Bad at small talk, and wants an end to the world that forces us to categorize ourselves in the first place
Alok Vaid-Menon grew up in a small, conservative Texas town. They are an unapologetically radical South Asian nonbinary person whose work is in many ways about subverting introductions like these, as well as white supremacy and imperialism. You’ll get to know them in their own words below, but still: Alok is one-half of the performance art and poetry duo DarkMatter, they work to support qtpoc organizing with the Audre Lorde Project, and they recently penned an op-ed for The Guardian, where they call attention to the fact that “putting trans celebrities on pedestals doesn’t translate into safety for those of us who are visibly gender nonconforming.”
The question of visibility is at the fore of Alok’s practice and persona – their own aesthetic is vibrant, regal, and queenly – but in a way that also protects the unseen or imperceptible. They’re here for the queer kids who can’t or won’t come out, the plainclothes radical, the trans people of color for whom being seen means surveillance, violence, and incarceration. So at a time when the push toward ever-increasing transparency is trending high, Alok reminds us “incoherence is resistance,” too.
We spoke with Alok to chat about current looks, curating life as content, and being unabashedly complicated.
How do you want to be seen – and by whom? I started doing the work that I do because I wanted to create the images that I didn’t see growing up when all of the South Asians I knew were heteronormative and all of the queer and trans people were white supremacist. But I think over time I have developed a more complicated relationship with visibility: I’ve come to appreciate the parts of ourselves that do not – and in fact cannot – be rendered visible.
I used to think that there was a correlation between what we look like and who we are, but I have met so many people in my life who may look and act “ordinary,” but are, in fact, exquisitely complicated and deeply political. I recognize now that we do not have to look a certain way to be legitimately trans and legitimately activist. I am developing an earnest commitment to the feelings, places, and moments we inhabit that refuse to be translated into language, identity, fashion.
And I think what this has done for me is expand my own field of empathy, my own possibility of coalition. No longer am I interested in just being recognized by “my community” of *insert identities*, but I’m interested in the recognition of all of our mutual peculiarity. So I suppose I want to be seen by dreamers and misfits, by people who find it difficult to wake up and participate in such a strange world, by those that hunger not just for more categories to label ourselves, but rather the end of a world that requires us to be categorized to begin with.
It’s common to talk about public personas as the ones that take all the work to craft and curate – but it's also just as true for private selves – the ones that not everyone sees. What's this work like for you, how do you see it? The constellation of identities and experiences that I hold means that I have experienced far more power than oppression in my life. I have what I have both because of the activism of oppressed people and the complicity of my people so I try to use my platform to support community-organizing work. I am consistently in awe of all of the activists I have met across the world – their utterly imperfect insistence on creating a more kind and gentle planet gives me the inspiration to keep doing what I’m doing. My work as an artist is to engage in the intellectual, aesthetic, and imaginative battles that make the work of organizers on the ground a little less difficult. I believe deeply in the mutual dependency of “art” and “activism;” we must ask the bigger questions to understand what exactly we are fighting for.
As for how this work feels, well, it’s complicated. It seems that we live in a culture obsessed with the cult of personality and that personality is often marked by how much of ourselves we share in public. One of the first things I learned as a writer was that the more intimately we write about ourselves the more widely our work resonates. But the difficulty with doing this type of work – and especially on the internet – is that at some point you begin to question whether you have a ‘self’ outside of the narration of yourself. And while I totally believe that authenticity is so #tbt and that everything is to some degree performative I still sometimes struggle with questions of who I – and who we – are in a world that ritualizes catharsis as authenticity. I struggle with how we have to aestheticize our pain – often make it beautiful – in order for it to be taken seriously.
Who are some of your influences, and what is it about them that resonates with you? My friends! My friends! My friends are constantly teaching me every day and some of the lessons are small (like how to make a crop top) and some of the lessons are huge (like how to forgive). My creative partner Janani Balasubramanian is everything to me. I could write entire books of poetry about their creativity, their humor, their strange. Recently I’ve appreciated my friend Grace Dunham for teaching me that I need to learn to write about the times I experience joy as fluently as I write about pain, grateful for my friend Joshua Allen for teaching me what everyday abolition can look like, and grateful for my friends Sanam Sindhi and Arabelle Sicardi for teaching me wtf makeup is and how to use it. The list goes on!
What’s exciting to you right now? I’m working on understanding what strategies and calculations people make to remain alive in a system predicated on destroying us. I’m working on understanding apathy as a political strategy of survival, as an active process of desensitization to the cruelty of the mundane. I’m working on understanding how to feel a type of happiness detached from possession – how to truly feel accomplished outside of the various rites of capitalism we are ingrained to value. I’m really getting into the performances of white cis women pop stars on social media and how white femininity has and continues to be deployed by the State to mask over (and often perpetuate) racial and economic violence. I’m really excited about the heels I’m going to wear at my next show and even more excited about how I’m going to figure out how to stand the entire performance in them without falling down!
I read something the other day that made me think of you:
“Escape comes from the Late Latin ex cappa, in reference not to capture at all but to a ‘cape’ or cloak which remains behind even as the living body which it had clad has slipped away.”
I thought of you when I read this because, I wanted to ask if there’s any looks you’re into these days; also, how style plays into your life and the work you do. Style saved my life. Growing up I didn’t have control of my body or the various meanings that were ascribed to it, but I had control of my style and it has allowed me to return the gaze ever since. For my style is the constantly imperfect process of trying to externalize my internal sense of self. Style is another grammar outside of words to project the type of gender and race and identity I want to be regarded as. (Well, at least for that given day!)
As for current inspirations: @SneakerGrandma on Instagram is really doing it for me right now.
That quote also reminded me of the complicatedness that you talk about – we always exceed whatever others can grab onto. And also a kind of strategic elusiveness. What is it like for you to navigate this? It’s terribly difficult! I hate how “growing up” means that we are taught not to be honest and vulnerable with each other in public. I want to know everything about everyone. I am so bad at small talk. At parties with strangers I want to talk about your daddy issues and your first kiss and what you wanted your life to become and whether or not that came true. It’s hard for me to live in a world where we are taught that people we do not know are “strangers,” and where we are taught to afford infinite complexity to ourselves and not others. Most of the time I want to scream in large groups about all of the parts of ourselves that we have to censor in order to become coherent.