Mukul Bhatia: With a North Indian mother, and a South Indian father, growing up in United States, how was it like and how did you become the individual that you are today?
Alok Menon: I grew up in a small conservative town in Texas which simultaneously confirms and challenges every stereotype you might have about Texas. From a young age I navigated two disparate worlds: the tight-knit pan-Indian immigrant community and the white conservatives of my hometown. Because there were so few South Asians around I didn’t really understand the particularities of what it meant to be Malayalee and Punjabi – I just understood myself as “brown.” It was the kind of place that made you immediately aware of your difference, in all of its permutations. I experienced constant and routine racism, homophobia, transphobia, the works! Because I needed an outlet to process everything I was going through I started writing poetry. I didn’t call it poetry at the time, it was more about keeping a diary, but I began to understand the power of art to externalize trauma from your body and make it into something beautiful. So many of the coping strategies I picked up growing up in Texas are the skills that I still call upon today: how to work a room, how to perform like your life depends on it, how to argue for the legitimacy of your being.
When did you discover about your sexuality? How did the world around you take it?
I don’t know. I think we do this thing where we ask queer and trans people when they “first knew,” but we never ask that to heterosexual and cisgender people. This is because heterosexuality and cisness are normalized in society, whereas queerness and transness are seen as aberrations. The idea here is that queer people are supposed to have some pivotal moment of self recognition, and I actually think it’s a lot more complicated than that. For me I never had the choice to “discover myself.” From a young age I was gender non-conforming so I was routinely taunted and harassed for being feminine. People called me a faggot, a girl, a pussy. There’s this peculiar thing that happens when the people who harass you are the first people in your life who legitimate who you might actually be. Eventually I started to ask myself: “Could they be onto something?” And I didn’t have the words to describe myself back then, and I’m not sure I have them now either. I just felt intimately that I wasn’t a boy. Which didn’t mean that I was a girl, but that I just wasn’t a boy. I was so bad at it!
What was the journey like? Internally and externally?
Alok: It never ended. I believe all of us are on a constant journey to figure out who the hell we are in a world that gives us little to no permission to experiment, let any templates of what it means to dream and live outside of norms and binaries. This is a journey that’s not about a destination, a word, an identity – it’s about a constant sense of self-reflection. But people don’t want queer and trans people to be complicated. They want us to give you easily digestible stories like: this is who I used to be and this is who I am now. I believe that queer and trans people contain multitudes and that we are just as complex as everyone else. I believe that we are all going through difficult journeys: I can’t parse out the journey of my gender from all of the other journeys I’ve had to go through in my life. All of these journeys are somehow about finding meaning, purpose, and justice.
What gets you back to India? What are you currently working on?
My family would come back to Delhi, Bangalore, and Kerala to visit our relatives throughout my childhood. But in 2012 I came to India alone for the first time because I didn’t want my relationship with my culture to only be mediated by my family of origin. As a queer person and as a trans person I knew that family could be contingent on my ability to pretend I was something I was not. I wanted to build relationship with my own people: queer people, trans people, artists, the weirdos and misfits. Since 2012 I have been coming back to India every couple of years to maintain and build these relationships – relationships that feel so vital to everything that I am and believe in.
I’m currently working on a new performance piece called “WATCHING YOU / WATCH ME,” which is intensely personal and wonderful and everything I need to be saying right now with what’s going on in the world. I’m collaborating with some friends over at @Adrianne.Ayao to design my first fashion line so that’s been…so, so exciting! I’m feeling very inspired by it all.
What is your favorite memory?
I’m an extremely nostalgic person. So almost any memory to me is a favorite memory. I’m the kind of girl where last year when I had a performance in Brighton I came into the station and I was like, “oh my gosh remember last year when I used the bathroom in this station!” #FullCircleMoment and I was so happy. Seeing familiar things just makes me happy, all together.
Whats your idea of ‘beauty’?
Everything that they dismiss as ugly.
What is your idea of ‘home’?
Being with people who can see me outside of visibility – where I don’t have to dress up or perform in order to be recognized for who I am. Being around people who push my politics and my worldview in ways that are gentle and firm. Being near someone I love. Saying nothing. But still feeling them there. Being with people who care for me and allow me to care for them. Friendship feels like the closest thing to home I’ve ever experienced before.
You travel A LOT for your shows; do you consider yourself a nomad?
I tend to be averse to using words when we can tell stories instead. I do travel a lot and I’ve learned how to find intimacy with strangers I’m meeting for the first time, learned how to plan outfits weeks in advance, learned how to carry suitcases up and down stars, learned how to build home out of leftovers in the fridge. But I think this is just the life of a performing artist. Every time I meet other performers we have this conversation: about what being constantly in motion does for us, and how it destroys us, but how we love that destruction. Some how find a way to keep going.
I am a performance artist. I need a live audience to make my work. I like to think of my work not just as “my” poetry or “my” performance, but that ‘thing’ that comes from the interaction between my work and my audiences. That moment that can only be produced live. I try go searching for that interaction everywhere that wants me. Each show feels different because the people in attendance are different. I’m not one of those artists that can go away into seclusion and work on a project without talking to people. I’m deeply social and relational. I can only make work by connecting with other people, seeing how they react, feeling what they’re thinking.
How would you define ‘Love’?
That which rejects definition. That which is everywhere and nowhere at all. Infininity, maybe even.
Do you believe in ‘magic’?
Yes. I think magic is happening all around us, it’s just that we have been taught to fear the very people who are practicing it. I believe that art making is a form of magic. Magic looks like survival, resistance, imagination, despite a world that systematically tries to undermine, delegitimize, and dispose of you. Magic for queer and trans people is all of the ways that we have given birth to ourselves because our families of origin couldn’t. Magic looks like that continually process of re-invention: of taking all of the trauma and tragedy that is thrown our way and making it into something beautiful.
What inspires you the most?
Conversations! I wish I could take out everyone in the world for a cup of (soy) hot chocolate and just talk to them about their lives and what’s going and how they feel about it. I learn so much from other people’s stories. Storytelling is a rare and precious art form, and we have to continue to fight for it. Say there is no digital avatar, no username, no 140 characters that can ever encapsulate ourselves.
Favorite music (or writing) that made a profound impact?
You might have heard of a queer femme performance artist named Britney Spears. Yeah she’s had a major impact on me ever since her seminal contribution, “Crossroads.”
What would you suggest to empower most Indian youth who’re still afraid to accept and express their sexuality and don’t fit to gender binaries?
I don’t believe in empowerment I believe in disempowerment. What I mean by that is that the mandate is always that marginalized peoples have to “love ourselves,” and have to “overcome,” but it’s never the people who are actually harming us who have to change their behavior. I don’t think trans and gender non-conforming people need to be empowered, I think cisgender people need to be disempowered. I think cis people need to stop harassing us. And what you will find is that trans and gender non-conforming youth will be totally fine!
What’s your biggest fear?
Loneliness. Not just at a personal level, but at a structural level. A sense of never feeling connected to this world, and the grief that accompanies that. That mourning of what we could have been if we didn’t have to destroy the most intimate parts of ourselves in order to survive.
Favourite food, ever.