“Traditionally, LGBT stories have a history of tragic endings. I’m never doing that!”
Of all that I have read in the first quarter of 2019, Payal Dhar’s Slightly Burnt is the book that has touched me the most. I wish I had found it earlier. Perhaps books about queer people are pushed away to the margins of the publishing business just as queer people are made to feel like the dregs of society — unwelcome because they are seen as embarrassing to acknowledge and inconvenient to talk about.
Prejudice is not a monopoly of the religious though they are often the first to get a bad name. It thrives even among those who are equipped with the latest social justice vocabulary but refuse to acknowledge how they exclude and erase. I think Slightly Burnt has a lot to offer people who want to understand what allyship looks like, and the kind of empathy and commitment it demands. This novel is classified as young adult literature but I hope it finds many readers of all ages.
Here is an interview with the author, compiled over several email exchanges. I appreciate her patience and cooperation. At one point, she said, “Wow, I think you analysed my book with more depth than I wrote it with!” The time and effort that have gone into putting this together will be worthwhile when educators use this resource to create safe and supportive spaces for queer students in their own educational institutions.
Question: The dedication in Slightly Burnt states, “The world will tell you all that you can’t do and can’t be. Ignore it. Be inconvenient.” When you were writing this book, in what way were you hoping to speak to young readers struggling with their sexual orientation?
I didn’t mean it to specifically refer to sexual orientation — I wanted to say that being yourself can be tough because you’re bombarded with pressure to conform from every side. As children we are mostly made to feel as though we’re inconveniencing grown-ups if we stick out or look or act different (happened a lot to me). I’m not sure if it’s particularly true only of Indian society, but here we do set great stock by “what will people say”.
Question: Would it be accurate to say that this novel is about learning to be a better ally to one’s queer friends? What do you think of this description?
Yes, I think that’s an accurate description.
Question: What struck me was how the reader is led to empathize with the person confronting her own homophobia. She is not made out to be a villain. Could you speak a bit about the choices you made and unmade while writing Komal’s character in this specific way?
I’m not really sure it was a well thought out and conscious decision. I wanted to write a story of friendship, in which one of them was gay. I’m not a plotter — I let my books take shape on their own, and it just happened that way. If I were to do it again, or if I could go back in time, I’d do it differently. I’d either make Komal the gay one or tell the story from Sahil’s perspective. What I mean is, I would have made the queer character the narrator.
Question: Are you implying that the queer character would have more agency in the story if they were the narrator?
Yes. Queer characters need to speak for themselves. Of course, there are all sorts of stories, from many perspectives, but gay teens in our society have been erased for too long.
Question: One of the most important characters in the book is a mental health professional. I found it remarkable that, instead of having your gay protagonist go in for therapy, you chose to send the homophobic friend instead. What was your thought process behind this?
Another one of those things that just fell into place. Considering they were going to an alternative school, I thought the school authorities would be more aware of issues of diversity. There’s a hint that the counselor thought that Komal was there to talk about her brother. I put that in to indicate to anyone who spotted it that Vikram had spoken to Usha McDowell (got that name off a bottle of whisky) himself. Also, there are sensible adults around in the real world too — I wanted to put one into the book.
Question: Finding a queer-affirmative counselor is quite difficult in India. How did you go about developing that character? What kind of research or reference points did you use?
Yes, I would imagine this is a difficult task especially for teenagers — not just the finding, but also accessing them. The only reason I put her in was, as I said in my previous answer, I wanted something positive and affirming. An authority figure who could tell the youngsters that they were all right, they should go on being themselves, and help Komal find some empathy and see through her own prejudices.
Question: Your book came out in 2014 before same-sex love was decriminalized by the Supreme Court of India. How was it received back then by children, teenagers, parents, teachers and librarians?
In fact the book was being written at the time that Section 377 was reinstated and same-sex relationships re-criminalized. I had to rewrite the ending to fit that in because it was too significant to be ignored. I don’t think the law would have made any difference. An abysmal number of copies have sold, and some of the distribution staff at Bloomsbury were openly homophobic and hesitant to market the book to young adults. I’ve only done one school session around Slightly Burnt.
Question: If you had to write a sequel, what kind of structures, policies and practices would you institute at the school in the book so that the Supreme Court judgement makes a real difference in the lives of queer students?
A sequel is in the works, though I’m not sure if it has publishing potential. If I were to finish it, it would still be based in 2013–14 (otherwise the protagonists would be all grown up), so nothing would really change.
Question: Sexuality education is missing from most schools in India because adults are uncomfortable with accepting that students are also sexual beings. How do you think can children’s literature and young adult fiction fill this gap?
Children’s and YA literature *is* filling the gap. An overwhelming majority are, however, international books, mostly from the US or UK. I think that needs to change. We need to see children and teens as individuals and give them the stories they want, not the ones we (society) want them to have. There is a huge body of work of own-voices LGBT books from the West — we need some here. And own-voices is important — in fact I would say it’s non-negotiable. The privileged have always been appropriating the narrative, and that has to stop.
Question: You mentioned “a huge body of work of own-voices LGBT books from the West.” Could you please name some of your favourites, especially those that foreground the experiences of children and teenagers?
Off the top of my head:
The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth
Simon and the Homo sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit by Jaye Robin Brown
I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
George by Alex Gino
Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
Question: Both Sahil and Vikram are gay but their personalities are totally different. Sahil loves cricket. Vikram hates it. Sahil finds it challenging to make peace with his sexual orientation. Vikram is more at ease about this matter. I felt glad to see that your book depicts queer persons as individuals, not as types. Are these things that you thought about, or am I reading too much into this? I’m curious to know what you think of representation when it comes to characters that belong to marginalized sections of society.
Vikram is never tagged with the word ‘gay’. In my head, he’s probably fluid, pansexual or whatever you want to call it. Sahil seems pretty sure he’s only attracted to boys. No, you’re not reading too much into it, I deliberately got them to approach their sexualities differently since they’re different personalities, and because gay people are as different or same as any others. Not sure how much I succeeded, but I wanted to make it clear that sexuality wasn’t what defined them, it wasn’t their primary identity.
Question: You’re right. Vikram does not self-identify as gay. His current partner is male but that is no indication that he is interested only in boys. While I hear you when you say that their sexuality was not their primary identity, it does appear that the universe these characters inhabit — especially at school — is quite obsessed with finding partners. Dating rituals in school settings are heteronormative, and I imagine they do cause some amount of dissonance for Sahil and Vikram. What do you think?
Yes, absolutely. Heteronormativity is reinforced all the time, everywhere. It’s seen as the normal, the desirable ‘right’ way to be. When I was young, there wasn’t any discourse around sexuality, and in a (terrible) way this ‘protected’ our generation. But now, there’s so much information, so much visibility that LGBT teens are likely to have more triggers and have to confront a lot more heartache.
Question: What are some of the most heartwarming things you have heard about this book from your readers?
When readers, especially boys, have written in to say that they identified with Vikram because he was so comfortable in his skin.
Question: While Vikram is comfortable with himself, he has a pretty odd — even creepy perhaps — way of communicating queer solidarity. He seems rather unmindful of what he puts Sahil through when he sends in those anonymous notes that seem to come from a homophobic stalker. I imagine that entire process to be quite triggering for a lot of queer readers who have experienced the fear of being outed. Would you mind sharing what made you weave this into the narrative, and how people have responded to it?
I feel he did it because he didn’t know how else to, and he was also scared. We don’t know the details of what happened between the two of them, why the letters, when they got together, etc., but I imagine the need to connect with someone else like himself was so strong, he felt he had to reach out. And, being 15, he did it spectacularly wrong!
Question: What were some of the questions, issues and directions you wanted to explore through this book but didn’t because you thought or were told that Indian readers wouldn’t be ready?
There wasn’t anything that I wanted to write about that I was told not to. The thing about the children’s publishing industry at the moment is that they’re very open to publishing all sorts of stuff, even those that really push the envelope. So any shortcomings are fully, 100 per cent, mine. If you explored the YA/MG segment of Indian publishing in detail, you’d be astounded at some of the work being put out but not getting any visibility. But that’s a discussion for another day.
Question: While Sahil and Vikram are embraced by Komal, they are all terrified of what might happen if the parents got to know that the boys are gay. What made you decide on leaving the parents on the sidelines of the story, and not engaging them much?
I felt that was the most realistic ending. All teenagers (or at least most) have secret lives that they keep from their adults, and I decided this would be theirs. If the sequel ever sees light of day, then they might have to deal with being outed. I don’t see the parents taking it very well (Komal’s mum, yes; her dad, oh no!) and I thought that they didn’t need any more stress in their lives right then. The thing about representation is that positive outcomes are very important.
Traditionally, LGBT stories have a history of tragic endings. I’m never doing that. I’m presently involved in a campaign called Berena Deserved Better, about a British TV series that used various tropes relating to queer women after promising ‘representation’. It’s got a worldwide following and has ruffled the BBC enough to get the CEO to stop in. There’s a lot of information, even research, about how much harm negative representations can cause to marginalised audiences, especially when promised otherwise.
Question: In the context of India, what are some of the examples of popular culture that you see as perpetuating toxic stereotypes about queer people?
There are a lot of things — many of them common around the world. First, there aren’t enough stories. Second, a disproportionate number of them are tragic. Third, there are not enough non-stereotypical stories. Fourth, they are usually told from a heteronormative perspective. Fifth, most of the attention is on gay men and on the upper classes.
Question: Your book does a great job of inviting readers to shake up their idea of what normal is. What makes this an important theme for you?
I think you answered your own question — the idea of normal needs to be shaken up. It’s a mirage, this ‘normal’. There is no such thing. We are all bizarre and wonderful in our own ways — otherwise the world would be very boring. This idea is important to hold close, especially these days with a whole lot of right-wing rhetoric and hate being pedalled. The idea of selfhood, and that whatever you are is absolutely enough.
Question: If you had read a novel like this when you were a student at school, how would you have responded?
Question: There is very little research on structural violence against LGBTQIA+ students in Indian schools. In what ways do you think that your book can open up important conversations on this topic?
The first step is to actually acknowledge that there are LGBTQIA+ children in our society. Everything else can only come after that. It breaks my heart to think about these vulnerable youngsters struggling everyday, convinced that there’s something wrong with them, or being bullied for being different.
(This interview was first published on the Prajnya Peace Blog. If you enjoyed it, read this and this as well. The author is a writer, educator and peacebuilder, apart from being a Shanti Fellow with the Prajnya Trust. He/they can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and at https://twitter.com/chintan_connect)