Opening Up Identity: How A Diverse Anthology Of Queer Poetry Came To Be

Poets Aditi Angiras and Akhil Katyal, editors of ‘The World That Belongs To Us’, on how they put together the wildly ambitious project.
Poets Aditi Angiras and Akhil Katyal.
Poets Aditi Angiras and Akhil Katyal.

In the summer of 2018, poets Akhil Katyal and Aditi Angiras put out a call on social media seeking submissions for a first-of-its-kind anthology of queer poetry from South Asia. Aware of the multitude of ways, and words, in which queer identities and desires are expressed in the region, they were determined not to exclude anyone. The request went out: “We seek submissions of poems being written by Transmen, Transwomen, Lesbian, Hijra, Kothi, Gay, Aravani, Khawaja Sara, Intersex, Jogappa, Bisexual, Drag King/Queen, GenderQueer, Non-Binary, Meyeli Chele, Butch, Femme and other poets.”

“We uploaded it happily, thinking the first task was done,” Angiras and Katyal write in their editors’ preface to The World That Belongs To Us: An Anthology of Queer Poetry from South Asia, which was published in June this year. Soon, however, as the call began to circulate online, messages started popping up. “What about asexuals?” one person asked. “And those in the diaspora?” asked another. One activist suggested they add “nupi maanbi and nupa maanba”, another said they should include “Thirunangai”. The submission call grew as suggestions came in, friends translated it into several languages and added comments; all the while it floated around the corners of the internet.

Two years later, the final anthology has poems from over a hundred contributors, poets and translators, originating in 10 languages (all of them were translated into English, except the excellently titled Laga Jockey Main Daag, which remains in Hinglish). The poems tackle a staggering array of themes, emotions, desires, fears, and joys that scoff at any attempt to pigeonhole queer experiences into simplistic boxes of gender and sexual identity. While the book includes poems by renowned authors like Vikram Seth and Hoshang Merchant, its beating heart is the large number of writers we have the pleasure of reading for the first time. Going through the poets’ bios, which take pride of place before their submissions, is a giddy ride—a thrilling recognition of the diversity of voices that give the book its distinctive hum.

Over the course of the book’s making, Angiras and Katyal found themselves grappling with a host of questions: What exactly is a queer poem? How do you gauge the “worthiness” of a text for an anthology like this? How much would their own constraints affect the scope of the book?

I spoke to the editors about all of this, the process of putting together such a wildly ambitious project, the criticality and limitations of “queer”, and the inherent contradictions in the act of curation. Edited excerpts from our conversation:

I’d love to hear more about how the book came about. I know that the publishers, HarperCollins, approached you with the idea of putting this anthology together, but how did your vision develop after that? What did you want to achieve with this book?

Aditi Angiras (AA): When we first arrived at the publishers’ office in Noida, it made sense in my head, and I had an outline for it. But one of the things that I had not imagined was the issue of languages. I was focusing a lot more on how many different people, voices, and places we could bring in, not just geographical but also in terms of identities. When we started talking, I knew we needed to think a lot more about it because what I was imagining was not possible only in English.

Akhil Katyal (AK): When we went to meet the publishers, the idea seemed to be that it would be about 30-32 contributors, with several poems from each. So in some sense, to curate a slice of queerness. But the moment Aditi and my conversations started, we knew that this is not how it’s going to work, that we can immediately count that many poets among folks we know, and if the anthology remains among folks we know, then that only says something about our own limitations rather than about the diversity of queer voices in this part of the world.

When we put out the call for submissions, contributions just started pouring in—there were more than 500 from what we remember. That’s when we definitely knew that this “30 to 32 poets” game is not possible because there is no way you can hold the immensity, the promise, the difficulty, the challenges, and the joy of all those kinds of contributions within that small number. So the idea changed to having more voices—perhaps fewer poems per person, but more voices. We are, after all, two poets sitting in Delhi, of a particular social position in terms of our class, caste and linguistic location. If we were not able to step out of that in any meaningful way, then the anthology would have failed for us. I think that stepping out has happened in some respects with the book, although it leaves a lot to be desired.

When it comes to queer writing from the region, there are anthologies that have come before, and paved the way in some ways, whether it’s Yaarana, edited by Hoshang Merchant, Out!, edited by Minal Hajratwala, or Facing the Mirror, edited by Ashwini Sukthankar. Did you draw any lessons from them about what you wanted to do, or possibly, didn’t want to do with The World That Belongs To Us?

AK: Ages ago I had interviewed Hoshang Merchant—it was a long three-day conversation—about how they put together Yaarana. Over a period of time, it became fairly clear that a claim made in one hour of the conversation was countered later that day, or the next day with another one. So I also realised that no matter what claims editors make vis-a-vis the making of an anthology, it is necessarily a messy process. It was also far messier earlier because it was a more difficult time to put together an anthology like that. It was precisely these books by Hoshang Merchant, Saleem Kidwai, Ruth Vanita, Minal Hajratwala, Ashwini Sukthankar that made our job easier because this anthology doesn’t seem like an outlier, it’s part of a larger legacy.

You know, I had asked Hoshang, “So, what was your criteria? What counts as a queer poem?” and he would say—and Yaarana was specifically a gay anthology—that it’s “a gay text written by a gay person”. But on another day, that definition, for what it’s worth, did not hold at all.

He also said that there were slim pickings in the late ’90s, so he put in anything he could. “Slim pickings” was not our problem at all—we had plenty!

AA: We were also more fortunate because we have access to Facebook and the internet and were able to reach out to a lot more people than I imagine was possible for most of the previous anthologies. Also, I don’t know if this was a conscious decision, but there are a lot of younger voices in this anthology, a lot of first-time voices.

“No matter what claims editors make vis-a-vis the making of an anthology, it is necessarily a messy process”

- Akhil Katyal

Yeah, or poets who have possibly been writing for a while but haven’t been published before. And they sit beside other poets like Vikram Seth, Hoshang Merchant, and Ifti Nasim. Did you imagine this book, apart from representing contemporary, young voices, as also being a sort of historical record of queer poetry, where these fresh voices sit alongside more recognised names from earlier? Did you feel like the poems spoke to each other?

AK: Some parallels did jump out at us quite starkly. For instance, Santa Khurai writes very movingly about attending the funeral of her father as a nupi maanbi, an indigenous Meetei transwoman from Manipur, and the poem ends on the note that her father, with whom she had a conflicted relationship, was cremated in a ground that is not exclusive to any gender. In another poem by Chandni, a Kannada trans poet, even as she decides to shave off her hair at her father’s funeral, family members who have come to accept her ask her not to do that. It’s a deeply moving moment for her. And then in a poem by Malayalam trans poet Vijayarajamallika, there is a moment on a bus when folks are verbally harassing her and at some point they resolve their prurient curiosity about her gender by saying they’ll finally find out during her funeral, because the body will have to be washed then.

It was really quite stark that three poets from three different geographies brought an experience of “transness” through this particular moment of cremation, funeral, death ritual, because it calls out certain gendered experiences in a very thought-provoking fashion. This is just one example out of many other patterns that emerged. There was also, for example, just this sheer number of submissions, and poems that made it into the book as well, that we got from queer women about haircuts and what it means to finally make your hair look like the way you want it.

As far as it comes to big poets and small poets existing side by side, it was a very conscious decision. Aditi and I were both very keen to destabilise some of those hierarchies of the bigwigs and new emergent voices, because as long as the bigwigs remain on the top, the “emergent” voices remain perpetually emergent.

AA: It wasn’t necessarily us thinking about what kind of index we want to put together. When we started reading the submissions, a lot of those decisions were made just by looking at our inbox and realising that there are so many different kinds of experiences, like Akhil said—about family members, about haircuts, about the idea of home, about cooking—and we wanted to somehow put together this vastness in those 250 or so pages. Sometimes those experiences were being shared by well-known poets, other times it was somebody who sent in a poem just to see if it gets selected because they’d never done that before.

'The World That Belongs To Us: An Anthology of Queer Poetry from South Asia', edited by Aditi Angiras and Akhil Katyal; HarperCollins (2020)
'The World That Belongs To Us: An Anthology of Queer Poetry from South Asia', edited by Aditi Angiras and Akhil Katyal; HarperCollins (2020)

When I spoke of historicity earlier, I was thinking also about how you have someone like Sultan Padamsee in the book, who was born in Bombay in the 1920s and died young, at the age of 23, and writes beautifully in his poem about a relationship with someone who is “not my mistress not my wife”. Were you also trying to pay homage to writers who aren’t talked about as frequently or as widely today?

AK: We wanted to have a slightly flexible and long definition of “the contemporary” because so many voices in the early 21st century have been made possible due to the field laid out by poets in the mid to late 20th century. It was crucial to tip our hat to that legacy, whether it’s Sultan Padamsee, or the Pakistani-American poet Ifti Nasim, or the Urdu poet Firaq Gorakhpuri. These are voices that are not contemporary in the sense that they are no longer living but they have immense shaping influence on the contemporaneous.

The queer movement is often so fond of watersheds, where we say “the 2009 Delhi High Court judgment changed everything” or “the Supreme Court judgment changed everything”—the legal fight creates these superstar moments as if the ‘before’ is this dark alley in which nothing was possible. Yet there were people who resisted the darkness and made things possible, and they are part of the book. Having said that, I’m sure there are many, many voices, especially in non-English languages, which we are either not aware of, or perhaps did not work as hard to find out about. Those spirits will always haunt an anthology.

When you put out the call seeking submissions for the anthology, you tried to grapple with the complexity of what you were hoping to read. You wrote: “We want these poems to think about what this thing called a ‘queer life’, one-part beautiful one-part brutish, is made of. How gender and sexuality are not the only things behind it. How many aspects of our person and world – whether it be caste, class, age, size, religion, region, language or nationality – really make our relation to our genders and sexualities vitally possible. Your poems could engage with all this or spill over it. Your poems could answer what we wish or militate against it. Your poems could romanticize or demystify.” Could you tell me more about that? Did you feel like the submissions reflected what you were hoping for?

AK: In some instinctive sense, where one thinks of queer poetry, one tends to think of themes around gender and sexuality. And if you remain within that frame then it largely becomes about protest or anger, love or loss, loneliness, body, joy, social change, desire. But in several poems, whether it was Raqeeb Raza’s poem [What Does It Mean to Belong], Dhiren Borisa’s poem [Should I Mourn A Little Harder?], or a long poem by Gee Semmalar called Resistance Rap, we found that the connection with gender and sexuality was not given on a platter. What they actually do is raise, leaven, and expand the concerns, dimensions, points of interest, and points of passion for queer people. They also make it very evident that queer people, at any given point of their lives, are not just queer people. They happen to inhabit various kinds of identities, they happen to be at the crossroads of various kinds of social experiences. So if queer people can hold each of these experiences, then why can’t a queer anthology hold those experiences equally?

AA: This reminds me about how, three to four years ago, I was doing a poetry reading at IP College [in Delhi]. I was just reading whatever I had been writing—most of us don’t write from the lens of our work needing to qualify as a certain kind of poem—and afterwards, a professor from the college got up and asked me, “This was very good Aditi, but where was the gay in it?”

A lot of times when you read bios and how people introduce other writers, there is an expectation that it’s going to only speak about certain things in a certain way. I think that might even be the expectation [with this book] when people hit “buy” on Amazon or pick it up in a bookstore, but that is not how people live every day. A lot of them might seem to be speaking about themes and issues that might seem “unrelated” completely. But it’s about the context of reading those lines in a certain light—that is where a lot of thinking, understanding, and feeling is left to the reader as well. If you chance upon them anywhere else, you’d think it’s just about something like making food in the kitchen. And it often is about making food in the kitchen, right?

Yeah, especially with a literary project that has a strong sense of identity associated with it, whether by intention or how publishers package it, readers come with their own assumptions. So a queer poem is then seen as something that has to engage only with the sensual or the body, or with feelings of alienation. Were you thinking about that sense of expectation and subverting it while selecting the poems, or was it simply a question of what spoke to you the most?

AA: Yeah, I think it’s certainly the poems that spoke to us strongly that went in, but while selecting, or deciding what was happening on the page with a particular poem, we were also very aware of how our background of studying literature, and engaging with queerness through an academic lens, must have trained our minds to only think in a certain way. We wanted to stretch that and get out of that box. So it wasn’t about “quality” or “does this ring true?” but if the poem was speaking about something that we’ve felt before, or have always felt, but not read before. That is how a lot of the pieces spoke to me.

AK: Towards the end of this process, when it was finally coming together, if we were to imagine all these poems as some kind of satellites, we weren’t sure whether they were moving towards the centre and consolidating this thing called “queer” or whether they were moving away from it and dispersing it. So “queer” is an extremely crucial word, but it also remains a cover page convenience because it is able to bring together a host of experiences, whether it’s sexual desire or gendered experiences. It often gets spoken of in as many ways as possible, incorporating as many frames as possible, and that frame doesn’t necessarily have to be only that of body and desire. Having said that, there’s plenty of sensuality and eroticism in the book, some of it really, really moving and just crazily good.

You write about this in the preface as well, that “queer” was “an odd, lovely, but tentative bridge between us” and also express some discomfort with its fetishisation and its use as a catch-all umbrella term. Was that also partly informed by working with poets and translators across a multitude of languages for this book?

AK: Yeah, because if you were to ask almost half the people in this anthology if they use “queer” as a self descriptor, they don’t. Which is why even when the call had gone out, we included a host of names, identities, and ways of describing oneself, and then several people advised us to include even more, because “queer” did not cut it. It might be used as a word to suggest experiences of people in their body and in their desire but largely it has been used in activist and academic contexts, where in its ideal, it stands for those who are against the social grain in some way. So we were able to hold on to that larger meaning to mobilise the word. But if you were to ask if that particular word has to have salience in the lives of people for them to be in a queer poetry anthology—not at all.

AA: We had to cut the word in all ways possible to look at how much we could expand it to hold a lot more, maybe not as a noun, but sometimes as a verb, and then to figure out what it is not capable of even coming close to. For a cover, however, there is a certain bookshelf value to certain terms, and we did not want it to be restricted to simply, say, “LGBT”.

The book has come out at a particularly strange time, when the ludicrousness of the idea of this one big homogenous “community” has finally been laid completely bare, as we’ve witnessed a rising right-wing response among a lot of gay men particularly, when it comes to the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir, or the anti-CAA protests, and the arrest of a student at Mumbai Pride. Have you been thinking about that, especially since you mentioned the restrictions of “LGBT”, which for a lot of people is still synonymous with queer?

AK: As editors of this volume, we are very critical of some of the usages which LGBT politics or queer politics is often put to. For instance, when a BJP spokesperson used the term “LGBTQ community” to justify jingoistic moves in Kashmir in August last year. In their false explanation, they suggest that “this move is good for Kashmiri queer people”, which is not true on the ground at all. Sometimes invoking “LGBTQ” is a way to earn some kind of easy, progressive credentials for a move that is entirely fascist in nature. It’s an old pinkwashing routine used by the Israeli army and American foreign policy, which the Indian right wing has only learned recently. Such a kind of oppressive mobilisation of “queer” or “LGBT” would not make it to a volume like this because in truly fundamental terms, that’s not queer politics. It’s an absolutely disingenuous perversion of what queer politics could be in our part of the world today.

AA: I think specifically when it comes to this set of acronyms, when these alphabets are travelling to the tip of your tongue, they’re trampling over a lot for you to be able to pronounce it as just LGBT. I find myself extremely uncomfortable with that because it gives precedence to certain kinds of identities.

Yeah, and I’ve been thinking about how this book, in its imagining and execution, is an assertively inclusive and diverse work. But the very act of curation and editorial judgement is also an inherently exclusionary one. How did you go about navigating that process? Was it something that sat with you uncomfortably?

AA: Yeah, you’re right. We were poking each submission from various directions. It was not about whether it was saying something deep and meaningful or whether it was sticking to the kinds of themes we wanted to build on, but sometimes there was this scepticism of: “what is it trying to say?”. Are we reading too much into it, have we not read it from enough distance? There were some submissions that made us uncomfortable, when looking at it from our sense of queer politics, and we took the liberty to not include certain kinds of pieces. Because I wouldn’t say it’s uncommon for a gay poem to be Islamophobic or transphobic. That exclusion has been a part of this process.

AK: The other aspect which makes it absolutely clear that anthologies are as much about excluding as including is that this purports to be a South Asian anthology. But considering the linguistic diversity of the region, the book ultimately has been able to incorporate poems from only 10 languages—Bengali, English, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Punjabi, Nepali, Marathi, Malayalam, and Urdu. Even when the call went out, it went out in only about seven languages.

And then there are other kinds of exclusion. With this anthology, the contributors got an author copy and Rs 1,000 for a poem, and if it was a translation, that got halved. For instance, we wanted to include this wonderful Tamil poet in the book. They said they’re working to address pay inequality in mainstream publishing and genuinely thought that the amount was not enough. The publishers had their own framing. They said that poetry publishing is inherently stringent and is a resource-wise limited sphere. We respected their decision, of course, but we couldn’t manage to satisfactorily address their issue.

What helped us make the editorial decisions was asking if there was any one thing—one phrase, one line, one word, one cluster of lines—that leapt out at us and held our attention in one way or another. Between us, we were familiar with Hindi, English, Urdu, and Punjabi. But even if a translator was reading out the submissions for us in English, and explaining it to us, or even if it was a poem whose English was not as “polished”, whatever that means, as some other submissions, the core of the poem, which moved us in one particular way, definitely still came through.

So the decision was partly made by this quasi-mysterious moment, when something speaks to you. Other than that, I guess if there were tried and tested cliches, offered through a very thin contextual cover, with a very thin surface of language, and if there was little recoverable from a poem, according to our limited understanding, then sometimes it did not make it in. But credit goes to our contributors, in that more than half of them worked with us on the poems, where we suggested edits.

The other instance was when we saw some “behalfist” poetry, where you don’t inhabit an identity position in any meaningful way, and yet are writing on behalf of that position in an entirely entitled way, then those poems did not make it.

AA: In the early stages, as emails kept coming in, we would read through them, pick out a selection that each of us liked, and at the end of the day, we would just get on a call and talk about the poems, and sometimes try to convince each other about why a certain poem should go in. We would then keep it aside for a few days or a few weeks and return to it to read together, and if it still made a lot of sense, that’s when we would reach out to the writers about it.

AK: And when we asked them if they’d be happy to work with us on edits for the poems, that thread sometimes lasted a few weeks, sometimes a few months. If a translator was involved, then it was a triangular thread. Some of those conversations have been really meaty, often between people who didn’t know each other, worked together, which is the benefit of a project like this.

“There were some submissions that made us uncomfortable, when looking at it from our sense of queer politics, and we took the liberty to not include certain kinds of pieces. Because I wouldn’t say it’s uncommon for a gay poem to be Islamophobic or transphobic. That exclusion has been a part of this process.”

- Aditi Angiras

Both of you have years of experience being deeply immersed in poetry as writers and performers. Did going through this fairly intense process change how you view the form? What did you discover about how poetry, and what kind of poetry, finds platforms and publishers?

AA: I come from the space of organising poetry events to get young adults and college students on the stage reading for the first time, and the idea there is completely different—that whoever wanted to read whatever they thought was important would know where to go. The book was a huge leap.

Personally, I still just get online and I write in that little box on Facebook, and within the next hour or two, I’m done with the poem and I post it. There is no editorial process, and there hasn’t ever been. I’m not sure how people work with editors because I am not sure I would be one of them (laughs). That was a humbling exercise—to understand and listen to the other person, while also knowing that you wouldn’t be comfortable on the other side of the table. It taught me a lot more than I had imagined editing would.

AK: Poetry gets this kind of step-parent treatment in the mainstream publishing sphere, but it’s also the most robust genre in that it is most survivable outside that sphere as well. Because of its length, because of its form, it can survive in other forums—online, pamphlets, chapbooks—in a way that little else can. One of the things we realised is that queer poetry is a wide, wide field. There are different chambers and spaces where queer poetry is being read out and is creating community. Some of these spaces know each other and some of them don’t. And that’s fine. Books create certain “canonical” moments but since poetry easily exists outside that canon as well, that makes this book not just one of many books, but also one of many sites where poetry can be accessed.

The other thing about the form, especially as the marriage debate [for queer folks] is coming to India in a certain kind of bumbling language where the template is again about moving from “unfreedom” to “freedom” or from “darkness” to “light”, is the way in which poetry just short circuits that. Poetry is not newspaper reportage, it isn’t a policy paper, it isn’t think-tank literature, it’s not a government Act or its rules, so it is able to bypass all their limitations. The Trans Act might make certain claims about what bureaucratic definition of trans people is supposed to be, quite in opposition to the NALSA judgment which you’ll remember allowed self-determination of gender, and yet if you read poetry by trans individuals themselves in this anthology, and the circuits of desire, definition and dexterity that they open up, the Act can be seen for what it is—a harmful document in its scope and understanding, as many trans activists have been saying for the past many, many months.

Poetry is able to tell you the backstory behind the slogan, it is able to tell you the affective route that people have taken to reach their political way of thinking. That’s just what the lyric poem does that other genres can not do. Other forms of writing often take identity as self-evident. Poetry opens it up.