10 Books about ‘criminal’ behaviour

Since the review hearing yesterday dismissed the petition asking the Supreme Court judgement on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code be reconsidered, here’s a brief reading list for those of you who aspire to be a little more connected to both the real world as well as your own sense of humanity.

(The following titles are in alphabetical order, not in order of preference.)

The Alan Hollinghurst Quartet

Why someone hasn’t brought this out as a ‘box set’ is a mystery to me. The Swimming Pool Library, The Folding Star, The Spell, In the Line of Beauty are an unofficial history of gay life in Britain. The Swimming Pool Library, about the subculture of alternative sexuality before and after homosexuality was decriminalised in Britain in 1967, might be particularly pertinent today. Hollinghurst is also one of the finest stylists you’ll ever read. Most of us struggle to write one perfect sentence. Hollinghurst’s books teem with them.

Angels in America, by Tony Kushner

This isn’t a novel, but a play in two parts. Angels in America is considered one of the most dazzling portraits of American society during the Reagan era, when AIDS became took on the label of “epidemic” in the country. The first part of the play, Millenium Approaches won the Pulitzer prize for drama in 1993. In the second, Perestroika, God has abandoned this world and characters are left to depend upon human kindness, rather than the divine. A sample of Kushner’s sharp dialogues:

Your problem, Henry, is that you are hung up on words, on labels, that you believe they mean what they seem to mean. AIDS. Homosexual. Gay. Lesbian. You think these are names that tell you who someone sleeps with, but they don’t tell you that. No. Like all labels they tell you one thing and one thing only: where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology, or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout.

The Case Of Exploding Mangoes, by Mohammad Hanif

There’s so much to love in this brilliant novel that imagines what may have been the backstory to General Zia’s assassination, and one of them is the love story of Ali Shigri and Obaid, or Baby O. Their romance is one of the many tendrils of story in the novel and Hanif writes it with such sweetness. It’s actually a bit of a spoiler to give away the gay love story, but hopefully, even with the spoiler, your heart will still go pitter patter when you read Hanif writing about Baby O and Ali Shigri, well, following orders.

The Dead Camel And Other Stories of Love, by Parvati Sharma

Love triangles, a fetish for making beds, the riots in Godhra, a dead camel — this collection of short stories is a wonderful volume. Not every story is brilliant, but most of them are and the prose is powerful even when the stories totter. Sharma writes about lesbians and contemporary, middle India with particularly sharp sensitivity.

Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin

This is one of the most beautiful depictions of the complexity of relationships that operate under the weight of shame and guilt. David is an American in Paris who meets Giovanni, an Italian bartender, at a bar. By the time David is recounting this story, events have juggernauted to the conclusion that Giovanni is to be executed the next morning. It’s a heartbreakingly sad story.

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson

Semi-autobiographical, Oranges is about a lesbian who comes out and so shatters the idyllic facade of a Pentecostal community in England. In case you were wondering about the title, it refers slyly to how Jeanette’s mother would always offer her oranges whenever Jeanette was disturbed about anything. Oranges end up being the fruit equivalent of heterosexuality. Winterson has said about Oranges that it’s a novel, rather than a lesbian novel, simply because these are stories and experiences that should be universally accessible. “I’ve never understood why straight fiction is supposed to be for everyone, but anything with a gay character or that includes gay experience is only for queers,” she said in an interview. This is a book that is definitely should be read by everyone.

Orlando, Virginia Woolf

This novel spans two genders and about 300 years, wandering in the company of Queen Elizabeth, gypsies and Victorian England while exploring gender identities in different eras. Orland begins life as a man in the Elizabethan era, then becomes a woman and time travels her way through different places and people, ending up in the 1920s. And this is considered Woolf’s most accessible novel. Despite how complicated Orlando sounds, it actually is a fabulous story.

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by T.E. Lawrence

This is “Lawrence of Arabia” writing about his personal experiences during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Lawrence was a war hero and it is widely believed he was gay. While he didn’t use the word “gay” in Seven Pillars…, Lawrence did write about men who have sex with men insightfully and sensitively against the backdrop of war. This much is for certain: from Lawrence’s letters, it’s clear he wasn’t at all conflicted about homosexuality.

“I’ve seen lots of man-and-man loves: very lovely and fortunate some of them were.”

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

The protagonist of Eugenides’s amazing novel is Cal, an intersex or middlesex, and while writing about Cal’s life and his genetic history, Eugenides has put together one of the most stunning meditations upon gender identity. This is a story about science, culture and the barely-explored territory occupied by those who are hermaphrodites. Born a girl (Calliope), living as a man (Cal) and rifling through a family history that includes everything from shy, secret lesbian relationships to failed bids at becoming the American president, Cal/Calliope is an amazing character.

 

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