Throughout June, I'll be chatting with queer and trans artists of color about their work and their inspirations. Some are well known, others aren't. But they've all got something to say about how the path toward liberation starts in the creative mind.
When they met as freshman at Stanford, Alok Vaid-Menon and Janani Balasubramanian felt alone. They were two of the few radical queer South Asians on a campus known as a bastion of tech innovation, not a hotbed of political activity. But as the two began performing spoken word on their campus and then at others across the country, they've tapped into a new generation of queer activism.
Now based in Brooklyn, the duo performs as DarkMatter, a spoken word group that isn't afraid to talk about sex, shame and anti-black racism in Asian-American communities. I talked with them over the phone about their paths to poetry and what they've discovered along the way.
How did you start performing?
Alok: I grew up in a small town in Texas which was predominately white, straight and Christian. As an Indian-American, queer poetry became a way of coping with a lot of that. At the time I wouldn't have said that because I was super emo and was writing poetry because I was sad. It came without a necessarily political analysis, but one of angst. I was writing from the age of 13 and then I started to submit to literary journals, but they never really understood my writing. But then I got to school and found out about spoken word, which I'd never really known about before. When I was 18 I auditioned for a spoken word group at my school and I started performing. I've now been performing poetry for nearly five years.
Janani: I started performing poetry four years ago when Alok told me to show up to a slam audition with some poems. I didn't really know what a slam was at that point. So I showed up when I was 18 and that's when Alok and I started performing together for the first time. It was a time in our lives when we were two of the few radical, queer South Asian artists in our own context so we didn't like each other very much. [Laughs.] Last year is when we started DarkMatter and we went on our first tour and we've been performing as a duo ever since.
What's the hardest thing about your craft?
Alok: I think one of the big things that we had in the beginning was that we just didn't know a lot of South Asian queer radical performers. Even though we have role models who aren't queer South Asians, it was tough. Our diaspora has been really complicit in racism and capitalism so we were writing a lot of stuff and didn't know what we were doing. Even now, we ask ourselves, "What really is a South Asian take on white supremacy in the U.S.? What's specifically a Hindu, upper caste take on racism?" It feels like a lot of the time we're trying to build community as we go because we didn't have access to those communities beforehand. A lot of times after our shows, Indian-Americans will come up to us and say, "Whoa! I've never seen anything like this." We always think about how we can move beyond that and talk about what we can organize around. That absence of role models and precedent has been really challenging, but it's also compelled us to work harder.
Janani: Something that I'm constantly thinking about and struggling with is how to negotiate the relationship between our art work and the social movements. Not just the role of art in social movements, but literally, on a day-to-day basis, how can we practice ethical, accountable relationships with those movements while also making space for ourselves and other artists to take part in those movements?
What makes you proud?
Alok: The reality of doing this interview in the upcoming hot mess that is June and Gay Pride Month. When we say "proud," we don't mean this liberal, sanitized pink-washing bullshit. We're actually really proud of our resistance. We're proud that despite all of the attempts to squash queer revolution in this country, there are people who have historically and continue to resist. There are queer and trans people of color who are refusing to be seduced by white supremacist narratives of progress. All the time I meet other queer comrades of color who are talking about anti-black racism and linking our queer identities. So I'm proud of us, this small pocket of radical, freaky queers of color who are not proud in the ways that the white gay establishment wants us to be.
Janani: I'm also really proud of all the cultural workers who are making our world possible.
If you could talk with a queer icon from the past, who would it be and why?
Janani: For one, I work a lot with mythology and I'm interested in exploring science fiction so some of the people I want to talk to are fictional characters. Part of the book I'm [writing] is Hanuman (a god in Hinduism) who, as the mythology goes, is said to live as long as his story is told. I'd like to sit down and have a conversation with him in person.
Alok: I'd love to meet Sylvia Rivera or Marsha P. Johnson, who were trans women of color revolutionaries. It would be amazing to have an organizing meeting with Sylvia and Marsha because it's those types of activists in our movement who have historically been able to bring up issues of racism, transphobia and classism in ways that are actually engaging and threatening to the status quo. It would be amazing to hear from them what it was like when they were organizing and how we can continue their legacies.
More on Sylvia Rivera:
And Marsha P. Johnson: