In an interview with The Village Voice, published in 1984 titled ‘James Baldwin on Being Gay in America’, the novelist and essayist made a remark that really struck a chord with me, something that I am always cognizant of when I read something that, more often than not, is too-simplistically classified as ‘queer literature’. “Giovanni’s Room is not really about homosexuality. It’s the vehicle through which the book moves,” he said in the interview, referring to his 1956 novel about an American man living in Paris who struggles to come to terms with his sexuality. “It’s about what happens to you if you’re afraid to love anybody, which is more interesting than the question of homosexuality,” said Baldwin.
This need to break away from the pigeonholing of books with queer characters into a single, reductive category such as ‘queer literature’ hit me anew when I read, Boulder, Spanish poet and writer Eva Baltasar’s slim, powerful novella that was recently shortlisted for the International Booker Prize. While the complexities of queer parenthood are a vital aspect of the book, an intense, incredibly sensual story of the relationship between a cook on a merchant ship and Samsa, her Scandinavian lover, the overarching theme is universal: a meditation on the never-ending tussle between intimacy and independence. In an interview with the UK-based Pink News, an online newspaper for the queer community, Baltasar talks about why telling queer stories with nuance helps normalise them, she says, adding in that same interview that she is thrilled “not only to be giving voice and visibility to [the LGBTQ+] community but also to all the people and communities who, for whatever reason, feel uncomfortable living in our society or have no choice but to struggle through every day just to be true to who they feel they are.”
Boulder is the latest addition to some brilliant pieces of literature that explore various facets of the queer experience, unencumbered by tired cliches or the need to pander to heteronormativity. One of the best-known, of course, is Alan Hollinghurst’s 2004 The Line of Beauty, which won the Man Booker Prize, that tells the story of Nick, a gay, young man, negotiating politics, class, drugs and desire, in Britain in the 1980s, as the shadow of HIV/AIDS draws closer. And yes, not a novel but one of the finest pieces of journalism I’ve ever read about politics, sexuality and the AIDS crisis is Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. In the book, published in 1987, Shilts blames the apathy of institutions towards disease, claiming that because the initial victims were gay men, America reacted too slowly to the AIDS crisis. “AIDS remained a fundamentally gay disease, newsworthy only by the virtue of the fact that it sometimes hit people who weren’t gay,” wrote Shilts, who sadly succumbed to the disease in 1994, aged 42. “What society judged was not the severity of the disease but the social acceptability of the individuals affected with it.”
Social acceptance, or rather the absolute lack of it, comes up in Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, a book with lines of raw beauty and tenderness. “He was a boy breaking out and into himself at one. That’s what I wanted—not merely the body, desirable as it was, but its will to grow into the very world that rejects its hunger,” writes the protagonist, nicknamed Little Dog in this epistolary, coming-of-age novel that touches on so many things. Burgeoning sexuality, of course, but also the long shadow cast by the Vietnam War, the immigrant experience, America’s opioid crisis, toxic masculinity, trauma and so much more in haunting prose.
Another book with equally unique prose is Girl, Woman, Other, that rambunctious, clever, polyphonic ode to the (mostly) queer, black, female experience in Britain that won the Man Booker in 2019. The next year’s Man Booker winner, Douglas Stuart’s semi-autobiographical Shuggie Bain, a bleak and sordid story written in absolutely sublime prose, also had at its centre, a queer character: Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, who is grappling with his own sexuality and his mother’s alcoholism, desperately trying to escape the squalidness of his life in working-class Glasgow.
As someone whose writing journey began with the letters that I wrote my grandfather as a child, letters, especially those centred around love and longing, hold a special place. Some of the most exquisite love letters are those written by Virginia Woolf to her lover, the English poet Vita Sackville-West, and the passionate missives that Oscar Wilde writes to his muse and lover, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. “It is a marvel that those red rose-leaf lips of yours should be made no less for the madness of music and song than for the madness of kissing,” writes Wilde in one letter, adding. “Your slim gilt soul walks between passion and poetry.”
Talking about poetry, I’d also recommend the work of Hoshang Merchant and Akhil Katyal, both of whom are part of The Penguin Book of Indian Poets edited by Jeet Thayil. The former, a pioneer of gay liberation, and one of the first openly gay poets in India who often credits Anais Nin with being a powerful influence, was the editor of Yaarana: Gay Writing from India, published in 1999 at a time when talking about gay sexuality was still taboo. And, yes, Sappho, always Sappho, that ancient poet from the island of Lesbos, whose lyrical love poetry, perhaps the oldest in the Western tradition, still endures. “This is my fair girl-garden: sweet they grow…Rose, violet, asphodel and lily’s snow,” she writes in a poem dedicated to her girlfriends. “And which the sweetest is, I do not know.”
Pride Month is observed in June to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall riots in the U.S., but these books – and letters – tell universal stories of love, loss, identity and so much more. I end, where I begin with Baldwin, who in a 1963 interview with Life Magazine, spoke about literature being an archive of the human experience. “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read,” he said, adding, “It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”