The question of what constitutes dark matter has puzzled scientists since 1932: a mass that does not respond to the whiteness of light, leading to its refraction or dissolution. Postulations presume it can be an invisible and unknown, yet ubiquitous and primordial, form of subatomic particle that defies the optics of the gaze. Though the crux of the cosmos, dark matter nevertheless eludes the powers that be: named, but still unknowable; closeted and concealed, though always at work; an other unknown object amassed in galaxies, driven by the accelerator of dark energy, endlessly expanding the universe until its rupture.
The queer South Asian performance and literary arts duo, Darkmatter, draws from the particular mystique of this subatomic enigma as a metaphor for their own wrangling with the (oftentimes oppressive) intersections of power and privilege in the labyrinth of identity. Comprised of Janani Balasubramanian and Alok Vaid-Menon, they make noise, perform spoken word, write excessively, facilitate workshops, and frequently flail their arms around in infinite directions.
Alok Vaid-Menon is a South Asian artivist who has performed & organized with queer movements around the world. They are committed to building radical queer movements and bodies that resist white supremacy and imperialism and like making art that thinks about these, and other what ifs. You can read some of their work atreturnthegayze.tumblr.com and queerlibido.tumblr.com.
Janani Balasubramanian is a South Asian literary and performance artist based in Brooklyn. Their work deals broadly with empire, desire, microflora, ancestry, apocalypse, and the Future. They’re the Primary Organizer at the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project and a contributing writer at Black Girl Dangerous (an online forum for QTPOC). They’re currently working on their first sci-fi novel, H. You can read more of Janani’s work at queerdarkenergy.com.
Ragna Rök Jóns : Tell our audiences a little bit about yourselves.
Alok Vaid-Menon: Hi my name is Alok and I spend a lot of time thinking about what parts of ourselves make us into bios and how it’s really often about solidifying an archetype of what we regard an ‘activist’ to be. Like I could tell you about the social movements I have been a part of, could tell you about the ‘work’ that I’ve done, but I can’t help but feel like such knowledge sharing is part of a resumé culture where we become synonymous with our labor. I don’t want to rehearse the tired distinction of myself as an ‘activist’ (including all of the public political work that I do) and as a ‘person’ (including all of my ‘private’ more intimate entanglements). So instead I suppose what you need to know (for the confines of this question at least) is that I often break my veganism for Nutella, I haven’t read most of the books of the theorists I say have influenced me, and I don’t really feel like ‘authenticity’ is a relevant paradigm in my life so I spend my days and gender trying to question it.
Janani Balasubramanian: I’m a South Asian artist and activist currently based in Brooklyn. Currently, I’m the primary organizer at the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project (an Alternative to Detention program for queer/trans/HIV+ immigrants), one-half of DarkMatter, and a writer in various other capacities. I’m also an introverted weirdo and I think of my work as just one autobiography in many different forms, always in relation to all the other autobiographies out there. I don’t think there are too many boundaries between ‘fiction’ and ‘reality’, or at least have a hard time discerning that there are.
RRJ: What identities, if any, particularly resurface in your lives, even if these labels may be tenuous and indefinite?
AVM: The usual suspects: queer, elite educated, person of color, South Asian, lactose intolerant, gender nonconforming, settler, caste/class privileged, ace spectrum, activist, weirdo – which I guess can be summarized as ‘artist.’
JB: Across time and space I’ve been nerdy, awkward, shy, anxious, and sad. I’m not opening with this in an attempt to be post-race, post-gender, etc. I think all my identities interact with and inform one another. But I think to a certain degree challenging systems of power (capitalism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, ableism, etc.) also involves coming to the revolution with all our strangeness and loneliness.
RRJ: When did you both begin to explore the nexus of poetry and activism?
AVM: In the spirit of full disclosure: I was one of those obnoxious emo kids in middle school. I didn’t really have much going wrong in my life, but something about emo culture really resonated with me. I suppose it was about there being a vast reservoir of angst out there that I could draw from at any time. I suppose it was about having access to a universal and coherent grammar of dissent. So I started writing ‘poetry’ while sitting in the corner of my bedroom with all the lights off. I wrote about sadness and trauma and violence and not all of it was my own but poetry became a way for me to grieve the world. And I think that work was activism because it was about emotional justice. So much violence is required for the world to continue itself and we rarely take the time to grieve it.
JB: Four years ago, Alok told me to show up to a slam team audition with a couple poems. I had no idea what spoken word was at the time, and I wrote and shared two pieces I’d never perform again in public, but it got me on the time. On my slam team I was able to do some initial exploration of what it means to insert your body into the text (both the power and danger of it). Since then, I’ve been broadening the scope and form of my writing.
RRJ: What has the process been like for trying to bring multiple marginalized perspectives (being South Asian, queer, and gender nonconforming) to the fore of your work?
AVM: I appreciate your use of the word ‘marginal’ here because in order for there to be a ‘margin’ there has to be a ‘center’ and many of the identities I hold are only ‘marginal’ if we accept white capitalist cisheteropatriarchy as the center. And while that is an embodied reality often in this particular iteration of empire I don’t actually think I’m invested in just branding myself as a victim of these marginalities. Granted, it is very difficult to have our work read by the mainstream white/straight/progressive world because of the liberal racism and homophobia that mainstream culture is predicated on. But representation is a really fraught project anyways – do I even want my work in these spheres of influence? I think it might lose its more subversive edges. Writing for the margins is perhaps different than writing from the margins. You don’t have to compromise what you have to say.
When I say that I’m not interested in seeing myself as only marginalized what I hope my art does is also complicate the binary thinking of so much of our social justice oriented work “privileged/oppressed, colonizer/colonized, etc.” what my experience reveals is how we can simultaneously occupy multiple locations of power and dispossession. For example: in the United States I am often racialized as Arab/Muslim which makes me a target for violence. However, within South Asia itself I am of the elite supremacist types of people as a Hindu, Brahmin, Indian, English speaking, educated, class ascendant person. To only focus on my victimhood in this country does a grave caste and class violence because it erases how the only reason I have even the privilege to be a ‘victim’ here is because my ancestors oppressed millions of people.
JB: Lately, a lot of our work has been about bringing those marginalizations to the forefront along with the privileges we occupy (as middle-class, upper-caste, English-speaking people in the West). I’m not sure how to answer this question otherwise, to be honest. I draw my capacity and inspiration from thousands who have managed to speak their difficult and complex truths before me. The process is always changing. Like all artists, we move through truths quickly. The ways we think about our identities shift as our own work and lives shift.
RRJ: What potency, do you both think, lies in the power of poesy to subvert and/or transform the intersections of kyriarchy?
AVM: I think one of the shortcomings of many of our social movements is that we approach systems of power as if they operate rationally. The logic goes that if we do enough know your rights trainings, if we give enough political education to enough people, if we change enough laws, then eventually somehow there’s going to be liberation for oppressed peoples. I think art is absolutely central for activism because systems of power don’t just operate rationally. Prejudice is a distinct flavor of emotion. I see my art and my poetry as political cultural work. Political work that is invested in tearing at the fabric of our culture, creating space for people to grieve and experience trauma, creating space for people to feel validated, creating spaces for people to dream up new worlds.
JB: I think poetry and fiction are transformative because they can (a) hold up mirrors to our experiences that didn’t exist before, (b) broaden our communities in doing so, and (c) shape the very futures we struggle and step into. My poetry wouldn’t exist without my organizing and without my community, and vice versa.
RRJ: To what extent do you feel the use of English as your primary language within spoken word poetry, given your centering on South Asian politics, bespeaks the insidious interlocking of traumas engendered by transnational colonialism, exploitative capitalism and white supremacy?
AVM: Yeah it’s completely terrible that I am only fluent in English. I refused to speak my native tongues with my parents growing up because I wanted to assimilate into whiteness. I was embarrassed by our languages – English seemed more sophisticated, more relevant, more white. Coming into my queerness through English has been a profoundly traumatic experience. The word ‘queer’ and all of its accordant politics will never really adequately fit in my body because it is not meant for it. Language justice has to be part of the ways in which we really organize around queer of color politics. We need to push back on the framing of English as somehow less gendered and less problematic than our native tongues. We need to think seriously about translation as a political process. Part of the reasons our communities aren’t listening to us is because of the simple fact that we aren’t speaking their language. Reconnecting with my native languages is an ongoing journey that I will wage my entire life. I view this as political work and dream of the day when I can speak fluently about violence, trauma, queerness, colonialism in different languages.
JB: English will not be the site of our liberations. Period. There are many folks who’ve been cut off from access to languages they would otherwise hold on their tongues, however. It’s just another in the laundry list of complications political artists negotiate–speaking in the language of oppressors. I’m doing my best to practice other languages in the meantime; maybe you’ll see a bilingual or trilingual piece from me soon enough.
RRJ: How best, do you believe, can we resist and counteract the assimilationist tendencies of homonationalist systems of power and privilege?
AVM: What’s becoming increasingly relevant to those of us invested in meaningful racial and economic justice is that ‘gay’ ‘rights’ is not actually that relevant for change. In fact, as they have currently been articulated, gay rights are actually more about stabilizing the status quo (capitalism, white supremacy, settler colonialism, ableism, etc.). What we’ve seen over the past few years is a shift away from cultural imagining of the (white) gay body as ‘criminal’ to the (white) gay body as ‘unthreatening;’ a shift from ‘exiled’ to ‘embraced,’ from ‘illegal’ to ‘nation.’ The gay (white) subject and increasingly the trans (white) subject have been incorporated into the national project with all of its aspirations and techniques of empire. Rather than critiquing state violence the gay rights ‘movement’ has readily sought to become a part of it. What this means is that now state power can point to gay rights to brand itself as ‘progressive’ while continuing to participate in its age old racist and colonial projects. Gay rights are so palatable because as they’ve been expressed (cleaved from race, class, citizenship, gender and other intersections) it’s largely been a politics of recognition rather than redistribution. There’s not much political work in snapping a Human Rights sticker to your car and listening to Macklemore in comparison to giving up land back to indigenous peoples and paying reparations for slavery. The ‘ask’ of the gay rights movement has simply been: let me oppress brown and black people just like you!
So considering all of this what I’ve been thinking a lot about is that as queer activists we should actually be fighting for the abolition of the queer. Queer is only useful in so much as it keeps us attentive to the ways in which racial and economic systems of control use gender and sexuality to implement their agenda. Which means I’m not interested in really just working with other folks who share my identity, I’m not interested in only caring about people who have experienced the ‘same’ oppression. I’m tired of queers only caring about queer issues and other queer people. If queer is really going to be significant it needs to be about unhinging our solidarity politics away from people who are just like us. It’s about expanding the field of where we deposit our empathy to become even more vast. It’s about giving a shit about everyone in the world living in a decent life and recognizing that that change is only going to come around by terminating colonialism and capitalism. I wouldn’t be so bold as to suggest what tactics would best allow us to do this. But I can say that the first move in combating homonationalism is refusing to see ‘queer’ issues in isolation from continual legacies of racial and class domination.
JB: By continuing to center and recenter the experiences of the most marginalized sexual and gender non-conforming bodies, to dismantle regimes of sexual/gender binaries rooted in colonialism and capitalism, and to redistribute material and ideological resources accordingly.
RRJ: Without seeking to localize or center on any particular form of oppression, which has the inevitable plight of privileging certain struggles over others, what do you believe are the most pressing of issues for activists today, both in the United States and abroad?
AVM: I don’t think that there is one form of oppression that’s more important to fight than another. I think there are a whole constellation of issues that we need to all be simultaneously fighting against. I don’t think we all need to be doing the same work. I’m less interested in arguing for a particular focus of our activism and more interested in developing shared tactics and strategies on how to fight. What I think needs to remain consistent in all of our work is: organizing which challenges the root causes (capitalism, colonialism, white supremacy), organizing which refuses to work with prisons and the police and exacerbate state violence, organizing which seeks alternatives to non-profits and foundations in building and sustaining our infrastructure, organizing that focuses on and is led by people most directly impacted by the issues of concern, organizing which values cultural work, I could just go on and on. It’s remarkable how little of this work we’re already doing. We have to do better.
JB: This question is too hard to answer! There are so many urgent and necessary struggles. The fundamentals haven’t changed. We need to topple capitalism and nation-state power. The industrial complexes need to be torn down. It doesn’t feel appropriate for me as a US person to comment on this much further, though.
RRJ: In what ways have you tried to incorporate struggles not from your own positionalities within your work, if you have? What have been some of the successes and difficulties in these exercises?
AVM: I came into my art form and my activism the way that a lot of middle class people do: from my own self-interested. I felt oppressed by racism and heterosexism and needed a space to heal and dissent. Since then I’ve developed a more complex analysis on what it means for me to be sharing my struggle. My struggle – as a middle class, elite educated, Hindu, Indian, male assigned at birth, etc. – is not really the struggle we should be prioritizing right now. My experiences with state violence came in a post 9/11 era. The trauma I induced in airports is in no way comparable to the trauma of anti-black discriminatory policing or mass incarceration.
What I’ve realized is that the telling of my victimhood narrative just gets re-appropriated by systems of power in the service of its anti-black, anti-native, and anti-poor agenda. The system can say: “Look Alok had it hard…and then worked hard and made it better!” My victim narrative is palatable because of my class privilege. But here the dilemma is that I don’t really think it’s ethical for me to be a spokesperson for other people’s struggles because we should be listening to the people most directly impacted by these experiences.
So now I see my stories of struggle more strategically. Talking about how hard it was for me as a queer South Asian makes people feel and I hope to take that feeling and help expand it to empathy for other struggles. I see my role in movement work and in activism as largely about getting people to listen to critiques and analyses that have always been around but have been forcibly silenced. It’s about taking the internalized and interpersonal trauma of oppression that people are keen to talking about it and forcing our audiences to confront the systems that create these conditions – systems that actually have disproportionate and targeted effects on people who are not me.
JB: One way I think we have incorporated struggles that are not from within our own social positions is writing about our privileges (individually and within our communities). I’m trying to tackle the intersections of speciesism, ethnocentrism, caste oppression, and Islamophobia, among other things, in my in-progress sci-fi novel.
RRJ: Do you both have any particular poems that you are proud of or attached to in your work?
AVM: I think I’m actually most attached the poetry that I used to write in middle and high school that I mentioned earlier. That initial and bodily experience of injustice. That sense of profound submission to a feeling. I think we dismiss and underestimate the power of our childhood angst.
JB: My favorite poems of mine are the ones where everyone in the audience goes quiet and no one has the gall to snap in case they miss a word. I like silence that makes people feel deeply uncomfortable with their realities. You’ll have to watch us perform (live or in video) to figure out which poems those are. ☺
RRJ: Any favorite icons, in poetry, activism, or otherwise?
AVM: I’ll use this space to give a shoutout to some of our fellow queer south asian artists! Joshua Vettivelu reminds me the power of our brown bodies. Mohammed Fayaz reminds me just how challenging and rewarding it is to decenter the white gayze in our craft. Yalini Dream reminds me about the urgency of what we have to say. D’Lo makes me believe that artists can actually be in community and meaningfully support one another under capitalism. Besides making me cry Sohil Bhatia makes me remember how much beauty we are capable of making with simple resources.
JB: Too many to name! Right now I’m going wild over Nalo Hopkinson’s written work, and over the tremendous activist work of all the comrades I work with in New York.
Interview with Janani Balasubramanian & Alok Vaid-Menon of Darkmatter
All Images Courtesy of Darkmatter