Tag Archives: erotica

Talking Erotica In Campus Diaries

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Campus Diaries recently interviewed me about writing and reading erotica.

CD: What does it mean for you to be erotic? As a personal definition and in your work?

SM: There’s a line from an Ani Difranco song – “Every time I move, I make a woman’s movement”. I think this is my personal definition.

Read the rest here.

Book Review: Close, Too Close: The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica

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We’ve come a long way since those anthologies from a dozen years ago, as groundbreaking as they were, consisting mostly of anonymous personal narratives of queer living and loving and very little creative writing of notable quality. That what we are seeing more and more of are stories that are not content to rest on the fact of their queerness alone reflects not only changing societal mores and a greater ease with that fact itself but also an attention to craft. While some of the pieces in Close, Too Close: The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica imply autobiographical inspiration, many are pseudonymous and most use the first-person narrator, every single one successfully makes the leap from being testimony to becoming fiction, allowing the reader in through an artistic aperture.

The term “queer”, though hotly contested, is an expansive one, the least descriptive and therefore most open of sexuality and gender identification categories, and this anthology certainly cuts across the spectrum, featuring everything from sex between two transmen in different stages of transitioning to sex between a gay man and his straight female friend.

These stories trade not in definitions but in desires, and offer a large array of them. Anirban Ghosh’s “Ark Erotica Endpapers”, which fill the inside covers of the collection, kick things off with a fantastic visual: the animals may have gone in two by two, but humans do it a little differently. Yes, there are pairings, like two mermaids coiled around each other (busty, though lacking in genitalia), but there also those content to watch, like a toothy chef with a hardly-subtle fish fetish, and a team of indeterminate dynamics. Midway through the book, Nilofar’s “Shadowboxer”, the only other visual offering, is powerful sequential art: a woman takes her own pleasure, her fat, blemished, oddly-tattooed body a locus of sensuality.

Compiled by Meenu and Shruti, first-name-only editors from an NGO background, a collection like this could be a self-conscious one, but self-consciousness and erotica hardly make a fiery marriage, and the anthology does well to avoid it. Its most political story works because the politics are not the point. Iravi’s “All In The Game” has a blindfolded participant being kissed and nuzzled by a succession of friends and made to guess who’s who. In guessing their identities, a mix not only of orientations and biological situations come up, but also ponderings on monogamy and other arrangements. There’s a twist in this story that is perfectly delivered, and drives home a message about bodies that pushes the inclusivity of this anthology past a new margin.

On the subject of bodies and back to the main premise of the anthology, there is much that titillates. Annie Dykstra’s women spy each other underwater and slip into a locker room shower together in “Pity That Blush”. D’Lo’s transman falls for the woman he has been assigned to board with on an exchange program and makes love to her – the verb deliberately chosen, for in contrast to the emotional cruelty of some of the casual sex stories this one is quite romantic. As for emotional cruelty and casual sex, Dykstra’s takes the lead, but L.R. Ellen’s “Conference Sex”, Nikhil Yadav’s “Upstairs, Downstairs” and Doabi’s “The Half Day” quickly follow – all are fun, but the last could have done without the rather forced recipe for rajma chawal. The biggest name in the collection, Devdutt Patnaik, spins a new myth about two young men who disguise themselves as newlyweds in order to collect a reward, only to have the gods take their artifice further than expected.  Michael Malik G. weaves a “meditation on [the] cock” of a gorgeous man on a houseboat in Kashmir, and Vinaya Nayak’s “Screwing With Excess” pokes a little fun at the adoring faghag – but ensures she is also pleasured.

There is an urgency to the best of these passages that illustrates quite perfectly the difference between beautiful writing about sex and sheer erotica. In the former, it is the way the phrase turns that matters. In the latter, if you’ll forgive my crudeness, it all comes down to whether or not the wrist turns away from turning the pages.

For proclivities that test the comfort zone a little, Satya’s “I Hate Wet Tissues” lightly brushes the subject of necrophilia, and Chicu’s “Soliloquy” attempts to both eroticize and find empowerment in the nasty experience of being molested on a bus. A couple of the stories fall short – Abeer Hoque’s “Jewel and the Boy” and Msbehave’s “Give Her A Shot” play with structures that suggest creativity but leave one stumped as to their purpose – but by and large, the book excites.

Close, Too Close is inclusive without losing sight of its purpose. It’s surprisingly well-written for a collection peppered with pseudonyms. It feels offbeat but not obscure. And most of all, when it’s hot, it’s very hot.

An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Book Review: Blue: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories From Sri Lanka edited by Ameena Hussein

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In the title of her introduction to Blue: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories From Sri Lanka, editor Ameena Hussein references the Isurumuniya Lovers, a 6th century stone carving portraying a woman sitting on the lap of a man, her hand raised in a gesture that could be read as one of refusal, demureness or even blessing. The couple is not locked in embrace, gazing at or holding one another in any recognizably participatory erotic act. Instead, their faces are turned forward – the observer gets a better view of them than they do each other. Although left unexplored in the introduction, their posture serves as a perfect presentation of the question, “What is erotica?” The eye of the beholder, the eye of each beholder, differs.

The twelve stories in this slim collection, the first English-language publication of its kind from Sri Lanka, won’t necessarily appeal to a diverse range of beholders, but together they achieve a narrative coherence that for an anthology comprised mostly of debut and pseudonymous authors is surprisingly successful.

The majority of these stories are lightweight, not enough to get the pulse really racing, but pleasant tidbits nonetheless. The book opens with Sam Perera’s “The Proposal”, which – while guilty of containing an unfortunate reference to a male organ being slurped “like a string of spaghetti” and the almost unforgivable howler, “as the tip of my iceberg touches her volcano” – is striking in its sheer urbaneness. Colombo could be any city at all, not necessarily the capital of a nation recovering from war with itself. This is a smart move for erotica, which often operates at the remove of fantasy, and the rest of the collection retains this convivial note. When we encounter “the war that’s waged in our heads as our bodies seek peace” in Natalie Soysa’s “Bi-Cycle” later on, it rings as a line not of sobering but of understated acknowledgment.

But the Sri Lanka of tourists? Twice, yes. Of the two stories set in hotels, the sexier one is “Room 1617” by Marti, one of no less than four lesbian-themed pieces in the book. By contrast, only Tariq Solomon’s “Bookworm” explores male homosexual desire. Some diversity in this regard would have been refreshing, more so because “Bookworm” (like Nazeeya Faarooq’s “No” and Sam Perera’s “Hot Date”) muddles the lines of consent somewhat. While transgression is undoubtedly titillating, nothing challenges stereotypes and social constraints quite like a sense of agency.

The book’s two most outstanding stories come from the editor and Shehan Karunatilaka of Chinaman fame. In Ameena Hussein’s “Undercover”, a married and robed Muslim woman finds her sexual frustrations assuaged by the anonymous hands of a man who sits beside her at the cinema. Day after day, she returns to be pleasured, and gradually learns how to take control of the fulfillment of her desires. Shehan Karunatilaka’s “Veysee” offers, through a protagonist who may be closer to the book’s core audience than any of the others (a horny, heterosexual male), a story that is complex in what it says about human need and human greed. While it has been suggested that literary erotica (as opposed to visual erotica) caters largely to female readers, there is something more earnestly convincingly about Karunatilaka’s story than the others that offers a contradictory position. Speckled through the book are other pieces memorable for the right reasons: for an author born in the 1940’s, Tariq Solomon’s “Bus Stop”, when it eventually gets down to the actual sex, has a frankness that laughs at our rebellions as compared to generations past, and Marini Fernando’s “The Lava Lamp” contains an elegant but not overwrought visual of mango leaves in silhouette in a space of lovemaking.

Blue is reprinted in India a year after its original Sri Lankan publication by Perera Hussein Publishing House. Its first edition had been supplemented by black and white photography in lieu of story dividers – a gratuity which was dropped in this market. Not having seen these images, it is difficult to venture as to whether this was a wise idea, but wiser still would have been the categorical omission of all five poems included in the collection. One is at a loss for words when trying to understand their presence in this book. A more perfect summary cannot be found anywhere other than in the poems themselves; to quote from the lines of Layla’s “Sex in the Hood”: “Poetry and originality? / Zilch! / What the fuck were you thinking?”

 Hussein’s assertion that Blue is “a milestone in Sri Lankan writing in English” is not to be dismissed on the basis of whether or not these stories work on the level of arousal (which is ultimately an entirely subjective understanding). More interestingly, this collection was culled from only thirty-five submissions. If the dozen stories that made the cut from so small a pool are of this standard – and it must be noted that aside from Karunatilaka and Hussein herself, all of the writers in this book are new voices – then there is much to look forward to in the literature yet to come from the island.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian.

Review of Electric Feather: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories edited by Ruchir Joshi

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Erotica out of South Asia, or South Asian erotica? The two are certainly different categories: and one of the nice things about Electric Feather is that it coquettishly skirts the labeling. Its stories are both culturally contextual and culturally irrelevant – and that is as good erotica should be: a dance between fantasy and the familiar.

Fittingly, then, the collection opens with that staple of the Indian erotic imagination – the wedding night. But it isn’t newlyweds securing their “official penetration permit” who romp through Samit Basu’s story – in fact, we hardly meet them at all. Most of the stories remain quite close to home in that regard – for instance, Sonia Jabbar’s “The Advocate” deals with communal tensions and the allure of the other, but in perhaps to political a way to incite pleasure. Sheba Karim’s “Heavenly Ornaments” is powerful; while it deals with the typical setting of women within a patriarchal home, it is subversive – and the subversive always carries the potential to excite.

The theme of the familiar and the fantastic continues in Electric Feather’s best story, Paromita Vohra’s deliciously delivered “Tourists”. Here, the perfectly ordinary Paolomi and a Bollywood star find themselves transported and time-warped to a lush holiday destination in 1977, where they fall into a sweet and steamy liaison. Vohra clearly writes for the female reader, with a deeply knowing sensuality – instantly recognizable and very rewarding.

Joshi’s own “Arles” is also straightforwardly hot, with surprisingly lyrical turns: “She moves his hand away from his penis, holding it herself now and moving the point of its arch – under the jaw, then on to her long neck, and then touching it to her earlobe, unseeing, as if putting on an earring without a mirror”. Deconstructionism and desire meet in Parvati Sharma’s “The Quilt”, a cute and clever nod to the written word as sex toy: the women make love while discussing Ismat Chugtai.

Niven Govinden’s “The Cat” and Rana Dasgupta’s “Swimming Pool” are both edgy pieces, and bold editorial choices. Govinden’s story of lovers in Amsterdam has violence, a hint of bestiality, and more; Dasgupta’s novel excerpt carries similar strains of contemporary hipness. They are inclusions which give the anthology a well-rounded feel: an admission that sex is never just about bodies and arousal, that it is complicated, cerebral, perverse and pervasive.

Jeet Thayil’s “Missing Person Last Seen” might be regarded as sexy in the way that New York City, where the story is set, is regarded as sexy, in its aesthetic sensibility, but the angst of its characters is anything but. Kamila Shamsie’s “Love’s Sunset” plays with poetic metaphor quite beautifully – but ultimately sticks to too cloyingly predictable a romantic storyline to stir the senses. Abeer Hoque’s “Confessions”, the collection’s only essay, disappointed only because a voice this forthcoming and engaging could write terrific erotica, but for some reason settled instead for a brief sketch. In a post-blogosphere world, the mere insinuation of autobiography alone shouldn’t be enough to titillate.

It’s interesting then that two authors whose previous works have been noted for their sensuality and/or sexuality, Tishani Doshi and Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, both surprise us with new terrain: non-confessional stories about inexperience. In Madhavan’s story, a 27-year old man loses his virginity, courtesy of a colleague. In Doshi’s, a matronly woman in her first relationship pleasures herself on a train, text messaging her married lover through the night.

Electric Feather has its ups and downs, but this is also its strength: it is a nice mix of the hardcore and the highbrow. The erotic is an intensely subjective thing, and there seems to be enough here to tickle most (but not all) fancies. But above all, there is aplenty here for the reader keen on some good, light literature from the subcontinent.

An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.