A talk with queer, disabled, femme of color Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha on her years of art & activism:
If you know anything about Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, you probably know she’s a tough femme whose work spans a wide and ever-growing range of conversations, topics, feelings, and experiences. Her poetry and performances explore everything from queer love and desire to healing, dis/ability, and survival. She’s a performer, writer, organizer, and one of many “justice squad” queens. Now, Leah's moving into a transitional stage of her career and I had the privilege of talking with her about what’s new and what’s next. On the agenda: the release of her latest poetry collection, Bodymap, and winding down queer and trans people of color cabaret group Mangos With Chili after nine years of work. Mangos With Chili's final National Queer Arts Festival showcase happens June 25 at the African American Art and Culture Complex in San Francisco. If you're in the Bay, definitely check out that performance. If you're not, pick up a copy of Bodymap and cry a little; maybe cry a lot.
If we both have written maps to the stars
where our spirit flies out
and then written our return:
rewrite my body with me
— 'bodymap' (excerpt) from Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s Bodymap
DEVYN MANIBO: In March, you released your newest book, Bodymap. This is the first book you’ve written in which you’ve incorporated talking about disability in a very central way. Could you talk about your process a bit, and the evolution of the work?
LEAH LAKSHMI PIEPZNA-SAMARASINHA: I have been chronically ill since 1997. Mia Mingus, in “Moving Towards Ugly,” the piece she wrote for the Femme of Color Symposium five years ago, she talks about is how over and over again, there are women of color who are absolutely disabled—they have a lived experience of disability but don’t identify as disabled, because it’s really dangerous to add one more identity to your list because you’re already targeted. And of course, I would add to that there are some of us who don’t have the choice to not identify as disabled because of the ways our disabilities are apparent to the world and because of the ways we might be locked up or institutionalized or targeted because of it. Something that disability justice has talked about over and over again is that disability is so common in black and brown communities and the ways we talk about it and claim it as an identity are really different than the way white folks talk about it.
It’s not like I didn’t know I was sick as hell, but there wasn’t a disability movement that looked anything like me. It was a small number of white, some of them were queer, crips doing really important work [toward] basic access stuff. But my disability story—like many peoples’ disability stories—is simultaneously about inherited trauma, environmental racism (you know, I grew up in a Rust Belt town with a lot of toxic waste), sexual abuse survival, and the ways in which our racialized bodies flee the medical industrial complex. It did not feel safe [for] queer people of color to talk about disability. It wasn’t until I went to my first Sins Invalid show in 2008 that I saw a bunch of queer and trans, black and brown, disabled people on stage telling really beautiful stories about desirability, eugenics, Christian colonization, our disabled bodies, and how we’re feared. I went to that show by myself. I didn’t tell anyone I was going because I was like, “Oh, it’s this big secret.” Even though I would be like, “I have fibromyalgia and it sucks, here’s what you need to know,” it was so inculcated in me that disability is this shameful story. And you know, if there’s not queer people of color space, queer people of color won’t perform. If there’s not disability space that centers queer and trans people of color, sex workers, poor people, all of the above, elders, young people, we won’t know that there’s similar stories.
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha performing in Sins Invalid in 2009.
At that point in my life, I was in Oakland and there were tons of queer and trans people of color art spaces and I felt great about that, but there was nowhere in there to talk about disability. There were few spaces where I could see white disabled art that was queer, but I didn’t see anything until Sins that was QTPOC talking about disability. When I saw that, I was like, “Oh my God, these are my private brown disabled sex stories on stage.” They were saying it out loud, that was what freed me to start being able to write about disability in my life. It was a narrative that wasn’t just overcoming your tragedy or shame, it was just our disabilities as a really normal part of who we are. When I started doing my [first] piece for Sins [in 2009], it was about my experience of being chronically ill and the ways I associate that with the environmental racism I grew up with in Worcester, MA, and with being an incest survivor, because so many folks I know who are chronically ill have experienced bodily trauma from both toxins and from abuse. A lot of us do have a narrative of being a survivor, and this illness is one way that my body is talking, because I worked so hard to get out of my abuse and now I’m crashed out. Being mentored by Nomy Lamm andPatty Berne and the whole Sins crew allowed me to birth that piece, which is called "Dirty River Girl" in the book.
With Bodymap, honestly it’s like, “Oh, I’ve written forty poems, that’s a book!” I have a book about mapping my body’s changes, which are simultaneously about centralizing disability and disabled QTPOC stories, and my own changes and healing around survivorhood, where my relationship to my birth parents is changing, the kind of lovers I’m having are changing, the queer family I’m having is changing.
Much of your work focuses on survival, healing, and resistance and existing as a femme of color, and Bodymap is no different in that way. But could you talk a little bit more about the relation or disconnect between Bodymap and the content of your other works?
I’ll start with Consensual Genocide, which is my first book, my baby… I think first books are really tender. I think that Consensual Genocide was really an early survivorhood place of documenting raw damage and very much about my own experience of my family [silencing] me. I was told to not talk about the abuse that I survived. My family would sometimes try to pass as non-working class and as white or as this mysterious beige "other" and we would just stay in the house a lot, and like “NO!” I’m gonna talk about all these Sri Lankan stories, and all these abuse stories, and all these 9/11-surviving-Islamaphobia-as-a-brown-femme stories. It was a lot of “FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU” and I think that’s really useful and really valuable. Breaking silence is incredible fucking medicine.
In 2005, when I was getting ready to publish Consensual Genocide but hadn’t done it yet, I attended Voices of Our Nations, a retreat for writers of color. I had the great great privilege of being able to study with the phenomenal Palestinian poet Suheir Hammad. One of the things I spilled [when meeting with her] was that I had written all this poetry documenting the damage, but I wanted to learn how to write love poems and I was really scared because she writes them so well. Suheir is someone who has done really exquisite and difficult work of documenting the ongoing genocide of Palestinian people. She was like, “I put a bowl of salt water by my computer and I light a candle before I write and I pray and I ask that water to hold everything hard that’s gonna come out of me, then I pour it into the earth.” And you know, me being an overachiever, I took the bus out to Ocean Beach and filled up my notebook. Suheir was like “girl, I told you a bowl of water, not the Pacific Ocean, why do you have to overdo everything?!”
So with Love Cake [her 2011 poetry collection], I wanted to move out of some of the damage. I mean, there’s still a lot of documentation, but I wanted to write about an incredibly important relationship with another queer and trans person of color [and how] we loved each other and broke each other’s hearts. I wanted to write about queer South Asian femme best friendship, I wanted to start to come out of the woods a little bit. I’ve really wanted to write in a working class, Taurus, femme of color aesthetic, my moments of, like, zipping your hoodie over your slutty outfits and tattoos to buy Zima with another queer brown femme at the all-night Palestinian corner store at 2am. Sometimes its using your last credit card to buy a corset or having sex with your girlfriend, it’s so many different moments of queer brown disabled femme survivorhood.
And I think [both of these books] really led to a pathway to be like: This is what disability looks like in my life. This is what it’s like waiting for the free MRI with your best friend, this is what it’s like having queer disabled of color sex moments.
In what ways did the writing of Bodymap intersect with the work you’ve done with performance in the last nine years?
Starting in 2006, I began a project called Mangos With Chili with my friend and collaborator Cherry Galette. For the past nine years, it has been many things—we called it a queer black and brown version of Sister Spit. We had a traveling cabaret which would bring queer and trans people of color’s art to big stages and we have toured North American five brilliant and terrifying times. When we both moved to the Bay Area in 2007, we started doing annual regular performance in the Bay, though really specific to Oakland QTPOC communities.
With Mangos, we did a decade of work, a lot of things have changed. Oakland has changed, neither of us can afford to live there anymore, a lot of our community can’t afford to live there anymore. For me, as I’m reflecting on where I was at nine years ago and where movements were at, I feel like one thing we tried to do with Mangos was create a real culture of abundance around queer and trans people of color performance art. One of the quintessential stories that I tell a lot is that I came to Mangos with Cherry because I was in a place in 2005 where I was like “Wow, in terms of the performance world, there’s people of color performance that’s really straight." In 2005, Def Poetry Jam was the shit, but apart from Staceyann Chin and a handful of other people, everybody was straight. It felt taboo to bring your queer self to that space. In the queer performance scene that I intersected with, it was a bunch of white post-Riot Grrrls getting all the deals and occasionally there’ll be like one chocolate chip on the cookie. A lot of POC I know who have done performance art are like, “I gotta go to Social Work school, I’m trying to pay for my mom’s rent, I can’t make a living with poetry.” One story that Cherry and I articulated is that we want QTPOC to be bigger than the open mic, we want to take you on the road, we want you to have time and money. Doing that work of creating a cultural institution with that feeling that we don’t have to squeeze ourselves really small, we can actually demand big stages on our own terms, that laid a foundation for me being able to write this book. Between that and Sins Invalid, without those two spaces, I wouldn’t have been able to write a book that talks about QTPOC disability narratives of my own. This isn’t trying to represent every disabled QTPOC, because I’m not every disabled QTPOC. A black wheelchair experience is way different than my light brown cane-using self, which is really different from someone’s medium brown autistic self. It made me feel like I didn’t have to write a manifesto that hits every note, but that I could be specific and that there’s value and room for that. I hope that in doing that, it gives other people the sense that you could write a whole book just about yourself and your communities, and that there’s room for all of us. I want abundance and I want us to know that if our works transition into other forms, then new works are gonna keep creating. With Mangos, people have been really sad about it ending, and I’m like “Yeah, I have those feelings too.” A lot of times, our survival makes us feel like everything needs to last forever or we’re a failure. But when we’re in a place where we get to do a really good decade of work, we’re gonna do more work in different ways, and keep evolving.
So you talked a bit about Mangos coming to a close. Could you talk a bit more about what spurred that decision? What can we expect from your wind-down year and your final Bay Area show, All That You Touch You Change, on June 25th?
For me and Cherry, as I said, both of us had been economically forced out of the Bay Area. We both live elsewhere. All That You Touch You Change is one of a series of greatest hits shows with past Mangos performers. It was really tricky for me doing the promotion, realizing that half of these people don’t live in the Bay anymore. The community has changed so much, the economics have changed so much. We went back and forth for a long time about what we felt was possible. One thing that Cherry said was, “Oakland is so different, the years that we were there and the role we played, it just wouldn’t be the same anymore.” We chose to quote Octavia Butler because we’re not gonna stop doing QTPOC art works. Cherry has been involved with Wildseeds in New Orleans, an incredible “Octavia Butler coven” of queer black and brown folks doing work in her legacy. I’ve been living in Toronto for the last year doing disability justice work there and figuring out where I’m gonna live next and what I want to do. I’m on the advisory board of Peacock Rebellion, which I’m really happy to represent and support. Honestly, a lot of it was the ways we were rooted in Oakland, the way Oakland has changed, and us thinking about what our most empowered choice is in this situation. In terms of our year’s wind-down, we really wanted to have a year to say goodbye with our eyes open, and to do it consciously.
What’s next for you?
I’m having twins this year. My memoir Dirty River is being published by Arsenal Pulp Press comes out October 14th, 2015—preorder it now, don’t buy it on Amazon! I started working on Dirty River in 2004 and this is the absolute right time for it to be born. Writing Dirty River was a tender process of writing about being 21 and wanting to run away with two backpacks on the Greyhound and putting a national border between myself and my abusive family of origin and running smack into this really heady time in Toronto when all the queer folks of color decided to leave punk, and becoming disabled, and facing my abusive memories, and decolonizing myself, and relearning to be brown.
I’m barely recovering now from being on tour for six weeks, and shit, I’m gonna be on the road like this again, but I’m really excited to put this out into the world. The subtitle of the book is “A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home” and that’s a complete homage to my mentor Amber Hollibaugh, a queer Roma femme, who wrote My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home. I want to continue to love and be loved and build community and make QTPOC art. And, okay, I’m also thinking of starting an advice column called “Ask Shark Mom” and I also want to start a roving queer reading series called Queer Feelings, and the subtitle would be like “some writing by QTPOC and some white girls who I like.” That’s it.