The Art of Organizing with Anjali of Diaspoura

SA
Anjali! I’m so happy to be here with you this morning/evening. Can you tell me how you’ve been feeling this week? 

A
Yes, me too!! I’m doing good at the moment! Feeling good with a couple of projects this week involving working with nice and real people. It can be so weird and lonely working solo on projects for extended periods and last week I was really feeling that! Especially working w ppl who share identities & values feels comfy and exciting at the moment 🙂

SA
So good to know you are feeling safe and cozy in the spaces you’re working in right now. If you were to use your five senses to describe your spirit, what would it sound, look, smell, taste, feel like?

A
That is a great question. Wellll… sounds like cicadas and crickets chirping at the moment. I’ve been hardcore living a country life lately. Looks like when you’re riding in a car and you’re staring at moving trees and it all just looks gradient green and blue, blurry but meditative. It smells like really sweet and spicy lovely fragrant pussy. Tastes like very gingery masala chai. Brewing a cup every morning has brought me spirit for so long. I just found some fresh lemongrass I’ve been chopping into it lately. Mhm. And feels like velour. I’m wearing a velour turtleneck.

SA
I’m hearing spicy, smooth, settled yet stimulated. I love learning of the intricate details that make up how artists I love feel. It reminds me of how I first stumbled upon your work – the first time I ever engaged with your work was through Sonia Prabhu, who is our amazing designer at Studio Ānanda, they were sharing the music video for Glisten. This was before I knew anything about Diaspoura or anything about you, sweet Anjali – but something about that track and the visuals were so hypnotic to me and it became a song I meditated to, worked to, cried to, danced to. Then I met you in person one day in the Playground Annex and you were telling me about a Spotify walk out you were organizing and I was so struck by the duality of your art making – how you are very much walking the walk. 

How does art making inspire your organizing, and how does organizing inspire your art making?

A
Wow, thank you so much for this joyful affirmation and acknowledgement of the efforts that I’ve tried so hard to merge into an artform or whatever. An interdisciplinary course of sorts. The projects I’ve released have been put out very intentionally and it feels so good to have that translate over to folks watching and listening. Grassroots organizing was the way I came into songwriting and publishing. I was the youngest of our organizing cohort, and my co-organizers were truly some badass queer mentors… They and the youth I worked with helped me believe in myself while dreaming for a radically different society. My first performances were during our after school program or fundraisers for it. 

There are a lot of break-through revelations I had in that moment, and continue to have, which I don’t find a ton of representation for in the art and music world. Traumaporn (the project Glisten was on) was a concept I conjured out of that desire. Community banning together and leaving toxic systems in the dust. Breaking format in the art world, and creating projects that could bring my loved ones closer to me and each other. Organizing has harvested the lessons I bring to my art, and my art has nourished me to sustain the effort of organizing. I’m imagining a spiral outwards and hoping it will keep going.. Cycling into each other. It’s definitely much easier to look back at it than to be in it. Am i making sense??

SA
Wow – yes. So much of this work is so process oriented and moves at varying paces, stepping back only really ever happens once the process comes to an end to a degree.

It’s so beautiful learning about how grassroots communities have nourished and fostered you from such an early age. How do you avoid burn out when you do this work? Around the time that the whole world seemed like it was organizing this year, there was so much collective anxiety where folks were feeling exhausted by the amount of work that needed to be done, a lot in the community going above and beyond and not necessarily taking care of themselves in the process. But to create new worlds, we need rest, we need rejuvenation and moments of stillness and quiet. How do you incorporate that into your practice?

A
Absolutely, I hear you. Burnout is it’s own war to end. I truly think it matters where we’re putting the energy we devote, and moving with intention can radically shift the amount of drainage and suffering we feel with this heavy, seemingly enormous, work. It is so important to notice how much being in right relationship with (1) each other, (2) the land, and (3) ourselves can make it easier for us. Spreading hope, living our dreams, and modeling authenticity, integrity, and wholeness is a part of this work just as much as action-planning, demonstrating, fundraising, and educating. I think an analysis of the work we’re doing, moving away from charity models and indulging in trauma porn (wink wink), embodying our values with the things we already find pleasure in doing for others (and being anti-capitalist about it, not commodifying the movement) – that can be a very healing and rewarding journey that doesn’t involve getting burnt out and shutting down to forget about reality.

SA
Eee yessss. Slowing down to really meditate on what we are called to instead of blindly jumping into anything and everything without intentionality. You touched on intentionality earlier and I truly do believe that with organizing, if it isn’t mindful and thoughtful, that’s when burn out appears. 

As we come to an end, I want to extend such a huuuuuuuuge heart of gratitude, Anjali – for all the ways you’re helping me, personally, understand myself and the world around me more. 

We usually end our interviews by asking, what are 3 – 4 things helping you stay grounded lately.

A
Thank you, Prinita!! On that note, it is so enjoyable to witness your journey and practice – building beautiful loving community through Studio Ananda and beyond. I am excited for you and our friendship! I’m counting that as something keeping me grounded. Some other things… Innervisions by Stevie Wonder has really grounded me this week. What a liberating album. The 3 cats I get to see in my COVID-pod and their wildly different personalities are definitely grounding. Cats have such clear boundaries and offer some real mentorship for confidence-boosting!! And long-distance running has been grounding me as a personal routine, although it feels like I’m flying off the ground when I get into it. Feeling my breath get hard and being able to sustain it is so rewarding! <333

Anjali Naik is the singer, songwriter, electronic producer, and new media artist behind Diaspoura. Raised in a highway hotel in rural South Carolina, Diaspoura brings forth a fresh perspective at the intersections of the poor, Brown, and gay South, while collaborating with other independent talents locally and beyond borders. Follow Anjali here. 

Quarantine Queries and the Complexities of South Asianness

SA
Hi Fabliha!

F
Hey! I just finished up dinner. 

SA
What was for dinner?

F
Fish head curry and rice- typical of me as a Bangladeshi but fish is delicious. Can anyone really blame me for wanting to have seafood everyday? 

SA
MM I’m drooling. Do you cook a lot?

F
Before quarantine, the only “dish” I could make was instant ramen with some chopped veggies (I know it’s considered a “struggle meal”, the concept itself inherently being classist and elitist, but to be completely honest, I find myself craving it sometimes! Instant ramen is delicious when it’s done right!) but now that I’ve been home all day, I found myself wanting to learn how to cook. My mother and I have spent so much time together in the kitchen recently and it’s one of my most beautiful memories I have from this past year. Together, we made shingaras from scratch and so many other delicious Bangladeshi dishes. I never wanted to learn how to make Bengali food because of how stressful it was. So many steps and spices, it all seemed so intimidating. But there’s such a beautiful ritual that comes with it. Cooking now is such a joyful act of nourishing oneself — physically and mentally.  

SA
This is so lovely to hear. You write a lot about your relationship or your dynamic with your mother, so to know that you’ve spent the last few months connecting through food, a shared act of care is so moving. What was it like initially being in quarantine with family, and how do you feel about it now? I just moved back to Sydney but I was in Brooklyn till September – I moved back home with my parents for two months and there were so many moments of joy and frustration that I’m still moving through. How are you feeling about it all at this present moment?

F
I feel like I’ve been preparing all my life for quarantine. Throughout my life, I didn’t have many friends. I was always considered a loner and made my first friend group when I was 18. I remembered spending all of my summers throughout my youth indoors, scrolling away on Tumblr, binge watching angsty coming of age films, and watching my peers in envy as they relished themselves in adventurous girlhood which I desperately craved. So from middle school to early college, the majority of my life was always spent indoors. When quarantine first began, I watched my friends struggle and felt suffocated. But to me, it all felt so familiar. I adapted quickly because it was all I’ve ever known. 

When it comes to my parents, my relationship with them became strengthened but also strained. I believe it’s because this past year, I have transformed into the person I’ve always wanted to be. I wondered why I was able to drastically change, but I think it’s because I have allowed myself to be confident as I am away from the public eye. I am no longer subjected to the public’s perception or conditioning. But that also comes with extreme anxiety, as the person I’ve dreamt of being, is not the daughter my parents have always hoped for. In my time in quarantine, I came to terms with my gender, my dreams, and what I want from the world — all of which are things my parents are most fearful of. 

When quarantine first happened, my desires for the world, my gender identity, and so much more had started to piece together — all of which are things my parents fear the most. At first this realization had made me become distant from them as a way to survive and protect myself. However, months later, the sadness, frustration and the grudge I held against them dissolved. For the very first time in my life, the difference in our opinions of how I should live my life made me look at my mother and father as humans, not my parents. Like me, they too have desires. When desires are not met, it is extremely painful and bitter. All of which I am dealing with as well. I have been able to recognize that we’re not so different after all, a realization that is beautiful but gut-wrenching all at the same time.  

In this present moment, I’m still processing how much I’ve changed this past year.. A part of me, like my parents, is a bit fearful of how much I transformed. However, I feel so incredibly invigorated as well.

SA
The confidence you move with, be it through your writing or the way you’re able to organize various community initiatives, is so inspiring – Fabliha. I remember coming across your work years ago, even before I moved to New York and thinking, wow, it’s cool to see this mirror being held up through Fabliha’s work and presence online. And now to see your evolution, it really gives me so much hope and comfort knowing that other queer South Asian folks have blueprints they can hold on to. 

It’s always so jarring how the anxiety we feel as we become more fully ourselves is one that arises as a protection mechanism – protecting our parents from, as you said, what they are fearful of. But in the background of understanding and coming into yourself, you’re not only nourishing your own journey but also the journey of others – and here I’m thinking particularly of your work with the South Asian Queer Trans Collective (SAQTC). Can you tell me a little about this organization and how it has evolved? And what does your family think about your organizing work?

F
Thank you so much! It means so much coming from you. I mainly use social media to just speak into the void, so sometimes I forget that real people actually view what I post online and that they’re not pixels or Sims living in my phone!

As for SAQTC, the creation of the collective begins with the journey of coming out. I came out when I was 18 to my closest friends and basically the whole world online. I am still currently not out to my parents so the Internet became a way for me to express myself and find community. 

To celebrate this identity that I finally came to terms with, I decided to start getting out of my comfort zone and go to South Asian queer artsy events in New York City. For me, this was a huge step and was a way to not only find community but also hopefully find more of myself. But instead, I was met with extreme judgement. This experience was also around the time that my mother became sick and my family had become the poorest we have ever been and we were being flooded with medical bills. I had just taken a gap year from college as I had to step up to take care of my mother. As a result, I became the heaviest I’ve ever been in my life and my skin was filled with large pores and acne. My physical appearance was a reflection of the stress and turmoil my life was overwhelmed with. 

However, I never knew that this would act as a barrier from love from the community I yearned for the most. Time and time again, at every event I would go to in hopes of making friends and finding comfort, I would find myself isolated from other South Asian queers. I vividly remember them looking at me up and down, judgement lingering in their eyes as they stared at my acne, stomach, and stains on my sweater, their lips pursed in disgust. I had realized that their respect and kindness was only reserved for those that fit into their agenda or aesthetic. When I came out, I had imagined that I would be celebrated and have queer folks accept me with open arms. But purely based on how I looked, I was rejected, yet again. 

Months later, I had started to become closer with another Bengali girl that I had met in a summer program in high school. We had become each other’s first queer Bengali friend and it transformed our lives forever. I finally found someone that had understood me and for the first time, I wasn’t alone. Our friendship made me yearn for more, but I was unsure how to, as going to community events was no longer an option for me.

Since then, I have heard numerous stories from people that have faced the same judgement and isolation that I experienced and I realized this was a recurring pattern. The rejections and my first queer friendship inspired me to organize the South Asian Queer + Trans Collective , a space where everyone could feel like they belonged. Through SAQTC  I wish to spread tenderness, unconditional love and warmth, something that my closest queer friends have taught me. As for my parents, they have no clue what I do! Whenever I have a virtual meeting or am hosting an event, I just tell them I’m hanging out with friends — which isn’t exactly a lie!

SA
Wow ok. So much of what you’ve just shared is heartbreaking and exhilarating because of how resonant it is — and, I am so sorry you had to deal with such vile behaviour. It’s so strange how intergenerational the gatekeeping goes within the South Asian community. In the same way that we are surveilled by aunties, we are surveilled by our peers who we assume are on our side and moving towards collective liberation.

I’m so glad to hear you have a close group of friends who have been able to sustain and nourish you. I guess with the case of South Asia, we have so many layers of oppression to deal with. Which of course does not make any of the current behaviour exempt – but we’re talking about folks in the community who have been raised in families marked by caste, class, gender and racial trauma. What do you think it’s going to take for our South Asian peers to drop the gatekeeping, to become cognizant of the repeating patterns within our social circles? 

F
I think about collective liberation all the time and wonder if the revolution will ever truly happen in our lifetime. It’s so easy for us to talk and have discussions about our steps towards liberation, but it’s another to practice the steps to make it happen. It’s so painful to look inward and escape the gatekeeping or systems placed onto us when it has been engraved deep into our spirit since birth. I don’t feel anger towards those that have projected their conditioning onto me, because I honestly feel like they can’t help it. It’s what we’ve been taught and the systems we live in continue to uphold it. What does it mean to break it? What does liberation even look like for all? Am I like the people that have hurt me too? I ask myself this everyday. 

I can’t help but feel so fucking frustrated. I think as a marginalized community living in the West, the Western society has placed us in a box and subdued our identities. The reality is, our communities have historically savagely murdered and enslaved each other. Even right in this moment. So while knowing all of these things, what does community truly mean when there’s so much pain and loss involved? What does healing even look like living in the diaspora while I am in community with other South Asian identities whose family members are the reason for my pain? I’m still grappling with all of these things. I think what it will take for our South Asian peers to drop the gatekeeping and move forward is to acknowledge where their behavior stems from and take accountability for the histories they were involved in. 

SA
This makes so much sense. How are we expected to move forward together when we can’t look back with responsibility at all the chaos caused by our own communities against each other? I think even lumping ‘South Asian’ into a whole can be so flattening at times when there isn’t room for nuanced explanation. It’s so sticky because we are humans searching for meaning, searching for community and belonging and I think for me personally, my journey through spirituality has really been a reckoning with understanding our ancestry for all of it’s good and bad – and seeing how we can learn from the failures and successes with the next generation. These are some really huge realizations to be having and facing daily, what are a couple of things you’ve been turning to, whether it be a book, a meal, a ritual, that have helped you stay grounded amidst moving through these reckonings?

F
So true! Our South Asian identity is so complex and painful. I’ve had these realizations this past year, which I guess happens when you’re home all day and no longer have distractions from your deepest thoughts. To be frank, the journey of these realizations had resulted in a lot of messy feelings — mostly anger. But I have come to understand that anger is one of the most pivotal and powerful factors in healing. Anger has such a vital role towards individual and even collective healing. It’s frightening but exhilarating as well.  

To ground myself from this inner reckoning, I’ve been turning to journaling and writing. I’ve been journaling since I was 13 years old. I think this became a habit of mine out of loneliness but I stopped journaling last year when I started to make a close group of friends. This year in quarantine, I started writing again and remembered why I loved it so much. It allows me to purge and cleanse my spirit. The ritual in writing my thoughts away is so satisfying because I know that I could write whatever I want without the public’s perception. I could be as messy, unfiltered, embarrassing and pathetic I want. It’s such a cathartic feeling that I will never get over. It helps me express my anger and sadness without ever having to wonder if it’s too much for people to handle, which is something I always fear. Being unhinged in private is such a grounding experience for me. 

I have also been playing around with clay art! There’s something so magical about forming something with your very own hands. It’s wonderful to make something that was originally a blob of clay transform into something magnificent! I usually watch a movie in the background and make a wonky creation. Tonight, I’m making a dalmatian print clay pot while watching Perks of Being a Wallflower for the millionth time 🙂 

Fabliha Anbar (she/them) is a 21-year-old writer and community organizer based in New York City. They are the youth coordinator for Arts & Democracy where their main focus is cultivating a safe environment for immigrant youth to creatively express themselves through art and culture. Fabliha is also the founder of the South Asian Queer + Trans Collective, a grassroots collective for the South Asian and Indo- Caribbean lgbtq+ diaspora. They have been featured in multiple publications such as Teen Vogue, Vice, NBC News, Rookie, and more. Fabliha utilizes the many facets of their identity in their writing and believes storytelling is a powerful tool to heal souls.

You can also check out their newsletter here

Humanizing Sex Work

SA
Harry, how are you feeling today, can you describe your energy in 5 words?

H
Frustrated, hopeful, stressed, confident, and excited

SA
A whirlwind of emotions, I’m hoping you’re not too stressed and frustrated and that your energy of excitement might release any of the tension you’re feeling. What does a typical week look like for you?

H
I’m only so frustrated because I spent my morning unpacking a therapy session I had with my Mum yesterday, but it’s all easing off now! My weeks are always planned out on a whiteboard ahead of time – but it’s usually 2-3 days of work at the brothel, part of a day for content creation, and about an hour of admin, gym some days, and hopefully meditation to fit in between it all. The rest of my spare time is spent with friends or reading. 

SA
Mmm, sounds like a packed schedule and it also sounds like you have found space to prioritise grounding in between. 

What’s it like navigating friendships and family dynamics with the work that you do?

H
I find making my schedule is also part of my grounding process too, so it’s hectic but good for me. Luckily, the majority of my friends are also sex workers, so I find my friendships such a safe and supportive space around work and they represent more of an ideal family dynamic to me. Like I said, I’m in therapy with my Mum, and it mostly surrounds unpacking her issues with sex work, so it’s pretty difficult, but also a rewarding process despite how exhausting it is right now. 

SA
Wow, yeah – such brave yet uncomfortable work to be in such a vulnerable space with your own mother. Wishing you a lot of healing and gentleness.

I think, even knowing that you prioritise moving through sticky and prickly dynamics adds to the level of integrity I’ve always gauged from you and your work. I started following you a few years ago and since, have learned so much about the challenges of sex workers in Australia, but also, you’ve really taught me about resilience and community and alternate space making. What you’re doing is high integrity shit and I’m really grateful for your generous offerings, even in making space for this conversation.

How do you navigate the constant policing and surveillance of your body and your work while doing all the personal healing at the same time?

H
Thank you so much for saying that! It’s really nice to know my reach is making an impact in the way I hope it does when I’m sharing these things online. 

I’m really lucky that I work in states with decriminalisation, so this policing and surveillance comes less from the state and more from sex work exclusionary feminists, social media platforms, within personal relationships, and general society. I find community grounding, and sharing stories or anxieties in spaces where we can be vulnerable and honest, which gets harder with every legislation and TOS update that encompass the social media platforms we use. Despite all manual labour involving the body, the bodies of sex workers are constantly in question, which is funny because I find sex work more mental than physical. Self-care is so important to me when we have to deal with these kinds of things. My personal healing is integrated in my overall input into community or education online, because I have to feel well to fight these stigmas with confidence and articulation, and to show up for my community with the amount of energy they deserve.

SA
Right, I can’t imagine what the level of mental and emotional labor is like for you, and, you’re right, it’s like — to truly resist we need to make sure our minds and our spirits are in a good place and strong enough to push back in a holistic way. What type of stigmas, be it the ones that are projected by ‘feminists,’ within personal relationships and general society, do you feel are the most dangerous?

H
I think that the most dangerous stigma of all is that sex work is not real work. When we deny sex work as real labour and label it as whatever else feminists or legislators want to call it, we deny the hugely varied community of rights. We all have such different needs and circumstances, but at the root of it all, rights are essential. Acknowledging something as a real job also legitimises us in such a way we are no longer victims, stereotypes, etc. – we become people with a manual labour occupation. That’s one step towards humanising that is so basic, and seems so hard to achieve sometimes, but is SO important. 

SA
It’s so wild to me that there is such a disconnect still between folks who consider themselves ‘progressives’ and their lack of humanising sex workers. And I guess, it’s just a symptom of living in a hyper capitalist, misogynstic, white supremacist modern world. I recently have begun meditating on my queer South Asian ancestors as a way to funnel my frustration around the hyper degradation of women in South Asia, and it’s so clear that sex work has and will always exist throughout history. There is so much room to make safer societies for sex workers and sexual expression in general and yet, we’re just not there yet as a ‘modern’ society. But, it sounds like you truly have created a community where you can thrive in this work, and that makes my heart really happy and hopeful. How can folks outside of the sex work industry show up for sex worker friends and family?

H
I am constantly plugging the book, ‘Revolting Prostitutes’ by Juno Mac and Molly Smith – I wish everyone in the world would read it. But I think also investing in intersectionality; the liberation of sex workers can not be achieved without anti-capitalism, abolition of borders, trans rights, drug decriminalisation and so on. The book covers all of these things, and a podcast I listened to recently called ‘Whoretopia’ is a great one. I always say argue with your families, back us offline as well as online – so it’s good to come to these conversations with ammunition and facts. It’s also so important for allies to make it their responsibility to seek out the varied voices of sex workers, and not just follow binary tropes of what a sex worker looks like. 

SA
Yes, love that. It’s not liberation if it doesn’t include us all. 

Most of our community is based in New York — for Americans interested in learning more about how the sex work industry might differ in Australia, could you shed some insight on those nuances?

H
There’s a TED Talk on YouTube that covers the basics of all the different models for sex work laws across the world, it’s called ‘The Laws Sex Workers Really Want’ and is also by Juno Mac. That’s a great place to start to just see how these laws differ and affect people in different countries. 

Within Australia, only NSW and Northern Territory have achieved decriminalisation. A lot of the rest of the country is “legal”, which isn’t as amazing as it sounds and often means the government can still create legal hoops to jump through, that are often more difficult for vulnerable groups, and never make us safer. Just one example, in the ACT, more than two sex workers sharing a room is classified as “brothel keeping,” which means we are acting illegally, so sex workers must work alone. It’s pretty clear why that isn’t ideal. I think anyone well-versed in American sex work laws would be familiar with these totally unreasonable rules. 

We hope that decriminalisation here can be the blueprint for the rest of the world to look to when creating new laws around sex work. Still though, without anti-discrimination bills and workplace standards, we aren’t guaranteed the same level of rights as other less discriminated against industries, and don’t have the power to push for better workplace conditions. Which reminds me, a good way to be an allie is also to watch for the Anti-Discrimination Bill the Greens are about to table to government here in Australia! 

SA
Will definitely keep an eye out for and encourage our Australian community to be following that, thank you for sharing. Again, I’m always so encouraged by your brave outspokenness and truly stand beside you — thank you for teaching and guiding so many of us who might often struggle to understand without adequate resources.

To end, what are a couple of things you are practicing or engaging in that are helping you stay grounded lately? Be it a song you keep coming back to, a meal you’re cooking, a type of meditation…

H
For my mind, my whiteboard calendar is my recent saviour — so nerdy but so essential for a stressed out Gemini. For my body, things that bring me home to it, like baths, meditation, working out, journaling. 

You can follow Harry’s work on Instagram @hole_money and Twitter @pole_money