From children’s books to transfiction to heartbreaking memoirs, here’s a list of seven must-have queer-themed books.
In 2016, I used to take the Delhi Metro for my daily commute to the office. Reading in the metro was a daily thing for me except for that fateful day when I was the object of unjustified attention and the gaze of other metro users because the book I was holding in my hands was Same-sex love in India: a literary history (originally published in 2000 by Penguin), edited by Ruth Vanita and Saleem Kidwai. I was so embarrassed that I started covering queer headlines with a newspaper while reading in public. For a few years, me and my books sat in the closet.
Like me, for many queer people, this book was our path into the world of queer storytelling. No wonder, through him I discovered several mythical historical facts, queer stories, and so many other texts that came out (no pun intended) a long time ago when queer writing was non-existent. As sodomy and equivalent discriminatory laws around the world are increasingly decriminalized and, at home, since Section 377 was read on September 6, 2018, it is heartening to see the new interest from the industry publishing for the publication of works by LGBTQIA+ writers and/or queer-themed stories. Lately, some remarkable books have been published. Not only do they break new ground, but they also set the bar pretty high in terms of queer storytelling.
It is therefore appropriate to begin this reading list with the work of Torrey Peters Detransition, baby (Hatchet). While most narratives involving trans characters focus on trauma, Peters wanted to explore “the ways in which trans women are messed up and flawed.” In this book, one of his characters, Reese, who dated cismen in the past and never really learned from his mistakes, faces a dilemma when his ex-lover Amy (who has become a wife , Ames, but recently detransitioned) offers to co-parent her child with her boss Katrina – a cisgender woman. It is very unlikely to find a tragicomic book like Detransition, baby, because it’s not so much about the plot as it is about the politics. Or, as Peters writes, “I a m trans, but I don’t need do trans.”
A cisgender person can never pick up on the nuances like Peters does. Her book was longlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction. She was the first trans person to receive this recognition. However, several ciswoman writers were of course unhappy with Peters’ inclusion, as they felt that a “man” should not be eligible for the award. The open letter they circulated, which oddly had dead signers, not only abused Peters, but also smacks of heteronormative gaze and gatekeeping.
This sad episode should remind us why it’s essential to educate people early on so that the conversations Peters and other writers try to have in their stories are normalized. Two children’s books — Me, my father and the end of the rainbow (Simon & Schuster), written by Benjamin Dean and illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat, and Ritu marries Chandni (Puffin, an imprint of Penguin), written and illustrated by Ameya Narvankar – took that step.
The first is the story of a troubled 12-year-old Archie Maverick Albright who is unhappy because he finds his parents fighting every day. But there’s more for this young boy to face – a revelation that will lead him to Pride! And in the latter case, little Ayesha wants to enjoy the happiest day of her cousin sister Ritu’s life – her wedding – but things quickly go wrong as heteropatriarchal society chafes at seeing the same-sex couple. Both stories are told intelligibly and are full of humor and emotion. In an article, Dean writes: “Children look for themselves in stories”. Thanks to these books, not only will young homosexuals find themselves seenbut these books will also serve as a roadmap for writers to tell an engaging yet sensitive narrative that children may enjoy reading.
While it is worth celebrating where we got to where we are today, it is crucial to look back, remember and appreciate the struggle and atrocities that so many queer and trans people have gone through. had to endure to make this world a little more tolerant than it was. . Two of these brilliantly told works are Affliction: Growing up with a hidden gay father (She Writes Press) by Laura Hall and The hidden case of Ewan Forbes: the transgender trial that threatened to overthrow the British establishment (Bloomsbury) by Zoë Playdon.
In Affliction, Hall takes us through the painful journey of his father who was locked up for 64 years. In the 1940s, American police arrested anyone for being gay or suspected of being queer, and extorted money from them to “hide” this fact and continue to instill fear in them to reveal it. . The “shame” that such an arrest brought to his father Ralph Hall was unbearable for him. He not only lost his job, but this trauma also estranged him from the love of his life Stanley Hughes, whom he remembered vividly even on his deathbed and regretted not being with him.
The book isn’t just about what Ralph went through. It is also about his belief in serving his community in any way possible. Later in his life, when the world was confronted with the AIDS epidemic, he would offer his services to those in need and actively organize prayer meetings. One of the wonderful qualities of this book is the depth with which Laura tells her father’s story, unapologetically and with a journalist-like conviction to make sure everything turns out right.
Emeritus Professor of Medical Humanities at the University of London and former Co-Chair of GLADD (Gay and Lesbian Association of Doctors and Dentists) Zoë Playdon unravels the mystery behind a 1968 court case that had the potential to change the discourse of trans struggles for the rights in his book The hidden affair of Ewan Forbes. Not only did Mr Forbes come from a wealthy baronet family, but he was also one of the first transgender men to be a doctor. While he was able to do the impossible for his time – made the transition and also got a renewed birth certificate, just because he came from the money, he was surprised when his gender was questioned in a civil suit by a potential heir to the barony, his cousin Jean. Interestingly, the hearing was kept secret, which is why this case remained inaccessible until Playdon unearthed the 500-page court transcript. She writes that the multiple waves of trans rights would have taken a different turn had activists been armed with the information about this remarkable but hidden affair.
Now for the personal stories. Two memoirs fresh off the press should be read by everyone for the kind of rich narrative and struggles they highlight in their stories. One is that of Onir I am Onir and I am gay (Viking, an imprint of Penguin), co-written with his sister Irene Dhar Malik. And A small step in a long journey: a memoir (Zubaan) – as said in Gowri Vijayakumar – by Akkai Padmashali.
While in the old, National Award-winning filmmaker and editor Onir lays bare everything as it is – from the growing-up years to cruising and dating when Section 377 featured prominently, and struggles he faced making unrequited queer-themed films likes, in the latter, Akkai recounts a horrific, nightmarish childhood she had to endure simply because she was who she was. These two memoirs will remind anyone who is queer (or not) how excruciatingly painful it was for queer people before us to come forward and that we owe them the newfound freedom we enjoy today!
And some recent and upcoming releases for your ever growing TBR list
- You Made A Fool Of Death With Your Beauty (Faber & Faber) by Akwaeke Emezi
- Get Out: The Gay Man’s Guide to Getting Out and Dating (HarperCollins) by Aniruddha Mahale
- Footprints of Queer History: Life Stories from Gujarat (Yoda Press) by Maya Sharma
- Before being trans: A new history of gender (Hachette) by Kit Heyam
Saurabh Sharma (He/They) is a queer writer and freelance journalist based in Delhi.