Originally published in Kajal Magazine, June 2018. Image by Tavish Timothy.
Thanushka Yakupitiyage (Thanu by day, Ushka by night) is a Sri Lankan born immigrant rights activist, cultural organizer, and DJ based in New York. She leads the U.S. communications work at climate justice organization 350.org by day, and DJs and runs the QTPOC, immigrant centered party iBomba by night. Kajal caught up with Thanu to discuss the complexities of postwar Sri Lanka, why climate justice is an immigrant rights issue, and creating a vision of the world you want to see on the dancefloor.
Hey Thanu! You now exist within a strong queer, POC community, but what were your early experiences in the U.S. like?
Thanushka Yakupitiyage: I came to the U.S. to study at Hampshire College in Western Massachusetts. I developed an intersectional understanding and political basis and connected with Black and Brown students, even if it was within this elite bubble. I had a class on post-colonialism and it was the first time I really understood the neo-colonial upbringing I had in Thailand, where everything was so aspirational to the west. In my first year in the States my friend Manuel Castro took me to my first immigrant rights march.
Right after college I moved to New York. That first year I worked at a Sri Lankan restaurant where most of the workers were undocumented. I was also the primary researcher for this book called The Accidental American by Rinku Sen. It was about a restaurant at the top of the Twin Towers, and all the undocumented immigrants who worked there and whose families didn’t get proper support when the towers fell. That was when I really started thinking about immigration and the things people do to stay. I was also coming out as queer and felt this need to stay in New York and explore that here. Working with immigrants and on immigration was personal and something I could relate to.
How does your activism sit with your Sinhala identity? Coming from the same background my understanding is that there isn’t a huge culture of activism amongst Sinhala people. I’m not trying to throw shade on Sri Lankans because I understand a lot of that sentiment is out of valid fear of the authoritarian government, but how is your activism perceived within your community?
There are Sinhala activists who are and were very critical of the government and the war, but because of government oppression, many were disappeared or killed too. Personally, I come from a really liberal family. My dad was a political organizer and was kicked out of university for standing up for Tamil students, but gave up political activism after that experience. When 9⁄11 happened I became really politicized and started going to anti-war protests in Thailand. I remember my dad being like, “Don’t do that, you don’t understand. The government is always going to throw you under the bus.” I always had a real interest in what was happening in Sri Lanka, and I lived in Colombo for five years during the war. The central bank where my aunt worked was bombed, she just happened not to go to work that day.
From what my family has said the regularity of bombings was terrible to live through.
When that bank bombing happened, I remember parents streaming into school covered in blood to pick up their kids. At the same time, the reality is that Sinhala people like us are privileged in Sri Lanka. Many Sinhala people will talk about how terrifying it was living through the war, but what do they think it was like for Tamils in Jaffna? A lot of Sinhala people get very weird when you say that what happened in the north was genocide. There were over 70,000 Tamils missing or dead (maybe more), and that’s something Sinhala people have to contend with and hold the military and government accountable for.
There were different hierarchies during Portuguese, Dutch and British colonialism, and now the island is stuck with the remnants of three western powers that pitted different ethnicities against each other. There’s no moving forward for the island until we understand that our fates are tied across ethnicities and religions. From what I understand and researched, during colonialism, Sinhala people felt like they were being repressed, so after the British left they put in place Sinhala-only laws. Sinhalese nationalism centers around being the only ones who speak this particular language and the perceived need to preserve Buddhism, which is super dangerous. The nation state project of Sri Lanka was a failed project from the get go, because it completely overlooked the fact that the island has always been multi-ethnic and multi-lingual. I know a lot of Tamil people who are from the island but won’t call themselves “Sri Lankans” because of the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist connotations, and I understand why.
When I try and engage Sinhala people about the persecution of Tamils and Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, I’ll be dismissed as a foreigner who is “brainwashed” and doesn’t really know “what really happened” because I don’t live in Sri Lanka. In my experience Buddhism, like any institutional religion, can be corrupt and violent; look at what’s happening in Myanmar. We have to stand up against these forms of violent nationalism.
Yeah, I also get dismissed as a foreigner in those discussions. Living through that war experience so often prejudices Sinhala Sri Lankans in really unfortunate ways and it becomes difficult to acknowledge the trauma of Tamils.
I think it’s really important for Sinhala people to name the genocide that has happened and stand in alliance with the Tamil struggle. I’m very conscious of the access I’ve had in a Sri Lankan context because I am Sinhala. My mother still lives in Colombo. My family did not face institutional barriers in Sri Lanka because of our ethnic background. I am a highly educated expat whose father is a professor, and I grew up as a “third culture” kid. Sure, as an immigrant to America I’ve experienced some really tough times, but my experience is totally privileged compared to Tamil Lankans forced to migrate because of the war. I am always transparent that I am of Sinhala-Buddhist descent and want to use whatever platform I have to speak out against nationalism and state violence. I’m also super interested in building community across ethnicities from the island, even if you don’t identify as Sri Lankan. South Asians in the US often talk about the need to support each other, but for me that needs to start with an identification and understanding of our different histories. I don’t think we can act like there’s some immediate affinity just because we’re from a geopolitical landmass. We need to recognize differences and our historical tensions in order to build solidarity.
Has getting your green card changed your relationship to the States? Were you nervous about publicly advocating for migrants and refugees while being on tenuous visas yourself?
I should probably have been more nervous! Because I’ve worked with undocumented communities, I’ve always been aware of what a privilege it is to even have a visa. I’ve existed in the space of having real anxieties because of my temporary statuses and also working to support folks who are in worse situations. Being on a temporary green card for the last couple of years has given me some stability, but I’m still aware that nothing is guaranteed. However, that’s never stopped me from speaking out. It’s more important than ever to be speaking out against anti-immigrant sentiment.
Last year you wrote a piece in HuffPost connecting the dots between climate justice and immigrant rights. Can you talk about moving from working in immigrant justice at the New York Immigration Coalition to climate justice at 350.org?
I’ve done really frontline immigrant rights work in New York for almost a decade, supporting immigrants from deportation and detention. I was one of the main organizers for the Muslim Ban protest at JFK last year. Part of it was that I was just really burnt out. Also, climate justice needs to be a lot more intersectional. The climate justice movement is super white in the United States, which is crazy considering that Black and Brown people are the first people impacted by the climate crisis, even though they’ve had the least to do with creating it.
People need to consider climate justice as an immigrant rights issue. Because of sea level rise, hurricanes, storms and droughts, people are starting to have to migrate for safety and economic stability. Climate is only one of many factors that causes migration, but it is a factor. Climate change has a lot do with capitalism, colonialism and the consequences of western industrialization. I will always identify first as an immigrant rights activist, and currently one that works in climate justice.
You also DJ and run iBomba, a QTPOC and immigrant centered party. Speaking on a Chroma panel earlier this year you mentioned that you started DJing as a way to maintain control during a stressful time. Can you speak to that, and the ties between your activism and space within New York’s party scene?
I’m a club kid, I love dancing! I’m also an activist who does really heavy and intense work. If you’re going to be an activist, you really have to do it with joy. The beautiful thing about music and culture spaces is that you get to create a vision of the world that you want to see. I learned to DJ as a way to express creativity during a time when I was quite depressed. Living in America for me has always meant living in little chunks of time; I’m granted a three year visa and then wait and find out what will happen after that. For me, DJing was something that I could control.
In 2010 and 2011 I started going to parties where there would be a lot of activists and organizers, and I felt the joy of those spaces and really wanted to contribute. Also, I noticed that a lot of DJs were cis-men and I felt that it was important that queer women also run such spaces. I used to go to this party called Sweat in Brooklyn that was organized by trans and gender queer Black and Latinx folks, and was just flooded with Black and Brown folks. These spaces were really important because we got to meet each other and figure out how to organize together.
Is there a tension between working in a “professional” activist space and also working in nightlife, or do those scenes intertwine?
Sometimes it can come together, sometimes it can’t. The club scene has also become more competitive than it used to be. There’s a capital politic to it. The point of putting together these spaces for Black and Brown people is also to support Black and Brown people, so I need to pay them well.
Brooklyn is gentrifying really, really fast. There’s a lot more white people in Bed Stuy, which is where we throw iBomba. So even though that space is intentionally created for people of color, you can’t stop white people from entering. When a neighborhood changes, so does the space. Those are just some of the struggles. It’s also really tough trying to do two things. I work 9-5 in a job that I need to do really well, and then I’m also trying to be a really good DJ and create cultural work.
That’s A LOT!
When I’m DJing, the level of joy I see makes it worthwhile. I get to see this other side to people. There’s also increasingly more queer folks and queer women of color DJing. In that way it’s not competitive, and I feel super lucky to exist within a very supportive community.
That’s real community, rather than people vying for limited success.
I never want to feel like I’m competing with others for success as a DJ. I believe there’s enough space for all of us; we should exist in abundance, not with a scarcity mentality. I have very varied interests and DJing brings them together. I play global club music from Black and Brown communities all over the world and genre blend as an act of migrant storytelling.
I was listening to one of your mixes on the way here, it’s a world tour!
I’m super interested in the history of music migration. I really like soca music from the Caribbean. If you listen to the base of soca music, it has the same beat as Sri Lankan baila music. That’s because of the migration of indentured labor from places like Sri Lanka and India to places like Trinidad, Guyana and Tobago. And then the root of baila music also comes from African communities brought to Sri Lanka by the British, Portuguese and Dutch, and even during pre-colonial times. You can trace migration through music.
In my political work I’m interested in people’s right to migrate, and I believe that if music can migrate, people should also be allowed to migrate!