Feminist Hero Friday: Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
by Abaki Beck
This weeks Feminist Hero is Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, the queer disabled Sri Lankan poet, educator, and performer. Her work explores love, desire, resistance, colonialism, trauma, sexual abuse, and disability. She is the author of several books of poetry, including Consensual Genocide, Love Cake, and Bodymaps. She also wrote a memoir titled Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home, which came out in 2015. For ten years, she co-directed Mangoes with Chili, a queer and trans people of color performance group. Additionally, she has performed with Sins Invalid, a disability justice collective focused on the stories of queer people of color.
I was first introduced to Piepzna-Samarasinha’s work in a class on women of color feminisms, and was struck by her voice. She speaks honestly and bluntly about sickness, desire, organizing in communities of color, and healing from violence - both colonial and familial. Her work leaves a deep impression, and made me want to continue reading and learning more about her work. Her work seamlessly weaves together her identities and experiences with authenticity and love. In some ways this makes sense, because it is her reality, but this was exciting to me because the complexities of our identities are often washed over or erased, particularly regarding sickness and disability. It is often expected that writers of color make our identities and stories “less messy.” To cover up parts of ourselves that don’t fit with what our white heteropatriarchal society expects of us as “other.” Piepzna-Samarasinha’s poetry discusses trauma with anger yet celebrates her life with compassion and pride. On this topic, she noted in an interview with Bitch Magazine “My family would sometimes try to pass as non-working class and as white or as this mysterious beige "other" and we would just stay in the house a lot, and like “NO!” I’m gonna talk about all these Sri Lankan stories, and all these abuse stories, and all these 9/11-surviving-Islamaphobia-as-a-brown-femme stories. It was a lot of “FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU” and I think that’s really useful and really valuable. Breaking silence is incredible fucking medicine.”
Piepzna-Samarasinha is quick to note the role that mentors and friends have played in her identity development and writing. She credits her participation as an artist in Sins Invalid as life changing, and exposing her to a queer, POC centered disability community. Before seeing a Sins Invalid show, she said she felt excluded from disability rights communities, which were often centered on white experience. This journey is seen in different stages throughout her books. In her first book, Consensual Genocide, she writes about pain, abuse, and damage. Love Cake focuses more on healing, love, and community building. She says that she explored how to write about love from feminist Palestinian poet Suheir Hammad. Her most recent book of poetry is Bodymaps, which explored the topic of disability justice more than her previous works, and is about, she says “working to love my body unconditionally.” Her most recent book is her memoir, which she began writing in 2004. Her memoir is about surviving sexual abuse as a queer disabled woman of color - a survivor narrative not often heard.
Today we celebrate Piepzna-Samarasinha as a brilliant storyteller, truth yeller, and queer femme of color. Check out or purchase her books and check out her website here.
Before we leave, here are a few of my favorite lines and one quote to leave you hanging:
“because after 31 years
of loving in the war years
I think I should be better at this I should be an expert at this
should know how to love
our way through this fuck
our way through this
how 31 years into loving in these war years
I still don’t know how to do this
but we cross the water together
-after 31 years of loving in the war years, Love Cake
“And then I got over it. Brownness was a relief. The biggest exhale.”
-sweetest thing/tierra sagrada, Love Cake
“Disability justice to me means a political movement and many interlocking communities where disability is not defined in white terms, or male terms, or straight terms. Disability Justice is to the Disability Rights movement what the environmental justice movement is to mainstream environmental movements. Disability justice centers sick and disabled people of color, queer and trans disabled folks of color and everyone who is marginalized in mainstream disability organizing.
More than that, it asserts that ableism helps make racism, christian supremacy, sexism and queer and trans phobia possible and that all those systems of oppression are locked up tight. It insists that we organize from our sick, disabled “brokenbeautiful” (as Alexis Pauline Gumbs puts it) bodies’ wisdom, need and desire. It means looking at Indigenous and POC traditions of valuing sick and disabled folks (not as magical cripples, but as people of difference whose bodyspirits have valuable smarts), how POC communities being sick or disabled can just be “life” and also how sick and disabled POC are criminalized. It means asserting a vision of liberation where destroying ableism is part of social justice. It means the hotness, smarts and value of our sick and disabled bodies. It means we are not left behind, we are beloved, kindred, needed.”
-Quote from a 2011 interview with Stacey Milbern of Sins Invalid