Panda on reinvention, drag as a tool of resistance, and learning to be a better friend to herself

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photo by Aaron Jay Young

What’s your name and how do you identify yourself in the world?

My name is Kyle Chu, or Panda Dulce. I am a fourth generation Chinese-American, born and raised in San Francisco, queer person, and drag queen. I use she/her/hers pronouns.

How are you doing?

I’m okay. I’m in an upswing after some ups and downs. 2017 has been a big year — a lot’s happened in the world and in my personal orbit. A friend recently passed who I’ve known from the punk scene since I was young, angry, and becoming. I also made some new friends and began reinventing.

I’m sorry to hear about your losses. What do you mean when you say you’ve been reinventing?

I was heavily involved in direct action and protests since the inauguration. I was very action-oriented, pursuing a lot of creative projects, and working to make my extended family who may have resigned themselves to be politically complacent more cognizant of the issues we’re facing. Given my context, coming out of direct practice social work, I totally burned out on this path. It was holistically consuming. I tried to funnel my energy into drag and looks that would coax action but I ended up self-isolating and retreating because I needed to heal myself, rest, and actually sleep. In the process of doing some high profile work I needed privacy and downtime to recharge.

There’s an expression that says you’ve been building a house your entire life and when you go through your Saturn Return you burn it all down. I just finished my Saturn Return in November. For so long I’ve been on a clear path of activism, social justice, creativity, and have felt intimately connected to the community we’re fortunate to have in the Bay Area. There was a shift that had to something to do with the onslaught of depressing as hell news, the toxicity of social media, and events that happened within our micro-communities in the Bay Area punk scene. A high-profile local scene celebrity was outed as someone who had sexually predated on a lot of women. There was a messy DIY accountability process; people were wheatpasting posters lambasting his character — and others’ in his cadre — all across town. I hated it, I thought it was necessary, and of course, I don’t have a perfect, let alone “better” resolution for this kind of thing. With anything we’re trying to build ourselves, it was new, unfamiliar and more or less Macgyvian.

I saw people get subdued, fall, and steward each others’ trauma in unsustainable ways. Which brought me here. I needed to reinvent myself and the way I process these issues. I’ve withdrawn from a lot of my activism and in its stead, I’ve taken to one-on-one drag mothering queers I meet. Even though drag can also be tiring — editing tracks, hours of makeup, cooking up concepts, looks, and adopting funky side hustles to fund them, it’s reinvigorating to teach someone a craft and watch them learn something new and aesthetically rebirth themselves to reflect their suppressed inner knowings. There’s also something to be said for creating your own makeshift chosen families in that way. I went from trying to impact a huge world that seemed insurmountable to meeting a queer 18-year-old who had experienced a lot of trauma and just wanted to look like a non-terrestrial ball of light.

It sounds like a mutually humanizing experience. Can you speak to the idea of drag as resistance?

I’m reading RuPaul’s autobiography right now just for funzies. One of the things she says is that drag as a queer art form is openly mocking all of the roles that we have internalized and so tightly cling to that we’re unable to see the performance of it anymore. The corners have disappeared. Her whole throughline is “don’t take anything too seriously.” This is not a directive to be problematically carefree, colorblind, and ignore patriarchy. It’s more so to say that drag as a vessel is teaching us to take life more lightly and to laugh in order not to cry. The reason why I enjoy drag is because any fantasy you imagine can be rendered real, palpable, and transmitted through social media. It’s futurist in that sense, like a continual practice of creating boundless “what if” scenarios. Like a lot of art, it’s being able to imagine beyond the scope of your immediate individual work and impact. It’s being able to visualize what you want and bring it to life through crappy CVS products. 

In terms of gender, I have spent a lot of time as a young person feeling very self conscious and having an adversarial relationship with my body, where certain physical aspects and wants have been at stark odds with expectations of me as a partner due to my race and perceived role and stature. I’ve felt that old pain and pull that I must drastically change myself in order to experience love by myself or others/or to participate in a love that is often communicated as solely eros-based, epically Hollywood, traditionally-attractive, able-bodied, hairy, and white. Drag has become a way for that to not be as destructive and as inwardly debilitating as your inner voice can sometimes make it. Drag can become a place to meditate and spend time with yourself. When you watch RuPaul’s Drag Race, the sequence of them putting on makeup and getting into face lasts five minutes, but when you’re just starting out, drag actually takes three to four hours to get into face and to get to your look. That’s you looking at a mirror at yourself for hours. It’s me sitting, being present, listening to SZA and spending time with myself, forcing myself to confront the reality of who I am, and convincing yourself that you can be as beautiful, as grotesque, as shocking, as whatever as any vision you commit your brush to. That in and of itself has been healing. It’s learning to find love for yourself again, and putting that on blast.

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Photo by Urvi Navgrani

When you’re in that meditative process of looking in the mirror and putting intention and imagination into your craft, what do you think is possible for yourself and for the people who witness you?

There’s the aspect of reinvention where you can put on a look that shifts the narrative, either onstage or just for yourself. I’ve always wanted to be a hot girl. It’s being able to revel in showing people everything you’ve held onto internally that you haven’t felt safe enough to manifest physically. Letting it explode. Drag wants a reaction from people. Everything is big. The earrings and hair are big, you make your eyes and lips bigger, you overdraw everything. It’s like yelling at someone to look at you, the inverse of how invisible I’ve felt for a long time. It’s kind of punk. The act of declaring yourself a wild tropical bird you have to look at is arresting in and of itself. It flips everything I’ve experienced in the gay community so far; it makes me feel powerful and big in a milieu that often makes me feel small, irrelevant, and ignored.

What do you see as your role and work in this political moment in your shift to focusing on intimate, emotional connections and work?

I’ve always been in a nurturing or coaching role. I have a twin brother with a disability and I have been coaching, teaching, and guiding him and others who come in contact with him for my entire life. Working with people with disabilities introduced me to working with people of other marginalized identities in social work. I’m fortunate through my art to have met a lot of young drag queens and punks from similar backgrounds who are coming up. The capacity I feel most comfortable with is bringing people up and trying to help them become their best selves. When people find what it is that invigorates them I like to be someone who can help them magnify that.

I appreciate you naming that as work. Many of us have internalized the emotional labor we and others do for granted, work that is often feminized labor and really crucial for building the world we want to live in. What is the world you want to live in?

You know that Lauryn Hill adage, “how are you gon’ win if you ain’t right within?” You need to start with yourself before you assume anything external. I’m addressing the queer male community in particular when I say this —  everyone is struggling to fit a limiting image — fit, white, masculine, and other valued attributes that causes immense splitting and only actually applies to a small hegemonic portion of the community. It’s suffocating, yet everyone is indoctrinated to want it. So the ones who embody this end up presiding over the rest in what ultimately resembles in-crowd go-go dancers looking down upon the rest of their stratified small town high school cafeteria. It’s kinda bleak. I feel like I’m operating in a parallel dimension where everyone I choose to hang with is compassionate, political, and sensitive to others. Those are the values I personally appreciate, and what I want to see arbitrate my community. We need to reimagine who we champion and what we see as beautiful and ideal. That starts with who we, as individuals, proclaim as ideal partners and community members.

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Reverse Genocide Oregon Trail Pilgim Barbie. Photo by Robin Chu.

Care and compassion are so important but I feel like those concepts get simplified into: love trumps hate, and that’s that. It’s harder to convey the depth and power that comes from true compassion and deeply honoring people’s identities and experiences, and standing together in collective struggle.

The ‘love trumps hate’ idea is very white liberalism. It’s also starkly at odds with how the gay male community is so focused on instant visible gratification. I’m still learning how to have meaningful relationships with gay men that aren’t transactional and based on exclusively sexual exchanges. I’ve worked with younger queer people who are just coming out and coming onto the scene and see my younger self in them so much in a way I hope changes. I see them coming into the club and using substances in a way where they have spent so much time isolated and it took them so much work and grit to get to this moment and what this is. For them to get here to be just as disillusioned with the shallowness of how we’re expected to relate to each other is really harrowing! There’s so many beautiful creative, brilliant young people with potential who I see fall prey to debilitating substances due to self-consciousness and unresolved feelings of belonging based on this physical fluid swap culture.

It’s sounds like you’re working on bringing softness, connection, and humanity to a scene where you haven’t experienced a lot of that. I imagine that takes some courage and grit to not succumb to old demons even though I’m sure intellectually you know that type of culture is bullshit.

It’s isolating. I haven’t done drag for very long. Before then I was in punk and hung out with a very intentional/action-driven crew. Most of my friends are women and queer and trans people who are very vocal of their antipathy towards cis men. I’m trying to unlearn that and relearn openness. It’s a tough pill. Recently I acknowledged that I definitely move through the world like a cis man even though it doesn’t entirely feel that way to me personally. A lot of people I am intimate with are cis men and I want to reconnect in a way where I’m not psychologically distorting and writing them all off as toxic.

One of the reasons I started drag is because it often takes place in the gay male sphere. A lot of the gay men I meet still subscribe to poisonous ideas about anyone who deviates from the standard I mentioned earlier. I am somewhat of a black sheep in vocalizing my opinion to say that’s actually kind of messed up. Trying to assert people’s humanity in this context can be exhausting. The whole point of drag is making fun of all of these roles that we’re firmly attached to- including racial caricatures that make me routinely cringe. I’m coming from this context where everyone is trying to be sensitive to these issues, trying to use the correct pronouns, and trying to not step on people’s toes when it comes to issues of race, etcetera; then in the drag sphere we’re encouraging each other to do Asian caricature for laughs, you know? It’s a very different approach to handle complex issues. It’s been a tough transition for me but I can also see its liberating potential.

I’d like to believe it’s not a binary, that you can have this irreverence and levity without making anyone feel really bad, right? That has to be possible. What do you come up against when you’re pushing drag culture to hold more anti-oppressive values?

I’m a special case because I joined the Rice Rockettes, an all Asian drag family. We have a monthly show and attract a primarily Asian crowd, so it feels like everyone’s in on the joke. That feels different than if I were to go on RuPaul’s Drag Race and perform exaggerated Asianness in line with a lineage of images that have historically drawn hilarity to a presumably majority-white crowd- certainly not mine. Taking the audience into account impacts my approach. It’s like code-switching. My drag sisters welcome irreverence and laugh everything off, which I am still learning to do. When I’m hanging out with my other friends, there’s a lot of reticence around that. You’re right. It’s certainly not a binary. It’s a spectrum where you balance the weight of systems with the levity of living. There’s gonna be tons of ways to approach that in between. It’s something I’m still figuring out, case-by-case.

Yeah of course. There’s also can be so much richness when you can find the strength and resources to bridge the gaps. I know what you mean when you talk about a culture of disposability, and feel like there’s a lot of power in being able to connect with people who might not be on the same page as you, but who see you and your humanity.

Totally. When I say compassion, I’m referring to callout culture as well. I don’t have the perfect solution for addressing harm. But it’s come to a place where our micro-culture resembles a punitive church. If you’re not subscribing to this code of beliefs in this specific way and using this specific language, you are blanket problematic and that is grounds for total alienation. The problem that I have with the way that one accountability process happened is that the maligning of character painted this person as inherently fucked up, whereas we should be focusing on his actions and behavior. In clinical social work, you never focus on the person, you’re focusing on the behaviors so they can understand that the issue is not them as people; rather it’s something that they’re doing. Behaviors are perceived as more dynamic than total beings. Language has a way of pathologizing. Speaking of reinvention, we need to reinvent the ways we approach accountability and the language that we use around how somebody can improve themselves or reduce harm.

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Carmen Miranda homage. Photo by Gabriela Hasbun.

I really feel you on that. It’s painful to see all our traumas getting acted out on each other. It’s a conversation I’ve had a million times with friends that still leaves me at a loss sometimes. What do you feel are the things in your life that support you in playing the role you’re playing, and what are the things that feel like barriers to making the work sustainable?

I have a constant internal monologue with looping messages. Journaling and having the time to enact them on paper has been really supportive and is critical for revealing the patterns in how you think. There was a period of time in high school that I kept a journal every day. I recently unearthed a couple of them and realized how dude-centric my writing was — I was very concentrated on if this guy likes me which is arguably typical high school behavior, but it made me realize things about my attachment style and how I found value in myself from others. I see the ghost of it in my writing now, and think about how drag can also become an external validation model. It’s important to be aware of it and see when it’s happening so you can interrupt that cycle and be able to ask yourself more assertively what you’d like to see instead.

I’ve spent a lot of time drinking tea and taking baths and being kind of an old lady. I like going on pinterest and letting myself wander the creative playground of drag — just appreciating the craft of others and getting ideas for new looks. It’s humbling to remind yourself of how big the world is, and on the flip, how insignificant you are. I’m trying to find more international queens who bring something different. There’s this one queen in Thailand my sister introduced me to who finds ways to wear household objects and appliances. She’ll put a Dell computer on her shoulder, a keyboard over her crotch, and just type type types clackity clack clack as she walks an imaginary catwalk. Her stuff makes me happy. There’s also makeup prodigy in Hawaii, Bretman Rock, who is a flaming ball of comedic light. Just remembering to connect with comedy and very brightly burning creatures in the world is supportive.

In terms of obstacles, I don’t want to say finances because I feel like that’s such a San Francisco answer, but… finances! I chose a very expensive craft. Sometimes you can keep the tag on an outfit and return it, sometimes you can’t. I picked up a couple side jobs to support it.

I identify as a multipotentialite, which is based on this Ted Talk I saw once. It means I do a lot of different things. I do drag, writing, film, and music. A significant obstacle for me is being able to focus. This is a world of specialists. When you’re little people ask you, what do you want to be when I grow up? Nobody’s gonna say I want to be a freelance journalist, filmmaker, social worker, and a drag queen. I want to accept the fact that some of us just do a lot of things and there’s no one way to be successful or express yourself.

The last interview I did was with this rad activist/healer/organizer/witchy herbalist person who also brought up that Ted Talk, and talked about stepping into their power as someone who does a lot of different things. The pressure to specialize is a capitalistic idea to have one mastered offering for the world that makes you valuable. I think it’s great you’re interested in and engaged with a bunch of different things! Are there other artists and work you consider as inspiration and resource for your own art and craft?

I’m thinking this drag artist who is a total visionary; her name is Hungry. Her looks are like Rorschach ink blots — extremely surreal and imaginative, like a Kabuki wet dream. I think she’s Asian too which is part of what inspires me. It’s good to see my people getting it in the drag world. Her work is just unreal. She makes her nose disappear; she’ll make multiple eyes and elongate them with these sclera contacts that cover the entire eye. She’s been getting a lot of attention and with good reason. She recently collaborated with Bjork’s look on her new album. Andrew Thomas Huang is another artist who imagines looks or scenarios like dark witchy rituals and fantastical alien creatures playing the flute that bring to life a huge, expansive vision of what you can be. They make this amazing, totally unpredictable artwork. And then a lot of local artists and friends like the writer Nia King, Blue Scholars, FKA Twigs, and my friends Claudia Leung and Muriel Leung. Princess Nokia.

You told me a little bit about the world you want to live in and I’ve also heard you talk about the role you’re playing in helping to get us there. Flashing forward to this imagined world in progress, where there is more compassion and community care and an anti-disposability politic, what role would you play there?

Makeup artist (laughs). I see myself teaching and collaborating. Right now I’m working as a counselor at an arts college. I work with young artists to clarify their visions and to get granular about what they want to do in their field or how to build a bridge towards their broader visions. Being able to help people be their best selves really brings me my light. That’s definitely the intersection where I thrive: on creativity and justice and helping people hone their craft in service of their vision.

I would want to work with youth. Youth are amazing. While they can be extremely honest and cruel and playgrounds can be sites of a lot of pain, they also are so excited about the world. I miss that. I used to teach second grade. Kids that age are so impressionable. Everything they absorb has such a big impact and it feels like such important work.

You sometimes do Drag Queen Story Hour, reading to children and infants. What is it like for kids to witness and engage with your drag self?

It’s been amazing. When I was a teacher, there were a lot of homophobic taunts and insults being hurled around on the playground. It was one thing to be able to interrupt that as an adult authority figure. Teachers have differing philosophies about whether or not they should disclose if they are queer or bring queer content into the curricula. There’s significant stigma around queer educators and children. What’s cool about drag queen story hour is not only is it expanding the child’s imagination of what you can be and giving them different types of queer role models, but I also get to blur that line. I don’t have to sidestep an integral part of myself in order to connect, which is is something I felt was expected of me in the classroom. It’s great to be one of my authentic selves and not have to hold anything back. I think it’s important for them to see.

A lot of gay and safe spaces began at the bars, so a lot of the drag world is very nightlife-focused. It’s also cool to be able to not only be able to bring my authentic self into youth spaces, but also be able to engage with straight parents and queer parents and queer kids or any amalgamation of those. That never happens because of stigma and the historical underpinnings of safe gay spaces. It’s cool for me to be able to interact with kids instead of just drunk patrons. It’s so fun! Sometimes babies don’t really know how to compute. Some will look at me with utter delight and joy and others are terrified and screech.

That’s fair, it’s a lot to take in.

Yeah. I’m essentially a cartoon character to them.

Given that it’s January 1st, can you share any hopes or intentions for the coming year?

I hope 2018 is a harbinger of good things. I want to learn how to listen to what my body needs. Sounds basic, but so fundamental. I have a lot of ambitions and goals in very different fields that feel very distant, and in service of all of these goals, I neglect what I need in the current moment. I want to learn how to listen to and be a better friend to my needs — on the granular, get more sleep and drink more water.

You can learn more about Kyle’s work on her website (don’t miss her powerful political writings), and you will be very glad you followed her on Instagram! This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in.

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Lindsey on visibility, being vocal, & uplifting Black and brown talent

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How do you identify yourself in the world?

I identify as a creative, an artist, a musician, and a social activist — but I feel like I never really had a choice in that ‘cos when you’re born into a certain type of body there’s a need to carve out safe spaces and equal access. I’m an empath. I feel some folks have difficulty caring about experiences they don’t share. When I hear youth I work with talk about how they can’t focus their first day of middle school because they don’t know if their mom or dad will be there when they get home from school because of the ICE raids that have been happening. That makes me feel like I gotta do something, even if I’m not sure what that is.

It sounds like there’s a lot that compels you to be engaged in the work that you’re doing. Did you have examples of that growing up?

My mom is a persistent go-getter. She worked a bajillion jobs so that me and my three brothers could thrive. I remember her saying, I want you to have every opportunity so people with different privileges can’t make you feel they have something you can’t access. I get my independence from my mom — trying and saying yes to so many things. The hard part about that is, I feel my mom doesn’t know how to ask for help when she needs it and I saw how this negatively affected her mental health. I ask myself, are you checking in with yourself? I can’t be running around ’til my body can’t go anymore. It’s not sustainable. I’m getting better at saying no. With theater, people were always asking me to stage manage stuff. But when I stage manage I can’t play music, ‘cause I’m not getting home until midnight and drumming is loud! Once I set some boundaries and requested music-related roles in theater instead, it started to happen. I’m living in this space of realizing the worst thing that can happen is someone says no. Hearing no stinks but I would be so much more pressed if I didn’t bother asking.

I’d love to hear about creative, personal, or political projects you have going on right now. What’s on your mind?

I’m working on putting together a soft punk style zine, which my friend suggested because of what I post on instagram. It’s geared towards Black and brown gender nonconforming people. There aren’t many resources for gender non-conforming Black and brown people to talk about dysphoria and what kinds of clothes could feel good.

I drum in a band called Hula School. Drumming is really fun and that in and of itself always feels like an act of resistance. I get to hit stuff in time to music and it’s cool.

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photo by Nina Corcoran

I went to Pitchfork Music Festival to take photos for Tom Tom Magazine. I am the web manager for the magazine which focuses on music, art, and more recently, politics. I’m focusing on getting more gender non-conforming and Black and brown people to write and be be featured on the website. They’re doing a good job at it now but there could still be more. I wrote a piece about how to move forward post-Women’s March. Because I’m just like okay that’s cute, but also there were a lot of things that were hurtful and here’s why. It’s nice to write a full narrative instead of a thread on twitter, like 👏🏾 this 👏🏾 is 👏🏾 why 👏🏾 this 👏🏾 blows!

I’d love to hear you talk more about putting your voice out there. There’s vulnerability in doing that publicly. What about that felt empowering and energizing, and what felt hard?

I took the time to let people know that this is the first step to make more inclusive events. Me in 2010 would have never thought using body parts as a signifier of what it means to be a woman would be upsetting to folks who don’t relate to that experience. It was empowering to know there were so many people reading that otherwise wouldn’t have thought beyond their own experience.

What was kind of nerve-wracking was you never know how people are gonna react. I was like, oh my god, am I gonna get like hate mail? People get in their feelings. Then I thought about how there are people who are gonna be mean to me just ‘cause and I quickly made peace with the fact that some people may not like the piece. I got over wanting to be liked by everyone a super long time ago. I’m proud of myself for that. I believe if no one’s peeved, you’re probably a little bit off. I got energized from that. I’m like, ooh, this could make someone pissed. That’s kind of cool too.

Can you say more about drumming and making music as acts of resistance in and of themselves?

I have always been interested in percussion. In middle school we had to take either band or choir. I didn’t want to do choir because I felt like everyone was expecting me to sing. I want to do band and I want to do something percussive. But I got stuck with the fricking clarinet! My teacher didn’t really know how to play it or how to teach me. I almost failed that class. After that I figured I’d do choir for the rest of my life. I didn’t know how to get access to learning how to play percussion and didn’t have any Black women role models who drummed. It wasn’t until I did Girls Rock in 2013 when I realized I can do that. After that I finally started drumming lessons. I picked it up fast. I was like wow, this is what I needed for all those years.

This week I came back to Girls Rock and there were so many more Black and brown girls which made me so happy. A young Black girl saw me sitting on the drum thrones. She looks at me and she’s like, I didn’t know black girls could drum. I told her, absolutely, we can do anything we want. She’s like, ohhh. There are still so many Black girls and Black people that feel that way; feel that there are experiences and feelings we’re not allowed to access. One reason I did Girls Rock this session is because they need more Black and brown representation in the program, so I’m like, let me roll in real quick. I’m so glad I did. Just the conversation with that one young person, she now realizes that she can drum too. I was that girl.

Being visible in music is important. A lot of people praise the Boston music scene, and it’s great, but it’s not really representative of the people that live here. A local music journalism magazine called Allston Pudding was uplifting the same generic all-white-dude bands every week. When they said they needed more writers, I’m like, okay, let’s do this. Black and brown percussive representation in Boston exists, but no one’s making the trek outside of their bubble to access it. I’m excited to start writing for them and bring new content to their website.

We met at a few years ago at an LGBTQ theater company that at the time had mostly white leadership. I’m hearing from your experience of going into Girls Rock Camp and starting to write for Allston Pudding that part of what you’re doing is infiltrating dominantly white organizations. It seems like that must be an intentional choice because I imagine it comes with its fair share of bullshit.

Oh yeah. I got so tired of seeing all these white people prospering in mediocrity. I love music and art so much but people are still not making space. Folks say they want to make space for voices other than their own, but they stay in their bubbles. I’m excited to infiltrate even though it comes with nonsense. I don’t put up with it anymore. I’m asking the hard-hitting questions they need to hear and won’t if I’m not there.

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Photo by Nina Corcoran

On an emotional level, what are you’ doing to fortify yourself around experiencing that nonsense?

I consume a lot of television where the majority of the cast are Black and brown. Instagram is therapeutic for me as well. I love watching videos of skateboarders, and tutorials with rad Black makeup artists where they do their makeup and slay their hair. When I don’t have the capacity for social media, it’s skateboarding, napping, and pizza. Thankfully connecting with the people I live with is a form of self-care. I feel grateful to have access to so many different forms of caring for myself.

What role does community play in your life?

People in my community are my biggest cheerleaders and they plant seeds I never would have thought about. Without them, I would never have pursued a lot of the things I’m involved in. I never expected I would be a part of a community outside of my family.

A lot of the things I do weren’t served to me on a silver platter. Growing up, I thought all I had access to was sports because my mom was such a sports fanatic and my brothers did sports. Then I was in my first school play — the Music Man — and it was fun but I didn’t know how to pursue that interest further. In high school I did a performing arts program that involved acting, musical theater, and stage management. I went to school for theater before realizing I wanted to integrate social justice into the arts. That’s when I got the internship [at the aforementioned LGBTQ theater company]. It was cool, but after some time I didn’t really like working at a white-run organization that focused on serving people of color and yet weren’t receptive to feedback from the folks of color on staff and in the community. I bounced to infiltrate different spaces that would be receptive to hearing what I have to say around making things more inclusive.

It seems pretty special to be able to integrate the arts to engage in social justice and to build a better world. I feel like those things are really compartmentalized for a lot of people. On another note, I know that there’s bad news all the time; I’m also feeling aware that the news out of Charlottesville last night is really intense. [Note: we had this conversation on August 13th, a day after a protestor was killed at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville]. Broadly speaking, how are you doing?

Honestly, I’m doing great. This is upsetting, but like most people of color have been saying, none of this is surprising. This has been around for so long but people weren’t affected by it unless they were Black or brown, so they’re just like, that only happens in the south, love wins, blah blah blah. I’m just like fuuuuck, no. There’s a map of all the 900+ active hate groups in America. I was like wow, that one is in the neighborhood I grew up in. That one is a T ride away from my house.

It’s a rollercoaster, it’s an I told you so, it’s a where have y’all been? When stuff like Charlottesville happens, everyone’s upset, then after a week it dies down and people forget about it. Charlottesville is happening every single second of every single day. I’m interested in seeing the trajectory of people’s’ desire to combat this. It’s hard to be optimistic. My mom recently talked to me about having kids but I don’t feel comfortable bringing a lil’ Black bundle of joy into this nonsense. I don’t want them to ever have to feel like they don’t have the space to be themselves because some white boy in their second grade class called them a n*gger because they wouldn’t share their crayons. I would be fighting kids and I can’t do that.

It was difficult to unplug yesterday because you get into this cycle of scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, and you’re like, omg stop! Sometimes I feel weird leaving my house. I feel weird seeing white people on the train. Sometimes I can feel people calling me a slur. Living in east Boston and watching it gentrify so quickly is upsetting and sad. Sometimes I sit down and I’m like, jesus christ, is the world ever gonna look the way I want it to look? Is it ever gonna be safe and secure for me to have some little Lindseys running around? Most of the time I just don’t think so.

What does the world you want to live in look like?

The world that I want to live in looks like people having the space to experience the things they want to and be who they want to be. Where they can decide day-to-day what pronouns feel good and people are just like, ‘yeah sure absolutely!’ That’s the world I want to live in, where people are like, you wanna try something to live in your most comfortable self? Absolutely, do that. I want to live in a space where bathrooms are gender neutral and you’re not stressed about trying to pee.

I want to live in a space where basic human needs are free. It’s bullshit that people have to pay for housing and food and being able to get around to their jobs. It’s wack that people have to work so many jobs just to get by. The wack ass sexual health stuff taught to young people is bullshit. I would live in a world that’s not heteronormative. I want to live in a world where talking about mental health is normalized and people have access to therapy without going broke. I would love to live in a world where people aren’t working to live but because they want to.

I just want to live in a world where people can feel comfortable because there’s only a portion of people in the world who feel comfortable just living and that’s fucked up. There are so many people who are born and don’t even know the amount of discomfort that’s in store for them. We’re not here for that long, and it blows to have people be uncomfortable for so much of the time they’re here.

Your world sounds good.

Thanks. I definitely think about it a lot. If I had one wish I would have to make it into the biggest run-on sentence of my life but it would be worth it. I have to perfect that run-on sentence.

What do you see as your role and your work in helping to create the world you’re describing?

My role is visibility and being vocal. A lot of people like to hear what I have to say, whether it be purely comedic or about a social issue that’s been bugging me. I love being vocal about the media we consume. I watched this trash show on Netflix, Blow, which is about televised women’s wrestling in the 80’s. I didn’t understand what people saw in it. They had super racist character names that weren’t even historically accurate. I’m like wow, y’all really tryin’ it. I have a problem with period pieces because it feels like being able to say racist things is literally why some folks pick certain time periods. I was tweeting out my thoughts and feelings about the show and one of my friends was like wow, thank you so much, this is gonna help me better engage with media and think about why I like stuff. I’m glad that me yelling about how extra this show was was helpful for them. I love making sure that myself and others are active consumers of media and that when they make media, they’re not perpetuating the same issues we see in current TV, movies, and books.

Being visible in art spaces where I’m not usually seen is also very helpful. I know for the kid I mentioned earlier, seeing me at Girls Rock was helpful for her to understand she has access to everything. I know that me pursuing things I’m passionate about is making space for others to do the same. I’m excited to not be the only one or one of a few. With all of my self-care and with my community, I feel properly supported emotionally and spiritually to put myself in these heavily white spaces. Having support systems and community I’m just like, (gasp) I have a safety net to catch me while I scream about stuff! Then after I’ve screamed, I can come back and make an informed piece, like the one I did about the Women’s March. I screamed all day, took a nap, and when I woke up I started typing.

It seems like you’re really coming to everything you’re doing as a whole person and giving yourself space to feel the frustration and anger and then kind of being like, okay, here we go.

Writing has been really helpful. It’s great in terms of expanding my vocabulary and making accessible pieces folks can wrap their mind around. Sometimes I read some stuff where people are using all these big words for no reason. That’s one of the things that can be scary for people trying to get information. Everyone learns and ingests information differently. I feel I’m good at sharing information in an accessible way. Instead of speaking from a heady academic place, it feels more like a conversation and not, let me tell you about this👏🏾because 👏🏾 I 👏🏾 know👏🏾 everything! 👏🏾

As someone who’s so immersed in the music and arts world, I would be remiss to not ask you about the music and art that’s inspiring you right now.

The music that’s inspiring me is still A Seat at the Table [by Solange]. That entire album is so open and unfiltered. Her vulnerability and her want to take up space with her Blackness and her strangeness resonates with me. I’ve always felt strange. I always felt like my nerdiness and my weirdness never mixed with my Blackness so Solange is inspiring to me. She shows me that all of these things about myself can live in the same space as my Blackness. Seeing that there’s no limit to what Black is has been really helpful.

I really like the new Tyler the Creator album. He made this really beautiful, soft record I never would have expected in which he talks about his queerness. He always rubbed me the wrong way and I perceived him as really aggressive. Naming his album Flowerboy and having the cover be an image of him standing in a field of sunflowers is really lovely.

I really like the new Downtown Boys record. I’ve always appreciated them because seeing people of color in punk is so inspiring. I love punk music but the community is so white. Whenever there’s something musically and culturally cool I figure it has to have been lifted from communities of color. There’s no way in hell that this isn’t something a community of color put together as a form of self care, visibility, and being able to play music really loud. 

I’m going through all of the old R&B and soul my mom would play. Every single Sunday I wake up, wash my face, and listen to Sade. I have been getting into Chaka Khan’s deep cuts after growing up listening to the notable hits that most folks know. I love seeing black women taking up space in music. It shows me that the limit does not exist. There’s still so much space to take up and I’m moved to take up that space and I’m excited for the little girl I talked to at Girls Rock Camp to take up that space too.

Is there anything coming up for you in course of this conversation you feel like sharing?

In terms of taking stock of what my focus is and what I’m focusing my time on, this conversation was really invigorating. I was feeling like I just wanted to sleep for a million years, but now I can’t wait to go home and practice drums, I can’t wait to write things. Talking through stuff is a form of self-care. Sometimes I get caught up and don’t feel like my work is making an impact. Then I talk about it and think about the bigger scheme of things and remember there’s someone, somewhere who will read this and it’s changing the way they’re going to think. I want to show people that all of the things that live inside them can work in harmony. Just because you’re one thing doesn’t mean it lessens this other thing that also lives inside of you.

I’m interested in seeing the ways in which art is gonna expand. So many people are feeling empowered by A Seat at the Table and a lot of other records. Seeing Issa Rae come from Youtube and now have Insecure on HBO empowered a lot of people — so many more people of color are taking the time to make web series and tell their stories on Youtube. That’s what I think about when things are looking so bleak. I look at the art that other people of color are making and I’m just like, okay, maybe it’s not the MOST bleak and maybe we can make it to the other side.

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You can find Lindsey Anderson on Instagram @snackkween. This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in

Jonah on craftsmanship, plants as allies, and the power of candles to hold space

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How you identify yourself in the world?

I identify as a queer, non-binary femme, anti-Zionist Jew, disabled, chronically ill, rural person. I identify as a white anti-racist person, struggling against white supremacy and working for decolonization. I identify as a healer and a magical intuitive person. I am a herbalist, a medicinal plant grower, a ritual candlemaker, a beekeeper, a witch, and a radical anti-capitalist small business owner.

How are you doing in the day to day?

I’m doing pretty well right now. After a long period of being really impacted by my geographical and social isolation, I’m in a moment where I’m dropping into being with myself and where I am, and actually feeling that I’m not alone, even though there are not people here besides me most of the time.

Is there anything material that happened from which you can trace that shift?

One of the things I’ve been working towards since I’ve been here is feeling into the deep and wide web of connectivity and community I live inside of. There are so many amazing plants and animals here. I’m here with the land, with the weather and the wind, with the stars and the sky, and with the water. I’m broadening how I experience community in a daily way through my own presence, my own ritual, rhythms, attention, acknowledgement, and magic.

I have been able to shift out of being so focused on what is wrong with me and what is missing in my life here and just be. This past year, I’ve been able to reign in my projects a bit to focus on what I most long for and what meets my needs. Getting clearer about my physical, emotional, and spiritual capacity and my material, emotional, and spiritual needs has freed up all kinds of energy that has allowed me to be more in my power and have more to offer my relationships and my communities. I long for transformative love and partnership in my life and collaborative creative partnerships in business and magic. I’m now able to be really clear about those longings and extend toward them, instead of being sad or defeated that I don’t have them all yet.

Can I ask you to take a step back and describe what ‘here’ is?

I live on a 52-acre agricultural property south of Cloverdale, which is Makahmo Southern Pomo territory, in the northern tip of Sonoma County, California. My home space is a rented single wide mobile home and a 12×20 redwood shed space I did a pretty major renovation on to create the home of my candle-making business, Narrow Bridge Candles, and of my herbal business, Plants as Allies. I tend about half an acre and have a greenhouse and 40-50 different medicinal plants growing on a range of scales.

Bringing up Narrow Bridge Candles and Plants as Allies feels like a great segue to the main question I want to ask you which is, what do you see as your role and work in this political moment?

I’ve been putting my body, my heart, and my spirit in a place where I can be in deeper contact with my power and offerings in a way I’ve not been able to do in a city space. Wild and rural spaces are frequently unsafe or inaccessible in a variety of ways to queer and trans people, people of color, and people with disabilities. I’ve been working to create and tend wild and rural space here that is safer and more accessible for people at the intersections of all of these identities. I’ve poured my heart, soul, energy, and money into building something that is welcoming, beautiful, soothing, safe, and as accessible as possible, which has been supportive to my life and a lot of people.

When I first lived in the Bay Area, I remember people commonly describing it as a radical, queer, or movement “bubble.” I had that reframed for me — rather than it being a bubble, it is a stronghold, where people are holding down a depth of radical politics and a high level of organization and history around movement work. When I first moved out here, I thought of my home as an escape from the city for me and the folks visiting me. I now understand this as a place for me to grow and deepen into my power and my offerings, and a place for other folks, many of whom are doing important work and living in difficult conditions, to have a little bit of space and be in a place where they can have a bodily experience outside of the pressure cooker that cities and movement spaces can be.

A reminder that rest is not just a break or an escape from the important stuff, but is important in and of itself. So I guess I feel my home is a tiny stronghold — a place where beauty and femme-ness and rest and access are deeply valued, practiced and held up.

What happens in this space? What’s happening right now?

Right now I am braiding Havdallah candles. Havdallah is a Jewish ritual, the transition between Shabbat and the rest of the week. Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, begins Friday night at sundown and ends Saturday night at sundown. In Havdallah observance, this candle gets lit on Saturday night at sundown. I’ve dipped these long thin pieces of wick in beeswax and now they are ready for plaiting into large candles.

Can you tell me more broadly what happens here?

I’m passionate about growing medicinal plants and about having a healing, non-exploitative, decolonial relationship with land. I still feel like I’m just beginning to learn how to do all of those things. I studied herbal medicine with Karyn Sanders and Sarah Holmes at the Blue Otter School of Herbal Medicine up in Siskiyou County. The focus of my study has been on the spiritual and energetic properties of plants — understanding plants as not just passive things to be consumed, but as things with their own spirit, energy, even voice and personality.

I care deeply about making medicine in a way that respects wild medicinal plant communities which are an important part of our environment and our ecosystems, in and of themselves. A lot of foraging and wildcrafting culture orients to things growing and producing something useful to humans — as if it’s just there for the taking and “going to waste” unless humans pick and consume it.  They actually have value in and of themselves.  Medicinal plants live in communities in delicate and dynamic relationships with birds and insects, water, weather, soil, spirit and energetics of a space. These communities are threatened by pollution, urban and suburban sprawl, development in general, climate chaos, and to a smaller degree, irresponsible herbal harvesting practices. A lot of wildcrafting is more oriented towards taking and selling than to the sustainability of plant communities.

I do very little “wildcrafting” — partly because I am a settler on this land and if I don’t have relationships with the indigenous peoples of the land, I don’t feel I have permission to harvest. And if I am not deeply familiar with that place and that ecosystem over a many years period of time, I can’t really see the impact of my harvesting or asses if the ecosystem can support my taking. I’m more interested in caring for wild plant communities and growing what I can. And trading medicine with other folks who are growing things I can’t grow!

jonah wateringWas there anything in your life or experience that led you to be on this path with plants?

I have a picture of myself as a small child watering little rows of vegetables. My mom is a big gardener — she loves flowers. I grew up with a lot of really powerful plants in the garden. I knew their names, and loved and appreciated them, and picked them and brought them to my friends and teachers, but didn’t necessarily orient to them as medicinal or as holding me in any way. And I think they were really holding me. It took me a long time to be aware of that.

What about candle making?

In my life here, I’m occasionally struck with the thought, wait, I’m a… candlemaker? Is that an actual job people have in 2017? If I think about the things that satisfy me, give me pleasure, and soothe my nervous system, they are mostly sensory. Touching everything, smelling and tasting, taking in the sight of things that are vibrantly beautiful. And also tiny, satisfying tasks that I can do perfectly, like putting stickers and labels on things and pouring liquid from one vessel to another. This list is pretty much my job description.

IMG_1939My work as a ritual candlemaker means living in deep relationship with the element of fire, honoring its contained expression in balance and right relationship, and sharing that magic, awe, and honor with my communities in material form. Candles have this incredible capacity to hold space. I think my role is holding space too. I originally started making ritual candles as a way to be more actively engaged with the ritual items I was using in my life. I wasn’t satisfied to buy ritual items and not know more about where they came from. In 2010 I created Narrow Bridge Candles which is a Jewish ritual candlemaking project in support of the full 2005 call from Palestinian Civil Society for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) of Israel. Narrow Bridge Candles is a political and a spiritual project. It plays a role in extricating Jewish ritual, cultural, spiritual and religious practices from Zionism and provides ritual candles that are not made in Israel, allowing people who want to buy Jewish ritual candles to honor the boycott. Narrow Bridge Candles is able to donate more money to BDS organizations and domestic racial justice and decolonization struggles every year.

Are there challenges to stay connected to the deeper political and spiritual meanings of your work when it is your job and livelihood?

Yes. I attended the National Member Meeting of Jewish Voice for Peace as a vendor this year. I talked with almost 100 people who thanked me for my candles and told me that they loved them. Some of them cried and told me how meaningful my work has been for them in making space for them to re-connect with Jewish spiritual practice in a way that’s politically resonant with their convictions, principles, and beliefs.

It was a big deal to meet the people who buy the candles from me. It was markedly different than what my daily life sometimes feels like — that I’m just sort of plodding along making all the candles and sending them out to people and people send me money. I know theoretically what I’m making is valued beyond money, and that there are people all over the world who are using the candles to mark their sacred days, transitions, and life events, to hold space in political, cultural, and spiritual ritual space. And I’m not there. Especially when I’m tired and working really hard and not feeling connected to all of the life around me, it’s hard for me to remember that’s happening.

IMG_0123 (1)We are living in late stage capitalism. I, and I dare say so many of us, have deeply internalized capitalism in all kind of ways that I am working to heal from as a witch, as a disabled person, as a craftsperson, and as a radical. Running a small business doesn’t mean I’m a capitalist, but it does mean I’m holding some serious tensions. Sometimes I feel like I am a machine producing a product in exchange for money and I feel alienated from my own labor, my own hands, my own body. More and more I am aware of how deeply skilled my work is, and I’m learning how to value myself as a craftsperson. I can feel inside of myself, in my lineage, and my embodiment, a time and a place in which craftspeople and their creations were deeply valued. In which something made by someone’s skilled hands was a treasure. I’m learning how to live in this magical space, to know this is true and make this true with my own disabled femme genius craftsperson magic.

I’m gonna get dreamy as fuck for a minute and ask you to do the same. Tell me what you think your work and role would be in the world you want to live in.

It’s an important thing to be visioning. The framework I have is a village or small community in which there are people who grow food, people who grow medicine, people who make the things that people need and use. I’d be excited to be a community herbalist and candlemaker and have a place to live and work and people to share meals with and to play an active role in supporting the health of a community living in balance and right relationship with the earth, and with other communities of people, plants, and animals.

Given that we’re living in the time and place and world we’re living in, I know we’ve got a ways to go. I’d love to hear about the things or people that inspire you, and what you do for self care.

The plants and animals I share this space with are a big part of what inspires me. Central to the Blue Otter teachings is that a deep understanding of my own energetics is required for me to learn from and connect with the energetic and spiritual properties of plants, and to connect deeply with clients in a clinical herbalist capacity. How deeply I am willing to go in my own self work with my own healing, self knowledge, and transformation is the limiting factor on how deep I’m able to go with clients. I haven’t been able to be connected with my own energetics, vitality, or pacing in a city space. A big part of my being here has been about learning — not just getting out of the city to escape the city, but choosing intentionally to be in a space with low electromagnetic fields, low pollution and toxicity, and low social stimulation. Living where and in the way that I do has allowed me to learn how to regulate my own nervous system, how to live inside of my own rhythms and pacing, and feel my own power and what I want to give this beautiful planet.

Boy Boy portrait
a portrait of Boy Boy

Taking care of myself right now means getting enough sleep and rest, and being in a solid routine, eating meals that have vegetable and protein, and water in my body and my body  in water frequently. I take herbs, I do plant meditations, and I have some somatic bodywork and therapy that helps me continue to learn about my own energetic and emotional patterns. Being with my kitty is a big part of my self care. He has totally saved me, I couldn’t be here without other people, without him. Being around Boy Boy, who seems to have such an incredible capacity for love and connection, has also been so opening and instructive. I’ve never had this kind of relationship with an non-human companion. I love him so, so much.

Something I’m thinking about right now is just that energy is real. Energetics are hugely formative in everyone’s life and in the cultures we live inside of. There’s a lot happening under the surface that influences what is possible, what is happening, what is tolerated. For a lot of people, under the surface is unseen and therefore it doesn’t exist. Everyone is impacted by energetics, and some of us can feel and attune to it, and for me a big part of radical transformative magic is making those “hidden” currents visible and felt.

There’s a lot of need for magic around shifting conditions. It’s not about denying the material; I’m not saying magical thinking or a positive attitude will be enough to overcome tyranny and fascism and oppression. We have to be in real, honest connection with the material conditions we’re inside, fighting and protecting those of us who are most vulnerable to the violence and oppression of our time, and be deeply transforming all of those relationships in trying to make the world that we want in material, magical, and energetic realms. This dreamy liberated world after the revolution is not some future destination. It is a path that we make with our work, our magic, our relationships, our hearts, and our spirits, and our bodies. How we move and be inside of that path is essential. That’s what I’m learning to embody and extend toward these days.

Place your 2017/5778 Hanukkah Order through November while supplies last! Narrow Bridge Candles are available on a sliding scale and they are worth it. Learn more about Jonah’s herbalism work at Plants as Allies. You can also find Jonah on instagram. This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in.

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