By CREATRIX TIARA
This post was written as an assignment for Professor Cindy Shearer’s CIA 7091: MFA Interdisciplinary Arts Workshop. As part of a community of artists working across art perspectives, students in this course get the chance to present their work and teach each other about their art form(s), practice, lineage and influences, and are challenged to inquire into the interdisciplinary arts as well as forms new to them.
How do I say what’s dangerous without adding to the pain of those already harmed?
This is a question that is coming up more and more frequently for me, as my performance and writing work are strongly centered around “the personal is political," exploring the issues related to being a queer female migrant minority. Yet that same complicated multi-axis identity makes my politics more complex - and not something that easily fits party lines.
Like many other artists from minority backgrounds, I am often considered to be a "spokesperson" for my culture or other minority groups even when I do not deliberately choose this role. My opinions and stories are taken to be representative of the groups I am assumed to be affiliated with (not always the groups I actually identify with,) instead of the nuanced complex narratives that they are. People often read their preconceptions into my work—noticing an accent that isn’t there, assuming influences I have never heard of, creating political statements I do not always sign onto. I am no longer Creatrix Tiara; I am that Queer South Asian, or I am that Third-Wave Feminist, or (more commonly) I am that Angry Brown Chick. Sometimes I feel like if my work was presented under a different name (perhaps something more Anglo and male, such as "John Smith") or by a different body (white, straight, normative) the reception would be greatly different: I would be complex and individual, maybe even groundbreaking—just like the various Western performance artists that receive applause for appropriating cultural artifacts from places deemed as "backwards."
At the same time I do not want to entirely divorce my background from my work. My heritage, history, and present position completely inform the direction and form of my work. I would not be content to conform to what a "normal" burlesque performer or writer or artist would do. I want to be able to bring up my inquiry about being queer, or South Asian, or an international student, or a woman, or any combination thereof in my work. I want to delve into the rich heritage vaults provided for by my predecessors and ancestors, and be a guiding light for those after me.
Comedian Dave Chappelle talks about the moment where he felt that his acts were “socially irresponsible.” His work tackled difficult race relations in the U.S. as an African-American male, but he started to notice how people were using his jokes as an excuse to laugh at people like him, rather than with him or at themselves.
Dave began thinking about the message he was sending to millions of viewers. Dave says some people understood exactly what he was trying to say with his racially charged comedy...while others got the wrong idea.
"That concerned me," he says. "I don't want black people to be disappointed in me for putting that [message] out there..It's a complete moral dilemma."
I find myself in a similar position, trying to make sense of the complexities of class, race, immigration status, gender, sexuality, and other identity axes. As it is, I have too often been let down by people whose politics I nominally agree with, but who still refuse to recognise differences of opinion or their own privilege and circumstances. “I can’t be prejudiced/bigoted! I’m a lefty/minority/just like you!”
At the same time I feel a sense of responsibility thrust upon me to represent “my people” well, especially amongst those from dominant social backgrounds (e.g. White, straight, male, non-immigrant). It shouldn’t be my fault that people don’t seem to recognise the Other as individuals with our own layers of complexity, who insist on everyone being “role models” to make them legitimate. However, that is the situation we find ourselves in right now and the best we can do is deal with it.
I don't want those elements to have to be the Only Truth of my condition, whether by outsiders or insiders. I want to be able to express my own truths, even if they frustrate or complicate people's perceptions—because I have been frustrated enough. The expectation to portray "my people" in a good light, wherever it comes from, is difficult for me—especially since I don't often feel like I have a "people" I could fully identify with anyway. I am liminal, the bridge, the in-between—neither here nor there, not fully foreign nor local.
In conversation with Kris Brandenburger we talked about how I didn’t want to “give the other side any more ammunition” to take down people like me who are already downtrodden enough; at the same time I feel like my particular nuance is not heard or appreciated. These are the questions I am grappling with:
If I don't fully fit into anyone's categories, whose stories can I speak for? Should I speak for anyone other than myself?
How subversive can you be if your methods are harmful?
What’s the point in being authentic if you hurt the ones who love you as you are?
How does one reject the "role model" status thrust coercively onto them? Is that possible?
When will people stop assuming everything we create or say must be representative of some greater plan?
A common thread in my inquiry has been "just speak up anyway"—whether it is worth the trouble is yet to be seen. The MFA program has been interesting and sometimes challenging in this regard—being the only international student in my cohort, already facing some of the issues of assumptions and expectations from classmates, not entirely sure if I feel safe enough to delve into my deepest truths within this environment. But is any environment safe, really?
I do not know the answers.