Najia Khaled: ‘Imagination allows you to set yourself new rules and then to break them as needed.’

Najia Khaled is a Moroccan-American lesbian poet and musician. Her art explores personal experiences with abuse, disability, romance and sexuality, and everyday life, and is especially concerned with how folklore, literature, and mythology can give new and interesting shape to things that might otherwise seem mundane.

She believes that art should always be accountable to the community or communities in which it was produced, not only in terms of the ideologies it furthers but in material terms as well. Thus art must be concerned with its audience, with how it reaches that audience and what message it gives them, with who benefits from its production and who might be harmed. She also believes that art is specific to experience—it is produced by what produces us as communities and as individuals—and therefore we should evaluate it on its own terms, rather than taking any one artistic voice as representative of a generic raced or gendered experience.

She has published one volume of poetry entitled wanderers, witch-talkers, as well as an EP entitled “Dough Re Mi.”

And so, here’s the interview – which we posted in Spanish translation yesterday. In conversation with co-editor Sol Camarena Medina, Najia Khaled talks plenty of phenomena, both political and artistic – and all that works as a link and is left in between, providing us with an accurate, eloquent perspective on issues and dilemmas we’re facing nowadays, both as organizations and as media journals, but also in our daily lives.

·We’re encountering an abundance of readings on how colonialism has racialized gender. I’m also really interested in the way our sexuality – and the way general society approaches our sexuality – shape our approach to our own gender identity. What are your thoughts on this? How do you think mainstream feminism & LGTBI activism often carry on the colonialist, heteronormative notions of that which women and men (and especially what trans women and men) should be?

I think of the racialisation of gender that decolonial feminists such as María Lugones talk about as a process that produces the violence of race and gender through each other and through capital. Thus our understanding of gender—crucially including “white” people’s genders—is just as impacted by race as our understanding of race is gendered. These relations arise from the early history of capitalist and colonialist domination and have reflexes at every level of society for people of every identity.

They impact, for example, our aesthetic and epistemological ideas about innocence, which is tied to whiteness and to femininity—such that the fact that women of colour and especially Black women are perceived as aggressive and always sexually available is more or less synonymous with the fact that we are masculinised. They impact our understanding of sexuality—Siobhan Somerville writes about scientific racism’s taxonomisation of “black” women’s genitalia as distinct from those of “white” women in a way that constructed their bodies as “homosexual,” thus imputing lesbianism, itself seen as a monstrous lack of femininity, to “racial” difference.

This is also relevant to the fact that white women’s femininity (especially that of middle- and upper-class white women) is constructed in large part through its enforced contrast with non-“white” (lack of) femininity, which is “white” femininity’s distorted dark mirror.

This constellation of historical processes of domination and their associated ideas—those relating to the “racialisation of gender” and many others—can be understood in material terms as a tool used to divide and conquer. The imposition of colonial ideals of gender and sexuality, and corresponding modes of capitalist production that were imposed for the benefit of the colonial elite—in terms of shifts in the sexual division of labour, the deepening of gendered divides, the ideology of biological sexual dichotomy, marked increases in gendered and sexualised violence against women that colonised men were called upon to collaborate with—weakened colonised peoples’ solidarity and thus their ability to organise against imperial rule. Silvia Federici has written on the connection between “divide and conquer” techniques of capitalist domination used against colonial subjects and enslaved peoples, and those used against the European peasantry during the “transition” to capitalism.

The racialisation of gender impacts how LGBT people interact with each other in our own communities, and how we try to construct viable models to act on our desire for each other in a world that is hostile to that desire. Racialised ideas of “masculinity” and “femininity” shape our expectations of how people of a given “race” will present, or what roles they will take on during sex. To be non-“white” as a woman is already to be gender non-conforming in at least one sense, and thus brown and Black women are more likely to be read as gender non-conforming, and to be expected to be sexually assertive or aggressive, than white women, even those who present in similar ways.

And this racialised understanding of gendered presentation and behaviour impacts trans women’s ability to navigate spaces centred around same-gender desire and to be gendered correctly within and without them. Likewise, desire between men—which in the modern West has been more culturally reliant on an erotic charge imparted by differences of age, race, and class than has desire between women—is shaped by similar assumptions about gendered presentation and behaviour. I know, for example, that gay men have written about spaces in which “masculinity” is valued and “femininity” is degraded, “masculinity” is connected to sexually assertive or aggressive behaviour and thence to Blackness, Asian men are considered “effeminate,” etc. And a lot of this has to do with body type as well.

I don’t always believe in moralistic injunctions to “reprogram” desire, but I do believe that if we are going to forward an anti-colonialist and anti-capitalist critique of desire then we must be thorough and resist the urge to exempt our own communities or identities from criticism. This requires a sustained and detailed engagement with the histories of slavery, global capitalism, colonialism, gendered violence, the (ongoing) AIDs crisis, and butch/fem bar culture, to name a few. And it requires a commitment to treating each other well.

·I sometimes feel like us the oppressed groups in nowadays society tend to strive for representation and way too often don’t go any further when we should be demanding reparation, legal protection, etc and ultimately fight for the destruction of an oppressive system. How do you think we can fight this liberal trend and stay more, let’s say, radical as a whole? Do you think this trend has anything to do with white LGTBI women supporting racist celebrities and, what’s even worse, colonialist governments & invasions in the name of LGTBI rights and people in general supporting politicians of color (in the name of inclusivity and diversity) who don’t go against the status quo and even carry on patriarchal notions of power?

I think the connexion you point out between colonialism or imperialism and media representation is a revealing one, especially now as content creators learn to manipulate people’s largely uncritical desire to see LGBT people and people of colour onscreen in order to explicitly or implicitly promote liberalism, patriotism, militarism and the police state. A lot of people are very resistant to being told that media featuring cops and soldiers who are gay or of colour are propagandistic, and are propagandistic not despite but because of the fact that they present imperialist, capitalist, and white supremacist structures as bastions of progressivism and respect for identity. They value their desire to see people like them onscreen, their desire for entertainment, their desire to be seen as progressive for what they watch, and/or their desire for escapism (perhaps from real persecution but often from nothing more than white guilt) over the lives and dignity of those whose communities are torn apart by the U.S. military and the police state.

We should absolutely be able to be critical of the things that we watch without leveraging identity politics in its most shallow and harmful manifestation against people who critique propaganda—people, no less, who are often similarly marginalised to those who dismiss them. And we also need to be aware of the (literally declassified) history and current reality of government intervention in media content: the fact, for example, that first-person shooter video games are funded by the U.S. military, or the CIA’s history of engaging with and funding forms of art and theory that it considered to be useful in maintaining the status quo. There is no way to separate art from the material conditions of its production, or the implications of those conditions on its cultural influence.

This is especially relevant in a context in which, as you point out, “pinkwashed” or “homonationalist” military campaigns are presented as conscientious human rights interventions on behalf of LGBT people and women across the “Middle East” and North Africa, even as the colonial exploitation of which they are the successors played a major part in producing or exacerbating the misogynistic and homophobic violence that they ostensibly condemn. As Mehlab Jameel writes, “it is utterly ironic that not a hundred years ago the West tried to ‘civilize’ us by criminalizing homosexual conduct and now the West wishes to ‘civilize’ us by decriminalizing the homosexual conduct that it criminalized in the first place, all the while producing us as the ‘barbarians’ that they have the duty to correct.”

So Western LGBT people and people of colour are being asked to trade their ability to be represented in media (including, in two examples that I’m thinking of, as cops and soldiers) against the right to life and self-determination of people in the Global South, who are presented as victims or as problems to be solved. What is the place of the “representation” of the people in Africa, Asia and Latin America who are invisibilised and sacrificed in the background so that an American woman of colour can be “represented” as an appropriately and obediently patriotic member of a militaristic regime? And why would any American person of colour accept this kind of condescension, that hinges our “right” to belong to a militaristic and imperialistic power on whether or not we can make ourselves useful enough to it for it to kindly ignore our racial “inferiority” or “foreignness”? Especially if it requires us to renounce our own for the privilege?

There are another two aspects of this conversation that I think are sometimes ignored. The first is that media representation is a materialist concern—it’s not solely an issue of who is onscreen but also what kinds of opportunities for employment are being created and for whom, who is being excluded from opportunity, who is being paid how much, who is being subjected to a hostile work environment and at whose hands. The second, relatedly, regards what kinds of stories are being told—again, this goes beyond screen time and includes considerations of who is able to succeed as a director or content creator, who is given and who is excluded from opportunity and what this means for what stories are shared or silenced, and, crucially, how marginalised people are being represented onscreen.

It is not enough merely to have people of colour be shown onscreen if actors of colour are being abused or mistreated at the workplace and if their characters are being represented in racist ways. It is not enough merely to have trans women be shown onscreen if trans women actors are being closed off from those opportunities for employment or if trans women content creators are being shut out of the industry.

·Would you tell us about the time you realized you were a lesbian, thus you did not only like girls, but also didn’t like boys? How does compulsory heterosexuality – and general heteronormativity – shape nowadays young girls’ approach to their own sexuality and identity, especially when it comes to young girls of color, and what would your advice be for a younger girl of color who’s starting to find out she’s a lesbian?

Firstly I think we need to move towards an understanding of compulsory heterosexuality that views it as a constellation of forces that shape all women’s lives for the worse by working to keep them subject to domestic and sexual exploitation (through violence and the threat of violence, economic coercion, and the hiding of possibilities for women that don’t involve men), rather than something that only harms lesbians. This is the framework that Adrienne Rich posited when she originally expounded on the term.

We also need to move beyond Rich’s framework in understanding gender and compulsory heterosexuality, not as transcultural and transhistorical phenomena, but as things that are specifically impacted by histories of race, colonialism, and capital. This involves deeper inquiry into how compulsory heterosexuality impacts, for example, trans women and women of colour by making access to medical transition dependent upon a convincing display of heterosexuality, or by viewing racialised women as always sexually available especially to white men (and how this latter model impacted colonial ideas of both “white” and non-“white” people’s genders, again per Lugones).

One way in which compulsory heterosexuality operates to make lesbian possibility invisible is by eroding women’s consciousness of our own desire in favour of casting us as receptacles for male desire. This is true both for middle- and upper-class white women, whom colonial patriarchy has presented since the late modern period as pure and void of autonomous sexuality, and has set up the family structure to regulate sexual access to, and for working-class white women and racialised women, presented to varying degrees as grotesquely lustful creatures who were openly available for (white male) sexual “conquest” that was understood in part as a civilising mission. Neither of these models allows room for lesbian desire except, in the latter case, as evidence of a racialised perversion.

So my advice to lesbian women of colour is to work to become comfortable in their desire, to understand that they are more than the site of sexual contest or conflict between white men and men of colour, and to deeply value their own subjectivity. I’d also advise them to look for community, both in learning about the history of lesbian desire in their own cultures and in looking forward and outward to a future with other lesbians of colour that can make sense of our experiences and allow space for us to heal.

·There are plenty of discussions and conversations leftists engage in regarding veganism, white privilege, migrant workers’ exploitation, and environmental justice. What are your general thoughts on these issues, as in how do you think taking into account multiple oppressive behaviours and practices would enrich such conversations – and what do you think sometimes limits them to people covering their own backs & merely attacking each other?

I often say that veganism is useless without anticapitalist critique, and that’s essentially the crux of my views on the matter. I could probably go on for far too long about specific arguments that I’ve seen surrounding these topics, which either go too far in promoting veganism as a lifestyle in a way that’s indebted to the logic of capitalist individualism, or that dismiss vegans’ arguments about the destructive nature of factory farming out of hand in a way that seems very defensive (I’ve seen leftists, for example, cite statistics from studies funded by corporations that profit from factory farming claiming to prove that veganism is inherently environmentally unsound).

Ultimately I think that the primary issue here ought to be a criticism of the waste, pollution, cruelty, poor working conditions, use of colonised land, &c. involved in food production under global capitalism, and what we can do to build other, communal models of food production that don’t focus on individualist morality or disregard legacies of settler colonialism (see: the recent romanticisation of ‘homesteading’ by leftists and right-wing white supremacists alike).

As such I see myself as being more closely in agreement with people who may eat meat themselves but have a similar vision of what needs to be done, than with liberal vegans who may have feelings about animal cruelty that are closer to mine, but who haven’t suggested or supported a meaningful solution to the problem.

·It often angers me to witness how limited and liberal activism for mental health “awareness” can get – and how “crazy”/”mentally ill” people will try to throw physically disabled people under the bus (i.e. “nobody cares that you’re sick in your brain but everyone cares if you break your leg or have a fever”) or even just ignore them, as if the body & the mind conditions didn’t intersect in many, many ways – and disabled unity & community weren’t a necessity for the fight for liberation for oppressed groups. What are your thoughts on this? How do you think disabled people (and mainly activists) can strive for a more radical approach to the topics of disability and “mental illness”/”madness”, that also stays critical of capitalist, colonial & patriarchal notions of “illness”, “disability”, and “madness”?

I think that one of the most important things as regards solidarity between disabled people, and the connexion of disability activism to other social struggles, is attention to the ways in which disability is created. This means both physically, how people’s minds and bodies are shaped by circumstances put into place by racial capitalism and imperialism (e.g. intergenerational trauma; the ways in which dangerous or polluted living conditions create disproportionate levels of disability amongst poor and racialised people), and epistemologically, how the categories relating to mental or physical “disability” are created, described, maintained, and policed (e.g. the diagnosing of Black radicals with schizophrenia or of women with “hysteria” or any of its modern approximants; the concept of “disability” as something that will interfere with an individuals’ ability to produce value in a capitalist society; inaccessible institutions and architecture that disable people according to a social model of disability).

None of which is to say that mental or physical difference would not or did not exist in non-capitalist societies. But we do have to investigate and reject the idea that disability is always and solely an ontological property of individual bodies—that everyone is innately either “disabled” or not. Acknowledging the complexities of how (some) difference is made into “disability,” focusing on psychiatric and institutional abuse and neglect of disabled people, understanding how these issues are connected in a way that goes beyond positing a merely parasitic or metaphorical relationship between e.g. mental and physical disability, or between disability and race—these are the kinds of approaches to disability that we should be exploring.

·Finally, let’s talk art. You’re both a poet and a musician – what are your views on nowadays growing artistic trend to portray representation for oppressed communities, and do you think it ever falls short?

I’ve encountered (and published with / performed in) a few poetry journals and events, music and art festivals and shows, etc. that were specifically looking to include work by artists who were marginalised in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, and/or ability status. Many poetry journals and magazines now specify that they’re especially looking for work from people in these “communities” or about these “issues” (and oftentimes those two propositions are regarded as equivalent) in their manifestos or submission guidelines.

In some ways of course I think it’s admirable to actively confront racial, sexual, and other inequalities in terms of who is given a platform to speak or perform. But it’s all too common for this effort to be harmlessly rerouted into liberal narratives of inclusion, multiculturalism, or diversity that don’t challenge the actual structures that reproduce race, gender, or disability—what does it mean, to take a small example, for me to be invited to perform at a poetry reading in an inaccessible venue when many of my poems are about my chronic illness?

And, I think relatedly, it’s incredibly common for these calls for work from marginalised artists to be essentialising, voyeuristic, or tokenising. Several times I’ve been invited to perform music at a show by someone who had not, in fact, heard my music—because they “didn’t want the show to be entirely straight white men.” As if the actual quality of my work, the craft and the intentionality and the labour that I put into it, are insignificant next to the mere fact of my racialisation, gender, or sexuality.

I’ve also found—especially with poetry—that often when people say they want “work by people of colour,” they’re looking for a very specific kind of work in terms of subject, thematics, even imagery. “Work by people of colour” is tacitly understood to mean “work about race”—as if “white” people’s experience of the world is not also deeply informed by race, or as if all work by people of colour must be about race—as if, even, all racialised people’s experience with race or thinking about race is functionally equivalent.

So again the actual intentions and quality of someone’s work as a creative individual, the specificities of their experience and their thinking, are subjugated to an essentialist or voyeuristic vision of their identity, and the kind of cachet that their (in fact, rather shallow) engagement with that identity is meant to give to a publication or institution. And all the while that publication’s or institution’s history or present reality of complicity with racial ideology, the fact that they benefit from colonial wealth, etc. goes unaddressed.

On a more internal level, the general paucity of non-white writers at events dedicated to poetry performance—because it creates a situation where you feel to have to represent or embody an artificially narrow category of experiences and viewpoints as a racialised person, since otherwise these things will go entirely unsaid—often changes how I choose to present my own writing. Recently I was invited to perform at a poetry event and prepared my entire set before realising that I would be the only non-white person (let alone the only woman of colour) in the six-person line-up, and this realisation led me to switch out two of my poems for another two that were explicitly about the colonial history of the country and institution that I was performing in.

I’m very interested in how marginalised artists choose to make these decisions—caught between a desire to testify to an experience that we feel deserves to be given voice (while resisting the idea that art is revolutionary in and of itself), and a desire to avoid being tokenised, to avoid having our words used to further a publication’s reputation for inclusivity even as our actual experiences, bodies, and selves aren’t respected (as in my example of reading poetry about disability in an inaccessible venue). I do want to use my art to speak about the things that are most important to me, and many of those things do revolve around race, gender, sexuality, and disability. But I also want to focus on building the kind of world where no one has to cut a sonnet about lichen (or whatever) because they realise that they’re going to be the only racialised (or female, or LGBT) person speaking.

·In a more personal note, why do you think you started creating, and what keeps you going as an artist?

Self-expression and craft are equally important to me when it comes to my poetry and music. The first music and poetry that I became really passionate about as a young teenager was, I think, so alluring to me because it appealed to me on both levels—it was about things that I could relate to that I seldom saw anyone else talking about (such as abuse, mental illness and psychiatry, or misogyny), but was also clever, solid, sophisticated writing, well-crafted instrumentation, interesting and powerful vocals, poetry that you could tell was deliberate and meticulous in its effects.

These are the same kinds of things that I try to do in my poetry and music—not only to tell a story or to share something that’s true and compelling, but also to do so in a skilful and intentional way, using all of the tools in my arsenal as well as I can, learning the rules just enough to break them in a way that’s meaningful and not haphazard. Above all, I think that an artist ought to have something that they can say about their process, about the time and labour and thought that they’re investing in something. It frustrates me to see engaged, complex work by e.g. (t/q)women of color be discussed primarily in terms of its subject matter or the identities of its authors (though these things are important), as if it couldn’t possibly be sophisticated in these ways.

Effectively, I’m interested in creating work that’s emotive and imaginative, that continues to question what we think storytelling can or ought to be (a recent song I wrote, for example, asks the question “What would happen if the Lady of Shalott didn’t die at the end?”), and that is deliberate in terms of how the form is crafted in concert with the content. In my work I try to give space to how imagination and skill can play into each other: skill allows you to carry out imagination, just as imagination allows you to question your ideas of what ‘skill’ is, to set yourself new rules and then to break them as needed. That constant interplay is what keeps me going—there’s always something else to share, or a new way to share it in.

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