Interview: Kalki Subramaniam, author, We Are Not The Others: Reflections of a Transgender Artivist
You identify yourself as an “artivist”. What does âartivismâ mean to you and how did your journey with him begin?
I have always used innovation, technology and creativity to raise awareness and create social change. It started as early as my school years when I was editor of a handwritten magazine called Oudaya Gaanam in which I drew cartoons and cartoons on political and social issues. I have also written plays, poems and short stories on feminism and transgender liberation.
My art is not just for entertainment. I want him to shatter stereotypes, challenge ignorance and have an impact on society. Many years later I started a magazine called Sahodari for the transgender community, which has had a great positive impact. I use my art for storytelling, acting and acting. The word “artivism” is new and defines activism which involves art and creativity as an influential and powerful tool.
I love to create line art, paint abstracts, and do pop art. I love to experiment and constantly continue to learn and practice. As a stage artist and actor, I use my poetry and monologues to captivate my audience. I use costumes and props to make each performance a memorable experience. The Indian art world should be ready for queer art and artists. We will storm the next decade with our works.
How did the idea for the book come about? We are not the others: reflections of a transgender artist to take shape?
I wrote poetry, monologues, recorded my conversations, and jotted down my thoughts in diaries, notebooks and notepads. Last year, during the second wave of the pandemic, I collected my writings and illustrated the poems I had written over the past seven years. I decided they should be compiled into a book. Professor Elango Natesan from Madurai translated a selection of my Tamil poems into English and I thought I should add these works to my book as well as they are amazing.
Why did you choose this particular title for the book?
âOtherâ is a big deal for us in the transgender community. For centuries, we have been labeled and defined as misfits to societal standards. Although this is changing, we are still victims of centuries of propaganda that have pushed us towards marginalization and inequality. We wanted to belong; we are not the others, we are one of you. We want to be included and that’s why I titled the book We are not the others.
Could you talk about some of the specific barriers transgender people face when interacting with professionals in the publishing industry? What changes would you like to recommend?
My editors saw me as a writer and never saw my gender as an issue to work with. When it comes to the publishing industry, I haven’t heard or read any regrets or complaints from transgender authors. Editors who interact with LGBTQI + clients should have a good understanding of our community. We want to be seen for our talent and contribution, not to be labeled based on our sexual and gender identities. The industry needs to come forward to provide more jobs for LGBTQI + people and certainly needs to have workplace policies that provide protection and a non-discriminatory environment.
Your poem If you do not mind lists the intrusive and insensitive questions transgender people face on a daily basis in relation to their bodies. Do you think these questions come from curiosity, ignorance or meanness?
All three and yes, ignorance is at the top. The questions that have been put to me and the opinions shared about me in the face by insensitive people sometimes tire me. But I stay strong and shake them with a satirical question or remark and silence them. Evil people are sad people; they must be closed. A lot of people need to be educated and sensitized. I understand their lack of knowledge. my poem If you do not mind is a sum of all the callousness, meanness and ignorance that transgender people face, and it defies machismo and patriarchy.
In the poem Do not tell me that, you write, I want to cry out / I am made of / flesh and blood, / fear and hope, / joy and pain. / I’m like you / I’m human too. Why do you think transgender people are discriminated against when they have existed for centuries in society, literature and mythology?
You know, we have to remember our ancient history and, as an advanced civilization, how tolerant and inclusive we were. We celebrated various gender identities and sexualities; we find proof of this in our majestic temples, Puranas and epics. The arrival of colonialism criminalized homosexual behavior and cross-dressing, and it was the beginning of oppression and the long struggle for community freedom. The Criminal Tribes Act introduced by the British was callous and inhumane. Transgender people have certainly been the victims. my poem Do not tell me that is my call to break stereotypes and stay individually strong and unashamed of who we are.
In this book you write, âSome fathers have their period and some mothers cannot breastfeed. What role do you think artivists can play in promoting trans-inclusive conversations about physical and mental health?
While leading social change, artivists are prone to stress and lack of self-care. It has an impact on our mental and physical health. Above all, we, artists and activists, must take care of ourselves. Only then can we be stable and sane enough to step in, help and support others. Artivists have great responsibilities in holding conversations about the inclusion of all oppressed people. Trans-inclusive conversations are certainly encouraged by artivists as well.
In a patriarchal society, we have been conditioned to be comfortable with the dominant Cis stories that have been taught and told to us for years. A learned and civilized society questions everything, seeks the truth and tries to find a balance. Some men get their period and get pregnant, and some women cannot breastfeed because they are not breastfeeding. Trans men are men and trans women are women. Millennials understand this very well.
What misconceptions about transgender people would you like to correct through your book?
There are so many superstitious beliefs about the hijra and transgender community. You have to think rationally about what is true and what is false. The people on public forums who say transgender people are pathetic mistakes of nature really make me laugh. They are wrong. I want to tell them that we are not what they think. People have to unlearn their misconceptions and myths about us. We have always existed and we are part of nature and we make the human race complete, beautiful and diverse. We are queer, we are here and we are forever.
How has the Indian transgender community benefited from the interaction, networking and artistic creation with transgender people and allies from other parts of the world? What can Indians learn from them?
There are very few art projects in India that involve the participation of transgender artists. The Sahodari Foundation is a pioneer in this area. We train transgender people as artists through our various projects and we support young activists who speak out on behalf of the community. We collaborate with transgender artists from North America, Europe and Africa and it is a beautiful and rich experience. We all learn from each other. Indians can learn so many styles and methods of working and creating art.
You emphasize three different aspects of empowerment – social, political and economic – in your work with the Sahodari Foundation. To what extent has India’s Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2019 been successful in achieving these goals? What needs to be urgently prioritized?
The Transgender People (Protection of Rights) Act 2019 guarantees a life of dignity, equality and respect for all transgender people, including trans men, trans women and hijras. While I am happy that it provides inclusive education and opportunities, the law does not specify crimes against transgender people. For example, it does not punish the family that abandons a transgender member. The law also does not say that those who commit a serious crime against a transgender person will be severely punished. It also does not mention the right of transgender people to marry and adopt children.
In the poem Room by room, you write: âI am not a woman by birth / I was born broken / Rubik’s cube, / I have worked all my life / step by step / to recover my honor. What advice would you like to give to other transgender people who want to tell their stories and write books?
Through this poem, I want to recognize the struggles of queer youth around the world and inspire them to hope and change. I want to be the light they are looking for. I want to be the model they can build their lives on. I have sculpted who I am today and I am proud of who I am and want all queer and trans people to feel the same. To those in the queer community who want to write, here’s what I say: Show off your talents. If you are writing about your life, tell your true story. Don’t be ashamed of it. Says it all. Let your writing skills be seen and read. I would be happy to mentor you.
Chintan Girish Modi is a Mumbai-based writer who tweets @chintan_connect