Meet Anna Saini—a community organizer, author, and radical activist who is thrilled to be literally lending her voice to The Red Umbrella Diaries—a soon to be filmed documentary featuring seven LGBTQ sex worker storytellers.
The film, which is still in its fundraising stage—check out its Kickstarter!—will be a culmination of the Red Umbrella Project—a storytelling series that has been running out of New York’s Happy Ending Lounge since 2009. On November 14th, Anna with The Red Umbrella Project will be performing her story-telling at Joe’s Pub in New York City and it will be recorded for the feature film. We chatted with Anna about her involvement in the Red Umbrella Project and her activism off the stage.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five with Anna Saini!
Suzanna Bobadilla: Can tell us more about The Red Umbrella Diaries and what motivated you to get involved?
Anna Saini: I think The Red Umbrella Diaries is really exciting because it exists at the intersection where working class and low-income identities come together with race and gender oppression. The work that we are doing at The Red Umbrella Project is an indication of where feminism as a theory and practice has to move in order to remain relevant.
What excites me is that we are amplifying the voices of folks in the sex trade. I’m really interested in story-telling as a political project and I think that’s what we are achieving here. It’s [including] compelling stories that we don’t hear often in mainstream media, and reflecting identities that aren’t always incorporated in feminism. There’s a high entertainment value in what we are doing but there is also a really important political project in writing down our stories.
SB: What interested me from a performance perspective about The Red Umbrella Diaries is its focus on live, verbal story-telling. Compared with other forms of expression (like this online post), your audience will have more unfiltered access to your story and to you. Do you ever get nervous performing in this style?
AS: The anxiety about sharing my story and being so visible as a sex worker and as speaking really honestly about all of my identities usually comes after the fact. The thing about both The Red Umbrella Project and Diaries is that, from the beginning, I’ve always felt that I’m sharing with family. It’s been really important to me to connect with my community of sex workers. There is something so powerful and so important about how through the Red Umbrella Project, folks like Audacia and all of us as a community are really building and creating a space that feels really safe. For folks like us, there’s not a lot out there for us to create meaningful connections with each other. There’s also not a lot there for us to share our stories in that way because we’re criminalized, we’re stigmatized, and a lot of what we do has to be necessarily shrouded in secrecy. That’s what is really exciting about it. Sometimes I feel super comfortable and afterwards, I’ll be like, is this a bizarre thing to do? Haha, is this fine? But I feel really empowered in this space!
SB: How does this project fit in with your other areas of activism?
AS: I’ve actually done a lot of community organizing, I’ve worked in the labor movement, I’ve done labor organizing, anti-incarceration, prison abolition. I’ve also been working as a feminist media maker—I’m on of the founders producers of this little radio show that could, which is called Frequency Feminism, it airs out of Toronto. (I’ve since transitioned out of that programming.)
I feel like what we’re doing at The Red Umbrella Project really connects with everything I’ve been working on, it’s the zenith of that. Right now, I’m working as a community organizing with an organization called VOCAL New York: Voices of Community Activist and Leaders. And you know, [chuckles] we have very modest goals of ending the drug war, ending HIV and AIDS, and ending mass incarceration. On a daily basis, I’m working with and am in community with leaders who are drug users and sex workers and low-income folks. So during the day as a community organizer, I empower other folks to tell their stories as a way to create political change and my participation in Red Umbrella Project gives me that opportunity to tell my own story.
SB: What recent news story made you want to scream?
AS: I definitely have a very definite answer to this: It’s the Sinead O’Connor open letter to Miley Cyrus. In the follow up letter she wrote in response to the initial fire-storm, she actually said very explicitly that prostitution is not feminist. And that made me want to scream for sure.
SB: You’re going to a desert island and get to take one drink, one food, and one feminist. What do you pick?
AS: As couple of years ago, I organized a sex-worker rights’ film fest here in New York City for Sex Worker Rights’ Day. One of the films was “Tales of the Nightfairies” which is this amazing film about the largest, I think the only union of sex workers in India. There was this one auntie who told the story about how she taught her co-workers in the brothel tricks of the trade, how to convince your client to have sex with a condom. I would love to have a longer conversation with her over proper Indian food. Oh for drink, it would definitely have to be a mango lassi.