I had never enjoyed spoken word poetry, to be honest. Whenever I heard it, I just didn’t “get it.” Maybe I wasn’t artsy enough or smart enough or deep enough, but all that changed a few weeks ago when DarkMatter performed at my school. DarkMatter is composed of Alok Vaid-Menon and Janani Balasubramanaian, two queer South Asian poets and activists. Alok and Janani are recent Stanford graduates who are writers, performers, workshop facilitators committed to radical queer politics.
On the night of DarkMatter’s performance, they began their performance and I was immediately entranced. For two hours, I listened to Alok and Janani’s poetry centered around gender, race, and sexuality. Through their words, they fought to unravel issues of white supremacy and decolonization within the queer experience. Alok and Janani passionately pointed out the failure of the gay rights’ movement in the United States to be inclusive of minorities and marginalized groups. They spoke of the inherent problems with a country, its president, and the government celebrating the recent strides made for gay rights, such as the DOMA ruling, yet continuing to support the colonial creation of Israel and drone warfare.
Their words most resonated with me when they spoke of cultural appropriation and stereotypes that occur for the South Asian community. We hear about and face discrimination and stereotyping regularly, we are constantly flooded with images of appropriation. Yet, Alok and Janani’s eloquence mixed equal parts with wit, sarcasm and just the right amount of sincerity made these struggles even more real. Their words come together to form a discourse that validates our concerns and feelings in an artistic and vocally powerful way. Sitting in that room beside my South Asian peers, listening to DarkMatter had such a strong impact on me as they vividly recollected common stereotypical phrases that South Asians in America encounter, or problems that arose in a post-9/11 America. Thoughts or issues on race and being South Asian in the United States that I had subdued for fear of being too nit-picky or uptight were replayed to me, reminding me that these problems were not mine alone; they were systematic problems plaguing most, if not all, South Asians living in America. Even more important was that the room was filled, not only with South Asians, but also with many other students of different races. Vocalizing these problems within our communities can only get us so far. Sharing them with a broader audience, especially those who can relate and empathize, is the real driving factor for change.
At the end of DarkMatter’s performance I was slightly shaking. Never before had spoken word been so relatable and relevant to me. I hope that DarkMatter continues to share their work and artistry because it truly is a powerful medium. Fortunately, I later had the opportunity to speak with Alok and Janani more about their work and their lives.
How did you two meet?
The two of us met at school actually. The way we tell it, the both of us actually had major peacock syndrome…as in, we both had our tailfeathers up a little fussed at meeting another radical queer South Asian…filling up space in our identity. Eventually we started organizing together and working together creatively through the Stanford Slam team and Spoken Word Collective. We went on our first tour last spring, as DarkMatter, and we’ve been building since.
Why spoken word?
A lot of our art practice is spoken word, but not all of it for sure. But spoken word has a long, deep history in black and brown communities in the US as a site of resistance. It is a political form. There’s something excitingly simple about spoken word, and yet also excitingly rich: the ways our bodies are implicated along with our words, the huge variation and nuance that can happen with ‘only’ gestures and tone and words, the live-ness of text, the responsiveness (or not) of audience. We like branching out for sure though, and are always eager to collaborate with other QTPOC artists.
How did you both realize you wanted to be involved in the kinds of activism that you do now? Was there a moment when you knew this is what you were meant to be doing and you realized that the traditional desi professional path wasn’t for you?
For both of us, there have been small epiphanies along the way (and whole bunches of self-doubt). We challenge the idea that there’s necessarily a traditional desi professional path—that kind of logic is often steeped in a model minority myth that is not representative of the experience of a lot of the South Asian diaspora. There are assimilationists in our diaspora, for sure, and many in particular with our backgrounds (middle-class and/or Brahmin) but also huge histories of resistance and solidarity work that we’re invested in reclaiming. It’s a constant building process. Doing relevant, challenging work while still being tied to various institutions (non-profits, universities, etc) always is. We’re still learning and hope to keep doing so.
Could you tell me a little bit more about the work you do on a day-to-day basis in addition to writing and performing?
Currently, Alok is an organizer at the Audre Lorde Project, a queer people of color activist organization based in New York. Janani is building with a design collective that works on projects in the US food system. The both of us are also invested in building queer/people of color creative community and space in our current context, Brooklyn. You might also find us engaging in self-care at the club.
What were the challenges in confronting your parents about your sexuality and about your decision to spend your life post-graduation working as activists?
Both of our parents were/are concerned about our long-term stability, and the legitimacy of doing short-term work versus producing larger objects like books or academic careers. Alok’s parents were also largely okay with their sexuality, for a variety of reasons. Gender, for both of us, has been a larger, more difficult issue to tackle. We’re still working on it.
What advice do you have for other young desis who may be afraid to be open with their parents about anything in life (their sexuality, career choices, relationships, etc.)?
It’s hard work but some of our most radical politics can come from working with those who have been our caretakers and close to us in very material ways.
Why do you believe your work is important and what do you hope to see change in the future for young South Asians?
We hope our work is important as much as the work of any political artists and activists. We hope we’re able to reach the communities we have come from and move through (young Desis, college students, young queer people of color, etc), and open up creative space for them to talk about their own lives. Storytelling is still a fundamental tenet of movement-building; art and politics go hand in hand for largely this reason.
We don’t claim to speak for all young South Asians, but we’re eager to build with a movement of young desis who are invested in challenging anti-black and anti-native racism in the US—as inheritors of the settler-colonial and enslavement projects that founded this nation.
Do you think young South Asians aren’t involved enough with activism perhaps because it is so easy for us to become “whitewashed” and ignore the specific issues that we face in the US?
One thing I find is that a lot of the other student of color groups on campus have much tighter knit communities and that’s because I think growing up, most South Asians were socioeconomically able to live in areas that were predominantly white and “fit in” which may occur less often for Latinos or black students.
Do you think this idea of being a “model minority” has prevented South Asians from taking a stronger stand against discrimination or marginalization?
It has allowed a certain class of South Asians to assimilate in particular ways, yes. It’s a fraught thing to extend or generalize that analysis, however, given the multiple and difficult histories of South Asian immigration to the US. It would involve a lot of erasure to say that most South Asians grew up with economic privilege in predominantly white areas. Some did; many didn’t. N+1 magazine published a great article (“White Indians”) that explores some of these dynamics.
Image Source: www.darkmatterrage.com