“My Body is Not a Liability” – Interview with Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
by Stacey MilbernLEAH LAKSHMI PIEPZNA-SAMARASINHA is a Bay Area-based queer Sri Lankan writer, performer and teacher. Her work is featured in the upcoming Sins Invalid show this weekend.Can you tell us a little about yourself? My name is Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and I am an almost 36 year old queer femme mixed heritage Sri Lankan poet, writer, organizer and teacher who is chronically ill. Some of my passions are community accountability/ transformative justice strategies to end violence and abuse, queer and trans sick, disabled and crazy folks of color and queer trans people of color (QTPOC) performance art. With Ching-In Chen and Jai Dulani, I co-edited The Revolution Starts At Home: Confronting Intimate Violence in Activist Communities, a book on dealing with violence without the cops or courts that we've been working on since 2004, that is coming out on South End Press in a month. I have fibromyalgia. I'm a little psychic. I like eating kottu rotty. I like making out. I have a gigantic friend family. I grew up in the rust belt and mid 90's New York, I have a Dravidian white-mama heart, my heart has deep roots in Toronto, and I love the fresh fruit and ocean waves of Bay Arealandia, CA. I'm a hermit and a social butterfly.Why Sins?Seeing Sins Invalid perform for the first time in 2008 changed my life. I don't say that lightly. I, like many other folks, had heard, "You gotta go to this show, it's going to blow your mind!" But... I didn't reaaaally get it. I did when I started about crying thirty seconds into the opening act - as Maori wheelchair dancer Rodney Bell got pulled into suspension 40 feet above the stage as Patty Berne's quiet voice asked, "Do we scare you? The chronically ill? The disabled? The crazy.... Tonight, we are coming home."I couldn't claim a disabled identity as a queer woman of color before Sins, even though I got sick in 1998.Sins was and is the queer of color center community of sick and disabled artists I didn't know I was yearning for. There is nothing like it, but its existence has given birth to so much like it- so many desperately needed things we did and didn't know we needed. There is no other fierce, beautifully curated and sculpted, QTPOC crip kinky sex and politics show in the world... yet.The politics and community Sins incubates has given birth to the beginnings of disability justice community and QTPOC sick and crip micro communities all over. There are reasons why my homegirls- who are chronically ill queer femmes of color - are flying from Toronto to go to this show. Sins helps us be whole. And know we were whole all along.Plus --- it's like QTPOC sick and disabled prom!! Interested parties should know that some of my show goals are to have hot crip makeouts, especially with other crazy people of color, in the, oh, time machine we built that's in the lobby.Oh wow, a time machine! Can you tell us about the show process? I've never felt as taken care of as an artist as I have at Sins. Tech run? We have a tech week.Sins isn't perfect, but it comes closer to a model of sustainability than any other artistic process I've been part of. Last year's show started with an hour long body check in as we introduced ourselves to each other, explaining our access needs, triggers and body/spirits. We held each other in love and accountability. It was, as Aurora Levins Morales put it, liberated space. This year, when a staff member got seriously ill, we decided to postpone the show instead of pushing ahead and ignoring it.Working at Sins has shown me how to show up wherever I am with my whole body - including when I'm sore, fatigued, crazy, anxiety ridden, sick. That is who I am. I don't have to jettison my chronically ill body. I can live in her all the time, and she's not a liability.Because I’m asking everyone this --- What does disability justice mean to you?Disability justice to me means a political movement and many interlocking communities where disability is not defined in white terms, or male terms, or straight terms. Disability Justice is to the Disability Rights movement what the environmental justice movement is to mainstream environmental movements. Disability justice centers sick and disabled people of color, queer and trans disabled folks of color and everyone who is marginalized in mainstream disability organizing.More than that, it asserts that ableism helps make racism, christian supremacy, sexism and queer and trans phobia possible and that all those systems of oppression are locked up tight. It insists that we organize from our sick, disabled "brokenbeautiful" (as Alexis Pauline Gumbs puts it) bodies' wisdom, need and desire. It means looking at Indigenous and POC traditions of valuing sick and disabled folks (not as magical cripples, but as people of difference whose bodyspirits have valuable smarts), how POC communities being sick or disabled can just be "life" and also how sick and disabled POC are criminalized. It means asserting a vision of liberation where destroying ableism is part of social justice. It means the hotness, smarts and value of our sick and disabled bodies. It means we are not left behind, we are beloved, kindred, needed.What is your favorite piece in the upcoming show this weekend?Oh god! Don't ask me! Uh, maybe it's Alex and Nomy "god wrestling" - "two femme genderqueer anti-colonial crips wrestle.... god! and themselves! Ding ding ding, why do I have to live in.... a body!" Or Maria taking her clothes off in front of a giant pink PEEP SHOW sign and bouncing up and down on an imaginary cock in her wheelchair... Or Juba and Leroy's tender, complicated mediation on Black masculinity, disability and queerness. It's all good.Thanks, Leah! See you this weekend. Yes! April 8-10 at Z Space in San Francisco.