Our Trauma Twin Siblings: Building Creative Spaces for Queer and Trans Tamil Community as Teardrop Collective
Teardrop Collective is a group of artists and community organizers based in Toronto, who explore the stories of queer and trans, Deaf and hearing people of Tamil, Sri Lankan, and South Asian ancestry in the diaspora. Over the past several years, Teardrop has produced many intergenerational community arts events related to and inspired by the development of Leopards and Peacocks, a new play by Teardrop’s artistic director Gitanjali Lena. These events include an online reading of Leopards and Peacocks; Thrive Sessions, facilitated community-engaged discussions reflecting on the setting, politics, and themes of the play; Aunties Legacy Project, a community arts workshop series with Tamil elders in Scarborough; “Ghosts Don’t Need Passports,” a design installation at the 2022 Summerworks Festival exploring visual ideas in Leopards and Peacocks; and multiple in-person and online script development workshops.
In this piece, Gitanjali Lena and Teardrop producer Hari Somaskantha exchange letters reflecting on what it has been like to facilitate this work online and offline in ways that are as safe, trauma-informed, and joyful as possible.
I love that we are doing this reflection together. We did a hell of a lot these last three years. Pandemic years, even! I don’t reflect enough so here we go.
Let’s start by considering what trauma is to queers and Tamils. Trauma—what a fun topic. Trauma has dropped into everyday parlance, which is both good and bad. It is overused, misused, and has wildly different meanings for different people, especially in queer community. How do Tamils talk about pain, trauma, numbness, sudden responses to triggers, and all of the other kinds of trauma that can manifest for racialized people in the diaspora who are also surviving war, genocide, and state violence? What’s the lexicon for trauma in Tamil?
Instead of looking up trauma theories, I asked a bunch of friends I respect to tell me in a non-clinical way how they personally frame and understand trauma as queer and trans people of color. From a neurological perspective, trauma creates a neural pathway—that is hard but not impossible to rewire in our brains—at times when we experience violence. We go into fight or flight (or freeze or rage) response when we experience trauma and then use the same neural pathway when we are reminded or triggered. Traumatic experiences also change our worldview about risk-taking. There are places we won’t go and activities we won’t do anymore, like how people who have experienced shelling and bombing can’t hear fireworks without freaking out.
We know there are super painful places where identity and trauma meet. Trauma can be the reaction. The pain of that reaction is often dulled by avoidance, apathy, or forms of addictions within racialized communities because therapy is expensive, time-consuming, and steeped in Western values of wellness. Queerness affects trauma from external places of how we are read and how people relate to us. Being nonbinary and/or trans also means relating to bodies differently so gender nonconforming people store bodily trauma differently.
Racialized communities have so much less access to systems of support and healthy ways of being that can undo the neural pathways of trauma. When trauma happens to white girl bodies, the world reacts. But when it happens to Black bodies, it is completely overlooked. No one cares because in white supremacist society, we are collectively desensitized to the high levels of violence repeatedly inflicted upon Black and Indigenous bodies. Doing the work to address trauma can be retraumatizing, and I never want Teardrop Collective to retraumatize people through our artistic offerings.
Another person said they experience trauma as a splitting or a fracturing that disconnects them from themselves, from other people, and from the world. To have experienced trauma, then, is to inhabit a splintered state in the body in a world that feels unsafe, trying to avoid connections, or fearing connections that one now responds to as unsafe.
When we talk about Tamil trauma, we are not talking about a single traumatic incident, a series of the same types of incidents, or incidents that only happened to one person. We are talking about tons of traumatized people all reacting at the same time to their own triggers. Some people form attachments to sources of trauma as part of their identities (e.g., activists, nationalists) or worse, repeat the behaviors of their abusers to others in community and family. As young people, femmes, people assigned female at birth, queer people, non-binary people, and people who are disabled or differently abled, we know how our trauma responses and healing options are different because of all the systemic “-isms” we experience in addition to generational and personal trauma.
Even within the diaspora, we have fault lines on our bodies and our minds in relation to experiences we’ve had. We cross bloodlines, oceans, and timelines with our pain. The stuff that happened to our parents, aunties, uncles, and grandparents is the past haunting us. We also have our responses and queer traumas in the present—and if we have anxiety, we fear future trauma.
Another friend said past trauma becomes “like a silent companion” to your subsequent way of living. It lives in all the splintered-off parts that have developed fiercely protective strategies but still keep us trapped in undigested, past, raw material (e.g., a sexual assault, verbal violence, a car crash, ongoing state violence). The past becomes the neural map that keeps getting projected onto the present. Trauma clouds new experiences before we can perceive it for ourselves, a sticky energy that feels like it's sheltering you by keeping reminders at front of your mind, so you avoid a repeat of the negative past. But the reminders are like blinding warning lights that keep us from connecting, healing, and experiencing situations and interactions with freshness and curiosity.
We want our audience to be able to bring their trauma twin sib—the part of themselves that does carry trauma—to the art and show it safer spaces in which they can hear the screaming voices, comfort their younger selves, and be immersed in new ways of seeing familiar objects, people, interactions, and sensations.
As an artist, I never want to avoid the painful, scary stuff. But as a Teardrop Collective founder, I want to practice care in what we offer publicly. I wrestle with that tension in all of our work. From what work we chose to share with which audiences, to how we manage conflict in facilitated discussions, to how we handle feedback in digital spaces, to what accessibility supports we provide at events. We cannot send people away back to their families and jobs feeling ripped open and not compassionately and carefully resourced.
What d’you think about how we treat our performers, audience, funders and presenters, and the venues we choose to work with?
Even within the diaspora, we have fault lines on our bodies and our minds in relation to experiences we’ve had. We cross bloodlines, oceans, and timelines with our pain.
It’s been such an adventure, Geetha, honestly! It feels a little surreal, how far we’ve come since our summer 2019 conversation when you first pulled me into Teardrop <3. It feels like throughout the pandemic, we have needed to rethink goals and cancel/reschedule things. We are a young collective, but it feels like we’ve gotten a taste of a lot!
Trauma, eh? We can’t assume everyone has introduced themselves to that word, “trauma.” And we can't assume how anyone has been impacted by trauma, addressed their trauma, or begun work toward healing from it. I asked Appa, and, with some help from Google, he says there are a few words that kinda describe the English term “trauma” in Tamil (all context- and tone-based, as are most things in Tamil) but no direct translation: kaayam (English: wound), mana-ullachal (English: mind/psychological stress), adi-vedhanai padukaayam (English: most deepest-severe wound), and purra-adhirchi punn (English: severely surprising/shocking pain). Colloquially, people may just call it vedhanai, meaning worry.
A lot of trauma has to do with home and family (Tamil: kudumbam). From what I’ve observed, our community’s relationship to home is powerful, nostalgic, bitter, anguished, and protective all at once. For queer, non-binary Tamils—especially me—Sri Lanka as a home is something I didn’t even think existed. In that way, “back home” is imagined, malleable, and ever-evolving—something I and a lot of folx are still discovering.
In that same thread, creating home and homey spaces (e.g., physical, virtual, and emotional/spiritual) is paramount to our work, especially when some don’t think they can (or actually can’t) go back to Sri Lanka or fear a future where going home may not be possible. There’s a mixed bag of systemic barriers and political, socio-economic situations that Tamils have been facing since the war, and the perceived and very real loss of land, animals, and human kin.
Our spaces create invitations to find home, even if temporarily (e.g., for land, language, cultural practices, or to create new ones as a collective diaspora). Cultures are created when there is a shared understanding of values, practices, and meaning-making. Teardrop Collective strives to generate that in the types of events we offer, the people we collaborate with, and the stories we all hold, whether spoken or felt. We are able to do this even more so online and through the various social media, events, and online peer groups that a person can engage with if they have internet.
What do you think we’ve learned so far?
The online stuff we did in 2020-2021 was a new adventure and required so much learning in terms of technology. I went way out of my comfort zone trying to create brave and safer spaces to share Leopards and Peacocks. We had so many great facilitators teaching us how to be sensory and connected with our actors and audiences online.
The May 2020 reading of the play was so fun because our director Nikki Shaffeeullah got such great performances from the actors. She kept rehearsals focused and the team used the Zoom boxes so well, passing props (Kleenexes and joints) to each other through those boxes. We had to take a lot of time figuring out how the audience would know which characters our ASL interpreters were interpreting at any given moment, and we had to figure out captioning too. And we had to figure out how to record all of this and how to livestream through Facebook so it would be easier for our audiences overseas in different time zones to watch. Wow! I remember that having a live Facebook chat was so fun because we could answer their questions in real time, and we got feedback immediately and knew from all the hearts and emojis that we were connecting with our online audience.
The Thrive Sessions added another layer to our online work because they were not just performance. After sharing selected scenes, we invited our guests to chat in small groups that were facilitated by Black and Tamil queer people. Some groups were all Deaf participants, some groups had a mix of Tamil and Sinhalese people, some people stayed off camera in the groups for a bunch of different reasons. I learned from that experience that we gotta try and pack less into a session, and that Sinhalese people are not ready to be responsible for co-creating safer spaces with and for queer and trans people with Tamil ancestry. I don’t mean that I seek to maintain perfectly safe spaces to share art because that is impossible. Comfortable “safety” is not what art spaces should be in my opinion. Discomfort and curiosity about questions and tensions are rad but intentionally provoking trauma is not, nor is letting privileged people take up space and center themselves.
Shit got even more complex when we tried to do Aunties Legacy online. Those participants are senior citizens—some of whom don’t use email. Even though we were trying to teach them expressive arts online, we couldn’t just throw them into a digital whiteboard group poetry session or try and teach them how to use Mural, an online platform. We had a multilingual group of seniors of different ages so just getting everyone functioning online across time zones and contexts was a project. (One auntie was in Sri Lanka for some sessions, another auntie would join while walking to church.) We really had to pare down activities, and we needed a team to manage all the moving parts and peoples.
I had to again check myself about wanting to bring up activities drawing on traumatic memories of war and immigration. I always run my ideas past trusted friends who are Tamil to see what they think, and friends told me not to bring out auntie pain online when I had only a two-hour session and no way to support them with whatever might’ve come up during the workshop.
Online sharings are so accessible for people with mobility constraints, but working online also really made it hard to show warmth and tenderness.
These are some things that I see that we value when sharing art and facilitating meaning-making social spaces with our queer and trans Tamil community:
We keep in mind that we need to be intentional in the ways we curate and hold space for people engaging with our art and doing so without compromising their safety. This happens in a lot of ways:
- During our online Thrive Sessions, we reflected on how we hold our intersections and experiences of “-isms.” Because of this, we needed to make sure our facilitators had lived experience of the topics we were discussing and had the prior experience and skills to facilitate such discussions.
- We have had trained queer and trans active listeners on-site (online as well as in-person) for those who may feel activated or triggered by our art.
- Building in time and space during events to decompress and share grounding strategies.
- Constantly revising what exposures to triggers are being present pre- and post-production since traumas are layered. Triggers for something personal can spiral into triggering generational trauma within an individual.
- Making hard decisions around what we could and did not feel good sharing. During “Ghosts Don’t Need Passports,” for example, this meant cutting live readings that may have retriggered people in ways we could not hold space for (e.g., Tamil victims of Bruce McArthur) while also making space for other performances (such as artist Thurga Kanagasekarampillai’s piece) if it meant that people found power and kinship—even whilst being triggered by connective themes of loss, grief, spirituality, navigating difficult relationships with parents and relatives.
Continuity of Care
We try to make sure people feel safe enough to bring their trauma twin sibling to our space in the first place. This means making sure people feel supported before, during, and after our events by:
- Providing resource lists of hot/warm lines for additional support before and after Thrive Sessions online workshop.
- Not only discussing possible triggers in promotional material but also facilitating during the event, tracking boundaries that might be crossed, and responding accordingly (e.g., redirecting conversations when necessary to avoid further triggering the group and, on one occasion, asking an audience member to leave due to disrupting a highly charged space).
- Checking in with individuals post-event in one-on-one discussions
- Circulating post-event surveys to gather feedback on what Teardrop Collective needs to do to maintain safety in the future.
Opportunities to Check-In, Ground, and Celebrate
It is important that we celebrate and ground ourselves in the shared community we are in at every moment we get, especially since practicing this after a triggering piece of work can help bring people back into the present and add lightness as they leave Teardrop Collective spaces. Some ways we do this are:
- Inviting participants to join us in movement-based grounding practices at the start and end of events online.
- Sharing food and drinks with audience members at the end of “Ghosts Don’t Need Passports,” with the intention of sharing feelings, experiences, and connection—even outside the art space. In a way, this social space is also an extension of the art space as well.
Connecting with community—even kudumbam—has been a key way that Tamils find meaning and heal from traumas. There’s a running joke that you can find a Tamil anywhere in the world. Indeed, by creating our theatre group, the Teardrop Collective, we have introduced yet another way for queer and gender nonconforming Tamils and people of Tamil ancestry to take up space.