long read | interview
Queer Eye for The Archives –– an interview with Keval Harie
Photography by Alyssa D Rivas
Keval Harie is one of those people who––though he may barely share more than a friend-of-a-friend acquaintance with you––will run across a street in Johannesburg’s afternoon traffic to say, “Hey! I recognised you and wanted to say hello.” A fifteen-minute conversation with him to chat about his personal and professional journeys from law school to the directorship of the Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action trust (GALA) is similarly memorable.
Not only does Keval explore and expand on questions of cultural identity, sexuality and history, but he dives as deeply into his disdain for internalised misogyny as he does when it comes to sharing his obsession with cake. He is uninhibited friendliness. He is unapologetically aware of his cultural heritage. He chuckles at the memory of once being misnamed “Carol.”
We visited Keval on a sunny winter morning at the GALA offices in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, to chat about the memories that have shaped him, the job of keeping histories alive and the responsibility of collective memory.
1. You recently joined GALA. What’s your day-to-day as director of a public archive like? Would 21-year-old you have imagined this?
I was appointed as the Director of the Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action Trust (or GALA) which is the archive based at the University of Johannesburg, in January 2017. My position as Director means I’m kind of heading the ship, which is very exciting for me. A core component of my role is really to source funding for GALA so that we can continue to archive and publish queer works, and to run some of our programmes related to youth and the development of LGBTIQ people.
My 21-year-old self would not have foreseen me becoming the director of GALA.
In fact, I had pretty much just come out at the age of 21, and was still very closeted and concerned about - you know - people knowing that I was gay, and so I would often come to GALA whilst I was university. But it was very much done in cognito.
And so I don’t think I could ever have imagined myself doing this at that age. Although, the more and more I think about it, I am so happy to be in this space right now. I almost feel like, in my kind of long legal career, this is the first time I have the privilege of knowing what it’s like to want to come to work.
2. What’s your hometown? And where (not necessarily a geographical location) do you feel most at home?
So my hometown is Johannesburg, but I grew up in a small town called Azaadville, and [this was] where most of the Indian people from Roodepoort were moved to under the Group Areas Act. It’s a very very small town, very close to Kagiso. And, you know, I really appreciate the question of where I feel most at home. The word “home”, or at least the idea behind it, is immensely powerful. So, for me, this idea of “home” always is related to the kitchen. I feel most at home in the kitchen. And I think that stems from my childhood, because I spent a lot of time with my mother and grandmother in the kitchen. It is such an important and focal point for most families - I think particularly for Indian families.
Also, the ideas of warmth, safety, um, celebration, joy - all these things are so strongly linked to this idea of eating and sharing food - that for me the idea of home is very much linked to the kitchen.
3. What is your favourite memory from childhood?
One of my favourite memories of childhood is related to the kitchen...Often when I was younger - I think I might have been about five or four and my brother would have be about six. It was like this ritual where my mum would have tea-time set up for my brother and myself at around four or five in the afternoon. And we’d have to sit [at] this little table and we’d drink tea, and she’d always make a little treat - a cake or a biscuit or something - which is why, to this day, both my brother and I absolutely love sweet things. We both have a really sweet tooth, and the idea of having tea is just something that I have to do everyday.
I’m obsessed with cake. So that hasn’t changed.
4. When did you first become aware of assimilation, or your cultural identity, or of being different?
I think the first time that I was really aware of my cultural identity was when I moved to high school. I got to Grade 8 in 1996 - which was a very interesting time for South Africa. I had gone to a predominantly Indian primary school in Fordsburg, and I remember how difficult it was for us to move to what is a Model-C school, Greenside High School. I remember [that] we had to write this entrance exam, and I remember visiting Greenside for the first time, and it kind of hit me to see these rolling green fields, and this pool and this massive embankment with [these] trees - [and] I’ll never be able to forget the image of that.
And I think back to my primary school which was sandy and dusty and the idea of grass was just completely foreign.I remember, at that stage, feeling privileged that I was now being considered and how desperately I wanted to get into that school. And I think it was from that point that I realised what this idea of cultural identity was, and how mine was different. But also - I suppose for that 13-year-old - how determined I was to ensure that my background wasn’t a hindrance in terms of being in this very privileged space.
5. What is the most annoying assumption people have of you?
By far, hands down, the most annoying assumption - and I usually get it from white cis-gendered gay men - is this idea that I’m not from here. That I’m somehow, you know, an Arab, or exotic, or - I often get the questions: Are you from here? Where are you from? What is your nationality? And for me it’s patently clear that I sound South African. Or it’s the idea that: “Oh you don’t look Indian.”
Well I don’t know what to tell you. I am Indian.
And I also don’t understand what that means - like - what does it mean to “look Indian”? I kind of get it, in a sense. I get that I perhaps look a little Middle Eastern, but it’s just this assumption that I wouldn’t really know where I’m from is just really annoying.
6. What is one thing you feel you’ve lost touch with?
I feel that one thing that I have lost touch with - but I’ve kind of made my peace with it - is religion. I am not particularly religious. Also, I strongly do not identify with the current brand of Hinduism that is, I think, brought on by Modi’s India - your Hindu First! I think it’s patriarchal, misogynistic, Islamophobic. So I think for me, in terms of my own personal convictions, I separate myself from the Hindu religion. I still particularly enjoy the cultural elements of it - and so I’m very happy to celebrate certain festivals or whatever - but I think as I’ve grown personally I’ve really had to stand up against elements of this faith which I guess I grew up in.
7. Can you share an experience of loneliness?
I think my greatest experience of loneliness is one when I came out. It was so incredibly alienating. My family was in such turmoil around it and didn’t necessarily have the mechanisms to cope with it. My friends were trying to be supportive but also––I don’t think––necessarily understood the trauma of it. And I often felt like the only gay in the village. And that was incredibly––it was an incredibly lonely time. The second time is when I ended my long-term relationship with my ex-partner in Cape Town around 2013.
It felt like I almost had to start all over again, and that was incredibly difficult.
8. What’s one conversation you wish you could have with your great grandparents?
I think the one question I would like to ask them all is to find out what their experience was like, coming to this foreign country. And why - [or] how they survived, really. Because I think none of us really understand the trauma.
I know that we grapple with the effects of the trauma on the family - but we don’t necessarily understand what that was like. And so I think my question would really be: How did you survive? How did you get through it?
9. How do you think Indian South Africans are faring at transformation and integration? What do you think needs to happen? And what about cis-men?
I think, for Indian South Africans, if we really are going to engage with this question of transformation and integration, I think it needs to begin with us first accepting our sense of privilege. And in terms of understanding our sense of privilege: understanding how we - where we currently are - in terms of our socioeconomic status - what that means. And then how we interact or engage with other races, and particularly black people.
And I think that this question of accepting and acknowledging our own privilege is probably very difficult for a lot of people, but I also think that it really requires an engagement with this idea of our culture and this patriarchal system within which we’re raised.
This question of gender - ugh - you know even within our own understanding we are so gender biased because of everything that we’ve been taught and grown up with. And I can only speak for myself around this, but our upbringing is so structured around, you know: you’re the Indian male, you’re the Indian female and this is your role and this your position. And everything revolves around this idea. And in many senses that also requires an engagement around this privilege - particularly for me as a cis-gendered Indian male.
10. If you could tell your teen self one thing, what would it be?
It gets better.
[Notes] Republished from our 2017 archive