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literature

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South Asian Literatures: Diaspora  
 
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Except for Hanif Kureishi, who was born in England, all the other writers in this group were born in South Asia and emigrated to the West as young adults. But even these writers, with a few exceptions, tend to be cautious about sexual self-disclosure; some seem even uncertain about the role of their sexuality in their literary projects.

Very few writers openly explore the personal conflicts and political contradictions generated by their interacting ethnocultural, post-colonial, and homosexual subjectivities.

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Prafulla Mohanti

Among the more cautious writers is Prafulla Mohanti, a gay South Asian artist who lives in London. An acclaimed writer and distinguished painter, Mohanti recalls in his autobiographical Through Brown Eyes (1985) his childhood in a small Indian village and his adult life as an immigrant in an increasingly racist and violent England.

Although the autobiography spans the first forty-five years of his life, Mohanti meticulously avoids any references to his sexuality; instead, he foregrounds ethnic issues and immigrant concerns.

But the conspicuous sexual silence that characterizes his autobiography is in itself a subtle strategy: It is a way of speaking the unspeakable. This silence, in addition to a casual remark that many art critics have commented on the preponderance of phallic symbols in his paintings, remains the only textual marker of his homosexuality.

Agha Shahid Ali

Whereas Mohanti resolutely maintains his sexual silence in his immigrant autobiography, Agha Shahid Ali engages in cautious self-disclosure. In some of his earlier poems--such as "Leaving Your City," "Beyond the Ash Rains," and "A Rehearsal of Loss"-- the poet reveals his pain over lost love, but the gender of the lover remains unspecified.

A common tactic among precontemporary homosexual poets in the West, this deliberate elision of gender specificity makes gay readings of the poems possible.

In his more recent work, however, Ali appears less anxious to conceal his sexuality. "A Nostalgist's Map of America," written after learning about a close friend's AIDS diagnosis, is an exceptionally powerful rendering of personal anguish. overtones are even more evident in "In Search of Evanescence," a hauntingly eloquent meditation on the poet's relationship with Phil, the friend dying of AIDS.

Vikram Seth

A bit more candid than Ali is Vikram Seth, one of the most celebrated South Asian novelists. His highly praised The Golden Gate (1986), a novel in verse, has an all-American cast of characters and offers a bemused look at the 1980s yuppie lifestyle in northern California.

Young and prosperous but bored and lonely, the characters in the novel search for meaning and happiness. Bisexual Phil falls in love with gay Ed, but Ed, a devout Catholic, is tormented by sexual guilt. While he gradually learns to understand and accept his sexuality, Phil falls in love with Liz, Ed's sister, and they marry.

Lurking beneath the novel's gentle satire on the Californian ethos is Seth's message that sexual self-acceptance, meaningful commitment, and genuine love are the bases of an authentic life.

In his most recent work, A Suitable Boy (1993), Seth projects an epic vision of Indian life during the 1950s. Here homosexuality is merely hinted at: In one of the novel's numerous subplots, there is a suggestion that two male characters--Maan Kapoor and Firoz Khan--were once lovers.

Andrew Harvey

Unlike Mohanti, Ali, and Seth, Andrew Harvey deals with homosexual themes explicitly, elaborately, and consistently in all three of his novels, but his place in South Asian gay literature is problematic. By birth an Anglo-Indian--a term used in India to refer to people of racially mixed background--Harvey was born in Nagpur and grew up in Old Delhi. At age nine, he moved to England to live with his English grandparents.

Though India continues to dominate his consciousness--he is profoundly influenced by Buddhist spirituality and Hindu mysticism--he feels no ethnic identification with India. A blurb on the cover of his recent spiritual autobiography, Hidden Journey (1991), for example, calls him a "native" of India, but in the text itself Harvey stresses his "Englishness" and views Indians as vaguely familiar but largely exotic Others.

Absence of any overt ethnic consciousness marks all three of Harvey's gay novels. In each of them the main characters frantically search for heightened self-knowledge, for love that often remains elusive, and for mystical insight into the puzzle of their lives.

At the center of One Last Mirror (1985), Harvey's first novel, is the relationship between an elderly widow and a young bisexual male.

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