International LGBTQ+ Publishing And The Global Anglophone
By Frazer Martin
In the second chapter of Arundhati Roy’s 2017 novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, the protagonist, Anjum – a hijra woman who has transitioned – becomes envious of another, younger trans woman living in her queer collective in Delhi. This woman, Saeeda, is a university graduate who speaks perfect English, an activist for gender rights groups and receives copious attention from foreign press – all of which arouses Anjum’s suspicions. The main cause for concern, however, is Saeeda’s facility with the newly globalised language of LGBTQ+ identity:
“More importantly, she [Saeeda] could speak the new language of the times – she could use the terms cis-Man and FtoM and MtoF and in interviews she referred to herself as a ‘transperson.’ Anjum, on the other hand, mocked what she called the ‘trans-france’ business and stubbornly insisted on referring to herself as a Hijra.”
To Anjum, Saeeda’s ability to align herself with “the new language of the times” represents a genuine threat: as a globalised Anglophone LGBTQ+ discourse increasingly takes up space, little room is left for her identity as a hijra – a local, indigenous gendered subjectivity specific to the Indian subcontinent. Saeeda, with her effortless mastery of this language, is able to perform fluently in interviews for global media outlets. Whereas Anjum, clings ‘stubbornly’ to her indigenous identity, which is cast, implicitly, as an archaism unworthy of the same attention. What emerges from Anjum and Saeeda’s feud is clearly not just a matter of semantics, but of competing queer discourses and epistemologies – a tension between hegemonic, Western-influenced understandings of queer experience and indigenous, local frameworks of gendered and sexual subjectivity, such as the hijra.
As Anjum’s anxieties about Saeeda’s media-savviness suggest, this tension is particularly present in the context of a globalised media and invites us to question how indigenous texts about gender and sexual variance circulate within global publishing markets. Whereas previously, queer fiction sat firmly in the domain of indie presses and small-scale, localised and informal retail markets. Now, it constitutes a large and formidable part of the global book trade: mega-retailers such as Amazon market dedicated categories and sub-categories for LGBTQ+ fiction; the ‘big five’ international publishers increasingly use LGBTQ+ terms as categorisations within their lists; and dedicated literary prizes, agencies, indies and imprints exist specifically for LGBTQ+ books. As queer fiction becomes a globalised phenomenon, so too does the specifically Anglo-American LGBTQ+ discourse through which these texts are bought, sold and marketed, leaving little space for non-Western conceptions of gender and sexual variance.
Akwaeke Emezi, (@azemezi) an Igbo-Tamil author of international acclaim, tweeted insightfully about this very issue in June this year, with regard to the reception of their debut novel Freshwater, published in 2018 and often read as a novel about nonbinary identity:
“A note on Freshwater – it is *not* a book about nonbinary/trans identity through an Igbo lens, ffs. It is not about gender whatsoever and framing it as that is trying to force it over to a human/Western centre. It is about embodiment as an ogbanje.”
Expressing their anger at the co-opting of the Ogbanje – a spiritual entity specific to Igbo culture – into the global Anglophone of LGBTQ+ discourse, Emezi takes issue with a wider Anglocentrism inherent to international publishing and reading culture, which reads indigenous forms of embodiment as uncomplicatedly coterminous with LGBTQ+ embodiment. In a later tweet in the series, they write:
“You cannot separate white supremacy/colonialism/etc from reading a text centred in Igbo ontology, about an entity specific to Igbo reality, and then describing it as something else, without thinking about why you can’t hold the indigenous centre and what you might be erasing.”
Just as Anjum worries over the encroachment of Anglophone LGBTQ+ discourse into indigenous conceptions of gender, sexuality and embodiment in Roy’s novel, Emezi identifies how the globalised networks of LGBTQ+ publishing, while representing a liberatory possibility for some, fundamentally misread – and thus mis-market – their work.
Increasingly, it seems, conformity to Anglo-American conceptions of LGBTQ+ identities, epistemologies and embodiments has become a condition of entry into the global LGBTQ+ book market. Emezi themselves is often styled as an LGBTQ+ author within this context, despite their own description of their books’ grounding in indigenous Igbo ontology. As international publishers continue to buy distribution and translation rights for non-Western texts about or including gender and sexual variance, it becomes more and more important to question how these texts can be published with sensitivity to and awareness of their cultural specificity. As the LGBTQ+ book market expands, it simultaneously becomes gradually set in its ways in terms of campaigning, distribution and retail – a secure formula has been reached for how to monetize these books. Emezi and Roy, however, raise important questions about these processes and challenge publishers (and us as readers) to think through how we receive texts arising in non-Western contexts – LGBTQ+ or otherwise.