- Writers Retreat
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In this enlightening conversation, writers Gabrielle Bellot and SJ Sindu discuss art vs. activism, marginalized identities, and being labeled a queer author.
Gabrielle Bellot grew up in the Commonwealth of Dominica. She has contributed work to or has work forthcoming in The New York Times, Slate, Guernica, Tin House, The Toast, VIDA, The Normal School, the blogs of Prairie Schooner and The Missouri Review, and other places, and she was featured on The Butter’s ‘This Writer’s On Fire’ column. She is a doctoral candidate in Creative Writing at Florida State University and is working on her first novel. Twitter: @GabbyBellot
SJ Sindu’s debut novel, Marriage of a Thousand Lies, is forthcoming in 2017 from Soho Press. She has received scholarships from the Lambda Literary Retreat, the New York State Summer Writers Institute, and the Nebraska Summer Writers Conference. Her creative writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity, The Normal School, The Los Angeles Review of Books, apt, Vinyl Poetry, VIDA, Autostraddle, Black Girl Dangerous, and elsewhere. Sindu is a Ph.D. student at Florida State University. Twitter: @sjsindu
Gabrielle Bellot: I’m so glad you could make it today. We have a lot to talk about–identity, queerness, how writers like us fit into, or are marketed by, the publishing industry–and when you contacted me about this chat, it seemed necessary, vital. But let’s begin at the beginning, with why you had the idea for this chat in the first place. Who are you as a writer? Why did you want to talk about these things?
SJ Sindu: I’ve been seriously pursuing a career in writing now for about eight years, and I’ve noticed the changes in the last decade within publishing: this move toward eBooks, this increasing corporatization of publishing as companies merge, this trend of brick-and-mortar bookstores going out of business. And everyone is impacted, of course, but I think the emerging environment gives us marginalized writers–queer, of color, immigrant, etc.–new opportunities and challenges. Queer writers and writers of color are still pretty isolated from each other, especially in terms of emerging writers. We’re isolated and fighting against the same systemic issues, so I think it’s important to air these thoughts and hopefully, by doing so, help each other.
For me as a Sri Lankan American queer, genderqueer writer, this distance between queer and of-color writers also causes a split inside myself. Do I market myself as a writer of color or a queer writer? Or a queer writer of color? As I add more and more identities into my marketing folio, don’t I become more and more a niche writer in the eyes of the publishing industry? These are all questions I’m thinking about, especially with respect to how to market my debut novel. So this conversation is timely for me.
What about you? When I contacted you, what drew you to this idea?
Bellot: Very interesting! I am a queer, trans-feminine writer from the Commonwealth of Dominica, who left the Caribbean because I didn’t feel like I could live openly and safely as a trans woman in my home. It’s certainly indisputable that the publishing industry has undergone a number of significant changes both on its surface and beneath it–and this not only affects bookstores being swept up, as you rightly pointed out, but also how, for instance, texts will be marketed for translations in other nations’ or communities’ markets. Not all of us are fortunate enough to even imagine future translations, but when we are, it can, sometimes, affect how we write if we are thinking more about how we are going to be marketed than about our narratives. I think of Kazuo Ishiguro, for instance, telling Spiegel Magazine that he wrote in a simple, plain style partly because he had future translation in mind, and that kind of simplicity expedites the process. I’m interested in how our choice of language, our identities, our obstacles to getting into the industry, our obstacles to not being pegged down by marketing labels that may hide rather than help us, etc., affects us as queer writers of color who both have multi-national backgrounds.
As someone who is working on a novel that contains some queer themes and that takes place in the Caribbean, I’m curious about how such texts are–or should be–marketed and publicized. So often, we are reduced to “exotic” or “unusual” aspects of our identity for marketing purposes, with queerness one of those aspects. I certainly want my identity known. But I worry it can be used to bury some of us beneath it as a kind of label of expectation for what we “will” do as writers.
On that note, what are your feelings on being labeled a queer or trans writer? Do you think the label is limiting? Fitting? Useful?
Sindu: I think it’s both limiting and useful. As a queer reader, it’s immensely helpful to me to be able to identify other queer writers. And as a teacher, I can easily include queer writers in my syllabi. But as a writer, my relationship with the “queer” label is complicated.
My first novel is about a Sri Lankan American lesbian, and I wrote it partly because it spoke to me and partly because of the lack of queer South Asian women characters in English-language literature. It’s the kind of book that I wanted to read when I was young. The closest I ever got to seeing my identities in print was Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy, about a young gay Sri Lankan boy, and Tanuja Desai Hidier’s Born Confused, an Indian American YA novel that features a lesbian subplot. When I was in the closet and struggling with feeling isolated, these books saved me. But what I really wanted was a book that centered my experience–which sounds selfish on the surface, but when you think about the amount of books that center a white straight cis male experience, this is not an unreasonable yearning.
So I wrote that book. And luckily, it got picked up for publication. But now that it’s in the works and will be in the world soon, I’m conflicted. I know that my queer identity as a writer will probably be used in the marketing for the book, and that’s partly why readers would pick it up, but I also want the book to be taken on aesthetic terms. I want it to be read by non-queer, non-South Asian readers as well. I think real progress lies in cultivating the empathy of privileged readers, and part of that project is identifying marginalized stories as universal, instead of “niche.”
Bellot: These are some powerful points: why it matters so much for us to have models for our own experiences in literature, especially when we may have been forced to submerge that experience out of fear for the consequences of making it too visible. Who-we-are can become like a shipwreck, which literature allows us to dive down for a bit to see, suddenly vast and beautiful and mundane and extraordinary before us. Without such models, it can be hard to continue on as closeted persons, as reluctant divers, so to speak, sometimes.
And it is also, of course, important to talk about how cis white male narratives so often dictate basic assumptions about narratives in far too many contexts in the United States in particular. I think here of how Junot Diaz, in “MFA vs. POC,” spoke of the way that our writing programmes and our writing workshops so often have this kind of assumed whiteness–and straight cis-ness, I would add–until proved otherwise about them. For instance, the way–which you and I have no doubt both experienced–that a character or narrator in a story being workshopped in our classes so often appears to be assumed white, straight, and cis- unless marked otherwise. Certainly, it is not unreasonable to make assumptions about certain character attributes if a story takes place in certain cultural spaces. But these assumptions are ultimately just that: assumptions, ones that reveal biases that often serve to quietly erase us, even if the people making these assumptions are not aware of these biases. I try to talk to my students about this, like when I taught Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif,” a short story that interrogates these assumptions in terms of race and wherein neither protagonist is clearly black or white, but their race matters within the story. But these assumptions can be hard to let go of when you are so accustomed to living with them.
On the other hand, mentioning such details, like labeling a character “biracial” or “queer” instantly gets your story branded “exotic” and “unique” by the people commenting, which is sometimes a cover for not knowing how to respond, and being afraid of saying something wrong. This doesn’t help us. How do you think we should address all of this as queer teachers and writers of color?
Sindu: I approach the situation very differently as a writer than as a teacher. As a teacher, I try to be as patient as possible with my students, while at the same time challenging them and encouraging them to engage with the material in critical ways. “Recitatif,” for example, is one of my favorite stories to teach, because for many students, it’s as if Morrison suddenly shines a light on their internalized racism. They get angry, they thrash against Morrison’s refusal to name the races of her characters. They want to know, and be able to easily classify the characters according to their learned system. As a teacher, I let them get angry, let them vent their frustrations, and then try to guide them toward growth.
But as a writer, I don’t think it’s my job to do that kind of work. My job is to present the material, period, not to engage with my reader’s discomfort. I don’t believe we’re responsible for the reader’s growth. We tell our stories, and hope for the best. At least, I do.
Bellot: That last statement is very interesting. It reminds me of Eleanor Catton talking about literature and elitism, wherein she talked about the way that it is up to a reader to have an encounter with a text, not for a text to fulfill a kind of demand as if it is a product. The reader grows if they engage with it, but we are not responsible for the reader’s comfort or discomfort with the material itself.
Sindu: Yes! And I keep also thinking about Toni Morrison’s essay “Home” (from The House That Race Built), in which she laments that critics only seem to want to engage with her writing for its (racial) content and not for its aesthetics. As a writer, aesthetic and voice considerations are so important to my process, and I hate the idea that most of a reader’s and critic’s engagement with my work will be content-driven instead of aesthetic. I want my writing to be an aesthetic experience, and the queer/of color content makes that hard for many readers.
Bellot: Hmm! I’m also thinking now, too, of Casey Plett’s short pieces in A Safe Girl to Love, which won a Lammy last year in the transgender fiction category. Plett’s trans characters, unlike so many other gender-non-conforming figures of this kind in recent fiction, are not usually explicitly marked trans from the start; we learn more about their identities as the narrative unfurls, which gives us room to learn about them as characters, as people, who happen to be trans. It’s not that marking gender identity or queerness is bad or unimportant in all cases but rather that *assumptions* about what those markings should be often, as you said, reveal internalized things we may fear to make external, from homophobia to racism to casual misogyny and Othering.
And now I’m intrigued by the last part of what you said because so often, in academia, we focus on the content of texts in terms of their politics, their characters’ identities and sexualities, etc. I do think it’s important to do this, but it is true that it can also completely overshadow the fact that texts that contain queer themes and/or that focus on non-white characters are also works of art like any other text, not texts that are solely defined by their queer or non-white content.
This leads to my big question for you, one I struggle with. As transnational queer writers who have a background or grew up in Commonwealth countries outside of the United States, are there any special challenges you think we face or things we need to address? Our identities, after all, so often are multiple: same-sex marriage is legal in the country we live in now, but is not in either Dominica or Sri Lanka, and rights for LGBTQ individuals, while varied between countries, are ultimately generally lacking in the wider Caribbean and across South Asia broadly. Do we need to talk about this in whatever we write due to our backgrounds?
Sindu: I think whether or not we want to talk about our identities explicitly, they are so much a part of us that we can’t escape them. For me, all these considerations bleed into my writing. Even if my characters aren’t queer, they have queer moments. In a recent short story I wrote, I have a character, Amit, who is an Indian American man, straight, recently divorced, but who has a moment with a stranger–a man who steps close to him to light his cigarette–where Amit shivers because he hasn’t been so close to another human in weeks. Possible queer moment. In the novel I’m drafting now, my main character is a young Indian boy growing up in an ashram, and his romantic relationships are with women, but his close relationship with his male cousin has queer overtones.
Similarly, the question of race (and being other) enters into my writing even when it’s not supposed to be part of the narrative. Because of our lived realities as transnational queer writers of color, our writing is steeped in these issues, and will be tinted by them, whether we directly address them or not. All of this said, however, I guess I do agree with Faulkner’s statement that the writer’s only responsibility is to their art. But like Zoe Heller points out in a column for the New York Review of Book , we don’t have to be terrible people, either. We don’t have to plunder and pillage for our art. We don’t have to rob our mothers. And in the same column, Francine Prose says that writers run into problems when they give their stories a mission. I agree. I would like to think that my work will change the world. Wouldn’t we all? But I can’t think about that when I’m writing. I have to focus on the work. The art, and only the art, must exist for me in that mind-space. Nothing else. And at the same time, I know that my mindspace, which was constructed by the lived realities of my life (including my identity as a transnational queer writer of color), will inevitably slant my writing.
What about you? Do you think we need to directly address these issues? Even when you don’t directly engage with these issues, do you find them seeping into your writing?
Bellot: The seepage is strong, certainly. I don’t think we have a *requirement* to hold any specific political or ethical positions in our writing, since we should be free to write about anything we like–but that whatever we *do* write is inescapably tied to the person writing it at some level. All writing is political at some level. Roland Barthes talked about the importance of interpreting a text as if the author is dead or does not exist; I don’t think it is possible to write from any perspective entirely outside of ours, since we can’t really escape ourselves. Philosophical conundrums. So our biases will almost always seep into our work, at some level. We all write from a particular position and place, as Stuart Hall said. For me, art can be activism, and activism can be art, but not every piece of art I create will be a form of engaging with my identity as a trans woman in different forms of exile–geographic, social. Some people will even write off your work that is not explicitly activist as a kind of waste of time–and I think this is wrong. Let us be who we are as artists. Explicit activism and art often intersect, but sometimes, they do not, and both can be okay.
With that said, we have a responsibility to try to honestly engage with whatever we write about. When we write about marginalized groups, we have a special responsibility to try to get things right, as well as to admit when we have gotten something wrong.
Sindu: Yes, I definitely agree, especially with your last point.
Bellot: So I am not absolutely against a cis author writing about trans women or vice versa; we just need to be responsible, to always think of who we are writing about and for.
Sindu: And why.
Bellot: And to acknowledge that sometimes we may not be the right person to write about this or that topic because we have begun to talk for a group in an absolute way.
Sindu: And there’s also a difference between writing about the other in an objectifying, superficial way, and writing as other in a way that engages with a character’s primary humanness, whatever their identities might be. But in any writing, we as artists have the responsibility to represent the lived realities of our characters, and if those lived realities are not our own, then we should be willing to do the hard work of learning.
Bellot: Well said!
Sindu: I want to quickly address what you said about your art not always being activism. I agree. My art is art. But I as a person consider myself an activist. And activist and a writer. Which I think is different from an activist writer. A subtle nuance but such an important distinction. Even though at times my activism and art intersect, like you said, they don’t have to, and that is a freedom I will fight for.
As a close, I want to ask a question that most writers are asked. But being a writer with marginalized identities often means getting asked this question in leading ways. (i.e. Do you feel that your work is influenced by so-and-so?) So without any leading, with the field of options as wide open as possible, I’ll ask you this: What are the works and writers you consider the most influential on your writing? To whose work has your writing been compared and to whom do you compare your work? Where does your work fit, in your opinion, both narratively and aesthetically?
Bellot: Well, firstly, I certainly agree with your distinction about activism and art, and that was essentially what I meant. I do work that I consider activist, and I also do other work that isn’t explicitly activist, and sometimes I’ve been worried that I will be stuffed into a drawer labelled “Queer Writer” something similar, without what is true for most of us being acknowledged: that we can be, and are, many things all at once. I guess I want to be a queer writer of colour and just a writer, each label appropriate in context.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez has long been my strongest influence, along with writers like Borges, Nabokov, Woolf, and Derek Walcott. Some of their texts, particularly for Marquez and Borges, can be highly gendered, and realising that made me feel the weight of why it was necessary to also read more writers who explode gender, who cross gender lines. So I’m also excited by writers like Shani Mootoo and Marlon James, who explore Caribbean queerness in a variety of important ways. For me, my work is Caribbean in all the broadness of that term, and I want to be able to make readers both comfortable and uncertain of certain assumptions all at once. What about you and your work?
Sindu: Shyam Selvadurai was one of the earliest influences on my work–because he taught me that I could write about South Asian queerness. Tim O’Brien taught me I could write about war–which, for me, was a revelation. As a survivor of war, I’d been struggling to articulate the ways in which fear, death, and violence become normalized in that type of environment, how my childhood stories permeate with a strange bloodiness (literal and metaphorical). O’Brien was important in me figuring out how to write about those experiences. Alison Bechdel, Dorothy Allison, and Jeanette Winterson are also important to me. Winterson especially, because she’s such a voice-driven writer, because she experiments with form and syntax, and her writing engages with the reader on a meta level. But I also love Cormac McCarthy, with his over-the-top masculinist characters and gritty prose. It definitely speaks to my more masculine-of-center personality.
Bellot: I love Bechdel, Winterson, and McCarthy, as well! I always think that we can draw from writers from so many distinct traditions, that a writer from one side of the world or from an era gone by can speak to us as clearly as one from the next. It seems that a common thread, for both of us, is the way that our queerness is inextricably intertwined to our writing, yet we also wish to avoid being exoticised and marketed as if solely for white cis-het readers that will presumably view us as ‘special’ and non-normative. We must speak out to keep this conversation going. We must speak to help avoid a kind of accidental segregation in which we become pushed aside into a place of exoticism and inexplicable Otherness. It has been a pleasure speaking with you about all this.
Sindu: Well said. Conversations like this are important, and I feel so excited that as an emerging writer I get to share the stage and the world with writers like you.