A Conversation with Bobuq Sayed

Interview by Adolfo Aranjuez

Bobuq Sayed is a writer, artist and agitator of the Afghan diaspora. They co-edit Archer Magazine, founded the QTPOC activist collective Colour Tongues and are a member of the performance collective, Embittered Swish. They have written for Overland, Kill Your Darlings and VICE, and performed at the Emerging Writers’ Festival, Melbourne Writers Festival, Village Festival, Melbourne Fringe Festival and Alterity Collective’s Rituals.

We speak to Bobuq about community-building, agitation, and the intersections of queerness, transness and Islam.

I know you most prominently as co-editor of Archer. Could you tell us about what that role entails, and more about Archer generally?

Archer is a journal that explores sex, gender, sexuality and identity; race as well, but not always overtly. As a co-editor, one of my tasks is to locate and pry out genuinely alternative perspectives because queer media and queer publications in Australia and abroad tend to centre bodies and narratives that are hyper-masculinised, white, pornographic and always homonormative—things that I don’t equate with my own queerness. Politically and personally, it’s important for me to be actively holding space for other non-normative identities and stories.

Your specific intersection of queer, non-binary and Muslim sounds quite challenging, even for a fellow multiple minority such as myself. What’s that been like for you in Australia?

My Islam is unlike anyone else’s. When I consider the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and, consequently, the 1.6 billion different ways to be Muslim, my relationship with Allah—and thus my relationship with my body, culture, ancestry and spirituality—is, in fact, independent of any governing notions of who Islam caters for and what you have to do to qualify as a good Muslim.

I’m coming to realise that maybe there are no resolutions for people like me. Perhaps it’s futile for me to labour away trying to reconcile my conflicting identities. Rather than looking for answers, or trying to fit parts of myself smoothly together, I’m more interested now in celebrating the joy in my internal incoherencies, without comparing my Islam and Afghan-ness to anybody else’s. Even my relationship with queerness, it’s like, so many queer and trans people have access to a form of presentation that has been inaccessible to me because of cultural values like modesty and honour. These are strong principles within my faith and my ethnicity that are often incongruent with the rest of me.

Do you feel a pressure to ‘pass’?

Being non-binary, I don’t think it’s a ‘pressure’. I often derive a lot of satisfaction from smuggling myself into spaces and disguising myself as a cis dude. I think that’s really central to my non-binary identity. I’m not trying to pass; there is no gender that always encompasses all of me.

This is why I don’t really get angry about being misgendered. For me, my pronouns are contextual: when I’m with my family, when I’m on a bus, I’m not gonna get angry at my great-aunt or the bus driver. Whose interests does that serve? It’s not worth me losing emotional resources on instances like that—the former is culturally bound, and the latter, just irrelevant to my day.

On the subject of performance, you’re also a writer and performer in your own right.

It’s unfortunate that there aren’t more queer and trans person of colour (QTPOC) voices in Melbourne—or in Australia. Often, when I’m commissioned, it’s to do spoken word; it’s almost like that’s the only frame of reference that can be palatably imposed upon my performance style and my poetry. But spoken word is a very loaded cultural phenomenon that isn’t necessarily for me—it was developed by black women in America, and it’s a beautiful art form, but that’s not my experience.

More recently, I’ve started a ‘sound art’ performance project with Romy Fox that sees language and sound antagonising each other. It’s a challenging dialogue that produces a quite distressing experience for the audience. I don’t want my audiences to leave feeling satisfied, feeling warm inside, feeling wholesome in any way. That’s not my experience of life; it doesn’t align with my politics. And if ever it did, I’d start freaking out! To be producing work that is as distressing and incoherent and unresolved as I am seems appropriate.

It definitely sounds like performance is central to you, both personally and professionally.

Performance is a really important rite of passage for a lot of QTPOC, but I think we need to move beyond a politics where queer and/or trans people of colour exist only as performers. I’m tired of that, there’s so much of that and, in some ways, it feeds into the white imagination. I want to expand the politics to examine how we can train, educate and community-build with QTPOC in ways that don’t necessarily centre the stage. Let’s centre our work lives, our day-to-day lives, our discourse and, most importantly, our resistance.

Is this form of community-building what you hope to achieve as founder of Colour Tongues?

Colour Tongues started out as a QTPOC performance night organised by myself and some other friends, but then I started thinking about how I could build on that simple premise with a QTPOC-focused advocacy collective, which yielded Bridgemeals.

Bridgemeals is basically a safe dinner space where recently-arrived queer and trans refugees in need of social and emotional support and a cultural community can meet and share food with established members of the QTPOC community. We all come from such different places, so to be able to hold space together becomes a community-building exercise that benefits everyone.

It’s so easy to be immobilised by trauma, considering those are the images that we receive of refugees and the diaspora, especially when they’re queer. If all the images of queer refugees you receive are of a traumatised, repressed and/or suffering individual, you become so ignorant of the complexities of resettlement in Australia.

Once refugees arrive here, the services that public and private organisations provide them with are housing and sometimes healthcare or food—the bare basics. But we don’t extend the politics enough to consider: How they are making friends? How are they meeting the people they need to be meeting? How are we forming a community for them so that they can feel welcome and feel like members of society? So while Bridgemeals is very enjoyable—the laughter is there and it’s a great experience—it also serves an empowering political and emotional function.

Like many refugee stories, your family’s journey of migration from Afghanistan spans so many countries.

Yeah, that journey is ongoing. My parents are still moving between Afghan communities and trying, perhaps in vain, to find one that fits right. I grew up in an Afghan community that was very small. My lack of access to a collective Afghan identity in Perth meant that I had to fight a lot harder to feel like I deserved it. The Afghan community in Australia is smaller and much more insular than it is in the States, where my family live now.

There are multiple Afghan communities in America—in places like Fremont, California, or Springfield, Virginia—in these little bubbles where you can go days in public without speaking English. It’s bizarre. And that’s a beautiful experience when you’ve been forcefully displaced: to form a sort of microcosm of a pre-war Afghan culture that, in some ways, becomes an alternative historical narrative of what could’ve been.

In America, I was read and disseminated as ‘the Australian’. In high school, being known as ‘the Australian’ was quite harrowing, given how peculiar my experience of Australianness is. What does it mean to be ‘Australian’ under continued colonial occupation, anyway? I’m a settler in Australia, with those privileges, but I’d probably feel like a settler in Afghanistan as well. 

Speaking of notions of relative Otherness, I’m aware that you recently criticised the Stella Prize’s event ‘No One Way to Be Asian’ for featuring three speakers of East Asian descent.

 That Stella panel is only one instance of an exceedingly common global phenomenon whereby the term Asian is used or seen to pertain only to East and Southeast Asians—which in turn makes someone like me Middle Eastern. I find that so problematic because I don’t identify as Middle Eastern—middle east of where? It erases my people’s history on the continent and foregrounds the colonial relationship between Afghanistan and Europe.

You see this in so many facets of Australian life, from media and literary representations of Asians, to grants that Asian organisations and publications receive, which starts to exclude Asians at the exact point Islam becomes more prominent. Coincidence?

It’s all really unfortunate because it feeds into some kind of white imagination of who this Asian of the ‘Orient’ is—which I find alarming because it doesn’t even do justice to the cultural specificities of minority politics in East Asia. Any kind of language that erases to that seismic degree does all of us a disservice, especially when it comes to opportunities that consistently go to East Asians instead of everyone else that shares the continent. It’s part of this machine of desirability and consumption that reduces the complexity of cultural experiences, but also belies a quite-violent relational structure of oppression among POC.  

There are so many instances of anti-blackness, classism and ableism that come from cultural communities that aren’t confronted or challenged because there’s this presumption that having a cultural perspective somehow excuses you from being complicit in other forms of oppression. That’s so damaging, and we have to be so cautious when thinking like this. Any time we try to excuse our behaviour by talking about our traumas and/or our cultural situatedness, we’re entering very fraught territory.

Is this why you use the word agitator to describe yourself (instead of more usual terms like commentator or activist)?

Totally. Agitation is central to my politics because I don’t want to be palatable. I don’t want to be complicit in systems of oppression that come from the queer scene, from certain people’s practice of my religion, or from people in my own cultural community. I like to break things down and try to consider why they were assembled in that arrangement in the first place.

When I was growing up, there was only one approach for people like me, which was silence, discretion and obedience. I’m part of a new generation of people who aren’t satisfied with this singularity, who are secure enough to be challenging authority. My perspective on agitation is all about creating opportunities for other young members of traumatised diasporas to see multiple paths forward for themselves, where discretion and visibility don’t have to necessarily be mutually exclusive ways of life.

What advice do you have for young agitators?

Let your politics and your personhood ferment. There’s such a rush to be productive and super active in so many creative and political industries, but if you don’t have the financial, social or emotional infrastructure there, the risks of visibility can be much worse.

If I had come out earlier, for example, my life would have been much harder. If I had started this agitation sooner, my safety would never have been this secure. Never mind the pace and style with which the white queers are elaborating upon their own queerness. We exist not just in queer time and space, but in QTPOC time and space. There’s a difference.

With hindsight, I’d advise young agitators to be very wary of performative allyship. If someone self-identifies as an ally, interrogate whether they’re committed to actually making you safer. Nowadays, I’m so dismissive of ally theatre. No-one deserves brownie points for doing the bare minimum. Show me your allyship; don’t tell me about it.

I’d also say that lateral violence is so real, even among QTPOC. Sometimes it feels like people are hovering over their keyboards for the slightest hiccup in your work to pounce on you ferociously. So be kinder, gentler and more constructive with criticism, because creating a climate where people are torn down and dispensed with for minor discretions really deters people from being visible at all.

What are you listening to?

Sevdaliza, this incredible Persian-Dutch electronic R&B musician. She has a song called ‘Bebin’ which is sung in Farsi, and to hear a language of diaspora in electronic music that isn’t appropriative is so refreshing.

I’ve also been going through the grieving process again for Aaliyah, listening to her discography. The world really lost an angel.

What are you currently reading?

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James—and it is phenomenal. He distinguishes between characters using very distinct vernaculars and dialects of Jamaican English.

How do you practice self-care?

We have a house dog called Whu-puh-rrr’d and playing with her every day rejuvenates me. Her tongue flicks out right before you pet her, and taking her for walks gives me life. RuPaul Season 9 is another way I’ve been stroking myself emotionally as a form of self-love.

What does being Asian-Australian mean to you? 

It means speaking English better than people who assume it’s my second language and congratulate me for knowing big words. I guess my work aims to carve out a niche between the two cultural powerhouses of East and West Asia that pays tribute to the complex role of my own people as importantly distinct from, but also central to, the architecture of Asian history and, by extension, the Cold War, which my family are refugees from. 

https://twitter.com/bobucksayed
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Interview by Adolfo Aranjuez
Photography by Leah Jing McIntosh