Alok Vaid-Menon Makes Activism Pure Poetry
With a social following of 100,000 and counting, poet and fashionista Alok Vaid-Menon is redefining art and activism in the digital age. Vaid-Menon found time to chat about gender in India, resisting categorization, and the unappreciated value of rage. Text Steven Dolan. Portrait Cait Opperman. This interview was originally published in 2016.
Steven Dolan: Darkmatter just closed the latest installment of your show #ItGetsBitter at the Under the Radar Festival in New York. Congratulations on that. How are you feeling about that set of shows and your upcoming tour?
Alok Vaid-Menon: UTR was soOOooO fun! For the first time we got the opportunity to work with a tech crew and a director (the lovely Charlotte Braithwaite), so our work became more 3-dimensional. We were taking a lot of the techniques we’ve learned from watching and immersing ourselves in experimental theater and applying them to our show—and it worked! The success of these shows are what I’m still giddy off of as we prep for our national tour over the next few months.
SD: Your work seems to account for a lot of your time. Is making time for yourself a priority, or even an interest?
AVM: I’ve been found out! How could you tell! :p Yes, I work a lot. It’s a joke among my friends that I’m always working on something and never know how to chill out. It’s something that I’m trying to get better at. I think I struggle with the irreconcilable tension of recognizing the urgency of violence against people and communities in my life that I care deeply about and wanting to do everything in my power to make the world a little bit less terrible AND recognizing that I need to pace myself otherwise I will burn out. I’m still figuring it out but there is one thing I know to be true: making art makes me very happy and after a show I feel like anything is possible. The stage keeps bringing me back.
SD: Tell me about your recent trip to India. What was it like navigating space there as a non-binary trans person?
AVM: Well, it was similar to navigating space in the United States in that I had to make daily calculations like, “Am I going to be alone at night?” “Do I know how to get there?” I made decisions accordingly on what I wore in order to ensure my safety. “India” is a word that holds millions of people of different religions, castes, classes, traditions, ideas, etc. My experience shifted depending on where in India I was. One thing that feels important to say here is that—as a whole—I actually felt safer presenting as gender non-conforming than I do in the US. This was, of course, influenced by the structural power I have as a lighter skinned, upper Caste, English speaking person—but still, at some level I felt like there was a form of social acknowledgment, and perhaps even acceptance, of my difference. My difference didn’t necessarily translate into a need to police and destroy it, as so often happens in the US. I also found that gender was just signified completely differently there. Things like my nose ring and my hair meant such different things than they do in the US. I was reminded once again that gender is a racial construct and that what I might think of as gender “transgression” in a Western context isn’t negotiated as so elsewhere—and vice versa.
SD: Your social media posts showed you wearing outfits that incorporated traditional Indian garments. How did these pieces function while you were in India? Did they act as signifiers of your identity?
AVM: You know, honestly, it felt like a bigger deal to me to wear these pieces than it was to the Indians for whom I was performing. They were kind of just like, “Yeah, cool.” But I was more like, “OMG!!! Y’ALL! LOOOOK!!!!” Personally, there was something poignant and important about wearing a sari and Indian jewelry because it kind of felt like a big “UMPH” to all of the gender policing I experienced growing up in Indian diasporic communities. Like, I’ve worn Western dresses a lot, but something about wearing Indian femme clothing made me feel more confrontational. I never saw a picture of someone who looks like me wearing a sari and now I have that, and that heals some part of the sad child still in me. :)
SD: I find that being “femme” is often understood as purely presentational and that there is also a limited understanding of what looks “femme,” which often limits a deeper understanding of other kinds of gender expression. What are your thoughts on that?
AVM: Yes, I agree. There is absolutely no one way to look, “femme.” What we often end up doing is only regarding people who most closely approximate white cis femininity as “femme.” I struggle with this a lot because sometimes I just feel like wearing a button down shirt and a pair of slacks. That doesn’t make me any less femme, but I know this world will call me a man. I shouldn’t have to wear makeup, I shouldn’t have to wear a dress, I shouldn’t have to shave to be recognized for who I am. But this isn’t just about femininity, it’s about gender more generally. How do we get the world to recognize that gender is who we are, not necessarily what we look like? This idea that gender must be visible is actually reproducing so much violence on the most vulnerable among us.
SD: You’ve spoken about allowing people their complicatedness, refusing and resisting the tendency people have to categorize. Could you speak to that? Why is that important?
AVM: I believe that people are tremendously peculiar. I believe that we are all strange and unique and unfamiliar. I think that the constellation of experiences, ideas, aesthetics, and identities that constitute our lives can never—and in fact never will be able to be—categorized. (Let alone by language, LOL!) It makes me concerned that we take identities as prophesy for who people are in their deepest essence. I recognize the importance of categories and identities in giving a place to start from—to talk about what the distribution of power and life chances looks like in the world—but if we stop there then we lose. We have to push ourselves to believe in the infinite transformation of one another. We have to push ourselves to recognize and celebrate one another’s complexity, otherwise we will lose. The State has taught us that we can identify people with papers and words and identities. I believe we can do so much more than that.
SD: Right! Identity is often a way people and systems pin others down and erase existence beyond static ideas. Do you have a sense of how to communicate our own identities, and on the other side, be aware of the nuances of others’ essences?
AVM: Storytelling!!! I think we need as many spaces and places as possible for people to tell their own stories on their own terms and what we’ll find is that each person is just like a jug of stories flowing around and just being mistaken as a body. It’s also about learning how to truly listen to one another...practicing an intentional commitment to be present, to bear witness, to experience and embrace one another’s complexity.
SD: Is it important to you to show compassion to the "uninitiated"? Without putting the burden of education on marginalized communities, how do we support growth within unjust systems of oppression?
AVM: It’s difficult for me to speak in absolutes; I think each person has their own strategies of resistance and that there’s no “one” or “best” way to resist. I especially don’t believe that we should tone police or censor or dictate the terms by which oppressed people resist. But personally I really do try to practice a philosophy of compassion. I am so tough and unapologetic with white people, with masculine people, with straight people—precisely because I love them so hard and believe in their transformation. Sometimes when people meet me they tell me that they expected me to be mean all of the time, but I also just like talking about our daddy issues and where you grew up and getting to know people in all of their complexity and trauma and starting the process of unlearning and building anew from that place. I believe earnestness and empathy are strengths. If I had the time I would invite everyone in the world over for some hot chocolate and talk about our feelings of loneliness and how they’re linked to capitalism and what can do about it.
SD: Totally. Oftentimes there is a narrative of negativity imposed upon activists and anyone who is outraged by the reality of the world. We are encouraged to "think positively" and operate with Hallmark-ready sentiments on our hearts. People also don't like being told they're wrong or that their behaviors contribute to violence—that word alone really scares people. You use the word "rage" a lot in a way that suggests it's positive or productive. What does that word mean to you? Why is rage important?
AVM: Oh gosh, I think rage is so beautiful and awe-inspiring. Rage means intensity, honesty, confrontation. It’s gotten a negative connotation, but I think it’s actually necessary because so much of this world is about desensitizing us to everything, making us numb to our own pain and the pain of others, and sometimes people need to be awoken to the fact that there’s something worth fighting for.
SD: In your StyleLikeU interview you talk about niceness as a radical act. Could you expand on that?
AVM: In a world that functions on a currency of violence, terror, disposability, and criminalization, compassion feels like an act of resistance. And when I say “compassion,” I don’t mean complacency or pacification, I don’t mean deference or pure forgiveness. I mean really recognizing that part of what we’re doing is trying to remember old ways of relating to each other, of learning together, of resisting together outside of what we have been taught.
SD: Who are some artists we should be watching?
AVM: Umm there is just so much amazing stuff being produced by so many amazing artists—especially queer and trans people of color!! It makes me feel like WoAH! We are building something brave and bold and necessary together right now. For example, I am elated by my friend Jamal’s project No Fats, No Femmes, Cam Akward-Rich’s poetry book, and Richie Shazam Khan’s beautiful beautiful beautiful fashion. There’s just so much good stuff out there that just gets invisibilized because the art world is so #TBT and still thinks masc white art is relevant!—