Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 14, November 2006

Gayatri Gopinath

Impossible Desires:
Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures

Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2005, 247 pages;
ISBN: 0-8223-3513-1 (paper) US$22.95
ISBN: 0-8223-3501-8 (cloth) US$79.95

reviewed by Romit Dasgupta

  1. Gayatri Gopinath's Impossible Desires is located within an emergent body of critical research by queer non-Western immigrant/diasporic scholars such as Martin Manalansan, David Eng, Nayan Shah and José Muñoz, which has been gaining some attention in recent years.[1] This is a body of critique that challenges many of the assumptions and underpinnings of conventional understandings about expressions of same-sex desire in non-Western and diasporic contexts. It dovetails with the writings of scholars and activists in non-Western societies, as well as Western researchers, including regular contributors to this journal such as Peter Jackson and Mark McLelland, among others, whose research focuses on expressions of alternative sexualities in non-Western societies. Working in concert, these three not unrelated strands within sexuality and gender studies challenge the hegemony of Euro-American derived understandings of expressions of same-sex desire. This is a particularly urgent task given that, within the context of processes of globalisation, Euro-American signifiers of queer/non-heterosexual desire are increasingly becoming the blueprint for same-sex loving individuals across the globe. Through a sort of liberal-humanist, rights-based 'Rainbow Flag' cultural imperialism—what Joseph Massad refers to as the power of 'Gay International'[2]—the channel for expressions of queer desire within the framework of this discourse becomes a prescriptive one premised on specific expectations and assumptions. These include such assumptions as the notion of a unitary 'gay' identity that exists in opposition to heterosexuality and hence can only find fulfilled expression only through public visibility and departure and separation from heteronormative socio-cultural structures and institutions like the patriarchal family/home. The privileging of one particular powerful discourse of same-sex desire results in the rejection and elision of other supposedly less 'evolved' articulations of same-sex desire. In a global framework, the power-hierarchy between a politically and sexually 'evolved' articulate and visible lesbian and gay identity, and other 'less evolved' same-sex subjectivities gets replicated through an underlying developmental logic that sees a Western-style 'out' lgbt identity as the (only) end point for all Third World non-heterosexual sexualities. It is the hegemonic hold of such an inherently problematic understanding of non-heterosexual sexualities which the three strands of research identified above seeks to interrogate.
  2. In Impossible Desires Gopinath makes a significant contribution to this interrogation of fixed understandings of non-heterosexual sexualities. However, it extends out beyond a focus on just sexuality. Using a 'queer (specifically, queer South Asian) diaspora' framework, Gopinath engages critically with imaginings of home, family, nation and diaspora, and the interconnectedness of each of these with processes and conditions of colonialism, postcolonialism and globalisation. In so doing she positions her work within an interdisciplinary framework, drawing variously upon theoretical strands from queer, feminist, postcolonial, diasporic/Asian-American, film and cultural studies. However, rather than merely grabbing the necessary 'bits-and-pieces' from these disciplinary traditions, Impossible Desires is actually situated at the intersections of these theoretical bodies and, consequently, through critical engagement therewith, works towards addressing generally unacknowledged blind-spots in them.
  3. The core of Gopinath's argument revolves around the terms in the title of her work: queer diasporas, impossibility and South Asian public cultures (p. 6). As she points out in her introductory chapter, theories of diaspora as an analytical tool—particularly those emerging in the wake of Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy's deployment of the term—have been particularly useful for critical interrogations of nationalism, cultural identity, race and migration (pp. 6 -7). This has been especially pertinent to critical research on the South Asian diaspora and its relationship to the South Asian 'homeland,' in particular to the challenging of culturally essentialist framings of the relationship. However, as Gopinath argues, in order to fully appreciate the complex linkages between diaspora, nationalism and processes of transnational capitalism and globalisation—as manifested, for instance, in the ideological and material support among sections of the Indian diaspora for the rightwing Hindu nationalist agenda of the BJP-led government in India in the 1990s—it is necessary to recognise that these linkages are mediated through discourses which are powerfully gendered and sexualised. As a case in point, Gopinath provides the example of the ongoing debates in New York's diasporic South Asian community through the 1990s over the refusal by organisers of the India Day Parade, a public celebratory performance of 'Indian identity' to mark India's Independence Day, to allow participation by SALGA (the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association) and SAKHI (an anti-domestic violence feminist group). Clearly, underpinning the exclusionary politics of the organisers—a male-dominated association of immigrant Indian business owners and operators—was an imagining of India and 'Indian-ness' through the lens of patriarchal heteronormativity/prescription. As Gopinath observes, while SAKHI was eventually allowed to participate, SALGA continued to be refused permission to march in the parade; the organisers thus deeming it 'appropriate for women to march as "Indian women," even perhaps as "feminist Indian women," but could not envision women marching as "Indian queers" or "Indian lesbians"' (pp. 17-18).
  4. This 'impossibility' of queer female diasporic subjectivity is the particular focus of Gopinath's discussion. The denial, indeed unthinkability, of the possibility of the queer female diasporic subject, she argues, is intermeshed both with the fetishisation of the figure of the (heterosexual) woman in patriarchal and nationalist discourses of the nation and diaspora—as recognised by numerous feminist and postcolonial scholars—and the subordination of the gay male subject. However, ironically, this erasure of queer female subjectivity is a feature not only of patriarchal and heteronormative nationalist and diasporic discourses, but also a feature of some gay male and liberal feminist framings of diaspora. For instance, as Gopinath points out in Chapter Four, 'Bollywood/Hollywood,' 'progressive' films by ostensibly 'feminist' diasporic directors like Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, 2000), Deepa Mehta (Bollywood/Hollywood, 2001) and Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham, 2002), or the apparently 'feminist' 1981 Indian 'parallel' cinema text, Subhah/Umbartha [Dawn/Threshold], in fact foreclose, deflect, or even stigmatise the possibility of the agency of female same-sex desire. Similarly even in Ian Rashid's otherwise innovative diasporic gay male film, Surviving Sabu (1996) discussed in Chapter Three ('Surviving Naipaul'), any possibility of female queer desire is not acknowledged at all. Thus, even politically 'aware,' otherwise progressive discourses of diaspora may inadvertently end up being complicit with ideologically oppositional conservative agendas. Accordingly, the foregrounding of articulations of queer female desire in diasporic formations is of specific concern throughout the book. The uncovering of these expressions of queer female desire, however, does not necessarily follow the contours generally associated with conventional studies of alternative sexualities. Rather than spotlighting spaces where female same-sex desire, as channelled through, for instance, a delineated 'lesbian' subjectivity, would be expected to find expression, Gopinath explores those spaces where initial impression would suggest the 'impossibility' of the existence of queer female desire and subjectivity.
  5. Given the premise of 'impossibility' of queer female desire in such spaces, uncovering their trackings requires a particularly finely-tuned and nuanced methodological approach. Gopinath uses what she refers to as a 'scavenger' methodology to unearth 'evidence of queer diasporic lives and cultures, and the oppositional strategies they enact in the most unlikely of places' (p. 22). These queer diasporic lives, cultures and strategies are foregrounded within the frame of 'South Asian public cultures,' where 'public culture,' drawing upon Arjun Appadurai and Carole Breckenridge's employment of the term, refers to 'a "zone of cultural debate" where "tensions and contradictions between national sites and transnational processes" play out' (p. 20). With reference to this, the queer diasporic public cultures Gopinath is specifically concerned with 'takes the form of easily "recognizable" cultural texts such as musical genres, films, videos, and novels that have a specifically transnational address even as they are deeply rooted in the politics of the local' (p. 21). Moreover, given the elusiveness of queer expressions as far as leaving documentary tracings are concerned, these public cultures extend out to 'encompass cultural interventions...such as queer spectatorial practices, and the mercurial performances and more informal forms of sociality that occur at queer night clubs, festivals, and other community events' which allow for 'sexually and racially marginalized communities [to] reimagine their relation to the past and the present,' and thereby, for the rethinking of what 'constitutes a viable archive of South Asian diasporic cultural production in the first place' (p. 21).
  6. The cultural texts and practices that are explored and unpacked in the various chapters of the book extend across an impressive range of media and genre. They include forms of diasporic musical genres such as earlier forms like bhangra, popular with first-generation South Asian immigrants in the UK, and newer hybrid styles like the UK-based 'Asian Underground' and 'New Asian Dance Music' of anti-racist bands like Asian Dub Foundation and Fun'da'mental, or the Trinidad-based 'chutney' popular music and dance style performed in potentially queer female-only spaces like pre-wedding celebrations. The texts discussed also include literary expressions like writer Ismat Chughtai's 1940s Urdu short-story Lihaf [The Quilt] which, due to its referencing of the possibilities of female same-sex erotic desire within the confines of a wealthy traditional Muslim household, resulted in charges of obscenity being brought against the author by the pre-independence British government of India. The literary texts engaged with also extend to diasporic novels, ranging from early 'classics' of diasporic writing like V.S. Naipaul's A House for Mr Biswas (1984), to more recent expressions like Funny Boy (1994), the queer male Sri Lankan-Canadian writer, Shyam Selvadurai's sensitively portrayed account of the interweavings of discourses of nationalism, gender and sexuality in 1980s Sri Lanka, and Indo-Caribbean writer Shani Mootoo's Cereus Blooms at Night (1996). Much of the discussion, particularly in Chapters Four and Five, are with reference to film, encompassing a range of genres—early 'Bollywood' classics like Pakeezah (1971), featuring screen legend, Meena Kumari, Sholay (1975) and Razia Sultan (1983); later 'Bollywood' hits like Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1994) and Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003); 'progressive' cinema texts like Utsav (1984) and Subhah/Umbartha (1981); and productions by diasporic filmmakers like Indo-Canadian film-maker Deepa Mehta's controversy-generating 1996 film, Fire, depicting unsublimated female same-sex desire in a middle-class Hindu extended family household in northern India in the 1990s, as well as the films by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) and Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham). The films engaged with also include consciously queer diasporic texts such as Ian Rashid's Surviving Sabu, and Prathiba Parmar's 1991 Khush, or queer referencing texts like the 1985 film My Beautiful Laundrette, based on a screenplay by UK-based diasporic South Asian writer Hanif Kureishi.
  7. Gopinath's engagement with these various texts and genres, the intertexual relationships at work between them, and their connectedness with the theoretical framings of Impossible Desires is impressively nuanced and sophisticated. Constraints on word-length prevent me from expanding on her discussion in any depth in this review. However, as signalled earlier, what her analysis of these texts throws light upon in particular, is that it is often within less seemingly 'evolved' contexts and spaces of sexual and gender politics-such as the patriarchal household in Chughtai's short story, or moments of female same-sex erotic possibility channelled through seemingly heterosexually-oriented hyperbolic femininity in older screen classics like Razia Sultan or Utsav—that queer (particularly female) subjectivity is allowed expression and possibility—queer expressions and possibilities that may well go against the ideological grain of progressive liberal-humanist, feminist and First World-premised imaginings and signifiers of non-heterosexual sexualities. In this sense, the queer female desire Gopinath underscores may well never seek to carve out a demarcated 'lesbian' space, may not seek to (indeed, may not be able to) exist outside the domain of patriarchal and heteronormative structures like the extended/joint family household, and may have completely unfamiliar and unrecognisable codes and signifiers. Yet, the recognition of this desire, even of the possibility of this desire, works to interrogate and disrupt both (what Gopinath labels) 'homonormative' imaginings and prescriptions of same-sex desire, along the lines of the increasingly visible 'Rainbow Flag' world-view and patriarchal heteronormative and nationalist framings that refuse to allow for any possibility of intersections between 'South Asian-ness' (read, 'Indian-ness') and non-normative genders and sexualities.
  8. In this respect, Impossible Desires builds on the work of other queer diasporic scholars and goes a long way in 'queering' diasporic, South Asian-American and postcolonial studies, as well as making just as significant a contribution towards the 'de-whitening' of queer studies and gender/sexuality studies. However, what does need to be pointed out is that the work is quite clearly from the perspective of a queer United States-based diasporic scholar. Consequently the framing of queer (female) South Asian desire from within South Asia, or for that matter, from a non-United States South Asian diasporic position, may well have significant points of difference from Gopinath's analysis. This, however, does not, in any sense, make the work any less valuable or significant. Rather, it contributes towards the multiplicity and richness of research on genders and sexualities in the context of South Asia and the South Asian diaspora.


    [1] David L. Eng, Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America, Durham: Duke University Press, 2001; Martin F. Manalansan IV, Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in New York City, Durham: Duke University Press, 2003; José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999; Nayan Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco's Chinatown, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

    [2] Joseph Massad, 'Re-orienting desire: the gay international and the Arab world,' in Public Culture 14 (2002):361-85.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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