By Noduli Pulu
Transcultural writers display an analogous trajectory of an itinerant lifestyle and indulge in what cultural theorist Arianna Dagnino in her 2015 essay “Transcultural Writers and Transcultural Literature in the Age of Global Modernity” calls “creative dispatriation.” To enumerate, their increasing preoccupation with the concoction of culture and dialects subsidizes the artistic creation of a nebulous presence beyond the west’s clear demarcations and essentialist categories. A necessary preliminary to delve in such a hazy space is the etymology of the word ‘trans’.
Rooted in Latin, ‘trans’ as a verb evokes the act of movement and going across. It literally translates to “on the other side of.” As an adjective, it means ‘in-betweenness’, thereby standing as an attribute not placeable in existing binaries. And when used as a prefix, it transmutes into a noun that is typically associated with fluidity and mutation. The significant traits that inform the cognitive experience and artistic expression of ‘trans’ are therefore metamorphosis and in-betweenness. In her essay, Dagnino underscores that it is these attributes that divorce transcultural writers from other mobile categories like diasporic and travel writings, but does not radically interrogate the word’s efficiency. Its fractures lie in the fact that it does not register the fears and anxieties often entrenched in occupying unsolidified spaces, an upshot of nomadism. Additionally, as Dagnino herself admits, its engagement with transmutation is exclusively about the privileged as it does not account for the experiences of demotic migrants. Despite this, ‘trans’ has remained the popular choice for non-essentialist categories as it fills the dialectal vacuum. So, the question then arises is, can there be an alternate word which while deconstructing dominant existing codes, typifies their liminality.
In his 2005 essay, “The Transcultural Journey”, Richard Slimbach writes of transcultural writers as having a “chameleon sense of self…” Delhi-based poetess Maniza Khalid also encapsulates this attitude in her 2019 poem “Hum Jinns”, but attests it in the LGBTQ+ context. The poem was uploaded on 10 November, 2019 on YouTube as a collaborative audio-visual art piece by four female creators. Under the direction of Ghania Siddique, it follows a spoken word format where the poetess’ narration of lyrics is supplemented by Bharatanatyam dancer Tirna Sengupta’s bodily enunciation. And the earnestness of the visuals is further augmented by the nearly plaintive and poignant sound design by Talat Shakeel.
While manifestly engaging with speckled human sexuality, the poem expeditions through words, probing language itself. And in this crossing, silences also stand as words as the poetess shows cognizance of people’s thorough abstention from uttering specific terms. Khalid writes,
“To be fair, a 4 year old did hear a “G-A-Y” discussed between Ammajaan and Abbujaan the way one would discuss
An inaccessible secret.”
Layers of sediments laid down by past oppressions arrive for the poetess in the form of pejorative terms:
Sinner. Kaafir. Criminal.”
And the disgrace built into the texture of these words exhibits how language reflects individualities outside the grid of the normal, of sexuality’s dualism. Khalid recognises the linguistic vacuum and its ability to tread multifarious sexualities. Hence, one meets with the urgent desire of articulating the presence of fluid sexuality occupying a liminal space in the heteronormative binary as the keynote of the poem. In this endeavour, the poetess mentions past attempts as “Acronyms, big block letters with their own histories.” Given these points, her purpose is made clear: the pursuit for an expression that is not percolated in discourse or historicity, a word that is close to home and comforting.
For the poetess, the expression Jinns in her mother tongue Urdu stands out as the most reassuring collective designation. But she does not constrain the word’s use to the parameters of sexuality and gender. To illustrate, she mentions in a February 2020 article in Hindustan Times, “We want the vagueness to call out to the marginalised.” Furthermore, she states that the vision for the character of the word Jinns is “many-spirited.” Likewise, this impulse of evaporating fixities can also be sited in transcultural writers who absorb and sustain heterogenous cultural selves. But what undoubtedly weds the fluidity of a transcultural writer’s experience to Jinns is, as the poetess herself puts it, “the openness of the word” since in pre-Islamic Arabia Jinns were called shape shifters or amorphous entities. Additionally, its openness also stems from the multiple interpretations about Jinns. And as a result, it strengthens the subjective realities of transcultural writers articulated by Dagnino as “metamorphic” “confluential” and “intermingling.”
While literary studies might not consider Jinns as an appropriate alternative for ‘trans’, its attributes where mutation and openness take precedence definitely qualify as a touchstone. These commonalities between ‘trans’ in sexuality, gender and spatiality point to how so often even an extensive and varied tradition like literature does not factor in metamorphosis. This can be because it disrupts classification of categories as per existing constructs and fixities. Therefore, ‘trans’ in gender and spatiality should cross fertilize from each other and interrogate the tenets of categorisations in narratives. While the inception of the word ‘trans’ has been long, it is relatively new as a form of literary category. Its fluidity also poses for multiple complexities as it is constantly reinventing itself and assimilating in its fabric new designs. “We cannot fully comprehend jinn – though we can try,” says Leila Ettachfini.
Noduli Pulu is originally from Roing, Arunachal Pradesh. She currently lives in Delhi as a junior research fellow and guest lecturer of English at Delhi University.
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