You Know Who Rules? is Broadly's interview series highlighting women and non-binary people who accomplished incredible things during the dumpster fire of a year that was 2017.
Alok Vaid-Menon is a gender non-conforming South Asian-American writer, educator, activist, and community organizer. Their work transcends any one medium; they use everything from fashion to social media to poetry to explore themes like diaspora, loneliness, race, gender, and street harassment.
This year, Vaid-Menon published their chapbook, Femme In Public. The work begins with the question: "What feminine part of yourself did you have to destroy in order to survive in this world?" and spends the rest of the book figuring it out. The poems in the collection are vulnerable and intricate. They weave encounters on the subway with personal observations and memories, rumination on the body as a site of resistance with observations about how images of those bodies are circulated social media.
Vaid-Menon spoke with Broadly about deconstructing binaries in their work, the importance of friendship, and their goals for next year.
BROADLY: Your book is called Femme in Public. You write about strangers you encounter in public, the ways they interact with you, the books they are reading, the stories they tell. You also delve into your private and intimate thoughts and feelings. How do you think about the relationship between the public and the personal in your work?
ALOK VAID-MENON: I am constantly devastated by the fact that the things that are most dear to us are often the things we are not supposed to talk about in public. I don't know how to compartmentalize myself into binaries—male/female, public/private, happy/sad—in order to make myself easily digestible. I am deeply curious and disheartened when people aren't able to express their full selves with one another. I notice that the things that they tell us to relegate to the private—our femininity, our gender non-conformity, our emotionality, our struggle—are often the things that are most powerful precisely when they are in public. For me, stories transcend the myth of private/public. They are a way of flirting around boundaries and borders. So I just try to tell a damn good story with my work. Then I see what happens.
You’ve talked about confronting your audiences with their own problematic gazes. How do you do this? Do you feel your poetry changes or adapts every time you perform it?
I think that the stage is one of the only places in the world that people are comfortable
with transfeminine people. This is because people see our genders—no, our personhood—as costumes that we can take on and off as a means to entertain people. I use the charged space of a stage to get people's attention—then to push further and ask them to see me beyond the ways they have been taught to, to experience me outside of visibility if you will. It's difficult work: to use spectacle to create intimacy, but I think I'm getting better at it over the years. My performance is a response to what I experience in the room and what I'm going through in my life at that moment. It's always relational. No two performances are the same. So I have to say it's not just my audiences on their toes! I'm like: "Did I just say that???"
"The majority of people still believe that trans is what we look like, and not who we are."
You’ve talked in your work about how visibility doesn’t always mean liberation, and everyone always remarks on how “fierce” or “fabulous” you are, but few people ask how you are getting home. How do popular culture representations of gender non-conforming people and transfeminine people need to change?
Well I suppose I should begin by saying that I do not believe that there are popular cultural representations of gender non-conforming transfeminine people. By which I mean: the representations that tend to exist are cis people's projections of who we are, rarely on our own terms. So much of this moment of "trans visibility" is actually just "cis fantasy," and we should be honest about it. For example: the majority of people still believe that trans is what we look like, and not who we are. We are reduced to the spectacle of our appearance, as if we have nothing else to contribute. Representation for me isn't just about what you see—it's about who's writing it, who's filming it, who's directing it, etc. It's holistic. So what I would like us to do is to actually support trans talent at all levels, not just in front of the camera. We need trans poets, writers, teachers, photographers, directors, trans everything!
You often write about the importance of friendship. I agree and invest a lot into my friendships, but find that I have a hard time articulating their significance because we aren’t given words or ceremonies to do so the way we are with romantic relationships. How do you show your friends that they are important to you?
I think this is one of my life's biggest questions: How do I show my friends that they matter? And by matter I mean beyond their ability to be likened or compared to a romantic relationship because they have their own power, essence, vitality outside of that kind of love. As you mentioned, we live in a world that establishes a clear hierarchy of intimacy where friendship is always considered less than. I try my best to counter that in my own life and ask my friends to do the same. It's an imperfect process and we're always fumbling through it. We take each other out on dates, text all day, talk on the phone all of the time, have slumber parties. When people ask me who I'm dating I just start listing off my friends.
You write about loneliness and how it can be so hard to talk about it. Why do you
think that is? What do you do when you feel lonely?
Unfortunately when we say things like "I'm lonely," it's interpreted as the marker of personal failure, not a critique of a world that is trying its best to isolate us from one another. We've been taught to fear failure at all levels. But what I'm learning is that it is often the very things that they call "failing" that I have come to understand as "succeeding."
I feel most lonely at parties when everyone is able to have small talk and walk around saying, "This is my life, my job, my future! I love it." And I know that they probably don't love it as much as they say they do, but I know that they are better at pretending at me. I feel lonely most when I can't play pretend. When someone asks me how I'm doing and I'm honest and they can't take it, when people tell me that I am intense or too much for having the audacity to feel.
What are you most proud of doing this year? What are you looking forward to next
Going outside. Every day can be a struggle as a gender non-conforming person and there
are days I just want to disappear because the harassment I experience is so relentless and
overwhelming. But somehow I find it in me to keep coming back. It's those small victories that feel the most transformative: walking down a street and knowing that everyone is gawking at me, but still going about my day. I've found that it's often the intimate stuff—our relationship with our mental health, our bodies, our friends—that stuff ends up mattering a lot more than what the world calls "success."
Next year I am trying to create more space in my schedule to write. And I mean really write! I have so much in me that needs to come out and I need to make intentional space to do it!