The female homosexual in South Asia is not always a visible lesbian person. She is often a figuration of an act that challenges hegemonic ideas of gender and female subjectivity. This lesbian femininity can be found in many socio-cultural conversations, defamiliarizing and subverting normative ideas of female monogamy, compulsory motherhood, asexuality, celibacy, and compliance.
A nuanced reading of contemporary literary and cinematic texts from India and its diaspora, this work traces the histories of the 'un(familiar)' lesbian in the homophobic realm around us. Focusing on representations and legacies of such femininities, the author shows how female same-sex socialities and female same-sex love straddle terrains both familiar and unfamiliar, arguing that homosexuality and heterosexuality are not in opposition but in a state of constant dialogue with each other.
Aneeta Rajendran teaches at the Department of English, Gargi College, University of Delhi.
In one of the stories in Suniti Namjoshi's St Suniti and the Dragon, a woman befriends a wolf:
And so the two friends walked away and when at the third village they were rudely greeted by sticks and stones, because it was claimed, their reputation had preceded them, they were not greatly surprised, but just walked on until, at last, they entered a realm that is not as yet familiar to us. (Namjoshi 1998: 87, emphasis added)
Namjoshi's story 'Subsequent History' carries the tale forward from 'Wolf,' where 'once a young woman ... made friends with a wolf' (Namjoshi 1998: 85). Initially, all the men are full of admiration, because they think the woman has tamed the wolf. Rubbish, the narrator tells us, 'there had never been any question of taming' (Namjoshi 1998: 85), but simply that woman and wolf got on together, and 'frequently went for walks together'. Soon, the men, seeing both creatures retain their earlier shapes and propensities, spread a rumour. They set up a wolf-hunting expedition, where the wolf is to be captured with the woman serving as bait. The woman tries to get out of it, but they truss her up as bait anyway and begin the hunt; but woman and wolf somehow manage to disappear, and the men, elders now after what appears an infinite period of waiting, `put up a sign on the edge of their town in large red letters warning the unwary that there were wolves about' (Namjoshi 1998: 85). `Subsequent History' tell us that the woman and wolf have wandered around looking for a new home. Where they are not greeted literally by sticks and stones, a metaphor for heteronormativity, the woman is frequently told to get married; or tranquilisers to capture the wolf are forced upon them as 'options'. Finally, they leave the realm of the realistic convention, disappearing from both the story and the book into 'a realm that is not as yet familiar to us' (Namjoshi 1998: 87).
The title of this book, (Un) Familiar Femininities, is inspired by Namjoshi's story which tells us not only how lesbianism is perceived (the 'wolf') but also how lesbian women continue to exist in the everyday world around us, albeit wandering through one or other kind of homophobic realm, and also how new spaces/histories are created by continuing to resist heteronormativity (`just walked on until'). Namjoshi's post-modernist fabular spaces do not identify `a woman', 'a wolf', 'men' and 'villagers', and instead they locate the woman who argues with normative femininity-heterosexual femininity that privileges reproductive temporality including motherhood in the service of the nation-as an Everywoman, locate homophobias as everyday as homosexuality; promising at the same time that there will be a 'subsequent history' after oppression based on one's sexuality is endured. This 'woman' who argues with normative femininity is our (un)familiar of the title of this book; this book traces histories, representations, legacies of femininities that are at odds with, that queer `heteronormativity'. Namjoshi's articulation of the vulnerability of the 'wolf' as an animal amongst the alien culture of `homo sapiens' is a fantastically pertinent trope for how sexual othering comes to be vilified as the non-human other to the universally human heterosexual. Terry Castle, in her magisterial anthology, The Literature of Lesbianism (2003), shows that one of the first, almost primordial responses to the idea of the lesbian when first encountered is that of its `monsterization', pervaded by a feeling of bewilderment or astonishment. The life narratives of Indian woman form various locations and temporalities suggests that at least as far as welding a space in India is concerned, monsterization is hitherto the routine response on the part of much of civil society, a fact very much visible when one considers certain inconsistences in the Indian public discourse on sexuality. This aspect of the word 'familiar' as monster, discussed in greater detail later, connects 'woman' with the human other, 'wolf-the lesbian woman, the other, to heterosexuality, becomes as much of a monster as her companion wolf. While the 'wolf' of Namjoshi's story might look like the more likely 'lesbian' by virtue of immediate vilification-monsterization literally s/he attracts, the 'woman' does as much as to challenge reproductive temporalities and heteronorma-tive expectations as the word 'wolf' does to dislocate our compulsory anthropomorphisms. Woman and wolf together, taking long walks, talking to one another, upset reproductive temporality. That is-the expectation that individual temporalities are organized to service het-eronormative requirements-and immediately attract censure much as particular kinds of same-sex female couples might. Their otherness from everyone else's organization of their own socialities becomes rather immediately dangerous, but they are able to walk to another realm of freedom or safety of which this story is a 'subsequent history' also, suggesting that the act of writing, the rendering of lives in nar-rative, representations of (un)familiarity exist in the quotidian world both as trope and as literal presence. The (un)familiarity of the subject matter at hand requires me to elucidate, problematize, and, often provisionalize, a number of key words in my title, whose meanings are often transparent. So as not to risk complete unintelligibility, let me define 'lesbian' now. Webster's Ninth defines lesbian as a woman 'characterised by a tendency to direct sexual desire toward another of the same sex', while the Encarta calls a lesbian 'a woman who is sexually attracted to other women', while lesbianism is 'sexual attraction and sexual relations between women'. But what does this mean? What does it mean to be 'sexu-ally attracted to another woman', or to 'direct sexual desire' towards another of the same sex? Would a woman have to sleep with, make love to, have sex with another woman in order to qualify as a lesbian? Is lesbian then as lesbian does? But if that is the case, then what about women who have erotic fantasies about other women but have never acted on them? What exactly qualifies as 'sexual attraction'? What about women who have lived with other women all their lives, and have certainly had sexual relations with them, but who all the same refuse the label 'lesbian'? What about all the women who did not even know there was a word for them because they always assumed that to be lesbian is to be something other than a lover? Or for, our purpose, would a woman qualify as a 'lesbian' writer if she wrote another woman a romantic poem, or a piece of erotic literature? But then, what about the non-erotic or non-romantic output of the 'con-firmed' lesbian writer? Would it be unworthy of study by definition? What about the men who write about lesbianism? Would their lit-erature then of necessity be disqualified?' This is not a problem with just the term 'lesbian' in particular; it is notoriously difficult to define what 'homosexuality' is for that matter. As David Halperin asks,
Does the 'pederast,' the classical Greek adult, married male who peri-odically enjoys penetrating a male adolescent share the same sexuality with the `berdache; the Native American Indian male adult who from childhood has taken on many aspects of a woman and is regularly pen-etrated by the adult male to whom he has been married in a public and socially sanctioned ceremony? Does the latter share the same sexuality as the New Guinea tribesman and warrior who from the ages of eight to fifteen has been orally inseminated on a daily basis by older youths and who, after years of orally inseminating his juniors, will be married to an adult woman and have children of his own? Does any of these three persons share the same sexuality with the modern homosexual? (Halperin 1989: 46)
For the purposes of this research, we shall use Bina Fernandez's and Gomathy's definition of the term lesbian to include 'women who are in or desire to be in, emotional and/or sexually intimate relation-ships with other women. This definition therefore does not exclude women who are bisexual or women who do not use the word 'lesbian' to describe themselves' (Fernandez et al, 2003: 6). This definition offers a very broad range of possibilities as to the erotic/genital desires and intentions of individual subjects, and also allows us to go beyond the homo/hetero binarization of lesbians as other to heterosexual women. This book, then, looks at lesbianism not exclusively as lived experi-ence, but as Terry Castle suggests, as locus communis, as site of col-lective imaginative inquiry, as topic of cultural conversation,' and 'its role as rhetorical and cultural topos' (Castle 2003: 6). It examines the creation of the 'idea' of the lesbian as she appears in the texts that I have chosen.
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