LEAH LAKSHMI PIEPZNA-SAMARASINHA is a busy woman. The 30-year-old U.S.-raised, Toronto-based queer Sri Lankan writer is also a spoken-word artist, activist, event organizer and teacher.
A frequent contributor to Bitch and Colorlines, her writing has been published in numerous the anthologies. Leah has performed her work widely throughout North America from immigrant-rights rallies to Yale University. She teaches writing to queer, trans and questioning youth through Supporting Our Youth's Pink Ink program, runs the Browngirlworld series of queer-of-colour spoken-word events and is one of the co-founders of the Asian Arts Freedom School, an arts and activism school for Asian/Pacific Islander youth. Somewhere in there, she found time to write her first book, Consensual Genocide, which has just launched.
In this candid interview, Leah speaks with novelist Elizabeth Ruth about telling raw truths, brown-girl border crossings, mixed-race journeys and high-femme rebellion.
ER: Leah, I've seen you perform spoken word live many times. You are a quick-witted, dynamic presence on any stage, often implicating the audience in direct ways. How do you define or describe your work in Consensual Genocide? As poems? Bio-mythographical snap shots? Something else?
LLP-S: They're definitely poems, but they're also me capturing moments in time. I write to create badass beauty but also to document who gets erased âe" young queer-of-colour lives, high-femme girl lives, survivor lives, the experiences of Sri Lankans growing up in the diaspora, the experiences of brown folks trying to get across the border.
ER: Were there particular challenges you faced in taking your three-dimensional sensibility and translating it to the two-dimensional page?
LLP-S: Oh, hell yeah. That's part of why the book took so long âe" 7 years. I think every spoken-word artist struggles with how to make it look as good on the page as it sounds coming out of your mouth âe" as I heard [African-American poet and fiction writer] Sapphire say once, "you can't rock a semi-colon." There are some artists I love who've pulled it off. For example, Suheir Hammad, who I was blessed enough to study with this past summer, and Ishle Park were both totally inspirations âe" they're both Def Poetry Jam stars and amazing performers whose books are also beautiful. But I was totally concerned that Consensual Genocide not come out looking like a crappy book of spoken word that was fun on stage and boring in print.
ER: The title of your book, Consensual Genocide, is strong and encompasses the major themes of colonization, racism, erasure, hunger and war. The thread that frequently ties these themes together is the experience of passing. In the poem, âeoePersistence,âe for example, you write of walking Brooklyn streets as a teen, passing as Arab, Latina, Jewish, âeoeanything that was safe for a minute.âe Can you say more about your understanding of passing as a coping strategy, and perhaps âe" since we are living in a time of war âe" how you see passing as it operates in present-day Toronto or New York?
LLP-S: For maybe the three years after 9/11 I felt under extreme scrutiny in public space âe" Price Chopper, airports, the sidewalk, you name it âe" as this immigrant, light-brown, could-be Muslim/Arab woman with a weird last name on her passport and landed status. When I was organizing the Mango Tribe show for International Women's Day and had to pick folks up from the airport, I realized that I didn't know where the regular arrivals exit was because I'd never been out it. I'd always been sent out the little side door they send you through when you've been second-staged at immigration [told you have to go for additional questioning]. In the current phase of low-level constant war it's ebbed a bit. I don't wear hijab or have a Muslim last name, so I'm getting grilled less. It could change back tomorrow.
I wanted to include those poems (like âeoePersistenceâe ) because I think the experience of being read as many things is something so many mixed folks (and other folks) go through. But my relationship to passing has shifted a lot from when I was in my early 20s. Back then, I was so much more isolated as a mixed woman, the conversations about being mixed were really different and I was more agonized by feeling like no one saw me as who I was, feeling like I had to prove myself. That's really changed. Not because the world is so much more wonderful or anything, but because as I've gotten more rooted in different Sri Lankan communities, I've gotten more confident in myself. I think I get read as a light-skinned brown woman in a hoodie who is probably South Asian, most of the time now. And when people think I'm something else, it's easy to say, I'm a Sri Lankan woman with a white mom. It's something I had to grow into.
One thing I am clear about rejecting is passing as a survival strategy. My parents and grandparents thought it was the only way they were going to survive in the world, and if fascism really busts out on my block tomorrow, who knows, I might feel the same way. But I don't think it's really an option. I don't think cutting off myself from my chosen family, my communities would be real survival, and I know it would be soul death. I would rather choose to stay inside my brown, queer communities and fight âe" and this has always been a choice that mixed or light-skinned folks of colour have made.
ER: Among the various identities you render visible through your writing, is that of sexual abuse survivor. Unlike the excavation of a Sri Lankan identity, the excavation of abuse in the book is treated tentatively. What do you see as the relationship between these lost and recovered selves? Do you see similarities between the colonization of a people and the colonization of an individual body?
LLP-S: It's funny, because when people said things like you just did, I'm like, "What do you mean? Incest is all through the book!" But it is and it isn't. I was dealing with healing from sexual abuse and dealing with coming home as a Sri Lankan at the exact same time in my life that many of these works were written. But I don't have a big, gory, "This is what happened" poem in the book. It's more subtle. I have respect for other poems and poets who go there âe" Sapphire's "Mickey Mouse Was A Scorpio" is one poem that was, and is, incredibly important to me âe" but I think sometimes folks think that's the only way to write about incest. I wanted to write about the aftermath, and also, for me, my mother's abuse of me was so intertwined with her racism that writing about them is almost the same thing. For people of colour who survive sexual abuse, I don't think we can deal with them separately âe" whether it's people of colour or white people who are our perpetrators, sexual abuse is always about power, and as people of colour who are survivors, being abused is all about teaching us that we are not valuable, that the borders of our bodies aren't respected. Whether it comes from the racism of a white person or the internalized shit of a person of colour, the lesson is similar.
ER: Many of the most intimate poems touch on hunger âe" hunger for home, for the motherland, or for full ownership and inhabitation of one's physical self. In one piece entitled, âeoeeating a $5 plate of string hoppers, I think of my fatherâe you write that you only saw the man cry three times in your life and once was when you sent him a 99-cent package of tamarind candy, because it was the first time he'd tasted tamarind in 30 years. Can you say more about various appetites in Consensual Genocide, that aren't filled or sated?
LLP-S: I think the main appetite that's getting filled is the desire to get free. I mean, the poem you referenced and "Colorslut" are all about growing up in a house where there was almost no colour anywhere âe" in the clothes we could buy, on the walls, anywhere âe" and growing up and running away to this world where there is hot pink and tamarind, sex and freedom, the opposite of this tight white rigidly contained abusive home. In a lot of poems âe" "good sistas", for one âe" I wanted to paint this vision of a gorgeous, fractious, high-femme diva revolutionary petunia life, where there is colour and booty and revolutionary fabulousness. Life.
ER: You write of crossing various borders âe" visible and invisible, literal and metaphoric. You are an American living in Canada, yet publishing work in both countries, you have a family history of being colonized and being the colonizer, and you have had lovers who are male, female and transsexual/transgendered. You straddle more than one âeoehomeâe at all times. What advantages, as a writer, do you think you have as a result of not standing firmly in any single comfort zone?
LLP-S: Well, I don't think I have any choice âe" I am this queer femme who dates all kinds of people who are queer and masculine in their gender, as well as other femmes, and Iâe(TM)m a brown woman living on stolen land. I don't have any choice but to be and represent who I am, which is something most of the people in the world are, in different ways. I guess it means I don't have to write boring, self-reflective white artsy poems, or live in the Drake (that kind of a high-end boutique hotel that epitomizes the hipster-cool, gentrifying, very white and bougie "art hotel" cultural scene you can find in many cities). But see, I think even straight, white, moneyed folks live in different worlds, too âe" they are colonizers and colonized, they probably run into a mix of gendered and classed and raced folks all the time. They're just oblivious to it.
ER: We are living in a time of war, and you write of war in various forms, and of the everyday experience of terror for those who are marginalized. Yet, you retain a level of optimism in terms of people's ability to resist, adapt and survive. Would you say that this book is as much about love or hope as it is about struggle?
LLP-S: Yes. For a while I was like, oh man, it's a book full of all these depressing poems! Because I really hated that kind of cheesy, upbeat positivity kind of poems at some open mics, when everybody is rhyming âeoerevolutionâe with âeoeevolutionâe âe" I was like, fuck this, I want to just tell the truth, and it's not that cheesy! I'm a pretty sarcastic and crass person, too, and that comes out in the poems. But damnit, sarcasm is a survival strategy! And speaking the truth is also about love and hope, even if the truths are hard sometimes. And there is so much beauty in the book âe" in the way it documents how people just survived, regardless. I also got the guts together to put in some love and sex poems, so you know, that's in there too. The thing is, it's always a time of war, and we've also always kept resisting âe" whether that means painting your toenails, taking your mom to the doctor so you can translate and advocate for her or organizing with all the folks and moms in the waiting room so you don't have to go through the bullshit anymore.
ER: As well as writing and publishing in recent years, youâe(TM)ve been busy mentoring younger writers through Pink Ink, and programming your own regular performance-based event, Browngirlworld. How do these projects influence your writing and activism?
LLP-S: Urgency. Toronto in the late 90s gave birth to me as a writer because there were places where I could perform as a queer woman of colour. Those spaces don't exist in the same way anymore âe" it's really hard work to do event promotion and get the community off its ass to come out! Those spaces only exist if we make them, but it's damn hard work to be pouring out energy to create community institutions and do your own work at the same time. But what other choice do we have? One thing that I'm glad to come to is that I'm really comfortable with seeing the cultural work I do as activism. I can't deal with being in a meeting for five hours, but I can create the spaces for political art to happen.
ER: Given the span of time in your life and the world events you document in Consensual Genocide, this work has been a long time coming. You obviously took your time getting it right. How is it for you then, to have spent so much time one-on-one with these words, and now to share them with the world?
LLP-S: For the past two weeks, I've been having the typical writer nervous breakdown: "They suck! What do you mean, I can't change anything after it goes to the press on Tuesday?" Sometimes I can't stand to look at my journalism or anthology pieces for a while after they come out, so this takes it to the next level.
Because I'm writing about incredibly personal stuff that implicates other folks as violent âe" my abusive ex-partner, who still lives in Toronto, and my family âe" I had to sit down and really pray over what it meant to send this work out in the world. My abusive ex sent me this email at 4 a.m. a year ago after he'd somehow seen the small handmade edition of the book. He basically went on saying how sorry he was for four pages (never mind that I'd asked him not to contact me and instead he'd chosen to Google my email) but then at the end quoted a whole bunch of lines out of context and kind of threw them at me, like a big, harsh snowball âe" "Look how mean you were to me!" So I had to sit with this for a while and think about my own safety in publishing this work; was he going to go ballistic when it really got published, and was in the library? Would all the people who were implicated be able to hear the stories that are in the poems? The bottom line for me is that survivors have the right to tell our stories, and that if anyone who's been in an abusive relationship in the kind of activist context I was and sees themself reflected, it's worth it. I think there's actually a lot of compassion in the poems, but there's also a demand for accountability.
Part of the time lag was that most of the queer and feminist presses I thought would be around to publish my work went bust before I finished the manuscript. I totally thought Sister Vision or Press Gang would be the ones, and then they weren't there anymore. Most surviving presses cannot publish poetry because it's seen as a financial loss, and there is, truthfully, a lot of horrible poetry out there publishers don't want to be flooded with. It worked out in the end. I self-published a limited-edition, handbound book in 2004 with my friend Jamie Munkatchy at Booklyn, and then TSAR responded and wanted to bring it out. They're a small press that published progressive South Asian writing, so it worked really well.
A lot of spoken-word artists I know are reaching a place where we should have a book out âe" we're 30, we've gotten to a certain level in our work âe" but unless you're Saul Williams, most of the time that door is shut. The great thing about self-publishing is that all the profits are yours and you have complete control, but your books probably won't getinto libraries or get reviewed, and you can't submit them to the Lammies or other awards. I really wanted the book to be accessible to anyone who wanted it, not just people who came to a show I did. The happiest moment so far was looking up my name in the Toronto Public Library catalogue and seeing that they've ordered 8 copies, one of which will be in the Parkdale branch, where I've spent so much time hanging in the poetry section of the Black/West India Heritage collection.
In between the self-published version and this one I was able to take out a lot of the really old pieces and put in new ones. I didn't know you could do that and had put together this manuscript that just had every single piece of writing I'd done since 1997. When I was living in new York for two months this fall, I was working with Bushra Rehman, my friend and editor, and I was moaning about how I was gonna have to tour the book and there were all these sucky poems and she was like, "You know you can put in new ones, right?" Thank you, Bushra.
ER: So, given that you had to really think through what it would mean to publish, I'm curious whether your family has read the book?
LLP-S: No. But I'm wondering if they'll show up at either of the two Boston launches. That would be interesting âe" my family in a big trans and queer space, or in an Asian-American poetry slam.
ER: Are you working on another book-type project? What's next from Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha?
LLP-S: Once Consensual Genocide is out, I'm hoping to steal time to finish Dirty River, which is one of those memoir/fiction hybrids about coming of age in the mid-90s in New York and Toronto, as a brown freaked-out girl in the middle of the Riot Grrl race wars, straight people of colour activism and late 90s queer woman of colour land. (I promise all the names will be changed.) When I read Michelle Tea's, Valencia, I loved it so much, but I was so struck by the fact that the queer girl 90s world she documented had no people of colour in it at all, and I was like, I need to tell the brown girl's version... or a brown girl's version. In my head, Dirty River is half a brown girl's Valencia, half a South Asian, 21st century version of Audre Lorde's Zami.
I'm also working on completing Blood Memory: A Sri Lankan Storytelling Project with my sistergirls Marian Yalini Thambyanayagam and Varuni Tiruchelvam, both of whom are in Mango Tribe. Marian is a spoken-word artist, dancer and theater artist, and Varuni is a cellist who plays with Mango Tribe and Stone Forrest Ensemble, a group that uses beatboxing, cello and violing with MCs over the top. It's a collaborative spoken word, music and movement performance about Sri Lankan women's and trans people's untold stories âe" sex, the civil war, diaspora and exile, home. I'm really excited to get it done, not only because what we have is completely badass, but because we're going to create new space to be Sri Lankan.
Finally, I'm going to Sri Lanka, for the first time in my life, to launch Consensual Genocide at the Equal Ground LGBT Pride Festival in Colombo, in late May. It feels like I'm waiting for a multiple orgasm or a nervous breakdown, or both. I can't wait.
Thank you for reading this story…
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