Above: Alok Vaid-Menon and Janani Balasubramanian perform as duo Darkmatter
Content note: suicide
I was recently listening to an interview with Alok Vaid-Menon, a trans feminine south Asian- American artist who is currently working out of New York City. Vaid-Menon is best known for their work as Darkmatter, a traveling duo which includes the equally brilliant other half, Janani Balasubramanian. Through their genius poetry, they tackle things like trans-misogyny, living in a post-9/11 body, western colonial gender norms and trying to find the best pickup line on Tinder.
In one of their most recent interviews, Vaid-Menon touches on their experience of growing up in a white, evangelical, colonial, straight cis town in Texas, which made it so that their identity and understanding of themselves was mostly framed by hatred and violence.
Vaid-Menon continues to share themselves in commendable ways: they go on to admit that they attempted suicide at thirteen years old. For them, this was a turning point that marked the moment they turned to art, namely spoken word and poetry. For Alok, art is where you go when language has failed you.
This means of expression allowed them to carve out their pain in paper and create a unique, profound brand of art that would eventually reach many, many broken hearts that were hurting in the same way. What is arguably most striking about Vaid-Menon’s interview is that in the following minutes after they discuss their suicide attempt, they discuss kindness.
More specifically, they explain that their fervour as an activist and artist “comes from wanting to be a nicer person”. As they see it, kindness is an act of political resistance. The stark contrast in this is interview is incredible: in one moment, they are sharing their experience of a suicide attempt and in the very same breath they are expressing their desire to be a kinder person. This shook me in very important ways.
In truth, Alok had no reason to be nice. As a queer trans person of colour, they were the target of relentless acts of implicit and explicit violence on a daily basis. It also made me think how easy it is problematize, politicize and feel totally heavy about all the garbage in the world. This is especially true for university students who are engulfed in learning about the pillars of atrocities our world has been built on. It is easy to let ourselves wallow and complain but it is much harder to be nice about it all.
Vaid-Menon touches on the fact that the state has made it so that we are ridden with toxicity and view one another as disposable. This niceness they speak of is then also an act of state resistance. They continue to say that to be nice is to dismantle the pain and trauma that both perpetrators and victims carry with them. This is based on the idea that we cannot simply change things by blaming the sharks and Donald Trump’s of the world or by wallowing in a storm internalized hatred.
It needs to be said that there is an incredibly fine line that I am walking here. It is very easy for a white, able-bodied, educated woman to preach this “be happy” rhetoric, which has been framed as incredibly reductionist, privileged and white-washed. Usually, those telling others to be happy and nice are those who do not face the daily, micro-instances of shit that others do— others that are non-binary, living with a disability, racialized or queer, for example. The faces of this overly-optimistic, pop psychology, mediating, mantra-motivated movement are usually white, middle-class, able-bodied cis women who are fairly ignorant to the happenings of the world.
This is why Vaid-Menon’s ode to niceness revitalized something in me. To them, it is not about ignoring anything—in fact, they do not have the privilege to ignore the realities of marginalized identities because of who they are and the violence they face just by existing. Instead, it is about resisting this systemic toxicity that is fed to us and spews messages that we must fear what is different, we must watch our backs, we have to protect what is ours, etc. Thisfear-mongering imperialism weighs us down day after day and further divides us into fragmented, isolated and angry human beings. Although we have all the reasons to be mad about the disgusting and senseless acts that unfold everyday, our sadness and anger inevitably hardens and stunts us. As we have all seen in varying ways, this can transform any of us into masses of sad, angry cogs in a capitalist machine.
Vaid-Menon is an activist of varying kinds but at the core of it, their political resistance lies in niceness and this is a powerful claim. Unlike other nice-advocates out there, there is no delusion here, no confusion and no New-Age isolation of the world’s suffering. There is only a vibrant human being who is looking to dismantle and counteract hate with niceness— niceness, just that. Not a fancy degree, a list of accreditations and awards or an impressive CV marking their extensive experience with NGO’s. Just niceness.
I felt particularly compelled by Alok’s message. Personally, I have been asked frequently why I am smiling, what mo,vates my happiness or why my eyes are always just a little too excited. Most of the time I am caught off guard and my answers tend to mimic that of other white, privileged new-age spiritualists. At the end of the day, I have learned that kindness is the most efficient and resilient way to resist the state and this hardened, dark and miserable person they so desperately want me to be. And I will spend my life trying to collect all the tools and that help me harvest happiness so I can avoid falling prey to this world’s weird and backwards ways.
All this being said, don’t take my word for it. Go read up on Angela Davis, who did yoga in her jail cell in the 60s to maintain vitality and optimism while being coined by the CIA as one of the most dangerous humans alive. Or maybe ring up bell hooks and ask her about her theory on the politics of love. Better yet, go down to Churchill Square on Sundays and talk to the Love Activists, who are rallying weekly to feed the homeless. These are all stellar examples that show that niceness is the best tool of resistance that you can have with you at any time. If this is all too much to take in then try holding a door, giving the better half of your apple away or maybe just showing your teeth to a stranger. At the end of the day, we should all hang out and be friends because then we could do fun stuff like dye our hair, dance or eat cake. And maybe if we ran out of cake and felt up for it, we could all just take down the state once and for all.
If you would like some more information or help with mental health issues or suicide please visit the webpages below:
Featured Photo: Laura Flanders