Book Review: Facing the Mirror: Lesbian Writing from India by Ashwini Sukthankar

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Published in 1999, Facing the Mirror: Lesbian Writing by Ashwini Sukthankar from India is a collection of stories that bring together diverse narratives around lesbian existence in India. The short stories talked about what it really means to be a woman who loves other women through fiction, poetry, essays, and personal stories. It was a groundbreaking anthology that was the first to tell the stories of lesbians in India, which had previously been hidden and denied.

It was published a few months after the Fire movie controversy and protests that happened after the Indian release of the movie in 1998. At first, the diverse voices did complicate the definition of “lesbian” as each voice approaches the meaning of “lesbian” desire and identity differently.

The diversity in the narrations did improve the general idea of what kinds of desire are implied by the word ‘lesbian.” The freedom of anonymity brought out the rawness and also refused to “show” us a stereotypical portrayal of lesbians in India, honestly it did end up complicating the understanding of what a lesbian looks like. The voices included transgender women, transgender men, women for whom “lesbian sex” occurs exclusively as an aside to their heterosexual marriage, and also those for whom being a “lesbian” is a political stance. The best part about the book is that it leaves nothing out, it is raw and real. The reading is not just a package of lesbian testimonies; it is a critical piece of Indian queer history.

Penguin, the publisher, released a new edition a year after Article 377 was read down and it was 20 years after the first edition.

Shals Mahajan, a writer, and queer feminist who has been a member of the LABIA – Queer Feminist LBT Collective for the past two decades, wrote a beautiful foreword to the new edition. They talk about the book’s place in Indian Queer History, about how the times the stories come out, were the times when identities were not a part of the vocabulary, and the words in the stories only vaguely captured the range of human gender and sexuality. Credited as Shalini in the book, they write about the name, ‘I had not yet articulated my discomfort with as I hadn’t about my gender either’.

In the original Introduction by Ashwini Sukthankar, she does talk about the fear many writers who identified as lesbians had. They feared how the visibility might harm the existing spaces where lesbians feel safe and free. As a response, Ashwini says, ‘muteness is an option only for women who can pass as heterosexual’, and adds, ‘It is not enough, today, to remain silent to avail of that traditional space — we are forced to lie.’

The author’s thoughts one writer’s desire for a sex-change operation shows the extent of transphobia, and in those times, it was something that was just being understood. She writes that the sex change ‘issue is a painful one, given … all the stories we hear of lesbians who think they must have themselves surgically sculpted into men because there seems to be no other way to love a woman and be loved in return’. She further writes that the idea that sexuality and gender interact in complex ways, however much it contests the preconceptions of lesbians themselves. Honesty has been a key ingredient of the book and the narration, owing to the fact that much of what we read in the stories are raw and unfiltered.

Some books magically narrate stories with words, while others bring the efforts of writers who struggle to articulate experiences that have been denied voice and space.Needless to say, this is the latter kind.

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