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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Brown Is Haram: Kristian-Marc James Paul and Mysara Aljaru reclaim their space

Brown Is Haram: Reconstructing The Brown Narrative is a performance-lecture exploring different aspects of the experience of being brown in Singapore, exploring issues such as social mobility and masculinity. This show is based on the work and ongoing collaborative project of writer and activist Kristian-Marc James Paul and writer-researcher Mysara Aljaru, and is directed by Myle Yan Tay. 

The performance-lecture runs from March 11 to 13 as part of The Substation’s SeptFest 2021. Tickets are sold out, but read on to find out their thoughts about what they’re trying to unpack in their show, and about the brown experience in Singapore.

[The interview below has been lightly edited]

There was a previous iteration last year. What’s new for this iteration of Brown Is Haram?

Kristian: Speaking for myself, after the first one I realised that there were still things I wanted to talk about. Things that I could explore with more nuance, facets of my identities or my stories, and also, the different anecdotes I had gotten from the workshops that I facilitated under the Substation’s Concerned Citizens Programme, which Yan co-facilitated with me. The introduction of Alfian (Sa’at as the dramaturg) – he looked at the text and was like, there are things that we need to put in that we were not necessarily talking about. It was almost surgical, like “can you write something specific to this”.

Mysara: The first one we did, my writing seemed a little bit more academic. This time, with Alfian and Yan onboard, it’s much more personal. One difference will be how we are going to stage it. The first one was like a small workshop. We were doing rituals while we read what we wrote. But in this rendition, it’s a performance-lecture. Yan has been great in helping us – because I’m not trained in theatre – to put what we have in mind into action.

People who know me know that my works talk about issues. This time around it’s about how I tie these issues to my own personal experiences as a Malay woman in Singapore. I think the main thing for my pieces would be what does the model Malay woman look like? When Alfian asked that question, of course, there are certain names of people in the government. So I try to imagine myself as them. 

Photo: Aaron Andrew Ang

 

Yan, what are some things you’re trying to tease out in this show?

Yan: What I’m working with them on is trying to get to that very personal place. We’re trying to get into the reality of the things they’ve written because they’ve been very, very powerful things. They are forced to look at a text they’ve written and rewritten so many times, and try to reinvigorate that, find life in it again. There are bits of text where they become characters in each other’s stories. There’s some bits that only make sense when Kris says it only to Mysara, and Mysara says it only to Kris. The audience becomes a bystander. The audience is no longer the primary witness.

The show is about social mobility and masculinity. What are your entrypoints into these particular issues? 

Kristian: I’ve been interested in looking at minority race masculinity, how people perform that and how people navigate that – simultaneously holding on to very real palpable privilege in identifying as male and the privileges that come with that, but then at the same time, being of a very different racial class, of being non-Chinese essentially.

I write about things like what it means for brown men to have specific racial preferences – to date Chinese women, white women. What does it mean that I’ve also reproduced that, and what am I complicit in? Yeah, so it’s not necessarily just the marginalised experience, but how you can also simultaneously reproduce these different systems.

Mysara: I’ve always been interested in what mobility is for the Malay community. It started from, you know, all those National Day Rallies, you know, bringing up our achievements. That was the entrypoint. But also, my own experience, where I can try and counter and say, “no, I don’t want to fit into what society deems as a successful Malay woman”, but I know I fit into it. 

And when you talk about social mobility, it is usually seen in terms of the community as a whole, but there are very specific experiences that men don’t experience. There are also parts in the show where Kris and I have interactions about racial preferences. As a brown woman when we see brown men dating Chinese women or white women, the things that are always discussed among us that the brown men don’t hear. That comes out as well. 

Photo: Bernie Ng

 

Can you talk about the title, Brown Is Haram? You know, in terms of the language or the terminology of it?

Mysara: I’m very much invested in how we talk about drug issues in the community. And the number one thing that comes out is the “Dadah Itu Haram” campaign. The word “haram” is very strong. The moment you say something is haram, you can’t question it. But actually, what you deem as haram can be questioned. And I know it sounds like we are unifying the brown experience, but actually what we’re saying is that it’s not that black and white. It’s actually grey. 

Kristian: In minority race communities, conventional success looks a certain way, right? You can get out of your socioeconomic class, upward mobility and things like that. And any other form of success is not necessarily as accessible. So then it’s like authentic brownness, or this real brownness, is the thing that is forbidden. Because when the minority individual, especially in Singapore, steers away from conventional modes of success, it’s seen as being deviant. 

Yan: There’s something interesting about the contradiction in it. There’s something a bit inflammatory about it. Because you look at it, and you’re like, “well, that can’t be quite right”. That’s something that we’re piecing out in the performance. What is brown? Brown is what? Is it this? Is it not-this? Is it that? Is it halal? Is it haram? We’re trying to unpack that. 

Performance can be freeing in that it offers speculations for the future. Do you feel like your show gives you that space? 

Kristian: Over the years, I’ve been less interested in trying to discover a conclusion or an answer. And I’m more interested in the emotion one could experience from reading or experiencing my piece. Performing just amplifies that intention. So I’m interested in creating different characters that are almost approximations or aggregations, I suppose, and being able to perform allows me to embody these different characters that I normally wouldn’t.

Yan: The form is very interesting – we have these texts from Mysara and Kristian, and the characters within it, and then there’s also Mysara and Kristian as performers, and Mysara and Kristian as people on stage. They’re both performers and people on stage. And sometimes they’re both at once. It’s fascinating to watch the gaps come out. The interesting thing about the performance aspect of it, it’s not just this layer of artifice, it also allows them to get more vulnerable, in a way that they may not be able to if they were just Mysara and Kristian as people on stage.

Mysara: Usually, people know us as doing a very certain kind of work. We always have to justify what we say, justify what we do and our work. This prevents that. It allows us to be much more vulnerable in that sense. We don’t have to explain ourselves. 

Like, “ok shut up for a while”. 

Mysara: Just shut up and listen, full stop. 

Yan: There’s no comments section. Which can be the most vile place imaginable. 

Photo: Aaron Andrew Ang

 

What are your fears in presenting this piece?

Kristian: I tend to be quite judgmental of my own work and always wonder if I’m being self-reflexive or self-critical enough, or introspective enough. For me, the fear is that I’m going to go away and think like, “oh, shit, I really should have talked about this and I didn’t”. Even though I’m not trying to address every facet of my identity, there’s some part of me that feels like I have to. Or there is this expectation that that’s what people want. And inadvertently there’s a part of me that wants to live up to that.

It’s the burden of representation, right? You want to try to fit everything in because people might be expecting you to address this thing that’s never been talked about before.

Mysara: A concern I have is that there’s an expectation that that’s the only thing we’re gonna do. Like, you know, all of us are going to keep doing Brown Is Haram until we die. There’s also that danger of our voices eclipsing everyone else’s, because people expect us to do it, even within the community itself.

I wouldn’t say that everything that we’re doing is groundbreaking. But maybe because we’re doing it on a platform where it gives access to a certain class of people. If I had a fear, is that I’m very comfortable with doing this to a certain group of people that I forget that there’s another group who might not have the same access. Or the way they speak about issues might not be the same. If a makcik doesn’t understand what I’m trying to say, then it’s of no use. 

Photo: Bernie Ng

 

It is especially poignant, because of the themes that you’re talking about. Because you’re brown, and reclaiming the space.

Yan: That’s what we’re exploring both in the text, and also with lighting and sound. We did a table read, and we noticed “eh, actually there’s some Chinese voices in here, but something’s not quite right”. Now that we’re a lecture-performance, and we’ve got the luxury of a lighting designer, a sound designer, all this tech, let’s do something different. Let’s really just hold the space for the two of them. We’re throwing this cloak of invisibility over people who typically would occupy the most space. 

Mysara: Whenever you step into art spaces where you are the minority, there’s a certain expectation by the Chinese community, like “I must understand what you’re doing”. Because they’re very much used to things being catered for them. So when they step into our space, we are occupying the space, and “it is not about you. It’s our experiences, and this is really what was said to us”. So we want to create that distance.

These are our stories. It’s strictly about us, from us, by us.


SeptFest 2021 takes place at the Substation from now till 28 March. Find out more about the programmes here.

This article is sponsored by The Substation.

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