Making any type of art as a queer person, as any person, doesn’t just have to do with putting beauty forth or accomplishing a kind of celebrity in the larger world -- sometimes it is fundamentally a tactic of surviving in what seems like an otherwise unsurvivable world. An artist who knows this first hand is Alok Vaid-Menon. A poet, performance artist, and proud nonbinary trailblazer and activist, Vaid-Menon has not always been the vibrantly technicolored global speaker we know them as now. In fact, they’ve lived within the confines of fear for years.
Growing up in a rural Texas town, Vaid-Menon was not only a person of color in a predominantly white area, but also struggled with presenting themselves as they truly knew they were -- as happily blurring the lines between what’s traditionally recognized as the (often stringent) presentations of the masculine and feminine.
Now out as nonbinary, Vaid-Menon is setting their own rules as to what their style is, what needs to be discussed regarding the rampant violence against not only the LGBTQ community, but trans people in particular, especially trans people of color, and what it’s like to live in fear of everyday tasks like walking down the street in their own neighborhood.
Vaid-Menon embodies the kind of activist that our community needs so dearly. We had the chance to discuss their poetic practice, feelings of otherness, and their means of survival in a society that often mocks. In true poet form, they did not disappoint.
Tell us a little about your background. What was it like growing up in a conservative area being a nonbinary person of color? Do you remember when you started feeling this "otherness"? And what was that like?
On the one hand I had to face constant erasure, invalidation, and hostility. On the other hand: I learned from an early age a type of confidence and determination that I still carry with me today. I developed lifelong friendships with people who had and will always have my back.
Otherness was what we grew up with in my tight-knit Indian community in our predominantly white town. Some of my earliest memories were my classmates commenting on how strange/wrong/ugly/smelly my people were. We’re talking at four years old being told: ‘Why don’t you wash your body, so that brown dirt can come off?’
Rather than being a site of refuge and comfort, the Indian community became one of the fiercest spaces of gender policing. As a response to racism my community responded with heteronormativity – ‘maybe if we don’t look or act different they will leave us alone.’
From a young age I was assigned loneliness. And in this isolation I had to learn how to be abundant and resourceful. This is how I developed my art practice: desperation. I desperately wanted to be felt, to be understood, to be real.
Could you tell us about how you process living with fear as an out and proud nonbinary POC? What do you hope to see change?
I wish that I could exist in public without being afraid for my safety. I wish that this world would afford complexity and compassion toward people like me. I wish that we did not have to re-traumatize ourselves, make a commodity out of our pain, in order to be believed, respected, let alone legitimated. I wish that people would honor our artistry and our contributions. I wish that my appearance was irrelevant to my personhood.
I don’t process the fear well. It tears me apart. This year I have been focusing more on rejuvenation. It feels like some of the most difficult work I have ever done.
What do you aim to do with your platform, specifically for the queer community?
It constantly changes. Right now I want us to be more honest about mental health. I want to obliterate the stigma of talking about pain, loneliness, fear, lack. I want to cultivate a commitment to one another beyond the binaries we have inherited: male/female of course, but also triumph/tragedy, mind/body, out/in, liberated/oppressed.
What do you recommend for others who may be struggling to accept themselves and their identity?
Enmesh yourself with people who do not care about what you look like and have a practice of care for you that is not dependent on your ability to be something that you are not. Self-actualization, I think, comes from and through needing and being in communion with others. Find your Other others. The people who have been disenfranchised from the norm. Come together and imagine something else.
Did you start writing poetry as a way to cope with feeling like an outsider?
Yes, but calling it a coping strategy doesn’t quite capture the urgency of it. It was more like: a survival strategy. Without my art practice I wouldn’t be alive. Making art gave me the permission to live. I needed somewhere to put the pain. I needed to create images and words and feelings that allowed me to exist. I couldn’t express myself outwardly without fear of violence. So my art practice was where and how I came to life.
There was no one around me who looked and thought and dreamt like me. I was denied representation and templates. I was actively punished for daring to think or exist otherwise. The education I was indoctrinated into taught me that I [was] wrong. My art practice allowed me to do the collage-work of taking something from here, and something from there, and putting them all together such that the final product became larger and more tremendous than the sum of their parts. Which is, I suppose, my way of saying that it feels wrong to say that I created my art. I think my art created me.
How has this method of communication and language helped to shape and transform you as an adult?
I had a vivid imagination. My mind was one of the only safe spaces I had for expression and creativity. Being able to envision things internally allowed me to scaffold out my life and what I wanted to materialize in the world. Cultivation of self-awareness allowed me to figure out what I wanted and needed. It gave me direction and purpose that have been so central to my composite today.
Are there specific pieces you remember being hesitant to share at first? Is there a poem that still makes you nervous to share?
I would say the hesitancy is not so much about particular pieces, and more about speaking truth more generally. We are so incentivized in this world to keep quiet and to lubricate the status quo. Poetry in its most engaging form is honest. Ruthlessly so. Being honest is difficult because you know there might be resistance. And there almost always is. I’ve loved to embrace the hesitancy, the awkwardness, the reservation. It just gets worse when we pretend it isn’t there.
Don’t miss Alok Vaid-Menon at Femme in Public, hosted by WUSSY at 7 Stages Atlanta this Friday, June 21st. Click here to find more info and ticketing.
Dakota is a poet, journalist, and right in the damn center of the Kinsey scale. Follow her on Twitter: @Likethestates.