Review: Queers in QuarantineEdited by Koyote Millar and Rahul Sen
A collection of poems, stories, journal entries and photo essays on how queer people across the world experienced the pandemic
How did queer people in India and other parts of the world experience the Covid-19 pandemic? What kinds of socio-economic support were they able to access during periods of lockdown and quarantine? To what extent did their gender identity and sexual orientation shape their everyday lives? Who were the most marginalized among the marginalized? To dig into these questions, read Queers in Quarantine edited by Koyote Millar and Rahul Sen. Millar is a poet and therapist based in Norway. Sen is a PhD candidate at Tufts University in the United States. They describe the volume as “a collection of queer voices, reflections and perspectives on loss, longing, letting go and learning to live in new ways”. The contributions featured vary in form, voice and content. Poems, short stories, journal entries, photo essays and prose vignettes cohabit gracefully.
Queers in Quarantine brings together narratives from people who have lived or are living in Indonesia, Germany, Luxembourg, South Korea, India, Norway, Pakistan, the United States, and the United Kingdom. They work in various fields such as academic research, photography, art, publishing, education, advocacy, visual design, performance. They are a diverse bunch of contributors in terms of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race, religion and caste.
The cover art is by Anwesh Kumar Sahoo, who was crowned Mr Gay World India in 2016.
The book opens with a “dialogue across distances and differences” between Millar and Sen, which is personal and political, cerebral and emotional. It is an attempt to find common ground, while also emphasizing how queer people’s lives were not the same everywhere. It comes across as a refreshing change from the usual introduction template where editors spell out their reasons for working on the book and their criteria for selection before they proceed to say a few words about the structure and summarize the highlights of the anthology.
Millar writes about queer people who were forced to go back into the closet because of where they were living or who they were living with. Sen draws attention to the harassment and abuse that queer people faced from natal families, which led to deteriorating mental health. Thankfully, they do not look at queer people’s lives in isolation from the rest of society.
Sen, for instance, recalls the plight of migrant workers and daily wage labourers who suffered because of the stringent lockdown regulations in India that deprived them of their livelihoods. He also notes “the acute shortage of oxygen, a dearth of hospital beds, and inadequate vaccine supplies, contributing to high death tolls”. Millar reflects on how loss of work meant “nowhere to hide” or “nowhere to go” for people who derived safety and meaning from work.
The dialogue between Millar and Sen is like a dance where both performers get to shine; their individuality does not prevent them from complementing each other. Sen draws on the work of writers and thinkers such as Dante Alighieri, Sigmund Freud, Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Lee Edelman, Tim Dean and Jacqueline Rose to make meaning of life during the pandemic, and acknowledges his intellectual debt through references. Millar prefers to look within and find anchor in “self-reflection and self-expression, important reminders and creative reclamations of being where previously there has been constant and frantic doing.”
What is most beautiful about this exchange is that Millar and Sen each builds on what the other says, instead of trying to locate what is problematic. Slow dialogue of this kind, which allows people to sit with their feelings and watch them churn before they respond, is an antidote to the knee-jerk reactions we see online. They are able to reflect on loss and grief on the one hand, and also celebrate resilience, creativity and many unexpected gifts on the other.
While reading all the pieces included in this anthology, I was struck by how the theme of belonging shows up frequently in different ways across contexts. In the poem Flight, for instance, Miriam Aurora Hammeren Pedersen mourns the shutting down of a lesbian bar during the pandemic. With her tenderly crafted words, she captures the agony of so many lovers who were separated from each other not only because of the virus but thanks to closed borders and cancelled flights. The speaker of this poem says, “I was just imagining/ What it would be like/ To feel your skin against mine again/ To hold your hand/ One more time.”
Minal Hajratwala’s piece Alonely approaches the theme of belonging from another standpoint. Here we listen to the inner monologue of a person who has recently broken up with her partner but continues to share an apartment with them. She writes, “…it’s you I turn to when my mindknots get so tangled I can’t solve them… neither of us is ever alone, so much so that I often crave solitude, the deep uninterrupted quiet of living alone.” The speaker does not seek company for the sake of “diversion or re-juicing”, but feels fortunate and grateful to not be completely isolated in “grieftimes deathtimes terrortimes hatetimes survivaltimes”.
Alonely makes the reader think of competing desires, of wanting to be left alone but also simultaneously wanting the comfort of a shoulder to lean on.
Outside the realm of intimate relationships, Martine Johansen examines interactions between strangers. In the poem the anatomy of dialogue, an individual using public transport speaks about the experience of communicating through the eyes because masks cover faces. The speaker looks at the situation with wonder and amusement because the language of “corneas and irises” can get lost in translation”. “Hi, can I sit here?” can be mistaken for “I love you” and “Will you hold me?”
While misunderstandings can be funny for some, they can be deadly for others. In the short story The Motorcycle Diaries, Maisnam Arnapal records the racism that people from the Northeast encountered in Delhi, Bengaluru and Kolkata. These people were mistaken for being Chinese, and were blamed for being carriers of the virus responsible for the pandemic. Despite being legal citizens of India, their sense of belonging was threatened and questioned.
Another variation on the theme of belonging is Subhajit Sikder’s Pensive, where the speaker reflects on his changing relationship with his identity and body during the physical confinement imposed by the pandemic. From being “hit by an avalanche of paranoia with my body” and washing hands after touching every new thing to “respecting and liking my body”, he undertakes a journey of discovery that is accepting of perfections and imperfections.
This gentleness is also evident in Asad Ali Zulfiquar’s Notes from 2020, a long prose offering that is part-letter, part-journal entry, and part-manifesto. The speaker declares, “Every time I’m in a pickle, I make sure I sit and listen to know what’s up. I make sure I eat. I make sure my room is clean and my clothes are ready. I hold myself with a soothing touch if I’m upset.” Instead of outsourcing care to another person, the speaker takes responsibility to nurture themselves. They know what their wounded spirit needs to survive “lovelessness”.
Inner work is often dismissed as the preoccupation of the privileged, but it is never easy as it often demands a change in behaviour patterns. Those who are up for the challenge find it valuable to look critically at their own selves.
In Hansika Jethnani’s essay How I Inherited the Habit of Burying Sadness, for instance, the speaker confesses to using “busyness” as a coping mechanism until she was overwhelmed by the stillness of everyday life and had to confront the intergenerational trauma stored in her body.
In Samudranil Gupta’s series entitled Poems for Anurag, love stands exposed as a sickness for which there was no remedy when the speaker becomes an obsessive online stalker in an attempt to deal with the prolonged silence of the beloved. Days went by with calls left unreturned, and text messages unacknowledged. The speaker console himself by writing poetry. “I was writing as a substitute for touch,” he shares.
These are just some of the rich contributions that make up this anthology where touch is explored through the lens of affection and desire, and in the context of caste and race. Sen and Millar also look at parallels between the AIDS epidemic and the Covid-19 pandemic since systemic responses to both were couched in a fear of touch that frames intimacy as risk.
The connections they make, and the questions they pose, appear more rewarding when one re-reads their dialogue after reading all the pieces. Their objective, after all, is to make readers “feel less alone, more at home, curiously confused, provoked and enlightened”. I went through all of these feelings while reading Queers in Quarantine. I highly recommend it.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.