Surviving the crests and troughs of the bygone decades of confined notions and rigidity, homosexuality in literature has definitely come a long way from an uneven terrain of condemnation and ridicule to a road of acceptability and inclusion.
Let us revisit those chapters on homosexuality and consequently arrive to the pages of the current literary scenario to see and understand the changed perception on the subject.
Going back in History: Was it homophobia?
A man in hue, all ‘hues’ in his controlling,
Much steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
…But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure. (Sonnet 20)
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 20 was considered as one of the sonnets that explicitly fore-grounded same-sex desire of the poet. There are 154 sonnets written in the period of 1592-1598, an era conservative in accepting homosexual love with ease and comfort. It so happened that while defending Shakespeare’s sonnets against a homosexual reading, Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the year 1803 defined male-male love as “that very worst of all possible vices”.
John Lauritsen, author of ‘The Man who wrote Frankenstein’ analyses Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1823) as a gay love story where Victor Frankenstein’s creation of a ‘monster’ stems from his desire to give birth to a “being like myself”. Once created, he realises it to be a catastrophe that could not be corrected. The ‘monster’ represented the clash between homosexual desires and social condemnation according to John.
Captain Walton who rescues Victor Frankenstein and nurses him back to health is shown to have found a “friend” in him.
Amid a homophobic sociology of the 18th century, the term “friend” was a coded term to refer to the ‘lover of another man.’ The blanket of ‘friendship’ was also employed by Lord Byron in his poems that conveyed same-sex romantic bonds in camouflaged phrases and disguised expressions. Poems like ‘The Death of Calmar and Orla’ (about the relationship of two warriors, one of whom dies and the other resolves to live alone), (1807) and ‘The Cornelian’ (1806) are some examples.
Homosexuality whipped and punished…Oscar Wilde’s relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas (better known as Bosie) did not go down well with the puritanical Victorian society. It was during his imprisonment for gross indecency that he recounted moments of his relationship with Bosie and penned it down in the form of an epistle (a long letter) beautifully named De Profundis’ (From the Depths.)
20th century India was not far behind in castigating homosexuality in literature. Ismat Chughtai’s short story ‘Lihaf’ (The Quilt) published in the year 1942 was levelled with charges of obscenity and she was summoned by the Lahore court in 1944. Much as the term ‘lihaf’ connotes a sense of concealment, it also in the story visibilised the homosexual connect the women protagonists, Begum Jan and Rabbo shared with each other.
…and then there was acceptance and tolerance
Things have changed today or atleast are changing. Ismat Chughtai’s much debated story finds space in the academic syllabi of Delhi University which proves we have moved beyond restrictive boundaries and embraced it with willingness.
Ruth Vanita, academic, activist and author of acclaimed books like ‘Same-sex Love in India’ (with Salim Kidwai) and ‘Sappho and the Virgin Mary’ asserts that many works on homosexuality and same-sex love have been well-received and admired and that we are moving towards a more tolerant society: “It would be incorrect to claim that homosexuality alone in literature has been received with criticism and ridicule. Many books on heterosexuality too have been banned and condemned. Ugra’s stories in the 1920’s exploring the subject of homosexuality were condemned by many but also appreciated. Similarly Suniti Namjoshi’s works on gender and lesbianism have many admirers.”
Commercialisation or genuine assimilation?
When asked whether she feels the present generation of authors picks up homosexual themes in a bid to court controversy and subsequently a larger audience, she avers, “A book has to be judged on its literary merits, regardless of whether it creates controversy, draws readers or makes money. All authors, whether writing about homosexuality, heterosexuality or politics, have mixed motives and it is futile to ascribe motives to an author as authors themselves may not be fully aware of their own motives.”
Agrees Rahul Mehta, author of short story collection ‘Quarantine’ that examines gay relationships within the social circuit of family complexities, “To whatever extent there has been a proliferation in queer literature being published, it is definitely not a function of writers trying to capitalize on a trend. When I started writing the stories in Quarantine over ten years ago, I wasn’t thinking about what was marketable. I wrote these stories (with strong queer thematic elements) simply because these were the stories I wanted to tell.”
Author of ‘Vivek and I’, Mayur Patel is of the view that authors while working on homosexual themes should not treat the protagonists as “sex maniacs” for that gives out a distorted image of homosexual identity, instead they should treat the subject with maturity.
Touched by the positive response to his book, Mayur states, “I have not received a single hate mail and I am happy to see how acceptance and liberal thoughts are increasing everyday for subjects like homosexuality to move towards the mainstream map from the fringes.”
Another pertinent point that Mayur raises is this that literature on homosexuality should not be perceived through the lens of ‘physicality’ alone. Substantiating the point from his own book he says, “Vivek and I is the story of a teacher named Kaushik Mistry who falls in love with his student Vivek. The love is not limited only to sexual gratification, it is one of emotional connect and psychological comfort that Kaushik seeks in his 16-year-old student.”
Society is in a state of transition and we should make an effort to move towards a state where homosexuality would be considered as one of the ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ themes of authorial pursuit.
As Ruth Vanita says, “Great art does not wait for the readership to be ready. It appears when it appears and readers learn to appreciate it, sooner or later.”
We hope it is sooner than later.
Complete story link: The same-sex appeal in literature