transgender Posts

Book 19: 11 – 17 November 2018

Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. Embedded in the book covers and post will also be links to buy the books on Amazon India. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter.

In today’s Book Post 19 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received last week.

Enjoy reading!

19 November 2018

“I’m a REAL Boy” by Clayton Koh

The idea of masculinity which dominates across societies around the world is that of a heterosexual male oozing testosterone. The moment a male shows signs of being away from the “norm”, then the person is ridiculed. It is particularly difficult explaining to little boys that it is perfectly acceptable to be who they are, the choices they make whether in dress, speak or how they conduct themselves. People can be cruel. Children pick their cues from adults and are extremely vile. They are blunt in their actions and words towards children they do not recognise as “acceptable” or as has been dinned into their little minds.

This is where picture books like Clayton Koh’s I’m a Real Boy are extremely useful.  Every single episode in the story undermines the “norm” while slowly impressing upon the young reader that it is perfectly acceptable to be yourself. You could be scared of the dark, to be picked last for the school team and yet resolve to do my best, to make choices like wearing pink or baking or playing with girls in the playground or standing up against peer pressure. There is nothing wrong in these decisions. By doing so the story validates for the young reader the choices they make. The layout of the picture book is fascinating for it has all the prescriptive behaviour for little boys such as being a superhero, being rough and macho, playing with boys and their “boy toys” like trucks, being the team leader and sports captain, wanting to play war games etc.

Clayton Koh is an elementary school teacher who loves to swim, knit, paint with watercolours, kickbox and read. In an interview with The Star Online about I’m a REAL Boy he said:

[He] got the idea to write the book, which he also illustrated, during his final year at university.

“As part of my honours programme, I was required to do a research thesis before graduation. I chose the topic ‘Modern Masculinity’ and how masculinity deve­loped in Western societies over the decades and also cross-culturally,” explained Koh, whose parents are nurses.

“Boys feel a lot of pressure to conform to what society expects of them. Girls as well, but the feminist movement helped change that and broadened their potential,” said Koh, 23.

He added that men have always dominated the political, economic and employment sectors, therefore they face less discrimination in terms of getting equal rights or job opportunities.

“But in terms of interests or ­certain careers that men can pursue, there are certain mindsets and perceptions.”

He also felt that men were “not allowed” to express their emotions freely, which can lead to suicide and depression, and that many do not seek help until it is too late.

“So I decided to research these issues, put it in a kids’ perspective and hope this will reshape the way society thinks about masculinity,” said Koh, who emigrated to the United States with his family when he was three.

Now here is a true story posted on Twitter by @BijlaniDiksha about her younger cousin who was being ridiculed by his “stereotypical alpha-male centric household” for being a “chakka” (transgender).

Later Diksha adds:

Children (and adults) need to talk about sexuality and gender. This is exactly why there is a crying need for books* like I’m a REAL Boy to be read, shared and circulated, perhaps even translated in multiple languages.

Clayton Koh (text and illustrations) I’m a REAL Boy Scholastic India, Gurgaon, INDIA, 2008, rpt 2018. Pb. pp. 32. Rs 80

22 June 2018 

Read more on “Literature and inclusiveness” ( Nov 2016)

Of two memoirs — A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi” and “Man Alive”

“You have to fight for yourself,” Parker had said when we first got together, and again, and again. “Wherever you are,” she’d said, “whoever you are, you have a right to be here.” 

( p.82 Man Alive)


Within the past few weeks two powerful memoirs have been published. Coincidentally both are by transgenders — Manobi Bandhopadhyay’s  A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi ( Penguin Books India) and Thomas Page McBee’s Man Alive ( Canongate). Manobi Bandhopadhyay’s life history as recounted to Jhimli Mukherjee Pandey charts her transformation from a man to a woman and of her pathbreaking appointment to a college as its principal. Along the way Manobi describes the very conservative family she was born into and how very difficult it was to survive. In fact many people in her family and the village recognised her for being gender fluid and would taunt her as well as sexually abuse her. It was horrific. The Mint’assessment of the biography in its own way documenting the queer Indian history particularly from the mid-1990s is a fair one. Sometimes it is biographies such as this that give insights into the rapid socio-historical transformations taking place in society but being still too near in recent past to accord any objectivity.

Thomas Page McBee’s Man Alive is equally disturbing. He writes mostly in first person not only about the transformation from being a woman to a man but also the regular sexual abuse he suffered in childhood from his mother’s husband. As an adult he experiences happiness in love and ultimately marriage too but its deeply painful as it seems to be getting to the core of the writer. Its almost as if this process of writing these chapters were part of some cathartic process. He did for some years have a column in the Rumpus called Self-Made Man. Here is a brilliant interview in the Guernica too.

Conversations about gender fluidity even today continue to be challenging to have; this despite so many conversations, publicity campaigns, changes to laws worldwide etc. So personal journeys like these memoirs are a crucial contribution to the public discourse. There are commonalities in the two transgenders experiences of sexual abuse, violence and opting to make the decision to undergo a physical transformation from the gender assigned at birth to the one of their choice. These are not easy. Apart from the obvious physical transformation there are many psychological and emotional consequences that too need to be addressed for the individual and their immediate family. But the stark differences lie in the narrative style of the two memoirs. Manobi Bandhopadhyay’s A Gift of Goddess Lakshmi though a remarkable biography for its subject matter including the legal cases she is battling are worth reading about but it is cautious in tone. Whereas Thomas Page McBee’s Man Alive is far more absorbing though at times terrifying to read for its direct approach; at times it is impossible to read and the book has to be put down before resuming it once more.

According to filmmaker Paromita Vohra and founder of the Agents of Ishq  17 May is International Day Against Homophobia Biphobia and Transphobia ( #IDAHOBIT ). To commemorate it she published an article worth reading about transgenders dating where five people talked about love and dating.

Despite all the violence directed towards them and denial by conservatives that transgenders exist in society the fact these memoirs have been published is a step in the positive direction — it is opening room for conversations and hopefully, change.

17 May 2017 

Literature and inclusiveness

nari-bhav Nari Bhav, published by Niyogi Books, is a collection of essays exploring androgyny and female impersonation in India. These are fascinating insights by practitioners, interviews with actors and some academic papers discussing the concept of nari bhav is a deeply rooted cultural belief in the fluid interplay of the female and male symbolized for example as Ardhanariswara.  A truly exceptional essay is the one by translator, performer and playwright, Pritham Chakravarthy, on performing the Nirvanam. This is the name of the performance she gave to a bunch of monologues that emerged from her work exploring the myth of Aravan that hijras or eunuchs have adopted in South India, especially Tamil Nadu, to contest the many filthy names used for them by the general public. To this she wove in the stories narrated to her by a transgender, ‘Noorie’. The first performance was staged in 2000 and was only ten minutes long. Years later she continues to perform it and the presentation is now forty minutes long and could probably be expanded to sixty minutes. Pritham Chakravarty makes a very interesting comment in her essay: “I sit among the audience and come to the central performance area to emphasize the ‘everychapal-bhaduri day-ness’ of the narrative that will presently unfold before their eyes.” And yet when Chapal Bhaduri, a Bengali actor famous for female impersonations, performed an autobiographical piece at a seminar organized at a Kolkata university in March 2016 it seems that members of the audience were discomfited by the performance.

The concept was simple enough. The performance would be a companion piece to the 1999 documentary on him called Performing the Goddess [ made by Naveen Kishore, Seagull]. In the documentary, entirely shot in the modest ground-floor apartment in north Kolkata where he lives with his son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter of his sister Ketaki Dutta, Chapal Bhaduri gradually transforms himself from Chapal Bhaduri to Chapal Rani, from a man to a woman, from a human to a goddess, from the ordinary to the spectacular. At the seminar he would be doing the reverse. Her would appear before the audience as the Goddess Sitala, and then gradually divest himself of the divinity, the feminity, the spectacular, and end the piece by becoming what he is off-stage: human, male, ordinary. 

While discussing the book with a dear friend I discovered some very interesting facts about his family. This friend shikhandihas often told me how there has always been a space in the Indian society for all genders including for the currently fashionable term — “gender fluid” individuals. When I showed him a picture of Chapal Bhaduri, he told me about his grand-uncle whom everyone in the family called “Dada” and had remained a bachelor all his life. He died a few years ago. Interestingly Dada used to be an usher at some “talkies” in CP or Old Delhi but was always fascinated by dancing and dressing up as a woman. Apparently he was the go-to david-walliamsman in the family for advice on shringar, saris, buying gold jewellery etc. Dada was extremely fond of wearing beautiful Benarasi saris and spent a great part of his meagre salary to amass quite a collection.  While still a young man he began dressing up as a woman. It seems he used to give performances at private gathering. Apparently Dada was very informed about mudras and used to be a delight to watch. Also the family was completely at ease with his gender identity.  Apparently he was considered one of the respected elders of the family and his advice was sought on all important matters. He was also the matchmaker of the community. It probably also explains the comfort family members had with the eunuchs who used to wander in the colony.My friend has childhood memories of having the eunuchs over at home for tea and snacks. It was a regular affair and everyone was at ease with this practice. Another anecdote he recounts is of attending a wedding where where three uncles of the bride dressed up as women in saris and danced as part of the festivities.

And he is not alone in his observations. Anita Roy, publisher and author, wrote this wonderful article in 2006 “Dancing with God” to witness the kōla ceremony; a puja that honours the village deity. ( http://bit.ly/2enwIcW)

Each family in the village undertakes to host this ritual every year.  The presiding bhuta of Adve is Jhumadi (or Dhumavati in the local language, Tulu). A protector of the village and its inhabitants, human, animal and plant, Jhumadi is gendered female and believed to be one of the manifestations of the Goddess Shakti. But like Shiva’s incarnation as Ardhanariswara, she mixes both male and female attributes. Unlike the Puranic gods, who are worshipped in temples, officiated by Brahmin priests and receive offerings as silent spectators, bhutas are more localized spirits who directly influence the lives of their devotees with whom they have a much more intimate, almost neighbourly, relationship.

GeorgeAt the Myrin International Children’s Festival, Reykjavík, well-known author and translator, Lawrence Schimel lawrence-schimel-oct-2016-icelandwhose picture book for children, Amigos Y Vecinos, includes a gay family said that it’s extremely important to include LGBT+ characters in children’s books so they reflect the world that children already live in. (LILJA KATRÍN GUNNARSDÓTTIR, 6 Oct 2016 “LGBT lives just as important as heterosexual ones” http://bit.ly/2fgwEJE ) David Walliam’s first book for children The Boy in the Dress, Alex Gino’s incredibly powerful novel for young adults —George and Richa Jha’s picture book The Unboy Boy are examples of contemporary literature being inclusive by accepting and respecting “unconventional” characters for who they are. Vivek Tejuja, book critic, wrote a poignant article last year entitled “Being gay: how books and reading saved richa-jha-the-unboy-boymy life”. ( Scroll, 21 March 2015, http://bit.ly/2e1gb05)

Reading provided the much needed solace. Reading was a balm to all my aches. Books transported me, took me away from reality. I did not know want to face reality. Why should I? I thought to myself, when I could be lost in the lands of Oz and travel with Gulliver and be miserable with Jane Eyre. Nothing was of consequence, but the authors and the books I read. . . . Reading books was sufficient then. They did not discriminate against me. 

Vivek Tejuja’s forthcoming book meant for young adults will be addressing some of these issues. Siddharth Dube’s precisely told memoir No One Else and A. Revathi’s gripping account of her life as an activist in A Life in Trans Activism are recent contributions to Indian literature discussing sexuality and the grey areas it inhabits —these exist in Nature. revathiThe biggest challenge lies in making this reality visible for now the hypocritic notion that heterosexuality is the norm and everything else is unacceptable on any moral compass reigns supreme. And yet as mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik confirms in Shikhandi and other tales they don’t tell you which is a collection of stories celebrating life “narrated by our ancestors that are rarely retold publicly as they seem to challenge popular notions of normality”. In Oct 2016, Parmesh Shahani, Head – Godrej India Culture Lab, said at the India Economic Summit, New Delhi that parmesh-shahani“inclusion is for everyone and not just the LGBT community”. He bolstered it with evidence that if businesses & institutions are inclusive then it will have a positive impact on productivity, growth and development. ( “India Economic Summit: Breaking Down Diversity Barriers”, 6 Oct 2016. http://bit.ly/2enrUoa )

( Note: All the images are off the internet. If you own the copyright please let me know and I will acknowledge it. )

2 November 2016 

 

 

 

 

Alex Gino, “George”


George“Are you nervous about the audition? Kelly asked. “Don’t be. My dad says that men performing in non-traditional gender roles is good for feminism. He says it’s important, as an artist, to be in touch with his feminine side.”

Scott snuck glances her way too, but where Mom’s eyes were filled with concern and confusion, Scott looked at George as if his sibling made sense to him for the first time. George had never been gladder to have an older brother.

 George heard her name coming from kids talking to their parents, as well as the word boy. Adults’s heads turned her way. Most looked at her with open faces of surprise. A few smiled and waved. Others crinkled their faces in disgust. George stepped offstage and out of view of staring eyes. 

“Well, you can’t control who your children are, but you can certainly support them, am I right?” Principal Maldonado’s earrings sparkled in the auditorium light. 

Alex Gino’s debut novel George was twelve years in the making and it has already won an award — the 2016 Mike Morgan and Larry Roman’s Stonewall Book Award for Children. (http://www.alexgino.com/ )  George  is about a ten-year-old boy who believes s/he is a girl. She takes her best friend, Kelly, into confidence and it takes Kelly a while to come to terms with the revelation. Later Kelly proves to be George’s best ally when she quietly gives up the lead role of Charlotte the spider in the class play of Charlotte’s Web without the permission of their teachers. George proves to be an incredible actor. The audience claps approvingly many of whom do not even realise that George is a boy!

George is fantastic! So sensitively done. The ending is a bit too convenient and sugary, but satisfying. To put in the tough conversations about being a transgender, hormonal therapy and the possibility of surgery as an adult could not have been easy. The reactions of adults and children ( including the bullying incidents) to George are beautifully done. The range of emotions George faces from pure disgust to his kind to the kind-heartedness of the school principal to quiet acceptance by the elder brother, Scott, to coming-to-terms but ultimately joy by Kelly. Using theatre as a literary technique to help George in coming out is cliched but works very well. Even setting the stage with the tiny Shakespearean drama background in the early pages is neatly done.

It took a while for me to understand the author’s name, Alex Gino, as an acknowledgement of her being a transgender and referring to herself in the plural on the book jacket. It is not common. The idea of using literature as  a way of opening conversation about sexuality with children is good.

These conversations about transgender rights have been gaining momentum for some time. But last year with the news of Olympic decathlete champion Caitlyn Marie Jenner, formerly known as Bruce Jenner, announcing her transformation as a transgender caught the world by storm. It opened up debates about diversity and LGBTQ rights. When the announcement broke there were some fabulous opinion articles published, including one in the Guardian by a transgender activist. ( Alas, I am unable to locate the link for now.) But there are a few more essays that are worth reading such as Urvashi Butalia on transgender or hijra, Mona Ahmed in Granta, ( http://granta.com/monas-story/), photographer Dayanita Singh’s book on Mona called Myself Mona Ahmed http://www.dayanitasingh.com/myself-mona-ahmed),  Scott Esposito’s essay, “The Last Redoubt”, published in the White Review ( November 2014, http://www.thewhitereview.org/features/the-last-redoubt/ ) and Scott Esposito on Juliet Jacques’s “Beyond the Trans-Memoir” in the Literary Hub ( September 2015, http://lithub.com/beyond-the-trans-memoir/). In India, the Supreme Court ruled in 2014, that transgenders will be introduced as a “third gender category”.  Also how can one forget Welsh author Jan Morris’s memoir, Conundrum, published in 1974 and advertised as a personal memoir of transsexualism.

Challenge will lie in having this book discovered by the target audience. Even if you have liberal minded librarians and educationists willing to keep the book, parents will be up in arms. Gatekeepers come in all hues. Also a big question will be if knowing one’s sexual orientation is possible as a ten-year-old — it is debatable. Is it really possible that George can be so confident and sure about herself and spew so much information about being a transgender? The confident voice is that of a transgender adult. Also youngsters like to experiment. It’s a given. Absolutely nothing wrong with it. So a question that begs to be asked: do such books address diversity in literature and add to social debates or do they given young readers the license to explore sexuality and provide them with information? And George does discuss and analyse a lot of ways about becoming a transgender person.  All said and done, George, is a significantly magnificent contribution to young adult literature and must be read.

Alex Gino, George, Scholastic Press, New York, 2015. Hb. pp.200. 

16 Feb 2016