Interview : Tiara, The Merch Girl

I’m a performance artist, producer, and Creatrix of Awesome based in Brisbane, Australia. I combine burlesque, circus, improv, streetntheatre, physical theatre, spoken word, and a variety of other artforms to talk about my experiences and politics as a female queer migrant minority (child of Bangladeshi migrants born & raised in Malaysia).

Could you also provide us with a 3-5 line bio/intro?

I’m a performance artist, producer, and Creatrix of Awesome based in Brisbane, Australia. I combine burlesque, circus, improv, streetntheatre, physical theatre, spoken word, and a variety of other artforms to talk about my experiences and politics as a female queer migrant minority (child of Bangladeshi migrants born & raised in Malaysia). I also blog and write a great deal about my work on http://blog.themerchgirl.net as well as on website such as Racialicious (http://racialicious.com) and The Scavenger (http://thescavenger.net).

What would you like to achieve with your “San Fran” plan? Who is the intended audience?

I want to take the next step with the work that I’m doing – go past the typical 3-5 min one-song burlesque number and really draw out my experiences and rumblings into something worthy of the stage. I’m quite cerebral and have a lot of ideas, but while I have been working with my body tons the past couple of years I really need to develop my skills and get past the fear of mediocrity. From the work that I do and the experiences I’ve had, I saw that there really weren’t too many good spaces for people like us – the (South) Asian diaspora now tackling different cultural expectations – to really navigate issues of gender, sexuality, and the erotic. I didn’t see any representations of people like myself that weren’t super exotified (SO TIRED of being called the Bollywood Princess!!) or stripped of anything representing its culture. Even in feminist queer porn you don’t often see South Asians. And a large part of that is because we don’t have many good tools to really talk about sexuality, about gender identity, about sensuality and touch and the erotic. Despite all the stereotypes of the Kama Sutra and live temple sex, we are really REALLY quiet about this sort of thing. My parents couldn’t even talk about *my pet rabbit* having a mate! Anyone who wants to deal with these issues tends to be dismissed as being “too Western”, but then the Western models don’t really fit either – not everyone connects to the super-high individualism or the attitude of “throw everything to the wind”, and there isn’t really an understanding of sacrifice or filial piety. I wanted to provide an avenue for people like me to be able to express our sexuality and sensuality -our- way, however it makes sense to us. I often get many people who thank me for doing the work that I do, however minimal or beginner-level it is, because it gives them a space and opportunity to do it too. I want to diversify the ideas and stories we have about love, about sex, about relationships, about companionship. I want to challenge people’s ideas of what it means to be queer, what it means to be kinky, what it means to be sexual, whether it’s even *important* to be sexual. And to do that I’ll need to be where a lot of the action is, where there are people starting this work already, where challenges and differences of opinions are respected and appreciated. I want to go somewhere where I could experiment and muck around and see what happens, challenge myself too. Hence San Francisco!

Could you share a little about your scholarship? Who are the Femina Potens?

I had been accepted to a 3-month arts residency at CELLspace, which provides living space and resources for visual and performance artists in the Bay Area. (There’s been a bit of drama though with flood issues and deposits so it’s gone from “sure thing” to “pending”, hopefully it’ll be “sure thing” again!). So I’ll be able to live with a whole group of other artists, work in their space, and host events to showcase my works in progress and get ideas. This is my home base, where I will gather and focus all I’ve learnt in the day and create. While I’m there I’ve also been offered a number of internships and volunteer opportunities with other organisations that deal with similar issues that I’m tackling. One of them is Femina Potens, a feminist art gallery run by feminist porn producer Madison Young. Like me she’s all about examining sexuality from a more political and intellectual angle – or rather, making smarter, more authentic porn! The Center for Sex and Culture is also keen on having me help out as an intern – they host a lot of events, classes, and resources on sexual health and identity in the community. These are people who pretty much spearheaded the sex-positive movement and it would be amazing to learn directly from them. What I really admire about the queer, creative, sex-positive, activist communities in San Francisco is that no matter how famous they are, they’re all really happy to communicate and support each other. Already I’ve heard back from so many artists, producers, theaters, publishers, event managers, and so on that are keen to have me as a volunteer or to hang out with them. Even if I can’t manage to get back in CELLspace I still have plenty to do!

South Asian families tend to particularly look at sex as something subversive. Though it is ironical that our ability to procreate is quite at an obscenely high. What do you think makes sex look so dirty in the South Asian context?

This is mostly going to be based on my family experiences, but I think most of it is that sex beyond procreation is seen as decadent, that you should be more modest and it’s something you only do with your husband/wife and otherwise you’re destroying the sanctity of marital relations. If you only need to have sex to have children, why bother with things like kink or queer sexuality or being sensual? In, out, conceive, done. It’s your duty, it’s a job, it’s not a pleasurable hobby. I know, at least with my parents, that I am still seen as very much a child and will be until I get married – and sex is one of those things you just don’t talk to children about, lest the CHILDRENS ZOMG start being horny and having sex with each other, or something. The only models we have for sex being displayed openly tends to be the Western stereotype – rampant, irresponsible, promiscuous, very individualistic. Their sex life is put at a higher priority than say their family or their job or their culture – “I shall give up everything to be with you!” – which I doubt gels well with our cultures’ collectivist, “sacrifice yourself for your family” culture. When I try to talk to my parents about my performance work they often tell me “Why don’t you do something *more useful* for society, like teach poor kids or something?” (Which is ironic, given that I used to be the save-the-world-by-teaching-poor-kids type and their response was “Why don’t you get a good job and make money so you can donate it?”) Sexuality is not seen as something that benefits anyone else but yourself (and your partner/s) – it’s selfish and self-centered. There’s also the huge thing about shame and modesty, about how you’re only really meant to show yourself to your partner, about how only your family can see you uncovered. My mum thinks that me in spaghetti straps is “too revealing” – and here I am performing topless on stage! It’s a similar sanctity thing, that if we ever dare to be sexual outside of the marriage context we’re degrading ourselves or destroying our dignity. There isn’t really a way to imagine someone being openly sexual and yet also keeping their dignity and self-worth intact – in South Asian culture it’s a contradiction. You’re giving away something of yourself that people should earn. This then gets interpreted to an absurd extent, where people just *asking* about sex is considered shameful, which means a lot of misinformation gets spread. Some years ago the president of a blood disease organisation wrote a letter to the Malaysian press saying that they opposed free distribution of condoms, because they encouraged promiscuity, which then leads to STIs, which then leads to less blood donors, and therefore less people helping their blood disease survivors out. I was so pissed off that I wrote a letter back saying “Look, the condoms are there to WARD AGAINST STIS, it’s not the fault of the CONDOMS if people aren’t donating enough blood, keep you judgemental ideas away from your cause!”. I think that was my mum’s first indication that I had an interest in human sexuality actually, ahahahah. So yeah, sex is something people consider private, which means any attempt to talk about it openly will be greeted with “Chi chi! Shame ! How dare you DEGRADE OUR FAMILY” (a fair call considering people have lost jobs/livelihoods because of it), which then means everyone clams up and no one wants to say anything. Speaking up when everyone’s silent is quite often subversive, and very risky.

Do you think a frank discussion when kids get to adolescence will help them to view sex as something healthy and natural?

It would certainly help! I can understand the awkwardness; I used to work childcare and did get random questions from the kids I was working with and I never quite knew what I was able to tell them without giving them a weird complex or going past boundaries. At the very least kids and adolescents should know that they have a right to bodies, that their sexual choices are their own, and that there are resources available for them to take care of their health and wellbeing – adolescence is a really scary time for dealing with your sexuality anyway, what with raging hormones and puberty and your body changing! Once you establish what’s normal, you make it easier for them to pay attention to what’s *not* normal, such as when they’re in danger or if there are health issues. Then they’ll know where to go, and what to ask for, without shame. That’s the important bit, I feel – to not be *ashamed* of their bodies or their feelings. We already get bombarded with messages about how we’re not good enough or sexy enough or attractive enough, more so as minorities, even within supposedly liberal circles like the Western queer communities. Giving young people enough confidence in themselves to know how they work and how to take care of themselves would help a LOT with dealing with issues of sexuality and gender. Of course, for that to happen, we – the people having these conversations with young people – need to think of sex as something healthy and natural, and I highly doubt that people of our parents’ generation or our older siblings’ generation view it that way, especially if it’s outside procreation with your spouse.

You talk about having a tough time to relate when you were growing up. What part of culture and family (and upbringing) play a part in that?

I grew up a minority, being Bangladeshi in Malaysia – even though culturally I was VERY Malaysian, eating all the food and speaking Manglish fluently and knowing all the references, I still was never really accepted as a Malaysian. I’m not even a citizen yet and I was BORN in the country! Bangladeshis have a bad rep in Malaysia thanks to politicians painting us all as thieving illegal immigrants causing crimes and stealing their women – which meant that in school, even though I was often one of the highest-achieving students, my work counted for nothing. And then when I go back to Bangladesh for holidays I’d be a complete foreigner, because I hardly knew the culture and the language. My family loves me, but even they see me as the Foreigner in the family tree, a cute outsider who speaks like a5-year-old. In Australia it’s been different, a bit better but also more stressful. Even while in Malaysia I had attitudes and ideas that were outside the ordinary (thanks to my voracious reading habit and Internet addiction!) and often challenged accepted ideas about things. Why bother trying to fit in too hard when you’ll always be an outsider anyway – just stand up for what you believe in! And in this way I felt safer in Australia; I was allowed to express my politics and sexuality and personality a lot more openly than I would have been in Malaysia (no police trying to arrest me for “threatening national security”). But at the same time I’m dealing with cultural clashes and conflicting ideas, and since it’s only really been fairly recently that I’ve managed to tackle my sexuality *at all* I’m having to deal with a lot of things at once. I’m dealing with attitudes I’ve adopted from my culture and my family – always be accommodating, mind your own business, you’re not as important as your family, etc – which really don’t serve me so well in Australia, where individualism and self-reliance is prized. While I’ve been more easily welcomed, I also find it difficult to often be taken as seriously just because i don’t look queer or look like a typical burlesque performer or something. Any which way you look at it, I’ve always been an Outsider, a Perpetual Other; and most of the things that I do are about dealing with that one way or another.

Why San Francisco? Why is this your dream project?

So many of my creative heroes are based in San Francisco – alternative feminist sex-positive performer/sex worker Sadie Lune, Vixen Noir who works a lot with queer Women of Colour to express their erotic being (I’ve taken classes with her when she was in Australia and she is AMAZING), the queer femme communities, events like Kaleidoscope for burlesque performers of colour, so many things. Every so often I’ll run into some interesting project or other and go “Wow this is awesome!” and 9 times out of 10 it’s in San Francisco. I’ve also had friends and mentors who have worked in San Francisco and they’ve all raved about it. One comment that comes up a lot about San Francisco is how there seems to be a space for anyone, no matter what sort of minority or intersection you are. Queer women of Colour? Space for you. Disabled kinky sex worker? Space for you. Don’t see your niche? There’s space for you to create it. It’s like a sizzling melting pot of ideas, influences, and opportunities to go there and do your thing however you like it. As I mentioned before, people have been really friendly and welcoming whenever I’ve made contact. The last couple of years have been a Belated Teenage Rebellion for me, taking off the shackles of my upbringing and culture and testing my boundaries. We’ve got a running joke that my autobiography will be called Don’t Tell My Mother and this is now chapters 14-20! This project brings together multiple dreams – to spend some time in San Francisco, to work with people who deeply inspire me and motivate me, to challenge myself and other people, to play around with further expressions of gender and sexuality, to grow and transform creatively. It’ll be an epic adventure!

Links for you:
http://indiegogo.com/sanfranplan
http://themerchgirl.net
http://blog.themerchgirl.net
http://flickr.com/tiaramerchgirl
http://vimeo.com/channels/tiaramerchgirl

About the author

Broom

Broom lived an ordinary, boring, unhappy and married life till she met the woman that she fell madly in love with at the age of twenty eight. By day, she is a techie. By night - a Walking Dead addict, London exploring, rainbow-loving, champagne socialist.