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The Stereotyping of Queer Identities in Sri Lankan English Fiction

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Queer sexuality studies focus on what is excluded and devalued within identity binaries as well as what is marginalized within the hegemonic discourse. This study is based on examining the queer representations in Sri Lankan English fiction by
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    NELANI DE COSTA 1 THE STEREOTYPING OF QUEER IDENTITIES IN SRI LANKAN ENGLISH FICTION; De Costa, M.N. 1   1 Department of Languages, Faculty of Arts and Culture, South Eastern University of Sri Lanka E mail: mn.decosta@seu.ac.lk ABSTRACT Queer sexuality studies focus on what is excluded and devalued within identity binaries as well as what is marginalized within the hegemonic discourse. This study is based on examining the queer representations in Sri Lankan English fiction by engaging with three predominant Sri Lankan English writers. The methodology includes a textual analysis of selected Sri Lankan English fiction  by contemporary Sri Lankan English writers. The fictions comprise of the two novels Giraya (1971)  by Punyakante Wijenaike and The Jam Fruit Tree (1993) by Carl Muller which is the first book of his trilogy of the von Bloss family. The short fiction incorporates the short story “Old Boys’ Nuts”  from Chhimi Tenduf- La’s short story collection  Loyal Stalkers (2017). The objective of this study is to explore the stereotypical queer representations of selected Sri Lankan English fiction to  problematize their depictions of non-conformist sexualities. The research problem of this study is thus based on ‘queering’ Sri Lankan English fiction to unearth whether these representations cater to the stereotyping of queer identities in a predominantly heteronormative society. Based on a discussion of the stereotyping of queer identities in Wijenaike’s, Muller’s  and Tenduf- La’s narratives, this study persists that, the queer representations are seen as taboo, forbidden and unnatural. This paper therefore concludes that, despite the subversive potential of the selected novels to address non-normative sexualities, their stereotypical perceptions of queer identities are  problematic. This is because they lead to the devaluation of sexual minorities who are seen as deviant and abhorrent within the largely heteronormative Sri Lankan context. Keywords:  Stereotypes, Queer Identity, Sri Lankan English Fiction, Homosexuality, Lesbianism,  Heteronormativity I. INTRODUCTION The term ‘queer’ as a stand - alone term refers to the ‘non - normative sexual’ or ‘LGBTI (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual/transgender, intersexual).” (Jagose & Seidman, 2005). 1  In Sri Lanka non- heterosexual identities are marginalized by the hegemonic society as they continue to live under “a shroud of invisibility” due to “Sri Lankan conservatism” (Wijewardena, Wijesiriwardena, Kottegoda & Brown, 2017). The queer community is thus frequently subjected to vilification and associated with social stigma within the dominant Sri Lankan discourse. This marginalization is further emphasized due to the criminalization of adult consensual same-sex relationships by the Sri Lankan Penal code under the articles 365 and 365A as acts of gross indecency against public morality. However, within this overarching heteronormative context there are Sri Lankan English fiction with subversive potentials which voice queer identities. The objective of this study is to explore the stereotypical queer representations of selected Sri Lankan English fiction to problematize their depictions of non-conformist sexualities. The research problem of this study is thus based on ‘queering’ Sri Lankan English fiction to unearth whether these representations cater to the 1  This term is at present extended as LGBTQIA (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual/transgender, queer, intersexual, alias/asexual).    NELANI DE COSTA 2 stereotyping of queer identities in a predominantly heteronormative society despite their subversive attempts to voice queer identities. II. LITERATURE REVIEW The available literature on queer studies in Sri Lanka are based on queering approaches to the Sri Lankan Penal Code. Nagaraj & Wijewardene (2016) and Fernando (2016) question the inherent heteronormative and heteropatiarchal discriminations and prejudices in the Sri Lankan society which devalue sexual minorities. Wijewardene (2002), Kuru-Utumpala (2008) and Schubert (2017) examine and scrutinize queer identities, spaces and politics in the Sri Lankan queer movies  Flying with One Wing   (2003) directed  by Asoka Handagama and  Maya  (2016) directed by   Donald Jayantha. These studies not only commend the visibility given to queer identities in the Sri Lankan cinema but also to problematize their representations. The extant literature examine the queer representation in Sri Lankan literature as well. De Mel (2001) refers to a number of Punyakante Wijenaike’s novels to appreciate her “refreshingly fre sh  portrayals” of transgressive sexualities. However, De Mel also posits that Wijenaike “fall[s] into line” with the expectations of the heteronormative society. At one point, referring to Wijenaike’s  Falling in Line  De Mel comments on the portrayal of lesbianism between the two characters Annekha and Deepthi. She states that, Wijenaike explores how the intimate sexual encounter evokes a “sense of shame in the women” thus “‘fall[ing] into line in the interests of socially valued heterosexuality and ‘normative’ behaviour” (p. 28 -30). Siriwardhana (2014) examines the “subversive potential” of queer identities in Punyakante Wijenaike’s Giraya  and  Amulet    as well as James Goonewardena’s  An Asian Gambit  . Her study commends the “ostensibly radical move” of the authors to engage with “tabooed sexualities in the Sri Lankan society in their novels.” However she states that, despite such attempts their representations of queer characters are “predominantly governed by homophobic, heterosexist undercurrents” (p. 115). Aldrich (2015) in his book identifies Sri Lankan English novels which establish an “affirmative gay identity” to  provide a commentary on them. Though he describes about the diverse representations of homosexuality by Sri Lankan English authors he does not engage in an in-depth study to  problematize these queer identities. (p. 207-233). By incorporating and extending the views of the above-specified literature, this study fills the research gap of queer studies in Sri Lanka by problematizing the representation of queer stereotypes in selected Sri Lankan English fiction. III. METHODOLOGY This study is based on a textual analysis of selected Sri Lankan English fiction. These include two novels and one short fiction by three predominant Sri Lankan writers to scrutinize the superimposition of stereotypes in their queer representations. These two fictions include Punyakante Wijenaike’s Giraya (1971) and Carl Muller’s The Jam Fruit Tree (1993) which is the first book of his trilogy of the von Bloss family. The short fiction includes “Old Boys’ Nuts” from Chhimi Tenduf- La’s short story collection  Loyal Stalkers (2017). Wijenaike’s Giraya offers a problematic perspective of homosexuality and lesbianism within an upper middle- class Sinhala Buddhist monolith family. Muller’s The Jam Fruit Tree  engages with a substantially different and humorous reading of non-normative sexualities within the marginalized Burgher community. Tenduf- La’s “Old Boys’ Nuts” explore the discriminations against    NELANI DE COSTA 3 homosexuals and a physically abusive homosexual relationship within the setting of the urban Colombo milieu. IV. DISCUSSION Dyer (1993) in his essay says that, one aspect of the habit of ruling groups is the “establishment of normalcy” through “stereotypes.” He establishes the significance of the “political consequences” associated with stereotyping by stating that, it is an “a ttempt to fashion the whole of society according to their own world-view, value- system, sensibility and ideology” (p. 356). Thus, within a predominantly heteronormative society, it is “the bias of compulsory heterosexuality” which is established as the dominant ideology, world-view or the norm. This offers a biological essentialist  perception of naturalizing and normalizing heterosexuality by catering to its stereotypical expectations in the society. This automatically leads to the perception of non-conformist sexualities such as the “lesbian experience” “on a scale ranging from deviant to abhorrent, or simply rendered invisible.” (Rich, 1980, p. 632 -633). Wijenaike’s Giraya  voices these taboo and unnatural stereotypes which are associated with sexual minorities in the dominant discourse. In Giraya  the queer identity is utterly suppressed as Wijenaike gives the narrative authority of representing the queer voice to her protagonist Kamini. Kamini is a married woman who has attained her normative role as a woman in the Sinhala Buddhist household  by marrying Lal and following the conservative traditional trajectory of giving birth to a son. The queer relationship of Adeline and Lucia Hamy is thus depicted as stereotypically taboo, grotesque and unnatural via the heteronormative gaze of Kamini who regards the intimate moment between Adeline and Lucia Hamy as unnatural and grotesque. Lucia Hamy kneels at the foot of the bed stroking the naked soft fair skin of her legs. Back and forth the rough dark hand gli des gently, tenderly like a lover’s hand. I can feel the skin of my body prickling. Then she picked up an inert foot and placed the sole of it upon her lips in a passionate kiss…The relationship between mistress and servant is not a normal one. True, Lucia Hamy is considered almost a part of the family. But she is warped, strangely evil. Her emotions are as abnormal and ugly as her body (Wijenaike, 2012, p. 64-65). Furthermore, Lucia Hamy is always perceived as a character who does not embody a stereotypical femininity. In Kamini’s perception she is described as having “wild and wispy” hair, a “dark, ugly face” and a body which is “brutal in its strength.” She also refuses to wear a “brassiere” under her  jacket as she looks upon the contraption as “a modern   evil” (p. 9). Considering these characteristics it is evident that, Lucia Hamy falls into the gendered stereotype of a “masculine” woman who is recurrently associated with queer representations in mainstream media. Shugart (2003) particularly notes that, two of the most common stereotypes are gay men being characterized as “effeminate” and lesbians as “masculine” (p. 68). The stereotype of an effeminate man is also associated with Kamini’s husband Lal whose secret homosexuality is only revealed at the end of the narrative. Wijenaike (2012) describes him as utterly controlled by his mother’s authority, nervous, timid and as an awkward individual who lacks “a man’s firmness, of maturity.” (p. 8). The taboo and unnatural stereotypes of homosexuality can also be seen in Muller’s The Jam Fruit Tree  with regard to his casual representation of homosexual instances which come across as taboo acts where boys are molested by adults. This is evident with Elaine’s brother Merril   who “developed a crush on Mister de Jong next door”. Merril stops visiting Mister de Jong after he was sexually molested by the man and his friend Eustace reassures Merril by saying “[n]ever mind, men. In school Father Theo did the same to me when I was s mall” (Muller, 1994, p. 85). The power dynamics involved in these cases where the adults wield authority over the two boys problematize the depiction of homosexual instances as they are seen as deviant, abhorrent and unnatural acts.    NELANI DE COSTA 4 This paper posits tha t, queer stereotypes are a result of the “heterosexual/homosexual binarism” in the dominant discourse. This binarism can be described as a “homophobic production” within the heteronormative society where heterosexuality is “elevated as a privileged and unm arked term, by abjecting and problematizing homosexuality.” The homosexual identity in the dominant discourse is therefore associated with stereotypical assumptions of being a “social misfit”, “an unnatural monster or freak”, “a moral failure” and “a sexual pervert.” In Muller’s The Jam Fruit Tree  the homosexual representations of both Father Theo and Mister de Jong fall within these problematic stereotypical categories within a dominantly heteronormative setting (Halperin, 1995, p. 44-46). In Muller’s nar  rative it is heterosexuality that is superimposed as the norm therein subjecting homosexuality to abjection. Thus, it is significant that Sonnaboy’s homosexuality is described in terms of the problematic stereotypical assumptions of being unnatural and immoral as he continues to have sexual relations with his fiancé Elaine only because she has physical attributes like that of a boy. “ [H]e thought of Elaine and how they would be married soon. Thin girl, Elaine, not much flesh on her thighs, boyish undeveloped, small breasts, tight little bum. Yes, Elaine was just right. Like a boy. And Sonnaboy liked boys.”   It is also problematic that, Sonnaboy’s deviant sexual desires are depicted as naturalized and normalized when he is attracted towards “true femininity.” The novel states that when he meets his future wife Beryl for the first time as a “roly -poly schoolgirl, fresh, round- cheeked”, he was “glad to realize that true femininity could arouse him” (Muller, 1994,  p. 4-9). In Tenduf- La’s “Old Boys’ Nuts” the stereotype of a hegemonic masculine man is particularly significant. Hegemonic masculinity subordinates femininities and other forms of masculinities by exerting “power and authority” (Courtenay, 2000, p. 1388). Furthermore, as Donaldson (1993) says, “[h]eterosexuality and homophobia are the bedrock of hegemonic masculinity” (p. 644). Tenduf La’s short fiction explores an abusive homosexual relationship between Danuja and the unnamed narrator in the urban Colombo milieu. Danuja who embodies the characteristics of a hegemonic masculine man is ashamed of his sexual desires towards the narrator and continues the relationship in secret. Danuja is mortified by his own attraction, lust and desire towards another man which are seen as deviant and socially taboo within the heteronormative society. He negotiates with his desires  by superimposing and emphasizing hegemonic masculine stereotypes through establishing himself as a strong, powerful, authoritative and violent man. “He would have preferred people to know he  p unched rather than kissed me. Far more macho. Far more socially acceptable.” (Tenduf  -La, 2017,  p.102). In contrast to Muller’s The Jam Fruit Tree   and Wijenaike’s Giraya , Tenduf- La’s short story directly critiques the heteropatiarchal and heteronormative expectations in the society. His story engages with the complications of hiding one’s queer identity. These are explored by Tenduf  -La through voicing the prejudices and discriminations faced by the unnamed narrator due to the society, his relatives and his own family. “When I was sixteen, my parents were ashamed of who they thought I had become, so they sent me to England. I waited to return to Sri Lanka until I no longer needed to hide from myself, but that was all Danuja made me do” ( Tenduf-La, 2017, p. 103). However, the subtle ways in which Wijenaike critiques the heteronormative expectations of the society in Giraya   should be recognized as she explores the disastrous consequences of Adeline’s attempts to hide Lal’s homosexuality. Lal’s homosexuality is hidden from the inquisitive gaze of the society and even his own wife, as it is seen as a burden to follow the traditional biological trajectory of a heterosexual marital union by producing an heir. This knowledge is only revealed to Kamini at the end of the story by Lal’s sister Manel who says “[h]e should never have married” and “[b]ut then mother always tried to hide the truth about Lal. She wanted the world to know him as a normal man” (Wijenaike, 2012: 149).      NELANI DE COSTA 5 Although, Tenduf-La in his short story engages with the stereotype of an effeminate homosexual man (the narrator) in the dominant discourse, it should be noted that he ends his story in a positive note. It is seen when the unnamed narrator ends his physically abusive relationship with Danuja to start a relationship with his new boyfriend Hauke. At the end of the story Hauke whispers “[n]o more hiding” in the narrator’s ear and “did one thing Danuja never had the balls to do. He held my face, stroked my beard and kissed me, bang on the lips, in front of everyone” ( Tenduf-La, 2017, p. 103). The story therefore ends by challenging and subverting the heterosexual expectations of the hegemonic society. V. CONCLUSIONS The selected Sri Lankan English fiction incorporated in this study can be seen as transgressive in terms of voicing queer identities which are usually ignored and neglected in the hegemonic discourse. The authors’ subversive potential of giving visibility to the representation of queer identities in a largely heteronormative setting should thus be commended. However, these representations are problematic as they superimpose certain stereotypes in terms of representing homosexuality and lesbianism. Wijenaike, Muller and Tenduf-La in their respective works associate problematic stereotypical assumptions of queer identities being socially taboo, deviant and immoral within an overarching conservative and conventional Sri Lankan setting. These queer stereotypes also include offering emasculated depictions of men and masculinized depictions of women characters. However, Tenduf- La’s  Loyal Stalkers  being a more contemporary  publication than Wijenaike’s Giraya   and Muller’s The Jam Fruit Tree  directly critiques and subverts the heteronormative expectations of the mainstream society. Therefore, while appreciating the queer representations of such writers, it is also essential to  problematize certain stereotypical representations of queer identities. This is due to the fact that, these stereotypical perceptions can lead to the further devaluation of sexual minorities as they are seen as taboo, forbidden and unnatural within a predominantly heteronormative setting. REFERENCES Aldrich, R. (2015). Cultural Encounters and Homoeroticism in Sri Lanka . London: Routledge.
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