Beyond Binaries and ConventionKay Ulanday Barrett on Ancestry, Disability, and Identity Formation

This article appears in our 2017 Fall issue, Facts. Subscribe today!

When the Chant Comes is the latest collection of poetry work from Kay Ulanday Barrett, a seasoned poet, performer, and educator whose work centers on navigating life in the Unites States as a self-described disabled pin@y-amerikan transgender queer. On top of performing on stages globally, Barrett’s ideas have been featured in POOR Magazine, Huffington Post, Colorlines, and BuzzFeed. I caught up with Barrett in Chicago for a discussion on creativity, queer and trans people of color (QTPOC) identity, and how queer and trans issues intersect with disability and ancestry. 

The work of mourning is a significant undercurrent throughout your work. When I saw you perform, I noticed that you make space to bring the ancestors into the room before beginning, and then close out with a similar moment of call and response, as if to say, “goodbye for now.” I’m curious about what ancestral remembrance, grief work, and communion looks like for you. 

Mourning is pivotal. It has conditioned me, the very force of it, its impacts and wreckage that naturally begets ritual. I’ve known that death is a force, and with no blood family available to me, like many queer and trans people, I’ve had to circle back to ancestral practices of grief and celebration. 

Loss is—for me at least—complicated by intergenerational trauma. What have I inherited emotionally, subconsciously, and physically long after someone has died? Fannie Lou Hamer asks, “Who are your people?” And that’s something I’ve had to think hard about. I grapple with the same guiding questions: What happens if your people don’t accept you? How do you connect with people beyond conventional trappings of communication? Are your poems enough for this? Is it possible to honor someone whose voice you forget more and more every day?

The communion finds you when you are ready for it. I stopped writing for six whole months after my ma died. What could I do with the majestic mayhem of grief? My quiet moments are exactly that. There’s indelible weeping involved. There’s altar building, like the altars of my mama and lola [grandma] and the lola before her. Since I was little, I learned you could talk to the dead and their spirits, even mumble to them in the other realm[s]. My ma would lose her keys and wallet and talk to her sister all the time: “Idna, where the fuck did you put my wallet? Quit playing games! You are always a joker!” I never thought this was a strange practice. Instead, there was a deliberate understanding that the existence of the physical world and the spiritual one overlapped and could enchant and engage one another. 

My ma’s lola was a Virgo, and her birthday was days after my own. I recall my family members reminiscing on her behavior and they flatly said, “You’re much like Matea. Did you know after she met you and shortly after you were born, she died? She was so happy to meet you.” It was never lost on me that I was her replacement, a version of her, constantly reminded that her mannerisms, and even my communication style, resembled hers. I learned that isn’t just chance, but a practice tethered to prayer and ritual and, in some situations, a macabre sense of humor.

How does the audience affect the way you engage ancestral remembrance? I can imagine the energy is very different when you’re in a room of mostly queer and trans people of color than, say, if you’re in a room with white folks. How do you navigate those moments? 

I am not interested in having white Americans take my family’s tongue and practices for some poetic getaway [laughs]. It does change for me from show to show. I don’t do a Bagsak! chant with audiences that are mostly white people. There are times when I dedicate the performance to QTBIPOC [queer, trans, Black, Indigenous, and people of color] or sick and disabled people of color and ask people to clap/cheer/stomp for that intention. If white people are the predominant demographic, the investment and the tone setting is different, so I ask people to take a deep breath and do a dedication to whomever is important to them. 

I think there’s a barometer about how to approach loss for me, and I am clear about how white supremacy and trans and queer antagony play a role in my grief. I don’t actually believe in cultural exchange all of the time, as inevitably whiteness, wealth, and, in some cases, straightness appropriates. I like to avoid that as much as possible. I grew up with a parched existence, and I am trying to fill that hunger with others with whom I share the same kinds of breath. 

Throughout When the Chant Comes, your ancestors play a role in maintaining a sense of lineage that connects back to the Philippines and helps you navigate life in the United States. Within those poems are memories of family members you’ve watched navigate chronic conditions and have lost to terminal illness. How do you bring those ancestors into the work you do? 

My mama and Tita Yoly were the first cane and wheelchair users I knew. As a young person, I was their primary caretaker and committed to other responsibilities endowed by many first-generation people. I learned how forced migration and heartache engages ableism. I learned how racism, misogyny, and ableism coincided to isolate people I loved. My poetry and praxis involve my ancestors’ every action. I think about how the medical-industrial complex creates fissures around class access and shames/blames people who may not meet the American-dream ideal. Intergenerational trauma has become a tool: They aren’t uplifted in self-determination, but white people, able-bodied people, and American people are always the experts on our lives. I yearn to make us experts on our own lives.

I also grew up in multigenerational organizing and artistic spaces. It helped me engage a politic that looks to my elders—from mechanisms and politics to spiritual strategies—so that I am not learning everything from scratch. The concept of wholeness as stated in Disability Justice by Sins Invalid is crucial for me because it urges us to consider that we are more than competitive constructs of labor and productivity. People have multiple forms of contribution. When I think of my relatives, most of whom faced ableism and saneism, I think about how mainstream society treated them when Brown labor couldn’t serve whiteness, clean up after whiteness, and take care of wealth. We are beyond those limited functions and deserve better than those narrow ideas.

What ways do we care for each other? It can be bringing food, attending a medical appointment, supporting someone when they are advocating for their medical and psychiatric needs. My elders taught me this ethic before I became disabled and, later, politically disabled. When I say politically disabled, I mean that I understand how ability impacts us as people emotionally, physically, psychically, and systemically. I am aware that disability should not be lived in isolation. Furthermore, as a working practice toward justice, I am aware of how institutionalized ableism limits liberation work and self-determination for my communities, how it works to inform and connect with transmisogyny, racism, misogyny, antiblackness, anti-migrant [sentiment], fatphobia, queer antagony, et cetera. I want my book to be one of many resources that holds people who are politically disabled.

Who are some of the ancestors and elders of disability justice movements that influence your work? 

There were many people whose work fused my ideas around access, disability, and chronic illness. My lolo [grandfather] was a wonderful embodiment of accessible care and access intimacy. He powerfully supported his family members as they faced chronic pain and mental health struggles, [and] understood the overlapping elements of their lives in ways that didn’t compartmentalize or trivialize them. 

The first person I read was Aurora Levins Morales, and shortly after, the work of Sins Invalid and vital writings of Patricia Berne elevated my awareness. Eli Clare’s poetry continues to solidify poetry and disability justice as core tools. My ongoing learning and work are based on these formidable voices.

You’ve published a collection of poetry, and that’s no small feat in an industry that’s whiter than what the paper books are printed on. Getting published means struggling against paradigms that assume a person is able-bodied, neurotypical, and can operate on the same publishing time frame that able-bodied and neurotypical people can. What mountains have to move in order for sick/disabled QTPOC to get published? 

Seriously, it’s a feat. I ran into many complications. Not new patterns, mind you, just patterns I am too familiar with. For instance, the poems that elaborate on disability or transness were hard for some publishers to consider. I was often badgered to choose: Is this a race poem or a poem on disability? Can you just discuss how sexism affects you? Why do you discuss race in this way? 

American English formality dominates those spaces. I am told that list poems are “rudimentary and boring,” and yet, for me, this form is utilized by poets I love, like Sonia Sanchez. This form is incantation and performable, but I was told by many literary editors that my vernacular wasn’t literary and that there is no flexibility around deadline. There are poems that many of my sick and disabled queer transgender contemporaries adore, but almost didn’t make it in the book because of lack of cross-cultural understanding. I know my audience. My readership has grown with me, so I fought for many poems in the book. I fought for the book—period. Under mainstream and small-press standards, I am considered an emerging poet based on the fact that I just published my first collection. It doesn’t matter if you’ve anthologized up the booty or performed on stages for years, there’s a fixed notion of productivity and accomplishment. It doesn’t bend for those of us who need flexibility. The goal is to compete and produce, which is diametrically opposed to my disability justice ethics. 

Additionally, once you find a publisher, this doesn’t ensure that you aren’t their token. It doesn’t ensure they will promote your book, engage a broader audience, help you book your tour, or even distribute your books on time. It doesn’t mean your contract reflects what you need it [to] for you to grow as a writer. I am blessed that I developed a community and readership prior to this book and that I have been able to move with internet and social-media waves.

For an upcoming retreat, I was informed there was no additional funding for my access needs. I cannot stay with strangers due to my astronomically high pain at random hours and also my respiratory disease. I need scent-free accommodations. I’ve been told that if I want to attend, I have to pay more for a room. There isn’t space for awareness on accessibility, and frankly, people are just getting on the “white supremacy is a thing” train. There’s no active correlation with financial access and ability and people with multiple identities with fewer financial resources. You can’t say you are for critical poetry and innovative content if you don’t let poor, disabled writers and poets in. This exists in slam poetry and literary poetry, and maybe that’s what they have in common: their ableism [laughs]. It inevitably creates a net of wealthy academic and/or culturally capitalized poets who talk amongst themselves. In my experience, in poetry, themes of disability are written by able-bodied poets and given acclaim by able-bodied audiences. Examples include a hearing person performing about a deaf student or sibling, or disease being used as a metaphor. I bet if you ask any mainstream poet, they couldn’t come up with more than three people who are sick and disabled in poetry. Thank goodness for Deaf Poets Society!

I believe they do not want us there. I believe they want us to assimilate like any other damned machine here in the U.S. empire. I believe that we have to write for ourselves. We have to create our own pathways for each other and vouch for each other. I believe we have to have accomplices, including neurotypical and able-bodied people who will not just share, but be informed about uplifting our work. I believe that giving access to resources is a fundamental responsibility to extend care, craft, and support for writers and poets who don’t have that access. I am for the underdog. My body and my wallet aren’t able to get an MFA in creative writing or attend an MFA poetry program. Many of us were built for activist work, movement building, cultural work, and strategy. Many of us are just trying to survive. We have to bring people with us and expand as best we can so our lives and art aren’t isolated. 

I love reading your posts on Facebook where you’re able to vibe with people who connect with your work. What advice would you give to young folks who are looking at you and might be thinking to themselves, “Wow, I want to do that!” but just don’t know where to begin? 

This question makes me nervous every time. I don’t have real advice. I would say that a job like this [requires] a range of skill sets and, in this world, might not guarantee rent or a meal or even friends. It’s not right, but that is the state of things. I feel strongly that you need to seek mentorship, support the work of others, and create connections that are mutually engaged and beneficial. The things I say sound almost paradoxical: 

Don’t act like your shit doesn’t stink. It does. Nothing you or I are doing is actually cutting edge; we’ve just gotten platforms or resources that support our work. Before me, I watched, studied, and supported poets I loved, including transgender poets of color and performers like Ryka Aoki, Imani Henry, Ignacio Rivera, and Andrea Jenkins. They helped shape my method, my practice, and my person: how to negotiate, how to write with discipline on the road, how to edit and refine, how to eat well city to city. Not many of us come from money, so we don’t have wealth to give us this knowledge.

You deserve to be published and/or to perform. You will likely have to advocate for yourself. It is a taxing endeavor where you might feel like you are fiction, unreal, not possible. Remember, there have always been others, you aren’t alone, and it’s necessary to build webs of advocacy for your work. Remember, a Tumblr friend you’ve talked to since you were in your early 20s could be the designer of your book cover. I have the following quote from Octavia Butler in my journals: 

Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. 
Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. 
Habit is persistence in practice.

Make your own writing spaces. Follow the poets you love and see where they teach, workshop, read, and perform. Check out the retreats or conferences from presses that you like. I can’t recommend anything, as I have struggled in spaces on accessibility and getting my pronouns respected. Your identities can lead to retreats and workshops that can help you hone your skills. Some people say solid workshop spaces are CantoMundo, Kundiman, Lambda Literary, VONA [Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation], Cave Canem [Foundation], and The Home School. 

Make your art your habit. I fall asleep in pain all the time, and as soon as I wake up, I try to write again whenever my body lets me. With that said, sometimes if you can’t write, honor that too. There’s real-life shit happening and a body/spirit needs to process it all. It is exhausting. Sometimes, I wish I could do something else, but this is one of the things I am solidly good at. It’s one of the things that help me feel like living is a good idea, so I keep doing it. 

This article was published in Facts Issue #76 | Fall 2017
by zaynab shahar
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zaynab shahar is a queer black sufi femme. An aspiring the*logian, cultural worker, philosopher, writer, and artist; zaynab currently divides her time between pursuing a doctorate in Religion at Chicago Theological Seminary and organizing for queer/faith projects such as Third Coast Queer Muslims and Masjid al-Rabia.

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