PERFORMANCE poet & ACTIVIST
She is the girl behind the poems - Brown Girl's Guide to Gender & Brown Girl's Guide to Beauty, that went majorly viral in 2017 and made everybody take notice not only of this young (then teenage) girl, but also the issues that she was so passionately trying to address. Aranya has been writing since she was 11 but her affair with spoken word poetry began through her introduction to Hip Hop music. Her unique approach in representing the woes of her peers and translating them into theatrics that though are simple in linguistics but complicated in essence, has led her to become one of the most popular Gen-Z in the Indian Activism scene.
Having collaborated with Akshay Kumar for a Padman promotion in the past (Bleeding Rani), the 20 year old is now going to represent India at The Goalkeepers '18 in New York, an Initiative by The Gates Foundation that brings together Global Leaders who share ideas for a more equal and prosperous future throughout the world.
In this exclusive interview with BeBadass, Aranya discusses her inspirations, her intent, ageism, her internship at Buzzfeed, the upcoming piece - The Goalkeepers and much more.
For those who don’t know what is Spoken Word Poetry?
A lot of people mistake spoken word poetry for slam poetry. Slam poetry is competitive poetry.
What I do is performance poetry or you could also call it theatrics and poetry put together.
It is a rather unconventional path for a teenager. How did you discover Performance Poetry?
I actually got introduced to poetry and specially performance poetry through rap music. I usually enjoy listening to hip-hop and a lot of of what I know of the black lives matter movement is because of rap music and I thought it was beautiful that their activism was through music and it was through art and I thought I could also use my art to start a conversation about things that concern me. Early I used to write a lot about mental health because that's something that has personally affected me throughout my life. But as I became a little bit more aware of the kind of discrimination women face in this world, I felt that I really resonated with that and that's what really took me to, you know, taking spoken word poetry and using it for my activism.
Have you ever been mistreated by a male?
I don't know a single woman who doesn't have a story about being stared at uncomfortably or being molested or being harassed and I think that's totally unfortunate.
And I remember in the six or seven grades we used to meet in the break and you know talk about it so nonchalantly. We didn’t even realize it was wrong, and that you could do something about it. And that was the first time that it really hit me, because I realized my friend was talking to me about how one guy masturbated, you know, looking at her in a public bus and it was at lunch and you know, she didn't even bat an eyelid. She just knew that this was the way of life and when I told her that she should do something about it and so she went to the bus conductor and informed him and this was happening and the bus conductor instead of telling the man to stop he told her which bus stand to get off at and which bus to catch so that she can take another bus and still make it in time for school and I thought that was truly tragic that you know. It's very rare that women even reach out when these things are happening and the fact that a young girl reached out for help but the perpetrator was protected and you know, the woman was made to adjust and that really hit me and that's really what made me think more about why we became so desensitized to it.
Was there a specific event that provoked/inspired you to write ‘A Brown Girl’s Guide to Gender’?
I don't think it was a specific event. I think it was a culmination of events. It was probably reading about Nirbhaya when I was really young, it was reading about Lakshmi, listening to stories about my friends and what they have been through, my mom and her friends and how through different ages women have to deal with so much. So we received such unfair treatment and that's only because they're women and also that women instead of you know supporting each other to do something about it keep you know, telling each other that “Oh, you have to adjust, you have to channel through, you have to just deal with it” and the fact that we aren't encouraging women to do something about it, clearly says that we've sort of given up at this point and I wasn't comfortable with that at all, which is why I wrote Brown Girl’s Guide to Gender
How about ‘A Brown Girl’s Guide To Beauty’?
A Brown Girl's guide to beauty was a very close piece to me because as a young brown girl who was a little too skinny, you know for everyone's liking and having friends who are on the plumper side feeling absolutely insecure and you know, some women being extremely suicidal because of it. I realize that there's so many double standards and there's so much pressure women and men, all genders in fact face from a very young age. I don't think people are addressing the kind of harsh treatment men face as well, to have abs or a prominent Adam's Apple, to have that V-line that I've seen men even starve themselves and not eat food relentlessly gym just because they have to look a certain way to be masculine enough. Few of my friends were telling me about how you know, they had Eating Disorders at ages eleven twelve. It's me, seeing my cousin sister wearing baggy clothes cause it doesn't show her body roles as much.
I truly felt like I had to put it out in a piece which personally resonated with specifically brown girls because India is a country of brown women, but we barely get any representation and also for men who, you know are told to look fairer or to be skinnier to have abs, be more muscular and that's what really brought about a Brown Girls Guide to Beauty.
Do you think men are as insecure as women about their looks?
I feel like the talk about women being insecure about the looks is a lot more public than men being insecure about their looks.
I have seen you know, patterns among men that begin in teenage years and a lot of the people who force men to be insecure about their bodies are other men themselves.
I don't know if I could I would say that women are more insecure about their bodies just because I don't feel like we've encouraged men to talk enough and you know, share these things with us, but I definitely think that men are insecure about their bodies.
I don't think it's a competition. I don't think it's a battle.
Even if it's one man in this whole world feeling insecure about his body, it's enough for us to care about and do something about it.
How did you come to accept yourself as is? Most women struggle with this all their lives.
Honestly, I don't think I've completely accepted myself as is, and that's also probably because I'm still growing there are still things I'm learning, things I'm unlearning, mistakes I’m making and all of these things are helping me understand myself further. I think the more I understand myself and grow, I get more comfortable with being in my skin.
I still face, you know, a lot of my like a few of my recent videos people tend to Fat shame a lot and that's because I was really skinny in my first few videos, but I know for a fact that I was extremely ill with low immunity when I was extremely skinny. I may have a little bit of arm jiggle now, maybe a little bit of a double chin, but if that means I'm healthier now, then that is what actually matters. The fact that I get to work better, be more attentive, go out and get more opportunities just because I'm not ill every second day and that only keeps me going
Your greatest critic and biggest supporter?
My greatest critic and my biggest supporter is definitely my brother because he is also a rapper. So he writes very well and he gives me a lot of feedback and a lot of it can be really harsh but sometimes I feel like I really need it because that's how I can better my art.
He's also the first person to cheer me on when I'm taking a big project or a big step or trying something new. Super grateful for my brother!
How did you learn how to perform like a pro?
I still don't feel like I perform like a pro. I'm still practicing learning, getting more comfortable with the stage. I still have a little bit of stage fright but I think that works better for me, because I end up practicing a lot since I know that I get extremely nervous. I've used my anxiety to fall more in love with my art and you know literally live through the words I'm saying when I'm performing it and I feel like we just keep getting better with every performance. So I make sure I perform as much as I can.
How do you handle pre-performance jitters?
I deal with my Jitters and pre-performance anxiety by listening to music for the most part. I also really enjoy attending other performers who are going up before me I like attending the show as if I am just an audience member. It gets my mind off my set and my performance so I can just truly appreciate the other performers and their art, so that really helps.
What’s your proudest moment so far?
My proudest moment so far was a few months after my video came out (brown girls guide to gender).
Now there's a certain kind of activity that happens when people recognize me, that I'm learning of only now. Say if there is a group and one of them looks at me and if I look kind of familiar, then they go on their phone to figure it out and then they tell their other friends and then everyone collectively turns and looks and that's when you know, that they've realized who I am and have probably seen my video.
So, once I was social and a group of friends realize that they had watched my video and one of the girls she immediately got off the table, walked to me and she started crying. She showed me a WhatsApp group with her mom and dad that the communication on the group started with my video. And once they saw it she shared with them her sexual harassment story and the fact that my piece was enabling women to talk about their abuse really really made me realize the worth of my words and the kind of privilege I have to be getting the type of time people give me and my work. It absolutely humbled me, because I realize that you know, opportunities will come and go videos will go viral but these kind of impacts are always going to be permanent. So that's one memory that always grounds me when I'm getting a little too excited about things in my head. I realize that my true goal, my true focus is starting conversations like these and they're happening because of my work.
Have you hit any bumps in this past year ever since you went viral?
This past year has been truly overwhelming because I've been learning a lot, I've been making mistakes, growing from it.
I think a lot of people are very afraid of being called out whereas I think it takes a lot of strength in apologizing because it means there is growth. I'm also incredibly young - I just turned 20 yesterday, and I think it's very important for people who follow my work to realize that I'm a young girl growing and I am making these mistakes and learning from them and it's absolutely important.
It's really tough because everything that happens, happens in the public eye. There were a lot of memes were being made on me, but I also realize that a lot of women I look up to who are fantastic – Fey D’souza, Barkha Dutt - A lot of these women are fantastic women and are fantastic at their work, but they also get trolled and are made memes of so that's what made me realize that I'm pissing off the right people, I know I am causing anger in the right people.
Sometimes it does get me down very honestly but at the end of the day, I realize that these things are going to happen anyway because I don't think any art is universally appreciated and I just need to work on being a better feminist, being a better performer, being a better artist and that's my focus. The minute I stay away from that focus, I'm failing at all of those things. So that's also that's what really helps me when I when I see these memes and stuff.
It’s also kind of amusing that you know, people would spend so much time like morphing faces into videos and pictures and all that stuff just because they hate you so much when any kind of publicity is good publicity.
Tell us about your internship with Buzzfeed India
Buzzfeed was so fun because I was working with such interesting people and learning so much every day. It’s such a fast-paced platform that we were constantly reading something, learning something, doing something and for someone who is a huge workaholic it worked fantastically.
I also got to work with Andre who used to work with more traditional news platforms so I got to understand, you know, how to read the news and what is important, how do you talk about multiple facts in just a few sentences, how to fact-check and stuff like that.
I also got to work with the Divya Kandukuri who runs this Twitter page called Everyday Casteism and she’s covering caste for BuzzFeed India and she is this beautiful funny smart intelligent person and I love that I could spend time with her and learn more about the cast conversation and also just spend time with a freelance writer and understand what it’s going to be like because that's something that I'm planning to do as well.
So I had like a little family and it's very rare to find workspaces like that. Another great opportunity with BuzzFeed was that when I was getting internship opportunities from other places, they wanted me to cover only women's issues, but I wanted to try new things and broaden my horizon, you know dip my feet into things I hadn't tried before so I got to do all of that at BuzzFeed and it was fantastic!
How did you gain the insight to write ‘Women Will’?
The Women Will was truly inspired by watching women working in a male-dominated workspaces and women taking more traditional jobs, and I was totally inspired by watching women hustle and you know become entrepreneurs, see them in leadership positions and I got to see a lot of that in the past one year. I felt like I had to talk about it because I realized that there was a lot of discrimination that was faced by women and you know the whole discussion about where they work after they get married whether they'll work after they have kids and stuff like that. But I feel like the piece is really special to me because we celebrated the coming together of all genders towards a better future and it's a little idealistic but that's how I want the workspace to be like in the next few years and I feel like I'm already seeing it with a few workspaces. Obviously not a lot of local businesses are taking to it yet but I do see initiatives being taken by multiple organizations to make their workspace more inclusive and I think that's fantastic.
Any specific one we can expect as the subject of your next piece?
My next piece is celebrating multiple everyday heroes.
Writing my next piece which is called The Goalkeepers that's coming out on Tuesday (11th September 2018) was such and experience! I don't think I've ever watched a piece grow as much as I've seen this piece grow and the fact that this piece is for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for their event called goalkeepers where they celebrate different Heroes all over the world who are helping the world reach and attain all 17 Global goals and I was sent profiles of multiple people who are this year's goal Keepers. Just reading their stories and you know understanding what it was like for them was actually another experience. I felt like I shared a bond with each one of the goalkeepers. This year's topic is ‘The Youth’ so reading about people just a few years older than me who are changing the world just by starting up clinics encouraging students to study starting up schools in villages realizing that there are so many inspirational people who never make it Hall of fame's and I got to be a small part of their journey is a huge privilege.
While writing the pieces back in 2017, did you aim to achieve anything at all out of your poems?
I've been writing poetry since I've been 11 and I've honestly never thought I'd be in a place where I could pursue poetry the way I am right now. I remember in eighth grade my teacher asked me what I wanted to be and I told her I wanted to pursue poetry and she said “that's great and all but what do you want to do?”, that's what she asked me. That’s when I thought that maybe I was being a little too idealistic with the idea of pursuing poetry but the fact that I can do it now and I get to make a living out of my art is a huge privilege. It also comes with immense pressure because I'm so afraid that you know working on all these commercial projects will make me fall out of love with my art, which is why I think it's really important for me to keep writing for myself and remember why I started this and why, to keep me going
We know you’ve been through it, so what hat do you think of ageism?
I'm so glad you asked that because I feel the need to dress a little bit older when I'm going for conferences, I feel the need to talk a little bit less like a teenager when I'm around adults just because I feel like most places I go they say, “oh the voice of the youth, the voice of the teens” and it's a lot of pressure!!
If I say something wrong, there's always going to be some adult at the back of the room going “All 20 year olds are like this, all 19 year olds are like this” and it's a lot of pressure.
I feel like we only need to make space for Young artists, young actors young stars to grow, you know?
I think we should celebrate growth. I've realized that when you're in the public eye it is really tough for you to make mistakes.
I think making mistakes is a very big part of my growth and if the people who follow my work get to see it and grow with me, then it's absolutely fine and great.
I've been very candid every time I've been called out. I've made it a point to share it with my audience, because I think that if I've made a mistake that they may have consumed I should be able to inform them on something that I got to learn through other people as well.
Everyone's growing, everyone's making mistakes, we are all trying to get better (hopefully!), so that's what really helps me utilize my age.
What is the intent of your poetry & performance now?
I think the way I look at my poetry in performance is that it should just start a conversation. My problem with women's issues specifically like why I pursued it heavily is I feel like we had become extremely desensitized to it. So even a conversation is starting a huge movement and I'm seeing it happen, and I'm so glad to be a part of it.
What makes a woman ‘Badass’?
A Badass Woman according to me is a woman who defines herself.
A lot of women including myself have been brought up being told that “this is what you have to do, this is what you have to say, this is what you have to be” and Brown Girls Guide to Gender was the first time I got to Define myself and I see multiple other women doing the same and it's absolutely Badassery.
Name some Badass Women who inspire you.
Rega Jha, ex-Editor in Chief of Buzzfeed India
Fey D'Souza, who works with Mirror now.
Beena Pallikal, who works around Dalit Activism.
Nishita Jha, women’s news reporter with Buzzfeed News
Supriya Joshi who is this amazing comic and a K-Pop fan like me.
You have mastered the art of self-expression. Any suggestions for those girls who struggle to do it on a regular basis?
Don’t be afraid to piss people off.
It’s going to happen! There are two sides – those who are pro what you talk about and those with different opinions. You can’t please everyone!
Feel whatever emotion that is driving you to write completely!
If it’s anger, be angry. A lot of women are encouraged not to be angry, but feel the anger and understand why it’s there. I think anger is a great motivator to create change. If it’s sadness then feel the sadness and understand why it’s there, but don’t wallow in it.
Lastly don’t think about it too much. Keep working on it but don’t think too much.