Published: 17th July 2018
This queer Tamil student's comic Puu is smashing gender and religion stereotypes. Check it out!
Nabi's 'Puu' is a web-comic series about sexuality, gender, race, language, religion and its collective politics. But above all, 'Puu' is a story of unabashed love
Identity is a choice. Repeat that after me - identity is a choice.
In the wonderful nooks of the not-so-dark web, I bumped across the works of Nabi — whose Twitter handle identifies him as Nabigal-Nayagam Haider Ali. His webcomic series Puu ('flower' in Tamil, for the uninitiated), is a magical mix of intersections. Two Muslim men, who are Tamil, homosexual, and whose lives run parallel to the lives of an inter-faith lesbian couple and a Dalit transwoman, whose admirer is an unwitting heterosexual Muslim man.
You want to discuss representation? Here is yours!
Nabi's works are a delicate ensemble of bold messages, at a time and age, where being queer and being Muslim, comes with consequences, if not with its rewards. What with the current political atmospheres of the world and the nation, speaking to Nabi was a necessity, more than just mere curiosity. So, as an obvious succession to what happens when the two emotions get together, we got talking! But in this one case I am happy to say, curiosity killed the cat on an extremely satisfied note.
Nabigal-Nayagam Haider Ali - Not too many people get the context behind your name. Could you tell us more about your name and your twitter identity?
Nabigal-Nayagam is the name of the Prophet Muhammad S A W in Tamil; it was a name I fixated on since when I had heard it once in a TV serial as a child. It was important to me later on as I was picking my new name - after abandoning the Hindu feminine one my parents had given me - as a Muslim transgender man/Thirunambi from the Tamil community, to have a name that was both Tamil and Muslim. "Haider" and "Ali" are both names of Imam Ali A S, who is a very important figure in Shi'a Islam, the sect that I follow. My twitter identity is really no different from how I am in real life, except for when I'm back home during holidays with my parents. So even if you asked for Nabigal-Nayagam Haider Ali in the real world, he's the exact same as he is online - but maybe a little less talkative; I'm very, very quiet in person, oddly.
As for my journey with religion, I spent a good chunk of my life as a Hindu, but when I turned 15 I secretly started gravitating towards Islam. Shi'a Islam in specific came to me as I was slowly getting more and more into leftist politics, as revolution and opposing tyrannical, power-hungry rulers is at the center of Shi'ism. Another important part is that there are Shi'a scholars who give space and acceptance for transgender peoples - especially Ayatollah Khomeini and his fatwa in support of transwoman Maryam Khatoon Molkara.
Who are you, and what do you currently do? And of course, what has been your experience growing up as a Tamilian, and an individual who took the step to convert to Islam?
I'm a Tamil transgender man/Thirunambi, born in TN, now in the US, though I don't consider myself American. Currently I'm studying animation, but I know I'll probably end up in comics or illustration in terms of work after I graduate; I don't have a problem with that at all though, since it's already what I do now. On the side, I do a lot of freelance illustration and comics work, and I'm trying to get a few things out there outside of the internet. Being Tamilian is something I'm very happy and proud of; Tamil has the potential to unite every Tamilian regardless of caste, religion, creed, gender, sexuality etc., and there is no other linguistic identity that I have seen that has had the revolutionary, political, progressive force that Tamil has. In that way, it extends beyond a mere linguistic tradition. For me, holding onto the Tamil language has been of an utmost importance; I taught myself to read the script when I was 8 years old and studying 3rd grade here in the states.
When I converted to Islam, I had to keep it a secret; the only exception was when my dad found me praying namaz once and my mom beat me horribly, but I somehow managed to convince them that I was merely curious and wouldn't repeat it again. It's tough living a double life, especially since I have to pray five times a day and I wear niqab outside of my parents' house. It's even worse that Americans are also very intolerant when it comes to Islam, especially towards a very visible Muslim; I've had people yell at me to get off of the bus and people scream at me while driving by, as well as giving me death threats online. On the other hand, I experience a lot of hatred and intolerance from Muslims who cannot swallow that I'm transgender, and I've had whole friendships destroyed because of that. Everything kind of sucks, but I am sure that things will be better in the future.
What got you working on Puu? Where did you get the courage to work on a web-comic series like this?
Puu was originally something for me and my circle of friends, who are mainly LGBTQ folks of colour here in the US. I wanted something lighthearted and funny at the start and I didn't have huge plans for it. But as it started to pick up a lot of traction, I found myself working on it much more seriously. A lot of LGBT South Asians also got back to me saying that my work has inspired them to embrace their identities a little more freely. At that point, Puu stopped being a casual, cute comic for me, and I began to put in a lot of weight into what I was creating. Another part of Puu is a lot more simple. I really enjoy my characters, Saboor and Jameel, and I really just wanted them to kiss! And now they do, and they're adorable! It's a little childish, but I love seeing them in love; I'm a sucker for romance.
At first go, it seems like Puu works on leaving a visual mark on its readers - the text adds to the art, but the art in itself is powerful enough to stand strong on its own. What goes into the stark ideation of your work in Puu, and what impact are you hoping it has been creating?
The challenge with Puu is that each chapter is only four pages long, and the panels and text have to be large enough to glean from a mobile screen. As a result, I had to devise a style that would make the message I was communicated short and sweet. So, because of that, the art has to be clear and strong enough to immediately show what's going on, since I can't be too wordy. In a way that has enabled me to exemplify much more powerful messages, since we learn easier from visual cues than from text.
The text is a juxtaposition of English and Tamil. How do you think the rusticty of a native tongue adds value to Puu?
Since the setting is Tamil Nadu and the characters are very much Tamil, it didn't feel right to keep everything only in English. Initially, I had thought about writing Puu only in Tamil, but since I wanted it to reach out to diaspora LGBT Tamilians, some of whom may not be able to read Tamil, I had to cut back on this idea.
Though Puu revolves mainly around your two protagonists and their sexuality, you haven't exactly shied away from gender, women, abuse and mental health - not to mention, most poignantly all of its relation to religion. For a society which is still grappling to understand equality within a binary system, what reactions have you received?
For a lot of people, initially this was a little confusing. When we think of representation, we may have a token character who represents one group we want to showcase. Unfortunately, in the real world, everything collides and overlaps, and so I have characters who are both religious and queer at once, and these characters experience abuse, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of bias as a result of their very complex identities - which is what happens to people just like them in the real world. Thankfully, as the story progressed, the confusion cleared and I heard lots of positive comments from LGBTQ people of faith, whom this story is written for, but unfortunately I've also been met with backlash from fundamentalists and evangelicals.
For some, they feel it's okay that I show the struggles that come with being Muslim, but they don't agree that I should show LGBTQ characters and their struggles. For others, both of these things are bad, and they say that I'm either "forcing diversity" or I'm trying to ruin Indian culture with things like Islam and "the gays". For others it's even more nuanced; within the Shi'a community, for example, some are okay with me talking about transgender rights (since as I'd mentioned earlier, some very prominent scholars are in support) but not about LGBTQ rights as a whole since it includes gay, lesbian, and bi people.
Race, Religion, Sexuality and Romance - the four major motifs of your work. What is the politics behind getting these together and making queer people of colour visible in the comic world?
I think the comic world should strive to be much more inclusive; we see lots of the same kinds of characters from the same kind of demographics over and over and over, and as a result, we end up alienating important parts of reality. Here in the US for example, there are mainly straight white characters, and queer people of colour are very, very rare. I grew up with little to no representation in the comics that I read. When we read comics, we read them to escape into a world we can inhabit and lose ourselves in for a while, but when that world seems to have no space for us, how can we do that? That's why Puu is centred around queer people of colour who may have not been able to see themselves in other comic worlds.
At a time in India where there seems to be a growing divide between Hinduism and Islam, what does it mean to be a Muslim and represent a queer Muslim community - that too from the southern part of India, which dabbles in its own political battles with the Centre?
Growing up, I was largely stifled from expressing my faith. My parents are Hindus and extremely Islamophobic, and I've largely had to keep myself quiet and submissive in many Hindu settings, including when I'm back home in TN, for fear that I may be punished with violence. At the same time, I've had to grow up facing a great deal of homophobia/transphobia, and so I've had to keep my transidentity as a secret as well. My work largely serves as a way for me to reach out to other queer Muslims like me and show them that they're not alone in their battles against homophobia/transphobia and Islamophobia in the communities they inhabit.
In regards to TN's battles with the Centre, that is a very important thing to mention because even the little queer and Muslim representation that is sometimes thrown as scraps is from the north, but that is not what I identify with because culturally and linguistically I am nothing like them. Tamil identity has gone through many attempts to be stifled and is often represented as monolithic, backwards, and simple; as a result, I wanted to combat this erasure of Tamilness in the scheme of South Asian representation as a whole in my work, which is why Tamil plays a big part in whatever I do.
Through some of your comics, I understand that Puu probably didn't start off as something that you did with the full knowledge or acceptance of your family - has that changed now?
It has changed just a little; nobody in my family knows about Puu still, just like before - except for my sister. After a long process of coming out to her gradually about myself, she finally came to accept me wholeheartedly last December. So, now I tell her not only about Puu but about all the other things I cannot freely share with the rest of my family, and she's very supportive of me and what I do.
Follow his work here: https://mobile.twitter.com/ab_varaham?lang=en
Images by: Nabigal-Nayagam Haider Ali