Judas Ātman on Exploring Forgiveness and Liminal Spaces Through Poetry

Judas Ātman (he/they) is a queer, mixed-race, South/Southeast Asian diasporic artist born and raised in San Francisco, California, and now based in New York City. Their artistic practice is based in hybridity, including but not limited to performance, directing, and creative writing. In his work, he uses the liminality of his identity as a foundation for exploring the possibilities within becoming. In 2019 Judas graduated from NYU Tisch School of the Arts with a BFA in drama and a minor in film production. During their undergrad program, they cofounded the Atlantic Students of Color, the first Tisch drama school affinity group dedicated to building community between undergrad students of color and advocating for their safety, well-being, and equitable representation. He subsequently became the group’s first director from 2016 to 2018. During their last semester, he directed an adaptation of The Ramayana using central ideas from José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia to stage a queer retelling of the classic myth. Since graduating, Judas performed in LIFE with Silver Glass Productions and was featured as a fellow in Theater Mitu’s first Hybrid Arts Lab.

Judas Ātman’s poem “Rx: 2501” is published in Capsule Stories Autumn 2021 Edition. “Rx: 2501” is written for the commutes Judas made through his mind while riding the A train to and from therapy sessions during the fall of 2020, the overarching journey being one of navigating forgiveness.

Capsule Stories: Tell us about the poem’s conception. What other writers have influenced you, and specifically, this poem?

Judas Ātman: Sometime in October of 2020 I developed a deep ache in my left shoulder unlike any other I had before. I have always had problems with shoulder tension, but this ache ran deep. I tried to soothe it by applying Tiger Balm and Icy Hot patches and spending a lot of time in hot Epsom salt baths. While in the bath, I’d play music and let my mind wander. At the time, I was obsessively listening to Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher album, and the song that stuck with me was “Kyoto,” particularly the line “I don’t forgive you / but please don’t hold me to it.” This song helped me reconnect with emotions from my past that had started to resurface through my body. Writing “Rx: 2501” helped me process my own feelings and reflect on the pain I was experiencing. I find poetic writing helps bring unconscious emotions to the surface through the imagery and symbolism that it gravitates toward.

The Punisher album had a specific viselike grip on my emotional world during the summer, fall, and winter of 2020. Other writers that are influential to my writing are Ocean Vuong, Octavia Butler, James Baldwin, Shirley Jackson, Tarell Alvin McCraney, William Faulkner, and more recently Theresa Hak Kyung Cha.

Capsule Stories: You write: “i asked the pharmacy / if they had any forgiveness / and under a forgotten bridge / i tried to thread it through my veins.” What draws you to writing about the theme of forgiveness? How do you approach writing about it?

Judas Ātman: I have a really hard time with letting things go. At twenty, I sat myself down and considered that if I was going to make a commitment to living then I needed to get serious about making peace with my past or it would continue to haunt me. Reading and writing have been my primary outlets for processing since I tend to prefer processing on my own first before I approach others. I write about forgiveness because I’m trying to figure out how to do it, how to forgive others and, most of all, how to forgive myself. 

On the road to forgiveness I’ve found the hardest obstacle is acceptance. As I see it, there are two pathways to peace from acceptance: leaving it behind or forgiving it. Sometimes addressing the past, particularly one in which I was harmed, means talking to the folks involved in the harm. I want to believe in forgiveness for everyone because it’s easy to idealize, to imagine that forgiveness can patch what was once splintered, but sometimes I can’t fix what was broken and neither can the other person. This is where acceptance can come in. It can look like this: I accept there is a cavern between us that can never be filled and the only way forward is to leave it be. That’s a difficult feeling to make peace with when I still really love the other person or when there’s still a hook for me in them.

When I have problems with letting something go I end up holding on to the bitter end. This poem is the kind of writing that comes from that space as an archive of feelings while they’re being processed through my body.

Capsule Stories: How does this poem and the theme of forgiveness tie into the season of autumn?

Judas Ātman: Forgiveness is an expression of letting go. The first time I experienced true forgiveness was with the first person I ever dated, who remains to be one of my closest and most cherished friends. We fell out during the summer and for seven months through the fall and winter we didn’t speak. Before winter transitioned to spring, we met up in a café on Carmine Street and hashed it out. By the end, I felt clear. There was nothing left to hold against her, and I didn’t want to anymore because it was during that conversation I remembered the only reason I was so angry with her was because I loved her. Through the seasons of my anger I still understood exactly why she did the things she did, having been haunted by her own past.

The first Greek myth I ever learned about was the story of Persephone. From the time I was young I carried an awareness with me that fall was an expression of her journey into the Underworld and a mother’s grief at her departure. At my school, fall meant ghost stories and trips to the Mission Cultural Center to see the altars for Día de los Muertos. In Hinduism, Shiva is both the god of death and letting go. In 2017, I started posting photos of him around my apartment to remind me that I was learning how to let go. Soon a photo of Kali found itself on my bathroom mirror, a reminder that when you hold on too tightly and for too long, the only way to let go is to destroy. Kali represents destruction and liberation.

But in my heart of hearts, I care more about preservation than destruction. I want liberation too, though I’m not sure if I can ever feel free as long as I feel overwhelmed by my anger. I’ve spent a long time trying not to be angry because it felt scary to let that part of me in. There is harm in my past I’m not sure I will ever be able to forgive. To reach forgiveness takes work and not everyone is owed it. It’s on the person who’s been harmed to choose to give it. It’s on the person who has harmed to work toward it. Not everyone wants to or is ready to do that work.

In that case, I have also found that forgiveness doesn’t always need to be done in person. Sometimes I have forgiven from afar. When I am hurt or harmed in a relationship it can be really difficult to see the humanity of the other person. After some time, and a lot of space, I can forgive, in the sense that I can see the humanity of the other person and understand the best thing for me is to part ways.

So in the fall I take time to reflect on what it is that I need to forgive in order to let go. Usually this means sitting in the emotions that have been left unprocessed and opening myself to actually feel the depth of them.

A line from Judas Ātman’s poem “Rx: 2501” that reads “it’s not easy to paint an image of a ghost.”

Capsule Stories: This poem is set in a liminal space—on a train. How do you use liminal space in your writing? What’s the significance of liminality in your work?

Judas Ātman: Liminal spaces are important to me because I feel that’s where I am often coming from in my own life. Growing up, I felt lodged in the space between halves: half-Asian, half-white, half belonging to my father’s family, half belonging to my mother’s, and there was no one who was full with me. Every single one of my siblings are half-siblings. Throughout my childhood, I felt distinctly on my own in the borderlands. 

In America, everyone asked me where I was from. Visiting Singapore, I was definitively American. I became increasingly aware I didn’t relate to the white kids in school, but I also didn’t experience the same kind of discrimination as the Black or Latine kids did. I tried to relate to other Asian kids but I was also told things like I wasn’t Asian because I wasn’t Chinese. When I got to high school, I related to some of the other half-white, half-Asian kids, though not all of them. Even the ones that I related to, I still felt we related based on our experiences of not relating. I wasn’t quite satisfied. Identity isn’t negation. It doesn’t feel emotionally fulfilling to only share what you’re both not. I didn’t feel these relationships filled the gaps I felt between myself and everyone, but they did help me feel a little bit less lonely in my experience.

Later on, I started to awaken to my queerness. I found myself telling a trans friend “I sort of understand nonbinary folks because as a mixed kid I understand the feeling of being simultaneously both and neither.” A year and a half later, I came out as nonbinary. Even as I transitioned from nonbinary to a trans masc identity and embodiment, I feel that it’s a liminal masculinity. That’s why I identify as “trans masc” and not as a “trans man.” “Trans masc” feels more liminal in my mouth. I’m not a man, I’m a “man.” My masculinity is not traditional, and I’m not interested in being that. 

Liminal spaces like trains, mythical realms, and borderlands, which have all played roles in my work, reflect the realm inside of my psychosoma where I am creating a better understanding of myself. Discovering the person beyond who I was told I had to be has pushed me to see this world beyond black-and-white binaries. José Esteban Muñoz gave me the concept of a journey of becoming beyond the horizon in Cruising Utopia like a beautifully bound gift. I find the same feeling on transit and during transition seasons. I feel that fall and spring are distinctly trans in their liminality.

Capsule Stories: How do you approach titling your poems? Can you talk about how you landed on the title for “Rx: 2501”?

Judas Ātman: I title things last. My pieces stay titled “untitled” for a long time. I change titles often. In my pieces, I want the title to knock on whatever feels central to the piece, and sometimes my perspective changes. I named this piece after prescription numbers for medication. The numbers 2501 are a known shorthand code for my childhood home between me and the family who has lived there.

Capsule Stories: How does your career in theater influence your poetry writing?

Judas Ātman: Theater has been my primary area of study so I approach a lot of my work with the audience in mind. I think a lot about what it would be like for someone else to sit at my work. In my theater pieces, I consider the audience as an essential part of the piece. I’ve always hated prosceniums because they draw too distinct a border between the audience and the performance. I want audiences to be a part of the experience. I love the way Paul Preciado employs the address of “you” in the introduction of Testo Junkie—“it was your gesture”—and the way I felt called into the piece as I read it.

Reading is a more private experience than a theater show, but sometimes we read in public. The other day I was reading Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner in Tompkins Square Park and shedding a few tears of my own. That’s the effect I carry with me as an audience member to that book. I start crying in Kaluystan’s reflecting on my own fear of who I’ll call when my mother isn’t there anymore to tell me which brand to buy for Dodo’s recipes. There’s a point of connection formed. Crying in H Mart becomes like a script I play out in the spice aisle. I even score it with my own Spotify playlist.

The first theater production I was a part of that launched my desire to become an artist at age sixteen was a devised piece as part of the peer education theater class in my high school. The piece was titled Grey Matter(s) which, ironically, centralized the concept of liminality through the image of the gray space between black and white. It wasn’t until recently when I attended a peer resource alumni event that I realized how much this show impacted my work since. Grey Matter(s) was the first time I ever wrote about liminality. Sometime after coming out as trans, I went back and read one of my pieces in the show and it felt very much like . . . ​​how could I not have known then? Because the piece felt very trans of me. Grey Matter(s) also used us, meaning the performers in the show, as subjects for our own material, and I continue to use self-introspection as a primary inspiration for my work. Even when I am inspired by someone else’s subjectivity, my first response is, what does this interrogate in me and how do I understand myself in the world around me?

I’m obsessed with people and what makes them who they are, which works for being a writer the way it worked for being an actor. I grew up trying to figure out everyone in my family and where I fit in all of it. At family gatherings I noticed every gesture, every pause, every trip of the tongue, every choice of words, every shifted tone of voice, and the way people stood in a room after having just come back from fighting behind closed doors. I became pretty adept at witnessing. It’s a survival skill I’ve tried to release in my relationships, for my own sanity and that of others. It’s left me with a strong interest in people. I write what I see in the people around me. I also write because I want to be seen. I didn’t see a lot of people like me.

I genuinely love nothing more than to sit on a blanket in the grass and hear someone tell me about the things they’ve been through in their life for a luxurious amount of time. I’m in a season of my life where I’m interrogating my relationship with intimacy and acknowledging that one of my greatest desires has always been deeper intimacy with others. I’m itching for collaboration, in my life, in my community, and in my work. I want my work to feel like the eye contact an actor can make with an audience member to remind them that they’re not a passive observer. With writing it’s a bit harder because I can’t be there to witness the person reading my piece. I try to create as much of that experience by being plainly honest about what has hurt me and made me incredibly uncomfortable in my life, to wear my struggles openly, to air out my own issues and complications because it’s folks who have done the same that have inspired me to think more intimately with myself.

Capsule Stories: What are you working on next?

Judas Ātman: Since graduating NYU and having been in quarantine like most other folks, I’ve taken the time to focus on my writing. I’m working on developing a collection of poetry that follows more of this theme of haunting as it relates to my journey through my identities, moreso focusing on my relationship with my Asian identity.

I’m also in the middle of writing my first novel ever, an untitled piece in the psychological haunting genre inspired by Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House except much more Asian American and queer. I’m not sure what I’ll end up doing with either of these pieces. I feel I’m still very much in the process of exploration and enjoying creating for the sake of creating. My future plan is to sit down and apply for MFA creative writing programs.

The best place to follow Judas Ātman and his work is on Instagram at @judas_atman. You can also contact them at judasatman@gmail.com.

Read Judas Ātman’s poem “Rx: 2501” in Capsule Stories Autumn 2021 Edition, now available in paperback and ebook.

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