Ode to the young artist or musings of a menopausal angry brown woman

Yearn, yearn to be the outsider
Who has no choice but to see with clarity
And listen with intention
Because you are the conduits of your ancestors songs

I have lost two homelands
Born in Malaysia
At age six race riots meant I understand now when the sands shift from under my feet,
Overnight the skies turned red with fires from burning houses, neighbours turned against each other and childhood friends became strangers
Crossed borders, passport in hand, to Singapore
Growing up from the outside looking in I learned that
Stories don’t have borders, art has no passports

I grew up under the shadow of civil war in my fatherland Jaffna in Sri Lanka
I couldn’t go back as a tourist but I went there as an artist and with life long skill honed out of surviving as an outsider I paid attention
My senses a radar
Two family secrets emerged
I descend from a caste of slaves from India who freed themselves
So something of the fighter, the maverick is in my DNA
And my great grandfather was an actor
Why keep him a secret to a child destined to be an artist?
In my world, girls are not encouraged to take to the stage
and I evoke his name
Annavi Vairamuthu
Glad that this poet did not live to see his family dispersed around the world, the loss of thousands of unique works of Tamil literature
Don’t wait till you experience cultural genocide to embrace the fact that you are the custodians of your people’s dreams
Raise the stakes

Dig deeper
Excavate your memories
Plunge into other cultures
Not to revel in difference BUT to notice what we share

As a brown woman I am expected to talk about identity in the way that may not even occur to most people here
Because the vagaries of power relationships and colonial adventures mean I had to imagine what a daffodil was and why Keats was banging on about them before I even saw one
That I speak the English language better than my mother tongue

People expect the politics of difference in me
And I enjoy wrong footing them both in life and in work
Saying
Live in my shoes for a moment
It won’t kill you
Because the most disturbing thing you can do is to reveal universality

So be vigilant
Notice who we leave out of in art even though they are there plain to see be it women, the outsider, the other
Make them visible in your work
Pay attention to who has the power and why, IN LIFE and IN ART
Discombobulate because art is an antidote to routine and safety
Destabilise your audience only because in your soul you need to change not because you are blindly following a theory
Beware of false Gods and prophets
DON’T for a moment think I am calling for PC ness
Rail against the ordinary and banal

Make instability and risk your bedfellows
Because comfort zones, zone out creativity
Cherish the connective tissue that joins you to the global village
Stay curious
Stay free of borders

Judge’s address at the International Student Drama Festival 2012

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