(An edited version of this interview appeared in India Today, Jan 28 issue)
Photo Credit: Vinay Aravind
When did you decide that you wanted this (your initial thesis) to become a larger book?
The book started off as a long-form piece I wrote for Fountain Ink magazine, titled To Be a Man. I think I knew I wanted it to become a book when 9000 words were not quite enough to say all I wanted to say, and to accommodate all my interviewees.
Tell us about your research process. Did it change once you knew it was a book? In what ways?
Long-form reportage is the only form of journalism with which I am comfortable. So my research is as intense, whether it is a book or a magazine report. What changes is really how much you can fit into a piece. A narrative piece, even with the luxury of, say, 15000 words, can only look at so much. Otherwise, the reader is overwhelmed, and the piece sounds confused. So, the research remains more or less the same. I could interview more people for the book, because I knew that with no real word limit, I could fit everyone in. And it is not fair to waste people’s time with interviews if you are not going to use that information, in their own words to the extent possible.
What according to you is the larger purpose of the book on transmen, their lives and stories? What was your objective when you started out?
I had two objectives – one was the sharing of knowledge. Most people don’t even know transmen exist, that there are female-to-male transpeople. And the media has ensured that there are misconceptions about transpeople, with predominantly sensationalised and superficial coverage.
The other objective was that I wanted to repay my interviewees for the time they had spent with me for the long read I had written. So I initially thought I would be the scribe for an anthology of first-person stories.
When I pitched the book to Penguin, my editor Manasi Subramaniam felt my perspective could weave the narratives together in a more coherent manner, and so the book assumed its current form. The proceeds from the sales of the book go right back to my interviewees.
Many transmen are forced to run away from home, and often work in the exploitative, unorganised labour sector. I felt they deserve to benefit monetarily from telling their stories.
Please talk about one incident/ story that talks of the lack of information people have on transmen. Something that will elucidate what you faced every time you told people you were working on a book on transmen.
An incident that comes immediately to mind is a conversation I had with someone I had considered fairly erudite. When I told her I was writing a book on transmen, and explained what female-to-male transition involves, she frowned and said, “So they want to become men?” I said, “They want to be acknowledged as men, yes.” She said, “But they’re women?” and I said, “They’re assigned female at birth.” She thought for a few moments, and then asked, “But then, why do they wear sarees?” And I realised she still had not understood I was speaking of transmen, not transwomen. To her, “transperson” was synonymous with “hijra”.
If you can, please do help dispel a few common myths you’ve encountered about transmen.
It is hard to encounter myths about people whose existence is not acknowledged.
The main misconception is that transwomen are “men by birth” and transmen are “women by birth”. No. If you see yourself as a man, but have the biological functions of a woman, you are not a “woman who wants to be a man”. Gender is far more complex.
The problem is that we think sex and gender are synonyms, and that sexual orientation is dependent on biological sex. But the three are independent attributes, not necessarily related.
Many people expect that transmen understand women better because they “are” or “have been” women. This is misgendering, arising from a cis-heteronormative worldview. Transmen are not, and never have been, “women”. They may have been at the receiving end of patriarchal oppression, they may have been seen as women, but they are not and have not been female. This, to me, is the most crucial myth to be dispelled – the notion that transmen “were women”.
What changed with your book (and its publication) with the decriminalisation of Section 377 this year?
Unfortunately, the reading down of Section 377 is only a moral victory. It has not been struck off the Indian Penal Code. As such, the Supreme Court’s verdict has little bearing on legislation. It will only influence the outcome of a case.
The Transgender (Protection of Rights) Bill 2016 has far greater bearing on the lives of transpeople, and an atrociously watered down version of the Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha some days ago. This version takes away existing rights, and grants little.
If I were to honestly tell you the one effect the reading down of Section 377 has had – it has not been “decriminalised” since the section does exist in the IPC – on the book, it is that several literature festivals have organised panels to discuss LGBTQIA+ issues since it is “topical”. And for the same reason, the media is interested in the book. So my interviewees and I have more forums where we can draw attention to transmen and their lives.
How did your views on gender and masculinity change/evolve during the course of writing this book? Examples if any.
They certainly did evolve. I had thought of sex as tertiary – male, female, intersex – and gender as a spectrum, but largely leaning towards either male or female. While working on the book, I met non-binary people who had changed the names they were assigned at birth – from a traditionally female name to a traditionally male name or vice versa – but did not identify with either gender. I met transmen who are attracted to men, and transmen who are pansexual.
When I started writing the book, I think I did not see “cis” and “trans” as adjectives to the nouns “men” or “women”. Now, when I say “men”, I mean all men, cis and trans. Earlier, I would use “men” or “women” interchangeably with “cismen” or “ciswomen” respectively.
So, I found it hard to call out sexism among transmen initially. I also did not quite relate to how traumatic it must be for them to undergo puberty. To many ciswomen, the monthly period is a hassle. But it is not humiliating and violatory. For transmen, it is.
It was a journey to understand that transmen are men. I will be the first to admit I was as ignorant as most cispeople are, and I’m still learning.
Your last book was a work of fiction. How did the process of writing both differ? What did you have to learn and unlearn?
My last published book was non-fiction. I have written a couple of novels, but they’re still in manuscript. So, let me answer your question in two parts.
Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage spoke of a demographic with which I could identify – women aged between 25 and 40, who had had liberal, urban upbringings, complete with access to education and financial independence, and who had considered or experienced arranged marriage. I could speak with some authority about the experience of growing up in India, with the burden of familial and societal expectations where marriage is concerned. But Invisible Men could not possibly be a lived experience. I constantly questioned whether I had a right to tell the story. I had to unlearn a lot – such as extrapolating my own experience to all people who were raised as women.
As for how writing fiction and non-fiction differ, it is that fiction carries less responsibility towards one’s characters, because they don’t exist in the way non-fictional characters do. Yes, a character could be based on someone, but there is no proof, and there is a handy disclaimer. Here, I had to check for facts, I had to report with authenticity, I had to be aware that I could endanger some of the people whose stories I was sending into the world with the tiniest bit of carelessness, I had to deal with all the repercussions of a character reading his or her story in my words, and I had to make sure the book was interesting – or at least readable. My interviewees were acquaintances when the book began; many of them are close friends now. To be a friend and an observer is a complex experience, and it comes with many responsibilities.
In some ways, non-fiction is perhaps easier to write, because it is based on facts and not imagination. You can’t face “writer’s block”, because you are transcribing interviews constantly, so you can work even if your mind is numb.
But it is harder to publish, because it comes with such a burden of accountability. You have to be aware that you are dealing with actual lives, not stories. And these lives will continue after the book, and you could affect them with your writing.
What would be suggestions you offer to help make the country a more inclusive place for transmasculine people?
That would be my only suggestion: listen to transmasculine people.
First, the government should listen to them, before passing callous Bills like the one they just have.
Medical professionals should listen to them.
The courts should listen to them.
Captains of the industry should listen to them.
Human Resources personnel should listen to them.
The governing bodies for gendered fields such as sports and the armed forces should listen to them.
And all of us, sitting in our armchairs and tweeting with hashtags, should listen to them.
That is the only way the country will become more inclusive.
How has the social media storm changed things for the book?
I don’t think it has changed things drastically for the book. Yes, the book has been pirated, and yes, a bunch of trolls have put up fake reviews on Amazon. But it is obvious from the wording that none of them has read the book, and the kind of people who pirate books don’t buy them anyway, so it should not affect perception of the book or sales. Maybe more people will hear of it because of a controversy, though that has to be a writer’s least favourite way of people hearing of the book.
How have members of the transmasculine community you have interacted with reacted to this?
Some of them are close friends, and they have been with me all through, sending me texts and checking up on me. Others, some whom I know well and some whom I’ve met only a couple of times, have called to check up on me. Some are mistrustful, since they haven’t read the book. Yet others have joined the chorus that is baying for my blood. Of course, there was a cruel “review” riddled with personal attacks and out-of-context “evidence” from the book. I’m grateful to those who are being polite and professional, because I know the kind of pressure they are under.
The Kashmiri transman whom I was accused of misrepresenting reached out to me. He is not out, but he offered to do selective interviews if it would make things easier for me. I was particularly touched, because I know he’s in a delicate situation. It is something I’ll always treasure about the experience of writing the book – the wonderful friends I’ve made.
Were you prepared for criticism and allegations from within the community when you were working on this book? Is there anything you would have done differently?
I had an inkling when I approached Gee Imaan Semmalar for an interview, and he told me he would not speak directly with me, since he believed there was an “epistemic violence inherent in knowledge production created on marginalised communities by outsiders”.
But, no, one is never prepared for something on this scale. And it was something new every day, which made me think the problem was not anything the book contained, but the fact that a ciswoman had written it – one day it was the foreword, another it was “casteism”, then it was a “Hindutva agenda”, then it was “colonialism” and “violent nationalistic fantasy”. Next thing I know, the book is being burned on the streets and I’m being tagged in those pictures.
Someone shared my number on several WhatsApp groups, and I began to get threatening and abusive calls in various languages from different numbers. I set my phone to auto-record calls, and began to use another phone, but it unnerved me. It makes one paranoid, afraid to pick up the next call.
And, no, even so, there is not a thing I would have done differently. My conscience is clear. This is an honest book. I ran every quote by my interviewees, and even everything I had written about them. My perceptions, right or wrong, are out there.
I do realise now that the foreword could trigger dysphoria in a transperson, and I feel deeply sorry for that, but this is precisely why a dialogue is so important – cispeople, even those who have spent years writing a book on transpeople, don’t grasp the triggers, the pain of lived experience, and unless we start having that conversation, we are not going to be able to stop hurting various marginalised groups.