published in anthologies loud black girls, i will not be erased, and to my trans sisters and with bylines in gal-dem, vogue and dazed – to name a few – kuchenga, who is currently based in berlin, has been a pivotal voice in discussing transness, blackness, abolition, mental health, sisterhood, love, addiction and so much more.
kuchenga’s bio identifies her as a writer, journalist and speaker but there’s so many more labels i’d like to boldly add to that: philosopher, mindblower, sensation, icon – the list goes on.
with a touching poignancy and a magnetic sense of humour, kuchenga’s voice feels both essential and revolutionary and we cannot encourage enough anyone reading this to make sure to follow and support kuchenga and her work, and (as soon as we’re allowed to!) pre-order her novels.
hey kuchenga! rumour on the street is that you’re working on not one but two novels! not sure how much of it is secret information but could you share how they came to be, what’s the inspiration behind them, what impact do you want them to have?
sure. one of them is historical fiction, and i’ll be set to finish that one fast, but i can’t share too much about it! i’ve got another one which may sound rather autobiographical. the main character is a young black trans girl from north london who has severe problems with drugs and alcohol. it’s kind of a coming of age story, but kind of adult? and over the course of the story, we learn that she seeks to prove the jamaican family legend that they are related to admiral horatio nelson. it’s an exploration of black british identity and postcolonial perspectives on that at the same time as looking at what it means to be a black british trans girl after the millennium. it’s got so much of myself in it so writing it is kind of therapeutic and cathartic.
i’m really proud of both projects but i’m dealing with two very different beasts!
they both sound incredible. it feels like a lot of your writing is very personal, candid and exposing of who you are and what you’ve been through. how does that make you feel, and why do you feel like that’s important?
i feel like giving a whitney houston level of answer here! when she was asked what she thought of mariah carey? “what do i think of her? i don’t think of her!”
i haven’t thought about that for a long time, but there were two books which really clarified for me what my position was as a marginalized black trans woman who graduated into the economic recession of 2008. steal as much as you can by nathalie olah and thick by dr. tressie mcmillan cottom. both of those books illustrated to me that the media landscape changing and digitising in such a way allowed for new spaces for girls like us to come in and pour out our stories and to give these identity based, or more so trauma-based, stories where masses can go oh god it’s so hard for them” and then go “read it now, let’s go for brunch!”
i kind of understood where i fit into the political landscape, and why it’s so much harder for girls like us to find the salaried, stable, tenured positions within a media job that would help us to survive! because i was there feeling guilty because i’m writing for these prestigious titles. but i’m broke! i’m supplementing it with sex work and everything else. why am i in this position at this age when all my friends are having book deals and salary positions and being editors? because of those books, i began to understand why that was the case.
i also had really good editors. lara witt at wear your voice is an incredible writer and editor. i would send her stuff that was just far too exposing. and she wouldn’t chastise me for it, but she would come back and say “yeah, we don’t need to do that”. but i was getting into that rhythm because every other previous editor was just really happy that i was ready to just spill my truth. and as time went on, i did become a tad bit more guarded. in actual fact, i’m not giving the whole story. i’m telling the part of the story that has been therapised and processed and i breathe through it and whatever. and i’m able to tell that story in a meaningful and hopefully entertaining way, so that people can feel that i’m being vulnerable enough for them to relate to me. but i haven’t betrayed myself by giving my story out to people who aren’t yet deserving or who i don’t have the trust towards.
i find it so interesting that i might find myself feeling guilty about always writing with an identity focus when realistically white women share their identity when writing as well! like in a dating column that’s written by a white woman, her white womanhood really comes into it. it’s just not explicitly said!
yeah, because they are the mainstream. it’s not difficult for us to see ourselves as a carrie bradshaw or to see ourselves as a bridget jones. we do that! we made that leap! it’s not that big a deal. but when they’re coming to our work, they’re coming to the other. and all they’ve got is “oh, my god. oh, wow. so powerful. so moving”. that’s all they’ve got to say!
inspirational! that’s the one that always gets me!
that’s the tea. they don’t see us as intellectual equals. they don’t see us as sharing anything in their emotional lives. they’re not coming to us to relate. they’re coming to us to view, to observe. there’s something very safari-like about the way that white middle class people are reading nowadays. yaa gyasi wrote about all of those reading lists that came out during the 2020 black lives matter marches and white people were reading with a sense of duty but that was a passing moment. the money dried up. the gofundmes are not hitting the way they were hitting. and i’m sure that there are stacks of books in the homes of hardly well meaning people in kensington, shropshire… unread!!! not only are they going to be reading in a very kind of shallow and cynical way, but most of them just bought the books and have never gone on to actually finish why i’m no longer talking to white people about race, you know?
for me, growing up reading a black feminist literary canon, with regards to alice walker, toni morrison, zora neale hurston, i always understood that i’m not just standing on their shoulders, but more so that the intellectual space that was created in my mind was kind of a launching pad. and that i’m not the same writer that i would have been if i never read their books, so it’s bigger than me. it’s not just about me. i mean, of course i’d be telling snippets of my story and sharing parts of myself, but there is a sense of collectivity that i have when writing in communion with girls like us – trans women of colour, black trans women, black women in general. i’m very conscious of who i’m writing for and who gave me the wings to write myself.
in regards to who you’re writing for, i’m aware that you used to be involved with bent bars and write to trans women in prisons. could you share a bit about that experience and the impact it had on you?
it’s not something i’ve done for a few years now. but in terms of the impact that it had on me… gosh, it was gargantuan really! it was a huge wave that came to smother me. i was really scared at first that i was going to drown in the pain that was shared. and it was the opposite… i found myself swimming to the surface and writing these letters to these women on the inside. what i felt was a transformative sense of community between the inside and the outside. there was something really magical about being able to maintain connections with someone who has lost their freedom. when it comes to the things that separate us and the things that separate the girls specifically, we rarely speak about that from a class perspective. that access to education, medical services and transition… that’s easier for those who have more money and privileges and resources. but it was really starkly laid out for me and writing to these women that all that separated me from them was fortune and opportunities. because of that experience, it expanded my notion of what is politically possible. it was really expansive in helping me to understand what a rehabilitative process really looks like, what redemption looks and feels like, and that we need to spend so much time knowing what justice looks like frankly. and it all came together when i read woman on the edge of time, by marge piercy. that helped me understand that when abolitionists say specifically that another world is possible, this is what it actually looks like. and this is why the liberation of women, black people, trans people, why that’s so important for everybody. there’s a world that we’re trying to achieve. and through my conversations with these women and further reading, i understood it’s not a lofty proposition that that’s the world that we should be working towards.
i wanted to end this conversation talking to you about love! because i know that you really enjoy talking, writing, thinking, theorising about love. i was wondering if you could expand why you feel like it’s important for a black trans woman to talk about love and write about love.
i’ve never had that question asked before which just goes to show why we need more conversations with the girls! but i mean, that just comes from a lifetime of being told how unlovable i am. being a black woman, being a black trans woman… my medical transition specifically was put on hold for a long time just because i felt that my beauty standard was so far from that beauty model that i grew up with: to be skinny, to be blonde, to have cute facial features. i was so far away from that.
and then i was hypersexualised! and i very much confused sexual attention and validation for love and spent decades unpacking that. i didn’t have anyone saying that they loved me for anything but my behind for years. i just didn’t ever hear “oh my god you’re so intelligent. oh my god, you’re so pretty”. so that’s where i’m coming from with regards to that. but politically, books like all about love, feminism is for everybody, rock my soul. they let me know about the absence of black love and the love for the self that white supremacy causes. how i was divorced from loving myself because of white supremacy… and i wanted to change that.
the writer isabel allende said in an interview that every story is a love story, and i really subscribe to that. i grew up watching kylie minogue and jason donovan in neighbors and… oh! i can’t help it! i get hope! i get warm. i believe it. i’ve always wanted to be loved. to fall in love. the processes of it. the swooning. it just fills me up. and after a lifetime of trauma and violence, it’s the only thing that’s really got me to think that i should try anything again.
i feel like people forget that we experience very much the same experiences that cis women do. that not everything is always about political trans liberation, and deep down we just want to be loved.
thank you so much kuchenga. what are you looking forward to next?
i think i’m looking forward to finding another city to move to. i moved here in march 2020 but i’m itching now. it’s been two years. i’m currently childless and i’ve got more freedom than so many generations in my family have ever experienced. to be able to hop and skip around in this way. when i think about how untethered i have been allowed to be, i just can’t help but think of my mother and my grandma and everyone who was so clamped down into toiling for the rest of the family, for sacrificing etc. and i don’t actually sacrifice for others in the same way that they do. and i’m just hoping that they will be happy to see me continue reaching to expand my sense of feeling of freedom. so that’s what i’m definitely looking forward to in an emotional way.
but more practically i can see the end of my novels. both of them. and i’ve got at least one short story that is itching to be written. so having two novels and a short story all in mind, my head is full. it’s a lovely place to be. living in three different worlds in my head.
but yeah… i popped over to paris for a few days. i want more of that! solo travelling. my nice little summer dresses and my birkenstocks. steak and chips after a museum visit. i went to sephora and got hooked with the best perfumes. i’m kenzo’d up!
it’s giving kuchenga in paris!
and i’m dating! i’m out here. i’m comfortably poly. i’ve got men in places. it’s cool! it’s time to show them how terribly they’ve been living. they all know about each other. it’s all copacetic. it’s really gorgeous.
it’s what you deserve.