably less risky for publishers now. That said, I had four acceptances for the manuscript — from four editors it was very difficult to choose between, editors who already have a reputation of bringing out groundbreaking books. What I mean to say is the obstacle has never been editors who are hesitant to take risks; it comes after the book is actually out and nobody wants to touch it, say, schools and bookshops.

Tell us about working with Karthika VK as your editor. I ask particularly because she worked with Amruta Patil on the graphic novel Kari (2008) when there were very few books about queer women in India.

I was very keen to work with an editor who would push me, and Karthika did. She basically ripped up the last third of my original manuscript and told me the equivalent of “You can do better” — but without actually doing any ripping, and using kinder words. The one thing I was prepared to fight my corner about was that this was going to be an unabashedly queer novel so there would be no “dumbing down”. But in retrospect, I think Karthika instinctively got that. She pushed me to tell a tighter story but left the voice completely up to me.

I’m curious to learn about how you constructed the fictional town of Chandnisarai, especially in terms of its topography and climate and all the landmarks that take on different moods and meanings.

Chandnisarai was developed a few years ago for Hit for a Six, though back then I didn’t think too much of the town. In 2019, I went to Mussoorie with friends, and on our drive back, two teen girls were holding hands and laughing in the middle of the road. They saw our car, let go and ran to the side of the road. I don’t know who they were, if they were friends, girlfriends, sisters. They looked so happy, so contained in their happiness, that I knew that scene was going in the book. One thing led to another, and Mussoorie ended up being a template for Chandnisarai, though without the touristy-ness. Because I was visiting with a local, for the first time I also got to see the non-touristy parts of Mussoorie. I wanted to hold on those glimpses — they meant a lot more than the glitter and glamour of being a popular hill station. The cemetery too was inspired from Mussoorie General Cemetery — it was locked, but it was very possible to sneak in (no, I didn’t, but I would have if I’d been 16) — as was Ma’s Bakery (Landour Bakehouse), and bits and pieces from some of the other locations.

Vidhi makes a comment about how people from big cities tend to imagine that small towns have no gay people. How has your book been received outside the metros? I was particularly moved by your decision to focus on creative modes of survival and solidarity rather than describing persecution at length.

No idea, really. Maybe it’s too early to say. I’ve had a few reviews — one great one, and a couple not so great — done a handful of online events, but the interest and excitement levels of the launch have fallen off. I think we’ll have a better sense once there are more reviews, interviews such as this one, and more events if any. My sense is that folks are still uncomfortable to engage with a blatantly queer book for children, even if it’s older children. Let’s see, I hope I’m wrong.

Your novel also reminded me of Chayanika Shah, Raj Merchant, Shals Mahajan, and Smriti Nevatia’s non-fiction book No Outlaws in the Gender Galaxy (2015) which documents the schooltime experiences of many queer and gender nonconforming people for whom the physical education class became a refuge. What made you choose the sports ground, particularly cricket, as the setting for Sami to explore her attraction towards Jasmine?

Women’s/girls’ sport is one space where there is no policing of behaviour, where we are allowed to be loud, fast, aggressive, competitive, take up space — everything we are told not to be if we want to be feminine. Therefore, that’s where many of us who don’t want to be feminine yet be female and/or girls/women, find refuge. Before I found cricket in college, I played with boys, trained with boys’ teams, but again, I was an outsider and there was a lot of discomfort from my side; I don’t know about them. Cricket practice was the only place in my entire life – except online spaces that I found later – where I wasn’t the only person who looked like me. I had other challenges that made it difficult for me to socialize and to belong, but I was comfortable in ways I had never been before, I felt safe, and nobody cared I looked like a boy because there were others who did too.

While the book mainly revolves around Sami, Murad has a special place in it. He’s adorable. Don’t you think that he deserves a whole book, especially because asexual characters are often missing from conversations about queer representation in young adult fiction?

Oh, 100%. Murad has quite a character arc over Hit for a Six and It Has No Name — from a 12-year-old scoffing at girls playing cricket to becoming a sensitive and self-aware adolescent. I am not sure, however, his would be my story to tell. Perhaps if I find a good sensitivity reader, I might consider it. But I would tread very carefully — I would need to be sure I’m not appropriating the story, or causing damage. Cis-het people have caused enough harm to queer/trans stories; I don’t need to contribute there!

I enjoyed how you’ve explored the importance of online communities for queer people, while also discussing issues related to privacy and abuse. What made you reframe loneliness as “a superpower”?

To be clear, I don’t want to eulogise loneliness. To quote Ted Lasso, “There is something worse out there than being sad. And that is being alone and being sad.” Sometimes framing your loneliness as a superpower is the only thing that keeps you from being crushed under it. And as much as people like to scoff at online friends and communities, these are real spaces where you make real connections with real people. I wanted to show that there are alternative ways of finding your people and spaces. For me too, online spaces have been my lifelines at various points — for a long time, those were the only places I felt I could be myself.

Sami is constantly subjected to the normative gaze of adults and peers trying to figure out whether she is a girl or a boy. Apart from developing your plot, were you also commenting on parents, librarians and bookshop owners who classify young adult fiction in terms of boys’ books and girls’ books?

I wanted to show the violence and the dehumanisation that comes from binary, gender-based assumptions and segregations. Sami’s bus trip was one of the most difficult and traumatic parts to write about. Even though I’m not 16 anymore, I can still taste that fear, self-loathing, and the unspeakable loneliness of those moments. And even now, in my forties, there is never any guarantee that those moments won’t happen. I wish I could say it was cathartic, but in reality it breaks my heart every time I think about kids who are experiencing this right now, and people of all ages who can never feel completely safe.

Could you also talk a little about how your understanding of allyship has grown since Komal who was the ally in Slightly Burnt? In It Has No Name, there are so many different ways of being an ally embodied by Sami’s mother, Laila, Nani…

My biggest learning has been that the marginalized person needs to be at the centre. Allyship is not about allies at all — it’s about those they are supporting. At least ideally; I know in real life we can all be self-centered and self-involved, but in fiction I wanted Sami to know that there were people in her corner, even if they weren’t wearing rainbow T-shirts and waving flags. And also, many times, folks need to be nudged in the right direction — it’s quite another thing about having to dole out the emotional labour, but that’s a whole different conversation.

Chintan Girish Modi is a Mumbai-based writer who tweets @chintan_connect

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Friday, January 28, 2022