A year after the decriminalisation of gay sex in India, we speak to Norwegian-Indian writer Vikram Kolmannskog about writing self, place and queerness.
PEN Transmissions feels like a fitting space in which to talk about your work. You write in English and Norwegian, but often about your Indian and diasporic identity. I want to ask where you write from, and where you write for? In turn, I suppose, that’s also a question about who you write from and for.
I wrote the first drafts of several of the stories in Lord of the Senses while staying in Bombay, a city to which I regularly return. As an Indian-Norwegian based in Oslo, going to Bombay to write is part travelling and part homecoming – as is all writing and reading, perhaps.
I suppose the primary audience for Lord of the Senses is people like me, LGBTQ folks with some link to India. I wrote several of the stories during (and as part of) the mobilisation for LGBTQ rights in India and many were published in Indian LGBTQ magazines. There’s a paucity of Indian LGBTQ literature. And so it’s important to find some recognition in a story, to have one’s identity and experience somehow validated. Indian LGBTQ literature speaks to me in a very special way, and I want to contribute to this body of literature. We create a community – a sense of who we are and can be – through storytelling.
At the same time, I also hope that others, who are not LGBTQ folks with a link to India, will read and appreciate my writing. We all have the ability to empathise and expand ourselves through stories; we people are not that different, though the particular ways of our longing, loving and heartbreak differ somewhat. I have read lots of books by white and/or straight people, with white and/or straight narrators and characters, and I have not found it difficult. They deal with human life and have enriched me, sometimes.
But I don’t want to be overly accommodating to straight, white readers. Partly out of respect for the primary audience – LBGTQ folks with an Indian link, or more broadly queers of colour – because white and/or straight people are often enough the focus of literature. And partly as an aesthetic and stylistic consideration: when the narrator and protagonist in my story is Indian, something breaks if common Indian words such as ‘Dalit’ and ‘Nanima’ are explained. There’s sufficient information in all the stories for readers to understand them without much knowledge of India or queerness, but it may take a tiny bit of patience and effort from straight, white people.
The poet and translator Sophie Collins has spoken about women’s autofiction and how, when women write narratives and characters that seem in some way biographical, their literature is inevitably read as autobiography. She argues that ‘the very fact of putting those experiences into literary prose’, however, ‘immediately converts them into fiction’. I feel this is also true of writing that addresses other forms of marginal identity. Is this something with which you’ve had to contend, and what’s your perspective on it?
In a blurb for Lord of the Senses, Rajeev Balasubramanyam, describes my stories as sincere and intimate. And in several drafts of the stories protagonists were called Vikram. One important consideration for me has been whether I want to change the names and other details in my stories mainly out of a sense of shame, often related to the quite explicit gay sex in some of my stories. I think it’s important that we own and celebrate that part of us. Partly for this reason, the protagonist is called Vikram in another homoerotic book of mine (Taste and See: A Queer Prayer). In the end, none of the protagonists in Lord of the Senses are called Vikram, but several have names that are quite similar (Ram, Vihaan). There is a part of me in all of them, but they are not me; they are more like sons of mine, perhaps – children who have been very much shaped by me and my experiences but now also clearly live their own lives.
For some reason, as you say, the ‘autofiction’ label and the urge to relate fact and fiction seem to arise more often when the author is a woman, person of colour, queer or belongs to some other marginalised identity. Perhaps there is something about our writing that justifies it. Or perhaps it’s a way of undermining us – an implicit charge that we are not clever enough to write anything apart from that which is very closely based on our own experiences.
In my view, autofiction is clearly fiction: as soon as I recount or tell a story about an experience I have had, I am at a distance from the actual experience. Some things are included, some are not. What I remember, and how I tell the story, will depend on the audience, setting. It is already a creative act – fiction, to some degree. In the stories that are closer to my own experiences, I also consciously take liberties.
All that said, I do feel there is a difference between writing that draws more directly on my own experience and writing that explores a rather different kind of life. The latter requires more or different imagination and empathy. And I feel somewhat cautious when doing this, knowing that I cannot really and fully know what it is to be a Dalit or a woman – or even someone who is born and bred in India, which I am not. Still, I do take a chance and write stories with such characters. Often, I then seek feedback from someone who does identify with one of those groups. I think I can write about many things, but I do want to be aware of, and constantly explore, my own position and how it may influence my writing.
There is something intractable about the relationship between religion – or spirituality – and sexuality in your writing. How has the historical relationship between Indian religiosity and attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community influenced your work? And what has the reform of colonial-era laws against gay sex done to change (or not) that relationship?
In India there has been an oppressive tradition or tendency (‘conservative’ would not be precise), casteist, heterosexist. But there has also been a very inclusive and emancipatory one that has celebrated diversity and challenged oppressive practices such as casteism and heterosexism. The title story shows this clearly: the poet-saint Meera, who lived around 500 years ago, defied norms on sexuality and gender, leaving her husband, mixing with people belonging to various castes and religions and backgrounds, without shame. Today her songs about love are sung all over India. This is the kind of tradition and tendency in human culture, inclusive and loving, to which I want to contribute. Another story, ‘Fucking Delhi’, shows that there has also been a very inclusive and loving tradition within Indian Islam – in parallel with a more oppressive one. This includes a celebration of same-sex love.
Since the filing of the petition against section 377 in the early 2000s, the movement made sure to mobilise in the wider social arena as well as the legal. In addition to a rights framing, Indian LGBTQ activists have also engaged with the morality and tradition framing that is often dominated by opponents of LGBTQ rights. LGBTQ Indians have highlighted the inclusive tradition or tendency that has existed throughout Indian history, one that has even celebrated LGBTQ loves and lives. And they have argued that criminalisation was British and imperialist. Since it is difficult to find anything in Hinduism that condemns homosexuality and queer lives, the BJP has come out in different voices on the issue, with some ministers supporting LGBTQ rights. And so, despite the Hindu Right currently dominating Indian politics, the LGBTQ rights movement has been successful.
An important question for many LGBTQ Indians now and for the future – a question that may contribute to defining both our individual and collective identity – is the following: Shall we focus narrowly on promoting LGBTQ rights, perhaps even entering into an alliance with the Hindu Right, or shall we show solidarity and ally with other, increasingly marginalised and oppressed categories of people? Needless to say, I want the latter. The way I see it, being queer involves a radical loving and questioning of norms and divisions. This is reflected in the stories in Lord of the Senses – stories that deal with love across castes and religions, as well as same-sex love.
Lord of the Senses is forthright in its depiction of queer sex. Did you set out actively to do this, or rather did such scenes come instinctively to the canvasses of your stories? And what role does this candid representation play? It doesn’t read just as resistance; it also reads as unbridled celebration.
I think ‘A Safe Harbour’, an early version of which was published by Erotic Review, was one of my first really sexually explicit stories. It has definitely been a process for me. I have had – and still have – some shame related to gay sex. Sex is after all a main reason why we were – and still are – considered sinful, criminal, sick or just dirty. Section 377 criminalised ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’; homosexuality was so repugnant to the British who first introduced it that it could not even be explicitly mentioned. This is a good reason to include gay sex in some detail in literature and elsewhere; let’s celebrate it, be excited by it.
More than it being a political-literary project, however, I like to write about erotic encounters because it is a way to explore interesting psycho-social, existential and spiritual themes: our desires, our prejudices, what we find attracting or repulsing, our insecurities, our sensitivity to rejection, our longing to be liked and loved, our longing to transcend our small selves and merge with someone or something else.
I want to finish by asking a large question – but one that feels important to your work. Why do you write? There seemed to be a few reasons, some timeless and some very urgent.
There are some urgent reasons related to the queer movement in India. And there are some timeless reasons related to being human in this world. I write to explore and express the complexity and wonder that I experience in and around me. As I mentioned, I wrote the first drafts of several stories while staying in Bombay. I think inspiration and writing is partly about making myself available: when I go to Bombay, I often have few plans except to be with friends (and sometimes lovers), wander around, observe people and life, drink coffee, read and write. When I am aware of what is going on in and around me, there is always something interesting happening.
Often, emotional life events, such as falling in love or heartbreak, also make me want to write – somehow to understand the process through creating a story. By turning it into more than my own personal pain or pleasure, a story can also be appreciated by more people, particular and universal.
I have a regular meditation practice. And I show up in front of the Mac, much like I show up on the meditation pillow, for a certain time, regardless of how I feel. Writing is like life in general: in the end it’s all important, the ups and the downs. And from a spiritual and therapeutic point of view, the most important thing is how I respond to those ups and downs. I don’t need to inflate my ego when it is going well or beat myself up when it feels difficult. I want to be aware and kind to myself regardless. Writing is part of my spirituality and my way of being in the world.
My family has a holiday home in Andalucía. There is a gym nearby. There is chocolate and good food easily available. There is wild nature, and mountains to run in. Just outside the house is an orange tree. There is a view of the ocean and sky. I did the last bit of work on Lord of the Senses there. When I did my morning meditation on the final day, I thanked the orange tree, the ocean, the sky, the gym, the people there, the food, the books I had read, and the innumerable factors that had contributed to the writing and creation of this book. All these write, not ‘I’ alone.
Vikram Kolmannskog is a gay man of dual heritage, born to an Indian mother and a Norwegian father. He is based in Oslo, Norway, but considers both India and Norway his homes. He is the author of Poetry Is Possible: Selected Poems, The Empty Chair: Tales from Gestalt Therapy, Taste and See: A Queer Prayer, and most recently Lord of the Senses: Stories. www.Vikram.no
Interview by Will Forrester, Editor.