The Smell of Our Own: Interviews with the artist in the family
Gitanjali Lena talks to her 14-year-old son, Zul Lena, about sex, support and sacrifice
Gitanjali is a queer mother, lawyer, and grad student of Sri Lankan origins. She has performed at Desh Pardesh, Word on the Street, the AGO, and with OUTburst and Asian Arts Freedom School. She is published in Fireweed, and Who’s your Daddy? Anthology of Queer Writing on Parenting. She did the VONA Writing Intensive in 2007 and facilitated a poetry workshop about the 2009 Tamil anti-war protests for SAVAC. She performed a dance piece “d3” through Ill Nana DCDC’s Right to Dance Intensive, and later attended the Pink Door Writer’s Retreat 2016. She is developing a play at Nightwood Theatre. In this edition of Smell of Our Own, she is interviewed by her 14-year-old son, Zul Lena.
Zul Lena: How did being an artist change the way you approached being a parent?
Gitanjali Lena: I would say being a parent changed the way I approached being an artist. I had to find the time to do my creative work while parenting. It was a lot harder when I had a young child, and not so hard now that I have a teenager, but still a challenge. Perhaps being an artist influenced how I parent, because naturally I want to encourage my kid to find different ways of creative expression. Whenever I’m super angry, frustrated, grieving, or depressed, after I’ve binge watched some TV, I throw myself into some creative projects. So being an artist makes me a better parent, because I’m working through my experiences.
ZL: What would it mean to you if I did or didn’t identify as an artist?
GL: I’ve pretty much given up on trying to force you to identify as anything. That’s like my parents wanting me to be some government worker with a pension and a Mercedes. I didn’t want those things. Every generation of kids struggles with the hopes and dreams of the parent, each generation changes. I have different values from my parents, so I’m not sitting here hoping that you’re going to become a government lawyer. I might be wishing that you’d become, I don’t know, a trapeze artist, a writer or musician or something. But I guess I don’t care if you become an artist or not. You’ll find something you want to do.
ZL: Your art talks about identity, queerness, and being Tamil. Does being a parent come into it too?
GL: Yes. I’m really interested in complicating parenting relationships, not just like cookie-cutter type parenting relationships. I’m interested in mothers in particular, Sri Lankan and Tamil mothers who don’t sacrifice everything for their kids, who actually have a life. [Mothers who] don’t resent their kids because they didn’t do the things they want. I feel like parents who really fuck up, parents who make a lot of mistakes, parents who are estranged from their kids, parents with addictions … all of those parents are really interesting to me.
ZL: Why do you always make work about sex?
GL: I don’t always make work about sex… But I do think gay people and queer people aren’t afraid of looking at sexuality as a mirror for other elements of society. Sexuality is a mirror for power, for work, for love, for self-hate, all kinds of things. That’s why people can relate a lot to work that looks to sexuality. Also, queer sexuality is so invisibilized or demonized that I definitely try to show sides of it that are not stereotypical.
ZL: How have your own parents or other family responded to your art?
GL: I’m always terrified to invite them to anything that I’m doing, and the few times I have, even if its really weird and disgusting, they have been pretty supportive. Even the last dance performance I did, my mum came. She seemed to love it, so that was pretty cool. Is it weird to be interviewed by your kid? No, you ask me questions all the time. It’s nice for you to have to listen to me talk about my artwork.