On 30th April 2017, queer writer and performance artist Alok Vaid-Menon hosted an evening of poetry at Amra Odbhuth Cafe, Kolkata. On that same day, I met Alok in the afternoon, for what was supposed to be an interview but became a discussion: an exchange of ideas, and an incomparably enriching experience for the interviewer.
Here are some excerpts from the 45-minute one-on-one chat I had with one of the greatest poet-activists of our times:
In one of your interviews, you mentioned that when you were growing up, you tried out several ‘words’ to find out which one suited you the best. Could you tell me a bit more about this process of wrangling with your identity?
Growing up, I didn’t really have a language to describe the things that I was, so I just sort of stumbled through various different words in Google searches. ‘Gay’ was the word that I heard around, so I tried it on for a while. Then I thought, hmm, maybe I’m asexual: tried it on, didn’t really work. I was like, ‘queer’, okay, yeah, trans? *laughs* And then at some point I just realised that the process of trying to find one word to narrate an entire complex experience was always going to be a limiting and fraught one.
I don’t think things like sexuality and gender can ever be encapsulated by one word, for not just me, but everyone. One of the myths that people have is that it’s only trans and gender non-conforming people who have complex genders and histories, but that is utterly untrue. So I moved to a place in my imagination where I tried to understand people, not as words but as stories.
I wonder if my story is different from everyone else’s; I think that this narrative that it is different is a narrative that I’m trying to critique and break, because I think that given permission and space and safety, many, many people would not fit into what society calls men and women. I think the reason they fit in is because it’s so dangerous and frightening to play around with gender.
I reject the premise that I’m a minority, because I don’t think that is true. I am a minority in that I have the opportunities and the spaces and the families and the friendships to help me have the courage in trying to do this work. I also think my difference is less about who I am and more about my political orientation, because I don’t think that just being trans makes people political.
I think we need to push back on this problematic framing that just being LGBT equals political. LGBT people can and have perpetuated the same systems that oppressed them to begin with, in the same way that many women perpetuate the same patriarchal system. For me, being political means having a different imagination about what is possible, what is just, what is safety. It is a choice to be political.
You grew up in Texas. In that space, did you feel ‘Othered’ not only by gender and its definitions, but also as a brown person being bullied into certain categories?
I was bullied into a certain racial category. I unfortunately grew up in a space that fits every single stereotype one might have of Texas! This was not just the urban space. When you fly into the two-plane airport, it says, ‘Welcome to Cow Station: This Is Country’. So I grew up with 90% Republican cowboy hicks. So the first nexus of oppression experience was race.
From a very very young age, I was called a monkey, I was seen as dirty, I was seen as smelly, I felt like my skin was something I could wash off, I felt unclean because of it. So the fundamental way in which I began to navigate the world as a different person was through race. And for me, I still return to that. The primary violence of gender is the violence of race.
I don’t believe that, for example, Indian women are embraced into the category of women because the term ‘woman’ belongs to white women. My mother, her biggest and constant anxiety is that she’ll have no one to help pluck her moustache when she’s older, and then she’ll lose her femininity. There’s this fear of many brown women of feeling too masculine because of their hair. The gender norm is set by whiteness and those women who can’t fit into that are always masculinized.
I’m used to white people being transphobic, but when I experience brown people being transphobic it hurts in a different way because I’m like, you don’t fit into this either. Why are you trying to hold on to these categories that are restrictive for you as well?
You have experienced displacement as well in your life, from Kerala to the States. How did that affect you?
I am much more proud of my Malayali side than I am of my Punjabi side, and I only really have the language now to articulate why that was. My Punjabi side was very upper caste, very religious, dogmatic, vegetarianism, tradition, whereas my dad’s side has a much more complicated migration history because my dad grew up in Malaysia. He knew a lot of Malayali people everywhere, so he grew up already experiencing what it is like to be a racial minority. In South-east Asia, Indians experience alternative racism. He already had a framework around race and being dark in a way that my mom didn’t, because she’s very light-skinned.
So there was always a space to talk about difference and oppression on my Malayali side, more than there was on my Punjabi side, because it wouldn’t serve my Punjabi side’s interest to start talking about difference. Then we’d have to start talking about caste and class.
So, growing up, I was very much disproportionately raised as a Punjabi Hindu: family members that I knew, connections and experiences that I had. I went to Delhi a lot more than I went to Kerala. My father’s family had relatives in Kerala but he didn’t grow up there, so it was different.
Later in my life, as I learnt the political histories of what it means to be Malayali and about anti-subjugatory criticism within India itself, and then visiting Kerala, I just feel so much more at ease in Kerala than I do in North India. North India has some of the most hostile gender norms I have ever experienced. It is a deep and violent patriarchal masculinist view that has been completely uncensored and perhaps even romanticised. Not to say that this is not a problem everywhere, but I feel like, at least for me, the ability to be of a different gender and to present oneself and be recognised as such does not exist within a North Indian context.
The more I learn about the community in India, the more I feel that trans people in Tamil Nadu and Kerala have done so much incredible work for hundreds of years and have actually been at the forefront of social activism around gender. It gets invisibilised in the race for the national narrative because they’re dark, because they’re trans, because they’re lower class or caste.
Every time I return to Kerala, and especially now that I’m returning to work in Kerala, it feels much better and much more consistent, in my mind, to the kind of political imagination I have. Many people act shocked when I say this about Kerala, like, oh it’s so misogynist, oh it’s so whatever, and I’m like, everywhere’s misogynist. There’s a template for social justice in Kerala.
It’s interesting. There, people don’t narrate themselves as Indian. The national project in India does not work that, and with the rise of Hindu nationalism in India, it’s really important to resist the temptation to narrate ourselves as a nation, because that’s always going to be narrowing.
Recently, I encountered an argument of resistance that pointed out that in Bengal, we tend to worship female deities, while in the rest of India, especially with regard to Ram Navami, this is not always the case. The increasing Hindu nationalist presence in Bengal, it’s almost as though they want us to shift to that form of worship, adulating masculinity. Patriarchy is entrenched in Bengal as well, but, since I’ve lived in other parts of the country, I know how different it is there and in my experience, there’s more space for the feminine here.
Right, I think so much of the nexus of patriarchy is about erasing the power of femininity and I wish there was more of a conversation about this in the South Asian context, as like there were ways in which femininity was seen as powerful and strength. So much of what colonization did was to see femininity as weakness, and that’s why patriarchy within the Indian context can be so ahistorical. All these people simultaneously worshipping their goddesses and then beating their wives, and they do not see that discontinuity. So much of the idea of femininity prevalent here is such a Western, Christian, colonial endeavour.
This is why the trauma of being gendered by South Asian people is so hard. Whenever this happens, I think, I know that the reason you suppress me is because you’ve been suppressed, and this is totally from your own traumatic relationship with your femininity. And I wish that you could just say that you all wanna sleep with me, you all wanna be me!
The way that femininity is framed in India, it is simultaneously coveted and desired and worshipped, and then degraded. And that sense of being respected and degraded together is the Indian condition of femininity. In some sense, it is adored and idealised, and then it faces violence. So being feminine in India is a constant process of navigating between the two binaries of the ‘sacred’ and the ‘dirty’, or the ‘profane’. It’s such a quagmire.
Since we’ve spoken about the connection between art and privilege, let’s talk about fashion, Fashion can be a form of self expression. It can be a form of healing, for self esteem and body image issues. It can also help you to define your identity. But is it a bastion of only the privileged?
There’s a difference between fashion and style. What’s in fashion is what the market wants us to buy, which is inaccessible by the majority of people and relies on exploitation of labour to make this fast, mass-produced trend. But I still believe in style, because everyone can have a style. It’s not the clothes you wear, it’s how you wear it. To say that some people can’t have a style story is so dehumanizing, it’s not true. This idea that focusing on dress is a privilege feels really misogynist to me, as if it’s being degraded because it’s supposed to be the area of the feminine.
Aesthetics are real political labour. In leftist spaces, only public, physical manifestations of activism get validated. Aesthetic contributions of women and trans people are completely lost. Who’s coming up with the fliers? Who’s coming up with the narratives? Who’s writing the songs? Who’s creating the uniform? These are all part of that work.
I think that aesthetics have been co-opted by capitalism, but they don’t have to be. I’m constantly thinking, how do I use aesthetics politically? It’s part of my politics, part of my gender. I always say, sexuality is a theory, gender is practice. What I mean is, I’m queer, but how am I going to embody that? When I’m getting dressed, I’m thinking, how am I going to antagonise patriarchy today?
I don’t want to dismiss or let go of aesthetics as part of my resistance, but I also don’t want to submit it to the fashion industry that continually seeks to capitalise culture. What I realise is that my aesthetics are making so many people uncomfortable, and that’s part of my feminist politics. When we look good, and we say no to patriarchy, they realise that they’re doubly fucked over!
You’ve recently announced that you’ve taken a break from DarkMatter Poetry. Can you tell us a little about what that project with Janani meant for you?
I met Janani at a really foundational stage of my life. I was just beginning to really question gender, both my own and as a concept. Meeting Janani at that point- we were friends for like, nine years? We were both at that place where we were questioning a lot of things, about ourselves and the world. It began as a series of questions and having someone else to work through them with was invaluable. It gave me the confidence to say and do things that I’m able to do now.
I wouldn’t have been able to do what I do if it wasn’t for that friendship and if it wasn’t for many of those friendships. In the same way that celebrity is toxic for tokenism, it’s toxic in the way that we pretend that it’s individual people’s hard work and not the contributions of the community that leads to recognition. All of my writing is the reception of all the lives I’ve encountered of other people. I think about what it takes for someone to even actually approach a stage. I meet so many people who have been writing at home, but who would never share, thinking, oh, I’m not good enough, I’m not confident enough.
I was the exact same way, and then I met Janani who would just say, shut up and do it! *laughs* And then when it went badly, Janani would look at me and say, okay, actually, you need to work on that. And that’s how we grow.
That’s why I hate this very Western. masculine model of the artist who sort of goes into-
The woods, yes! And this ivory tower from the world and is separate. This is not how women and trans writers work, we need the support.
When I started, I didn’t really have a role model. I didn’t even see what I was doing as poetry. I thought of it more as diary writing- it was me sitting in a corner, writing down my feelings. I was reading poetry beyond what was assigned to us at school which meant a lot of traditional, white, British poets, which I did not identify with at all. I’m really mad about that because I feel like a lot of young people don’t really see their work as poetry, or as art, because we’re constantly comparing ourselves to the canon. That’s so fucked,. We are our own canon, and we don’t have to write like Shakespeare or Keats to be validated.
That’s why I gravitated towards art forms such as spoken word, where I saw myself represented. There are way more women, way more queer people, way more people of colour. And I think that what happens is when we make art accessible, it’s not perceived as art. And that’s what we need to change.