Desi Butch: Lines on a Page
This essay was originally published on The Cabaret Commons, as part of the “Process Posts” Series. See: http://www.cabaretcommons.org/desi-butch/
By Naveen Minai
I begin here with I. I do this because of several reasons. One is because I don’t want to put someone else at risk. Two is because there is no familiar emotional distance between this project and me. Three is because I am stubborn and petty, and I want to do this on my own terms. Four is because Sara Ahmed tells us that we must trace the lines that connect, separate, orient, disorient us, and I think it is only honest that I begin with the line formed by ‘I’ on the page because it is on this page that I am drawing these lines in a particular language and/though the particularities of this language are multiple: English, autoethnography, theory (Ahmed 2006). Fifth is because I am part of at least some of the communities (and this word means a lot) that this project is about which is complicated because that means three things at once: I am not a member of other communities, the problem with ‘about’ is not resolved, the problem with ‘about’ is managed. Anyway.
I begin with stories. It’s a good place to start (and place is an important story).
Desi butch is a method for storytelling and desi butch is a story and desi butch is a story we are trying to learn to tell though our bodies are already the protagonists.
In Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, Sara Ahmed writes about lines that direct and redirect us towards what we should want and be and become, and how these lines accumulate like lines on paper traced over and over again, and how these lines can be disrupted, and how these lines hold us in place and hold us to place (Ahmed 2006). I think about these lines when I decide what to wear to work in the morning in Karachi, Pakistan. The lines of my body are different when I wear jeans, Converse, and a kurta bought in the men’s section of a clothing store. I walk through campus in a different way. I sit in class and in my office in a different way. I stand in a different way. It is this different way and the stories about this different way that I am trying to understand in this paper.
I have short hair. This isn’t unusual. The chair of my department in Pakistan and one other faculty member have short hair too. The difference is that my hair is marked as boyish (and ish is an important story). The other difference is that I do not wear lipstick or eyeliner or jewelry (which my boss and colleague do) and I wear Converse, jeans, and a kurta bought in the men’s section of a clothing store.
These visual signs and signatures are important and embodied.
I want to pause here for a moment (tangents are important to a story) on the word embodied which can mean to express and to contain and is a verb which means it is a doing word.
Back to our story (and our is an important story). These visual signs and signatures are important and embodied. They are important because they are embodied. This is because my body in these clothes and not with lipstick and eyeliner is a visual sign for something and it is both that visual sign and that something which do something.
The ways in which the lines of my body are different when I have short boyish hair and when I wear Converse, jeans, and a kurta bought in the men’s section of a clothing store are why my office and my classes are crowded with queer and trans kids. The presence of my body does something when I embody these visual signs and when my body is a visual sign of something.
Does and is are important stories and they are important to this story.
In Fall 2018, I spent 3 months in Paris on a fellowship. My best friend, who lives in San Francisco, came to visit me. We went shopping for winter outerwear together because I didn’t have any, since I lived in Karachi (lived is an important story). We bought a sweater from a men’s clothing store and a bomber jacket from the men’s section of a clothing store. I feel good when I wear them (feeling good is an important story). I told my best friend, “I don’t feel as though I am acting which is how I feel when I wear kurtas bought in the women’s section of clothing stores in Karachi.”
What I meant (and meaning is an important story) is that the lines of my body are different when I wear kurtas bought in women’s clothing stores and/or in the women’s section of the clothing store. Those lines feel like an awareness of my body and the borders of my body and the borders that bind my body.
When my body aligns in the Ahmedian sense according to the coordinates signaled by those lines, I can (and ability is an important story) move through Jinnah International Airport in Karachi with more ease than when I wear a kurta bought in the men’s section of a clothing store. The affective orientation of the security officers, the ticket agents, the other passengers, and the airline staff towards me is different when my body aligns with those coordinates (Ahmed 2006). I feel more at ease because of their ease based on their visual recognition of my body. This ease is not about only convenience: it is also about safety (and safety is an important story).
“You have to talk about desi ghee!” Sara told me when we discussed how I would write this. I haven’t quite figured out how I will talk about desi ghee but I agree with Sara for two reasons. The first is that ghee is butter and I love butter. The second is that desi ghee is clarified butter and I cannot resist a possible pun that includes both butter and academia.
To clarify means to make more comprehensible. To clarify means to make more pure. I am amused by how the word desidoes and does not do both depending on where you are (and space is an important story). And sometimes, to make more comprehensible means to challenge and contradict purity.
In Los Angeles during grad school, I used desi to explain to my friends how people with Pakistani, Indian, Nepalese, Sri Lankan, and Bangladeshi heritages and relationships recognized each other’s food, fashion, film, art, music, family, words. Desi makes the spatial, genealogical, and cultural sources of recognitions comprehensible somewhere somehow somewhat.
In Lahore during a conference, a Bangladeshi American scholar and I used desi to acknowledge the colonial and postcolonial violences and borders between Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Desi contradicts the purities of history, place, and nationhood each state is willing to murder for.
Desi is shorthand for how we know each other through the trauma our mothers carry and the many ways our mothers inflict their trauma onto us and how our love for our mothers is a complicated and terrible thing. Desi means des means homeland yet the word desi does not belong to/in/within any of the territories for imagined nations in South Asia. Desimeans how our parents refer to cities as and for spatialized genealogies. Desi can be an accusation of inauthenticity.
Desi is a gesture towards land as home, and people from South Asia. Desi means pure, indigenous, authentic. Yet desi does not point to official borders between South Asian states. If authenticity, purity, indigeneity are logics of home and land, what happens to queer and trans masculinities in/of South Asia? How do desi queer and trans reworkings of kinship, intimacy, and genealogy challenge colonial, post/neocolonial frames of gender, sexuality, nation, home, and state in South Asia?
I was talking to Sara and I told her, “I have to confess something. I feel a visceral rage when cisgender heterosexual women use butch or femme. I think, no, those are not your words and those are not your lives and those are not your bodies shut up. I know it’s not fair and I am trying to work this out but that’s what I feel.”
Sara said, “Use that,” and since Sara is wise and kind, I am trying to use this visceral rage.
I want to pause here again for a moment to point out that we are back with/in the body because viscera means the visceral nervous system and is related to inward feeling rather than intellect. Part of what I want to explore here is the notion that there is a rather than between feeling, body, and intellect. I return again here to Sara Ahmed’s word in The Cultural Politics of Emotion when/where she writes that feelings are not about the body, rather that feelings are how we know and are aware of our bodies and that feelings signal how and when we know the borders (and borders are an important story) of our bodies and of our bodies as borders (Ahmed 2004).
Butch and desi are both registers and frames of feeling and flesh which are othered (Sethi 2018). Yet they are not stable signifiers for stable meanings of otheredness. In some ways, we know this already. Yet in other ways, we are caught in contradictory temporalities of words and meanings.
Contradiction is important to this story. Contradiction is an important story. I would argue also that butch and desi signal the stories of how contradiction is work. I turn here to José Esteban Muñoz’s notion of disidentification which Muñoz defines as a doing and which I now want to do something with:
(a) “to read oneself and one’s own life narrative in a moment, object, or subject that is not culturally coded to ‘connect’ with the disidentifying subject” (Muñoz 1999, 12). The cultural codes which govern gender and sexuality as regimes of the truth (and it is important that we acknowledge that authentic means true because this is not a coincidence) of what Gayle Salamon (2010) calls a/the body do not connect within butch or desi and they do not connect when I embody desi butch simultaneously in the same/my body. Butch is many meanings under the word masculinity which contradicts the visuality of body between male and masculinity. Desi is many meanings under words like Pakistani and Indian and Bangladeshi which is claimed by bodies marked as separate and therefore visible as Pakistani and Indian and Bangladeshi under those words.
Desi butch is in some ways the space on the page and the body where contradictions are both next to one another and also together because there is nothing on the page and the body between them (Goeman 2014). This is important in particular because the historical and contemporary formations of butch and desi would at first sight and site seem to contradict this relationship on the page and the body, including the questions of translation, colonialism, settler colonialism, postcolonialism, class, and race. Yet it is in and on and through the spaces, pages, and bodies where these questions collide and confuse and contradict that desi butch is located.
(b) “It is not to pick and choose what one takes out of an identification. It is not to willfully evacuate the politically dubious or shameful components within an identificatory locus” (Muñoz 1999, 12). Butch and desi cannot deny doubt and shame for these are both mechanisms and effects of power within the constellation of relations in which each/both are embedded. Desi butch cannot evacuate and elide the consistent contradictions of desire, space, sex, language which underpin the politics of authenticity, belonging, and home: are you a woman are you a man are you desi how can you be desi if you can’t speak Urdu why are you acting like a man masculinity is toxic are you ashamed of being a woman what does womanhood mean to you are you ashamed to be desi our girls don’t dress like that you look better with long hair this is inappropriate for the workplace you look prettier in a sari why is everything a fight with you why can’t you just be normal.
(c) “Rather, it is the reworking of those energies that do not elide the ‘harmful’ or contradictory components of any identity. It is accepting of the necessary interjection that has occurred in such situations” (Muñoz 1999, 12). Desi butch is work. It is the work of feeling and it is the work of the flesh because desi butch signals an embodiment of feeling as an orientation and alignment. This feeling and this embodiment of feeling and this awareness of the body through feeling is work.
If butch reworks masculinity as a set of feelings, as an orientation, and as an alignment then desi reworks South Asia as a set of feelings, as a space, and as an alignment. In a sense (and sense is an important story), there is a sensory acceptance as sensory understanding of the ways in which what desi butch reworks also presses upon our bodies as we rework our bodies, our feelings, our words, our meanings (Ahmed 2006).
Performativity is a matter of embodiment and that is what makes it not performance and that is what makes it complicated and terrible (Butler 1993). Performativity as repetition which calls forth that which it does in the process of doing means that our bodies are not beings but doings (Butler 1990; Salamon 2010). This is perhaps what desi butch does: it makes comprehensible the doing of dominant modes of bodies and feelings and the redoing or the work of disidentifying of those energies while contending in our bodies the harmful and contradictory components of any identity. Our feelings are work and our bodies do the work and our bodies are the work and the work and our bodies are exhausted.
I love to cook. I love to clean. I can drive people crazy with my obsession with cleanliness. The apartment I shared with a good friend in Los Angeles was clean enough that neither of us had to clean before our mothers came to visit. The joke is that I have inherited this form of crazy from one of my maternal aunts, although I am pretty sure that my father has a lot to do with this too.
It isn’t that funny and it isn’t that crazy though. If you think about the standards and rules good desi girls and good desi women and good desi daughters and good desi wives and good desi mothers are socialized into and with. Cooking and cleaning are sites of contradiction and tension: care and compulsion, love and resentment, invisibility and hypervisibility, community and judgement, friendship and family, control and intimacy, ownership and expression.
I am a good cook because I am desi: I don’t need to measure my spices and herbs and I always use salt and pepper. Cooking and cleaning for me are also how I understand desi though this is not a predictable relationship. I have not turned towards cooking and cleaning as practices of feminist and queer care through my mother, aunt, and grandmothers. I came to these practices of care as central to my being butch through my friends, who taught me to how to cook. I cook and clean for my friends to show them that I love them. Cooking and cleaning is part of how I understand butch as masculinity: a masculinity rooted in an ethics of care, an orientation towards others anchored in coordinates of the intimacy and care of food and clean sheets and coffee and tea.
When my mother visited me in Los Angeles during graduate school, I didn’t let her cook or clean. I cooked and I cleaned. I did this to show her that I care about her. I did this to give her a space and time where she didn’t have to do this work. I did this because my mother talks to me when she is sitting at the table with a cup of tea and I am cooking. This is something I do because I am desi and/but this is something only desi women do for their parents—especially their mothers.
Yet I can only do this in Los Angeles because/where the space of the home is mine. And it is mine in Los Angeles because I am desi butch in Los Angeles as a body that has sunk into a space as though I belong there.
Yet the there where I am in Los Angeles is a complicated and terrible there. If we take seriously what Adrienne Rich calls the politics of location (Rich 1987) and if I engage with Qwo-Li Driskill’s call for us to hold ourselves accountable (Driskill 2010) (and accountability is an important story), then I must understand the there of Los Angeles as a settler colonial there. Desi in Los Angeles as a shared recognition among South Asian and South Asian American communities is located on stolen land. Desi in Los Angeles is a word I use as a calling card precisely because we are not in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, or Sri Lanka. So where is important to desi in Los Angeles and this where in Los Angeles is a settler colonial where.
Butch is located in the histories of bar culture of women who love women in the U.S. in the 1930s and 1940s. There are much older histories of gender and sexuality which must be accounted for when we discuss non-normativity in the U.S.: as Deborah Miranda, Saidiya Hartman, Christina Sharpe, Scott Morgensen, and Mark Rifkin remind us, regimes of the truth (authenticity) of gender and sexuality in the US are underpinned and formed by settler colonialism and slavery. The land upon which butch emerges is stolen land and the desires, orientations, intimacies, and bodies within butch are legible because of the erasure of Indigenous intimacies, desires, and bodies. This erasure includes the deployment of gender and sexuality as necropolitical tools of settler colonialism because the heterosexual matrix that produces and reproduces what butch contradicts and reworks is a settler colonial matrix.
Desi butch in Los Angeles is a point in a constellation of practices, desires, feelings, spaces, words, and alignments defined by settler colonialism, slavery, and resistance to those necropolitical and biopolitical modes of power by Indigenous Nations, Black communities, and other people of color.
Desi butch in Karachi is a point in a constellation of practices, desires, feelings, spaces, words, and alignments defined by English, French, Dutch, and Portuguese colonialisms, by the genealogies of bodies and words those colonialisms erased and destroyed (haunting is an important story), and by the nationalisms which have emerged.
Desi and butch are not stable in time just as they are not stable in space. For me, they are both words that denote a melancholic desire for what Muñoz (2009) calls utopia because it is about when we can be where we can be. I use melancholic here, not because I do not think there is no joy or possibility of joy, but because I am cautious especially when it comes to matters of feelings and feelings that matter. Maybe this is because of desi butch, which always includes wariness and caution as forms of work.
They are, therefore, also incomplete at and in any given moment and in/at any given space and these incompletions may also be contradictory. My mother does not object when I wear kurtas from the men’s section of the clothing store because men’s kurtas conceal my body which is what my mother wants and the name of her desire is modesty. This notion of modesty is part of the relations of power embedded in desi (which desi butch must contend with): good young desi women are modest. Modesty is about heteropatriarchy in Pakistan: modesty is about safety, modesty is about marriageability, modesty is about family, modesty is about mobility, modesty is about agency, modesty is about modernity (Sethi 2016, 2018; Shroff 2020). Yet I would argue that the visual cue of the modesty of the men’s kurta on my body is incomplete, unstable, and contradictory because butch works to contradict the frameworks through which modesty is defined and deployed.
Desi and butch could be two frames that are always unstable (and the quality of being is important to our story), which always have to be situated. Desi butch could be words that have not yet arrived (queer trans desi temporalities) but our bodies and our orientations are here. Desi butch could be the process by which we wander (and let us not forget that wander does not mean movement without melancholy or movement without risk or movement without cost or movement without loss or movement without compulsion) through languages to find words and feelings and words for our feelings and new frames for feeling. That feelings and words are experiences and imaginations of time and space is a reminder we have been given by Mishuana Goeman, Sara Ahmed, Dionne Brand.
Desi butch could be the coordinates of an affective frame and orientation and alignment which enables us to recognize the work and the fragments of intimacies, desires, practices, bodies, and lives. Fragment is important to me because Veena Das (2006) reminds us that what is fragmented (south asia) is as important as that which is intact and that fragments are important stories. This is not to romanticize the process of fragmentation but to try to understand the fragments and to think about what to do with them. I like this notion of fragment too because there is something honest about fragment as a way to recognize our own limitations and therefore the necessity of our orientations as collective orientations.
I want to create a digital archive. Why? My friend, Palvashay, asks me this constantly. I know that she knows why, but it’s important for both of us that she asks me this constantly because she is my friend. That means that she is a beloved interlocutor.
I do not want to create a digital archive because I am in careless love with digital design and technology. I know that this is about what Aimé Césaire (2000) called thingification. I am attached to digital archives because I think digital archives could be one creative strategy. I want to think about how a digital archive could offer access across multiple locations, and enable the inclusion of materials in multiple languages, forms, and formats. Multiplicity of form respects the choice of how desi queer trans people mark their presences in and through this archive. I want to think about strategies to challenge terms of legitimacy and authority, including the terms upon which inclusion in the/an archive as historical presence is granted.
I also ask: what happens if we push our understanding of archive towards multiplicity of form, language, and aesthetics through the possibilities offered by digital technologies, cultures, and spaces? How might a digital archive make space for silence or different forms of sound as presence, as distinct from an oral history (Sethi 2018)? How could we reimagine the categories we use in this archive to rework colonial and settler colonial cartographies of both time and place? What does an archival catalogue look like when it is not organized using categories of linear time or singular geography? What does an archive look like when the point is codes, fragments, marginalia, ephemera (Sethi 2018)?
I want to think about how a digital archive could offer archival liveness, that is, archive as live and living space with potential for collaborations in the collection and curation of materials by those who are present in this archive as the same those as for whom this archive is for (Schofield et al. 2015). What does archive become if it was designed as a resource for maintenance and care? What does archive become if it is designed as space and resource for specific vulnerable communities rather than as public record (Koons, Facebook message to author, 2018) ? I want to think about what happens to time in and through a digital archive if it is oriented, at once, towards past, present, and future? How do we, in form and purpose, refuse the linearity of time which manifests so intensely in the word archive and archival spaces? What could it mean to begin with Édouard Glissant’s notion of opacity in the design and process of a digital archive? Especially when, as Keguro Macharia (2019) reminds me, “It is easier to say opacity and play than it is to practice either and how they unsettle our claims to speak about them with authority”.
How do we think about digital archives as contact zone, narrative and narrativized space, and digital presence for queer and trans communities located in multiple points of time and place? How do we think about privacy and safety for vulnerable communities located in different geohistorical worlds (Macharia 2013) when digital spaces and technologies have been weaponized and deployed for international surveillance, control, and violence? What do we think about the colonialities of digital design, of epistemologies used in metadata, of material locations of servers and the laws that govern them?
A final story for now. I cannot read Urdu or Persian but/and I love qawwalis. My mother translated some of my favorite qawwalis by Amir Khusrau from Persian to Urdu and explained some of the meanings. There is a qawwali called Namee Danam. The version recited by the Sabri Brothers includes two lines as follows: sambhal sambhal kay qadam rakh rahay hain deewaanay. I often translate this as even the mad are stepping carefully though this is an incomplete, fragmented, unstable translation. I know what it means in the context (and context is an important story) of the qawwali but I do not know enough about qawwali or Persian to translate the meaning in English. My knowledge of the meaning is felt: I know the multitudes that sambhal sambhal and deewanay mean because those are fragments of Urdu that I know and I have an affective understanding of the qawwali as a conversation with the beloved who is god who is the beloved who is not god who is the beloved. By affective I mean that I understand qawwali as a form of poetry and song that moves my heart though I know nothing about this form and song. I want to learn because my heart is moved when the Sabri Brothers ask the beloved who is god who is the beloved who is not god who is the beloved to hear their lamentation for if the beloved/god/beloved does not then who will (tajdar-e-haram)?
I had sambhal sambhal kay qadam rakh rahay hain deewaanay tattooed on my body in New York City in Urdu script. I don’t know which Urdu script it is but I know that I think that it is beautiful. And I know that this is a fragment from a form of poetry I don’t know but that I understand that I love though I cannot tell you all that these words mean.
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