As a queer Tamil Sri Lankan-American artiste, D’Lo inhabits many worlds, many dichotomies… In India, to perform an autobiographical monologue for the New Park Festival curated by Prakriti Foundation, D’Lo spoke to Sayan Bhattacharya about paradoxes of life and art, gender politics, Hillary Clinton, even Gandhi and finally how is queer always the voice of dissent.
The way you discuss your parents, their coming to terms with your sexuality… what struck me is that these performances are basically culled from your personal experiences… So take us through that journey… When did you first realise that these experiences could be material for your performance art?
Well, I started off doing mostly larger political issues like the war in Sri Lanka, HIV, police brutality… anything that could align me with social justice and then in 2003, I created the story of Amma. I started using the spoken word to tell stories that were more personal. One of the pieces that marked this, came from my last year in college when I was dating this woman and we were very much in love. Her mother found out and put the whole Christian talk on me and forbid me from seeing her daughter. So I wrote a story about that and I realised through that sort of sharing, your personal would bring out the political in ways that are more tangible. Even when I wrote Amma (a piece where D’lo plays his mother), I thought it would be fun. What we don’t realize is that as political and social justice people, we work with a certain lens. But this piece is my immigrant mother’s understanding of queerness through her understanding of whiteness. You know when she says there are no gays in Sri Lanka… Doing these monologues, I realised that I could do so much more in character based theatre and that’s when the personal, the political, my observations, my thoughts started filtering through these characters. So it’s been a journey from theatre to story telling to a stand-up comedic genre of story telling that is all about my life. The stories have touched so many people’s lives because they are completely personal.
When you are playing Amma, she talks about her elder daughter’s death and here you are talking about a break-up with a lover. So there is a lot of tragedy hidden within the comic…
I say that comedy is tragedy.
So when you are performing, does it play up all that you left behind?
No. I think that as an artist I have to be completely prepared before coming to the stage. I am not saying that you don’t get affected periodically by things that have happened but if I were to go up on stage and start to emotionally go to places that I were not prepared to go, then I am not taking care of my audience. I have to dip into the emotions to tell the stories in an authentic way but I should feel completely in control.
Don’t you feel you’re exploiting your vulnerabilities?
I feel like vulnerability is probably my strongest trick and it’s the easiest. I am trusting myself to do it and trusting the audience enough to hold me in it. And performance is a circular relationship, it’s like I can’t perform unless I am feeling something from the audience. It’s back and forth. I haven’t been trained in theatre, I haven’t been trained in performance. I think the only training that I’ve had artistically has been in music. In music production. I have been in this school of what I call ritual theatre making, which is like everything is ceremony. Your spirituality, your spirit, your belief system, your political belief system. All put together and you have to have integrity, you know. That’s the one thing, you have to have it so much that being vulnerable is your tool to connect. Rather than somebody having power over you. A lot of people don’t like to share their secrets because they think that if you share your deep dark secrets, somebody will use it against you. But if you do that in a way that you know nobody can use it against you, that is your most powerful tool to survive this world.
In a recent interview you said, “I don’t thrive off a sense of alienation. Frankly, everything scares me. But I figure I gotta fake it till I make it.” What’s that supposed to mean?
So the question was in being queer, somebody can look at me and say, well , you know, the way you style your dress, the way you are, what you take up to the stage, somebody could say that you thrive off of being different. I am not saying that I am a victim. But for me, it is very hard to even walk down the street, without being looked at. And I try everyday, everything I can so that I can to sort of pass and blend in. I know that I have piercings and I know that sometimes I don’t pass as a man down the street… walking down the street, not knowing if I have to fear for my life is not fun. I have to perform in front of very conservative crowds, very straight-feeling crowds, and you never know what’s going to happen. There is always a sense that somebody could just stand up and cause a scene or there’s such a level of volatility to everything that I do that it’s almost ridiculous for anybody to assume that I am trying to be different. It’s sort of that same thing as saying queerness is a choice. I am like, it’s not a choice.
That’s the way you are…
Wouldn’t you think that if there was a choice, people wouldn’t want to be queer? (laughs)
Who would want to face institutionalised violence, is it?
Exactly but you know I am an artist too. So I do like wearing jewellery. I feel comfortable in the clothes that I wear. Some people think that, when you talk to academics they are always talking about the performance and gender and in the larger scheme of things, it is a construct and so yes, it’s a performance. But there is nothing performative of the way that transgender , queer people are unless it is about dismantling, like an active dismantling. Which is what I feel that the gender queer movement does. But for me, I feel like I am not strong enough to dismantle. I actually am of that school of queerness that wants to pass. But at the same time I don’t want my queer visibility to suddenly become invisible. So I am at this place where my politics governs my life in a certain percentage of a way where I don’t want to lose my queer visibility and at the same time I want to have the option to pass when I am in the danger zone.
But isn’t that a paradox? You are a performer; you celebrate all sorts of differences in your performances, so your personal is very public. So how do you pass?
No, it’s like I could be known within a realm of life. Like whether it’s the queer community, south Asian, hip hop, social justice communities you know, I mean my name will come up in these circles, right? But on the everyday, I have to survive for me. Some people ask me that if you weren’t doing this, you would be on testesterone and I said yes, if I wasn’t doing this art, I would be a completely different person. I would want to pass. Because what has felt most natural to me is that I identify as masculine and male, in my energy. I know that some days I am a little bit more masculine than other days, but for the most part, that’s my zone of comfort. If I was a cab driver, or some manual labourer , or in an office job or whatever, yes, I would want to pass. One of my friends asked me, “Do you make the art or does the art make you?” And I wanted to say that I make the art but my life is not that. So I am at the mercy of the art making but in a very like joyous way. It is a paradox but it’s real. It’s the vulnerable, the mud that’s shaky. It’s like we always think that we are moving towards places of our comfort but once we get to the comfortable spot, something feels uncomfortable again because change is inevitable, right? It’s like everything that I am, that I love about me, can in the same moment, be everything that I loathe. And every person I think will constantly try to wipe that line of what I want and what does society want.
You don’t take testosterone because voice modulation is an important part of your acts. Doesn’t the professional compulsions of an artist come in the way of your identity as a man? Or is the transgendered where you feel most home?
For me, my art is not linked to my being, my person. It is one in the same. My body will always be a changing landscape because my art changes and vice-versa. Right now, I’m looking at two major things in my life. Finance and queer visibility. I get paid to do character work. And honestly, the thought of doing character work in a body that passes as male 100% of the time, does not appeal to me right now. Not because I have a judgment of men who take on multiple characters, but because I love the art form of taking on character and the ease at which I, as a semi-passing queer body’d actor, can switch between different characters. From male to female, to transgender to old to young types of characters while in this semi-passing body.
This however, also gets in the way of my personal desires to be/look more like a cis gender male.
But the contradiction is that I know, once I start passing more as a man, I will lose my queer visibility. I know, too, that my style of being is very “straight” male, so I know that once I pass, I think I will probably have very little “gay affectation” to my being (I could be wrong) – because even though I would want to “queer” my passing reality, part of the reason I have always wanted to transition is because I indeed have a personal desire to inhabit a socially constructed role and body of a cis-male. But, back to the contradiction – my comfort, my politic, my desires as transgender person are to remain in the third world. The cousin to all that is black and white, the “man” and “woman”. To exist in the grey comfortably is where I would ultimately love to be, knowing that the closest thing to being in the grey comfortably is going from desiring to being comfortable and then being comfortable with the uncomfortable.
On the other hand there are people who say art transcends gender. What do you make of that?
Art may be gender neutral… but…really how can you say that? For example women have an art making process that is totally different from…
There is this recent film Chitrangada which poses this question, “Why a building is called a building when the construction is complete?” So the protagonist, who is going for sex reassignment, is told, “Because the transition is never complete.” So the body is transitional but the identity of the artist transcends that…
I believe that your lens is always going to be political. I don’t mean that all artists are political but political as in this constructed reality of race, class, gender, caste and other things. Your lens will always be informed by your identities. If you say that art is gender neutral, you could also say that the art is race neutral which is bogus. In fact I feel that gender and the construct of gender plays more than other things.
What was your coming out experience like?
Coming out experience happened in my last year of college. And that was the first time I came out, then I had to come out again to my mother that I had a girl friend, then I had to come out again as trans… you don’t ever stop coming out.
How did your parents react to your performances?
My mother saw the piece (Amma) in 2004 and she can’t say that I did anything wrong. Her concerns were properly voiced. You know, it’s a very powerful moment to have your story shared with the world, for people to have sympathy, empathy, and to be appreciated over the truth of someone’s world. My father has seen little clips from this show on video and he loves it. He’s actually a lot more… I think he would be a performer, if he wasn’t a doctor.
And you know people come up and say, “I really thought I was open minded but now I realise that there’s a whole lot more…” I try to make my stories as accessible as possible.
Coming to another performance, what is the rationale behind presenting a beef eating, drug snorting Gandhi, who might also be gay?
(laughs) I actually tried to propose that he is not really Gandhi but a character named Uncle G. You know it’s actually very funny that the person whose voice you hear in the video and the one who videotaped is actually Omi Vaidya. I was in his house and we were trying to do something funny. So if we talk about Gandhi and his non-violence, what would be his equivalent in today’s times and space that would have relevance. Now a lot of swamis and lot of holy people, philosophy type figures, preach because of the background they come from. Like how my mother who goes to this swami and that swami… holy persons. And she judges people in the grocery store for stealing. And I am like, amma what if they needed that, like what if they don’t have the money and they have a family of six to feed. How can you judge that? And because she comes from this one class background, she is not going to understand that. So I always talk about how do you maintain a non-violent nature if your life has been filled with violence. So basically the characters I make, are really trying to show the contradictions of life. Of how somebody will try and remain all good but they have this secret at the back that they can’t let out. I feel like this character, is very much based on my father and my uncles who sit there and act like they know everything. They have an opinion on everything. Like when my father said , “If a woman gets raped, it is because she deserved it.” And I was like, “Appa, what if I got raped?” and then he was like…oh ( laughs)!
Are you trying to reassess Gandhi?
No… The only thing I would say is, the looks are related. But beyond that Gandhi had his contradictions too. Nobody ever really talked about it. I’m not saying he was a smoker or a drinker or snorts up. Later somebody told me about a book where a writer mentions that Gandhi was gay.
Joseph Lelyveld talks about a somewhat ambiguous equation between Gandhi and Hermann Kallenbach in his book…
Hmm… Whatever. But about the relevance of the character to Gandhi, aside from the look, I want to humanize who our leaders are. People might say it’s offensive but I’m actually using these characters to show our infinite spectrums, the contradictions included. In the theatre piece (the video is the back story to it); he is the one who really brings it all together. He is the one who is so accepting… so loving, so tender… so trying to negotiate what it is to be an old person who has seen so much, who was in the army, who was abused. Again using figures in a way that show humanity. That’s where my interest lies as a theatre artist. I don’t want to create one-dimensional characters. It’s boring. I see it done badly all the time. I want to explore their true spice of life… the nuance
Hmm… let’s get to American now…
This is the year of the American elections and Hillary Clinton says that gay rights are human rights. So, now it seems like gay is the new progressive and with that you can wash away your sins in Afghanistan and Iraq… so, there is this whole idea of homonationalism. Where do you see yourself in this new gay white campaign?
I think that they are really smart and shrewd. At the end of the day, I would have Obama in, rather than Romney, yes of course. But at the same time, they have, and especially in the media, they have done everything they can to wipe their hands clean of having gone to war or going to war. I align myself with the queer movement, not the gay movement, so I cannot rejoice over the things Hillary Clinton talks about. A queer movement is never going to forget that America has blood on its hands. Gays in the military, for example, not on our radar. You know what I mean? Gay marriage. Not on our radar. We could give a f**k about that shit. Because I feel the only people rejoicing are pro-this or pro-that… Hillary Clinton knows that there are a lot of gay white men, who want to be doing the right liberal thing, and a lot of white women as well, of a particular class bracket… and so, these are the issues they are putting up to win a vote. When they are talking about gay men, they do not mean the gay men of colour or the working class who may not have marriage on the radar. They may have to go to the military and all that might be good on paper but they know that there is still a lot of rape in the army.
But to think of how the American senate is actively taking part in Rainbow walks, funding a few as well… so do you think it is time to queer the queer voice?
I think that it is being done; queering the queer voice. The queer voice is a voice of dissent, and this is why it will never become a mainstream voice. The reason why the gay thing works is because it is about wanting to be just like other straight people. And queer people, we know that we are not just like you. And the queer movement is also against governmental or corporate sponsorships. There might be a way to use the resources in order to be subversive, but these are all things that queer people are thinking about constantly. Have I fully thought this out? Am I working towards something, knowing how everything intersects. For me, they are like no way… you can be queer and trans, but that’s lesser an issue than my politics.