JACK ROSS '18
On Friday October 3rd Janani Balasubramanian and Alok Vaid-Menon, who comprise the slam poetry duo Darkmatter, performed at 200 Church to an overflowing room in danger of becoming a fire hazard.
Wesleyan students are relatively familiar with slam poetry etiquette, but Balasubramanian and Vaid-Menon wanted to raise the stakes: instead of simply snapping, they asked the audience to moan with pleasure when they liked or identified with something in a poem. “We want to practice moaning together as if white supremacy has been dismantled,” Balasubramanian said, to a chorus of further snapping and moaning. “Recognize that we locate all of our political resistance in the moan. That picture of discomfort, and pleasure, and transcendence – that’s Darkmatter.”
Darkmatter describe themselves on their Facebook page as “Trans Indian artivists…returning the gayze & your expired model minority agenda.” They met at Stanford University in 2009, and became friends once they started writing poetry together: “Through writing we recognized just how intimately our lives, histories, and trauma were connected,” they say on the background section of their website, Darmatterrage.com. “We were two brown sad queers trying to make sense of ourselves in both queer communites and south asian communities that erased our identities.” Darkmatter was formed over many excited late-night conversations in Vaid-Menon’s dorm room, and the duo went on their first tour in 2013.
On Friday their poetry covered a variety of topics from race, the gay rights movement, and American culture to Parvahti Patil (Harry Potter’s nod towards ‘diversity’), yoga mats, and the “nonprofit industrial complex,” raising important questions about each. When you come out as a transgender Indian artivist, what happens to culture, to tradition, to family? How do you reconcile yourself within a world of such complex oppression? “Can I tell you what it means to wear a body as a wound?” Balasubramanian asked the crowd, while Vaid-Menon spoke of Indian culture, and their family struggling with their identity and sexuality. “You have to understand,” they said (both members of Darkmatter prefer the gender pronouns they, them, and their), “How my culture relies on an underground economy of rage. How we hate our men so much that sometimes we hate ourselves for them. Call it gender for short.”
Before the show itself, the poets taught a three-hour workshop on white supremacy and racism within the gay rights movement in the United States. The workshop argued that the gay rights movement is predominantly composed of privileged white males, and has a history of excluding people of color while still appropriating tactics from the civil rights movement and the black power movement. They argued that concepts of gender and sexuality are derived from colonization, which makes homosexuality a product of colonization in its own right, and they argued that as the United States accepts gay rights more and more, the movement itself gets appropriated by this country as an example of its progressive politics, even as the government continues to oppress, drone, and incarcerate here and abroad. “Remember that rainbows are just a trick of the light,” Vaid-Menon recited in a poem about these issues. “They make us forget that the storm is still happening.”
There was skepticism amongst Wesleyan students I spoke with before the show about Darkmatter criticizing the gay rights movement, and there was particularly skepticism over the title of the event (“Gay Rights Are Wrong”) that was only intensified when the poets attacked “white savior colonial feminism,” and repeatedly mocked “basic” women throughout their act. The students I spoke to feel that calling women “basic” is the same thing as calling women dumb, and were offended. They cited the quantity of insults targeting “basics” in the act as particularly offensive. I emailed Darkmatter to clarify their statements on feminism, and Vaid-Menon wrote back: “’Feminism' as it has become institutionalized and thought of actually has a really racist, colonial, and transmisogynist past and present. Feminism has been used in the service of settler colonialism, us empire building, anti-black eugenics, transphobic violence, etc. Feminism is not innocent, so therefore I have a complicated relationship to the term. Obviously I believe in women and gender liberation, but am ambivalent about whether 'feminism' does that work for colonized peoples.”
Controversy aside, each poem recited that evening forced difficult introspection upon its listeners. The fourth passage of their poem ‘in order to form a more perfect union’ begins, “Confront the most honest parts of you: / the rash on your thigh / the empire in your heart,” and this was the spirit of the evening: the gaze turned inward. Darkmatter’s poetry is often angry, harsh, and direct – the poems attack white people for racism, oppression, ignorance, colonization, micro aggressions and more, and much of the laughter from the white members of the audience felt contrived, the smiles a bit too wide to be real. There was a discernable tension in the air. Perhaps it was necessary confrontation for a liberal arts audience (myself certainly included) so accustomed to ducking the complicated issues the poets spoke about. The students at Wesleyan often celebrate our communities for being relatively diverse and open minded, but Darkmatter demonstrated to the crowd that (like the feminist and gay rights movements in the United States they were also critical of) we are not as accepting as we would like to think.
“So people often ask us like, ‘How did you become politicized?’” Vaid-Menon explained after their first poem. “And we’re like, ‘Well there’s this thing called 9/11, aka there’s this thing called white terrorism…’ We recognize that the true terrorist isn’t that thing that Fox News teaches you, it’s actually white men wearing suits, with a good accent, and maybe a Wesleyan degree.” The crowd could only moan in response.
If anyone was confused, offended, or wants to learn more about Darkmatter’s views on feminism, they may email a friend of the poets who was in the crowd Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.