Ching-In Chen with Koomah


This conversation with Koomah is part of Variant Dreams, a Conversant series celebrating artists who identify as trans, intersex, genderqueer, and gender-non-conforming artists of color. The interview was conducted in person on October 21, 2015 and recorded and transcribed by Cassie Nicholson.

Ching-In Chen: Last month, Cassie Nicholson and I saw part of your show, “History of a Happy Hermaphrodite: part 1” at Super Happy Fun Land as part of the Houston Fringe Festival. Could you introduce yourself and talk a little bit about the show?

Koomah: Sure, so I’m Koomah and, goodness, it’s always fun to be like “who are you?” I am an intersex-bodied, trans-identified, queer artist and performer. I’m also a filmmaker, clothing and costume designer. I do spoken word, performance art, visual art, sculpture, a little bit everything. I also do burlesque and other forms of adult entertainment and sex work.

CIC: Pretty broad and multi-talented. Could you tell us how you started working on the show? It felt very personal and incorporated family history and artifacts.

K: Yes, yes. I wish I could say I have been working on it for a long, long time, but the truth is that Fringe Fest was coming up and they had a spot where they needed to fill an hour. I hosted Fringe Fest last year and I have been in the show for the past five years, so they contacted me. I’ve been doing different performance art stuff for while in these short vignettes. I’ve performed some of them; some of them have just been in my mind.

The opening to the show is a performance called “Pregnant Fantasy,” which is a dark Butoh-inspired movement piece. Several years ago, my adoptive parents gave me my birth mother’s diary which I didn’t know existed. It was this mix of Japanese and Portuguese–when I first saw it, I thought it was Spanish and English. I found someone to translate some of the Portuguese for me. In there was a rambly weird story of my birth, or chunks of it. That performance is a recreation of my understanding of what took place. And so the first time that I performed that– I didn’t put that out there that that’s what it was, and it was something that I had always said that I would never really do. I’m really open, but my past history is something I’m very private about, and when I do talk about it, I tend to be rather cryptic with a lot of people. I have to really let people get to know me very well before I put all that out there. So I just took a deep breath and decided to put a bunch of vignettes together and tell my history.

CIC:That’s a big change if you aren’t usually comfortable doing that. What caused you to change the way you go about revealing family history and your background?

K: I think it’s just part of a general growth process. I have always tiptoed around and decided, well I could dip my toes or I could like go up to my knees. I’m more of the person where if I’m going to do something, I’m just going to jump in head first. I figured what the hell let’s jump in head first and put it all out there.

CIC: Were you surprised by what you read or found in your mother’s diaries?

K: Yes and no, I remember a lot of things a lot of things in there was not surprising. Some of the other stuff was things that I didn’t know and probably would be surprising or disturbing to other people, but considering the environment that I was in, it was not super surprising.

CIC: Could you talk a little bit about it just for those who haven’t seen the show?

K: I was born in Japan. My mother was Brazilian and my father was Japanese. It was in a place with a lot of abuse and neglect, a lot of illegal activity going on and I was ignored a lot. That was probably the safest thing for me was the times where it was not acknowledged that I existed. I more or less just existed in the space. But there was a lot typical with the cycle of abuse—there was a lot of abuse and then there were periods where there wasn’t abuse. As I got older, it got more and more extreme. We would leave and come back and leave and come back. Then, my mother got me on a plane to come to the US. Now, I had had an half sister that was adopted. My mother had got her adopted by the family that she got me “adopted” to even though the adoption was not legal and they didn’t know that until later. So this big soap opera of events that led to me coming to the US and then a lot of court cases and stuff that eventually allowed me to stay in the US. And then on top of all that, this being intersex-bodied, I was not ever gendered. Then suddenly when I came to the US, I was gendered and so couldn’t really fit into that. My adoptive parents wanted to have me “fixed” or get normalization surgeries and they couldn’t afford it anymore, so there is a lot of resentment there too.

The performance is framed within this almost humorous storyline of me having a therapy session with my cat, Jack, who is played by Melelani Petersen. Each one of the vignettes tells a story, some of them from the diary, some from my own experience. Each one of them is presented as if what the audience is seeing is a story that I’m telling to the cat with the exception of the very last performance piece called “Blame.” “Blame” pulls the whole thing together and is the only one that’s done in real time and is symbolic of almost baptismal cleansing and nurturing, almost plant-like new growth.

CIC: That’s the one where you’re in the middle and you’re being watered ….

K: Yes, and I have a heart in my hand. And the heart, when it’s watered, begins to foam and turn white in a cleansing.

In the description that I gave Fringe Fest, I actually wanted it to expand further. This would tell a story that went on through my teenage years and maybe early twenties, but what came together was until pre-teen and for me that was a little bit surprising. I decided to title it part one which left space open for a part two, but also gives an impression that I’m not done yet, and I’m not done yet.

For a lot of people that came and saw it—I’m a little bit of an eccentric person, but I’m usually very calm and levelheaded, extreme, but not to the point portrayed in the performance—it made a lot of people uncomfortable, particularly my friends. I think seeing it as a performance vs seeing it as a story of someone’s personal experience is drastically different to people when you connect it personally to a person you know. For me, that was unexpected because it’s my story, my experience—I’ve gone through it and I have this not really flippant attitude towards it, but in the performance, I say something to the effect of “it is what it is, wishing it didn’t happen doesn’t change the fact that it did.” And that’s something that has kept me steady and strong throughout my life. My biggest fear in letting people in and letting people see that was that I didn’t want to be treated any differently, or viewed differently. My biggest thing was that I didn’t want any sympathy. The idea of that made me really uncomfortable.

It’s also an important story to tell on many different levels, particularly about being intersex-bodied. Specifically, there’s a vignette where I talk about forced examinations and medical treatment. In the performance, I mention being seen as nothing but grotesque flesh and genitals, almost inhuman and feeling like a sideshow and acknowledging that it was a side show, like a circus, where the doctors were clowns and didn’t realize it. There’s this really campy but troubling circus music which comes on repeat and these doctors come out dressed as clowns and they’re all gropey. They’re comical, but it’s still troublesome.

We hear those stories a lot, regarding the intersex community but putting a visual on it … it’s long, it’s three minutes of them just groping and feeling. Some of the feedback that I got from people was that it’s too long. But that’s very intentional—it’s long to the point of being uncomfortable. As an audience member, you’re ready for it to stop. That’s very very important because that still happens—we still have intersex infants that are still having surgeries done on them and even as an adult, I have doctors that are treating me like that. So that is something that I want people to see, and I want them to say, OK, I’ve seen enough of this and I want this to be over. Good, because it’s still happening in real life and we should want it to be over.

There’s the discussion about foster homes and adoption, specifically for children who are survivors of abuse and neglect. People have this idea of what foster care is like and what adoption is like and I think specifically for parents considering that, there’s this savior complex that goes into that and I’m going to get this child or they’re going to be so well behaved, they’re going to be so grateful, I’m saving this child. More often than not, these children going into foster homes and adoption are injured, they’re fractured, they’re broken.They come from these places of trauma and they need people who are willing to work with that and understand that they’re going to have behavioral issues, they’re going to act out sometimes inappropriately and say things or do things. But there’s also an instance of people not being able or willing to handle that so they are sending kids back or they’re not treating them well or don’t know how to handle that. I always fall back on this concept. “Does this need to be said? Does this need to be said by me? And does it need to be said right now? So that was my criteria for picking what went into this.

CIC: I wanted to ask you about something you said earlier about not being gendered before you came to the US and then being gendered in a negative way. Can you talk about that? Is it because in American society, there is more pressure to conform?

K: Not necessarily. I was not gendered because I was not that important [chuckles]….

CIC: Oh I see, there wasn’t that much attention ….

K: Right, they couldn’t be bothered to really care either way. Coming here, it was, you know, you have to have something for a legal document. From my understanding, they had wanted a female child because they had one daughter. They wanted another daughter and that’s what they thought they were getting. And that was a pleasant surprise to be like, No, uh …. There was an attempt for me to try to conform to that gender, but I could never really fit into what they considered female to be like—what that looked like and acted like and sounded like. Later on, there was this sit down: “Well, if you can’t do this, you need to be the other.” I tried that for a little while and that didn’t work out either. That was presented as the only option. There was no in-between, there was no little bit of both, there was no neither. It was, “This, If you’re not going to do this, you have to be this.” That’s not in the show, but that’s what it was.

CIC: Your description of the show mentions sex as one of the subjects, but that was one of the aspects that you hadn’t included as much. Could you talk whether you’re thinking about developing that further in the show?

K: In my mind, I had been thinking about telling some of the story in my teenage years, specifically talking about being a homeless queer youth and doing street work, or as an adult, experiences doing escort work or exploring sexuality as an intersex person. Nothing ever came together for that.

The process of this whole show was totally backwards. Normally, I have this concept and create it and then come up with the show, a title and then the description. This was the absolute reverse. In a weird way, it was cool to work like that, but it was quite a challenge to do that.

CIC: Who are some of your artistic inspirations? Who feeds your work?

K: My artistic process is a lot like that scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where he’s eating dinner and he’s eating his mashed potatoes and then he just has to build this mountain. It comes from all over the place and at the most absurd times. Sometimes it’s really strange things that are inspiring. I’m inspired by music a lot, I use music in a lot of my work because music has a profound ability to explain emotion in a way that I have a hard time communicating. When I was younger and when I came here, I didn’t speak English so I communicated through drawing pictures a lot. So in the show, I explain that and there’s some childhood drawings. Art has always been a form of communication for me. I learned English by watching a lot of TV and memorizing TV shows and movies. When my parents would have friends over, I would come out and reenact a whole Red Skelton comedy hour, but couldn’t tell them my name. So I was destined to become a performer.

Ching-In Chen is author of The Heart’s Traffic and co-editor of The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities. A Kundiman, Lambda and Callaloo Fellow, they are part of Macondo and Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation writing communities. A community organizer, they have worked in San Francisco, Oakland, Riverside and Boston’s Asian American communities. Currently, they are a senior editor of The Conversant.

Koomah is an intersex-bodied trans/queer multidisciplinary grassroots artist, performer, adult entertainer, filmmaker, LGBTQI educator, and part-time hermaphrodite unicorn currently residing in Houston, Texas. Koomah’s art is usually abstract in nature and their performance covers an eclectic range from performance art, drag (king/queen/in-between), queer burlesque & cabaret, genderfucking sideshow acts, and some educational acts centering around issues of gender, sexuality, and gender variant identities/expressions. Active in the arts since 2003, Koomah challenges audiences to ask questions, see from new perspectives, be vulnerable, and ponder social norms. Koomah is a performance artist with Continuum, a performer with the Houston Gendermyn, a frequent performer at QUEERLESQUE!, and a solo artist. Koomah has performed, showcased artwork, and screened films nationwide.

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