The just-published collected poems by Agha Shahid Ali, entitled The Veiled Suite (the name of his last long poem) makes no mention anywhere of his gayness. In many ways, of course, this is what Ali would have wanted. He apparently refused to let any Indian gay anthology publish his work in his lifetime (though the new edition of the Hoshang Merchant-edited Yaraana has poems by him, years after his death; Ali had refused them for the first edition) and, far as I know, no US gay anthology has him in it either.
I have always wondered whether this was because Ali did not want to be known as publicly gay or whether this was a critical refusal to engage with either the derivative and lazily assumed South Asian gay politics on the one hand or the easier identificatory politics of the ’80s and ’90s in the US on the other. In my mind, this remains a problem. Was Ali’s merely a question of choosing not to be outed for the political reasons I’ve speculated upon above or was it the internalised homophobia of many writers whose sexual orientation is something they want to hide for dubious reasons? These reasons include a) some idea of the universality of the author, b) self-protection from taking on a hostile society and c) self-interest in wanting one’s sales not to be affected.
Even if there are more complex ones, they are reducible to fear or the market. Years ago, I wrote a review of a diasporic Indian lesbian poet’s book, speaking of the workings of gender in the poems. She wrote to me thanking me for what she thought of as a sensitive review. However, she asked me to remove all references to the word ‘lesbian’ as her mother in India might come across the review.
Recently, I spoke with a diasporic woman poet who strongly resisted any identity categories and made my questions seem either offensive or irrelevant. She said, “Why would anyone want to be painted into a corner?” as one of her many, increasingly obscure, statements about gender and identity. I scrapped the interview but apart from wondering about the obvious, which is that no heterosexual ever feels painted into a corner by his or her heterosexuality, I was more struck by the lengths to which writers will go to escape same-sex identification.
I am more interested in what this does to their own psyches and how it damages others in their lives as this is something to which we rarely pay any attention.
In Ali’s case, despite the possibility that his silence could be a political choice, I still think there is damage. It is evident in his view of women, for example. Women are either beautiful and delicate or they are weeping and mourning in Ali’s work. He rarely enters their subjectivities which would have been possible had he allowed himself access to the contours of his own gay subjectivity. Even Begum Akhtar, a dominant presence in his work and someone he shared a relationship with both as a fan and friend, only appears in signature emotional states, captured in moments of descriptive exteriority, never in the tissue of her outsiderness as a woman ghazal singer which could have been productively linked in poetic (not literal or declarative which would in any case be against his aesthetic) terms to his outsiderness as a gay Kashmiri Muslim.
The argument usually offered by writers dubiously silent on their sexual orientation and their defenders is: straights don’t do it, so why should we? Well, apart from it being terribly sad to model oneself on straight people, the fact of the matter is that straight people do not need to do it. That’s the whole point. They run the world and presume everyone is like them. Hence we need to do it. Besides, heteros can’t stop talking about their heterosexuality in every other possible way, apart from stating it. They are completely in your face about it but it is a crime if a gay person is.
The cliché of the ideal world where no one has to ever identify or have a sexual identity or label or tag or whatever you want to call it is, more often than not, one that helps privileged people remain privileged, helps cowards remain cowards and helps the status quo remain in place.
Whether as a political choice or a cowardly act, silence or avoidance of the question of one’s sexual orientation in one’s writing leaves the writing’s possibilities impoverished. While it is useful to be aware of the limits of sexual identity as fixed or determining writing, the denial of the role of gender or sexual orientation in writing not only damages writing, but also psyches.