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We out here: DarkMatter at Yale

Graphic by Jason Hu

Rewind my body. Rewind my body until there’s nothing left but the dark matter that gave birth to us.” On Mon., Apr.11, DarkMatter, a trans South Asian performance art and poetry duo, performed for a packed house in SSS 114. Before the poets came onstage, singer Shagaysia Diamond stood up. She led the crowd in clapping and grooving to her soulful voice. (I Am Her, Diamond’s new EP, comes out soon.) From her very first note, everyone in the room channeled their focus to the stage. The air seemed to hang in powerful tension.

As Alok Vaid-Menon and Janani Balasubramanian, the New York-based artists who make up DarkMatter, walked onto the stage, there was a collective hum of gratitude. Wearing fluorescent lipstick, pearl earrings, and bright red clothing, Vaid-Menon and Balasubramanian leapt straight into a powerful spoken word poem. They held nothing back in their opening piece, “Rewind my Body.” The poem called out western patriarchal paradigms, a colonial history of subjugation, and membranes of segregation. From the start, the crowd had a sense of what was to come: a strange and stirring blend of art and activism, of poetry and politics, and the boldness of a quest to retake history and narrative.

Once DarkMatter had us in enthralled silence, they cut the pressure in the room by transitioning from speaking about sodomy laws in Asia to lampooning Hilary Duff as model for cis hetero white women (Balasubramanian, with a straight face, suggested we interpret The Lizzie McGuire Movie as a feature-length lesbian porno). This between-poem banter would come to be a pattern for the next two hours. Alternately ferocious and provocatively playful, Balasubramanian and VaidMenon found a perfect balance between brutal truth (including kicks to the teeth on police violence, deportation, the criminalization of sex work, and white imperialism) and humor that was cheeky but still challenging (a socioeconomic takedown of Dan Savage and an “Open Letter to all the White Bitches at Hogwarts” from Padma and Parvati Patil come to mind).

At one point, in the span of a few minutes, Balasubramanian and Vaid-Menon transitioned from a fearless criticism of Judith Butler—equating the foundation of gender with that of colonialism—to “I Don’t Take Shit from Anyone,” a poignant meditation on poop therapy, gut microflora, and the limitations of human empathy (“I want to populate your insides / I want the world to move through you simple like it moves through me”). Then came some hilariously specific mockery of white people (fresh-pressed coffee in NPR mugs, fresh-pressed New Yorkers, voting for Bernie Sanders, ugly sweaters, and David Sedaris).

Balasubramanian and Vaid-Menon didn’t shy away from attacking the audience, either, wanting to push back at the crowd for being more aware of white gay issues than those impacting non-binary people of color. The two poets criticized the audience for knowing about Matthew Shepard, a white victim of a homophobic murder, and not about Jennifer Laude, a trans Filipina woman strangled to death by a U.S. Marine, her head left to sink in a toilet bowl.

The duo called out Yale specifically, citing the events of last semester by saying that “white culture is the scariest Halloween costume” and humorously deriding the terrible outfits of the white men canonized in paintings on the walls of SSS. They asserted that keeping the name of Calhoun College was an emblem of the university’s inability to acknowledge its financial investment in slavery and genocide. They went on to question Yale’s identity as a “safe space,” pointing out that the university has done substantial work to gentrify New Haven, pushing out the city’s black trans population. Vaid-Menon and Balasubramanian also criticized Yale’s lack of faculty diversity, making the incisive point that queer and trans people of color like them are accepted as entertainers on Yale’s stages, but not as professors in our lecture halls.

DarkMatter played the role of both educator and entertainer for their audience. The duo called the gay liberation movement an appropriation of both the trans liberation and black civil rights movements, and they remarked on the hypocrisy of using the acronym LGBTQ as an umbrella for rich, white, gay men. Interspersed between devastating poems about 9/11 (“I watch American invent a heart- / call it New York,- / beat its fists against the whole entire world. . . because it doesn’t matter what America does- / because America had its heart broken”) and the myth of the Asian-American model minority (“Bring in brown to keep black down. . . this model minority holds a scantron like a mirror- / recognizes that his body has always been filled in as an answer- / when the white man said jump- / we said: how many grades?”) were a series of hilariously desolate nursery rhymes, including “Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water.- / Jack fell down and broke his crown- / And Jill said ‘fuck this’ and became a lesbian separatist.”

Vaid-Menon’s final poem was “dedicated to all the loneliness in the crowd.” As a recent Stanford graduate, Vaid-Menon said that they could understand the isolation created by white liberalism at elite universities. Before beginning their last poem, they said, “There is no dignity in being a Yale student if Yale does not name its currency as blood.” They went on to describe happiness as an ignorant lie of the unaware, and they claimed that feeling anger and sadness is proof of truthful, conscious living. They spoke out against the idea that “Pain is a ritual we are to conduct in private,” and they exclaimed, “I love you more than Yale loves you. I love you more than white culture loves you. I love you more than America loves you.”

Balasubramanian’s final poem was a tender, abstract portrayal of the necessity of beauty, secrets, and skeletons. They spoke about Noah’s Ark and whales and about the reflection of the ocean into the sky, saying that the octopus has the most alien DNA of any known creature. “Fish became stars, and whales became metaphors. . . to survive an apocalypse, become an idea.” They asserted, “What has happened has happened before,” and offered the “whale’s tongue” as a model, putting forth the notion that the past and the history of thought itself can be used as a mode of escape. Balasubramanian portrayed this reconquest of historical oppression as a potent tool for transforming the present.

After two hours of urgent healing and resistance, DarkMatter proved that poetry is a site of revolution, political protest, and continuation. By reclaiming a historical narrative that has systematically oppressed and murdered the spirit of marginalized peoples the world over, DarkMatter succeeded in exploding white colonial expectations of human beauty, desirability, and worth. In arguing that gender is an imperialist construct never meant for people of color, DarkMatter penned a love letter to the violence and hurt done to the bodies and souls of gender-nonconforming people of color. Through their loving acknowledgement of this social terrorism, they offered new possibilities for survival. In DarkMatter’s transcendent poetry, a specific, painful grief has found a new and powerful voice.

We out here

We been here

We ain’t leaving

We are loved.

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