Nyachiro Lydia Kasese’s Paper Dolls is filled with scenes of smoking, which are also scenes of gendering, degendering, and engendering. These scenes are often breezy,
I met a boy once in Dodoma who asked me,
“Why do you smoke? Are you addicted?”
I met another boy at a bus stand who told me,
“I like girls who smoke, do you want to go out with me?” (“Ancient”)
If you’re familiar with histories of modern women, you’ll recognise this image of the young smoking woman: across multiple geohistories, she incarnates modernity. In the opening lines to the poem, she is policed in the name of manners (“good women don’t smoke”), health (“women who care about their health don’t smoke”), and appetite (“women who know how to control themselves don’t get addictions”). These very same absences mark the modern woman as available for sexual fantasy and sexual invitation: “do you want to go out with me?”
As tempting as it is to say these scripts were fashionable in the twentieth century and have now faded, they are persistent, and Kasese uses their persistence to describe the shape of the world that is possible for young women. “Shape of the world” sounds hyperbolic, but I think it describes the geotemporalities Kasese’s speaker maps: Dodoma, the proper place name, albeit fixed to an unspecified past (“once”) and “a bus stand,” rendered imprecise by the indefinite article “a” and the unspecified time (it’s in the past, “met,” but that past could be any past). These two spatio-temporalities are joined by the focus on policing women, the focus on shaping how women inhabit these space, the focus on women’s availability (for comment, insult, proposition, invitation, harassment).
In “The Journey of Bodies,” smoking creates shared ground between colorism and misogyny:
When the men of this city tell you that you are too pretty to smoke, that your lips are too vaginal pink to turn black from smoking, remind them that their mothers spent years attempting to love black into their children’s spines. Remind them that it is because of them that your daughters will look for god in skin-lightening creams just so they can appear light enough to be paraded in public.
Kasese takes on the casual banter—bar talk, it’s called in Kenya—that circulates so easily, as though without thought, all the while shaping the kinds of worlds women can inhabit. Compliments (“you are too pretty to smoke”) have histories: they discipline and, very rarely, expand possibilities. They also sexualize—“your lips are too vaginal pink”—comparing the women in front of them to images culled from porn magazines. (An aside: the expectation that young women should be familiar with, if not conform to, porn aesthetics, and be comfortable as such aesthetics are tossed around in casual conversation is also another way of shaping the experience of young, modern womanhood.)
This casual banter is not innocent. Kasese reminds us what it must erase to exist: the years mothers spend “attempting to love black into their children’s spines.” (I cannot explain how much I absolutely adore that line and image, the labor it makes visible, the white supremacy it takes on, the worlds that mothers create.) Such comments erase not only labor by mothers (histories), but also create pathologizing futures in which the speaker’s daughters (daughters belong to their mothers?) will “look for god in skin-lightening cream.” Damaging comments have multigenerational effects.
To transpoke Kasese for a moment: if her poems are breezy, they soon reveal themselves to have the force of a harmattan.
These concerns about the worlds women can inhabit coalesce in “Accepted Standards,” in which the speaker wonders if she can live up to the image of her mother she idealised as a young girl:
The not-so-little girl inside of you wonders
if she will ever fit in the shoes your mother wore in 1990
. . .
Every now and then you want to dress her up in pretty,
throw on some religion around her face,
put some morality around her waist.
You try to get her to quit smoking,
to stop drinking and masturbating in cheap hotel rooms.
I read these final lines alongside the fourth (and final) stanza in “Flowering”:
To my unborn daughters:
sometimes your mother will play apothecary,
and still her medicine will not protect you from the monsters under your beds.
One day you may have to walk through your own Gethsemane.
One day you will be dead without dying.
Someday your mother’s tongue will be a lost tribe,
a testament to the new world a past generation
that nurtures fear in their back gardens.
Someday she will explore her past,
in the only place left for it. Her memory.
World-making is mapped along girlhood, womanhood, and motherhood in these poems. Its temporal scale leaves the (too common and much expected) space of the nation (you’re an African—write about your history, your culture, your anti colonial struggles, your postcolonial angst). It insists on focusing our gaze on how young women make and inhabit worlds alongside the worlds made for them to inhabit.
These are abrading poems: they strip and scratch, they predict debilitating futures for young women (“One day you will be dead without dying”), even as they see some hope in the conditional (“One day you may have to walk through your own Gethsemane”). Even as they dare to imagine it might be different—poetry is that place of daring to imagine the world might be shaped differently, that it might receive one differently.
The final poem of the collection, “Prodigal,” reveals not the hard carapace associated with the breezy modern young woman (itself a dangerous stereotype), but an impossible vulnerability demanded of the modern young woman:
Yesterday I was scared. Almost terrified. I tried to hide in myself,
but I had too many places to be,
too many things to be for other people,
to many laughs and inside jokes to share with people I had promised a good time.
It was Friday after all. But today I’m here I’m alone.
I’m unwrapping the wounds, checking if the lack of solitude yesterday
had miraculously healed them.
I’m waiting for God or some other creator of the universe
to make their way past all my sins and cigarette smoke,
to pick me up from all this nothingness.
The sentiments are familiar: the demands imagined and practiced as womanhood figured as endless extension and availability, womanhood as an endless resource (of pleasure, of fun, of patience, of love, of understanding), womanhood as an unending good breast (Melanie Klein). It’s possible to dismiss “all this nothingness” as the typical angst of the young(er) poet—clad in black, carrying around Nietzche, droning on about the futility of it all. Such an interpretation misses Kasese’s more trenchant critique of the endless resources imagined to comprise womanhood: there is no unending well of patience, no unending cornucopia of understanding. The stretch demanded of women—that to be woman is to be stretch—takes away from what isn’t there.
What space exists for young women to be?