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Making Queer Worlds

The World That Belongs To Us: An Anthology of Queer Poetry from South Asia, edited by Aditi Angiras and Akhil Katyal (Harper Collins, 2020)

"They say This world isn’t for you
Why then was I born into it, if it wasn’t for me."

These lines hit you like a gust of unforgiving wind. Almost two-thirds through the book, editors Aditi Angiras and Akhil Katyal have tricked you. Lulled with poems of joy, resistance, freedom, love and escape, you flip through pages quickly, looking for more. But some poems stop you in your track. To startle you. Phurbu Tashi’s “This World Isn’t For You” is one such poem (197). [1] Tucked deep into the heart of the anthology, it asks a critical question: whose world is this?

This highly anticipated anthology of queer poetry from South Asia begins by questioning itself. Why “queer?” How can “queer” encompass and name the spectrum and multiplicity of genders and sexualities in one of the most populous regions of the world? Queer and gender studies scholars have long traced indigenous practices of queer knowledge-building that resist caste, religious, and class hegemonies; they have also critically examined colonial encounters with indigenous sexualities that shape contemporary legislation. In this anthology, queerness is invoked in relation to sexuality, gender, community, indigeneity, caste, tribe, nationality, and religion (recalling only a few in a long and ambitious list) while a blank page pays tribute to voices that fall away. Furthermore, the editors are careful not to wholly embrace the term “queer” without challenging its neoliberal and western attachments. They settle on “queer” not just to build in these contradictions but also to note how “queerness” functions as a method of collection. Whether through its widespread call for poems in six languages or its inclusion of voices from lesser known regions, the anthology’s strength lies in its scope— renowned poets of South Asian diaspora mingle with pseudonyms, academics mingle with activists, and languages mingle with one another.

Two years ago, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was struck down by the Supreme Court of India.[2] It had been used to criminalize homosexual relations and characterize them as “unnatural” for more than a century. In 2018, the Naz Foundation, after a decades-long legal struggle, moved a constitutional bench which stated that majoritarian views could not hinder access to constitutional rights.[3] The ruling was a historic one, but this winding path to legal and constitutional rights in India only partially demonstrates the complex social and political negotiations shouldered by queer communities across South Asia. Despite being published after the 2018 repeal, the threat of censorship—imposed from within and outside—haunts the anthology. Narrating a poets’ refusal to be included in a collection that adhered to corporate demands of marketability, the introduction lays out one of the crucial concerns of the book: its audience. How does an anthology of queer poetry address a “public” that is persistently hostile? How does one build solidarities through poems that address the world as if speaking to a lover? Gee Semmalar’s “Resistance Rap’”(19) makes an attempt— building solidarites that are transnational, translingual, transoceanic and transformative. Like others in the anthology, Semmalar’s poem creates an entire world within it

Unsurprisingly, politics of language and translation are central to this anthology. South Asia is home to hundreds of languages, so the irony of it being in English is not lost on the editors. Translations from Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Punjabi, Malayalam, Marathi, Nepali, and Urdu come together to suggest an underlying polyphony that is masked by English. In the introduction, the editors describe the immense amount of translation-work that produced this anthology as well as their decision to include two poems in their partially translated form. One poem by Asad Alvi is transliterated, whereas Shakti Milan Sharma’s “Laga Jockey Main Daag” resists translation, and is left untouched in its original Hinglish (Hindi and English), with Hindi words in its original Devanagri script. Every other translated poem bears the name of its author and translator. Interestingly, the poets’ nationalities only appear in their biographical notes. Some poets eschew national identity entirely and align themselves solely to particular regions or communities. Poet Santa Khurai, for instance, refuses to be labeled an Indian or a northeast-Indian transwoman and claims nupi maanbi or indigenous Meetei transwoman from Manipur as her identity. While the temptation to divide poets into nationalities is fortunately evaded, yet the fact that the volume is published in India, the region’s largest nation-state, still begs the question of unequal representation. While the anthology includes poets from a number of lesser known regions, it eventually turns away from addressing this expectation head-on. Instead, the editors envision the collection as a call for future anthologies to fill its gaps through solidarities across political borders.     

Ultimately, the anthology is a profound celebration of poetic form. Editors Angiras and Katyal, poets themselves, assemble concrete poetry, long poems, short poems, ghazals, haikus and free-verse poems to showcase impressive formal diversity. Capacious experimentations with form and point-of-view press the limits of social and aesthetic categories. For instance, Fatima Asghar’s “Pluto Shits on the Universe” imagines the ignored planet’s anger at the universe as queer critique, while Chand’s “What is Queer?” asserts that “Queer is the end of structure” (213). These formal innovations and quirks invite us to reconsider the threshold of literary mediation and rearticulate vital connections between representation and history.

The anthology’s shortest poem, Moksh’s “That One Crime,” weaves desire with indignation: “I’m guilty of a crime/no matter what I do/when I try to forget/I remember you” (209). This tone of indignation carries through the rest of the anthology transforming into sarcasm and filling the anthology with subtle critiques of the world. Every so often, however, this critique bursts through the pages to envelop the reader, as it does in the last poem of the anthology—a translated poem by Ramchandra Siras, who was cheated out of justice. The anthology’s greatest strength is the interweaving of intimacy and resistance. Unlike other anthologies, poems are arranged by honoring the worlds they create and aspire to. Unsettling borders and silences, these poems bloom solidarities. Ultimately, to imagine intimacy as inseparable from world-making, The World That Belongs to Us proclaims poetry as its powerful medium.


Subhalakshmi Gooptu is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where she teaches a number of courses on writing, gender and migration. Her research focuses on the histories of reproduction, labor and empire from a global comparative perspective.

[1] Originally in Nepali and translated by Rohan Chhetri into English

[2] In 2009,  the Delhi High Court decriminalized consensual sex between adults of the same sex  in the country’s capital city amidst growing acceptance in popular culture. However,  in 2013, with rousing support from the right-wing ruling party, the Supreme Court upheld the colonial-era law dealing a blow to the LGBTQ movement in India.


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