Last Friday, DarkMatter, trans South Asian spoken word duo, performed at Stanford, where both Alok Vaid-Menon and Janani Balasubramaniam obtained their undergraduate educations. They have been active in raising consciousness about issues related to race, queerness, trans identities and violence in (and by) the United States, especially those issues pertaining to the South Asian diaspora. After the show, I was able to ask them a few questions about the work they do as well as their relationships with their families and community.
Fatima: Thanks for meeting with me after your show…my first question is, how do you folks blend the identity of having parents who are immigrants, who are at the same time racially marginalized but also benefit from a lot of privilege — I’m reading this book on South Asianness and the diaspora and how we’re used to disprove racial discrimination, right — so how do you sort of, balance that aspect, of, [being in] the middle, kind of?
Alok Vaid-Menon: I think actually in a lot of ways we are all oppressed and complicit. I think that no one is actually a pure victim or a pure perpetrator of violence, but I think its more generally like how do we get to a place where we understand harm as more complex and we understand complicity as more complex. They’re not contradictory, I think it’s just about having to narrate both. I think when it comes to the case of the South Asian diaspora, we’re really cute with our victim narrative, we want to talk about it all the time, but we don’t actually want to have that more difficult conversation of how we profit and how we benefit. So I just want to see more conversation about that.
Janani Balasubramaniam: Yeah, I think it’s just about understanding that paradox is how so many social systems are governed, and there’s no simple, linear way to think about it. It is about having all of those conversations for a really long time.
Hmm. So, my next question is more personal, let me know if you’re not comfortable answering it. It’s interesting to me to hear the individual narratives that people have with your biological family, kind of who you’re “out” to, and how you sort of navigate that, especially now that you both have such a platform from which to speak. How do you navigate family?
Alok: Sure, I think one of my frustrations with the dialogue around queer South Asian visibility is that in a lot of ways it feels transmisogynist, because a lot of transfeminine South Asians can’t help but be visible. We never actually can say, “I’m not this,” like, we’re just really flamboyant or really feminine, and in a lot of ways, even if we say, “I’m straight, I’m straight, I’m straight,” our families don’t believe us. So I think for us we learn from a very early age how to negotiate that visibility, what to call it, how much of ourselves that we invite our families into or not. For me I’ve been really blessed and privileged to be able to be unapologetically myself with my family, it took a while, but I think that through a series of difficult conversations and reminding them that we are all in this together, I got them down. That being said, I think my extended family is in a different place [laughs], but my immediate family at least is like down.
Janani: Um, I think for me, it has been hard work, I think the family is hard work, I think that it is partially also a process of not doing this thing where like “I’m the only one in my family that has a gender or sexuality, like everybody in my family has a gender and sexuality and they all come with their own stories and how those have been crafted. And, assuming that whatever, my parents, family, whoever, is cis and straight is not going to do me any good but assuming that we each have had our own shit to deal with that has looked different helps.
Do you think that there is a difficulty in talking about sex or sexuality at all in the diaspora specifically?
Janani: Oh, absolutely.
Alok: What was the question?
Janani: If there’s a difficulty in talking about sex or sexuality in the diaspora.
Alok: Oh my god, totally! It’s so awkward. There’s a complete silence about sex in our diaspora, which I think helps facilitate rape culture. And I think one of the things I really try to talk to people about is that trans-desi issues not being separate from our movements against sexual violence. Because we know that in our South Asian diaspora we have a crisis of sexual and gender-based violence, of incest, of violence against trans and gender-nonconforming people, violence against women. And all of that is fostered by a culture where we’re not allowed to speak about any sexual dynamics, in which case a lot of the masculine people in our families are able to take advantage of that silence and do a lot really terrible things and we can’t even speak about it. So for me when I think about what coalitions we as trans South Asians need to be making, we need to be working with cis South Asian women and seeing any tension on that. We need to be working together to dismantle sexual violence in our diaspora.
DarkMatter is currently on their #ItGetsBitter tour. To contact them, email firstname.lastname@example.org.