To be in between the lines, subtly, and yet markedly so, is a condition a lot of us is starting to identify as in the 21st century, but something still experienced by a minority, and of a particular sort. As an Indian-American queer, I identify as one of these in-betweeners. Having lived a life of much travel, and observation, I think a lot of us who are born between cultures, no matter how much we desire to identify with one group or another, truly belong to a social and cultural group of our own, and while it is a constant struggle to try to fit into the national parameters people of previous generations have designed for us, it is much more natural, and easier, to simply accept this as a fact of existence, and create art from that perspective. I have read many pieces of art of the bicultural narrative; I think Lord of the Senses, a short story collection by Gujurati-Norwegian Vikram Kolmannskog, is one of the most peculiar ones.
Another trend of the 21st century is the style of autofiction, which is to represent experiences which appear very autobiographical as pieces of fiction. Writing from this genre, exemplified by the fictions of Karl Ove Knausgaard or Ben Lerner, constantly make the reader wonder whether or not the stories taking place are in fact actualities from the writer’s life, no matter how factually fiction they in fact are. I can firmly say that Kolmannskog’s work tests these lines. Almost all of the stories in Kolmannskog’s work are in first person, and regardless of whether the narrator is on a train to Geneva, or in a sauna in Delhi, one gets the sense that these are experiences that Kolmannskog very much went through himself. Some of the stories are more powerful in this regard than others. “Growing Up Queer” is a painfully truthful story which recounts the life of an unnamed first person narrator growing up as half Indian and half Norwegian in Norway (This is the only story I can safely assume is autobiographical, because I am aware of Kolmannskog’s background, and because it feels too truthful to be fiction of any sort). Having been a person who grew up as Kannadiga in suburban Atlanta, I felt like I not only relived some of my own experiences of being Western and yet outside of the West, I also felt like I lived a lifetime with Vikram. This is one of the most potent powers of writing; to make the writer, and reader, through the imprint of a page, feel as if they were one.
A lot of the other stories aren’t as successful. Another one of the powers of fiction is to imbue the ordinary with the extraordinary, and it often feels like Kolmannskog paints a picture of life, but doesn’t give it any of the crescendos and flourishes which mark good fiction. “Nanima and Roger Toilet” tries to tell the story of a bond between a foreigner and his lover’s grandmother, but the Nanima is so blandly developed that one feels nothing for her when she inevitably passes on. “Ravan Leela” plays with the main character’s privilege and his lover’s caste in an extremely odd way; perhaps it is meant to show the innate difficulties of inter-caste dating, but it also seems like the narrator is simply falling into the traps of it rather than subverting it. Kolmannskog in some stories tries to experiment, but the writing remains flat. In stories like “Engagement,” a play in short story form where an engagement that wasn’t meant to be is blessed by a sudden appearance by Lord Krishna and immediately ends with a gay marriage, Kolmannskog tries to play with Kolmannskog seems to almost want to give every one of these stories a fairy tale like ending. Certainly, good endings are rare in fiction involving gay characters, but without any stakes in the narrative or proper character development, it comes off as authorial manipulation.
Sometimes, when Kolmannskog experiments, he succeeds a little bit more. “Tower of Silence” does a good job in bringing up the melancholy of wandering around a suburb of Bombay trying to find a hook-up on Grindr, but to no avail. I can truly relate to the emotions of the narrator, and have found myself often times after a day trying to find someone to love me from the Internet feeling equally as empty. “TGV to Geneva” has a Hemingway-like paucity to it, and in such a short story, Kolmannskog made me wonder a lot about the relationship between the narrator, the man who he lightly flirts with, and the woman next to him. And, finally, “Lord of the Senses” is an extremely tightly written and sensual story, summoning once more the allure of Krishna as a very Mirabai-esque ode to beauty and love.
One can remark that Kolmannskog writes about sex and sexuality in a way that very few other writers have, and is forward about the things he is feeling and doing. He has no guilt or shame in talking about barebacking, or sizing up men; he writes about it with such matter-of-factness that one sees it akin to the thoughts we have about brushing our teeth or cleaning our closet. I think this banality of sexuality is very important in the normalization of sex in our society, and I appreciate the honesty that Kolmannskog has taken in writing this collection. I do consider this the work of a developing writer, but if Kolmannskog can learn to take his reflections on sex and sensuality to much more poetic heights, and if he can learn to take these banal moments and imbibe them with a much stronger sense of narrative, I think he can carve a space in literature of his very own.