The power of poetry to impact its readers lies in its honesty and the accessibility of its form. Perhaps this is what makes the spoken word such a popular medium to start a dialogue or voice dissent in contemporary times. Gender non-conforming trans-feminine performance artist, poet and activist Alok Vaid-Menon needs little by way of introduction: those who have attended their shows (either solo or with Janani Balasubramanian as DarkMatter) come away stupefied and moved and sometimes even transformed. The Trans sphere couldn’t ask for a more outspoken and powerful voice, and one that gently awakens its listeners—queer, straight or Trans—to be alive to the wonderful possibilities that open up in the world and for oneself when the binaries are pushed aside and one just is.
If you haven’t had the chance to attend any of Vaid-Menon’s shows, the writings on alokvmenon.com are a great starting point. This author’s favourite? “alternative kinship, queer, and other lyrics i cannot translate to my grandmother”
Q. How do you go about picking your clothes? They’re amazing.
Thanks! I just try to have fun with it! I want to make something beautiful-something that does justice to how I feel. I’ve been thinking a lot about that recently-what it requires to do justice to a feeling. Art (and fashion is part of that!) is about that work for me: doing justice to a feeling, taking seriously what is often dismissed as intangible.
Q. You are a strong voice in the Trans sphere and also a person of Indian origin who’s grown up in Texas. Did your race ever factor into your personal struggle to reclaim your sense of self and identity?
From a young age I learned that the world thought it knew who I was better than myself. Racism is many things, but part of it is a crisis of imagination. It takes difference and flattens it, making racialized people into one-dimensional stereotypes and props, denying our nuance and complexity. Racism also involves the enforcement and policing of (white) gender norms: this is what you have to be to be a ‘good Indian girl’ or a ‘good Indian boy.’ There was such little room for self-declaration, and any attempts to assert it were met with punishment and dismissal. I am still involved in a process of reclaiming/becoming/femmifesting from all of the norms and stereotypes that were enforced on me (and I accept that it will be a life-long journey).
Q. You’ve performed all over the world, and I know my friends everywhere are fans. How has your experience of India as a femme in public been?
Sexism and trans-misogny have become universal, but they map out in particular and distinct ways given on the context. One of the things that feel different about navigating the public in India is that there is often a frame of reference for what I am—there are visible representations and historical and contemporary precedents of gender non-conformity. This is often different in the US where I am often met with incredulity: “What is that!?” It is also important to say that while I do experience transphobia in India, I am also enfranchised on the basis of my caste, class, and being perceived as foreign/Western. So what hostility I do experience is always informed (and mostly decreased) by that.
Q. Have you ever thought about changing your name to more accurately reflect your identity? What are your thoughts on that as a political choice?
Yes all the time, but I’m bad at commitment and can never make up my mind!
Q. You mentioned in Broadly that “…we live in a world that establishes a clear hierarchy of intimacy where friendship is always considered less than…” and you’re always trying to “counter that in your own life.” Tell me more about your friendships. What are they like?
Yes. I’m devastated by how we are taught to relegate so many fundamental experiences and modes of relating to “romantic love” -as if we have to wait till some elusive moment of rapture to access the respect and support that we already deserve. It’s just a ridiculous investment: thinking that you are going to find some romantic partner who will be able to give you everything you need. I practice my friendships as romantic partnerships; meaning, I am committed to interdependence, mutual aid, vulnerability, intimacy. I spend the bulk of my time with my friends, I strategize and plan with them, and we are deeply intertwined in one another’s lives. It’s all part of a larger project of teasing through all of the arbitrary (and frankly ridiculous) lessons we have been taught about the difference between family/friends/romantic love and making something that works for you. One of the many joys of being trans is that I have been able to experience friendship as family -a form of recognition and validation that makes me feel that my friends have raised me just as much (if not more) than my family of origin.
Q. While you are composing and rehearsing and performing your work, how do you see or think about your audience? Do you start with the idea that you wish to provoke/encourage them to evolve in their views? Or are you just writing from the heart?
My art is an externalization of my interior. By which I mean: I think good art is about the staging of an intimate conversation with the self. Once we begin to make art with other people in mind it has the capacity to lose its character, its intensity. It becomes fixated on being coherent, recognized, consumed. That being said: as a performance artist I am required to be attuned to the reactions of my audiences in the moment. Nothing is scarier then delivering a joke that doesn’t land! So it’s about striking that balance between doing justice to your interior and finding a way to communicate it to another universe.
Q. What is your view on the “divide” so to speak, existing between the personal and the professional especially when it comes to your art?
For me, being nonbinary isn’t just about gender, it’s an ambivalent attitude to binaries more generally. So much of what we have been taught as “normal” is actually the product of so many decisions that we didn’t consent to. There’s a porousness and permeability to everything. I believe that everything is in flux. And rather than seeing that as chaotic and something that must be contained or categorized, I see a lot of potential for creativity in that. Creating your own script. This is particularly the case for the “personal/professional.” Why should we have to disappear ourselves in order to be taken seriously? Why should we have to pretend that we are something we are not in order to be treated with respect?
Q. Where did “their” as a pronoun originate and why do people outside the gender binary prefer to use it?
I’m not sure where exactly it originated and can only speak for myself but I prefer it both because it’s a gender neutral alternative to his/her and because I like that it has a plural connotation. I contain multitudes!