Interview #75 — Sangeetha Thanapal
Interview by Cher Tan
Sangeetha Thanapal is a performance artist, activist and writer working on the intersections of race, gender and the body in Asia and Australia.
Sangeetha spoke to Cher about preserving one’s mental health amidst online trolling, galvanising the masses through social media activism, and decentering the western world in discussions surrounding power and privilege.
It's funny—despite having many mutual friends and knowing of your work while living in Singapore, we didn't actually get to know each other until we both started living in Australia. The two countries are steeped in neoliberal capitalism, racism and colonial dispossession, but I'm interested to hear your opinion on the differences you've observed, especially as someone who does work critiquing these dynamics in both locations in equal measure.
There are such huge differences for me between the two countries. Honestly, I feel like Australia (as my adopted country) has done so much more for me and has given me the kind of opportunities than Singapore never did. This experience is not singular to me—many Singaporean minorities see Australia as a haven and an escape from Singapore.
Most things are on a spectrum, and I will never deny the ongoing Indigenous genocide that built Australia or the racism it directs at its minorities and refugees daily, but Australia is a breath of fresh air for a Singaporean minority. One of my favourite stories to tell is this: when I first came here and heard from many that the Gold Coast is the most racist part of Australia, I asked a Singaporean Indian friend who’s lived there for over a decade if that was true. He agreed, and then continued with, “but of course, to us Singaporean minorities, it’s nothing.” That should give you an indication of how bad it is for us in Singapore.
Australia has its own demons to grapple with, and sometimes it does so with aplomb but other times it does so alarmingly. Singapore does not even want to admit that it has built a system of institutionalised racism. In fact, it goes out of its way to threaten and silence those who dare bring it up, using the long arm of the state to intimidate dissidents with sedition and imprisonment. Not that public hounding doesn’t happen in Australia, of course—think about Tarneen Onus-Williams and what she experienced. The difference is that in Australia, we can still criticise the state without being taken from our homes in the middle of the night by an internal security department, refused trial, and then jailed indefinitely without ever being charged with a crime. That’s the difference between a functioning democracy and a fascist dictatorship. Given that, I would rather live and do this work here in Australia any day.
When and how did writing become inter-related with activism for you?
I’ve always used writing as an outlet for my feelings and emotions; I’m a big believer in articulation and turning the ephemeral into the material. I truly believe that putting words to something, giving an experience a language, is one of the most freeing things we can do. It helps not only ourselves, but the countless others who feel the same way.
I used to write on Facebook as a way to analyse my lived experiences and those of minorities in Singapore. I wanted to express the deep dissatisfaction at being a second-class citizen in my country of birth, and how silenced and erased I felt because the world thought of my country as a model for racial harmony, while I knew it was anything but. There was a painful dissonance between the world’s conceptions of Singapore and mine. I needed to write about it, and so I did. I didn’t realize then that I was tapping into a wellspring of dissatisfaction that other minorities felt, and that so many people would share my words because it touched a nerve for them, eventually leading to a career as a social commentator and writer.
Writing is activism. My favourite quote in the world is Teju Cole’s 'Writing as writing. Writing as rioting. Writing as righting. On the best days, all three.' I think writing as a form of consciousness-building is very important. All great actions start from great ideas—these are most often disseminated through writing. Writing as a way of not feeling alone, of letting other people know that their experience has an expression; that is all so very important. One of the ways the neoliberal-capitalist-kyriarchy makes us feel powerless is to lead us to think that everything we experience is just in our heads.
But of course, it isn’t, and writing lets us know that someone else out there feels the same and has said so.
I think writing as a form of consciousness-building is very important. All great actions start from great ideas—these are most often disseminated through writing.
You're known for using the term 'Chinese privilege' to describe Chinese hegemony in Singapore. You also critique Hindi supremacy and casteism in India. How do you think we can begin to unpack power and privilege in the Global South without centring whiteness, while maintaining that white supremacy is at the root of some of these dynamics?
By allowing people their voices and giving the same attention to people in Malaysia, Singapore, and elsewhere the way the world does for the U.S. and other centres of power. We need to cease centring whiteness, full stop. This isn’t an excuse for white people to wash their hands off their complicity, as I’ve seen so many use my work to do. This is about acknowledging that our identities do not determine our politics, that some of us are bad people, that some of us are oppressors when the power structures we live in allow us to be so. Racism and genocide happens to people all over the world. The western world does not have a monopoly on bad behaviour.
As we know, Singapore is a country that, despite its glossy veneer, has a lot of underlying social problems that is often exacerbated by a culture of suppression and censorship. Consequently, there have been attempts to silence you, as well as detractors online who try to delegitimise your person and your work. How do you navigate these and continue speaking out? How do you best protect your civil rights and mental health in these circumstances?
I find it quite difficult, and I probably shouldn’t say so in a public interview where the trolls can see this and be emboldened. But to not do so would be to say I am never vulnerable, which is false. I don’t know if I navigate it all that well. The way people attack you can be very disheartening. When I first started out, it was a very lonely experience—Singaporeans are a cowardly bunch. Many would send me private messages of support, but they would not risk their own necks by supporting or defending me publicly. That has changed as I’ve gotten more well-known; I find that now given the global audience I have access to, people from all over the world are defending me, which has made it easier.
And that’s the truth behind it. We’re often expected to deal with the impact of this kind of institutional silencing and online trolling alone. We take time off, we can go and see a therapist, but what really helps is having people speak up for us. It makes us feel heard and validated, while shoring us up for the next fight to come.
In Singapore, there’s a funny trend of people wanting to use my work while erasing me. For example, there’s a conference on Chinese privilege in Singapore coming up at the end of the year, and the organisers were told that I wasn’t to be invited to it. Think on the irony of that! The conference, the theory and the term itself would not have existed without me, but this university wants to have a forum on it without the person who came up with it. There’re some intellectuals and artists in Singapore—minorities who have benefited from my constant calling out of Chinese supremacy—who have either distanced themselves from me or disparaged me when it’s convenient for them. These are people who, a few years ago, would say #notallchinesepeople, but they’re using my work to try and position themselves as original voices on race in Singapore now. In the end, I was there before them. My work speaks for itself.
We’re often expected to deal with the impact of this kind of institutional silencing and online trolling alone. We take time off, we can go and see a therapist, but what really helps is having people speak up for us.
I love fantasy fiction because you can build a cosmos with its own internal rules, which makes it fascinating to me as an exercise on dystopic world-building.
I love the fantasy fiction you've been writing for Djed Press. How differently do you utilise both fiction and non-fiction to say what you want to say?
I love fantasy fiction because you can build a cosmos with its own internal rules, which makes it fascinating to me as an exercise on dystopic world-building. Can I construct a universe which we might see post-capitalism? What would that look like? How can I bring that world to life in a fantasy story or novel? I use fiction to show; I use non-fiction to tell. The same things that I’m concerned with in life—race, gender, body terrorism, etc—I bring into fiction, I just do it differently. I also use fiction as an outlet, to externalise some of the feelings I have that don't necessarily lend themselves to non-fiction or reportage. The epic nature of high fantasy works really well with these sweeping moments that I love.
You're also a dancer and fashion blogger. As someone whose work shines a spotlight on body positivity, where do you see dance and fashion working with body politics?
I think they are integral to body politics, just as I think race and gender are. Let’s not forget that body terrorism is aimed at black people, as well as fat people and women (many of whom are also black and fat at the same time!) We sit at the intersections of these things constantly. To me, body politics cannot be divorced from the other work we do. If you claim to love people of your race but that love is limited to light-skinned people only, then you don’t really love them. If you want to combat racism towards Indigenous folk but make fatphobic comments, then you don't understand that Indigenous people have higher rates of health complications because of colonialism and ongoing racism.
Fashion to me is the most boring thing on earth: it’s pure aesthetics, the embodiment of the worst of postmodernism. It’s also classist and racist, and everything in fashion is the emperor's new clothes—groups of people pretending it’s the most fabulous thing on earth and other bewildered people going along with that because that’s what the rich and influential do.
But within this ridiculous world, fat and dark-skinned women, especially trans femmes, and their fashion is actually the most radical thing you can find. Making affordable clothing accessible to these women is a revolutionary act. Videos of these people moving their bodies uninhibitedly, with no shame of their bodies—that is the revolution right there. A fat, dark-skinned, femme dancing will always be more punk then some boring, skinny, white “alternative” woman with short hair.
Do you have any advice for emerging writers and activists?
Just write. Some of it is going to be bad, especially if you know what good writing is. There’s going to be a gap between your work and what you want your work to be: that’s fine, that’s how it should be. No one starts off at the top of their game. I’m pretty good at what I do and I’m far off from how good I want to be. Recognize where you are and give it its due, but always think about what that next level might look like.
As for activism, I want to remind people that the job of the intellectual vanguard is to build consciousness. We’re here to draw larger sections of the population into revolutionary politics. So if all you’re doing is posting stuff on Facebook that’s getting people to think, stuff that’s shifting viewpoints and radicalising people, then you’re an activist. I started off as a social media activist because I come from a country where organising is against the law and I would have been jailed if I tried, but that was enough. I brought a discourse to people who, before me, had no coherent way to express their oppression. Now they’ve taken that and are pushing back against the daily microaggressions and humiliations they endure; they’ve stopped accepting the racism that used to be a regular part of their existence. We’re already starting to see the impact of this in terms of minority representation in Singapore, and eventually this might lead to actual change in policies and lives.
Work with what you have, work with the people you have. Not everyone is at the same level, and it’s up to us to bring them to a similar stage of commitment and understanding. As Lenin said, “At the root of any revolution you will find pedagogy.” This means activists have to understand theoretically what they stand for, and where that comes from.
However, and I am going to paraphrase Bissau-Guinean poet Amílcar Cabral here, that’s not what the people are fighting for. They’ll endure the sacrifices of a struggle if it means there’s actual, material change to their lives at the end of it. They aren't here for some rarefied ideology constructed by some ivory tower academic. Our job is to make these ideas accessible to working-class people, and eventually organise them into a formidable force. That’s how we build a better future. That’s what we are here for. Everything else is just hollow words.
There’s going to be a gap between your work and what you want your work to be: that’s fine, that’s how it should be. No one starts off at the top of their game.
Who are you inspired by?
Palestine. Black Lives Matter. Dalit Feminism. My friends. Myself. Dogs. A lot of dogs.
What are you currently listening to?
6lack. God, I am in love. I really just want to marry a rapper and never be heard from again.
I have fairly varied musical tastes and will listen to anything that’s not techno or trance. The National is one of my favourite bands and they’re always on a playlist. I’ve been listening to a lot of Haux and Kevin Garrett. I was also trained in classical Indian music, so I generally listen to quite a bit of Carnatic (classical South Indian) music. I teach Lyrical Hip Hop, and so I have a lot of hip-hop and R&B from all over the world on a constant rotation.
What are you currently reading?
I joke that whenever anyone asks me this, I’m always on the second book of some fantasy trilogy, and this time it’s no different! I am reading the second in V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy. I am usually also reading something political and some poetry at the same time. For now, that’s Philosophy for Militants by French philosopher Alain Badiou, and as for poetry, it’s The Nightingales are Drunk by Persian poet Hafez.
What does living as an Asian in Australia, or being Asian-Australian, mean to you?
I’ve lived here for two years, and while I find Australia to be welcoming, I don’t have the same experiences as many other Asians who were born here or who have lived here for a long time. Being Asian in Australia means occupying a strange location in Australian history. We’re so diverse, and yet so homogenised.
I think there can never be one meaning behind being Asian-Australian—the name itself is a misnomer, and a somewhat failed attempt at categorising us or building solidarity amongst us.The label Asian-Australian needs to be interrogated. Asia as a continent is an orientalist idea—we’re artificially separated from Europe, and what is so-called Australia? We live on stolen land, under a government that’s determined to take away as much of our rights as possible. The term to me is actually meaningless because there’s no peculiarity or distinction to it. What does it mean? What do we as Asians represent? Who are we with regards to this land and its Indigenous people? All of this work needs to be done before the term means anything other than a convenient marker.
How do you practice self-care?
Oh gosh. Does anyone really have an answer to this besides the usual 'get off the internet and have a bubble bath' line? So much of what we consider self-care is about taking ourselves out of the world in some way and immersing ourselves in something restorative, which I am for and I think is necessary for many of us. But this is work that wouldn’t be necessary if we lived in a better world (and I think the current exhortation towards self-care is becoming a form of labour we are expected of just so we can return to doing the other hard work that’s ruining us!)
Hence, fighting oppression and making spaces accessible for marginalised people is a form of self-care. When I can make lives better for other people, that’s a form of self-care for me, because no one is free until everyone is, and when other people are cared for, the chances of me being cared for is exponentially improved.
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