Refelections: 15 years since Sept 11th, 2016

I can’t believe it’s been 15 years. I had been out of town performing in Minneapolis. I was staying with Deepa Jeeva. She called me to say turn on the TV & I assumed that it had to be about Sri Lanka. But it wasn’t. It was NYC, my new home of less than two years. Duke Hogwild was supposed to be at BMCC at 8am. Please let him have overslept. He did, but I wouldn’t know for a couple hours. We couldn’t reach anyone by phone. I left one New York and returned two weeks later to a completely different one. Huge flags went up all over. The smell even days/weeks later would pound my head. Familiar enough for me to piece together what it was. Like when I’d put the iron too hot to my hair or a car was driven with the emergency breaks. Or the stove was left accidentally on cooking the meat to a crisp. All at the same time, but stronger and lasting and floating like the ash and burnt paper over the water, landing in Brooklyn. I could feel the ghosts passing. I was living with Prachi Patankar & Piper Anderson. Together we filled our home with paintings, poetry and song. I didn’t really understand what it meant to be triggered at that time and failed to see it in myself as I dove into workaholic arts, activism, & organizing– some healing, some escapist, some damaging.

I’d join APIA feminist performance collective Mango Tribe. I’d burst into tears as folks told us we need to focus on race right now. Intersectionality was not yet as common a term in activist circles. “But imperialism and war is gendered! The culture of violence being cultivated impacts us on multiple levels! September 11th is allowing for the acceleration of a comprehensive right wing agenda that’s been in the works for years! It is about race, but it’s more than that too!!” I would storm out of collectives “This is a Patriarchal collective!” and eventually would find my home at the Audre Lorde Project (ALP).

I would speak in front of over 100,000’s protesting against the war in Iraq, despite the organizers skimming my minutes afraid that I was going to speak on Gay Marriage, failing to understand that a Queer Feminist Sri Lankan Tamil perspective– representing one of the only slots for Queer & Trans People of Color– is about digging deeper, unearthing the silenced, opening space for the hard conversations and looking long term at the multiple possibilities and obstacles ahead. With others from ALP, DRUM – Desis Rising Up & Moving, Caaav: Organizing Asian Communities, Peoples’ Justice for Community Control and Police…, Justice Committee (JC), Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, and others we’d launch Operation Homeland Resistance. Yul-san Liem & Wol-san Liem would teach me how to go limp, and I was carried off by 5 cops as I was arrested, committing civil disobedience, protesting the War on Terror at home and abroad. Meanwhile in Brooklyn there were more and more murders and the increasing police often made things worse. Queer and Trans People of Color were being killed in brutal ways and there was no accountability. ALP’s working group against police and state violence, that had been chaired for years by Ang Hadwin, would shift under¬† Ejeris Dixon‘s new leadership into the Safe OUTside the System Collective (Audre Lorde Project) which sought to address homophobic and transphobic violence without relying on the police. Peers located in other parts of the movement saw my commitment to ALP stemming from identity politics. But mine was always tied closely to a commitment to ending war in it’s many iterations and solidarity with old school Black & Brown Brooklyn. How could I fight for justice thousands of miles away and ignore the armed conflict here on the streets of Brooklyn?

I continued to open space in Sri Lankan Tamil diasporic communities for us to be critical of multiple armed actors, patriarchy, child abuse, and other silenced issues. Then came the Tsunami, and cease fire ended. The vibrations of my Cambodian and other war affected APIA communities would draw me in closer and I’d have the blessing to work with Khmer, Vietnamese, Laotian, Philipinx youth at Asian Arts Initiative— forcing me to center and model a healing relationship with activism. An encounter with Chitra Aiyar on the train would bring me closer to Nahar Alam and the amazing domestic workers organizing of Andolan– a workers center run by and for domestic workers. Andolan committed me deeper to the intersections of class, caste, (forced)migration, gender and violence– preparing me for the work I’d be blessed to be a part of in Sri Lanka.

The broader anti-war movement in the US dwindled. I went from speaking/performing before uncountable numbers to working against the war in Sri Lanka in quiet closed small underground circles. We wore masks at our vigils and rallies. Security an ever present issue. I would finally save enough money to go to Sri Lanka. But the war was in full force and why would I go to Sri Lanka if I cant go to the North to where my blood hails. So I began working in the refugee camps in Tamil Nadu. Eventually though I’d return to the North & East, having to apply for Military of Defense permission, visiting my grandfather’s grave before my mother. I’d light candles with plastic matches in the Jaffna rain for every one of Papa’s (my grandfather’s) descendants.

I would come back to fall in love with and join forces with Jendog Lonewolf. Our first performance together would be at the Stolen Lives Project Induction ceremony that brings families who recently lost loved ones to police violence together with others who lost loved ones in the past. My return to the US would also be gripped with the economic struggles of being a working artist. The landscape had changed. We were now in the world of social media and years of quiet solidarity did not serve you in an economic landscape dictated by visibility, likes and youtube hits. The recession had taken its toll and “pick up jobs” were harder to find. My capacity to volunteer dwindled and I left SOS collective, only having room for my art, Sri Lanka, and slowly getting on social media, as piecing together my income with performing, facilitating, bartending, babysitting, database entry, dancing at raves, became harder and harder.

I finally found consistent part time work at War Resisters League and was able to locate my trajectory of anti-war activism within the org’s 90 year history, learning more about Bayard Rustin and discourses on radical nonviolence. In 2014 Jendog Lonewolf, Varuni Tiruchelvam performed at the opening ceremonies of War Resisters’ International in Cape Town South Africa, sharing a stage with Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu, Omar Baghouti, and more. But even more soul shaping was meeting our brothers from Soundz of the South (SOS) Mkhululi Khusta Sijora and Mawethu Gejies Mapotolo who generously taught us the resistance of the townships and meeting Roegshanda Pascoe who inspired us to keep fighting for the children, love and justice no matter the circumstances.

The last two years has been understanding better what Emile YX? calls the Mathematics of Survival, so I can one day better execute the Mathematics of Thriving. Vision Change Win Consulting called me into its fold– with Ejeris Dixon reminding me that quiet solidarity is remembered more than I thought. Monisha Bajaj and Susan Roberta Katz saw that I have skills to share and invited me to teach Social Justice Pedagogy and the Arts to graduate students in Human Rights– believing that there is wisdom that can be learned from those without PhD’s. Emory M Moore Jr. created the path for me to bring all I’ve learned to the children of Brooklyn giving me space to teach the teachers. Robert Gass invited me to relax into my dreams and continue to believe in my bold new visions.

15 years later I am equipped with so much more insight and skills. I recognize the need to center our healing in all of our work. Recognizing that politics/activism without love can become a virus, the spark of another war. I recognize that relying on the fuel of anger alone to build our movements is dangerous. I follow the call of Eve Tuck to go beyond the damaged narrative and cultivate our dreams of what could be. I am still mourning all the lives lost that day and since.  And I am full with possibility.