Illegibly Queer: On ‘All This Could Be Different’

October 17, 2022 | 4 books mentioned 5 min read

Early in Sarah Thankam Mathews’s debut novel, All This Could Be Different, our narrator, Sneha, describes two friends who take to each other “like Parle-G and chaiya.” The analogy made me laugh, and I snapped a photo of it to send to my sister. Like most Indian kids, we grew up dunking Parle-G biscuits into hot milk tea. As Jaya Saxena writes, “Parle-G is the taste of childhood for anyone who grew up in an Indian household.” But for people who didn’t, the reference likely won’t make much sense.

Novels, in the Western cultural imaginary, are about access. They purportedly double as portals into other worlds, other bodies. Throughout my Creative Writing major in college, I had the advice to “be authentic but relatable” hammered into me—to be exotic enough to titillate the imagined white audience, but not foreign enough to alienate them. In All This Could Be Different, Mathews explodes this rule: She denies access.

All This Could Be Different tracks Sneha, an Indian immigrant and recent college graduate, as she tries to make a life within (and perhaps beyond) the constraints of late-stage capitalism. Malayalam, Sneha’s first language, saturates the book. She never identifies it by name, instead calling it “our language.” Characters “conjjellify”; an aunty snidely dubs Sneha a “madameh”; Sneha’s mother asks her daughter “keto?” and does not mean the diet. Significant chunks of the novel are illegible to people who do not speak Malayalam—and these are not phrases Google Translate can decipher.

Illegibility is a throughline in All This Could Be Different. Shortly after she moves to Milwaukee for her first job, Sneha reads an article “about how, in certain cultures, there are no separate words for the color green and the color blue, and if you showed someone a grass-hued paint swatch next to one the color of the summer sky, they would say these were the same. Different shades of one thing.” For the rest of the book, blue and green collapse into each other. When Sneha gets a text from an Android-using friend, a “green (?) bubble” appears on her phone. Her girlfriend dyes her hair “a green shot through with blue, which is to say, maybe, with itself.” When she has to fill out paperwork about her employment status, she thinks, “If you had a boss but were paid nothing, were you currently employed or not? Blue? Green?”

Mathews’s embrace of the illegible extends to our narrator’s very identity. Sneha, a queer woman, refuses the cultural mandate to render her queerness visible under Western taxonomies of sexuality and gender. She rejects the expected coming-out narrative; in fact, when looking back on another character’s coming-out experience, she muses, “I remembered thinking how unnecessary it seemed, how American, to feel the need to burden your parents with that kind of information.” When Sneha chooses to disclose her queerness, she does so quietly—dropping in “she” pronouns when she discusses a date with her college friend, telling her mother, “Ma… I want you to know who I am.”

Similarly, Sneha’s experience of sexuality and gender does not lend itself to easy categorization. She calls herself a “raging dyke,” then kisses her male friend and thinks that the experience “seemed exciting.” She can understand binary trans identities, but can’t wrap her mind around why a person might use they/them pronouns, dubbing it “elitist leftist American nonsense.” Her outrage belies a fraught personal relationship with gender: “I spent all my teen years wishing I could slice my breasts off, have a flat and smooth body,” she rants. “I cut up my bras with nail scissors. Got thrashed for it. Does that entitle me to a they? Can I opt out of gender now?” Sneha’s queerness is unwieldy. What do we do with her? Which letter of the LGBTQ acronym do we assign her?

The visibility imperative—to “come out,” to be open and legible as a queer person, to pick a letter: L, G, B, or T—elides the many forms of queerness that exist beyond those articulated in the Western gay rights movement: precolonial genealogies of sexual and gender fluidity, not cognizable under modern signposts of sexuality; queer embodiment that does not neatly slot into one of the letters of the acronym; queer people who do not, for reasons ranging from safety to a lack of identification, perform queer visibility.

Still, the visibility imperative persists—and not just in the abstract. Nonbinary people are often denied gender-affirming care on the grounds that they are not legible as trans people, not “trans enough.” Trans people who can get pregnant are erased from conversations around reproductive justice. Queer asylum seekers are instructed to conform to Western stereotypes of queerness in order to better persuade asylum adjudicators of their sexualities; women may chop their hair to appear more “butch,” while men may wear nail polish to their asylum interviews. The stakes of legibility are high, especially for the already marginalized.

marriage of a thousand lies cover queer

Possibly partly for this reason, much queer South Asian cultural production centers visibility. During the climax of Shubh Magnal Zyada Saavdhan, one of the first Bollywood films to spotlight a gay relationship, the protagonist wraps himself in a rainbow flag, climbs onto a rooftop, and declares his love for another man into a megaphone. SJ Sindu’s novel, Marriage of a Thousand Lies, follows Lakshmi (“Lucky”), a queer Sri Lankan second-generation immigrant. The book opens with Lucky married to a gay friend to appease her parents; by the last page, she has left the marriage, cut her hair short, joined a rugby team, and distanced herself from her South Asian family. She has, in other words, become a legible queer subject.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with visibility. Sindu’s book is one of my favorites. But elevating legibility as the only narrative of queerness—and, implicitly, the correct one—flattens the productive possibilities of illegibility. Illegibility can be capacious, expansive; it can make space for queerness in its fullest, most unruly forms.

cruising utopia cover queerIn Sneha, Mathews has created an illegible queer subject—a subject incapable of being categorized, whose queerness will inevitably froth over the edge of any container readers attempt to assign her. Sneha’s queerness operates on multiple levels: she dates women, invests deeply in friendships, chafes at gendered expectations, and dreams of a world structured not by capital but by community care. Her queerness is not the type represented in rainbow-spangled corporate Pride parades. It connotes not just sexuality, but a political orientation, a stubborn insistence on the possibility of a different world. As José Esteban Muñoz puts it in Cruising Utopia, queerness is fundamentally a project of imagination: “that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing.”

cover queerSneha’s messy queerness goes hand-in-hand with Mathew’s formal choice to resist translating Malayalam. Both strip All This Could Be Different of the novel form’s expected transparency. Sneha’s character is wrapped in gauzy cling-film: we can see her, but we can’t quite make out her contours. We can’t touch her. To borrow a phrase from Saidiya Hartman‘s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Sneha lays claim to her “right to opacity.” Her blurriness flouts the pervasive understanding of novels as bridges to other worlds. Readers can’t just pick up All This Could Be Different and pretend to understand Sneha, much less profess any expertise in queer Malayali diasporic culture. By refusing to translate, whether it be literal linguistic translation or the translation of Sneha’s queerness into palatable identity categories, Mathews illuminates how much we do not understand, likely will never understand. How some stories are unknowable, inaccessible—illegible.

All This Could Be Different is a Schrödinger’s cat of a novel: blue/green, prismatic, shimmering. Colors, languages, and even Sneha herself are rendered illegible. Illegibility becomes a politics unto itself: a refusal of the norm, a gesture towards alternative ways of being. Instead of understanding illegibility as obscuration, closing doors in readers’ faces, I think of it as an invitation—a suggestion to take a closer look, because things are not always as they seem. A reminder that we are neither omnipotent nor immutable.

coverIn her book Impossible DesiresGayatri Gopinath theorizes the queer South Asian diasporic woman’s subject position as “impossible”—not just invisible, but fundamentally untenable, unthinkable. So, how do you tell an impossible story? Perhaps by not telling it. By denying access, claiming opacity. By inhabiting the impossible.

is a graduate student at Stanford, working on a JD and PhD in Modern Thought and Literature. Her writing appears in Teen Vogue, Tin House, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Catapult, and elsewhere. Say hi @namrataverghese.