The last Gaysi zine I reviewed was All that We Want, a gorgeous, warm celebration of queer desire. Their newest zine, Normal, is a complete departure from that exploration of queer joy, and instead dives into all that keeps us from such experiences. As Niyati Joshi makes known in their introduction, queer and trans people are all too familiar with the concept of “normal” — it’s everything we are not, the societal standards that we cannot help but transgress, even in the face of dire consequences. Just as All that We Want dove fully into the world of queer desire, Normal pulls no punches, and gives us eighteen pieces that creatively delve into the horrors pressed upon the “abnormal,” the queer and trans people living on the margins.
Niyati Joshi (Editor)
Normal requires – and very carefully provides – several trigger warnings. It contains stories of violence, death, and loss that can be difficult to read. I was grateful the trigger warnings were baked into the construction of the zine; they are present both in the table of contents and before each piece, so readers don’t have to flip back and forth to know what’s coming. I want to reiterate that I believe this is a very important and well-crafted issue in Gaysi’s zine series, but I still struggled with it because it requires its readers to delve into the real horrors that queer and trans people experience. You may need to go slowly or skip parts of this zine, or even this review. That’s OK. I had to take my time writing about it, and I don’t want to be hard on myself because of that. Don’t be hard on yourself, either. Let me tell you why Normal is worth reading, and then let yourself breathe, pace yourself, and dive in.
The first prose piece in the zine, “Wrist Action” by Joshua Muyiwa, is a slow burn, psychological horror piece about a taxi driver. It’s frightening to be alone in a car with a stranger, and the experience can be dangerous for the driver or the passenger. Muyiwa focuses on the taxi driver’s frustrations with picky or sketchy customers, the tedium of the job, and the strange, clipped conversations people have during a car ride. Where the danger really lies is left unclear until the end, and Muyiwa sets up a great precedent for the rest of the pieces in Normal. For queer and trans folks, horror can come from unexpected places, even from within ourselves – and that feeling, that anything can happen and that there’s nowhere to run, hide and be safe – makes “Wrist Action” a perfectly paced, frightening tale just right for kicking off the zine.
“Andhkara” by Alafiya Hasan is the first comic, and contains some fun, almost classic-feeling horror imagery – creatures coming out of the dark with empty eye sockets and sharp teeth, colored in shades of red and brown that suggest they’re really part of the darkness. However, Hasan questions the idea that such familiar creatures are the true source of terror. The protagonist of “Andhkara” protagonist seems quite familiar with fear, and with the knowledge that they are trapped even when there are seemingly no monsters in sight. It’s a short comic but there’s a lot of wonder and emotion packed into a few panels, and the colors and kinetic lettering draw the reader in.
I like horror in general and I’ve seen some pretty intense horror films, so up until this point in the zine I felt pretty all right. However, “Cumathipura” by Sneh Sapru stopped me in my tracks – perhaps especially because it follows an innocuous sex toy ad that breaks the mood.
“Cumathipura” is a hard story, but a poignant one that reminded me of the Medusa myth, a story in which rape is glossed over and the victim swiftly becomes a villain. In this story, a young man receives money from his boss to take to a well-known sex worker. What he experiences is not what he expects – but provides a difficult lesson in empathy and respect that all newly sexually active men need.
In a few short pages, Sapru gives us something that could be read as a vengeance fantasy, but felt to me more like a brutal lesson. It packs a visceral punch, but a precise one – one that reminded me of John, Dear by Laura Lannes in its effectiveness.
“Cumathipura” is the most direct, visceral and intense piece in the zine. If it makes you wonder if you should stop, I urge you to continue. There is so much left in Normal that will be relatable and cathartic in a way that only horror can provide, including one of my favorites – “The Legend of Rani Grace” by Rashmi Ruth Devadasan, with gorgeous illustrations by Harmeet Rahal.
Rani Grace, like her mother, becomes a gravedigger. On her sixteenth birthday she’s gifted her own wooden spade, and in her excitement upon receiving it she falls into the lair of Boochandi – a bogeyman. In his lair, Rani Grace makes a bargain she feels will never come to pass, nor that she’ll ever regret – she gives up her first true love.
One of the particularly cruel, gut-punching aspects of Rani Grace that young queer people don’t trust our feelings, especially feelings of attraction and love. We don’t necessarily expect that love will happen for us, or even that it can, because how could it when we seem to be feeling and loving in ways that the world tells shouldn’t even happen? Why should Rani hesitate to give up something she doesn’t believe she’ll ever have? That, for me, was the deepest source of horror in this story – although the Boochandi is quite terrifying.
Normal keeps up the pace with horrifyingly relatable stories – like “Glitch,” a black and white comic drawn by Noel Jyothis and written by Pratheek Thomas, which imagines how modern surveillance could be taken to its extremes to police queer people at the most intimate, internal level. Jyothis’ art is perfectly unassuming; the text bubbles placed over social media logos or chat boxes that pop up on phones and online forms are so familiar that they don’t feel like sources of horror until the end. Like “Andhkara,” the pacing is perfect.
“For Your Eyes Only” by Annirudha Mahale follows a closeted middle-aged man as he routinely steps away from his seemingly normal heterosexual life to find sexual satisfaction. There is a question buried in this story that is unfortunately familiar – is the thought of disrupting one’s everyday life with queerness, of disrupting the status quo, as horrifying as the threat of violence? Violence is, of course, real and awful, but the final person the protagonist faces isn’t a cop, it’s his wife. How do we face the horror of abandonment, of losing family and all those you know and rely on?
Siddhi Surte’s stunningly colored comic “Monster” suggests one possibility – we internalize all the horrible things we’re told we are just for being queer or trans, and we see ourselves as monsters. Layers of purple and red emerge from televisions, posters and graffiti to form the monster from the comic’s title, and while the creature is meant to be quite horrifying, it bears an ambiguous smile. Maybe this is me, at the end of the zine, hoping for a bit of, well, hope – but taking the slurs and hatred and turning it all on its head is a way queer people survive.
Survive is, of course, what the editors of Normal want us to do – and to experience what Niyati Joshi and Priya Dali describe as horror which is distinctly Desi. Normal allows its readers to accomplish both. We can stare all-too-familiar terrors in the face, recognize them and get through. We can also appreciate some really spectacularly crafted pieces of art that reflect us in, yes, difficult ways, but worthwhile ones.
Indian readers can purchase Normal and Gaysi’s other incredible zines on instamojo, and international readers can email <firstname.lastname@example.org> with the number of desired copies in the subject line. Also, wish them a Happy Belated 11th birthday!