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Tag Archives: Queer writing

Narratives about 'Normalcy', Heteronormativity and Mental Illness

Reviewing commonly occuring 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.

Announcing writing grants for researchers from Northeast India!

THE ZUBAAN-SASAKAWA PEACE FOUNDATION GRANTS FOR YOUNG RESEARCHERS FROM THE NORTHEAST

 

Zubaan Publishers Pvt. Ltd and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation are offering a number of research grants for the year 2018 for young researchers from the eight northeastern states. The grants provide a small fund to prepare research papers/essays/oral history set against the broad framework of women’s multiple histories and focuses on the issue of gender in the Northeast.

 

                                                             

Grant Details

The idea behind the grant is to provide financial and academic support to young researchers who may wish to look into particular aspects of the history, politics, culture of the northeastern states in relation to women and gender. The papers will be written in English. All papers written with the support of the grant will be published electronically by Zubaan on various digital platforms and made widely available. The papers may be academic research papers, long-form journalistic essays or long interviews on a particular subject to do with gender. Hybrid or creative forms are welcome.

 

Eligibility criteria

  1. You must be from Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim  and Tripura, and less than 40 years of age.
  2. You must be fluent in reading and writing English.
  3. You must commit to researching and writing a 10,000 word (minimum) essay. The grant also allows for you to develop graphic narratives, or do extended interviews, or produce creative works such as a story, in lieu of the essay, all within a specified timeline.

Duration

The first draft of the selected papers is expected in four months after the methodology workshop, details of which are mentioned in the attachment. Papers may need to be revised after the first draft depending on the feedback. Depending on the feedback, a month may be given for the required revisions.

The grant's value is Rs 35,000 less applicable taxes.

 

How to apply

Interested persons should send their application, including the following documents, to projects@zubaanbooks.com:

  1. A grant proposal (maximum two pages) which clearly describes what you wish to do, what sources you will tap (primary and secondary), the subject of your research and a timeline.
  2. A sample of previous work that can be written material of roughly 500 words, a two-page spread of a graphic story, or an transcript extract from an interview you have conducted.
  3. Your CV and any other relevant information about yourself that you think is necessary, including proof of age.
  4. Two names of referees, ideally people you have worked with.

 

Grant proposals may be creative and do not need to be written in academic language.

The last date of submission of application is 15 May 2018.

Click here to download this page and detailed instructions.

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