- The Queer Turn in South Asian Studies? or “That’s Over & Done Queen, On to the Next”
“I am not your advisor, so I am not going to tell you what to do, but you do know there are a lot of people working on this?” It was my first year of graduate school. I was sitting across a table from an academic that I had read for years before beginning my PhD. It was that moment that every young academic simultaneously dreads and cherishes, the opportunity to share your ideas with an intellectual heavyweight in your field. We—a small cluster of students working across South Asia—sat across the table, gingerly holding our cups of coffee as each of us waited our turn to talk about our projects. One by one each of the first-year students shared their ideas, met with approval, encouragement, and constructive feedback. As the last student in the line it became my turn to speak towards the end of our brief meeting. I shared a rather inchoate interest in wanting to study queer activism in India. I was particularly interested in how organizations made demands on the state, worked with local government organizations, and imagined producing stronger relationships with a government that for the most part was responsible for upholding the very laws that perpetuated the disenfranchisement and violence towards sexual minority subjects.1 It was hard not to feel a little bit crestfallen by the end of that conversation. It was even harder to try to remind myself that such sagacious advice probably came from a place of experience, concerns about academic precarity, and from a wider view of the field than my one year of graduate studies could manage. And yet I could not reconcile the feeling that I was studying something that had been [End Page 165] done with its near invisibility in syllabi, colloquia, and publications. I left that meeting feeling like I somehow missed a party that I was not invited to; one that somehow had “happened” without ever happening. I remember thinking to myself, “Like, did I miss the party and no one told me, sis?”
But when is the party officially over and who decides? This is a question that has occupied me for some time. And if I am being completely honest, it is a question that has haunted me since I started my graduate studies. I cannot count the number of times at colloquia, conferences, in passing I have talked about my research work and been met with either the awkward pause—sometimes with a “Was that your first research project idea?”—or the eye roll “do you know X who is working on that” one-two combo. I mean, what scholar does not enjoy being mansplained or heterosplained their research or the whole field to which they have dedicated their intellectual labor and academic life for the foreseeable future?
Laminated onto the already abundant feelings of impostor syndrome that come as part of the graduate school welcome materials, there has also always been this nagging feeling that I may have built an intellectual home, so to speak, in a dying field. This realization is a terrifying one for any graduate student eking out a possible future through the fruits of a decade-long academic project in a field that has been “sufficiently” cultivated. With pressures for originality, newness, and insightful interventions, scholars—especially beginners—are prized for their abilities to push the boundaries of existing fields, to help facilitate the abundance of academic debate. So, what are we to do, when a field, our field, is declared dead?
Long before I started graduate school, queer studies (particularly as queer theory) had informally been declared do not resuscitate. From accusations of moribund academic (anti)politics, to indictments of its limited capacity for intersectionality, to its U.S.-centricity, queer studies has managed to die, come back, and die again. Since its inception in the early 1990s, queer studies has stood as a placeholder for a shifting alliance of scholarly commitments to humanistic work on sexuality and gender, desire, intimacy, normativity, and power. But always with an asterisk or footnote, gesturing...