D’Lo on being queer, trans, Tamil Sri Lankan American, and being a part of the leftovers

This interview was originally published in the May 11, 2018 issue of The Slant, a weekly newsletter featuring Asian American news, media and culture. Want more features like this? Subscribe today for free.

D’Lo does not fit in a box, and he wants you to know that right away. His queer, trans, and Tamil Sri Lankan identity is at the forefront of his work, always — and there’s very little that he doesn’t do. A co-producer for Disoriented Comedy, a (mostly) female Asian American stand-up comedy showcase, D’Lo features in the Amazon series Transparent, and tours and facilitates workshops across the college circuit with his show D’FaQTo Life.

We caught up with D’ Lo in Los Angeles.

Natalie Bui: I was researching some of the interviews you’ve done and the other work that you’ve done. I think I wanted to ask, straight to the point, you very much identify with the labels of queer, Tamil, Sri Lankan, trans, right off the bat. I mean, all I ever do is say I’m Vietnamese American. But is it sometimes exhausting doing that?

In other interviews you’ve mentioned how you wanted to put it out there, so people can see it, recognize, and move on from it. And I wanted to ask about all the emotional labor on carrying all those labels on the forefront.

D’Lo: I feel that representation matters and that in putting out all my labels and what I’m aligned with, just so I can get to the things that I want to talk about, and to let people know that this is the lens people hear stories about and work from. On top of all of that, what has happened in all my life — I’ve had people guide me through the artistic process. On being my mentors, not just artistically, but politically. And at some point, you can take those things and move it away from you, but for me, it is my duty to move forward.

When I say duty, I mean — when you had mentors that were “queer people are dying” either they are getting killed or killing themselves. Queer people and queer people of color are dealing with oppression, systematically. Immigrants don’t have a platform to even be taken seriously that they belong here in the United States.

And that’s just U.S. politics. What does that mean for people — our communities that are related to us either ancestrally, queerly, throughout the world.

How when you walk in this world — you have to walk with integrity. That means going through these lessons on how to be truly vulnerable in this world. That against the backdrop of my artistic world, how am I sharing more of myself so people can connect with me? Cherríe Moraga can understand the ritual and healing of art — the more details you provide, the more universal your stories become.

As an artist, I am trying to get the most out of performance. Where it feels like I’m really connecting with people and connecting with stories. The formula is not to shy away from the details, the process, and the story. The story keeps changing as I keep changing — the stories and lessons I have in my 20s are different than the ones I will have in my 30s or 40s. It may be the same story, but it’s being told in different ways.

That’s the setting. And then add comedy — that is so beautiful, magical, and sacred to what’s already sacred. Cause comedy is already sacred and being able to tell that story from a post process standpoint.

NB: There’s healing in putting your labels so outright — even though people have said there’s a lot of emotional labor that comes from that — but for you this is healing.

D: This is healing, but it’s also emotional labor. It’s emotional labor when you feel like — it’s not just about putting your labels but the labels in and out of itself is where the vulnerability ties in. That can be emotionally tiresome when people aren’t willing to hear or see that. But onstage, that is the powerful thing about performance. Someone who is a nonbeliever is in the audience — but it is your duty to smash their walls. You get what I’m saying? I’m not saying that I succeed, but I feel my duty is to try.

So by putting everything out there, it’s the first step forward. I’m meeting them. It’s my first calling in. You — like, I know you don’t feel me, so I’m going to tell you: this is who I am. Either you take that or you don’t, but you’re still sitting in the seat.

It may be an emotional journey. It’s just trying to find the points of connection of people to other people and their stories. So when you ask if it is emotionally laborious to do any kind of work like this would be, but the pay off is good. Sometimes the pay off is so little — that’s when you feel the weight of emotional labor — but sometimes the payoff is so stellar that you’re like, “it was worth it.”

NB: It has to take into account the return that comes into it. And in your work, there is some reciprocity.

D: Well you hope so! What I’m learning now as I get older — I can’t let anything stop me from doing me on stage.

NB: Jenny Yang wrote this article on Vulture about what it would be like to be known not as an Asian American comedian, but just a comedian. That piece has always stayed with me because she talks a lot about that emotional labor, on the fact that she had become a diversity producer, fighting for spaces for people of color, that she didn’t have the time to invest in her own comedy as much as she’d like. I’ve been trying to process that — on what it would be like to known as just your profession, not an Asian American profession.

D: Well you know, I work with Jenny. I’m part of Disoriented Comedy and we all work together. So when Jenny talks about that — there’s a lot of truth to her journey as an Asian American comic and I feel like a lot of us comics of color are sometimes getting into a place and be seen as just that. Because everything else around us is talking about that.

For example — Jenny creates content that is specifically Asian American. Then when she is on stage, when she promotes — Disoriented Comedy is about Asian American comics — but when we go out there in the world and we do a set, are we expected to only talk about Asian American things? What is the expectation of us? There technically is no expectation of us as comics. We’re just supposed to make people laugh. How I resonate with Jenny’s piece is that it becomes tiresome to be all day every day representing and on. When you are in the limelight, even when it is small, the weight of representing is so high. So Hari [Kondabolu] talks about that. He goes into these spots and feels like he has to represent the South Asian community.

So in those ways, yes. The pressure is a lot. Where we do we get to stumble, fall, make mistakes. And so much of our culture is to put out things are 100% kosher. We can’t say the wrong thing.

NB: Kind of like with Crazy Rich Asians — how they can’t fuck up.

D: Totally. So the burden is heavy in that respect — and burden is different on stage. It’s a different thing. If we’re talking specifically about representation, I have to do something completely different than what I was expected to do, so I could feel creatively free.

I’m taking these stilt-walking classes ‘cause no one is expecting me to come out on stage with stilts.

NB: It’s still finding a way to defy expectations of you having to represent the community.

D: And to feel creatively free! When we first started out, it was so fun because we could just do whatever because nobody knew our asses.

NB: With more visibility just comes more responsibility

D: And do you shy away from that? You can’t. Because you know how powerful it is that you got to that level.

NB: I’m curious about what you’re trying to explore in your art now. You’re talking about stilt walking — you explore a lot of different things, so what is it that you’re exploring now?

D: I’m exploring creative freedom! I’m trying to not get caught up in fake world of having to confine my creativity. I was thinking about it — why am I feeling so bored creatively?

It’s because I feel most comfortable when I am doing something new and different. You feel the energy and the excitement. But it’s like — when I worked on my webseries, it was a new venture. Out of pocket. But I was enjoying every single moment of it.

Then came the promotion part. And you put it out there and the reception wasn’t that strong at it. And it made me ask: did I fail at this? And it’s like for a project that big, you want a bigger return from it. Well, this is part of the journey. And if you feel like everything you make has to make it up there and then, what are you saying about the lessons you’ve learned from failure?

You’re only going to learn the lessons through failure. The lessons you learned from success are very different but they are smaller. It’s an easy small story.

I’m exploring failure. I’m exploring a route that allows me to fail graciously. What can I do to make this equation of the best of my ability? If the outcome is to make the best of my ability to make people laugh, then how do I sharpen the equation? How do I make this potion so potent that it works more than 80% of the time?

That’s where I am at now. If you caught me last year in the fall, I would be wondering why you were talking to me because I was in a slump. Nothing was exciting. I just finished this huge project last year. And with every artist you go through a post-show depression. And what’s next? How do I prove that I should exist in this space? It’s that heavy for artists. If I’m not doing something, then do I belong on this planet?

NB: It’s great to hear you speak about being an artist — not just a Sri Lankan, Asian American artist. But I am switching gears — especially as I’ve made such a distinction between being an Asian American artist versus just an artist. What new things have you been learning about your Sri Lankan identity?

D: When we look at what it means to be Tamil Sri Lankan, the history is so fucking shitty. Part of my identity is being a Sri Lankan American experience. But what does it mean as an artistic person who does care about the survival of Tamil peoplem and who wants there to be some sort of reconciliation, an allowance to be Tamil, where it’s not always associated with the killings?

NB: Are you saying that Tamil communities are only associated or heavily associated with the killings?

D: Because the civil war just ended 10 years ago, and that was 30 years of civil strife. And Tamil lives were targeted. But having said all that — it’s like, where does the queer story go in? If my queer story is being on a journey about, about being accepted and celebrated as a part of the community. If that has been my journey — and if queer Sri Lankan people are closeted, then I keep wondering why there is no welcoming in of queer people into our cultural society. Why is this still so taboo?

We all know that it all goes to patriarchy and masculinity but pushing that aside — okay, let’s take the Vietnamese community. Vietnam also has such a fucked history right? And when you look at the Vietnamese community here, you can ask, “what does it mean to be Vietnamese in America?” Through the foods, the way Viet culture seeped in American culture. There’s a marker of what that looks like, outside of the refugee narrative.

How do we make ourselves strong? By making community centers, doing Vietnamese dance, and Vietnamese music, or whatever things. But for example, a lot of the practitioners and teachers of these dances are gay, but we don’t see that.

And then the second thing is that in Tamil Sri Lankan culture, that comedy is not a part of our culture. These hybrid art forms that speak to the now is not part of the culture and part of the preservation of our culture. Is it because you think that if you don’t maintain the classical forms then you are not creating the community? Whereas I get to create community every time I perform in front of Sri Lankan Tamils.

It’s just a different form of community. It is our survival. We survive by witnessing each other’s stories. It’s not just the dance that allows us to thrive, it’s the communities associated with the dance, the comedy.

NB: And the ones working with the now.

D: And the ones working with the now. It’s just that it’s easy to uphold classical art forms. Right now, I’m going to be a part of a group that goes to Sri Lanka. But it feels like the last time I’m going to be understanding myself as being — up until now, my parents had a home there. And this is their understanding, and being like “we don’t want to go back to Sri Lanka to retire.” They are saying that America is where they want to be.

So what’s my association to Sri Lankans? That the land that they’ve lived in has changed so drastically. What little essence of energy can they say is the same and say is theirs too?

NB: You’re trying to understand that now too. What is the concept of home?

D: Yeah. You know, we started this conversation talking about comedy, and I’m sure there’s comedy in there. But I was trained, not formally trained, with mentors in theater and in ritual art making. This is the side of me, while I’m trying to do this industry, making it in LA, there’s a whole other side of me that is craving to make sense of things that I haven’t visited in such a long time.

I’m on a journey and it feels good now than ever before. Because I really did go through a deeper time understanding where I was at and where I was growing last year. As artists, we don’t take the moment to scan where we are at and observe how we can be more free. I had to go through moments of darkness to get good now and do this exploration. And realize this is the right time for it.

I wouldn’t have even known that I was craving to make sense of things last fall because I was on this “what’s next, what’s next” because you’re on the grind. You forget that you need to take a pause and take stock on where you’re at.

NB: It’s really a moment for you to go back to your roots. That journey that you’re talking about — everyone needs to go through that journey, but it comes in different times.

D: It comes repeatedly. I feel like there’s a blessing in that shittiness, but when you’re in it, you’re wondering why the fuck is this happening. When you’re out of it, you’re so grateful for that. It’s so hard to understand it as a blessing when you’re in the shitty shit — we actually get asked by the universe and by our own consciousness to just stop. But so much of this world is at hyperspeed. To stop almost feels like you’re killing your career.

NB: It’s a toxic way of thinking because we’re always supposed to be on the hustle. I feel like I’m seeing folks recognize that’s not healthy and trying to shift away from it. It’s not about burning ourselves out anymore.

D: For artists specifically, because we’re all self-employed entrepreneurs. So the weight of making money is on our own shoulders.

All this to say, it was thick enough last year that I was able to understand last year of what I was able to do — which was just about marinating in these thoughts. But marinating with thought is like a rejuvenation for your process. I get to talk about it later and I will be fine, but right now it’s very pensive.

NB: What do you wish the larger community knew about the Tamil Sri Lankan community?

D: I want to know more about my Tamil Sri Lankan community. I want to know where I am of substantial worth, you know what I’m saying? When I stop to think about it — if my worth is in whether I am a good person in the world and in my Sri Lankan community, then what’s my worth as a Sri Lankan artist in the Sri Lankan community?

I always feel like, me and my sister — she’s a queer Tamil performance artist, and she lives in New York, she’s dope — anyways, I met her in ‘99 and she had never met someone who was openly queer Tamil Sri Lankan talking some shit. Since ‘99, we have been talking about how it’s those moments where the community knows who we are and calls us to the table, but this is our whole lifetime of being artists and our queerness is compartmentalized. But why aren’t we talking about queer issues?

I want them to know that we are a resilient community. That we have rich traditions and culture, and about our resilience and our fight — but I also want them to know that we are a hurting community. There has not been any reprieve for our community. The war ended in 2009 and immediately it was the government started occupying the north — and many communities were displaced!

We hear about so many communities that have some political impact in the United States, in a way that we don’t hear about our community. Our community is large and thriving in Toronto and Scarborough, Canada and there are things that are happening there that are in a very Sri Lankan way, and there are things that aren’t happening on the island. The amount of trying to live and survive with everything that has happened in the community, and the anxiety of being Tamil just in Sri Lanka is just — when I think about what’s happening culturally in London, Europe, in Toronto — I’m kinda like “we are a thriving, surviving community that is resilient as fuck.”

Again, it’s not just a refugee story or the political asylum story. This is what we do.

NB: It’s interesting you note how the Sri Lankan has an impact on the American community too — what’s the reciprocity with that?

D: It’s funny because we’re nothing.

NB: Like a needle in the haystack type of thing?

D: Yeah, like, I think in Scarborough, there is such a huge population there that we have Tamil Sri Lankans in political positions. I feel like being Tamil and Sri Lankan is in the fabrics of us in Toronto.

NB: Because there’s a larger population there.

D: Absolutely. Getting back to your question, there’s a lot more to the story than I am able to talk about on stage. Like any story that is rife with history, war, tsunamis, then ceasefires and more war. My family didn’t come here as asylums. Our community got bigger because in the late ‘70s, because the ‘83 riots were happening and everybody was sponsoring their relatives.

NB: All those topics you listed are unanimous across Southeast communities, yet still really unique. Coming up on the last of our hour here, what is a topic you want to explore in an interview that you don’t get to often? Even if it is political, because it is rooted in everything you do.

D: I think what I want to talk about, now more than ever, is my journey through masculinity. I’m talking about it already, but to explore it within community — as I feel that I’m being read as male more and more, I get now my queerness isn’t as visible. So I end up getting perceived to be toxic based on my skin color and the way I look. That was already there pre-testosterone. It’s no longer easy for me to walk on stage and have people believe that I’m on their team. You get what I’m saying? There’s a racial profiling.

NB: What do you mean that you’re not on their team?

D: Recently, it feels like if I’m doing a show — people’s assumptions of who I am are harder to smash in order to make my jokes fly. How about we just leave it like this: masculinity is something I want to talk about and what makes people want to live. There’s so many things that are happening with our world. Everybody is depressed. Let’s talk about that. You know what I’m saying? It’s a shitty fucking world and it’s okay. And this social media stuff isn’t helping. This distraction — this high that you get from getting likes. It’s all fake! Becoming the next celebrity and getting thousands of followers is not the goal! The goal is to have connection and depth. And this is not deep. There’s aspect of this that are very deep but how do you make it deep?

And the people who made this social media stuff are saying “yo we fucked up!” So rectify it then!

NB: I appreciate your answer about exploring masculinity — and sometimes we forget that it’s a journey in itself. It’s not going from 0-100 like that.

D: It’s not. And as a feminist, I understand that patriarchy is at the root of all things you’re fighting against. So you ask — what are you contributing to this? How does my role change? How does my role change within this as an artist?

There’s parts of my queerness that I’m feeling very far away from. At first the world treated me like I was non-conforming. Now the world treats me as a male. I’m feeling like even if I forgot that I was queer at some point, the world told me. But now if it’s not on my head, the world isn’t telling me that I’m queer. And the situation for non-binary people is that the world is up in your fucking business even when you don’t want to be. And when you pass as someone who fits in a binary, it’s like, I almost feel like — my queerness is so fucking important to me has to be sort of made bigger.

NB: To take up more space?

D: To take up more space from a queer perspective. I’m not hearing enough out there about enough transmasculine experience that is a journey through being vehemently queer. Because it’s hard to talk about passing privilege. It’s another exploration. You are catching me at an intersection where I have a million things that are colliding through my brain and I’m conscious of it.

Editor’s note: I ended the interview here, but we continued the conversation about the Asian American experience. I asked if we could go back on the record, and the following remarks are from that conversation.

D: Our population here in the States are shined on them the bigger that they are. You are going to get Chinese, Japanese, Korean folks. Here in L.A., with the Filipino community. I feel like Indians, it’s been a lot more of a North Indian cultural thing. Even though there are southies. Aziz [Ansari] is a southie, Mindy [Kaling], southie, Hari [Kondabolu] is a southie — but Mindy plays with a northie name and Aziz even chooses his name to go with Patel. Dev Patel in his last name. [N.B: Aziz Ansari’s character is Dev Shah in Master of None. -Ed.]

NB: Are you pointing out — which is something I’ve been barely understanding, but the intergroup relations — South Asians versus East Asians. How lighter skinned is still preferred.

D: Is there another different Asian American narrative that we go after? Or do we start saying that this is an API story or — it can’t seen be API because you’re getting rid of Southeast Asians and South Asians. What is the term that dismantles the understanding of what it means to be Asian American — because even when we say South Asian, it’s north! You get what I’m saying? It’s so awful that it’s representative of a continent.

NB: I feel like we’re at a point where the term Asian American isn’t serving us anymore.

D: It’s not serving us anymore! It’s serving a certain population. I know that Chinese people are everywhere. But what are we trying to say our stamp on this is? Because it’s never largely super South South Asian, or super Southeast Asian or never Pacific Islander. But I’m going to call it racism, going to call it for fucking what it is — but there’s definitely racism from lighter skinned to darker skinned Asians.

I guess what I’m saying is — why have I always been like “I’m Tamil Sri Lankan” and even with you, you were like “I’m Vietnamese American.” And you can’t say that you’re Asian American, I mean you can — but when you say you’re Asian American to a white person, they can interpret you as Chinese or something and that’s not who you are. Why isn’t there something else that we are calling ourselves that really does reflect? Can it be from the underdog up as opposed to a political move and tool?

So I’m trying to do a show that’s called “Leftovers” and have it be for everyone else. Getting Southeast Asians, South Asians, super South Asian, Filipinos on stage. I’m always hit with this. When Rudy told me that this was an Asian American newsletter, I thought, “oh, someone is going to be talking about Asian American politics.” But now that you’re here, I can go deeper with you because you’re going to know a layer. I already knew that you’re in the know.

But I think about this because I walk into a spot and I’m read as South Asian and I’m like, “that ain’t me.” South Asians be talking to me in Hindi all day and I’m like, “I don’t know your language!”

NB: Did you have reservations about us being an Asian American newsletter?

D: No, not at all, but I never identified as Asian American. We’re not seen as South Asian, so why I would say that I’m Asian American? And South Asian is hardly recognized in the “Asian American.” I mean they technically are supposed to be, but they really aren’t. You know what I’m saying?

This is why I think we need to do a takeover. We have more in common with the leftovers, with each other, than we do this umbrella term.

D’Lo is a performance artist, stand up comedian, and writer. Check out more of his work here.