Review: One of Them

Reviewed by Demi Cox

Author: Shaneel Lal. Reviewer: Demi Cox.‘For me, there are not enough words to describe just how stunning One of Them really is.’July 2023 release
Bookseller Demi Cox, who identifies as non-binary, reflects on what the release of One of Them by 2023’s Young New Zealander of the Year Shaneel Lal means to them – and the buzz it’s created in the queer community.

Years ago, when I was young and not yet a keen reader, I would watch and listen to my peers discussing the books they’d read and how these avid readers would almost ‘light up’ with joy when discussing their latest finds. 

With age, and discovery, curiosity and pushing against the status quo, I became a reader and learnt how to experience those same sensations. When I heard about the imminent release of Shaneel Lal’s autobiography One of Them – a fearless and unflinching title - at work one morning, I nearly squealed with excitement. There was something almost childlike in my excitement. It’s a feeling, too, of being a part of something. It’s the feeling I get with every queer book and it’s beautiful – one I wish every single person, especially every single queer person, could experience.

There has been a noticeable buzz upon the release of One of Them. When I write that, I mean the reaction from people visiting the bookstore – a current of excitement, an urgency to get their hands on a copy.

I have felt a bit protective over Shaneel’s book. Do these people come with to read the book, to celebrate and support Shaneel? Or are they here to cause harm? What are their intentions? I feel a sense of responsibility as a bookseller to ensure there is space for One of Them to exist on the shelves.

If Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life or Beyond Order can occupy space, Shaneel’s book is going to stay firmly put unless sold (and it will).  My guard drops when I realise these folk really want to read One of Them, that many are most likely ‘one of us’ – people from the queer community wanting to positively engage with Shaneel Lal and show their support. Queer people really do recognise one another from afar but in the bookstore, it is extremely easy, trust me.

Though reflecting on what I’ve just written, I realise knowing oneself as queer is not something that happens upon waking up, the same way Shaneel said, “When I woke up this morning, I didn’t look in the mirror and say, ‘Oops, I’m gay, better fix that…’” during their speech at Youth Parliament 2019. That was a key moment that ignited the movement to ban conversion therapy from being practiced in Aotearoa. Shaneel spearheaded this movement and, along with other activists, tirelessly fought for years to outlaw and pass into law this ban.  They carried on even amidst the challenges a pandemic came with, details of which are articulate and meticulous within their book.

No, we don’t just wake up and say, ‘I’m queer!’ ‘I’m trans!’ ‘I’m bi!’ ‘I’m non-binary!’ or ‘I’m gay!’ As One of Them illustrates, arriving at such statements and confidence can be long, painful, brutal and tortuous – a threat to one’s life. As Shaneel added during their 2019 speech, “…Like any rational person, I know my sexuality was not a choice.” In reality, we aren’t even aware these terms of self-identification exist and if we are, they’re often deep- set in negative connotations that we can spend a lifetime unraveling and re-defining.

Also, in Shaneel’s experience, colonial violence has contributed to an erasure of indigenous queer identities such as vakasalewalewa (people from Fiji, who were born assigned male at birth but who have a feminine gender expression) and hijra (the term used in South Asia for a person registered male at birth but who identifies as female or non-binary).  In Shaneel’s words, these identities are “rendered invisible by the + that follows the acronym of colonial queer identities.”

There is a tremendous amount of responsibility in writing about a book like One of Them, especially because it’s an account of Shaneel’s life and of their own words – something sacred, almost. I fear that uncovering one gem eclipses all the others that glisten in this beautiful and powerful memoir. Then again, it feels strange to say their book is good or beautiful because what is revealed throughout is set to break your heart. Good feels ‘entertaining’ in the context of Shaneel’s book. The challenge is to find a way to articulate, at a personal and individual level, just how transformative reading One of Them has been, which I think can be likened to a comment that Soula Emmanuel, a trans Greek-Irish author, said of her debut novel Wild Geese.

She describes the experience as being on the tip of the narrator’s eyelash. This expression perfectly captures what it is like to read Shaneel’s book because unlike the images and words that people use to describe Shaneel in the media and online – words and images that either place them on a pedestal or degrade them (a loose reference to Shaneel’s experience of online dating) - we read One of Them as if we were Shaneel and as if we were at the tip of their eyelash.  Approaching One of Them in this way, having that experience, makes for a deeply emotional read that will leave you in tears.

I start with the cover of One of Them. The photograph of Shaneel is stunning. They wear a sheer deep magenta blouse (from Zambesi) that delicately rests upon their skin, as well as pink flared trousers with a stripe of the same magenta down the side. Shaneel sits on the ground, loosely cross-legged with their arms over their knees, each hand enclosed over the opposite wrist. Their chest is open but ever so slightly closed. They look out towards you, almost side on, dark locks parted to one side. The image says, “this is who I am, one of them, me – do you see me hesitate? Look at me, in the eye.” It is an image that speaks knowing me, knowing you to kindred spirits but is bound to ruffle some bigoted feathers. There is something childlike and carefree in the way Shaneel sits, contemplative too. They simply exist – assured and knowing in their gaze and posture. After reading their memoir you will understand the fight it took to get to this place.

We know Shaneel for making history and as an activist for queer people. We know that they are the first transgender person to be awarded Young New Zealander of the Year 2023 for their commitment to getting conversion therapy banned in Aotearoa. This was about five years in the making since they set up Conversion Therapy Action Group - a name which almost was going to be Action Conversion Therapy (ACT) but was reconsidered. It’s a bit of humour and, despite the tough stuff and heartbreaking experiences they’re writing about, Shaneel never fails to include it in their writing.  

While their memoir provides an incredibly detailed account of the parliamentary processes behind this ban, details of which may change the way you think about politics, did we know Shaneel is a survivor of conversion therapy? Or that it was still being practiced here? My guess is not and it is at the intersection of these two questions that really shift the way I engaged with this book.

When Shaneel visited Unity Books to sign their books, they spoke of the overwhelming response from readers of One of Them. They expressed being surprised at which parts of their memoir struck a chord with people, details of which may have appeared somewhat minuscule. While reflecting on this exchange with Shaneel, I cannot help but think of my own minuscule obsession since reading their book, which was the fact that very little notice, if any at all, was given at the first reading of the bill to ban conversion therapy.

They write that it is common to let the public know ahead of time when a bill is to be read and that the Parliament’s public gallery overflowed with supporters for the third reading of the bill to allow same-sex marriage. Lack of notice meant there was little time for those advocating a ban on conversion therapy to arrive at Parliament and show their support for the bill.

While reading this information I was mad - and still am - especially because Shaneel reveals how painstakingly difficult it was to get the bill in motion. Why was the bill not afforded the same opportunities? Why was Shaneel also removed from any input? I saw something crooked, almost something dodgy, here. It’s one of many examples that appear throughout the book. These were also the questions at which point the penny dropped – in the absence of testimonial lived experience that could have supported and accelerated the process to ban conversion therapy, we finally have ‘tip of the eyelash’ testimony from Shaneel, from ‘one of them’, a survivor of a horrendous practice Aotearoa weighed in on; debated, supported, justified or denied.

Throughout Shaneel’s memoir, I could not help but feel tremendous anger that people could justify such a practice in the form of ‘counsel,’ ‘guidance,’ or ‘support’ for people whose sexuality or gender expression is different than the status quo – a practice that has only proven to increase the likelihood of self-harm and suicide. You can only imagine how it would have felt to be Shaneel during this campaign, or other unknown survivors of conversion therapy, bearing witness to this debate.

If readers are to take a cue from the ‘tip of the eyelash’ testimony, Shaneel’s is one of parallel worlds: being Fijian and growing up in Fiji as well as being an immigrant of colour living in Aotearoa. What also connects these two worlds is their queer identity, which their memoir powerfully re-conceptualizes in the face of persistent erasure and denial. We’re first introduced to ‘Chini,’ which their Ma yells out to them while chasing them with a hot spoon in her hand. The voice is active and we are running about their village in Fiji. ‘Chini’ means sugar and we learn Shaneel is notorious for drinking lots of it with water. This world of growing up in Fiji is at first idyllic and collective, harmonious even, where everyone knows everyone, where everyone is family regardless of blood. Chini is cheeky and a little chatterbox - something that hasn’t changed much, I suspect. Life feels sweet in this world – they play with their sister and family friends, sew clothes for dolls made from scrap material and even dress in beautiful sarees.

They choose the colours orange and red because they “speak of hibiscus flowers.” You see as the head of the doll pushes through the clothing they’ve made and imagine their concentrated face as they hold their doll in their small hands. Everything appears sweet. What could go wrong, you ask? To this question, Chini doesn’t know the answer but their safe haven comes crumbling down during recess at school when their friend Neha brings orange nail polish and together they paint their nails:

‘I am wearing Crocs and I think my toenails look cool, but my class teacher is aghast. She is so angry. She screams that boys are not supposed to pain their nails. Painting nails is only for girls.’

The nail polish incident is perhaps the very first moment that signals to others that Chini (Shaneel) is different, something which they also felt but now becomes other and dangerous for them to live, a point at which they are so young to even articulate on their own terms what that difference may be.  It is not safe or welcomed is the only signal they have. From here on, Shaneel is told they need to grow up, to behave like a boy, to do boy things – orders that contribute to this line of thinking, that being queer is something you grow out of but which we know cannot be changed.

I felt their shame as they try and cover their painted toenails while being forced to stand all day during class, one foot over the other as their peers hurl insults, which their teacher also encourages. This incident moves onto isolation from friends who are girls and rapidly progresses onto isolation from everyone – to prevent feminization and ‘infecting’ their peers who are boys – and ultimately ends with physical violence, such as whipping, being bashed with a Bible as well as a metal pole.  These are just some of the horrific attacks they experience at the hands of people they thought they could trust – their elders and teachers – once it becomes clear who they are is not changing. It’s violence that could have caused their death. Shaneel’s only contact and companion becomes a kitten, the only being that doesn’t judge them.

While learning of Shaneel’s experience of conversion therapy in Fiji, which I can only imagine would have been painful to revisit while writing their memoir, there is a real danger in dismissing their experience as something that happens ‘over there,’ the same way people will tell queer folk living in Aotearoa that we are lucky to not be stoned to death as they are in the Middle East, for example. This line of thinking is reductive, as Shaneel makes clear, and even racist. It also informed a great deal of pushback against banning conversion therapy here, none of which changed the fact it was still being practiced, something many were unaware of and which Shaneel first learns when a church leader offers to ‘pray their gay away’ during their time as a volunteer at South Auckland’s Middlemore Hospital.

Throughout their memoir, Shaneel provides clear cultural context to their upbringing in Fiji as a collectivist society, though it is during their move to New Zealand that they sadly learn the painful colonial roots of queer, homo and transphobia as they reconcile the anger they feel towards the people who caused them such horrific harm in the guise of love and care. Shaneel becomes increasingly aware that Aotearoa is not the safe haven everyone makes it out to be – for queer people, people of colour and queer people for colour. They speak a whole lot of truth we ought to reflect upon.

But One of Them is not without happiness or joy. We get to witness Shaneel discover themselves, learn, grow and flourish which, compared to their younger self and experience, would have appeared unimaginable. They quite literally become the person they never thought they would see. Something as simple as grocery shopping with a date feels out of this world and they reflect upon what their younger self would have thought had they seen these two people simply existing and picking out groceries.

Shaneel dances to Never Knew Love Like This by Stephanie Mills and It’s Raining Men - an absolute banger. Though it is not just that they dance, they dance as themselves and feel every bit of joy in doing so. They share relatable online dating experiences, such as downloading and aimlessly swiping on Tinder, as well as going on dates, feeling butterflies and madly crushing. Shaneel’s heart beats in their head when they met Théo, with whom, ‘every touch is a revolutionary act of queer healing.’ They feel better, prouder and happier in this person’s presence. Does not everyone have a right to feel this way?

Though with each positive sensation and feeling of belonging, there is tremendous grief and guilt. That so much was lost to the violence of conversion therapy, that others are still victims to it. How dare I feel happy, they express, when they know the practice still exists in parts of the world over and in the Pacific, to their people, to those in Fiji too. The most poignant epiphany in their memoir is the grief that binds their parallel worlds: ‘Our existence didn’t begin at colonization, so why does our identity?’ Shaneel beautifully and powerfully honours their indigenous queer ancestors, whose presence can be felt throughout their memoir. They are, after all, one of them.

For me, there are not enough words to describe just how stunning One of Them really is. But the strangest feeling is that we witness Shaneel simply as a person, a human being, something that queer people and queer people of colour are tirelessly fighting to prove. They are, they are, they are, I think, when they say, “I am deeply and relentlessly queer.” One of Them is a fierce account of defiance and will be cherished among all those whose lives they’ve fought to protect, including Chini, who I imagine would be looking on in wonder.

Reviewed by Demi Cox

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