Womxn on the Move: Kuli Kohli

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Image Description: Kuli Kohli performing at the British Museum, 2019.

Forming part of our ‘Womxn on the Move’ series is poet and creative writer, Kuli Kohli. I first came across her in a recent BBC article which described her story about the challenges that she has faced as a disabled woman and how her poetry has offered her opportunities for escapism. Her moving poetry led me to think more deeply about self-expression and the pleasure and pain that can come out of a cathartic practice such as writing. 

Recently, Kuli was kind enough to set aside some time to elaborate on the opportunities that writing has given her, her experience of being an Asian woman with cerebral palsy, and her ambitions for the writers’ group that she set up for Punjabi women. 

You were born in northern India and moved to England in your early years. What was it liked growing up in these two countries? How has this shaped your work as a poet and writer? 

Life changed when I migrated to England with my parents at the age of two. I went to a “Special School” where I was with other children with disabilities. I gained a lot from that school, because they offered opportunities I would not have otherwise had in an ordinary Asian household or school. I was very timid and shy when I was with people, particularly when visiting friends and relatives as well as community celebrations such as weddings and parties. I didn’t enjoy going because people just used to stare at me, making me feel unimportant, alienated and an invalid. Some people still stare at me now. I was referred to as “handicapped” – a word I despised. Other children teased me saying, “Why do you walk like that and talk like that?” – I never answered their questions because I didn’t know myself.  I am very grateful to England for giving me opportunities that I would never have had if I’d stayed in India. I think my words on paper spoke louder than my speech and that’s what has shaped my work as a writer and poet.

In a recent BBC article you were very candid about the prejudice that you have faced as an Asian woman with cerebral palsy. What did you wish to communicate about your experience in your collection of poetry, entitled Rag Doll? 

‘Rag Doll’ was my first self-published collection of poetry and prose (now out of print). My poetry came out of a long process of finding my voice and understanding my life and its imposed limits. I write in a variety of styles and forms which tell you about what it’s like to be an Asian woman with disabilities in modern Britain.

On your website, you have described your passion for writing as a medium that has ‘opened up all sorts of possibilities’ as you have struggled to express yourself because of your disability. How did you become interested in writing and could you discuss your view of it as escapism?  

I have had a passion for writing since childhood. I write for pleasure as well as about pain, so in fact it is a kind of deep releasing therapy. Writing means so much to me because it gives me a voice to express myself and communicate more clearly. I have always struggled with speech and saying what I really want to say, this has made me quite shy. Over the years my voice has been suppressed by disability and being an Asian woman.

How do you go about starting a new piece of writing and how do you know when it’s finished? 

When I sit down to write, I am usually inspired by something or I have a burning desire to get something written down. When I have written the piece, I then leave it for a day or two and then redraft it and ask my fellow writer friends for advice for any further improvements. I know when something is finished by the way it looks on the page, how it flows and sounds to me and an audience.

Alongside your poetry, you have established a new writers’ group dedicated to Punjabi women in Wolverhampton. What has been your ambition for this group? How would you describe your experience of running this group so far? 

The Punjabi Women’s Writing Group was set up in May/June 2018.  This writers’ group is dedicated to Punjabi women in Wolverhampton. Punjabis usually think that we should be doing something more productive with our precious time, like looking after the family and learning to sew and cook, and things like that. Writing and Punjabi women is not a very good match. Punjabi women who express a desire in writing and art are thought of as ‘time-wasters’.  I want to change that perspective.

Over the last couple of years, we have had successful writing workshops and local performances in Wolverhampton Libraries and the Wolverhampton literature festival and Festival of Imagination at Ironbridge that have sparked up a lot of interest.

Previously you have said that many Punjabi women of your age and generation find it very hard to express how they feel, could you elaborate further on why do you think this is? Have you noticed a difference in the women that have taken part in your writer’s group? 

These women need to feel safe and free of any judgement, something they have dealt with their whole lives. The women often write about their experiences of how they feel, the alcoholism of family members and domestic abuse, for example. We also write about the beautiful and funny side of life such as relationships, fashion and food. These untold stories and views from a different angle need to be written and told to the world.

The women in my group never thought their voices were important enough for the stage and publication. Some of them, have now had their work published in magazines and online magazines which has given them hope and ambition to keep telling their stories.

You most recent poetry pamphlet, Patchwork, was published by Offa’s Press in 2016. What is the significance of this title and what are the most prominent themes in this collection of poems? 

The title refers to experiences, thoughts, memories and feelings as I write in the title poem Patchwork: “Handmade, homemade, prepared with love, a complete collage of my life uniquely crafted.” In Patchwork, there are poems about my life experiences that relate to disability, trauma, history, family, nature, culture, heartbreak and love. In a way, I am stitching together the various parts of my life to make me more whole as a person, more understanding of my life.

As Debian Chatterjee MBE FRSL describes: “Like the best patchwork quilts from India and England, Kula Kohli’s Patchwork has vivid colours, homespun originality and a variety of subjects and forms of poetry.”  These reflect the different aspects of my life.

What are some of your upcoming projects that can we look forward to? 

Offa’s Press is publishing a new collection of my work ‘Wonder Woman’ which will be available in the Spring of 2021.

Quick-fire questions:
What is something every student should know? 

You never stop learning.

What is something every student should do?

Treat everyone with respect.

What is something every student should read/watch/listen to?

Read: “Cider with Rosie” by Laurie Lee and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou and the poetry of Amrita Pritam (Punjabi novelist and poet).

Watch:  Bollywood film – Shola (Embers) is a 1975 Indian action-adventure film written by Salim–Jived, directed by Ramesh Sippy.

Listen to: “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas and Bollywood songs sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle.

For more information about Kuli Kohli and her upcoming events, visit: www.kulikohli.co.uk

Image courtesy of Kuli Kohli

 

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