Last week the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective held a Literary Festival titled Emerge: New Mediums, New Voices, at the Asian American Writers Workshop, in Chelsea.
Along with playwrights, essayists, and bloggers, the festival featured two debut novelists Mala Kumar and Tanwi Nandini Islam. Through wildly different lenses, each of them tells a gripping story of what it means to be LGBTQ in New York, and also be South Asian.
Kumar’s novel The Paths of Marriage, published by Bedazzled Ink Publishing Company in 2014, tells the story of three generations of Indian women, the youngest of whom is Deepa, an out lesbian. All three women must navigate through the complexities of love, marriage and their complicated relationships with each other.
Islam’s novel Bright Lines, which comes out on August 11 on Penguin Publishing, is a coming of age story of three young women, which takes place in Brooklyns and Bangladesh. The novel explores the complex political and cultural histories of Bangladeshi-Americans and encompasses issues of immigration and feminism.
At the festival, on Saturday, April 4, both writers spoke about emerging sexual identities during the Sex on Paper panel, featuring actor Soraya Broukhim who read sections of the authors’ works to frame the discussion. After the panel, I spoke to both the authors on the craft of writing and their unique perspectives.
Since both writers’ novels include sections in New York, I asked the authors about writing the city that’s been the inspiration for authors around the world anew. In the following excerpt from The Paths of Marriage, Kumar describes New York dating culture via her character Deepa’s point of view:
“Anyone who had ever dated in New York knew that of the three—hot, intelligent, sane—only two were possible in a potential partner. Partials existed, though an unequivocal whole in all three did not. Whenever one of my friends thought they had found the exception, inevitably, news of an impending federal indictment or evidence of a psychotic break would soon surface.”
Deepa finds being South Asian in New York City differentiates her from the majority and issues of coming out to South Asian families haven’t found their way to the rhetoric of queer rights.
“I think where the character is, the immediate environment, is how the character contextualizes him or herself and figures out how to explain him or herself. Being a minority somewhere means they have to explain many sides of who they are,” says Kumar.
These sides of a character, their quirks and qualities, can be seen in sharper focus in a particular place. For Islam, who owns Hi Wildflower Botanica, in Brooklyn, the place is Clinton Hill circa 2003, and she describes writing about the changing neighborhood as she traveled away from it while she was in France and India.
“Being away from a place can almost heighten it,” she says, as she describes her memory of walking down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn and stopping by the small shops. “I’m interested in how places have carved out the history of the people that lived there.”
The histories Islam explores in her novel belong to an often under-represented group in South Asian literature: Bangladeshi-Americans. “I think the lack of representation is telling because there are so many Bangladeshis in New York and a lot of them are doing labor that’s part of the fabric of the city,” says Islam.
Kumar also feels a responsibility towards the inclusion of diverse voices in gay media. By making the novel more than just a coming of age story for Deepa, Kumar hopes to shift the focus of the conversation to how the South Asian LGBTQ community faces unique challenges.
“The overwhelming amount of LGBTQ dialogue in the West, the way we talk about coming out, marital rights, dealing with family, is white-driven” says Kumar, 30, and hopes that her work can also be used as resource by queer South Asians.
I questioned the authors about whether their fictional stories, which are borne out of their personal identities, ever feel like burdens to shoulder and uncomfortable torches to bear.
“The moment you come out to talk about issues, you’re called a feminist or some other label,” says Kumar, acknowledging the pointed criticisms her work can draw in a politically charged climate. Yet, both authors believe that only more voices will continue to fight the good fight.
“We’re chipping away against patriarchy and misogyny,” notes Islam, 32, drawing attention to the host of feminist campaigns that have sprung up in South Asia.
Ultimately, though, Islam believes that every artist does crave to live in a little bubble of imagination and vision that belongs to no one else.
“To me, writing with meaning or intention is a mistake,” she says, pointing out that while her characters may be Guyanese, Bangladeshi, or South American, they are part of a world she’s presenting to the reader, not figurines in a political argument.
Kumar feels much the same about her own work. She started working on The Paths of Marriage in 2008.
“I just wanted to write a beautiful story,” she says, acknowledging that the fact that her book came out at a time when LGBTQ rights were becoming more and more part of the mainstream cultural dialogue was pure coincidence.
The writer alone can see the distance between his or her self and their craft, though critics and readers often search for the fingerprints of the creator in the work. Questions about “how much real life has inspired you” and “how much of the book is autobiographical” come with the territory of choosing to tell stories that are close to the self, so I asked the authors about how much of themselves they see in their work.
“I think of it as giving birth to new versions of me, new incarnations,” says Islam. “Grotesque, distorted versions that are beautiful.”
About 150 people attended the SAWCC Literary Festival, which ran on April 3 and 4, where these incarnations and versions, were celebrated, and the complex process of creating work was put in the forefront.
“The festival shows the volume of people that are out there doing this,” said Kumar, emphasizing the reassurance that provides to her about the de-marginalization of the voices of South Asian women. She will be reading from The Paths of Marriage at the Rainbow Book Fair on April 18 and at Bluestockings on April 19.
And while the selection of voices at the festival was diverse, everyone came together for a singular cause. “We’re in this amazing moment. We’re all united by the work we’re making,” says Islam.