Queer Literature and Culture: A dialogue with Katlego Kai Kolanyane-Kesupile

Katlego Kai Kolanyane-Kesupile is  a Trans* ARTivist, writer, musician, and theater producer from Botswana. She is founder of the Queer Shorts Showcase Festival, producer and host of the Queer Me Out podcast, and a 2013/14 Best of Botswana “Performing Arts” Artist honoree. She is a 2015 CACE Africa Writivist, a member of the Inside/Out Artist Collective and the Mellon Mays Fellows Professional Network (MMFPN). She has previously served as Curator of the Gaborone Hub of the World Economic Forum initiative- Global Shapers Community, and is a 2016/17 Chevening Scholar.  Her Poetry collection “On About The Same Old Things” is published by Bahati Books. Her writings has appeared in Peolwane Magazine, The Kalahari Review, The Washington Blade and AfroPUNK.com. 

This conversation took place in the overwhelmingly, hotspot Gaborone, Botswana and the cosmopolitan, busy London by audio.

Gaamangwe: Katlego, you have done so much work on the narratives of transgender individuals, experiences, identity and issues. That is really impressive and vital in Africa. I am interested in knowing what you hope to illuminate about transgender identities and realities?

Katlego: In essence the core behind my work is to ensure that as Batswana we start discovering and learning from what we experience. We cannot always wait for ‘the West’ to produce knowledge that we then apply to ourselves. So the reason why I have been doing a lot of the work that I am doing is in order to let the West or, whoever thinks that the west knows more, know that we do exist in Botswana and we are there and we are producing content and knowledge that should be paid attention to. Not only in the region but across the world.

Gaamangwe: That’s really interesting because it’s also about re-affirming that we do exist, and we are documenting our reality, our thoughts and our narrative. We are giving ourselves that power to say who we really are and what our experiences are. I resonate a lot with that because it goes in line with what I am trying to do with Africa in Dialogue. In your work intention, is there an aspect where you want to bring it back home to Africa and say that this is the realities that transgender individuals have in Africa?

Katlego: I wouldn’t say necessarily it is to say this is the reality but for me I am trying to explore what the reality is. I have a lot of knowledge on the realities across borders and the world. That’s why my different initiatives like Queer Me Out, which is my podcast, as well as the Queer Shorts Showcase Festival, which is the theatre festival that I produce, and the writings that I do – they all try to explore different sides of this story of being alive. History is only ever written by the people who get down and write it. And if we don’t allow as many voices to start writing this history then we start losing out and hearing one particular voice and we start creating a singular way of being rather than letting people to just be themselves and learn from those multiple experiences.

Gaamangwe: That’s powerful. Life is multiverse and multidimensional. All we can ever do is explore the self and who we are in a moment in point. We are an ever-evolving process and exploration.  We will always become. And when we do become, we become more and more into a new state; a transformation. Katlego, what transformations can we find in your creative work?

Katlego: I think the greatest thing that most people will (and do) find in my work is the sense of community building. It is to let people understand that they are not the only ones. If you constantly query things in isolation, you don’t recognize that other people might be thinking the very same thing at the same time and coming up with totally different ideas. Multiple times it’s been said nothing in this world is unique – nothing is original. It’s just a matter of how many different ways it is said. No idea is new. We all keep exploring the same old things. Which is actually the title of my first collection of poetry “…on about the same old things” (available on for Kindle, iOS and Android via bahatibooks.com).

It is to say: I am going to speak about love, family, friendships, politics because that’s what poets explore anyway. I am not going to say I am the first poet to explore this. I am going on about the same old things but in a different way, at a different time, with a different lived experience. And that’s what I am trying to promote with the work that I am doing. Saying: Yes, you are now hearing something you thought of. What does this get you to do about it? Where can you go? Now that you know you aren’t the only one thinking about it; what solutions can you bring to this problem? Or are you just going to sit and live and say this is a problem and nothing else can be done about it? We can’t be defeated by the state of what we know. We can only ever go forward towards a state we don’t know what it is, when it is, or how it’s going to look when we get there. We can’t know we are going to change the world but we can always try. Keep going, moving forward saying “this is what we know but what we can do with what we know, of what we know?”

Gaamangwe: That’s a great intention. What can we do with what we know, of what we know? The truth is we are each other and for each other, one way or the other. We are on the same journey looking for the same thing, which is love or expression. We work for our own explorations and we hope that others find themselves and meaning and resonance or questions in our explorations.

This is why it’s important for us to write. Unfortunately right now, there is little, comprehensive literature that is written by the LGBT community. This is why I am excited for your work and the dialogues its opening up. Can we explore the state of literature focusing on transgender realities in Africa?

Katlego: So, essentially it’s not that there isn’t. Well actually there hasn’t been as much scholarship or works done on the Trans* experience merely because we’ve still been put into and under the LGBT umbrella. And now people are trying to find their voices it becomes a matter of disassociating ourselves without alienating ourselves as people talking about the Trans* experience in Africa. It’s manifesting in multiple ways. What’s happening in the international academic sphere is that people are now trying to look at the binaries of gender, which has always been a problem we have always been interrogating. Saying that gender is a social construct. If we deconstruct the social construct of gender then, does the concept or reality of being transgender matter? Should it be a thing on its own, or should it just not be confined to being one to the other? What if we were to look at this holistically?

I think the role of literature is dualistic. It’s the literature that needs to look at what people need to be true or question what people think needs to be true. And there is literature that says actually what happens if we start creating new realities. The world we live in is created and it’s been being created and it is still being created. So why can’t we take things that we assume are the building blocks of what we know about our lives, about every single thing that we trust, and turn them upside down just to be a bit more accommodating. But I think ultimately what is happening is if you are going to write a story you are going to have a good guy and a bad guy, in order to bring out a moral from the story. Even if there are two good guys or two bad guys there should always be some sort of difference in order to create or illicit a sense of learning. So what ends up happening is that if you are writing a pro-trans script or a pro-trans piece of literature, it’s going to find its own antagonists in the people who are like “actually, how does this make you any different from anyone else?” And when you write an anti-trans piece people also come back and say “actually you aren’t developing your brain. You are not thinking outside what is already there.” So where do I see literature going? I think literature is a good space for us to explore but we also need to make sure that literature is more accessible to people. We can’t keep writing for those who are able to have access. Everybody has access but how many people actually know that they have this access? And as long as we are excluding people we can’t create a truly global and diverse dialogue about diversity.

Gaamangwe: This is very illuminating for me. Clearly, there is a lot of education that needs to be done about trans-experiences.

There is an article you wrote in AFROPUNK that focuses on Trans-security, and here you said that up until we get to a point where we don’t need to be explaining the trans-experience we will always have to explain it. We will always have to do an education. I absolutely agree with that. Especially because a lot of African countries have criminalized LGBT experiences. And we have to think and explore what the psychological impact of this status is on LGBT individuals? 

Katlego: So initially psychological impact is something that is very difficult to weigh. It has become part of the human rights data I have been working on which is to say how do you measure the immeasurable? Because when you talk about the psychological impact, are we looking at which spaces Trans* individuals occupy in Africa? And when we talk of Africa, Trans* experience in itself, it is so diverse that Trans* experience in different parts of Africa and spaces makes it more difficult to even try and quantify. For example, transitioning in South Africa might be a simpler process than transitioning in Botswana. But maybe the pressure of feeling that you need to transition in order to fit in becomes more pressing in a country that is difficult to transition in, than in a country that is easier to get access. Because then you could think: ‘well, if I’ve got these services protected, I can have them any time and therefore I can wait.’

So in terms of the psychological impact on trans* bodies, something I know as a personal fact, and this has been proven across time, is that in you feeling that you are not ‘right’, you then hunt for the best way to find out what it takes for you to be right or to be okay. And in that you try to kill portions of yourself until you run back and you try and get them back – but you are a totally different person by the time you try to go back to yourself.

Criminalization is something that works on a grander psychological scale. It is not just about a single person. If you hear that something is a criminal offense, you take it upon yourself to make sure that nobody does it. And they take it upon themselves to make sure they are not caught doing it. So now you are dealing with perception and perception is a really dangerous, fluid space because no one knows how they are perceived, they can only know what they are presenting. So, oftentimes, issues of domestic and psychological and emotional violence come in the fact that you are living with somebody and they are holding this thing over your head that you don’t know whether or not it means the same to them as it means to you. So where can we go? I think we really need not look at the grand matter of Africa only, rather we need to regionalize and localize and in that localization we then allow different local stories to start bouncing off each other. If we keep trying to get blanket African narratives, we keep going back year after year saying Africa unite, Africa unite but Africa can’t unite until the individual states understand who they are, what they want to be and who they want to unite with and how those friendships can then grow and become more and more. Friendships don’t happen with five thousand people all at the same time coming together and saying we are friends. They happen in small pockets and those pockets keep gathering until there is one union.

And it’s interesting that you will bring up the article from AFROPUNK, because in that article it talks about the sense that you know how somebody sees you, and how they expect to feel about you seeing them that way, and how that is always a slippery slope. If you over assume that somebody was talking badly about you then it means that you think people should be talking badly about you. If you don’t take any offense to what they said about you, they think that it’s okay for them to say these things about you or about someone else like you, and that sort of creates a double edged sword. You can either take offense, or you simply say “you are an idiot”. And if you call them an idiot, how many times will that idiot hurt someone, how many people will that idiot hurt and what will be the repercussion of that idiot hurting someone.

People think we are weak, but what happens if one day somebody snaps under all this pressure and oppression and we end up with a trans* serial killer; not to say that it’s impossible. It is not impossible for Trans* people or gay people or bisexuals to be serial killers. Trans* people could go out and kill everybody who is not them. Which is what is being done to Trans* people across the world.  They are being killed by people who aren’t them. We are being killed by people who aren’t us because we are some sort of invading force on their liberties.

Gaamangwe: I was talking to a friend and we talked about the invention of others. This human need to create something outside ourselves. To say that this part, expression, perception, and way of being is the only one that is allowed and accepted, and all the others are not. And it is sad that we will always have to keep re-educating and saying all of us, all realities are valid and part of nature and we should accept them as they are. The truth of the matter is that there are seven billion realities that are interacting on a mass grand scale. And up until we recognize that and understand that we will always have violence and murders perpetrated to other people who we have put in a category of other. This is not just about Trans* experience but every other system or way of being or value or human expression that is outside someone’s way of perceiving things.

There is a play that you did, a one woman play about Shelf Life Zero. It was about Trans* gender bodies and opening dialogues about Trans* bodies. I am interested to know more about this project and how you are using theatre to explore your reality and your way of being?

Katlego: The driving force behind Shelf Life Zero was to interrogate what trans* body ownership is. The notion and the narrative of being transgender has always been feeling that one is born in the wrong body and as a result wanting to change your body to match the way you feel about yourself. And that’s well and good. But what happens in the psychology of that process? Because people still attribute it to feelings and you feel sad and all of a sudden you feel happy. As opposed to an innate recognition of self. The term feeling that you are born in a different body came because people were not able to recognize themselves within the body they were assigned and that what has driven being transgender to being more about transitioning as opposed to a self-knowledge.

In theater, people engage with a living form and living being. They engage with the energy that this living form and this living being is transmitting. And they get to engage each other’s energies. And I think theatre is powerful in that sense. If we look at Kgotla meetings as part of Setswana culture, it wasn’t just to hear instructions handed of down from a leader. It was for the leader to present and for you to be in the presence of the leader and therefore whatever the leader says you think it over in that moment and that changed the way you move from that moment to the next moment. So with me and in theatre no one performance is ever the same as another. So no two performances will ever evoke the same feelings or thought patterns because you are not the same person every single moment of the day. That is why Shelf Life Zero came into being and how we are working towards using the lived form and the live medium to start saying there are greater complexities to trans* realities. We are also saying what happens if someone doesn’t want to transition? Does it make them less transgender? What happens if somebody wants to transition? When are you too old or not old enough to transition? When you transition who are you becoming? Who did you want to become? Who did you see yourself as and will you ever be able to be a fantasy of yourself? And how do you match truth with acceptability when you start working within the realm of fantasy or an imagined reality? That is what I work towards and that is why I use theatre as a medium. It is to say interact, discover and continue to explore.

Gaamangwe: What is coming up for me is that you are debunking the way I came here  thinking that it is so easy to group or to interrogate Trans* experiences just because I am talking to a Trans individual. I thought you can essentially speak for everyone. And the truth is you can’t because we have our own individual and separate realities and experiences.  At the end of the day what we can do is to explore and share with the world that explorations, interrogations and illuminations we are having and finding as individuals. It’s an interesting realization. Katlego , how do you form or inform yourself of your own selfhood and your own identity?

 Katlego: So, one of the learning factors of putting myself in this position is because I  need to learn to also submit myself as a subject for myself to learn about. Yes, I do have self-confidence. Yes, I do know I want to be who I think I could be, should I change. I am not afraid of change, I am not afraid of the concept of the reality that something that I have hungered for and worked hard to have might not be what I expected when I have it. And once I have it, it is not to say my life will have been in vain, searching in vain. It is to say “you’ve got it, now what have you learnt in that searching?”

I think we need to work at developing the individual but the individual always noting that they are not the only one.  We are individuals but we are not alone. We are not alone in any lived experience. And one moment means a million things to a million different people but we can’t then say we never had that moment. Consciousness of self, consciousness of what is going on around you, consciousness of what you can put into effect is part of how I work and use my craft and skills to effect changes in people’s minds. As you said we are debunking this. It might not be representative of all trans* people but even in me saying that, there are a good number of us who say that. Therefore there is that community that says I don’t think I am the only one. But in our knowing that we are not the only ones, what are we doing that is the same and what are we doing that is different?

And that is what I will say it is part and parcel of how I form myself and how I try to help other people to form themselves. It is to say what is resonating with you in other people’s lived experiences? It doesn’t have to be about you being Trans*. A lot of people will say you know I identify as Trans*, after this I don’t need to be doing it all the time. Janet Mock recently said in an interview, she doesn’t think she needs to keep educating people about what it means for her to be trans*. At the end of the day there comes a point where you have done enough for people to then be able to reference you, to understand you and when you get to that point you don’t need to carry on doing that. Not every single privately-educated black person needs to come and say: ‘oh by the way I went to a private school’ as a buffer; because of this whole thing of ‘you speak English so well, where did you go to school? You are so well knowledgeable.’ Those things are the things where we keep thinking we must live in a society where exceptionalism must be praised. When in actual fact everyone should be allowed the opportunity to be exceptional but in multiple ways. So we need to make space for the Trans* woman who loves farming because now nobody thinks the Trans* woman wants to do farming. To the Trans* man who likes to do manicures and pedicures, we must allow those diverse spaces to happen but they come with people allowing themselves to explore what is within that space. The formation of self is to consistently query and queer the self.

Gaamangwe: We will always ask questions because there is the attractive idea of nirvana and Utopia. The idea of absolute perfection, completeness and self- actualization. Now, what is your Utopia?

Katlego: I know this will sound counter-intuitive but my version of Utopia is where we celebrate difference. Not what we have in common. Not to say that having something in common with anyone makes you less unique but to say when somebody is two tones darker than you, you don’t need to be two tones darker to feel better about yourself. But if you do go to this two tones darker, does that stop you from celebrating them? No, I believe that when we are able to look at difference as a means of learning then we can start to enjoy the differences in human beings.

The reason industries exist is because we want difference but funnily we don’t want difference in humans. We want differences in choices but not in humans. So I want us to get to a point where we celebrate difference. You can grow up in the same house as somebody, you can go to the same school with somebody but you will still never be the same. And until we are doing that celebration of difference we won’t be able to reach my version of Utopia.

But the reason why we are probably not going to reach my vision of Utopia because difference disrupts systems. We have told ourselves that we need systems that agree in order for us to be able to function. What happens when we say you can function in instability?

Gaamangwe:  Great question. So then to reach your Utopia we will need to break some systems and the walls that are not enabling full expressions of every individual. And we can start here with dialogues like this. We can start re-opening narratives and re-educating, reforming, re-exploring and a lot of unlearning these systems we inherited. This is a hard task but in some way we will get there. At least we have to believe that.

 We are creating different systems and tools for our unlearning. One of the systems we have in Africa is the Writivism Literary Initiative, which you recently attended. What did you explore, experience and learn at this year’s Writivism Literary festival as a writer?

 

Katlego: Kampala is a beautiful and vibrant community. It’s a city unlike any other, which can be said of many cities. Kampala is specifically beautiful because only a few weeks before I was in Kampala, there was a police raid on Kampala pride making it, in essence, a very dangerous thing for me to go there. But getting there and realizing that it is systemic danger, not generic danger. It is directed danger and as a result I could have not had a full experience of Kampala if I had just thought ‘oh well this is what it is.’ So getting to know Kampala, getting to see the people of Kampala, meeting the layman who wanted to know more and more until the point of me telling them that I am an activist and a human rights and LGBT rights activist and for that to not faze them, changed the way that I was seeing what we usually think about going to places. Go to places that scare us, that frighten us. Not so say we should go out seeking to die for anything but going to those places we are told to be scared of and don’t know what’s going to happen is good. At the end of the day, when you get there you might realize the beauty; and that’s what I got out of saying yes to Writivism.

Through the Writivism experience, we got the opportunity to go and talk to different students at different high schools. And I was fortunate enough to be at 90% of those school visits and meeting these students who desperately want to read but don’t have a reading culture and seeing these young people who want people who are their successors to read was a very, very moving experience. To see those who know what you can get out of reading now passing it on was humbling. And they are aggressively passing it on; it’s not a recommendation that reading is good for you. It is an aggressive movement to say if you don’t read you are robbing yourself. You are robbing your imagination of many things that you deserve. And engaging with writers from all across the continent, of varying calibers and varying experiences was amazing. I was with legends; I found out that (apparently) I am on my way to becoming a legend myself. And even with that, it’s not a thing where you are trying to claim that you have reached the peak. We had multiple thought- provoking conversations. For example, I sat on a panel addressing sexual harassment in artistic spaces. We had conversations about gender parity and the application of gender in literary spaces. We had conversations around digital publishing and whether or not it was an exclusionary classes practice in Africa because of the way you can access digital books, through credit cards and how credit cards are not easy to come by in the African context. We had those conversations which are broad and still we came back and said we are all in this together because we know we are not going to step back and say this world is a difficult place to be in. We strap out our boots and get in, you know. We are going to carry on. We are not in this to be pioneers, we know the people who come before us but we know that there is still a long way to go.

So essentially what I learnt at Writivism was who publishes? Why do we publish? When do we publish? Who do we publish for? Who do we hope to value our work? Do we do it for writing prizes? Are we writers who value other writers because they won prizes? Are we writers because there are stories that we need to tell, and if we don’t tell them who will tell them? And not to say we are being narcissists but at the end of the day any storyteller knows when they’ve got a story. Your story might be similar to someone else’s but it is never somebody else’s story. It will always be your story. Even if you borrow it. That’s the value I got from Writivism. And to see something that I have ben working really, really hard to do in Botswana and stating repeatedly, which is to engage with young people and to say to these young people, you are African and Africans tell stories, Africans have been telling stories for many decades and centuries – and now in this new medium of writing down stories; ask how do you write down your story and who do you put into your story and how does that change the way that you see yourself and how you see the rest of the world. We had young people saying to us African writers don’t write fiction they always write things that are historically relevant or factual. We got to engage them and say ‘reframe the way you view African writing because simply because you see too much of the things you know in a book that you are reading, it doesn’t mean that that isn’t a creative work of art. You have begun to see the reflective power of storytelling.’

So we were debunking young people’s way of thinking, and engaging with audiences. I also gave two performances. One of them was for the Okot p’Bitek poetry prize for translation and that was an amazing occasion. To premiere the headline poem of my second collection of poetry, ‘#berekamosadi’ – which is a message that I take as non-gendered but very gender powered, so dualistically confusing, was a thrill. Basically, I am saying everyone is mosadi but mosadi is mosadi. So #berekamosadi is to say we are powerful. #berekamosadi is not just about the people who get born and grow up to become mosadi. It is for the people who see themselves and say will I ever be mosadi? Because as Botswana, a large number of us are raised by single mothers. And these are strong, strong basadi who have created a nation of resilient soldiers. And it is sad to see that even with all the work that’s been put in we aren’t appreciating them as much as we could and I think we need to do more. So now #berekamosadi has been released as part of the United Kingdom Black History Month initiative by my publishers Bahati Books and we are moving forward with it. We are running with it and it is now gathering international attention for what it stands for. I am happy to be able to say I have done that as a young Motswana. I’m honored by the people who believe in my difference and my ability to shine light upon other people and help them to embrace their difference.

Gaamangwe: Katlego thank you so much. It’s been an amazing education.

Katlego: Gaamangwe, thank you so  much for taking your time to talk to me about this. Lets keep working. The work needs to be put in, everybody needs to know that life is not about what you can get out of it but what you can put into it. Lets live a life of service.

Gaamangwe Mogami is a poet, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue.

 

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Africa in Dialogue is a weekly online interview magazine, that engages in dialogues with Africa’s leading storytellers in the fields of literature, poetry, film, theatre, television and art. Africa in Dialogue is created by Gaamangwe Mogami.

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