(this is a piece I wrote this summer, when I guest taught two classes of Toronto's genderFOC (http://www.myspace.com/genderfoc) program for trans and gender-variant people of color.)
Back when I lived in a basement apartment at Davenport and Shaw for $450 a month (a half hour of natural light a day, seven cheap lamps from Ikea and the hardware store going constantly and burning out the No Frills bulbs every two weeks, no escape in the event of a fire but it was mine, all mine, I had a door that shut and locked, and oh how that was sweet); back when I didn't have a proper winter coat but instead had a leather jacket and five hoodies and thermals and a Thinsulate lined watch cap and matching gloves from one of the stores that catered to Portuguese construction workers on College (and still called myself femme, because I was); back when I could barely afford the TTC back when it was $2, I had a junker adult trike called Babygirl that went super super fast and I would hit the Davenport bike lane highway that got me to Church and Wellesley in fifteen minutes, pedalling standing up, wind between my legs, skirt flapping, and I would meet my friends shy at the Red Spot on Church, two blocks south of Wellesley.
The Red Spot was owned by Tamils, and it was up a narrow, shitty, flight of stairs, and wreathed in cigarette smoke from lots of Players and Belmont Extra Milds, and it was where the queer girl open mic Clit Lit and the benefits for the Queer Caribbean float in pride and Women of Color Against Police Brutality happened. And on the third Sunday of the month we followed the little lime green flyer that Zahra and Vashti made of the punk girl with the nosering and the big eyebrows and went up the stairs to Funakasia
BHANGRA SOCA TAMIL FILM HINDI FILM DANCEHALL HIPHOP, it said at the bottom. THIS IS A QUEER POSITIVE SPACE, HATERS STAY HOME, and everybody who was in there was South Asian, and queer, or somebody's straight and supportive cousin, and if you went after 10:30 the line was around the freaking block and maybe you would wait there til 1:30 AM, a half hour before last call, to get in and dance your ass off for twenty minutes, and I was scared as hell to go. I was a 23 year old shivering little mixed race brown girl who was on a starvation diet, who had barely two pairs of pants and round John Lennonesque glasses I was super embarrased about but by no means had the money to replace, and I feared the gauntlet of late 90s identity politics like I feared knives, being pulled aside by Immigration at the bus stop at the border on the New York- Toronto all night Greyhound, or having to walk home from Church and Wellesely to Davenport and Shaw in the middle of winter if I had a flat. On the street, I was uncomfortably brown- light brown, but brown enough, people always knew I was something even if people didn't know what the something was. But in Desh Pardesh and other places, there were nice people but there also seemed to be an unending sea of bitchy Punjabi girls from Scarbs or 'sauga or Brampton going, with a tinkling laugh, “Oh, I was wondering why you were here... I never would've been able to tell!” Mean Girls had nothing on second generation desis whose parents gave them shit for being too Canadian, who wanted to be more authentic than somebody.
But I had a friend or two or three – R. who was Black and desi from Trinidad, K. who was Somali and Egyptian, M. who was Tamil and Sinhalese and Burgher, P. who was Tamil but as light as me- and we would troop up those damn stairs and writhe around in the smoke and it was there that I found my brown. There and in the Market, before everything changed, and shopping in Parkdale for curry leaf and giant bags of Lakan tea, buying gulab jamuns for makeshift Diwalis. Here there was a whole mess of diaspora all slammed in together, because it was the only club that played our music and we had to get along, or at least pretend to. Guju punk girls with shaved heads growing in green. Sexy aunties in red shalwars. Smoking cigars and staring at you (and you could imagine how their bangles would jangle as they fisted you) Trini desi butches with rooster boy haircuts and lunghis. Arts administrators and hotline counselors and legal clinic community support workers trying to wind off the stress. All kinds of desis who hated each other, maybe had invaded each others countries, hacked off each other's heads back home, lost everything or anyway a lot when they moved to freezing immigrant apartments in St. Jamestown, King Street, wherever. But here we were all shivering through Immigration, cab driver and dishwasher jobs and George Brown college , and we sort of kind of got along or wouldnt glare too damn bad.
I didn't know that I could say, I don't know how to do bhangra, my mom is white and my dad was so angry about where we came from that he never said shit, and anyway, I'm Sri Lankan, not Punjabi. I just stared at the moves and memorized them as fast as I could. And I realized that bhangra is just passive aggression- come here, come here. Go away, go away.
Tamil film hindi film sholay khush khush hota hey. DJ Jitin's remixes of Lauryn Hill and the Fugees. Six degrees of separation mixes. Talvin Singh and Asian Dub Foundation. All of us jumping up and down and screaming to Free Satpal Ram and Naxalite. Badmarsh and Shri and State of Bengal and all the others whose names I can't remember without Google now. Whining songs of desire that curved my waist brown and sweet like tea, sour and salt like tamarind balls crusted with raw sugar in a little box for 99 cents. Dancehall that felt more comfortable because of this half assed- not complicated enough dream that the Caribbean was so mixed that somehow I would fit in. Connections. I worried that punk rock had ruined my sense of rhythm but I tried my best. I danced and breathes and felt my hips hurt and stared and stayed out late, and somewhere, in that sweaty brown hot box of brown gay, I found myself.
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This work by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.