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Issue 133

Killjoy in Conversation with Stacey Ho
by Stacey Ho

Since August 2015, the Killjoy collective has organized events in Vancouver for Black, Indigenous, mixed-background folks and people of colour who are also queer, trans, two-spirit and intersex (common abbreviations are QT2IPOC, BIPOC and QTIBIPOC). They started out by throwing BIPOC-exclusive dance parties, then later organized a three-part speaker series, with events culminating into a one-week festival of workshops and social gatherings held August 8–14, 2016. Killjoy Fest aimed to “create a festival that both celebrates difference and empowers the queer community to actively address the harm perpetuated by racism and colonization.” Events included workshops on anti-pinkwashing, sexual health, art and writing and how to have open dialogues with deaf community members. There was a femme meet-up and a free picnic brunch. Founded by listen chen, Ayesh Kanani and Alexis Nicole, current Killjoy organizers are Ayesh, listen, Kelsey Cham Corbett and Lindsay Mestatew.

listen and Ayesh live in a shared house in East Vancouver, where listen invited Lindsay and I for dinner for the purpose of this interview. Ayesh is a youth worker at Qmunity. Lindsay, a two-spirit Cree Métis person from Treaty 8 territory, works as a community organizer and sexual health organizer. What’s been left out of this transcript is a lot of discussion about lipstick and Tinder, the food we ate, cute animal videos and much awkward silence. At the beginning of the conversation Lindsay and listen declared that Killjoy was on hiatus. Everyone was burnt out and folks had all gone through separate personal crises concurrent with organizing the festival. However, as the group processed, together and aloud, what had happened over the course of a long year, people also began talking of organizing another party and began thinking of ways to develop Killjoy to make it do better. So, perhaps there is more to come.

***

STACEY HO: Why did you want to do Killjoy?

listen chen: My personal impetus was realizing that all my friends were white, and then panicking. I felt an overwhelming urgency to change the situation as well as a simultaneous claustrophobic powerlessness. I couldn’t ignore the white supremacy that hung like an ether over my house and the spaces I moved through, and thought the most efficient way to change that would be to help create spaces that were BIPOC-exclusive. So… short answer, I wanted to make friends.

LINDSAY MESTATEW: I have such a petty response.

lc: I’m excited.

LM: Kelsey reached out to me through the Killjoy speaker series to do a workshop. I sent back a list of demands. I said, “SURE, I’ll do this workshop… but first we need to sit down.”

We sat down. I decided I wasn’t comfortable being the only Indigenous person speaking. Then I requested to have a panel of Indigenous folks who were non-academics. Then I spoke about compensation because I wasn’t going to reach out to people without compensation. Then said I wouldn’t participate in something that was an exclusively sober event. Then we all met and I gave feedback at Kelsey, listen and Ayesh for two hours. Then… I’m just such a top that that’s how I started organizing.

SH: Those all seem like pretty reasonable requests in terms of addressing the power dynamics of that situation.

lc: Totally. I mean, it was great. I enjoyed it, being topped, organizationally.

SH: What did you talk about at the speaker series?

lc: It was you [Mestatew], Kara Ashkewe, Sam Nock, Quanah Napoleon… I feel like part of the description was about destabilizing the idea of allyship.

LM: The original talk that Kelsey saw me give was called “Problematizing Allyship.” That is why they reached out to me. This one was called “Addressing and Unsettling Settler Colonialism in Queer Spaces.”

lc: It was awkward at first. You had to call an unscheduled break. I was sitting in front and I kept looking at the room. It was tense and there was not a lot of reaction. It felt like everyone was just staring blankly.

LM: To be fair, we were also slowly getting drunk on stage, because it was so uncomfortable. I interpreted it as people coming to this speaker series by queer, trans and Indigenous people to prove that they were allies. Once we started talking about how they weren’t allies, and they needed to stop stepping on our backs, they were not happy. People didn’t respond until we started making fun of them for having racist family members. Then they started laughing.

lc: It was better after the break. I got on the mic and told people to give more to the speakers.

LM: Another thing we can talk about is how grumpy I was during the Killjoy festival.

AYESH KANANI: And I was depressed and…

lc: I was suicidal and depressed.

LM: Remember how crazy we were? I legitimately thought one morning someone would email us and we’d all have killed ourselves.

AK: I didn’t attend any events, really. Just two workshops then I disappeared.

LM: I didn’t even attend two. We had to put in so much co-ordination work to make sure one of us was the stable one for the day and would show up. We’d tag team, send a person home to go have a breakdown, and then come in. There are just not that many volunteers.

AK: People were asking if we could do a concert in the park or host artists when they came into town. They wanted to do things that they didn’t have money for. Killjoy had money through our fundraising, but not really the energy to co-ordinate.

LM: There was just no capacity. The plan was huge. It would have been entirely doable if we had more people organizing, or committees to take on different projects. It was a lot for four of us to do. Maybe when I’m 27.

AK: For QTIPOC organizing, doing a fest is always a recipe for disaster. You’re trying to do a year’s worth of stuff in one week. For Killjoy, people want QTIPOC-only events. They don’t have to be events in a week. It could be multi-year.

lc: People are so enthusiastic at the events, but we don’t get a lot of help. Especially within the QTIBIPOC community, people are dealing with all sorts of things that limit their emotional capacity. There’s a relationship between the enthusiasm for spaces that are so rare, and the structural pressure that creates barriers to making those spaces happen more sustainably. As demonstrated by the group mental breakdown.

LM: We survived, though.

lc: Ayesh, why did you want to join? Did you want to? You didn’t want to.

AK: I did want to help, but I didn’t want to organize. I said I could help get people together and I posted in QTIPOC groups to ask if anyone wanted to organize because I didn’t want to. We had coffee on Commercial Drive and everyone said that they didn’t have the capacity to organize except you and Alexis.

LM: Wait, you weren’t best friends yet? Did we all fall in love at Killjoy? Aww, that’s so gay.

SH: How did you become an organizer?

AK: I was just like “Cool, I’ll keep helping,” and all of a sudden I was an organizer. I definitely wanted to. It felt important to me that we had QTIPOC-only spaces. I wasn’t willing to let it fizzle. I felt excited about a dance party. That’s still something that excites me. I still value that space. It’s complicated and requires a lot more of me than I have to give, but it’s still an important space, especially since our queer dance parties are so white and so…

LM: Boring.

I have so many sad Killjoy stories. Logan and I were at the first one. We were both really uncomfortable, so we went and sat out front. We were smoking cigarettes, talking about how it did not feel like a space that we wanted to be in. We were like “I’m sure no one’s really making friends here anyway,” then looked up and there were like 10 people in front of us shouting “OH MY GOD, THIS IS LIFE CHANGING!!! YOU CHANGED MY LIFE. I LOVE YOU!!!” They were all hugging each other. Then we left.

lc: I only knew Ayesh, Alexis and Stacey at the first one. I just tried to keep busy doing tasks, because it felt weird being one of the organizers but not having that many friends.

AK: Dance parties are hard because people want to be out and connecting at the shiny new event, but don’t really want to be there, don’t have a good time or would rather be at home – like me so much of the time.

LM: I’m looking at mine and Kelsey’s first messages on Facebook. I was super salty because I had this other POC wanting an Indigenous person to come talk and it was boring.

AK: […] When we started, we knew that we were not necessarily doing well. We were doing it, which was a start, but it needed to involve more people and voices for us to be accountable. A lot of people who have attended and participated have also given us feedback.

LM: There’s a lot of negotiating. I’m reading back and appreciating Kelsey because my entire correspondence was personal disclosures where I was like “You can share this with them” or “Don’t tell them this” and they were trying to wade through everything!

SH: What was it that won you over then?

lc: Yes, why on earth did you join these people?

LM: Was I warm the first time we met? Was I nice?

AK: I mean, you were giving us a lot of feedback and also sharing a lot about other experiences, saying, “This is serious. Don’t screw up.”

LM: It was two hours of talking. I think that everyone was really receptive, but I also don’t know if I necessarily even feel won over by Killjoy at this point. I feel close to the three of you, but I still don’t feel comfortable at Killjoy. I don’t really feel like it’s my space, because it feels like it’s based for settler POC predominantly. Also sober spaces are really violent against Indigenous people and those most affected by colonization.

I remember having a moment, talking to Alexis and to other queer and two-spirit Indigenous friends who wouldn’t go to Killjoy. I was pissed off that Indigenous people were being named in conversation but not actually represented. I remember literally sitting on the bar at Heartwood. I spun around and I said “You know what? I don’t care if it’s petty. I’m going to join because you can bet your ass there’s going to be a Native person involved.”

That’s when I was won over. I was just being grumpy because… that’s who I am. I had also initially considered not doing the talk, but worried that if I didn’t, there would be an academic brought in. I’m really tired of academics representing the queer community and queer Indigenous experience. I decided that I would do it, but then bring in anyone who also wanted to do it with me, which was really nice.

lc: I wonder to what extent the people who come to events are just our friends, friends of our friends… because it feels very much like it is. It’s hard to map how people hear about it. We need to try and reach communities that aren’t traceable through Facebook friends or whatever.

SH: Sometimes that’s just how communities happen, through ever-expanding networks of people that you know. That’s okay. Although I understand the desire to have the event be a space that is more accessible.

LM: I don’t actually think it’s okay, though. The issue with Killjoy is that the only people coming are predominantly folks who have university education. That’s a very set framework and it’s not just a coincidence that this is who’s being allotted this space or being made comfortable in this space. It’s not just happenstance that predominantly middle-class university-educated people just happen to all be together. That’s a very, very direct line.

SH: Now that this structure is in place, would it make sense to try and pass that over to people from non-academic, non-middle-class backgrounds? How would one shift that?

LM: Well firstly, I’m not middle-class and I don’t have a university education, but the problem with that framework is that it’s being presented as a top-down approach. As if anyone involved in Killjoy could hand that down or it’s their place to hand that down. Which, turns out, is…

SH: Patronizing?

LM: Yes… Patronizing, colonial. Boring. I don’t think that there is a direct answer on how to bring in folks who are framed as the most marginalized. It’s already set in motion, the fact that it’s not a safe space for Indigenous people. There have also been a lot of experiences of anti-Blackness that haven’t been addressed.

Laughs The interview of Killjoy organizers trashing Killjoy.

lc: That’s better.

LM: Kelsey’s done a lot of work to talk about the language that we use. QTIBIPOC in and of itself is an alienating term that assumes a lot of knowledge based in anti-oppression and academia. The fact is that many folks that I know, who don’t come from UBC and don’t study race in a colonial institution, also don’t have a background in breaking down what QTIBIPOC means. They have to reach out, which is condescending. […] And I guess we can’t really question why people who have different experiences, who are already alienated as soon as we use the term QTIBIPOC, aren’t accessing the space.

lc: Remember we were talking about the QTIBIPOC acronym? Before Lindsay joined, Ayesh, Kelsey and I felt uncomfortable to include two-spirit there, because none of us are two-spirit. We don’t have significant relationships with the two-spirit community. Yet, because we have access to the language, we could put it in the description of Killjoy. Of course, we want to be accessible but, I don’t know, language is just so sneaky. You can say a word, but the integrity that puts meaning into words doesn’t come from the word itself, obviously. It comes from practice and relationships that are outside of the word. I feel like everything comes down to relationships between bodies – lived, real relationships with communities in real life.

LM: I think that’s true. It’s also strange to see how people take up Killjoy, the ways that people read it. A lot of people describe it to me as a decolonial space, which I disagree with. I don’t just disagree with it, I categorically reject it.

lc: I’ve been encountering a lot of people trying to use language to address the structural injustices of the world in ways that I’m not sure about. I don’t know how I feel about language right now. There are too many words, too many discourses that I’ve been exposed to. It gets confused in my head. It’s November and I just want to nap, watch TV and try to be a good friend. I’m quite tired of talking and trying to phrase things through language.

SH: When I got the call for this article, I was feeling something similar. Art writing usually speaks in this very specialized language and everything I want to say seems to lie outside of it.

AK: What is this for?

SH: C Magazine, a contemporary art magazine based out of Toronto.

LM: That is cool. It’s really funny to think of Killjoy in an art magazine. For accessibility’s sake, could you give us examples of how this publication speaks?

SH: They’ll usually have a few features on Canadian artists and cultural issues and some reviews… typical of a culture magazine? It speaks in the language of art criticism. My personal approach is to try to talk about art or talk especially about history in ways that aren’t academic and instead highlight oral histories, social histories or people’s experiences.

LM: Are you reviewing Killjoy?

  • SH*: I’m not reviewing Killjoy.

LM: This is a meta-review.

SH: The way that I’m thinking about it is that there’s always a push to steer art and culture towards becoming something really great but also strongly towards something that is academic, professionalized, white or snobby. However, I still see possibility in art-making to push at structures in ways that you can’t do in other disciplines, because it’s quite open. I guess that’s why I continue to participate in it. But I’m pretty embedded, so it is hard to talk about.

AK: Is it a pretty white magazine? What would this be amongst?

LM: Oh yeah, if this is going to a bunch of white art people, I don’t want them to hear us criticizing ourselves.

lc: We’ve said no or just not replied to every single interview request.

LM: I deleted Killjoy’s email off of my phone.

lc: Good call. We got an email from somebody who’s in a grad program… it’s to do with urban queer youth?

LM: Ew, fucking pay me. That’s what we can respond. You could end the article by saying, “listen stoically said, ‘Fucking pay Lindsay.’ Lindsay turned around and said, ‘That’s what I want.’”

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