Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 15, May 2007

Subhash Chandra

Lesbian Voices:
Canada and the World: Theory, Literature, Cinema

New Delhi: Allied Publishers Pvt. Ltd, 2006
pp. 311, ISBN: 81-8424-075-9, Price: Rs. 825.00

reviewed by Sonali Pattnaik

  1. Feminist theorists such as Judith Butler have long called attention to a queer gap within feminism; the erasure of the lesbian/homosexual from the site of construction of a total feminine subject.[1] Butler's works may be read, among other things, as an attack at the politics of exclusion at work in the writings and thought of many feminists who desire a stabilisation of the notion 'woman', perpetuating in the process, a reification of the very boundaries of heterosexuality that splits gender along the lines of sexual preference at the cost or rendering many lives abject. The lesbian is one such 'abject' figure whose mere presence seems to trouble the foundations of hetero-patriarchy's myth of total subjectivity, and threatens some of the most invisible and firm roots of male dominated societies. It is this systematic erasure of the 'troublesome' lesbian identity and desire that Subhash Chandra's edited text, Lesbian Voices: Canada and the World: Theory, Literature Cinema seeks to interrogate, foregrounding, in the process, various critical approaches and literary texts that engage with the silencing of lesbianism and its labourious outing within and without the academia.
  2. The book appears at a significant juncture in the academic life in India, when universities are increasingly opening their doors to women-centred literature and specifically to lesbian texts and the market too seems to have embraced lesbian literature, albeit marginally and often fraught with problems. The immense value of the book at hand lies in its ability to further accentuate this critical move, not only by encapsulating many of the debates, issues and prejudices surrounding 'lesbianism' through the very texts and authors that form a part of the re-worked syllabi but also by introducing a synchronic and dialogic approach to lesbianism. The book's ability to boldly and squarely deal with lesbian theory, without mincing its words is laudable.
  3. While the question itself of the erasure of the lesbian figure from the horizon of humanity is borne out by almost all the essays in the book, a few deal specifically with the mechanisms of that wiping clean of the lesbian from the slate of sexuality while others inch toward finding the hidden or coded presence of the lesbian. In the section on Lesbian Theory, Shormistha Panja's essay, 'Terry Castle's The Apparitional Lesbian and gender discourse,' begins by highlighting the strongly felt position from which Castle's bio-historical work stems. That is, the need to define the lesbian identity as sexual rather than collapsing it into an all-encompassing term that stands for any form of female bonding. Castle feels that other queer theorists such as Sedgewick and Butler bring the lesbian (a woman desiring another woman erotically) perilously close to death. While the essay is sympathetic to this claim for a conclusive lesbian identity, the author suggests that Castle's project itself suffers from an exclusionary paradigm that uncritically avows the lesbian existences of women in history such as Janet Flanner and Anne Lister (1791–1840) without paying due attention to their privileged upper-class status. The essay elaborates on the question of 'ghosting' which as Castle argues was not simply an erasure of the lesbian from the literary texts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but an ambivalent acknowledgement of her presence by demonizing her, which not only robs her of her carnality but also justifies her exorcism (p. 47).
  4. Similarly Sappho. Despite the lover and the beloved being given female pronouns and the nature of Sapphic poetry being, erotic and passionate, Anupama Mohan argues in her essay that, patriarchal canon-building strategies have tried to silence the lesbian identity of Sappho. Mohan's essay reminds us of the need for re-constructing a literary matri-lineage, a female classical inheritance, which ironically enough is evident in Sappho's own writing which calls on figures from mythology to aid her in her same-sex desire and poetry. Mohan's enthusiasm around the project is commendable as the 'lack' and the 'triple blankness' she exhorts must provoke 'triple collaboration' by feminist scholars (pp. 77–78). While Sappho is heterosexualised, another form of erasure is the pathologisation of the lesbian. One such case of distorted representation and release is documented in the essay on Shobha De's Strange Obsessions which, Naresh K. Jain opines, accords the lesbian derivative and corrupt power and places her and her lover within a classical narrative of entrapment, panic and freedom through the death of the lesbian.
  5. The essay on Adrienne Rich elaborates on the radical feminist's effort at transforming sexual practice from a personal preference to a political act, a politicization of the category of gender that then unfolds the workings of hetero-patriarchy. For Rich, Karen Gabriel argues, there is no dichotomy between the poetic and the prosaic just as there is none between sexual and political practices. She goes on to deftly demonstrate the creation of a new aesthetics in Rich's poetry which allows her to articulate from the depoliticised space of the subjective self the so-called objective world of the political while reworking the very idea of poetry to expose the dichotomy (prose/poetry) itself as a myth of patriarchal and consumerist societies. The self and its existence in Rich's poetry appear multiple and dynamic, liberated by the aesthetics of the poetic form, claiming an autonomy denied to them politically.
  6. Not unlike Rich, in Canadian writer Jane Rule, a critical linkage emerges between lesbian love and a less oppressive and more inclusive world. B.J. Wray cites the theoretical position of Jean Luc Nancy as a successor of the 'moderate' politics of Jane Rule who wrote against the policing of sexual boundaries for the reinforcement of the state's authority over its citizens. The essay demonstrates Rule's disregard for policing within minority communities to demand a more dynamic notion of community as shared and yet without a common individual.
  7. Many of the essays approach the problem of defining a text as lesbian directly while others like Gabriel broach it alternatively through the politically charged reordering of conventional aesthetics to demonstrate the complicity of art and politics in heteronormative power formations. Asheley Tellis's essay on the corporeal aesthetics of Ismat Chugtai's short story 'lihaf' or 'The Quilt' somewhat similarly shifts the significance from the question or even fallacy of authorial intention to the grafting of the corporeal onto the site of the literary text which creates a liberating aesthetics of sexuality that speaks louder about the radical nature of Chugtai's art than any admission of her sexual orientation may achieve. While a similarity emerges between Gabriel and Tellis's argument against any singular notion of lesbian aesthetics being about the author or protagonist's sexual orientation and elaborate on the intertwining of (lesbian) desire with textual politics another half of the brigade argues for reinforcing the value of a lesbian text as lying in its characters or author's assertion of sexual preference. Subhash Chandra while contesting the need emphasised by lesbian theorists such as Catherine Stimpson to ground lesbian identity in sexuality and eroticism, opines that Chugtai's story does not recognise lesbianism as a cultural phenomenon or a political act, instead situating it as an accidental occurrence between a sexually frustrated woman and her domestic help. Subjectivity and agency of the lesbian emerge as crucial defining markers of a lesbian text for Chandra, as for Anu Celly whose essay on Audre Lorde's Zami delineates the growth and nurturing of the protagonist's lesbian identity as an essentially personal choice that develops into a sustained political stance to which she remains devoted in the hope that it will usher an ideology that combines erotics with ethics and politics.
  8. While novelists like Audre Lorde are shown to seize upon existing genres of the novel and autobiography to construct their socially marginalized identities, as the essay by Sumanyu Sathpathy on the female bildungsroman via Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Lonliness shows, genres are always already gendered and cannot be deployed universally to achieve the same effects. He argues that Hall, self-consciously aware of the limitations of the genre and its problematic, both borrows from existing discourses on sexuality to cast the character of Stephen as 'strange' and 'queer', and appropriates hegemonic master narratives to resignify them. Arguing for the unstable and tranformative nature of both genre and gender, the essay identifies the disjuncture between narrative strategy and subjectivity when placed in a different cultural context to demonstrate further the enabling tendencies of the inter-penetrative nature of Hall's novel that allows a seizure of power for its queer protagonist through a resignification of hegemonic discourses.
  9. Intervention and lesbian subversion is possible in the act of reading/viewing or writing itself, embedded in the very semiotics of that which is represented as the essay by James Welker on Japanese shojo manga demonstrates. The essay traces out a politics of gendered role-playing within Japanese performative culture and reads the romantic tales of young boys as a blurred representation of same-sex love between women who see themselves reflected in the love-making of effeminate boys. The boys who are girls, 'doing' boys who are girls in these comics nurture a field of sexuality fuelled by fluid gender identities thus providing empowerment to girls who fantasise vicariously without the bondage of traditional sex. Welker stays clear from naïve conclusions about shojo manga's ability to fully transcend gender roles and points instead toward the struggle lesbians face against the hardened boundaries of gender that will only allow them vicarious pleasure through male actors. Nonetheless the comics are sites of struggle as they enunciate the possibility of lesbian identity and create spaces for both reader and artist to interact, generating a critique of the terms of patriarchy that dictate sexual practice.
  10. Appropriation of power for the lesbian within a fraught and overtly male discourse is possible, once again, through semiotic and linguistic intervention. The lesbian's vicarious gaze upon the shadowy absence of the phallus in the narrative is a triumphant moment of seizure of phallic power from men, creating a disruption between the natural link assumed between male identity and the possession of the phallic power. The essay, 'Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body' by Monica Bachman is on the same theoretical plane as it enunciates the need for reading the encoded presence of lesbianism as in Winterson's book, where the mysterious 'I' parades as either/both gender thus troubling essentialist assumptions about gender-based identity. She, however, critiques the technique for its inability to claim the lesbian identity for itself, for any claim to universality is a desire for total subjectivity that negates the particular position of a minority identity. Bachman brings to bear both Butler and Wittig's theoretical interventions to demonstrate the possibilities of subversion encoded in the construction of a transformable phallus to allow for the emergence of the powerful and strategic fiction of a lesbian phallus.[2]
  11. The last section devoted to lesbian cinema, especially the film Fire (1993) by Deepa Mehta, which is significantly the first Indian film that boldly claims space for lesbian love and existence, manages to not only break the silence about the film in a homophobic environment but also pulls lesbianism out of the academic closet to seek its presence in the ordinary. Rajdeep Singh Gill's essay however, alerts readers to the dangers of subsuming lesbianism into a global sisterhood, which the film according to him achieves in its desire to capture a global audience by erasing difference to create a seamless narrative of female oppression and universal patriarchy. While the other essay by Beverly Curran agrees that there is an attempt by Mehta to take recourse to mythology to create more commodifiable characters, she also maintains that the female lovers in the film are also an interrogation of the burden of mythology and tradition upon the Indian woman and specifically lesbian desire where lesbianism is deployed to probe the middle class Hindu family.
  12. A theoretically astute essay by Peter Dickson on Indo-Canadian cinema, which covers the film Fire and others such as Percy Adlon's Salmonberries (1991) and Lea Pool's Lost and Delirious, 2001, to argue for a lesbian spectatorship that contests traditional feminist positions that speak of the impossibility of female identification and desire in cinema because of its gendered subject-object split. The essay identifies extra-textual forces as a powerful means of understanding cinematic strategies in the cultivation of lesbian desire and transgender spectatorship (as done by Mehta's films through the continued presence of actors experimenting with gender roles) through a play of multiple citations within and outside the borders of the screen. In a marvellous essay on the film Fire May Telmissany, deterritorialises lesbian desire to put forth the refreshing argument that lesbian desire is not a simple question of outing/liberation as though it was waiting to be found, but rather is caught in a web of conflicting and inter-penetrating desires and sexualities that she argues the film negotiates with and destabilises in the process.
  13. Lesbian Voices: Canada and the World: Theory, Literature, Cinema traverses a whole range of sites and approaches which deters it from focusing exclusively on a field such as lesbian theory or popular culture, but, as the first of its kind, its diverse nature serves as a solid point of departure for those looking for a serious pedagogical engagement with lesbianism per se. Overall the book offers a critical site for dialogue on the closeted lesbian identity and her 'threatening' desire unfolding a plethora of hitherto silent voices that makes it a necessary tool for those inside and outside of the 'teaching machine,'[3] especially so in the Indian context.


    [1] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York & London: Routledge, 1990 and Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of 'Sex', New York, London: Routledge, 1993.

    [2] Monique Wittig, 'The category of sex,' in Feminist Issues, 2 (4) (Fall 1982): 63–68.

    [3] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Outside in the Teaching Machine, New York & London: Routledge, 1993.


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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