It goes without saying that Katlego K. Kol-Kes (full name, Katlego Kai Kolanyane-Kesupile) is different. And I am not talking about the tongue twister that is her name, or the over-abundance of Ks, or that they remind me of this book by John Green, An Abundance of Katherines. Kat -I will call her Kat so that I don’t trip over my words in writing this review- has more going for her than meets the eye. To begin with, Kat is the lead singer in a band called Chasing Jaykb and an Artivist(Activism through Art) too. She participated in Writivism 2015, a short story competition initiative by Center for African Cultural Excellence Center (CACE). Kat is also a Poet and yeah, she’s Transgender. Her poetry collection “…on about the same old things” is a candid exploration of that which makes her different and the stigma that comes with it in a society unwelcoming of behavior not set in the dried concrete of what has become norm.
Rigid sharp-cornered words such as unAfrican, unethical and evil are thrown around carelessly whenever we encounter people who feel and act different from what society deems normal on the African continent. On one hand, one would say, it is expected of us; we have a herd instinct to behave as one. We take the lead from the most vocal member in the herd without taking the time to ruminate on our own private sentiments. Perhaps we might feel less inclined to act differently towards those who are unique from us if we detached from the herd and regarded it with new eyes from a distance. What we forget is that at the core of our humanity lies empathy for one another. In reading …on about the same old things, it is required of us to shed our skin and cast away our eyes momentarily so that we may wear the skin of the poet and in so doing become the poet and see and experience the world the way she sees it. Some people might call this Empathy. I would prefer to call it Humanity.
The yearning and heartache with which Kat delivers her first poem “Orders of Nature” is heartrending. Her words are raw and uncompromising in their disdain for ‘her people.’ She pits her heart’s desires against the prohibitive expectations of society, that perhaps we may come away with a different point of view. What exactly is natural and what isn’t, and who comes up with these rules anyway? She says:
I can’t be a princess because
they get to wear pretty little dresses
but you – my people – have chosen
to prescribe me a closet;
dark and stinky with
self denial and caged lust.
Kat’s end line in Orders of Nature: “Naturally boys beat girls” encapsulates a societal flaw which unjustly elevates one dominant gender at the expense of other, equally deserving genders. The justification given for this insular viewpoint often times stems from religion which, ironically, is expected to be welcoming of all God’s children.
The poem, Catharsis, gives us a glimpse of the toll an intolerant society takes on those carrying divergent viewpoints. To borrow the words of one-time Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams: “If we were here to speak of an erosion of empathy, it would be more than a failure to appreciate the intensity of another’s experience.” The poet feels a need to detox her mind of judgmental voices drowning out her own. She says:
Every once in a while
I cut myself open
And your voices
Spill out dancing
Kat’s poetry encompasses the universal topics of Faith, Love, Family and Politics. Recurrent throughout the collection is the insatiable need to spit out the gag shoved down the poet’s throat and find her own voice; be responsible for her own narrative. And she clearly struggles with the silence. Her journey into self is a coming of age story reminiscent of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
The poet grows bolder and more vocal with each new poem, finding more elaborate ways of expressing her deepest feelings in the face of widespread condemnation by those around her. She will not be shoved aside and forgotten like paperweights discarded after the last page has been turned. Her love and sexuality is peppered with a deep longing for acceptance and a reciprocation for her love.
As I read her last poem, what goes on in my mind is that I have been reading this all wrong. The poet is no different from me after all. It just occurred to me that I simply forgot to wear her skin and cast aside my eyes. Rushes back and rereads the poetry collection anew*
I will leave you with a stanza from the last poem sharing a title with the poetry collection On About the Same Old Things. Maybe some of these words will resonate within you as they did in me:
Rhythmically I feel
everything about you
but I can’t understand
why it’s me who has
to learn your ‘tra-ta-ta’
when the ‘ba-doom’
inside my chest has
morphed into the
syllables of your name.