Art

Thoughts on Gaysi Zine, India’s First Queer Graphic Anthology

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As a literary form, the anthology has, over the last few decades, captured and expanded the range of conflicting emotions, experiences, and politics that define queer South Asian lives. Perhaps the best-known example is Rakesh Ratti’s edited volume from 1993, A Lotus of Another Color, which finds new life in the recently published anthology Moving Truth(s): Queer and Transgender Desi Writings on Family (disclaimer: my short story was published in this volume).

But these stories live and “are shared in the black and white of words on paper,” notes Priya Gangwani, the editor of The Gaysi Zine. Color is the essence of queer life. Rang (color) and ras (juice) animate and give form to the queer experience.

It makes sense, then, that graphic storytelling is having a moment in queer visual culture. Humorous and heartbreaking, the award-winning graphic memoir Fun Home by Alison Bechdel recounts the author’s experiences growing up lesbian and reconciling her late father’s gay identity. And Vivek Shraya’s God Loves Hair is an honest, fragile collection of illustrated stories that track a sensitive, curious, and resilient young South Asian boy navigating the throes of sexuality, gender, and sense of belonging in Canada.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” says Joan Didion. Stories keep us going. The Gaysi Zine is a publication by Gaysi Family, out of Mumbai, which collects and shares stories from emerging writers. The magazine has published several print issues in recent years, but this is the first time a graphic anthology of queer narratives has been published in India.

Letting these stories and pictures flow under my skin this weekend, I felt discomfited as I read stories so close to mine. From finding independence, to grounding queerness in Hindu mythology, from the pain of broken love to the joy of renewed bonds — some of the stories The Gaysi Zine have collected in this volume were too real, too raw to read in one sitting.

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This issue of The Gaysi Zine presents a vivid, emotional portrait of what it means to be queer in India today. It’s by no means wholly representative of the queer experience — notable omissions include the issues of caste, class, and regional diversity in India. All the same, however, the picture we get is so visceral, so tense, I didn’t feel I was strong enough to bear witness to some of them.

I didn’t think I might ever need a graphic anthology. I was wrong. This anthology challenged me to rethink graphic storytelling as something other than childish or amateur. Sure, Hindu epics like the Mahabharata have been adapted (adulterated?) into comic books. But The Gaysi Zine reclaims this aesthetic form of storytelling in order to convey powerful truths about who queer desis are — and who they can be. Like myths for our time, these writers and illustrators are reimagining worlds that don’t constrain, shame, or delegitimize them.

The word “anthology” — literally, “flower-gathering” — originated in the 17th century to describe a collection of poems by several authors. But an anthology does much more that collect. It supports. An anthology is a repository, which contains the emotions that don’t find space within dominant discourses. The Gaysi Zine’s storytellers are creating a language for themselves that can represent the world as they experience it. They’re breaking out beyond the words that have been “hurled our way, suffocating us,” as the cover-illustrator Ojoswi Sure writes. They’re building a community for themselves, a pictorial and literary architecture that can support their imaginaries and realities.

This graphic anthology perhaps represents what queer theorist Ann Cvetkovich would typify as an “archive of feelings,” an aesthetic record of queer sites of trauma that makes forgetting and dissociation visible, public, accessible, and remembered. The contributors of this graphic anthology, moreover, have created a con-text, literally, a “weaving together,” for their unique voices, within which their experiences can become animated and articulated. An anthology is its own architecture, a support-system.

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The anthology, moreover, is a space in which to experiment with text and image. Roland Barthes knew that when we read, we produce new texts. We read into stories, which in turn color how we experience our own loves and losses. This is precisely what we do with footnotes and marginalia in books. The graphic anthology does the same thing, but with white spaces between the panels of illustrations. In these gaps, imagination flourishes, runs wild.

“There was still so much to learn, to say. We thought we had the time. Now we remain familiar, beloved strangers of a sort. In step, but out of time.”

Sentences like these capture the tense mood of anthology. The four periods leave you unsatisfied. Overall, what could be unpacked in each of the graphic anthology’s very condensed stories would fill a novel. But that’s precisely what it’s avoiding. In their pithiness, these graphic stories prick us. Nor do they give us closure — that’s not the point. Instead, they puncture and let the blood trickle, stain our thoughts, and we contemplate the colors that now tinge how we see reality.

I don’t suppose the guiding mission of the graphic anthology is to raise the flag that proclaims “It Gets Better.” Instead, the power of the anthology lies in stories that are dangerous, daring, and poignant. For example, Solo and Vivek Nag’s story, “Let’s Dance,” overflows with the slipperiness of alcohol-filled nights and the decisions we make that make life unbearable. In the nervous and delicate tension of “Café Mondegar,” Vivek Tejuja captures the fear of picking up a stranger — a straight boy, no less. And Akhila Krishnan’s story, “A Familiar Stranger,” left so much open for me, doing away with any sense of closure, leaving us with uncomfortable gaps into which we can insert ourselves, to color in between the lines.

“The Case of the Floating Woman” was the most incisive and critically astute story in the anthology. C G Salamander has written a fictional story that not only historicizes Tamilian male-male relationships at the time Portuguese colonialists were arriving in the 1600s. His story also indicts the victims of the story, the two gay men who murdered the woman taking care of their house, and who denied their actions when white civilizers confronted them. It’s this nuanced politics, which condemns male patriarchy — gay and straight — for its treatment of women, and which is hyperaware of social position, that we desperately need more of today.

Over the holidays, I caught director Leah Wolchok’s documentary Very Semi-Serious, which follows the criteria by which a cartoon becomes a New Yorker cartoon. Characteristically, the cartoons that make it in don’t make you laugh so much as think. According to the magazine’s longtime art editor, “Cartoons either make the strange familiar or the familiar strange.” What’s more, their contemplative style balances with their immediate punch and wit, and each illustrator retains their distinctive voice.

While it’s unfair to measure a graphic story against the standards of such a highbrow publication, I found it telling that many of the stories compiled in The Gaysi Zine’s first queer graphic anthology, while they pursued differing artistic and political projects than a cartoon, left me feeling just as moved.

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