By Nikhil Umesh
As someone who has been following their work for a couple of years, saying that Janani Balasubramanian and Alok Vaid-Menon have challenged and pushed my politics would be an understatement. Janani and Alok are trans South Asian organizers who together comprise Darkmatter, a duo whose work is at the nexus of art and activism.
In light of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage, the Black Lives Matter movement, and a global emergency with the murders of trans women of color, Darkmatter strives not just to provide consolation for being desi in a white supremacist state, but is instructive on how we need to challenge the complicities lurking in our own communities. The fact that the Indian diaspora is not only oppressed but can find itself the oppressor is not antagonistic to the way empire operates; rather it is constitutive to it. My family has always treated my birth on August 15 as auspicious and cause for celebration. However, Darkmatter flips the script on us, pointing out the inherent contradictions of independence, democracy, and nationalism:
“Today is August 15, which some commemorate as Indian independence day. We want to take the opportunity to commemorate lives lost & displaced to partition (the largest mass migration in human history), systemic caste oppression that has been exacerbated by colonial rule (but certainly have their own origins), India’s coercive occupations (of Jammu & Kashmir, among others) and collusions with Zionist rule of Palestine, Islamophobia, violence against religious minorities, and much much more. And as diaspora to ask fellow diaspora to actively refuse the lies of Hindu Nationalist state propaganda. India is NOT the ‘world’s largest democracy’. There are things to celebrate. Nationalism is not among them.”
From grappling with the foundational nature of transmisogyny in relation to gender and sexual violence to critiquing the ways in which the South Asian diaspora has been complicit in anti-Black racism, Darkmatter makes clear that the fight against empire and structural violence is urgent. But without diminishing the seriousness of these struggles, they still manage to drop jolts of humor into their work. Take for instance their piece “Bollywood,” which confronts conventional racist stereotypes about Indian Americans. And who can forget their spoken word poem “White Fetish,” where they lay waste to the hypocrisy of white “progressives” in the United States.
To gain a deeper understanding of these issues and more about how this powerful duo works, we fired off a set of questions to them over email, and they were kind enough to oblige us with responses.
1. Could you tell our readers a little bit about yourselves? How did both of you meet, and how did you arrive at the junction of poetry and activism?
We are two trans Indian activists who met in college. Unfortunately it’s pretty rare to meet another queer/trans South Asian interested in social justice, so you kind of just sort of get to know each other very quickly. We began to organize together as a part of various student groups. Alok had been writing poetry for a long time and was already a part of the poetry collective at our school. They invited Janani to audition for the team and since then we have been writing and organizing together. We never really saw the distinction between ‘art’ and ‘activism,’ they have always felt like the same thing.
2. How has your work shifted over the years, whether in terms of the subject matter you cover or style of poetry?
Both of us got our start in the college poetry slam circuit which is a very particular type of artistic economy in that it’s rooted in competition. Pieces have to be maximum 3 minutes and the goal is to essentially deliver the most dynamic poetry and performance in order to beat your competitors. What’s been lovely over the past few years is being able to transition out of the slam circuit and play around more with our work – make things more subtle, more textured, more quiet, more interdisciplinary. Our poetry content changes as our lives change: our art is the imprint of our experience. So we would like to believe that we are constantly in flux.
3. From your experiences, how do you remain accountable to Black liberation struggles, especially given the anti-Blackness we oftentimes find in Asian communities? And as non-Black people, how do you work through your engagement with spoken word oral traditions without appropriating Blackness?
It feels important to move from a place of complicity rather than solidarity. We know that we are only able to exist as we do – as activists and artists – because of the spaces created by the Black Power and Black Arts movement in this country. Often our immigrant narratives romanticize the US as a “land of opportunity” without naming how that opportunity is only available to us because of the historic and continued attempted genocide of Black and indigenous communities. Regardless of our individual politics we are still structurally in the same place with people like Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley – so we have to claim them as ours and work from there. Our job is organizing our own communities to redistribute money, resources, and land back to the people it belongs to. For us this looks like fundraising for Black-led organizing and art, showing up and following the leadership of Black organizers against state violence, educating and organizing elite educated people, etc. Obviously this work is complicated, and messy, and full of mistakes but it’s about building meaningful and intentional relationships and keeping on trying to be less messed up.
4. Within our diasporic communities, we oftentimes have to push back on some of the cultural norms of our communities. Could you speak on the balance of not framing our families as “backwards,” while valuing them as intimate spaces that are critical for social change?
We don’t think there’s necessarily a best practice on how to go about creating balance – like most things it’s a lot of trial and error. The way white supremacy works in this country is that the minute you are critical of brown people your critiques get de-contextualized and absorbed into the borg that is Islamophobia and xenophobia. Racist and classist policies in this country rely on the idea of our communities as inherently conservative (read: homophobic and transphobic) without attention to history of context. That being said: the reality of racism, casteism, transmisogyny (violence against trans women and trans feminine people), etc. in our own communities is rampant and needs to be addressed. We think it really looks like having two sets of conversations: what we say in public with people outside of our communities and what we say and how we organize at home. It looks like developing a practice of compassion and transformative justice that has faith in the infinite transformation of our peoples. It looks like being trauma informed always – knowing that people make decisions under tremendous conditions of scarcity, violence, depression, and fear and that we have to understand people in their terrible enormity in order to organize with them.
5. You both speak a lot on how dismantling homophobia and transphobia is an inherently anti-colonial and anti-racist struggle. Could you expound on this?
Transmisogyny is the afterlife of colonialism. The violence that we experience has less to do with us and more to do with our peoples’ own anxieties about gender and sexuality. Certainly there were formations of gender norms and heterosexuality prior to colonization but what colonialism did was officially establish the gender binary and heteronormativity. What colonialism did was criminalize people for transgressing from these gender and sexual norms. We wouldn’t say that queer and trans work is inherently anti-colonial seeing that so many queer and trans movements are actually responsible for perpetuating colonialism and imperialism, but there’s a way to do queer and trans work that is grounded in anti-racist and anti-colonial practice and that is what we are invested in.
6. What are both of your reactions to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage? From looking at Indian news media, the decision has been narrativized as a sign of “progress,” with questions of when India is going to catch up tossed around. From your interactions with queer and trans* activists in India, what are the needs and directions of queer struggle there?
While we do have experience working with the Indian queer and trans movement we don’t feel comfortable speaking over Indian trans activists who can speak about the queer struggle there much better than us. But we can say: the marriage ruling in the US was not a marker of progress, it was just a marker of neoliberalism. The gay marriage “movement,” has been responsible for the further dispossession and criminalization of people of color, trans people, and poor people. Many of us in the US were not celebrating this ruling and are struggling in a political economy where there is often no space to name violence because people are proclaiming the movement “over.”
7. Given the direction of mainstream, white queer politics in the U.S., what are ways we can resist the pinkwashing (Pinkwashing refers to the deliberate strategies deployed by nation states to conceal structural violence via a facade of progressive queer politics. Most notably, the Israeli occupation of Palestine) and homonationalist (‘homonationalism‘ is a term coined by Jasbir Puar in her book which aims to encompass the interrelatedness between forces such as racism, imperialism, heteronormativity, and globalization, and speaks to the way that gender and sexual rights have been postured to signify Western dominance) tendencies of empire?
The problem with empire is that it’s incredibly devious and always finds ways to absorb our struggles and incorporate them as part of its project of domination. We just have to remain careful and continue organizing. Resisting pinkwashing and homonationalism isn’t actually just about producing academic theory, more tangibly it’s about: supporting survivors of state violence, ending prisons and detention centers, helping queer and trans people find affordable housing and shelter. The best forms of resistance are in the actual work on the ground to keep people alive.
8. Within your work, do you all have any favorite poems or ones you’re particularly fond of? What have been some of the reactions to your poetry, ranging from best to worst?
Our favorite poems are often the ones that we have written most recently. Perhaps it’s because they’re the most fresh and resonant of where we are at in our lives. One time a white man in Belgium told us that he loved our work, but we needed to provide him with more hope. Another time a bunch of brown people cried. We’ll leave it at that.
9. Who/What are some artists, activists or organizations you draw inspiration from?
Note: Janani and Alok no longer peform as the Darkmatter duo. Janani is currently focusing on writing and Alok performs independently. You can follow him here.