Lankans (Sri Lankans)– Tamils, Muslims, Afro-Lankans, Wannyala-Aetto, and other minoritized communities especially– have a lot to offer. There’s been so much violence and oppression in our home island, things that people had to fight against, I think we already have an understanding of how persecution works, how targeting works, and what it means to be from a poor nation that was once abundant and to be exploited by so many different forces, economic and militaristic.
My family is Tamil, which is the largest ethnic minority of the island. Ours is a community that was targeted by the State after colonization. The ways in which colonial forces pitted minority against majority, in order to be able to control the island–the people and the lands–unfortunately, those conditions led to a 30 year war.
There is a wide range of how Tamil people migrated to the US. It’s very difficult, for Sri Lankans, specifically for Tamil people to migrate to the US because the rebel group that claimed to be the sole representation of Tamil people and claimed to defend Tamil people against atrocities by the Sri Lankan State was put on a terrorist list in the 90’s. So, many Tamil’s migrated to other countries before they came to the US. We have a population that migrated because of highly technical skills, family reunification, marriage, and asylum.
In 2020, the second time in American history a South Asian went to the US Supreme Court for a civil rights issue, centered a Tamil asylum seeker Mr. Thuraissigiam. The court ruled against him and in doing so stripped rights from other asylum seekers as well. The ease of which the Supreme Court was able to do that is because we have a smaller population within the US. Many people don’t know about the struggles of Tamil people. The kind of struggles that Mr. Thuraissigiam went through also impacts Black, Indigenous and other asylum seekers who aren’t offered diligent language interpretation. He didn’t have the proper language interpretation, so there were ways in which his case and context was not fully understood. There are many people from Asian, African countries this happens to as well. People from indigenous communities will let assigned a Spanish interpreter, but they speak their indigenous language and wind up in similar situations as Mr. Thuraissigiam.
As Tamil feminists’ it’s been difficult for us to organize openly even in the diaspora because there’s so many forces that we were up against, but after the case with Mr. Thuraissigiam, some of us who have been organizing discreetly, came together with a younger generation and organized more openly against the attacks on asylum that the Trump administration was rolling out. Unfortunately, the Biden administration has also taken out a hostile position against asylum seekers, especially the Haitian asylum seekers who are suffering right now.
Even if we are a smaller population, what’s magical and powerful is that the intense conditions that we’ve had to navigate, gives us a sharpness around thinking through liberation. We were raised with this backdrop of fighting for the liberation of our people. However, I was raised in an ethno-nationalist and patriarchal form of liberation and I’ve departed and deepened my understanding of freedom. I envision a future where humanity is not organized in nation states, but in loving sacred relation to nature and all living beings. Where we are not divided by militarized borders or entrenched in economies reliant on extraction, domination and violence. I think for those of us who have been fighting for freedom for our communities, fighting multiple violent forces. We have a sharp analysis regarding what is needed in order for our communities to be free, and we have to go into deep healing work as well. We are small but mighty.
A: Where is there a large Sri Lankan community in New York City?
Y: In Queens and Staten Island.
I was born in England though I lived for a short time in Sri Lanka then migrated to the US as a child. My parents are in Texas and I have family in Lanka, in the UK, Europe, and Toronto. There’s a huge Tamil population in Europe and Canada where they had more open refugee policies regarding Tamils than the US.
My people speak Tamil but the dominant language on the island is Sinhala, sometimes spelled Singhala. Tamil is spoken in India and Singapore and other places as well, but Lankans have a very specific dialect.
A: Tell us about Sri Lankan culture.
Y: There are so many different aspects of the culture, but I think the thing that brings everybody together is definitely food and hospitality. It’s an island so the island culture is serendipity and hospitality. It’s a power portal with beautiful people, beautiful lands, ugly politics. Sometimes those politics take people’s valid anger and pain and turn it into hate and manipulates people, and pits people against each other so that those in power can continue to dominate. But at this moment an uprising–revolution is stirring in the streets. People recognize that this politics of hate was used to mask corruption, nepotism, trade deficits, reliance on fossil fuels, authoritarianism, war crimes, theft, lies, and murder.
Other forces of violence our communities contend with are the caste system and also ethnic & religious based persecution. Being queer in Lanka is criminalized and life threatening. It’s been very difficult for people to be openly queer but more and more people are organizing openly and claiming space. The Tamil community has experienced a lot of discrimination as the largest minority group because of the ways in which the British colonized. We were triple colonized by the Portuguese, Dutch and the British. The British used the minority against the majority so when they left the majority was angry at the minority and then so majoritarianism settled in and this idea that Sri Lanka should be one Sinhala Buddhist nation. Buddhist nationalism has been used in violent ways similar to Myanmar. Muslims and Christians are the smallest population, about 8-10%. Buddhism is the majority and Hinduism is a minority though a slightly larger minority. In recent years, Muslims have become the overt target. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who the peoples of Lanka are now demanding to resign, recently got elected to the presidency through Islamophobia– promising “security.” Afro-Lankans and Wanniyala-Aeto are literally facing cultural extinction, with multiple systems coercing assimilation. Both communities’ land and language rights are being attacked and have little access to political or economic representation or power.
A: Tell us a little about yourself.
Y: I am facilitator between earth and sky–to me that has many tendrils. I’m a performing artist, storyteller. I support organizations. Support people move through conflict. Build people power. Support people in wellness and creativity. I’m also an organizer for a group called Maynmai- a Tamil led feminist formation, I’m a somatic practitioner, healer, peace maker, I work as a consultant with social justice organizations, socially responsible businesses and also our social justice movements.
I started performing when I was 12 years old. I studied theater as an undergrad then I toured with an APIA feminist group called Mango Tribe from 2000-2008 and continued to tour for about 20 years now. I am a storyteller at heart, through poetry, theater, music, and dance. I enjoy being on stage and performing.
My parents were disappointed that I chose the artist path. I was school smart so they were hoping I would choose a career that would be more lucrative, like a doctor, lawyer or engineer– as many Asians were conditioned to understand the path of success as. I am queer and am one of the first openly queer performers within our community. My family is very socially conservative, so it was a big shock. I needed to carve my way independently in the world. My younger brother also has a rebellious streak as well. He’s a semi-professional poker player and a visual artist. My parents have accepted what I do and especially like my work as a consultant, because they think it’s more sophisticated, unfortunately, than being an artist. I believe my performance is one of the most powerful things I offer this world– I feel so honored to do my work as a performer– blessed for the opportunities I’ve had, and feel privileged to have a career in the performing arts. It’s a rigorous path and I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished as a performer in the face of so much adversity.
A: What are some of the stereotypes?
Y: Especially being Sri Lankan Tamil, we had the stereotype of being terrorists. Also within the South Asian community, there are Indian communities that look down on us, they think of us as lower caste and from a poor country. But they don’t realize that for Lankans to be in this country, they had to be at such a high caliber, and have a certain level of character, determination, perseverance, and skill in order to even come into this country. Despite how much we had to strive to be part of this country, we’re often looked down upon by other parts of Asian and South Asian communities. I’m medium skinned color for my community, but among the broader South Asian and Asian community, I’m considered dark skinned. People have a lot of colorism and bigotry. I myself am Catholic and also within the South Asian community, amongst people who are Hindu nationalists, as some exploited caste people escaped the caste system by converting to Christianity, there’s a way in which some people looked down upon people who are Christian. There are a lot of stereotypes that we face.
A: How do you handle it?
Y: I do it through storytelling, creativity, speaking to our communities, choosing to heal and love myself– by correcting people’s assumptions. At first I internalized being treated differently or less than, then I learned more about history and context, the false information that was shaping people’s bigotry. The Tamil language is one of the oldest languages in the world, it’s thousands of years old and it’s still being spoken and there’s so much beauty and preciousness in our culture and language that’s unknown. We also have to recognize, it takes a certain level of perseverance in order to survive the forces that so many people in our communities have faced. To choose to do that with love, hospitality and kindness, which I feel like are still strong values amongst us– takes courage.
A: What do you think of the term people of color?
Y: Black women coined the term women of color to be able to bring Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian women and feminists into deeper solidarity with each other so that they could collaborate as a coalition against white supremacy and patriarchal forces that were oppressing all the communities. I think the initial start of that term was a powerful strategic political project. I came up during the time and era where the term women of color was being used and I definitely benefited from understanding myself within that. I think neoliberalism and capitalism has co-opted the terms and it’s become about diversity, equity and inclusion– and less about liberation. We have to move beyond representation to liberation. For me representation, it doesn’t serve me in this country because when people want to represent South Asia it becomes a majoritarian privileged politic. They’re like, what is the larger number, how do we represent that largest number. We don’t have a lot of numbers, so what is the motivation of an advertising company to represent us when there’s not much population to consume a product? So they're going to choose somebody who speaks Mandarin, or who is Chinese, or Hindi speaking Indian or choose a larger population because the purpose is to sell products. But if the purpose is about liberation or the purpose is about skill or the purpose is about resilience in the face of violence and oppression, then we have so much to offer as a community. I’ve been a consultant for so many organizations, including the The Transgender Law Center, Marsha P. Johnson Institute, National Lawyers Guild, Arab American Association for New York, Jews for Peace, Jews for Racial and Economic justice, Center for Constitutional Rights, to name a few. I have much to offer as far as perspective and skill. There’s much people can learn and benefit from being in solidarity with Lankan communities.
I think if we’re using these categories to come together to be able to forge a prosperous future for coming generations, then whatever vehicle or term is going to help us to be able to do that, I’m for. But when we’re talking about people of color or Asian– much of the time it’s for representation in the media, which ultimately becomes– are companies able to sell us things? Are they able to sell us products. I’m not that interested in that conversation. I understand that the media definitely impacts us, especially young people, and how we think of ourselves as a community. If we were engaging media with a larger vision of cultural strategy towards prosperity for humanity– for future generations. Then I’m interested in that conversation.
I have contributed a lot to Asian American arts, politics, and culture. I was a driving force of Mango Tribe that opened up ground breaking conversations around gender, refugees, working class communities, migration, and violence during the turn of the century. I fought for an Asian American studies program as a student at the University of Texas and we won! So now there’s an Asian American studies program there. In the 90’s I was part of that movement for Asian American programs at public universities and the University of Texas is one of the largest public universities. I also pushed art institutions to fund art and activism. I convinced people why there’s value in Asian American art. I’ve been a cultural strategist, and I’ve carved out space for Asian American culture, but when it comes down to when they want to pick someone on stage who is Asian, usually a Chinese or Indian person is chosen over me, despite my skill and experience level. We have to think about what is the purpose of art, what is the purpose of organizing, what do we mean when we are asking for diversity? Why is it that people are choosing to diversify?
A: What ethnicity do you identify with?
Y: Ilankai Tamil means island, it translates to Island Tamil.
A: What message do you want to impart to people about Asians?
Y: Pluralism and solidarity, we have so many stories and so many communities, infinite stories that come out of Asia and Asian Americans that have nourished us. Our ancestors are valuable and powerful. It’s important that we carve out space– not in competition with each other– but with unity with each other. And with unity with other people who are fighting for greater justice and liberation. Our goal should not just be about, ‘let’s make sure that we have our own TV show, or movie or our face in that advertisement’. It should be about how do we bring forth our stories in a way that shapes humanity towards greater thriving and prosperity for future generations. Right now we are facing a pretty dire crisis and we need people to come together in order to navigate ourselves to peace and prosperity for all. We cannot allow violence to happen so easily. Why are we telling our stories, for what purpose?
A: Do you consider yourself an atypical Asian?
Y: Yeah, I think so. I think I’m atypical but aren't we all atypical? Some people are more open about how they’re atypical, but some are more discreet in order to survive society, but I think we are all atypical.