The Feministing Five: Creatrix Tiara

For this week’s Feministing Five, we spoke with Creatrix Tiara, who is a producer, writer, and performer of “Yoni Ki Baat,” an original series of stories by women from the South Asian Diaspora.

unnamed (1)First staged in 2003, “Yoni Ki Baat” has featured the stories and performances of South Asian women, created by those who are professionals actors to newbies, who come from all corners of the globe. This year’s “Yoni Ki Baat” will be performed at the San Francisco Women’s Center on April 18th and 19th (buy tickets here) and portions of proceeds will benefit some amazing organizations.

Creatrix Tiara is an interdisciplinary iconoclast exploring the liminality of being a queer female migrant minority through performance art, writing, music, and whatever form fits the message best. She has just graduated with an MFA in Creative Inquiry at the California Institute of Integral Studies while also actively participating in community activist art around the Bay Area and worldwide.

And now without further ado, the Feministing Five with Creatrix Tiara!

Suzanna Bobadilla: Thank you so much for speaking with us today! What’s the meaning behind Yoni Ki Baat? 

Creatrix Tiara: Yoni Ki Baat literally means, “Yoni Speaks,” and in this case, “yoni” means vagina. It was inspired directly by the Vagina Monologues, but everything is written by South Asian women about their lives. Unlike “The Vagina Monologues,” where Eve Ensler went and interviewed a bunch of people and then created the script as a one-person written show, here it’s individual stories, individually written by different women in the South Asian diaspora around the world.

SB: As a producer, a performer, and writer for Yoni Ki Baat, you have overseen various aspects of this and previous years’ productions. What makes 2015’s show particularly exciting? 

CT: My involvement with YBK started around 2011 when I submitted a piece for the show. I wasn’t in the Bay Area during that time so I couldn’t perform it, but when I moved to the Bay Area a year or so later, I was able to perform but I performed other people’s pieces. This year, it’s actually the first time I get to perform a piece that I wrote. It’s very exciting.

This year we made a much more concerted effort to get pieces from outside our usual demographics. A lot of our pieces have historically come from American-based youngish (20-30s) women who are middle class with Hindu or Christian background. We still get a diverse range of stories but the experiences tend to be fairly similar after a while. This year we made a huge effort to reach out to communities that we don’t usually hear from.

For example, this year one of our pieces is by someone from a Pakistan background and there are a lot of shout-outs to her culture. Another piece comes from a writer in Australia and it’s a cute piece that deals with dating mishaps. You don’t have to be from Australia to understand it, and that’s the beauty of it! We have people from around the world of all sorts of ethnicities, dealing with grief in unusual ways or dealing with accents, like how I hate when people ask where my accent is from, which is what I discuss in my piece. We have pieces about sexuality. This year, we are very blessed to have a wide range of stories, particularly stories that we don’t really even hear about in South Asian circles simply because they come from underrepresented communities in the South Asian diaspora.

I’m really, really glad that our script this year has jumped in quality. It’s excellent. We have gone out on a limb with pieces that are a bit riskier in terms of performance, but we have a very strong show this year.

SB: What about your fellow performers makes you particularly proud? Would you like to give any of them a shout-out?

CT: Oh wow, I would love to give all of them a shout-out! The main thing about YKB, perhaps even more than the show itself, is the rehearsal process. The whole point of YKB is to be a community building project and to come to rehearsals and to show up for themselves and each other. We have people who are seasoned performers and we have people who have never performed a day in their life. Everyone is killing it!

We meet twice a week, and we have seen everyone improve so much. They have been bringing so much to their performance, whether the script is something that they wrote or someone else’s. We particularly enjoy watching people who have not done this before because it’s really interesting to see their process.

For example, one of the people we have in this year’s show, Palak Shah, has not done theater before and she has a really difficult piece called “Monsoon Wedding, 3rd Grade, and No-Go-Tell,” by Sandhya Jha. The piece is talking about having survived child sexual assault and how you negotiate that in a small, close-knit community. It’s a very challenging piece for anyone really, but the fact that Palak has not done theater before is incredible because she has found so many different colors of the piece and has humanized so many of the characters. She made what could be a very downer piece an emotional story that is so full of heart. I’m so proud of her for doing it.

My favorite piece in the entire show is Niki Aggarwal performing “Shedding the Warrior” by Kirin Khan, the writer from Pakistan who I referred to earlier. It’s one of the most complex pieces, also talking about sexual assault but also about body modifications and how the writer uses piercings and tattoos. It’s a very dark piece, and again, it’s very easy to make that piece downer and depressing, but Niki beautifully humanizes the piece, makes it funny in part, and brings such raw emotion to it. I’m very proud of her to make this complex piece very accessible.

Our performers really get to know their writers, and they want to honor the spirit of the writer. They respect the integrity of the written piece but they also bring their own flare and something of themselves.

SB: What significance does YKB’s intentional focus on South Asian women’s experiences hold for you? 

CT: When I first heard of Yoni Ki Baat, I was living in Australia, building a career in burlesque and performance art. I was one of maybe very few people of color burlesque performers in Australia. I was also very overtly political with my work, and a lot of people in Australian burlesque did not like that. The reaction ranged from spreading rumors to blackballing me from performances. I was feeling very isolated and frustrated that when I did get acknowledged it was like, “Oh well, you’re the Bollywood princess.” I didn’t have any Bollywood in my pieces.

I then stumbled across YKB by chance and was so excited to see that it existed! Because I got my start in performance by being in the “Vagina Monologues,” I’ve had a soft spot for that show. But when I learned about YKB, I thought that it was so relevant. I grew up in Malaysia in a Bangladesh immigrant family but I was disconnected from my culture because there weren’t other Bangladesh families around me and when I did come back to Bangladesh, I was the foreigner. My first piece was about how I didn’t relate to the word “Yoni” because it wasn’t in any of the languages that I speak and how I felt about languages in general. The fact that the people involved with Yoni Ki Baat respected that really meant a lot to me.

Now that I am involved with Yoni Ki Baat as a performer and a producer, I so appreciate their ability to hold the plurality of South Asian experiences. The fact that I was queer was fine, I could talk about my girlfriend and it was the same as if they talked about their husbands. I could talk about pursuing whatever art kink project I was working on and they’d support me. Some people come from directly immigrant backgrounds and some people have lived here their whole lives. We’ve had performers who have young kids. The fact that we have been able to create a space and say, “You might not be the stereotype for being South Asian but you might not be Mindy Kaling either. You are you and your South Asianness is not in dispute here.” People in YKB believe you — no one disputes your pieces. Even when we don’t see eye to eye about the politics on some issues, we work together to still honor each other.

The thing that is so beautiful about Yoni Ki Baat is that inclusion is baked in. We know how even within the South Asian diaspora our stories may not be very well represented. Because we understand that, we work to make diversity within the production process.

SB: Who inspires you to do this work? 

CT: I am inspired by the people who get back in touch with us after a performance and talk about why it meant something — whether it’s “Oh that happened to me too” or “I totally get it” or “Thank God someone spoke up about this.” I am so inspired when the audience connects with it and tells us something more than “That was nice.” It drives the work that I do with YKB, the work that I did before, and even YKB’s existence. Yoni Ki Baat is a beacon for people to come by and say, “That’s me too and I am so glad to see that someone else understands.”

SB: Let’s pretend you are stranded on a desert island. You can take with you one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you choose? 

CT: As I’m Malaysian, I have to take Malaysian food as it’s the best. I love hot chocolate so that would be my drink. For my feminist, it would be my dear friend Asha Gill. She’s known as the Singaporean host of “The Weakest Link,” and she is unabashedly feminist. She worked with Amnesty International in Malaysia on ending violence against women, and she is now very outspoken about rights for single mothers. We’ve been friends for over ten years, and I have learned so much from her. We would have a great time on the island and might even figure out a way to make it off!

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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