National Slam Champion Nathan Joe reflects on curating his upcoming poetry show Dirty Passports opening this week at Auckland’s Basement Theatre as a celebration of BIPOC storytellers and spoken word artists who are disrupting the status quo.
When I was offered the opportunity to put together a spoken word lineup for the Basement Theatre, I initially hesitated. I was excited, but what or who was it even for? What kind of artists did I want to platform, and why?
Growing up, I was always a good kid. A good Chinese kid, to be specific. And, up until a point, I felt that defined me. This tiny little box that had been somehow prescribed to me. Softly spoken, shy, introverted.
Labels, whether they are given to us or given to ourselves, have a way of shaping us immeasurably. That’s the power of language. The way it sticks in our throats and stains our minds. As minorities, particularly as people of colour, we are often labelled and expected to behave and perform in a certain way. We are expected to be models of good behaviour, whether because that is what is expected of us, or because it was never expected of us. We are either trying to defy or conform to stereotypes. We are always relative to the idea people have of us.
When you’re told the best way to live a good life is to simply keep your head down and work hard, of course that’s what you do. When I realised that wasn’t enough, something inside me shifted. That keeping your head down comes at a price. Silence always comes at a cost. And that cost is usually visibility.
I love minorities who transgress and disrupt. Those who make a fuss. Those who aren’t afraid to speak up. Those who aren’t afraid of being a little bit defiant and uncouth. Those who are apparently badly behaved. Those who speak because they are simply willed to do so, because they are hungry for change.Those who taught me art can be a hammer to shape the world, rather simply exist as a mere reflection of it.
I love minorities who talk about their bodies and their desires. Especially when it seems unexpected and taboo.
I think all the time about how my desires and how being desired reflects the world around us. How the landscape of my body and my sexuality reflects the larger social landscape. How bedroom politics and identity politics are often the same thing. It’s a strange thing to be ill at ease with your sexuality around your family and culture, but to feel in control of it on the stage or page.
I love minorities who are unafraid of expressing the anger and discontent. Of simply knowing the power in stating their truth. Whose works often feel like they’re kicking and screaming their way into existence. These human beings whose work celebrates human imperfection and messiness. They make failure and freedom feel inextricably bound together. Who make visible the emotions we often consider too ugly.
I have the immense privilege to be able to pursue an artistic passion in writing and performing. It’s a privilege that has served me well in allowing me to defy some of the labels thrust on me and shake them off.
I’m proud of myself for changing and growing and shifting the way I see myself. But I am more impressed by the constant fight that I see in all the artists surrounding me who are doing the same if not more. Claiming some sort of attention has been my way or remedying this. This notion of visibility.
Being proud and boastful is antithetical to the Asian experience. We are taught to be humble and not make noise. But here I am. I am Nathan Joe. I am the 2020 National Slam Champion. I’m a playwright of some success and a little bit of critical recognition.
If I can use this for my blurb and for funding applications or my CV, why is it, then, so difficult to embrace fully in real life? This awkward cocktail of Kiwi self-deprecation and minority meekness.
Pride may be a sin when you have plenty of it, but when you’ve been told by the rest of the world you should be ashamed of yourself, pride strikes me as one of the final acts of reclamation and self-fulfilment.
I think of the way so many minorities are socialised into apologising and cowering. I don’t want to cower anymore. I want to make noise and be messy. I’m slowly learning that there is no one who can champion you better than yourself.
My parents would be somewhat uncomfortable with all this. I suppose that in some ways makes me a bad child. But I think to risk fading into the background and being unseen is a greater tragedy than being seen as the bad minority. Being invisible means being relegated to others defining you and never seeing yourself reflected in the world. Passing through like a gentle breeze and rustling nothing.
I’m no role model, and certainly no model minority, but in putting together this lineup, I get to perform alongside and celebrate othered bodies just like me. And othered bodies nothing like me.
Audiences don’t often get to see us side-by-side. Across the BIPOC community we are usually siloed into our own minority pockets, usually tokenised and separated, and asked to behave in a particular way. Rarely ever together.
Every artist on this lineup is a disruptor in their own right. Each of them has had to buckle under assumptions. Each one of them has defied convention and blown stereotypes apart through their work and existence. Each is transgressive in their own individual way. Each of them would have inspired me growing up. And each one of them inspires me right now.
Dirty Passports is a love letter to all of them, as human beings who are unafraid to be themselves on and off the stage, and fuel me in the process.
But it’s also a love letter to any minority who has ever found joy in doing what they’re not supposed to. To anyone who has ever been sick of the status quo and just wanted to fuck some shit up.
Let’s fuck some shit up.
Dirty Passports is at Auckland’s Basement Theatre from March 30 - April 1, click here for full details and to buy tickets.