Thursday, May 24, 2007

Impossible Desires: Queer Diasporas and South Asian Public Cultures
by Gayatri Gopinath
Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2005

Okay, what I want to know is: How could Gayatri Gopinath write a book on queers in the South Asian diaspora without even mentioning Chutney Popcorn? I suppose it could be argued that Nisha Ganatra's desi-dyke indie film doesn't merit the extended discussion Gopinath grants to Bend It Like Beckham, Monsoon Wedding, or Ian Iqbal Rashid's 1996 short film Surviving Sabu, but that's the point: it should at least be argued.

At first I thought Gopinath's "queer diasporas" might reckon with the way so many Euro-American lesbians and gay men have imagined ourselves as a diaspora, the exiled children of Lesbos or Sodom scattered among the nations, searching for the lost history of our people and a way back to our homeland. The association of queers with certain places is rich with possibility for her theme; but no.

Despite Gopinath's avowed intent to "take queer female diasporic subjectivity as the starting point" (79) of her discussion, she devotes most of her first hundred pages to South Asian diasporic boy culture, from the British Asian bands Cornershop and ADF to Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul, mostly to defend them against imputations of sexism or homophobia. While Gopinath speculates freely about the inner lives of South Asian males, she has little to say about female subjectivity: women remain objects, not subjects, in this book.

She does get excited over a single scene in the film East is East (2000, dir. Damien O'Donnell), in which a young "biracial" woman, working with her brothers behind the family fish and chips shop, does a Bollywood-inspired lip synch routine crossed with the chimney sweeps' dance from Mary Poppins. Gopinath sees this as "a resounding rejection of the father-son drama of Oedipal hatred" (83), and "a powerful rejoinder to Enoch Powell's calls for an all-white Britain, in that it evokes an alternative realm of public culture that is available to South Asian immigrants in the diaspora" (88). Whooo! look out Enoch Powell, Mina is in da house! I agree it's an entertaining scene, but I'm not persuaded it's queer. (Gopinath's analysis, though, is like, totally gay.) For Gopinath, though, as for many of her fellow scholars, the word "queer" functions performatively: it is the intrepid scholar who queers the diaspora merely by using the word.

Gopinath declares at the outset that "The concept of a queer diaspora enables a simultaneous critique of heterosexuality and the nation form while exploding the binary opposition between nation and diaspora, heterosexuality and homosexuality, original and copy" (11). These binaries flood back into her writing as fast as she disowns them, however: "home" and diaspora, queer and gay/lesbian, East and West, appear as mutually exclusive categories, rather than the amorphous, overlapping zones they are.

This gets her into trouble when she finally essays an extended analysis of queer South Asian texts. She refuses even to consider the possibility of any common ground between queer South Asians and queer "Euro-Americans" (and her fond notion that Americans and Europeans share a single construction of homosexuality shows just how ignorant she is). Consider Ismat Chughtai's 1940 Urdu story "The Quilt", in which a Muslim Indian tomboy observes a neglected wife cavorting with her female servant under the eponymous bedspread. Gopinath sternly informs the reader that "the text refuses to allow particular configurations of homoerotic desire to settle into stable structures of sexual identity" (148). So there! and never mind that the story's author herself referred to the relationship as "lesbian."

Comparing "The Quilt" to Deepa Mehta's 1996 film Fire, in which two sisters-in-law fall in love, Gopinath claims that for South Asian women "this privatized, seemingly sanitized `domestic' space can simultaneously function as a site of intense female homoerotic pleasure and practices", against a supposed Western "narrative of`lesbian' sexuality as needing to emerge from a private domestic sphere into a public, visible, `lesbian' subjectivity" (155). This is a false antithesis. Homoeroticism has often been nurtured and harbored by domestic space in the West (see, for just one famous example, Radclyffe Hall's 1928 lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness), and Fire ends with flight and exile for the two lovers. After denying it for several pages, Gopinath grumpily admits that "the two women eventually do leave the confines of the household rather than continue to exist within it", but that's far too mild: Radha, the older woman, is abandoned by her husband and mother-in-law in the hope that she'll burn to death.

You'd think, reading Gopinath, that American lesbians and gay men chose "identity" and "visibility" out of sheer perversity, instead of as a defensive response to assault and expulsion by our families and straight society in general. "Homonormative" American lesbians and gays are busily burrowing their way back into the "private domestic space" Gopinath accuses them of trying to escape. (Two words: "PFLAG"and "marriage.") And Gopinath's main theme is a demand for more queer female visibility in South Asian culture.

Gopinath completely misses elements of both works that a queer reading, diasporic or not, ought to highlight. There's the bitterly satirical humor of "The Quilt"; its use of a naive narrator to allow the reader to label what the narrator can't; and the author's argument, when the story was tried for obscenity in 1943, that it was important to expose these nasty goings-on, instead of sweeping them under the rug. There's the familiar closeting strategy of Deepa Mehta's insistence that "the lesbian relationship in [Fire] is merely a symbol of an extreme choice my heroines make. ...[I]t is not a lesbian film ... rather, I think of it as humanistic" (157). It's hard to think of a queer movie since The Children's Hour that we haven't been told isn't "about homosexuality." Gopinath is annoyed with Mehta for resorting to "the rhetoric of women's emancipation and personal choices" when her film was under literal attack by Hindu fascists who stormed the theaters in which it was shown, but it's hard to see why, when she can't make up her own mind whether Fire's heroines are lesbians or not.

But Gopinath's blind spots and blunders are normal in her field: the faux-impersonal style, the ignorance about the American gay life and culture it attacks, the invidious East-West dichotomies, the historical naiveté turn up in work after work of contemporary queer scholarship. (Gopinath seems genuinely surprised to find similarities between the experiences of Punjabi women sweatshop workers in the West Midlands and Chinese women sweatshop workers in San Francisco. Girl, read Elana Dykewomon's great sweatshop novel Beyond the Pale!)

I don't mean to jump on the anti-queer theory bandwagon here. Gopinath's problem is her misuse, through assiduously cultivated ignorance, of theories whose radical potential has been contained through the inertia of great institutions. Like so many of her colleagues in the academy, Gopinath seems to believe that merely invoking the deities "Post-colonial! Queer diaspora! Impossible desires! Destabilized identities!" will magically transform her very middle-of-the-road work into something innovative, even radical. Alas, when the smoke clears Impossible Desires is just another unremarkable contribution to that genre of neo-Orientalist ephemera known as post-colonial studies. Gopinath's theorizing isn't queer enough: whoever believes on the names of Fanon, Said, and Foucault will not be saved. And her elision of queer female South Asian subjectivity remains mysterious.