Kiran Bhat is an author and polyglot who speaks 12 languages, and has written in English, Kannada, Spanish, Portuguese, and Mandarin. His recently published book, We Of the Forsaken World, has been described as “the tales of not just sixteen strangers, but many different lives, who live on this planet, at every second, everywhere”. Kiran has travelled in over 130 countries or more, lived in 18, and calls himself a global nomad. Kiran says that “I have learnt over time to distance myself from cultural and social concepts, and to see myself as an essence, born and raised in a certain context, and a certain culture, but fundamentally first and foremost a human. As such a person, I would like to connect with people based on how our individual spirits align, rather than based on socially designated categories.”
Shikha Aleya (SA): Happy to interview you for this issue of In Plainspeak, Kiran, and many thanks! To begin, you were one of the speakers at the Rainbow Literature Festival in Delhi this December. Please share your impressions and observations of the space of queer art and expression as you have experienced it in India.
Kiran Bhat (KB): Well, to give some context, I am an Indian-American, born and raised in a suburb of Georgia, to Kannadiga parents. I have been going to India on frequent trips since I was a little boy, and after I became a digital nomad, from 2011, I have been largely living off and on in other countries. Of such countries, the one I feel most at home at happens to be India! And, since I’ve been residing in India more than I have in the USA as an adult, I feel like I have seen a lot of changes in its queer spaces. In 2013 or 2014 for example, most chats happened on Planet Romeo, and the occasional open person’s house. Now, particularly in cities like Bombay, there are a lot of events catering to queer people, and there is an increase in visibility, too. You can also find a lot more queers on the Internet (though, unfortunately a lot of them are also money-boys, now). A lot of work still needs to be done. It is only in places like Bombay, Goa, Bangalore, or Delhi where the thought of being LGBT can be openly entertained, and even then, there are very few openly queer places (Delhi has a sauna and an LGBT bar, Bombay and Bangalore only have gay nights at key clubs). India also remains a nightmare for lesbians, and for other sexual minorities who often fall through the cracks. I will say that it is arguable that India does not need to create unique LGBT spaces. The West created gay ghettos because it was necessary due to the nature of the oppression sexual minorities faced there, whereas India inits most ideal form is a mergence and concordance of many cultures and religions and creeds coming together and living as one. As long as the LGBT pocket can be one out of many of those shapes, and can live with all the rights and dignity as any other person, I would remain as I am, fairly happy with how queer spaces are shaping in India.
SA: Kiran, you recently said that you “want to talk about what it means to be a person who doesn’t belong to any nation or idea or ideology of what norms should be like”. Please tell us more about this. How would you describe your life and relationships in this context?
KB: Well, I think that being an Indian-American who has lived all over, I feel like I have learnt over time to distance myself from cultural and social concepts, and to see myself as an essence, born and raised in a certain context, and a certain culture, but fundamentally first and foremost a human. As such a person, I would like to connect with people based on how our individual spirits align, rather than based on socially designated categories. So, I would say that if I like someone, whether it is in the context of friendship, whether it is in the context of sex, it has to do with how much we as individuals relate. And, generally, I think that we are starting to slowly move out of the nation-state,due to advances in technology that have allowed for people all over the world to communicate and collaborate, an increased access to travel for the global middle class which makes international living enviable, and predicted climate changes which will cause certain lands to disappear and others to become shared. It is important to learn how to deal with humans, just for who they are, rather than how we place them in our minds.
SA: At TARSHI, we believe in the need for Safe, Inclusive, Sexuality-Affirming spaces, SISA spaces, safe from judgment and violence, inclusive of diverse identities, expressions and experiences, and affirming of one’s sexuality-related choices. You travel a lot and engage with diverse environments and cultures. To many people, such a choice of life experiences may first involve thinking through complex themes of safety, inclusion, identities and such, and preparing accordingly. Please share some of your stories and your insights around these themes.
KB: Well, I am a person who often isn’t in my daily life perceived to be gay. I mean, in certain aspects, I do perform queerness, because it comes out in the way I stare at men, or in the way I interact with others, but largely when I am in another country, people don’t see me immediately as a gay person, so I am not targeted negatively. They usually, if anything, see me as only a foreigner; I am there to study their language, their culture, and their norms. I do tell my friends about my sexuality once we are close, but I have found that as long as one doesn’t act publicly on their sexual desires, it doesn’t attract much attention, as long as it is kept to oneself.
There are some people who consider their gender expression and gender identity to be of utmost concern, even while traveling. Since gender is much harder to hide than sexuality, I would probably recommend choosing countries with a more lenient understanding of gender norms than traditionally patriarchal ones. If you do want to explore the world, I would still suggest doing so, but knowing that when cultural norms and gender presentation conflict, it is very messy, and violence can often result.
SA:What, to you, is a story? How do you think people relate to stories that are not seemingly about themselves or their own familiar concerns? How important is it to do this?
KB: A story is something we tell each other, often based in fiction, but sometimes based in truth. We use a story to connect ourselves from one person to another. We use a story to encourage, enliven, and to inspire. When humans first came out of the mire and started to walk, we did not draw math on the cave walls; we drew pictures, because we needed a story to represent what our behaviours (hunting oxen, storming through the mud) meant in a greater context. So, because storytelling is the way that we connect ourselves, from one individual to another, from the specific to the universal, I think it is very important, too important, in fact. As for your other question:I think when a story is fundamentally about another person, it is important to draw upon the universal emotions, to link oneself to that person. I might not have ever met a person from Gabon, for example, but when a person who is drinking coffee spatters it all over the newspaper he is reading after seeing a picture of his son embarrassed by the local media, I would relate to that scene whether it is being set in New York or Nairobi, or even if it is straight from a cartoon. Something about the scene speaks to me because it is something that could happen in any cultural context, and the story is one and the same, regardless of the racial, cultural, or national traces around it.
SA:Thank you Kiran! Please tell us something about yourself growing up. What would you identify as some of the definitive, life-altering influences upon you that shape your life and your writing?
KB: My life growing up in the USA was marked either by sexual discrimination, racial discrimination, or a lot of boredom (I grew up in the US south, and in the 90s or 00s, the USA was not as gay friendly as it is now, so it was quite difficult being there, as a person who was different). That being said, since 2008, I left my hometown, and have been living off and on in different countries, for periods of five months to a year. The range of countries was also quite different, from Indonesia to Kenya, from Istanbul to Tokyo. When one lives abroad, even for a short time, one has to compress an entire formative experience, usually experienced by a human in the first fifteen years, through education, schooling, bullying, etc, into a few months. This means talking to strangers, in buses, at restaurants, learning about their lives, and making it about them, not necessarily about you. In other words, you have to go head on into that land, and learn. This process may sound artificial, but if one tries to take it head on, one changes, a lot. I’ve had the luck and yet the misfortune of choosing to be a person of many lands. This is luck as in very few people get to experience life in so many places, but it is a misfortune in that I am always seen as a foreigner or a different person, so people very rarely relate to me or try to relate to me as if I am ‘one of them’. Nevertheless, in just a few months, I experience the time that another person has lived in a year. So, I feel more formed by my life over the last decade as a traveller than when I was growing up. I know that how I grew up formed the traumas and sense of alienation that drove me to travel, but I find it easier to relate to the person I was while living in Indonesia, or in Kenya, than the person I was before I ever travelled.
So, if I had to identify something life-influencing, it would be the obvious and inevitable: having lived all over the world, having travelled, having reconnected with my motherland as my dominant country, having become more of a Kannadiga who inhabits the globe rather than as an American, despite being fundamentally known as a Kiran to the outside world.