The Feministing Five: Darkmatter


Janani Balasubramanian and Alok Vaid-Menon of Darkmatter

Janani Balasubramanian and Alok Vaid-Menon make up the incredible trans South Asian art and activist collaboration Darkmatter. Masterfully using humor, language, and rhythm, Darkmatter pushes their audience to reflect and take action on racial justice, anti-colonialism, and gender and sexuality politics. Their spoken performances share stories from their childhoods to conversations during their young adult lives, and they invite you to find the poetry in your own world, relationships, and journey toward social justice.

Excitingly, Darkmatter’s brilliance can also be found within their written poetry, prose, interviews, and tweets (seriously, follow them now). Like their individual work, which has been featured in outlets such as Black Girl Dangerous, Racialicious, The New York Times, and Upworthy, Darkmatter’s written media demonstrates the incredible nuance, thoughtfulness, and constant creativity that Janani and Alok bring to their craft. While their performances are engrossing and entertaining, viewers should certainly not forget the focused beyond-the-stage work that Janani and Alok carry with them in their journey to fight racial, imperial, gender, and sexual oppression.

We spoke with Darkmatter hours before their performance at the 2014 Queer New York International Arts Festival. Check out where they will be performing next and be sure to invite them to your upcoming arts/activist event!

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five with Darkmatter!

Suzanna Bobadilla: Thank you so much for speaking with us, especially only a few hours before a spoken word performances. To get the interview started, how do you usually prepare for a show? 

Janani Balasubramanian: Today has been crunch time for us because we have been prepping a bunch of new material for this show in particular. I guess you could describe our process as being very weird. Part of it us sitting around, coming up with puns. Part of it is us coming up with what you could call experimental noise music.

Alok Vaid-Menon: I’m really bad at memorizing and the only way that I can memorize is by turning all of my poetry into songs or cheerleading chants or dances. [gives an example; it's incredible]

Janani: Once it devolves, it gets a little weirder.

SB: Do you ever get stage-fright prior to going on? 

Janani: I don’t actually experience stage-fright, but I have anxiety in every other aspect of life. What I really prep for is the moment after a show when I’m no longer performing and I have to encounter the audience as a large group of people.

Alok: I don’t really get nervous per se, but I always need to pee during shows. I have to pee about seven times before going on stage just to make sure that I can go through an entire set without stopping. Usually, after we finish, I have to run out.

Janani: I tend to run out before there are a large group of of people, and Alok runs out because they have to pee. But we’ll both come back!

SB: Your collection of work includes a mix of spoken word performance, written poetry, organizing, and activism. How do you move between these different realms? Is art and activism separate?

Alok: For myself, my art expresses more about me. I write a lot about my own life, my own trauma, my own family, whereas a lot of my organizing is about me working in solidarity with other people. Obviously, I’m organizing around similar issues to those I am living but there is a disconnect. The type of organizing that I am doing is often in solidarity with other folks and that doesn’t make it as much into my poetry. Part of that is that I think about issues of representations and how I don’t want to move past my own narrative. I like to use “I” in my art.

Janani: I would echo that and add a different response as well. I am working on a book right now where I am trying to translate my poetry brain into a creative prose brain. In particular, I am working on a science fiction novel, and I’ve learned that nonlinear narrative work is easier to accomplish with longer prose.

SB: While listening to your poetry, I heard this tension between wanting to just leave this world to create a just one versus staying within a flawed one to improve it. Could share a bit more about how you both experience that tension as creators? 

Alook: I think you’re right, that’s a huge tension in a lot of our work. Janani and I used to begin our shows making this joke that I am “backyard girl” and Janani is “spaceship girl.” What that means for me is that I am still on earth, but I am trying to have people go up the ladder to space. I’m really interested in building coalitions with allies and really talking about critique, whereas Janani —

Janani: I think there are two things that are implied in me being “spaceship girl.” One is that I have a deeper investment in creating new worlds and the separatism that accompanies those new worlds. Also, I tend to think in more science fiction and fantastic terms.

Alok: Obviously that is an oversimplification, but I find it very difficult to imagine worlds outside of these systems for whatever reason, so my work is really critical.

Janani: My work, and not even the work that is publicly visible yet, tends to be more imaginative and out there in a different way.

SB: In your other talks, you speak about your desire to create a queer revolutionary practice that places race, ethnicity, and anti-colonialism at the center of its efforts. Could you share a bit more about what that would look like? 

Janani: I think some of that work is already happening. We have had the opportunity to travel to Palestine a couple years ago, and we spent the summer working in solidarity with the queer movement, specifically with Al-Qaus, which is a grassroots queer organization in the West Bank and ’48, which is sometimes known as Israel. While building community, making relationships, and creating art in that context, we  learned a lot about how queer organizing can very deliberately set out to resist its own co-optation by nation-building projects like Israel, by pink-washing initiatives, by very capitalist, militarist super structures that are trying to use queer bodies to justify their own violence.

Alok: The implications of that are really huge. One of the things that we really learned from doing solidarity work in Palestine and also doing solidarity work with communities of color in the US is that actually when we are talking about gender and sexuality politics, we are talking about racial justice. We use queer and trans activism to become intelligible for the broader queer public, but that’s not what we subscribe to. We really see ourselves as racial justice and anti-colonial activists. Our gender and sexuality politics are part of that.

For us, it’s important to recognize that LGBT is a distraction. Cis women of color and straight women of color are still experiencing gender and sexual violence. Cis men of color and straight men of color are still experiencing gender policing and violence. For us, the very idea of gender has historically been and continues to be a colonial conception.

How do we come at our work and not say, “We’re queer and we’re bringing in the race”? We see ourselves foregrounding racial justice and bringing in queer activism. That’s not to say that we are creating a hierarchy, but we recognize that racial justice was already doing all the work that queer work pretends to be doing. The more that we work in solidarity specifically with black and indigenous activists in the U.S. and people in the third world resisting US imperialism, we see a lot of unusual suspects. People who might not identify as queer or trans fighting for gender or sexual self-determination. What we are really fighting for as trans and queer activists is the right to autonomy over our bodies. That has always been a political ask of indigenous and black movements in this country since their inception.

SB: What Darkmatter projects should we keep an eye out for in the coming months? 

Alok: We are debuting two new pieces tonight at our show. They are really, really funny. We are waiting until we memorize the lines and have a good recording of it to post online, but I’ll give you the titles of them. The first one is called, “The It Gets Bougie Project.” The second one is called, “An Open Letter to the Basic White Witches of Hogwarts, from Parvati and Patima Patil.”

SB: And now for our traditional last question. You are stranded on a desert island and you get to take with you one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you choose? 

Alok: For me, it would be Nutella. I’m a vegan, but that’s my transgression. My drink would be mango nectar. My feminist would be my mother.

Janani: My food would be kale or mango. My drink would be water. My feminist would be Alok!

Suzy 1 

 Suzanna Bobadilla is the interviews contributor for Feministing. 

San Francisco, CA

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist. According to legend, she first publicly proclaimed that she was a feminist at the age of nine in her basketball teammate's mini-van. Things have obviously since escalated. After graduating from Harvard in 2013, she became a founding member of Know Your IX's ED ACT NOW. She is curious about the ways feminists continue to use technology to create social change and now lives in San Francisco. She believes that she has the sweetest gig around – asking bad-ass feminists thoughtful questions for the publication that has taught her so much. Her views, bad jokes and all, are her own. For those wondering, if she was stranded on a desert island and had to bring one food, one drink, and one feminist, she would bring chicken mole, a margarita, and her momma.

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist.

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