Note: This was written during the Poetry With Prakriti Festival, December 2010, and was meant to be published in The New Indian Express’ “Sexualities” column, which was discontinued shortly afterward. This year’s Festival reminded me of the article. Some of the information may be out of date, but I hope that as a profile of an interesting, emerging Indian poet it may still be relevant.
When Joshua Muyiwa confesses that he was recently, embarrassingly, called “Bangalore’s gay icon” in a profile, it’s clear why this information cannot be taken unsalted. It isn’t that he is gloating. Neither is it that the mantle is necessarily untrue. It’s just that, like many things about the 24 year old writer, it’s a descriptor that might come too easily. Openly queer, over six feet tall, handsome, dreadlocked, with a forearm’s length of silver bangles, huge quirky glasses and his father’s distinctly Nigerian features, Muyiwa’s identities – self-created and otherwise – demand attention, and get it.
Yet it would also be wrong to say that Muyiwa is a celebrity because of a mere semiotic effect, and not what he does. His poems about the urban queer experience, specifically his own, bring an anomalous voice to the Indian confessional poetry landscape. If that voice is anomalous because the man is, then so be it. “I’m most grateful that the word ‘poet’ is used,” he says. “Any adjective before it is a great marking tool, it gets you asked to do readings, gets you published, lets you travel, but beyond that what more does it do?”
Aside from two blogs’ worth of poetry, Muyiwa doesn’t publish, preferring performance. In Chennai for Poetry With Prakriti, he has also been featured at the Nigah Queer Fest (Delhi) and Bangalore Queer Film Festival. “I wouldn’t be a poet if it wasn’t for Youtube,” he says. His initial influences were the Def Jam videos and “angry black poets, like Stacey Ann Chin”, yet his reading style is casual and natural, without any sense of rehearsal or affectation.
“I don’t think that poetry needs the theatrics that go with theatre,” he says. “I don’t want that illusion. I travel with a set of poems, but don’t decide what to read. For me, the shock value of the poem is when I get reacquainted with it at the time of reading. I’m a different person each time I go to the poem”.
Joshua Muyiwa writes on love, sex, the city and all else in between. His current work includes an autobiographical collaboration, I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone, with the photographer Akshay Mahajan. “In a lot of my poems, the lover is absent but people assume it’s about a man,” he says thoughtfully. “Believe it or not, there’s nothing harder than a male-male relationship. It’s two people who’ve been taught their whole life to be dominant and secretive and then they’re in a relationship and forced to talk.” He laughs. “Women relate to my poems because sometimes I say men are pigs.”
Muyiwa moved to India with his half-Malayali, half-Nepali mother when he was less than four years old, after the deaths of his twin and younger brother. When his mother also passed away suddenly and soon after, he was raised by his grandparents, and credits his dramatic, chain-smoking Nepali grandmother as a big influence. He never had to come out of the closet. He has lived in Bangalore most of his life, and when he says “marijuana” in a poem, he pronounces it “maaruvana”, sincerely South Indian.
He is a hipster in a country where the word still refers to a style of jeans – “the Williamsburg crowd” he says offhandedly, listing his musical influences. His Bangalore is Koshy’s, Temptations Wines and Richmond Town; they are parts of his persona, absorbed with the deliberation of all poets who mythologize their love and loathing of any place. “Being in a city is like being with a lover,” he explains. “You have to constantly seduce it. There’s no other way to negotiate a city”.
But the charm is in how open he is about his fascination with artifice. “It’s like, why do gay men like old Bollywood? It’s the melodrama. You know it’s artificial but you know it comes from an honest place.” This is exactly how Muyiwa comes across: aware of his baggage but unburdened by it. There’s an absence of pretense – when asked how he would contextualize his poems to Shiva in relation to the homoerotic subtext of the paeans of all male poet-saints past, he shrugs off the opportunity to place himself into a lineage, simply saying “It was in those poems that I first read about a certain sexualness, but I don’t know if I have the same structure or deep faith that they came from”.
He also chooses to be consciously non-political in his work. “My views on [Penal Code Section] 377 or gay rights activism are not in my poetry. I’m talking about love and things which may be antithetical to the ‘rights language’. Even when I do write political poetry, it’s askance, it’s not coming from a statement-making intention. I’m not sitting down to do it, but if you read activism into it, who am I to take that away from you?”