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Thursday 10 November 2016

Review: Alok Vaid-Menon AKL

Posted in: Performance
By Elspeth Fougere - 10th October 2016

With huge excitement in the Auckland queer community, one half of the now famous DarkMatter poetry duo, Alok Vaid-Menon performed three shows this weekend at the Basement theatre, and held a Saturday afternoon writing workshop, primarily for people of colour here in New Zealand.

An American poet, of South Asian and Brahmin Hindu descent, Alok has become quite a sensation on Instagram, Facebook and other social media platforms, as well as in live performance across the USA. Along with Janani Balasubramanian, a fellow queer non-binary trans poet, also of South Asian family, the duo DarkMatter has put bold words and faces to a voice not often heard in mainstream media. Not surprisingly, in an era of Caitlyn Jenner, Orlando and the Hilary/Trump popularity contests, their swift rise to fame as visible non-binary trans, queer, people of colour over the last four years has been hugely controversial.

An outspoken critic, some would say that Alok rides the back of the underdog, while in fact being a privileged Stanford University scholar, who affords the time and money to indulge in fashion shoots with friends with fancy cameras. Their articulate sneers at mighty White America, while living so high up the pecking order of migrant hierarchies, couldn’t possibly hope to understand the real concerns of most queer people of colour, who don’t get to attend university, who don’t get to live in Brooklyn, New York, who don’t get to escape neighbourhoods of poverty, injustice, and police violence. Others question Alok’s non-binary trans feminine identity, arguing that we should do away with gender all together and just be ourselves, ending conversations of colonial and patriarchal ideas on masculinity or femininity. How can someone transgress binary gender paradigms while so flagrantly presenting themselves in the mode of western femme culture?

Seeing Alok perform, it's not so easy to shoot someone down when they fully own their own paradox. From the start they assert, they don’t have to be a woman or a man to be a coherent human being. A quick flick through online profiles should make anyone aware that there is more to this than meets the eye.

The backroom at Basement Theatre was jammed with tables and chairs, and tiered bleachers lining the back wall, packing in as many people as legally possible in this tiny dungeon of an underground theatre. People nervously shuffled in anticipation, some cramming the floor at the foot of the stage. There was a quieter hum among the crowds too, anticipation of stark honesty, and jittery drinks to dull the pain with friends, of what is already a known daily reality for plenty of us here in New Zealand.

Alok wanders in, peeking round the door and then springing onto stage, in a saturn rosebud dressing gown, with the chesty hint of a neon pink and striped leotard. The solo poet scrunches onto the small stage, polished hand reaching out to flick switches on the effects machine; Alok layers repetitions of sound and breath, short phrases, and we are deep into melancholy before we have blinked, as two poems roll out to us and fill the small room with a gentle but powerful voice.

Ten seconds later, the poem ends and Alok is all chirpy and full of banter, accidentally knocking over a plugbox full of cords, and a humble joking scuffle amongst the knees and cross legged faces staring adoringly up at the platform stage.

Now we are challenged to move past our white conditioning, to give a little love in generosity to the poems we are about to receive, to let out our loudest moan in public on the count of three.

All sarcasm and bravado, while pouty and flippant, Alok oscillates between serious and poetic, from fact-filled storms shooting bullets about the reality of the violence of colonial nationalism, to empathetic dedications, to loving fathers who moved countries through the inherited trauma of fitting into other peoples meanings of what it is to be a brown male or female in a white world, no matter how much they took it out on their children.

People giggle at first, plenty of finger snapping agreements, and as 11.30pm wears on past midnight, the heaviness of confrontation and white discomfort spreads across the room. There is no way out, as personal revelations sit with tender memories, snippets from day to day family life, made even more painful alongside bulleted facts spat, half of all black transwomen have been in prison, and if that isn’t systemic injustice, what is?!

In Bring in Brown to keep Black Down, Alok acknowledges the diaspora of being an Indian in America, the ‘I love America’ tshirts, and the oppressions their own people have engaged in, inside and outside of white colonisation. Alok’s very embodiment, being a dark, hairy person of South Asian descent, means they are often first read as an Islamic terrorist, and then as a confusing other, or sometimes just a faggot. First recognising themselves through the white construct of “gay”, their giving birth to themselves, has been a process of both de-colonising themselves, at the same time as finding the realness in reframing their sexuality and gender on their own terms, and the strength in that. So many of us in the LGBTIQ community could empathise with the feeling that, no matter how much we move from childhood discomforts to adult self acceptance, the minute we go outside we are under attack. To many, Alok is a heroine, whose brave presence rings “I exist, I belong, I have a right to be myself, and I am not alone”.

A final ballad rolls out, and repetitions whisper and fade getting quieter and quieter until you can almost hear the people breathing next to you.

Alok disappears out the door, and the audience is left shellshocked. Its not so much that the atmosphere is thick with emotion, as folks are quietly grieving together. Some people scuffle off, others are glued to their seats and drift out slowly, taking time for rich conversations afterwards, while others of us leave to dance at Family and shake it all out of our bodies, or shake our bodies out into the world a little more proudly.

Aloks poetry is not just for victims and the oppressed. It’s hard to digest, unpalatable made palatably sweeter by humour, self depreciation, sarcasm, exageration. They are sometimes accused of superficial parody. One can see why, but I think it goes deeper. A good performer will always play with what is familiar, and distort it slightly, to open a gap in the actuality of our perceived world. Vulnerability, a gem, somehow sitting amongst the detracting bravado, cant negate there is a real human here, who is proudly stating and revelling in their human messiness. While they refute the trend in projecting “authenticity”, they are a living breathing conundrum made of the very complexities and paradoxes which self exposure requires, which being queer requires of us.

One thing is for certain though, Alok is a fighter, whether it’s with articulate streams of consciousness, dissecting the state of Global Colonisation or American politics, or the sarcastic humour of a generation, that is sometimes the only antidote to the pain of the unfunny state of life, the admission that we are all lonely, or the sugar sweet glee at childhood memories and reclaiming the innocence of a self before ‘shoulds' got in the way.

Its so easy to de-personalise trans people. To critique them, analyse them, and characterise them.

Alok’s determined giving birth to themselves, opens the space for us all to claim our fullest potential.

Elspeth Fougere - 10th October 2016

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