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Poet Duo Darkmatter On How ‘Transmisogyny Is The Afterlife Of Colonialism,’And More

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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.

Photo by CastorxPollux

9. Who/What are some artists, activists or organizations you draw inspiration from?

This year we have really been following and admiring the work of alQaws, Audre Lorde Project, BreakOUT!, Mariposas Sin Fronteras, Black Lives Matter, TNTJ Project in Tennessee, and many more!

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

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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