By Cai Carvajalcastillo
*Editor’s note: Punjabi is the colonized term, derived from the original term Panjabi.
Meet Manpreet Singh, a queer and transgender California based Punjabi activist, writer and poet. This simple description dulls in comparison to the bright star that is Manpreet! He has written for multiple publications such as Feminism in India, and is enchanting the world one day at a time with his empowering spoken word. Singh uses his platform to educate his audience and destigmitize what it means to be a Panjabi trans man as well as tackling various social issues such as colonialism in the Sikh community.
I find myself being infected with his contagious passion and learn something new whenever I leave his social media, feeling as though I’m ready to take on the world!
Singh also recently self published his book, Singh is Queer, a collection of poetry about colonialism, his own life experiences dealing with abuse, and intersectional feminism through a Sikh perspective. His poetry moves my soul, with every page dripping in emotion, I knew his book would become a new favorite of mine!
The Sorjo team had the honor and pleasure of interviewing him about his book, his journey transitioning and being a trans queer man in the Panjabi community.
Cai: When did you start writing?
Manpreet: I started writing when I was in middle school, around 11 years old. My mom got me a “High School Musical” themed notebook; I still remember whose smile was plastered on the cover. I used that entire notebook, writing a poem on every single page front and back. The themes of my poems were trauma, heartbreak, and depression. A lot of them were secret little love notes that I never gave to the girls I would write about.
Cai: How would you describe the process of writing your book?
Manpreet: I never intended to write a book or publish any work. My professor read some of my work, and asked me to come to one of her rehearsals. I had no idea she was the director of a social justice production called CSUFERGUSON. Professor Ann Fajilan asked me to write a piece about myself, so I did. I ended up reading it to the class, and the professor really liked the piece. She asked me to perform it for the CSUFERGUSON cast. A few days later, I showed up to the University theater and performed that spoken word piece for the cast (The Interview); this piece is a compilation of old and new works. In my book, it is very short, but the original piece is approximately three to four pages long, about five minutes in length. It used to be around eight, but we had to cut a lot out due to our time situation. CSUFERGUSON was the first ever safe space that I was part of, and the first time I felt comfortable after so long. The professor asked me to join CSUFERGUSON, so I did. My work was published in that playwright, and I performed with them over a course of a few months. The production won so many awards, national and state. I got a writing award as well, which was so awesome. My professor asked me one day, “When are you going to publish?” That moment is when I considered publishing. I reached out to my older sister, Ritu Kaur, and she helped me with the publishing process. I formatted the book myself, and a good friend of mine designed the cover. As soon as the process began, I could not sleep for more than a few hours each day. I would stay up until 3 AM and wake up around 8 AM. It became a mission to effectively manage my time.
Cai: What inspires you to write?
Manpreet: Pain inspires me to write. I usually start thinking of random things, and whatever thoughts appeal to me the most, I write them down. Then, I write about that subject without stopping or worrying about spelling. I keep writing until I run out of words. If I feel like the work is worthy of being continued, I continue to edit it overtime. If not, I scrap it and move on to the next work. It helps to practice writing by writing about random objects, and it helps to read other people’s works (I highly advise not to create art right after viewing another’s art to avoid accidental plagiarism).
Cai: If you had to describe your creative process in three words what would they be?
Manpreet: Three words to describe my creative process: Feel, process, write.
Cai: What’s your favorite thing to write about?
Manpreet: My favorite thing to write about is History. There are a million different ways to describe the societal structures in place which exist because of history. History is a never-ending map; something new is being discovered each day about the Past.
Cai: When and how did you start to understand more about your gender identity and sexuality? Topics such as those are not discussed in the South Asian community so I could imagine what it was like for you to grow up with unsettling feelings that you’re not cis or straight!
Manpreet: I was a child, around the age of eight years old, when I saw a shooting star for the first time. As soon as I saw it, I wished to wake up in the body of a little boy. The next day, I did not wake up in the body of a little boy, but I still held onto hope that someday I would. When I would dream, I would dream from the perspective of a man. I watched a lot of Dragon Ball Z and it influenced my dreams; I would be in the body of Goten at times.
When I was around 11 years old, puberty began to take place. That is when I basically began to disassociate with my body. The world always felt unreal because of how disconnected I felt in my body. I would double up my bras in order to hide my chest, and I would wear baggy clothes. I played soccer as well, sometimes even played on the city’s boys’ teams for a season or so.
In high school, I began to present as feminine because my friends and family would continuously police my femininity, saying I was not girly enough. I was around 20 years old when I took a human sexuality class at the local community college. The professor taught the class about gender dysphoria and transgenderism. Unfortunately, she used the term Gender Identity Disorder (GID), but I’m glad she exposed me to this topic. That same year, I met my current girlfriend. I began to explore my gender identity with her because she noticed it. She saw the way I dressed and asked me if I was comfortable with presenting feminine. I began to dress in baggy clothes again, and she never minded. She asked me if I wanted to use he/him pronouns and began waking me up with “Good morning prince” texts. It was comforting to know that she supported whatever decision I made, and I hopped on board right away. I had no idea somebody could love me no matter who I was or what I looked like. It’s already hard enough to date as a queer person, but it becomes even more difficult as a queer/transgender person.
I began following transgender blogs on tumblr; I learned about it, asked questions, and watched videos. For months, I literally turned into a sponge and absorbed as much information about Transgenderism as possible; my girlfriend did the same. I started Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in September of 2015, and went through stage 1 of 3 of my top surgery in November of 2015. It wasn’t as smooth as it could have been, but my transition was fairly smooth (compared to most individuals) because of the resources that the Bay Area has to offer.
Cai: Most people don’t understand or know what Sikhi is. What does it mean to you?
Manpreet: Sikhi* emphasizes co-existence; the first guru, Guru Nanak Dev Ji, emphasized unification and oneness. The ten Gurus emphasized love, compassion, and strength; they always wanted Sikhs to serve their communities and Pramathma*. To me, to be a Sikh is to be a student, a feminist, as Sikh literally translates to “learner of truth.” To be a Sikh is to be liberated, safe, and empowered.
*Sikhi: Sikhi refers to ‘the internal fluidity that cannot be reduced to pluralism and carries the sense of a qualitative difference through a process of ego-loss even as it maintains a particular identity’ – formalized in 1699 by the creation of the Khalsa. The Punjabi term Sikhi means to learn and unlike the term Sikhism, it does not represent an object but a process of self-transformation.
*Pramathma: The Creator; Literally “Param-atma” would translate as the first or primary soul. In this model, at death the human soul would be recycled into some species of existence after Judgment or merge into Paramatma and become freed of the cycle of birth and rebirth.
Cai: How is it interconnecting your Panjabi heritage with your gender identity and sexuality? Personally, growing up as a Bengali woman, I’ve always correlated queerness with ‘whiteness’ because I never knew a South Asian person could be anything other than cis and straight, thus not understanding my own sexuality. Did you ever feel like you’re not “Panjabi” enough because you’re a queer/trans man?
Manpreet: That totally makes sense. It’s hard to identify with Queerness when Queerness doesn’t exist in Panjabi media; if it does exist, it exists in an invisible or misconstrued way. I never thought much of Queerness, never knew what it really was or that it was a solid concept even though I knew that I was Queer. To me, being Queer was as normal as being straight, so I never felt that it needed to have a label because love is love, right?
I do not connect my Panjabi heritage with my gender identity and sexuality anymore. I used to compare myself to others a lot, always feeling that I was not “Panjabi” enough due to my Queer roots. There was no space for me in society, so how could a person like me exist, right? I’m fortunate that this generation of Panjabi Sikhs is already changing that. We are taking up space with our existences, our articles, our poetry, our careers, our research, and our struggles.
At times, I would shy away from my Sikh roots because of how patriarchal Sikhi has become due to Panjabi culture; I mean, they separate men and women in the Darbar Hall in Gurdwara*, and that isn’t even supposed to be a thing! A separation exists even though our teachings tell us that a separation shouldn’t exist. Also, I am Jatt* but don’t identify with the Panjabi caste system and dislike it completely (we need to dismantle it honestly); a lot of Panjabi culture is tied into the caste system which is ruled by the Jatt, and the average Jatt doesn’t want to dismantle a system that caters to her/him, so they continue to perpetuate it. I honestly can’t relate to my Panjabi heritage because of how problematic it is, but my Sikh heritage is what (re)connects me to my Queerness.
*Gurdwara: A place of worship for Sikhis.
*Jatt: An ethnic group in the Panjab region of northwestern India. Sikhism does not endorese the caste system as it leads to unequality. However, Panjabi and Jatt culture follows the caste system.
Cai: Faith and organized religion itself are so complex. How do you coexist being Sikh and your gender identity and sexuality? How did it play a role while you were transitioning?
Manpreet: I disconnected from my Sikhi during the beginning of my transition because Queer spaces are full of white people who are usually atheist or Christian. I had little to no backlash from the Sikh community as I began transitioning, but as soon as I reclaimed being a Singh and changed my name to SinghIsQueer, that is when the online harassment began. I was always in tune with my Sikhi, even during the times that I was disconnected. I haven’t cut my kes* in almost a year, and I am really proud of how I tie my pagh* now. Sikhi strengthens my Queer identity, and my Queer identity strengthens Sikhi. They do not correlate with one another, however, one exists with the other in absolute peace and harmony.
*Kes: In Sikhism, Kesh (sometimes Kes) is the practice of allowing one’s hair to grow naturally as a symbol of respect for the perfection of God’s creation.The 5 Ks date from the creation of the Khalsa Panth by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699.
Cai: In immigrant communities or communities of color, we are often taught to not share our personal experiences and to keep it to yourself. However, you pour out different raw life experiences you’ve gone through such as rape, depression and more. Why do you feel as though it’s important to be vulnerable through your writing?
Manpreet: This is such an important question because Panjabi culture teaches Panjabi people to hush about topics such as these, it’s literally a patriarchy that you must abide by, otherwise, you’re not “normal.” If you aren’t vulnerable in your writing, what is the point of writing? I write for myself, so that I can heal.
When I started writing, I would write down my experiences in both poetry form and story form. I used to write a lot of short stories which were between me and my mother because she oppressed me so much as a child/teen. I would never censor my previous work, but I am beginning to censor some experiences because of how traumatic they are, I only give enough pieces of info about the story I decide to talk about. I only need people to know about the topics and the experience, so they know that this type of struggle does exist somewhere in the world. If people can relate, I hope it makes them feel less alone. That is the whole point of my vulnerable writing- to make people know that they are heard, that I see them, that I am speaking for them (if they want me to). I am a servant to these people, and I realized this after we performed CSUFERGUSON in Washington. I had so many queer/trans people and rape survivors come up to me after the performance to thank me (because my piece, The Interview, is literally about being a QTPOC and surviving rape, racism, and Queerphobia). At one point, a woman stood up in the audience and shared her rape story with me and my castmates (She said she had never opened up about it before). We were all in tears, I could never forget that experience. It made me realize that there is a lot of work to do, that I must keep doing this work, so that others can find their voice. That is what I strive for in my writing- to let people know that they DO have a voice, that they CAN use it.
Cai: Who are some other South Asian creators/writers part of the LGBTQ that you know of?
Harmeet Rehal is an queer and nonbinary illustrator that uses their artwork to educate others on systematic racism and issues surrounding sexuality and gender. Armaan and Zayn Singh are also Panjabi trans activists that writes poetry about their experiences being a trans man of color. Kiran is another South Asian writer that posts beautiful poetry on her instagram. Loveleen is a painter that uses her South Asian heritage as a theme in her incredible artwork.
Cai: Do you have any advice for young LGBT+ writers of color?
Manpreet: My advice to the young LGBT+ writers of color is to form your own writing groups. Start with another person even, it does not have to be a big group. Meet once a week or once a month, but be persistent. Join clubs on campus if you go to school, or clubs in your city if your city does that. There are ways to join organizations and whatnot where people just write together. Set some time aside for yourself for you to write at home. Make it a schedule that you stick to, if you want to make it somewhere with your writing. Read the work of others, collaborate with others, expose your art to others.
Meet the Writer:
Cai Castillo is a 16-year-old self identifying dyke who currently resides in Georgia. He grew up in Santo Domingo, La Capital and moved to the United States 3 years ago. Cai is a senior in high school and attends college full time. He has been published in several zines and school newspapers and was a part of the governor’s honors program junior year. The topics he focuses on most are immigration rights, women’s rights, LGBT people of color, anti-capitalist/leftist work, and antifascism. He spends his time volunteering and working with local organizations that deals with each issue.
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