• Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Interview with Payal Dhar, Author of “It Has No Name”

Discover Payal Dhar's insights on her book "It Has No Name," LGBTQ+ identity, and the concept of chosen family in this exclusive Frontlist interview. Read now!
on Jun 10, 2024
Interview with Payal Dhar, Author of “It Has No Name” | Frontlist

Payal Dhar has been writing stories since she was seven years old. Unfortunately, no one will ever know what was in them because her dog ate everything. She writes on a computer these days, and hopes she’ll never cross paths with a Pting. In her day job, which she does at night because she hates mornings, she is a freelance journalist on science, technology and society. She also writes books for middle-grade and young-adult readers. It Has No Name is her tenth novel.

Frontlist: Can you tell us about your book "It Has No Name?" and what inspired you to write this story?

Payal: It Has No Name is a story about identity, fitting in, and how tough it can get for someone encoded as different. The book is from the viewpoint of 16-year-old Sami, who is a butch-presenting girl who is just starting to understand that she is a lesbian. She is forced to move from the city she lives into her mother's hometown in the hills and start at a new school. Although Sami is very skeptical about how queer-friendly a small town will be, she is pleasantly surprised by how diverse it is. But then, teenage years are full of complex questions about finding out what sort of person you are, what you believe in, etc.—not just for Sami but her friends as well.

Frontlist: As a freelance science journalist, how do you integrate your interest in science, technology, and society into your writing for young adults?

Payal: I'm essentially a science-fiction and fantasy writer, so I get to geek about about science and tech in that side of my fiction writing. Even otherwise, there's usually a strong tech element in all my works. In It Has No Name, there's a lot about how the internet brings like-minded people together and about all the available information about the things you can't always ask the people around you about. And, of course, the online "challenge" towards the book's second half changes people's lives.

Frontlist:The book tackles the "chosen family" concept through Sami's friendships. Can you discuss how these relationships provide her with a sense of belonging and acceptance? Furthermore, what is the importance of support networks, particularly for LGBTQ+ youth?

Payal: Chosen family is an evocative term because it packs so much in two words. It tells us that we can't "choose" our families technically; but if that family proves harmful to us, we can choose to form families with people we feel safe with. It reminds of the saying (that is often misinterpreted): 'The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb.'

There's a prevalent notion, especially in Indian cultures, that we owe our families our unconditional love and loyalty, but this is a flawed assumption. Yes, families are supposed to be safe and affirming spaces, but they are very often the most unsafe ones. I reported about this for a feature for Al Jazeera on how families emotionally blackmail their queer members and force them to conform. The fallout of this is actual harm, psychological or physical, which makes support networks very important for queer folks to have a safe space. This includes what's called "community," referring to groups that include other queer people.

But it's not enough. Everyone deserves to feel safe all the time, and sadly, families are often places you don't. I experienced this growing up, always being told that I looked wrong or the way I thought was wrong. As a result, I remained very isolated, feeling like there was something wrong with me. I found the chosen family on the internet before I found them physically. The same happens with Sami—it's her chosen family that actually gives her affirmation first.

A word of caution: whether physical or virtual, there are always dangers. So, this is not a blanket endorsement of internet groups or unknown offline groups.

Frontlist: The book tackles the complex experience of being LGBTQ+ in modern India. How did you research and portray the specific challenges and freedoms Sami faces within this social context?

Payal: Constantly being told that there's something wrong with you for how you look and how you feel can be very damaging, to the extent that you start to hate yourself or force yourself to be a way that is unnatural. That causes lifelong trauma, and this is the first and basic challenge most Indian kids face.

This book draws a lot from personal experience; interviews with queer folk; and research into social, psychological, and physical trauma experienced by LGBTQ+ people. Fiction, and also fan-fiction, also informed a lot of my background infor, because that's where you find the stories that queer folk would like to tell and be told about themselves.

The most important thing was to tell an uplifting story. In the mainstream media, queer stories tend to be disproportionately tragic. This reflects how the mainstream views the lives of LGBTQ+ people—as full of trauma, pain, and tragedy. But queer people have always lived and thrived in every period of history. These days, as more and more queer people are writing their own stories, this is changing.

Frontlist: Lastly, what do you hope readers, especially LGBTQ+ youth, will take away from your book, and do you have any messages for them during Pride Month?

Payal: I hope that readers will be inspired by Sami's determination to be herself, even in the face of bullying. As for Pride month, I want to tell young queers this: Don't be fooled with tokenistic gestures like 'Pride month.' It's just 30 days when big businesses, media houses, educational institutions, etc., put a rainbow sticker on everything and pretend they are inclusive. Instead, look at what happens when Pride month is over.

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