A QTIBPOC transnational conversation about healing, creativity and belonging

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In this discussion, poet and zine artist Jacq Applebee; stand-up comedian Juliana Heng, and MSunnia converse about the processes of art making. We reflect on our experiences of intersectional discrimination and how these have led us to our work. We further share our experiences of navigating spaces that platform our work and conclude on the possibilities of achieving healing and justice through our practice.

photo of an asian stand-up comic performing on stage

Juliana Heng performing at the Comedy Store in London

Content notes: abuse, trauma, queerphobia (biphobia/transphobia), anti-Blackness, racism, medicalisation, healthcare

msunnia: So, basically, I’m a survivor of many things in the world. That’s a position that is always a struggle and is always ongoing. You flip between victimhood and surviving, moving on with your life. But you, also relive the experiences that you’ve faced. And, as you go on with your life, you also experience a lot of discrimination because of the different types of disabilities that you have, so that always re-traumatises you.

One of the things that interested me in having a conversation about art and healing within the disability community, is that it’s very very complicated. I’m genderqueer, and I’m a gender fluid person. I’m a person of colour, and I’m living in the UK. I think Jacq, you are currently in the UK and Juliana you live in Malaysia. So, I’m from the Global South. I’m not British, I was born somewhere else. So, there’s a lot around that, around survival and racism so I thought, it would be really good to have a chat about it.

I was wondering if Jacq, you can tell me a little bit about your artwork? And what brings you to art? I know you do a lot and I was wondering if you could just tell me a little bit about your work and what drives you to art.

A line drawing of a figure without arms or legs with a speech bubble, saying 'run racism outta town'.

Zine pic by Jacq Applebee

Jacq: Okay, reading and writing and poems and stories have always been a therapeutic thing for me, and a way to escape horrible traumatic stuff from when I was younger, until today. It’s always been something that’s really important to me.

Zine making is something that I’ve been doing since 2014. Again, it’s been very therapeutic. Zines, and zine fairs in themselves can often be very problematic. There’s a lot of racism, and classism. When I go to zine fairs, I realise that the zines that I make are very different from other things that you see at your regular zine fair. When I go to a zine fair, I might be the only Black person there.

And there’s the zine culture, like a lot of things there are very, very white, and young, and abled. Sometimes that does get to me and make things difficult, but it’s still something I really enjoy doing. I made a zine a few years ago called A to Z of biphobia, and how to fight back, and that’s been a really, really popular zine.

Writing helps me to kind of, feel seen and I’ve had other people tell me that, it helps them feel seen as well. Poetry isn’t the only thing I do. But it’s something I do a lot of now.

msunnia: Juliana, I know you do spoken-word and I’ve seen your poems on YouTube. But also, you do a lot around comedy. Can talk to me about that, and where your disabilities lie in that?

photo of an Asian comedian

Juliana Heng

Juliana: Sure. So, I’m actually an autistic non-binary Asian. For me, my autism is actually where I have slow reactions. When people talk, I only understand it very much later. And when I’m in a comedy club and someone tells a joke usually, the audience will laugh. It’s only natural. But for me, it takes me forever to understand the joke. So, I feel that I might as well be on stage and tell the jokes, rather than be an audience member who doesn’t laugh. It’s not that I don’t find people funny, it’s just that I take time to understand why something is funny.

Comedy is very healing, although I am not able to understand laughter spontaneously, like everyone in the audience who is neurotypical, but it feels empowering to be able to give the gift of laughter to people. Although, I cannot experience it myself.

And poetry is something therapeutic for me, because at one point I almost gave up stand-up comedy. Even for a neurotypical person, comedy is really hard. When I’m performing on stage, there are times when I’m not sure how to get a response. I cannot read audience emotions and I cannot gauge their reaction. It is very difficult to be performing, when you are not sure what the room is like.

So I almost quit, because I thought maybe that’s not what I’m supposed to do. Maybe I should just do poetry, you know, something like that. So, I went off tangent to do a bit of poetry. And that’s how I came up with one of my published pieces. ‘Autumn’ is a piece about my autism. Writing ‘Autumn’ actually enables me to see my pain in a more tangible form. That is a word, you know, I see it in word form.

I see that there is a lot of stuff that I actually managed to do when I’m doing poetry compared to comedy. In comedy, we tend to want to be funny, we always say, ‘okay, and that must be funny’. Let’s go to the funny part first, you know, but poetry is where you can actually go deep, there’s no need to be funny. And I actually managed to dig very deep. That’s where I found out that there are a lot of things that I would never have thought of, had I just focussed only on comedy.

msunnia: I just want to bring you a bit of Jacq, because you were talking about creating for yourself. I was wondering whether you can talk a bit about how these processes work for you in terms of getting healing, like the work you put on paper and how that becomes healing and repair for yourself.

Photo of a Black, bisexual, nonbinary, fat and disabled activist and writer

Jacq Applebee

Jacq: Okay, I can delve into it by reading a short poem about it. It’s just called ‘Read warnings before ingestion’ (They’re the warnings that come on a packet of tablets),

Do
not operate machinery until two hours after writing poetry.
Do
not wander lonely as a cloud, take your frustrations and write something down.
Poetry
won’t stop your delusions, it won’t fix your disturbed brain.
If
you need a hospital admission, poems won’t stop the mental pain.
But
poetry is sometimes therapy to me.
It
helps me get things out.
And
sometimes anxieties turn into words that I write instead of shout.
Still,
it often makes me wonder, writing under the influence of medication,
are
these words mine or the pills?
Or
are my poems a collaboration?

msunnia: Wow. I’ve written things in anger, in pain, in frustration before. I’ve also cried when I’ve written things down. That bit where you talk about you writing when you’re on medication, also when you’re feeling the side effects of these medications…and you’re writing and you’re thinking, ‘Is this me? Is this a medication? Is it what it’s doing to me?’ Tell me a bit more.

Jacq: Yeah, and gosh, whether it’s the medication, a side effect or not, writing poetry is still something that I’ve always done. And yes, the medication may make it easier to get some things out but those were things that were always there in the first place. But yeah, I did like the idea of collaborating with medication instead of just having medication forced on me, which as a Black and fat person…we don’t get offered talking therapies to start off with, we get given medication and we are given hospital admissions, often against our will. And so this was a way for me to look at things a bit more positively.

msunnia: Juliana, how did you feel about that? The poem, did it speak for you?

Juliana: I will say that I am not on any medication because being on the spectrum I mean, I don’t really need medication. But for me if I do experience some form of collaboration. I experience healing when I’m writing because I feel that I have more power. I tend to be someone who receives a lot and I have slow reactions. When people say something mean to me, I often don’t feel it at first (until very much later).

Comedy and also spoken word, but more so comedy allows me the chance to actually get back at the person through my jokes. I can’t get back to them in real life. But through jokes, yes. When it comes to comedy, I know I will win, because whoever has the microphone wins.

msunnia: Whoever has the microphone wins, yeah. I say that because you’re both performers as well. What is it about comedy that appeals to you in terms of how you heal, as your coping mechanism, like, how you get your power back? Also, from the multiple forms of discrimination that you live?

Juliana: Yeah, for me comedy, is actually very empowering because in Malaysia, autism is not thought of much. A lot of times when I mention that I’m on the autism spectrum, a lot of people will imagine, ‘oh that person can hardly socialise with people, and they can hardly understand anything, and most of the time, they have to be someone to, to take good care of them’. So they don’t see it as a spectrum, they see it as either autistic or not autistic. Diagnosis isn’t very available in Malaysia either. So, it is very challenging, because most kids if they are diagnosed with autism, they will be diagnosed at a very young age. But as an assigned female, it’s like I’m a quiet child, so the moment you tell people that, ‘hey, I’m on the spectrum’, they don’t believe it, and neither will your doctor.

I noticed that when I perform overseas, the reaction is vastly different from what I experienced in my home country. I’ve performed in the UK, Singapore, Bangkok and also in the US. I noticed that the level of awareness and acceptance in these countries are awesome. And it’s very empowering because people are well educated on what autism is. After my performance, some of them will usually come up to me and say ‘hey, I’m so happy that you say that’. Most people in comedy tend to rely very heavily on sexist jokes, racist jokes, homophobic…it’s quite traumatising for the audience as they are being thrown all kinds of misogynistic and other stuffs. But when I go on stage, I’m just being myself, that’s why a lot of people are like, ‘it is a very good change from what we have put with’.

Juliana Heng: ‘Autism Acceptance Through Comedy’ at The Merry Lion’s Comedy Club, Singapore 🇸🇬 on 21 October 2019

msunnia: That’s interesting because you were talking about the spaces where you do art and where you share your art. You were talking about what doing art is like when you’re disabled, and what doing art is like for ‘normal’ people. And how people who don’t understand autism or don’t understand different types of disabilities, they only receive the art or the performance through their understanding of what comedy is.

I think for me, one of the important things around disability arts is that we break these barriers. We say, performance is not just that one thing, but there are several ways that we can do it. It was really useful when you were touching on this. I want to bring in Jacq because you were talking about zine culture earlier. From what Juliana was saying about art spaces, community spaces, the spaces where we do what we do, right?… I was wondering if you could talk about your experiences of these spaces, because there’s a lot of micro-aggression. The work that you do, where you share important things that you write, and how that is received can be amazing, but it can also be violent. I was wondering whether you could talk a little bit more about that?

Jacq: Yeah, and you’re right, you can go from really positive experiences of parents buying zines for their kids, because they haven’t found any resources on X, Y, and Z… but it really hurts when the negative stuff comes up. There’s a lot of racism.

There’s a thing in zine culture and zine fairs where people can swap zines instead of paying for them. You will ask, ‘Are you up for swapping a zine?’ And because, you know, I make things about tofu. And this other person who makes zines about peanut butter, (which are two zines I’ve actually made, by the way, because I love those two things). So they’ll say, ‘Are you up for trading?’ I say, ‘Yeah, sure’. It looks like the same kind effort that went into it, and I really like that subject. So sure, we’ll do that.

However, I’ve noticed, and I’ve seen white people, always white people, sadly do this. They’ll go around the zine fair, and they’ll take out their purse to pay for this zine and that zine and then they’ll come to me and say, ‘Are you open for swaps?’ Not even asking, how much something costs or even asking ‘I’d like to buy that, unless of course, you’re open to swaps’. But the first thing they say to me, ‘Are you open to swaps?’.

I was at one of the zine fairs last year, where I was the only Black person there…one of the organisers actually came to me and said, ‘Could you donate some of your zines for our zine library?’ And they didn’t ask anybody else for that. It wasn’t just that they wanted one thing donated, which I’m fine to do. Because if I see people counting out their coins and they’re 10p or 50p short, I’ll say that’s okay. That’s fine.

There was a time at Glasgow Zine Fest where a guy who was reading my biphobia zine, just started crying. And I said, ‘Please just take the zine, you know. You can show it to people, share it with people who matter to you, just take it, it’s fine’. You know, so I’ve given things away for free. But when it’s somebody who’s asking the only Black person to donate, not just one zine, but one of each of my zines, and I had about 12 or 13 types of zine on my table. And they wanted one of each for free for their zine library, and it just felt so hurtful.

There’s been times when I’ve been to zine fairs and realise that it’s in a pub, and pubs are not welcoming to Black people. They’re not welcoming to queer people. They’re not welcoming to fat people. It’s also very difficult for me, because sometimes I get very bad tinnitus and pubs and bars are often very, very noisy. So, there’s a lot of micro and macro aggressions, the last zine fair I was at and there was a zine, about trans pride. And this couple picked it up and they flung it back down. When people are going to be aggressive, they’re going to be aggressive to me. And that hurts a lot.

msunnia: Yeah, that hurts a lot. You know why they asked you a copy of each of your zine to put in the library and did not ask anyone else. It’s also to do with your race and the topics that you write about. So, they can have their tick box, there’s the exoticism factor that goes on there but also, from an organiser perspective they could have also asked to buy your zines for their library. It’s these kinds of behaviors that is outright racism, but also quiet, respectable racism.

Jacq: Yeah, it might seem to an onlooker that it’s kind of subtle or quiet, but I have gone my whole life with people not valuing my words, they don’t value my work. I went to another friend of mine, who does fantastic zines, and he’s white, and I asked them, ‘Did that person ask you to give one each of your zines for their library for free?’ And they said, ‘No, no, they asked to buy some’. Because I thought maybe I’m just reading too much into it. The horrible thing about this kind of more subtle racism is that you start to question yourself, ‘Am I being too sensitive?’ You know, ‘is it really that bad?’ And yes, yes, it is, and in a way, I underestimate it. What you said about the tick boxes, I’ve got a poem that I want to read, it’s called ‘The greatest trick’,

Will you listen to me when I go to
therapy,
or will you chop me in three, like
the greatest slideshow trick?
Will you think me being bisexual is
the reason I’m sick?
Do you see my Blackness but not my
orientation?
Do you think me being non binary is
a silly complication?
Will you understand me when I go to
therapy,
queer, Black, non binary, not a tick
box survey for you to complete.
I’m here, I’m real. See me, see me.

All
I
need is your help.
Don’t separate me.

Really respect me when I go to therapy.

msunnia: Thanks to this. We’re coming to the end and we’ve talked about a lot of serious stuff. Because we are disabled queer trans people of color and because we survive, a lot of our work has been about creating opportunities for us and others. I was wondering whether you’d like close on what the possibilities are for us in terms of disability arts, healing, justice and that ongoing need for repair.

Juliana: Yeah, I will say that we have to soldier on. You know change doesn’t happen overnight and a lot of awful things, discriminations are all happening everywhere. There is discrimination among Asians too, it’s not only white people. My Indian friends and I (I am Chinese) are considered a minority in our country. You don’t see the obvious change, but the thing is that we have to keep working, even if it is just a few people, like say our close circle of friends.

Especially the allies, for both disability and queer, they are very important because they are the bridge between us and the world at large. I’m also pushing slowly to get the diagnosis that I’m on the spectrum rather than just being dismissed and being said that ‘oh you look too normal to be on the spectrum’. I actually have a bit of a bad feeling that I might have to get my diagnosis outside of my home country because in my home country, I noticed that doctors are mostly neurotypical. They don’t understand what we go through.

We have to keep doing our artwork, and also keep working on communicating and educating. That is the only way we can slowly change. I don’t expect to see change, I mean I’m ready for the reality that I’m not seeing change in my lifetime. It may be generations later, but I see my role as imperative to move things forward. I will chip in, I have to move things forward rather than to say, I give up you know it’s over, you know it’s nothing changes.

Jacq: I think the best thing I can do is to try to be true to myself and try to keep creating things in different ways as the world changes. And yeah, I hope things will get better. But I’m also aware that I’ve been trying and trying for my entire life and I’m 51. I can’t think of a time where I wasn’t having to deal with some kind of trauma or some kind of fight to just exist, and it’s very difficult for me. But just getting up every day and doing something that makes me feel good that I can hopefully share with others. Now, I’ve made a lot of crochet things, I’ve made gifts for other people, it’s something that’s creative and that’s healing. For me, it’s very therapeutic. When it comes to literature, art and designs to do something for myself first, and if other people like it then that’s fantastic. If it leads to change or the way that people relate to somebody else then that’s brilliant. So I think all I can do is just try to look after myself as best as I can.

msunnia: Thank you very much. I can’t remember if it’s Audre Lorde who said this, but we know we were not meant to survive. So, I think the fact that we survive, is rebellion in itself. I hope that you have a very good week and I’m very thankful for your time. Everything that you’ve said has been really, really powerful and, yeah, thank you very much.


Jacq Applebee: (they/them) is a Black, bisexual, nonbinary, fat and disabled activist and writer. They are one of the co-founders of Bisexuals of Colour. Jacq creates zines that address multiple oppressions, and which feature funny little robots.

Juliana Heng is a comedian based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. They strive to be a comedian who gets real, talking about issues considered taboo in the Asian society. Juliana has performed in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and England. Recently, they emerged as the Finalist of Bangkok International Comedy Competition 2019.

msunnia (xe/she) is an organiser, and has campaigned on issues such as climate change, disability injustice, migrant rights and anti-racism. msunnia has recently completed a Masters’ in Gender & Sexuality from SOAS where xe co-ran a crip feminist reading group. You can follow xem on Twitter: bindiiq