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Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla is a Los Angeles based author and widely published journalist. Late 2012 saw the republication of his iconic work, Ode to Lata, which traces the life, loves and tribulations of its protagonist Ali through his experience on the LA gay scene. Critically appraised for his stark elegance of prose and sensitive treatment of his characters, Dhalla is widely admired as a talented voice on the LGBT literary scene. You can read my review of Ode to Lata here.
Vada: Ode to Lata has just celebrated its tenth anniversary with the release of a new edition. You just need to briefly look around the internet to find praise and testimonials about how key the novel has been in shining a light on a sparsely covered area and reassuring individuals’ anxieties when coming out and experiencing gay life for the first time. What do you attribute the novel’s success and endurance to?
Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla: I’d like to think that it’s due to the authenticity and unapologetic attitude from the main character, Ali. Here’s an anti-hero who’s taken out of his comfort zone and compelled to take a journey in which he encounters obstacles, confronts his demons, and emerges more accepting of not only himself, but also others. The catharsis leads to greater self awareness, forgiveness and ultimately, freedom. A decade later, now that the novel is available on paperback and Kindle for the first time, it has garnered a whole new generation of readers and it’s incredibly gratifying to see how it continues to resonate.
It is an addictive book. I myself read it solidly within 2 days, which is quite good for me! Thinking back, I put my appreciation of Ode to Lata down to the mix of elegance with anxiety and the moments of scandal on the gay scene. Is it a faithful representation of gay life in L.A?
Thank you for appreciating it. While flavored with Los Angeles, I think Ode to Lata represents LGBT life in general, albeit a more subterranean, darker aspect; one that may create discomfort because it reinforces our worst fears about the decadence and loneliness that our lives have been stereotyped with. I wanted the novel to play out like an intimate confession and move rapidly through the past and present – memory intruding on the moment. To be an uncensored, almost regurgitative look at the situations and venues in which our emotional baggage finds expression, and the subsequent crippling if we don’t learn the lesson and move on.
Whilst I’m always hesitant to directly link what happens in a novel to the author’s own life, it seems that Ali’s situation and progress intimately mirrors your own. Covering India, Kenya and the U.S it is easy to draw parallels, but how much of yourself did you feed into creating Ali?
Only the boring parts were made up…(I’m smiling now). It would be absurd to deny that much of what’s in the novel is based on my own life, but it’s important to remember that Ode to Lata is not entirely a ‘personal’ confession. It’s also a work of imagination and Ali represents not just me, but also aspects and experiences of other people. A debut novel can be incredibly personal because it’s easier to write about what you know, but in the end, the narrative has to be embellished and sculpted to convey the larger truth. In which case the raw material is extracted from your own life, but imagination serves to finesse it.
One of the most striking aspects of the book is its musicality. Lata Mangeshkar, alluded to in the title, being perhaps the most resounding figure. What role has music played in your life? Do you share Ali’s lifelong connection with Hindi cinema and music?
Lata Mangeshkar is a kind of force in the novel, a leitmotif for Ali. Her expansive repertoire of torch songs is the music score for his ecstasy and pain. I think I speak for most Indians when I say that her music has become part of our identity as Indians, especially if music and Bollywood cinema were as prominent in your upbringing as it was in mine. My grandfather was a musician and wrote music, and my parents were always listening to popular film music, especially Lata, so she became almost inner director, a voice of the subconscious.
Your fiction is often referred to under the banner of ‘Postcolonial’ or ‘Queer’. I actually came across Ode to Lata on a module titled ‘Queering Postcolonial India’. How do you react to these margins people seem to construct around you? Do they matter? Are they something you embrace, regret or ignore?
I think such classifications are inevitable and to a certain degree, help readers find material of interest so there is some value, especially from an academic angle. My only concern is that such categorization may limit readership and overlook the scope of a novel.
Picking up on that, I remember reading a critic describing Ode to Lata as a multicultural Queer as Folk. Is that a fair representation?
I’m flattered, considering the show was such a hit. Once the author has written a novel, the work belongs to the reader and his perception of it – good or bad – is valid and cannot be avoided. The important thing for the author, is whether he has succeeded in writing the book he set out to, without any compromises and caving in to public expectation. I’ve been fortunate the reception has been so complimentary and, as you have pointed out, so interestingly varied in its identification.
Where do you feel the ‘queer’ fits into these different cultures? As someone with intimate worldly experience, do you feel attitudes and acceptance have universally progressed or are concerns about sexuality still at the forefront of your mind when you cover global issues?
The last two decades have seen significant progress for the LGBT community, especially if you live in the West. My prayer is that some day soon, tolerance of sexual orientation will be global and that even the developing countries which instituted much of their discrimination of gays based on imperial influence, will untether themselves from these outdated notions. India is a shining example of this progress. Coming out always has and still involves risk, but remaining closeted, especially if you’re financially independent, is no longer an option. It’s laziness and cowardice. My latest novel, The Two Krishnas, explores the wages of such self-denial, the devastation we wreak on those we love when we refuse to confront our sexual identity. The novel starts with the line – “Desire is incapable of hypocrisy” – and this perhaps, is the kernel of my writing; the torment and futility we put ourselves and others through when we pretend and try to lead lives of deception, or refuse to grapple with demons of the past.
Do you travel a lot? The insight, affection and awkwardness you exposed within different places, cultures and social groups is one of the highlights of Ode to Lata for me. Where do you draw the line between experience and imagination in your creative process?
Travel is one of my passions. At least once a year, I like to take a trip to a place that’s different culturally and linguistically. The melange of cultures in Ode to Lata and The Two Krishnas however, spring from the fact that Kenya is very cosmopolitan and I grew up with people that spoke different languages and dialects including Hindi, Swahili and English.
I prefer to think of experience and imagination as partners in the creative process. Experience forms the foundation of my imagination. First-hand experience is invaluable because it lends the authenticity to your creation. It’s the element that convinces readers that you actually know what you’re talking about, that there is no way what they’re reading is all made up.
Now I’m going to hit upon one of my bug bears with LGBT literature. Whilst sex is everywhere, it always strikes me that there’s a certain preoccupation with it in gay writing. I can’t remember the last LGBT book I read which didn’t obsess over saunas/cottaging/dildos etc. Ode to Lata in many ways is no different, but the elegance of your prose overcame the usually tacky use other writers make of sex, in my mind at least. How do you feel sex exists within the gay novel? Why the preoccupation?
I can’t answer for other writers, but while Ode to Lata is undeniably erotic, it really isn’t about the sex as much as it is about what we feel and think about, what we are trying to process, while we are in the throes of sex. Writing about sex is easy, it’s the internal stuff that’s hard to do. Good sex, the kind that reveals an esoteric nuance, is not just tougher to depict, but also emotionally moving and somewhat unsettling. Which is why my favorite authors include masters like Andrew Holleran (Dancer from the Dance), whom I had the opportunity to meet recently and who was gracious enough to praise my second novel, The Two Krishnas.
This might seem an odd question considering the direction this interview has taken, but ultimately, do you consider Ode to Lata as particularly queer, or just a novel about love, heart-break and sex, irrespective of gender?
When the novel first came out, it surprised me how much heterosexual women related to it. Furthermore, even before it was embraced by the LGBT media, it was praised prominently in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. This proved to me that fortunately the book had transcended its gay setting and resonated on a much deeper level with readers, irrespective of gender. Years later, I’m finding that my second novel, The Two Krishnas, is also having the same reception. So hopefully that demonstrates that a good novel isn’t gay or straight anymore than we lend such classification to music or art.
Finally, what’s next for Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla?
I’m developing my short film, Embrace, into feature length. The short is the first film on record on the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks and stars British actress, Rebecca Hazlewood, with whom I worked on my first feature, The Ode (based on Ode to Lata). The feature length film is about four intimate love stories set against a backdrop of actual terror events around the world, including London’s 7/7 bombings. Simultaneously, the idea for my next novel is already percolating and I hope to start this before the end of the year.