Loading the content... Loading depends on your connection speed!

Shopping Cart - Rs. 0

Author Archives: Neeta Subbaiah

Narratives about Therapy and Recovering from Mental Illness

Reviewing commonly occurring themes in three novels and memoirs that explore queerness and mental illness in women: Kari by Amruta Patil, My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness by Kabi Nagata, and Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel.


Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama is the companion piece to Alison Bechdel’s previous work, Fun Home. Both are graphic memoirs exploring Bechdel’s relationship with each of her parents. However, Are You My Mother? also recounts Bechdel’s struggle with her mental health, and details her desire to understand her own psyche. The book is not a sequential narrative of illness and recovery, but of Bechdel’s attempt to come to terms with having an unaffectionate mother when she was growing up.

The book begins with Bechdel trying to find the right words to tell her mother that she is writing a memoir about their relationship. The memoir is, in parts, about this mother-daughter relationship, about Bechdel’s journey with mental health and psychotherapy, and about the process of her writing Are You My Mother? It immediately brings to mind Kabi Nagata’s My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness, which is another autobiographical memoir, featuring a lesbian protagonist suffering from mental illness.

Both Nagata and Bechdel explore recovery through the process of writing. Nagata makes it known that writing is itself a way out for her. She tries to find things to write about, ultimately turning to her own experiences. When she runs out of ways in which to push herself to write and recover, she creates situations for herself to live through. Bechdel, on the other hand, shifts from past to present to dream. Her religious note-taking becomes useful in accurately representing her mother, all while being self-critical and analytical as well. Bechdel is compelling for the incredible self-awareness with which she narrates her own breakdown.

Bechdel revisits memories and dreams from her childhood, almost always involving her mother, that left long-lasting impressions on her. All chapters begin in an ambiguous dreamscape (much like that in Kari), where Bechdel, as she undergoes psychotherapy, tries to rationalise events from her childhood as reasons for her behaviour as an adult. Despite regularly visiting a therapist, Bechdel invests significant energy studying and decoding her own behaviour and emotions, for instance, interpreting and applying Donald Winnicott’s theories of child psychology to events from her own childhood.

In contrast lies Amruta Patil’s Kari. While Are You My Mother? and My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness try to explain and analyse mental illness by diving into the past, Kari simply narrates events from her daily life that are ordinary, but also leave her distressed. The only memories that Kari talks about are those that she spent with Ruth, her ex-lover. Unlike Bechdel and Nagata who linger in events of the past, Kari is firmly founded in the present. Kari does not try to come to terms with the past, necessarily; she prefers instead to move on.

From accepting mental illness to reconciling oneself with past events, all three protagonists approach their motivation to go on differently. Bechdel, however, brings to attention an important fact of recovery: there is no definite way about it and that ‘progress’ is not always linear. Recovery and coming to an understanding of the self is a continually evolving process, one which requires several steps and a lot of care. She takes us through her own confrontations, the determination with which she sets about trying to get better. She obsesses and tries and teaches herself psychoanalysis. In the work she puts into understanding herself and moving towards a more holistic self, Bechdel inspires.


Bechdel, Alison. Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama. Boston: Mariner, 2013.

Nagata, Kabi. My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness. Translated by Jocelyne Allen.Los Angeles: Seven Seas Entertainment, 2017.

Patil, Amruta. Kari. New Delhi: Harper Collins Publishers India, 2008.

Narratives about 'Normalcy', Heteronormativity and Mental Illness

Reviewing commonly occurring themes in four novels and memoirs that explore queerness and mental illness in women: Kari by Amruta Patil, My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness by Kabi Nagata, Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdeland Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.


Kari is a fictional graphic novel, set in what the eponymous protagonist calls ‘Smog City’. Although she uses colour sparsely, Amruta Patil’s dark palette compliments the tone of the book, and her illustrations bring life to a dull and suffocating city. The novel begins with the attempted double suicide of Kari and Ruth, a lesbian couple. Ruth is saved by safety nets and leaves the city, while Kari lands in the sewers. Ruth moves on; Kari survives to resume daily life in Smog City. The drawing on the novel’s first page echoes Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait The Two Fridas (1939) bringing to attention the intimacy of the relationship between Kari and Ruth. Not the same person, but not separate.

After this fall, though, Kari is presented to us as a single entity, without Ruth — but Kari herself struggles to come to terms with this separation. Her alter-ego, ‘Danger Chhori’, takes on the responsibility of unclogging sewers, as a way of repaying the city that saved her, and perhaps also as a metaphor of the process of her recovery. The reason for the attempted suicide is not explicit, but the novel lets us in on the facets of Kari’s life that trouble her — one of which is the pervasive heteronormativity in the city.

In the novel, Kari’s roommates and their boyfriends, her co-workers, and her parents insist on how normal the act of settling down with a man. Kari’s mother warns her that all women want to get married, and Ruth will too. Her roommates suggest that she date a man to get over Ruth. Her co-worker asks if she is a ‘proper lesbian’. And yet, despite all this, the novel never suggests that Kari’s illness is due to her homosexuality. Until not very long ago, it was a common belief that homosexuality caused mental illness (madness, back in the day — though cultures often persist in making this connection today. The biological, psychological and external factors that cause mental illnesses are dismissed, and the sexuality of the person is instead held responsible. Further, across different parts of the world the pseudoscience of ‘conversion therapy’ is still administered to those who are suspected of not being heterosexual, employing those methods that are otherwise used in the treatment of other mental illnesses.) However, Kari manages to pin the toxic heteronormativity of Smog City as the reason for its protagonist’s illness, not her attraction to the same sex.

Two other graphic novels/memoirs featuring lesbian protagonists, Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? and Kabi Nagata’s My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness, tackle a similar issue. Bechdel dismisses her homosexuality as a possible cause for her mental illness/psychic conflicts very early in her novel. Nagata does not linger much on the topic of her sexuality. Her preoccupation with other incidents in her life, however, suggest that she doesn’t believe her attraction to women is what makes her ill.

Although not a graphic novel, Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (major spoilers ahead) also grapples with this idea. Sue Trinder doesn’t spend much time agonising over her attraction to Maud Lilly. None of the problems they face are because of their relationship. Even after Sue has been outed and begins to notice how differently her caretakers at the asylum treat the other inmates, Sue doesn’t believe that she’s mad. Apart from the betrayal she feels at having her sexuality used as a ploy to declare her insane, it doesn’t become the reason for her questioning her sanity (major spoilers end).

Kari is special for not only being one of few graphic novels with a lesbian protagonist, but also for not shying away from confronting its straight readers with their complicity in creating a heteronormative world. Patil treats Kari and Ruth in the same way that she treats the heterosexual relationships in the novel — without embellishment. Yet, she manages to bring attention to the stark differences in which their relationship is treated by others. Where Bechdel and Nagata’s works only imply the effects of a majoritarian heteronormative society on their queer protagonists, Kari explores this explicitly and does so successfully and sensitively. In this, it reflects movingly on the reality of being different in a city that only prescribes to the conventional.

 


Bechdel, Alison. Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama. Boston: Mariner, 2013.

Nagata, Kabi. My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness. Translated by Jocelyne Allen.Los Angeles: Seven Seas Entertainment, 2017.

Patil, Amruta. Kari. New Delhi: Harper Collins Publishers India, 2008.

Waters, Sarah. Fingersmith. London: Virago Press, 2002.


Narratives about Mental Illness, Family and Unreturned Affection

Reviewing commonly occuring themes in three novels and memoirs that explore queerness and mental illness in women: My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness by Kabi Nagata, Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel, and Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.


Kabi Nagata’s My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness begins in a racy love hotel. It takes less than two pages to realise that this manga only looks racy. Instead, we follow Nagata as she narrates the journey of coming to terms with her mental illnesses and her attempts to recover from them. Nagata’s autobiographical manga is illustrated in a beautiful two-tone palette that manages to make the main character (Nagata) charming. The story, however, is not about her charm.

The manga is an account of Nagata’s decision to move on from her yearning to please her family (more on this below) by doing something for herself and trying to awaken her sex drive. Nagata is very frank. She doesn’t hesitate to graphically depict the violence that comes with suffering from a mental illness. She doesn’t hesitate to draw naked bodies that are scarred. She doesn’t hesitate to bring attention to these scars. But what’s interesting is how she doesn’t hesitate to speak of her family either. One would assume that writing or drawing, in a memoir, about family who is likely to read what you’ve written would make you not write about them. But Nagata’s family’s presence is essential to her story. And not because they’re immensely supportive.

Nagata identifies her drive to be a good daughter as one of the reasons for her not putting herself first. She strives to be everything that her parents want her to be. She wants to get a job and pay bills and prove she’s a worthy daughter. For the longest time, she lets herself believe that being this ideal daughter is what she wants, slowly coming to terms with the fact that this ideal is at the root of her mental illness.

Another reason she identifies for her illness is her need for physical affection. Specifically, from her mother, or someone who feels like a mother, or someone who would make her feel like she’s being mothered. It’s the lack of fulfilment of this need from her own mother, who perhaps doesn’t understand or think of physical affection in the same way, that leads Nagata to search for and consequently discover that she’s not alone in this longing.

In this context, Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? immediately comes to mind: it’s another autobiographical, illustrated, queer story that explores the extended effect of not receiving attention and affection from the mother. Both Bechdel’s full-length graphic books, also memoirs, deal with the relationships she shared with her parents (the first being Fun Home,  about her father). The similarity of themes explored in Bechdel’s work and in my Lesbian Experience with Loneliness goes to show that, indeed, Nagata is not alone.

Oftentimes, Nagata’s craving for affection manifests itself in ways that are exasperating for the reader to witness. She clings to her mother’s calves, sits herself in the space her mother leaves in the back of a chair, has a fascination with her mother’s breasts, and even on occasion chases after her — all while her mother remains resolutely indifferent.

This need for physical affection and touch is also brought to attention in Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith. Sue Trinder’s first few days away from her (adoptive) mother, Mrs. Sucksby, all discuss how she’d like to be in her arms, falling asleep in bed, smelling her, or some such. And while Fingersmith is fiction, this attachment to the closest mother figure is again a reminder of Nagata not being alone in wanting to be physically close to her mother. Sue’s relationship with her mother, however, is very different from Nagata’s. While Nagata’s mother doesn’t appear to be fond of her daughter’s clinginess, Mrs. Sucksby actively seeks physical affection with Sue, going so far as to continue to share a bed with her grown-up daughter. In this novel, Sue’s character does not follow the same trajectory as Nagata’s or even Bechdel’s, but has an altogether different relationship with mental illness.

My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness takes on the attachment that Nagata feels with her mother, dissects it frankly, speaking even of a sort of innocent sexual interest. Nagata is unflinching in her observations about herself and those dear to her. This honesty only makes it easier to help Nagata come to an important realisation through the community she finds via her writing: the knowledge that she is not alone.


Bechdel, Alison. Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama. Boston: Mariner, 2013.

Nagata, Kabi. My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness. Translated by Jocelyne Allen.Los Angeles: Seven Seas Entertainment, 2017.

Waters, Sarah. Fingersmith. London: Virago Press, 2002.

On Topic: The May Review

The month of May witnessed several historic judgements and events, from Soni Sori’s Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk to the stay on Vedanta’s Sterlite Copper smelter in Tuticorin. On Topic reviews some of the news that prompted progressive conversations about gender, women and the marginalised.

Legal Judgements (India)

  • The Delhi High Court passed a judgement to regularize Kashmiri migrant teachers, who came to Delhi in 1990-93 to escape communal violence in their homeland. These teachers have been noted to work without the benefits allowed to regular teachers, such as pension, and for less than full pay. The judgement recommends that all Kashmiri migrant teachers be recognised as 'regular' teachers from the date of their appointment, and be paid the differential amounts they are entitled to.

  • The Guwahati High Court has directed a committee to study and report on the challenges faced by the transgender community in the state, and make recommendations that the state of Assam can implement for the community’s welfare. The state has been directed to examine and implement these suggestions in 6 months. Read this judgement here.

  • The Madras High Court has directed authorities to allow a child’s birth certificate to have no named father. Mathumitha Ramesh, mother of Tavishi Perara, separated from her husband by mutual consent. Tavishi was born in April 2017, through intrauterine fertility treatment. Initially, Tavishi’s birth certificate named a sperm donor as her father. After repeated appeals to the high court by Mathumitha, and separate affidavits from both her ex-husband and sperm donor, the high court directed authorities to not demand the father’s name. Tavishi is likely to be India’s first child without a father. The judgement will be passed on 11 June.

Events

  • May 2018 saw protests against Vedanta once again. Sterlite plants set up in Tuticorin, where it was observed that environmental rules regarding pollution regulation were not being followed, resulting in gas leaks that caused fatalities. Despite on and off protests in the region for 20 years, it only recently came to national attention, when Vedanta proposed to expand the plant. When protesters took to the streets, police opened fire without warning. Nine protesters were killed, with several others critically injured, in this brutal attack by the police. The Tamil Nadu government has ordered that the plant be shut permanently.

    Vedanta has a long history of violating environment protection rules. The Dongria Kondh’s struggle against bauxite mining resulted in the government shutting down Vedanta’s bauxite mining plant in 2016. 2016 also saw writers and activists protesting Vedanta’s sponsorship of the Jaipur Literary Festival in London.

  • Tribal activist Soni Sori received the 2018 Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk. Soni Sori has been leading protests against sexual violence and alleged fake encounters in conflict zones in Chhattisgarh and other regions of central India. She has also defended educational institutions from Maoist groups. In 2016, she was the victim of an acid attack by unidentified persons. Soni Sori is one of five recipients of the award, established by Front Line Defenders, an Ireland-based human rights organisation.

  • May saw the celebration of IDAHOBIT 2018, the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia. In an organised campaign by POV Mumbai, people of different genders and sexualities shared their stories and experiences as part of a series called 'Life Only'.

Popular Culture

  • Recently released movie India Never Again Nirbhaya, based on the events of the Delhi 2012 gangrape, has come to the fore for its questionable poster. This article on The Ladies Finger brings to question the tendency of male writers and directors to fetishize gendered violence.

  • May 11 saw the release of Alia Bhatt starrer Raazi, which is based on Harinder Sikka’s novel, Calling Sehmat. The story follows Sehmat, an Indian spy who is married off to a Pakistani to obtain information. The movie has been lauded for its actors' performances, as well as its portrayal of women. Several reviews have commended the movie for not succumbing to the typical ‘war-is-sacred’ ideology, by maintaining the female protagonist’s personality, and not allowing for the typical patriotic sense of duty that is often depicted on screen. Here are some reviews (spoilers)!

World

  • Loujain al-Hathloul, a well-known activist for driving rights for women in Saudi Arabia, was arrested in early May, according to a report by Amnesty International. Weeks before the removal of the ban on women driving, an organised campaign to defame and discredit several activists for the cause has been observed. Despite the historical move to remove the ban on driving, the crackdown on dissenters is telling of a problem that is much more deeply rooted.

    Since reports of the removal of the ban on driving, men have taken to tweeting about their displeasure with the decision. Saudi women reclaimed the Twitter hashtag that translates to “you won’t drive”, by posting pictures of their future cars.

  • On 25 May, a referendum was passed to remove the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland which disallows abortion unless the pregnant woman is in mortal danger. However, in 2012, Savita Halappanavar was refused an abortion, as doctors determined that her life was not in danger, despite foreseeing that she would miscarry. Her death was catalytic in the pro-choice protests. Five years later, Ireland has repealed the Eighth in a historical referendum, with a 66% majority, now allowing women to terminate their pregnancies.

  • Kashmir Women’s Movement was launched in London, in response to “the unprecedented state terrorism perpetrated by the Indian forces on women and youth in the occupied territory.” The organisation aims to bring international attention to the human rights violations being committed in occupied Kashmir by the Indian armed forces.

  • Pakistan’s Parliament has passed a new law, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, guaranteeing basic rights to transgender citizens and outlawing discrimination in the workplace. The law allows citizens to express their gender identity, which is defined by the law as, "a person's innermost and individual sense of self as male, female or a blend of both, or neither; that can correspond or not to the sex assigned at birth,” and have it recognised in all legal documents, certificates and identity cards.

    Meanwhile, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment of India has submitted the proposal for amendments to the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016. The recommendations were drafted in December, 2017, nine of which have been finalised, including a revised definition of ‘transgender’. The 2016 bill received criticism from activists, and it remains to be seen whether these changes will be implemented progressively.

Sports

  • After the decision of the Indian Olympic Association to replace sarees with trousers as the official attire for women athletes during the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games, athletes have recommended that sarees be removed during the opening ceremony of the Asian Games as well. Representatives of the IOA have confirmed that the saree will not be part of the opening ceremony.

  • Sjoerd Marijne, who was assigned as coach to the Indian national men’s hockey team before the Commonwealth Games, has returned to the Indian national women’s team, following reports of disagreements between the men’s team and Marijne after a disappointing performance. In an interview for The Indian Express, he spoke about being glad to work with the women’s team again. Ironically, the interview is titled ‘Important that women get a voice, says Sjoerd Marijne’.

    The women’s national hockey team made it to the finals of the Asian Champions Trophy as defending champions, but lost to South Korea.

Gender-based Violence

  • After widespread protests against several cases of child rape across the country, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh has cleared the way for a women’s safety division in the Home Ministry. Following the rape and murder of a minor girl in Kathua, the Centre has also the Criminal Law Ordinance, 2018, which provides for death penalty to rapists of girls under the age of 12, and proposes a national registry for sexual offenders.

    Several feminists have criticised the proposal, since the creation of such a registry, in the fashion of the United States, has been reported to have done more harm than good. The registry requires detailed descriptions of assault, which is not only insensitive to the plight of the victim, but also puts them at risk of being identified and further harmed. It also undermines an individual’s right to privacy, criminal or not. Such a registry is bound to lead to situations where certain groups are targeted for the purpose of being controlled. If such a registry were to be created, reports of sexual assault would also inevitably decrease, since perpetrators of such violence tend to be members of the family or somehow known to the victim. This reluctance to file a complaint would only increase, and thereby, violence will remain unchecked.

    The proposed death penalty has also received mixed reactions. Studies suggest that the death penalty does not deter perpetrators, and instead increases the likelihood of the victim being murdered, to ensure that they are not able to testify. It is even less likely that the victim would report the crime when the perpetrator is a member of their family, if the death penalty is implemented.

  • UN experts have called on the Indian government to protect journalist Rana Ayyub, who has been receiving death threats. Ayyub, author of Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up, has been on the receiving end of a social media smear campaign. She wrote for The New York Times, detailing the attacks that were made against her. Experts recalled Gauri Lankesh, who received death threats before ultimately being murdered. It has been noted by the UN that the current government has not attempted to resolve the hostility against dissenting journalists and media people.

  • Asian College of Journalism defended its faculty member, Sadanand Menon, who has been accused of sexual assault by a student, by claiming that the college is being targeted because they are liberal. Menon appeared in Raya Sarkar’s List, but has recently come under more flak, after activists demanded that he be investigated. Amidst claims about attacks against the college, The Caravan published a series of articles about the matter. In one piece in this series, V Geetha writes about the structures that protect ‘important’, intellectual men, arguing that these systems “consider the minds of these men to be of greater value than the bodies of those women.”

  • On May 27, three transgendered persons were assaulted in Thane by workers of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, which is led by Raj Thackeray. The attack was reportedly prompted by the victims’ involvement in robbery and prostitution. Contrary to this claim, the police have declared the three were only begging. The incident sparked protests in Mumbai, organised by queer collective LABIA, which works with lesbians, bisexuals and trans persons, demanding stringent laws to protect the rights of transgendered people.

May at Zubaan

  • Manjima Bhattachrajya’s Mannequin: Working Women in India’s Glamour Industry was launched at an event organised by Jagori and Zubaan, on the 1st of May, at the India International Centre Annexe, Delhi, and has been receiving  some  great  reviews. We also released The Empty Room by Sadia Abbas this last month — on sale on our webstore!

  • The Indie Comix Fest, held for the first time in Delhi, saw Drawing the Line contributors Vidyun Sabhaney Ita Mehrotra as organiser and panelist, respectively. Zubaanis Ishani, Meghna and Sukruti also attended the event, speaking about Zubaan’s work in publishing graphic books as an independent, non-mainstream publisher.

  • Applications for the Zubaan-Sasakawa Peace Foundation Grants closed on 15th May. Selected candidates should expect to  hear back by the 15th of June!

Mobile version: Enabled