Paradym Partner: Kuchenga

We spoke to writer and journalist Kuchenga about addiction, her transition to womanhood, what success means to her and why self-awareness lies somewhere between the political and philosophical…

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Portrait of Kuchenga

Kuchenga is an extraordinarily thoughtful and articulate writer and journalist. Giving herself over to a life of self-destruction before transitioning, Kuchenga has battled, and fought addiction and is now on a road to recovery. She describes her transition to womanhood as ‘one of the biggest acts of self-love’ in her life, and now she knows herself, she feels the path ahead of her is golden.

What an absolute delight it was to hear her positive transformation, from darker days to brighter ones, we spoke to Kuchenga about what Aware, Success, Love and Identity means to her exploring everything from the political, to metaphysical. We hope you enjoy learning more about her journey and emotional identity.

How would you characterise your emotional identity?

Mercurial. I think I have to feel comfortable with that. I used to feel as though I had to be the life and soul of the party, I was very much put into the ‘mammy’ role myself, being black, fem and plus size. I had to let go of that because something I want to be a diva or be quiet. My emotional identity mutates and changes. I love that I cannot be summed up in a particular way

Tell us about your relationship to self-awareness. What was the catalyst for your journey to self-knowledge?

I was in an absolute mess. I was being fired from my job. I was in a relationship with someone who could help facilitate my recovery. I had time to read. I was coming into contact with the people I never thought could exist. Janet Mock is the heroine that saved my life. She introduced me to myself by telling my own story. Knowing I too could reach for eloquence and elegance was something I always thought I was cut off from – being a black dark skinned woman – I felt like my exclusion would be permanent. 

I saw no honour in my transness before I met her. I colluded with the media which told me I was a joke, perverted. I could not see the dignity in it. Now, I know myself. This path ahead of me has suddenly become golden.

How does self-awareness play into your relationship with writing? 

I was in rehab with all different sorts of people, some had mood disorders other had process addictions. However, something we all had to learn to do was give ourselves over to that which is bigger than us, to welcome spirituality.  For me, writing went hand-in-hand with that. I wrote for a matter of survival. That is what my mind required. I had a pen, I had a notepad, I just needed to write. It has been great to help me steer the ship and understand why. It has helped me to name what I was going through. Before, I did not know if I was depressed, exhilarated, in love, in lust… I had a real stare at the camera moment when I was first told what codependency meant!

In learning about myself, I also had to admit how little I knew myself. I just had no idea why I was the way I was. The adventure into myself has been nourishing for my writing too.

What does self-awareness mean to you?

Self-awareness for me lies somewhere between the political and the philosophical. In terms of the political, those who guided my mind include Franz Franon who wrote ‘Black Skins White Masks’. I could not believe so much work had been done to examine the work of colonialism on the black psyche but also through the works of Angela Davies and Bell Hooks. I felt I was all alone. Susan Striker too, a historian and academic who I believe should be credited for producing a lot of activism communities I am a part of now, our queer trans political moment. 

Philosophically when I read Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, I leant I could liberate myself by thinking about the way I think. To reach for the metaphysical, to struggle to understand the violence of consciousness. The fact that we all struggle with the fact that we are going to die. How we’re remembered. If we’re remembered. They made me feel quite dizzy.

What does love mean to you?

I see love as the largest field of academic study – Anthropology, Linguistics, Biology – it is just so big. But at the same time if I go back to music and in the Miseducation of Lauren Hill they ask the children what is love and they say ‘Love is just a feeling’ and it is! As much as it is this large unyielding thing that fuels our writing and music, it is also just a feeling. It is a source of energy. It is electric. It feels untenable. 

I know love is what has kept me getting up in the morning. When I was being bullied and was really unloved as much as I was self-hating, there must have still been self-love because I still chose to stay.

What is your philosophy on love?

You have to give yourself over to serendipity. We are living in the age of the dating app, and there are a few more algorithms involved, but still to be in a particular place at a particular time and fall in love with a particular person is so powerful.I feel very wistful about it. 

We battle with loneliness but as humans we really do need each other. We are just going to keep bashing into each other. Some of these interactions are going to end up being life long- ones which make you want to write, sing and dance and scream.

You have so much love wisdom! It feels as though you are very accepting of the ambiguity of love. Where did you learn this?

I read so much growing up but I was also such an avid reader of magazines. Oprah Magazine and Psychology, even Alain De Botton so I never felt fully alone. I was always looking for a community of women who were very concerned with healing. Whether that was a literary space, a digital space, a media space, I’ve always held onto female solidarity as a result I’ve never been too far out to sea. Maybe it was also the women I chose to read and be friends with. 

We loved your Gal-Dem essay “Friends feed the spirit; loneliness feeds creativity”. Can you tell us a bit more about how this dichotomy plays out for you?

I am neither introvert nor extrovert, but somewhere in between. I need time alone and also with others. I had an ex that came home mid-way through my writing and I was so angry. I am crazy when I write, which is wonderful. These characters turn up, demanding things. So while I am alone in my room, I am very far from lonely because I have this village of people who are demanding their space in my writing. It is lovely but also inconvenient.

What does success mean to you?

I don’t think about writing in terms of success but I was really hurt by #PublishingPaidMe, and everything that has been revealed in disparity of pay. The gravity of the situation clarified in stark terms, which was painful. I am a black trans woman, I have to report on the situations that my sisters are in. 

I am very conscious of what I have been given, I feel i’ve a responsibility to reflect the times and provide a service to the community. I feel successful just for having carved out the ability to be a writer at all. I want to touch people. I want to change people’s lives. I want my writing to mean something to them. I want to be part of a pantheon. 

I will know I have made it when my notepads are protected, archived somewhere my work will not be lost or erased. I hope future generations will have access to our work really easily.

Do you feel like you’re currently thriving?

I feel I am thriving but I feel guilty about it. Not only because of being in the pandemic, but because I have cultural capital, I had a decent education, I don’t deal with the level of transphobic violence I once did. Living a bohemian life and treating myself, I’ve carved out a space of peace.

Not only do I believe in Karma, but the goodness I receive should flow through me. I really want to envision flowing goodness into me, out of me into my various communities and I want to help more girls like me have the same level of access.

How can we harness guilt in a productive way and use it proactively?

I have decided guilt should be fuel. It is fine for me to feel guilty but I can’t sit in it. The guilt has to be a donation. It has to be a letter. It has to lead to action. That makes me feel better. It makes me feel more comfortable talking about it. Then I think, ok – let’s define this guilt and lets know where it is coming from so I know best how to challenge it. 

What does identity mean to you? 

I was really aware of what a rich time I was living in and how aubaine my life was growing up in Blair’s Britain; the Spice Girls, Britpop and multiculturalism. Everything felt really abundant. 

When it comes to my identity, I really want to reach the sense of the sublime. My sister gave to me the book Women on the Edge of Time which really changed my world view. I feel like because of my reading there, I feel like I’ve always been given these visions of society which aren’t impossible. Anything that doesn’t chime with what the world could be, it just reseeds. I know what I am working towards. I just get on with writing what I can and hoping that I can do  as much as I can to create a better world. The stories I have read have given me the certainty that it will all be worth it in the end. 

Whether writing about history or the future, what I am looking for are unique voices who are world-builders who are encouraging me to rip the lid of everything I think is possible in my writing. I really want to create new worlds to alleviate the suffering of others.

What has been the most impactful internal shift for you in moving towards more positive patterns?

It was cultivating a loving inner voice. I just had a rolling tape of disgusting criticisms which didn’t start off with me but I made them mine. Making the loving voice in me louder and stronger is daily work. It is gratitude lists and outreaching to people who love me and showing my frustrations and anxieties. The inner child work I have done around my trauma has been invaluable. Just doing what was necessary to list the hurt. Let someone hear what happened to me. Tell me that I did not deserve it and then looking after myself in the aftermath with a bath, decent food, candles, and buying myself a teddy bear at the age of 34!