Literary figures like Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou and others have used their words to facilitate their activism. They have asked difficult questions and expressed their desires, aspirations and struggles with a string of words sewn together that falls into the perfect rhythm.
What makes people move, held and taken by poems? Aren’t these actions the basis of activism?
Kalki Subramaniam, the celebrated transwoman, activist artist and poet has used her words to express the anguish, struggles and shared joys of the trans community. Her poetry mirrors the sentiments that stay in the hearth of a trans person’s being.
The activist confesses that the poetry she pens comes from her heart. Whether it’s a transman’s suffocation or a transwoman’s grudge with not being able to bear children or their joys and romance, she brings those emotions through ink onto the paper for the readers to empathize with at least 50% of the feelings emoted in them.
“I feel every emotion [experienced by the transgender community]. My intention in writing poems is I want people to read and understand our emotions. It is not just about me or my issue; it’s a larger issue. I thought poetry would be eloquent, beautiful and at the same time [I thought] it would be an important tool to make understand our plight, love, hope,” explains Kalki about why she chose to write poetry.
Born in Pollachi, a town in Tamil Nadu, Kalki, has not just turned to art herself but encouraged other members of the transgender community to turn to writing, filmmaking and arts. The activist, who predominantly works for causes—transgender persons and the larger queer community’s rights—wrote the book We Are Not The Others.
The book, as she calls it, is a reflection of an “artivist”. Replete with illustrations, heart-wrenching poems, previously published writings and heartening letters to young children, especially the queer children, the book, she says, was written so people could understand that transgender persons were not any different from us “normal people”.
“The (un)conscious bias that we have about transgender persons, the superstitious beliefs and the misconceptions surrounding our community, especially the stereotypes, I want to clear it. I want to establish the fact that we are humans too. I wanted to let people know we also want the same things as others—love, dignity, being treated with respect; and I think I have established with the book,” she explains.
Poetry, Kalki says, is one of the mediums that has allowed her to express herself animatedly. She explains that every poem she writes happens every time she’s in a vulnerable state and mulling over an issue that concerns her; this makes the poem feel more intimate.
Of many she’s written, one that stands out is her poem titled Piece By Piece. While the words she uses are simple, it’s the analogy that blows the readers’ minds. Elaborating on the poem, she mentioned it is her declaration of being proud of her identity.
Acceptance of the queer community and transgender persons
“While expressing that I am proud of being transgender at the same time I wanted to express the struggles I had to go through to attain the physical and social identity I today have. I had to do it piece by piece,” she answers.
“I am not a woman by birth, I was born as a shattered Rubik’s cube,” she reads her poem that expresses her elation of having found her identity, her celebration of womanhood. “Nobody in the world is a complete man or a complete woman; we are all imperfect,” she adds.
Apart from the thematic commonality in her writings, one may notice the motif of referencing mythological figures is a recurring one. The idea behind having the references is to establish the fact that the gender and sexuality spectrum has always existed and is not a concept of the West that we are discussing now. “When we talk about Mahabharata, Ramayana, Kamasutra texts, there are references to gender-swapping, homosexuality, etc. They are very much part of human culture,” she says.
Speaking further on the acceptance of the queer community and transgender persons, she explains, “We celebrate Krishna as Mohini, then why can’t we accept that gender change is someone’s personal liberty and nobody can judge the person and put them in brackets.”
We Are Not The Others is not the first collection that she has authored. Prior to that, she had written another book called Kuri Aruthen which consists of Tamil Poems and line illustrations made by the Kalki.
In 2018, three poems from the collection were translated into German and published in an art journal while some of them were translated and included in her second book.
After having read out a few lines from another poem from the collection titled Kali, Oh Mahakali, the poet explains how the poem is her expression of anger. She explains that poems and art for her were her way of channelling her anger about the systematic injustice meted out to her friends from the transgender community.
“Even though I grew up with anger ever since I was a child, I always have expressed it through my activism, art and poetry. Instead of expressing my rebellion with arms and ammunition, I chose to do so through art, literature and films.”
“Literature has created a revolution; all the books are thoughts written, recorded and documented and there’s no other way better than creating literature and documenting an individual or a community’s struggles and achievements. Literature gives us true power in holding and establishing our place in society,” she further adds speaking about how literature has aided her.
Poetry just bestows itself on me
When quizzed about what gravitates her to write poetry, she says, “I don’t write poetry in an instance. I am struck with inspiration even when I am doing mundane things or when I am feeling intense emotions. I have been a victim of violence, gender abuse and all that, thus I can empathise with others. I am a human and I express all my emotions, poetry just bestows [itself] on me,” she says. She adds that poetry is a divine force for her.
Elaborating more, on the themes of her two books she explains while her first book Kuri Aruthen focuses more on the community and the latter half speaks about love, romance and their desires; the second book We Are Not The Others is a book about individuality, self-expression, being trans and being proud.
“When I wrote the first book I was behind a veil; I wrote the second one seven years after the first. I have aged and matured a little bit. I am able to speak about my body and the politics around it. Even within the trans community, we feel coy about discussing our bodies. But I wanted to express it as I was negligently treated and so were several other trans persons,” she speaks.