Queer stall at Chennai Book Fair 2023: A debut worth the struggle

The publication is an initiative of the arts and culture wing of Trans Rights Now Collective.
The stall has been put up for the first time by the publishing house representing Queer community at the prestigious fair after 45 years of denial and discrimination.
The stall has been put up for the first time by the publishing house representing Queer community at the prestigious fair after 45 years of denial and discrimination.Vijaya Shankar

CHENNAI: The 46th Chennai book fair is going on in full swing in Chennai, but something of a revolution just bloomed in this year's fair. On its lookout, book lovers thronged stall no. 28 from ‘The Queer Publishing House’, that features works of Queer writers' after 45 years of denial and discrimination. The publication is an initiative of the arts and culture wing of Trans Rights Now Collective.

Grace Banu, Trans activist, writer, and founder of Trans Rights Now Collective, and S Negha, VJ-theatre artiste and transwoman talk to us about the struggle of having a stall at the fair, their publications' new poetry books, change in the portrayal of Queer community in cinema, about books making readers acknowledge Queer stereotypes, right time of coming out and much more.

As she began on a happy note, Banu said, "The public response is what we expected. We thought the public would deny us and nobody would buy our books, but the outcome was way different and enthralled us as the response was huge. They not just took a peek into our stall, but also brought books and reading it. Readers are coming for us and now we have the responsibility to our readers."

On the casteist and transphobic treatment to their stall, Banu said that she fought to break the stereotypes. "It was purely because of people’s pre-judgemental mindset. A few have a pre-judgment on our behavior and dressing sense. Comments were passed on to us like 'You people are very modernised' and 'You people are dressing very professionally’,” she continued.

“We took it on a positive note and we addressed the issue and approached respective decision-makers and ministers such as School Education Minister Anbil Mahesh Poyyamozhi, MP Thamizhachi Thangapandian, MP Kanimozhi, who supported us,” she added.

Asking on whether books act as a medium to break Queer stereotypes, Grace replied, "Yes. In fact, my book ‘Thirunangai Grace Banuvin Sindhanaigal’ completely talks about this and that is why it faced a lot of denials. My book covers everything from the way we should be called, why we should be called our way, and not just this politics. It also talks about international politics. It explains how the trans community is facing issues wider.”

A view of the stall no. 28 at the book fair that has over 1,000 stalls.
A view of the stall no. 28 at the book fair that has over 1,000 stalls.Vijaya Shankar

‘Need more writers to translate’

She added that she is currently looking out for writers to translate her book into English, but hasn't got anyone so far to do it in the right way. "To break the stereotype, we started ‘The Queer Publishing House’ and we are now making readers think in a broader mindset and see everyone as equal," she said.

About their publications' three new poetry books, Grace told us that there is more to come, "Because we did our first edition immediately, we released 3 books — Arun Karthik's ‘Ennillirundhu Paar’, Ajitha's 'Oru Kalaiyin Kavithaigal' and S Negha's ‘RIP’. Within one month, we got 7 books. Across India, not just Tamil ones, books came from Queer writers from other languages."

Visitors throng the stall.
Visitors throng the stall.Vijaya Shankar

When asked as an activist about the portrayal of LGBTQIA+ people in cinema and the need to have Queer writers in-reference to Sudha Kongara's 'Thangam' where the filmmaker used a Queer activist' help in scripting, Grace opined that it was in-need necessary. "Yes, definitely it is needed. It is only the cisgender who are deciding on who wants to do the role. Cis directors are more here and LGBTQIA+ directors are very few. If cis directors are taking our efforts, why not let us be part of it? For example, if a filmmaker has a trans character, they can cast a transperson."

"We have a theatre group itself and we are doing a lot of plays. Negha's film bagged the Kerala State Film award and Living Smile Vidya's Kannada film 'Naan Avanalla Avalu' also bagged a National Award. So, if you take our efforts and our stories, then why not cast a transperson itself for the role? That is what is revolutionary right? If you are talking about social justice or gender justice, then why not give the power to us?"

A forum for Queer writers:

According to Grace, there is a forum for Queer writers to submit their stories, "Yes. This publication is specifically for Queer writers. We are publishing works of Queer writers from across India and from other countries as well. We have an idea of translating works from there to here and we will be doing that soon. We are clear to build a safe space for Queer community and set it as an example."

On the topic of the right to come out for LGBTQIA+ people, Grace says, "When there is a defined safe space for us and when we believe that, then only we can come out or else we cannot. It's the society that has to create that 'safe space'. When society is ready to give us a safe space, then only we can come out. That is our responsibility. Each individual person has the right to say it is a safe space. Here also, we are making sure to create a safe space."

Buddha statue in-front of the stall that holds the publication house' logo signifying acceptance.
Buddha statue in-front of the stall that holds the publication house' logo signifying acceptance.Vijaya Shankar

With a smile, Grace explained her journey as Dalit-transperson, "From my childhood, I have faced caste and gender-based discrimination and I am voicing out against it. The Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi communities are facing double the amount of oppression. When we talk about the larger level forum or movement, they are denied of intersexuality. I want to create a safe space for all people and promote equality. All of the motivation to do so came from the discrimination that I faced in school, college, and the workplace to the political venture that I am in now. For almost a decade, we have worked for it. I have been part of the community that has helped to create a path where today, transpersons are writing govt-related exams and venturing into various fields".

Asking about how she feels about putting up a stall after 45 years of struggle, she said, “It is because of the denial factor. When I released my book, no one came forward to publish my work. At that time, I decided to start a publication house for Queer writers to publish their words with the dignity and celebration that they deserve and that's what is Queer Publication House now. Behind each denial, we began this publication and in that, we publish the works of Queer writers whose works were denied across India from various languages. Yes, it has become a half-century."

"For 45 years, cisgender people were publishing our works and now we are bringing our own works in front of people. If you ask me whether we got the recognition in these 45 years, I would say no. But henceforth, this will be our own path and that defines our Queer Publication House," she added.

‘It feels like history’

S Negha, writer of 'RIP' also spoke on the same note and said, "It feels like history. In the 45 years of the fair conducted, only cisgender people published our works. We need to fight for every industry and need to put hashtags like '#Queerwritersarewriters' and '#Transartistsareartists' and many more. Even putting a stall at the book fair this year was not given easily to us. Last year also, Queer writers were brought to a situation where they took their books, approached each stall, and asked the publishers to accept their books in their stalls. This year we took an initiative to publish Queer writers' works."

While distributing the badges to visitors, Negha added that there will be a lot more Queer books translated into English but were sold out soon. "Yes, there were so many books here, but they all got sold out soon. Also, there was a small issue with bringing books to our stall. This being the first time for us, the community needs more time to accept."

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