Yes Means Yes: with Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
zohra // 3 February 2009
The Virtual Tour of Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape has begun!
It kicked off yesterday at feministing with a live chat with the co-editors and some of the contributors, and today is being hosted by The F Word. See the full schedule for the rest of the tour at the end of this post – and be sure to tune in tomorrow’s episode: a live chat (3pm EST) with Julia Serano & Latoya Peterson at RH Reality Check.
For our segment, we’re doing a Q&A with the inspiring Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha who I’ve had the very good fortune of organizing with in Toronto while she and I were both there. Welcome Leah!
Starting interview… now:
What has been the outcome of writing about your experiences for your organizing and politics with queer, trans and women of colour communities?
Writing about being a survivor of violence has had only good outcomes for me within the movements I’m part of. People ask if its vulnerable or whatever, and I guess it is, but I guess also that my amazing protective mechanisms (the ones that allow me to wait for a bus at midnight in a miniskirt and not get fucked with, ever) keep a lot of what could be weird shit away. Also, it’s not like my experience is rare- it’s really fucking normal to have survived violence, and when you tell your story about it in a way that resonates with folks- I mean, people are just so hungry to hear experiences that sound even vaguely like theirs told out loud. I feel really amazingly happy to be one of many people involved in radical woman of color and queer and trans of color communities, families and activism who are talking about the shit we’ve survived and what we’ve done with it and how we can change our communities and world. Both on a personal level, and that these movements exist, where there are many radical women, queer and transfolks of color and we are not going away and not apologizing for shit and not having to explain ourselves all the time- we’re centering ourselves and our experiences and genius and working inside our multiple communities.
Why did you decide to contribute to the book/what about the project appealed?
I wanted to make sure that women of color’s voices and queer people of color’s experiences made it into the book. I also was glad that there was a book that was being marketing to a really wide audience whose editors were commited to representing really different views on sex and violence.
What role do you think talking about sexuality in a positive sense has in terms of tackling ‘rape culture’?
I kind of hate the term “rape culture”, but if what you mean is, how does talking about the sex we have that’s not messed up challenge the overwhelming violence we face on an everyday basis- I think it’s really important, especially for women and queer and trans people of color, for us to talk about the ways in which even with all the shit we face, we still find a way back to our bodies. It’s a fucking miracle, the ways we figure out how to keep having sex and have desires stay alive.
We need to write down our stories, because I think QTPOC and women and trans people of color are miracle makers. Especially in societies where we are continually told we’re hypersexual or nonsexual, freaks or ugly, claiming our bodies through our sexualities is incredibly important. We create a new paradigm in the belly of the beast- in the middle of the everyday world where childhood sexual abuse and adult sexual assault is happening all the time, in our famillies, as we try and cross the bullshit that are borders, we are also loving and fucking and resisting that way, without killing each other. We’re creating the new world in the belly of the old and we have to let folks know this.
I think it’s also hella important for survivors who are of color and/or queer and trans people of color to write really specifically about the ways we find to take our sexualities back after growing up with or experiencing violence. People are hungry for models and road maps and there are so few out there- The Survivor’s Guide to Sex is great, but it’s one book!
How far is it possible for feminists to generalise their own experiences and not fall into the same trap as the “recovery” industries and essentialise women who’ve experienced childhood sexual violences as victims in constant need of surveillance and treatment?
It’s possible when we stay humble and committed to knowing that while we can theorize from our experiences, we have to stay open to hearing and respecting everyone’s experience, and know going into the work that people will tell us stories we havent heard before- and that’s the point.
Unfortunately, many second wave feminists have been just as guilty as the recovery industry of generalizing from their experiences and enforcing how survivors should be and look on other survivors of violence. In fact, as second-wave feminism mainstreamed and got institutionalized (and whiteness and class priviilege was a huge part of that) that part of the movement did a lot to silence survivor voices and contribute to the professionalization of survivor culture. For example, saying that all sex workers who have survived violence are of course reenacting trauma if they’re doing sex work, instead of looking at the complex continuum of sex workers’ experiences doing sex work (and what sex workers, themselves, are saying about their experiences, instead of thinking that sex workers are too stupid to think for themselves); or enforcing an idea that all sex has to be vanilla or you’re re-traumatizing yourself, or not really being able to think beyond an identity that remains broken to thinking about what an identity would look like that both still broke the silence about how common being a survivor is and was resilient, had moved forward, what healing looked like in real life. We need to learn from this- that we need to continuously challenge ourselves in our movements to stay fresh and free of bullshit.
Is there a danger that feminist inspired accounts of childhood sexual violences are being appropriated, not just by the incest industry, but by mainstream society as either titillation or entertainment?
Yeah, but what else are we going to do? We can’t shut up. There’s always a danger that some asshole is jerking off to our words, but we have to keep speaking to each other and our communities. Accounts of sexual violence told in our own voices aren’t hot topics on talk shows the way they were in the 70s and 80s. But it’s always important to think about possible ways you might be co-opted and how you’re going to deal with that. One of my main coping mechanisms and organizing strategies is to focus on where I’m strong and ignore much of the bullshit of the outside world. It has its weaknesses, but overall, I think it works.
What writers have been influential in forming your ideas on this, and how have they contributed to your work?
My roots as a radical incest survivor stem from when I was 16 in 1991 and getting zines in the mail from other girls who were incest survivors, or rape survivors, or whose famillies were violent and crazy, who were mad as fucking hell and were writing our stories down, exactly how they happened, because no one was doing it for us. Zines like Body Memories: Radical Perspectives on Childhood Sexual Abuse, Fantastic Fanzine and Upslut were hella important to me as a young survivor- to both be like, this is what it feels like and other folks are writing it down and not being killed for doing so, and also to see that, hey, this is writing- it counts. Despite riot grrls’ racism and clasism, it was amazing to feel a part of a movement of 16 year old queers and freaks who were not going to shut up about our experiences and who were screaming out our raw truths on the page. I grew up to find Chrystos and Sapphire’s writing, which is practically the survivor cannon, especially for queer girls of color, as well as Dorothy Allison, Aurora Levins Morales and Suheir Hammad’s work. I also appreciate the work of my peers, including Mango Tribe, Maria Cristina Rangel, Nico Dacumos, Zuleikha Mahmood, the Mangos With Chili family and the poets I work with as a Student Teacher Poet in Poetry for the People. I really appreciate the ways we’ve found as queer and trans people of color to articulate the ways in which the violence we’ve survived is part of our whole lives, and also to articulate the ways we find to transform violence.
How does your contribution to this collection relate to other activism you are involved in?
Working on issues of violence from an integrated radical women and queer of color feminist perspective is my whole life, and I really especially like creating concrete tools that can help folks deal with shit. I’m an INCITE representer even though I have a hard time making it to meetings. I’m part of The Revolution Start At Home collective, which co-edited and released a “zine” on partner abuse in activist communities and what community accountability strategies look like in real life. I say “zine” in quotes because it turned into 108 ful sized pages. It’s available at Incite’s website for free download, but it’s also going to be published next year by AK Press, yay! I also co-created The Femme Sharks with my SBBFFF (slutty brown best femme friend forever) Zuleikha Mahmood- we’re a movement of fierce, tough, queer femmes of color who are the leaders and defenders of our communities. We like to do things like show up at the March for Life counterprotest wearing hot pink satin fins and evening gowns and screaming SLUTS FOR CHOICE at the protestors. Peep the manifesto here. Seriously, creating the Sharks with Zuleikha has been one of the best forms of “activism” that I’ve ever done, in terms of center women of color and queer and trans POC’s life experience in a rage-filled, sexy and totally fucking fun way.
I also work part-time for Generation 5, the organization founded by Staci Haines, the author of The Survivors Guide to Sex, whose goal is to end childhood sexual abuse in 5 generations through creating community accountability strategies. Generation 5 rocks my world and is an awesome resource for radical survivors interested in resiliency and resistance. You can find themhere.
Finally, I view my work as a writer, performer and cultural producer as activism (I am not the only one who has a hard time making it to meetings- there are other ways you can fight and resist) and giving voice to stories about surviving violence is a big part of that. My one woman show, Grown Woman Show, is all about exploring being a long-term survivor of violence, that violence’s impact on the queer familly my QTPOC fam make, and my experiences exploring trying to get back in touch with my family after years of estrangement out of their denial. It’s touring right now- hit me up if you want to bring me to your women’s studies department or performance series!
A bit about Leah:
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a queer Sri Lankan writer and performer, based for ten years in Toronto, recently relocated to Oakland, CA. The author of Consensual Genocide (TSAR, 2006) her work has been widely anthologized in the queer, feminist and of color press, including in Yes Means Yes, Homelands, Colonize This, We Don’t Need Another Wave, Bitchfest, Without a Net, Dangerous Families, Geeks, Misfits and Outlaws, Bent on Writing, Femme, Brazen Femme and A Girl’s Guide to Taking Over The World.
She writes for Bitch, Colorlines, Herizons, Hyphen, Make/Shift and Xtra magazines, and regularly performs and tours her work throughout North America. She is the co-director of Mangos With Chili, North America’s only annual touring cabaret of queer and trans of color performers, and is currently touring her one-woman show, Grown Woman Show, a meditation on long-term incest survivor identity and queer of color love and heartbreak.
Her first memoir, Dirty River, and second book of poetry, Love Cake, will be published in 2009 and 2010. She teaches creative writing at Poetry for the People, the program founded by June Jordan at UC Berkeley, and is a proud Femme Shark. Visit her to find out more.
Rest of tour Yes Means Yes:
RH Reality Check – 4/2
Live chat with Julia Serano & Latoya Peterson
Our Bodies Our Blog – 5/2
Q&A with Brad Perry & Lisa Jervis
Shakesville – 9/2
Live chat with Jaclyn Friedman
Scarleteen – 10/2
Angry Black Bitch – 11/2
Q&A with Tiloma Jayasinghe
Shapely Prose – 12/2
Q&A with Kimberly Springer
Bitch Ph.D. – 16/2
Guest blogging with Jaclyn Friedman & Jessica Valenti
Shameless – 17/2
Q&A with Jill Filipovic
IMPACT – 18/2
Q&A with Anastasia Higginbotham
Radical Doula – 19/2
Q&A with Hazel/Cedar Troost
Feministe – 20/2
Grand finale conversation: Rachel Kramer Bussel, Toni Amato, Javacia Harris, Kate Harding, Stacey May Fowles, Hanne Blank & Heather Corinna