Stories of Our Lives: Introduction

Image | Wambui Mwangi
Image | Wambui Mwangi

Kenya’s Nest Collective has released a new book!

I’ll be engaging with the book over the next few posts. In this first one, I stage the problem of queer writing or, more precisely, the problem of how queer writing is defined, recorded, captured, and valued.

There will be detours.
A recent thread on Twitter returned me to a blog post a few years ago. The thread asked for names of queer Kenyan bloggers. I noted that my name was absent—both from the Twitter thread and the blog posts a few years ago.

(This is probably hurt arrogance speaking—so be it)

I wondered, a few years ago, about what that erasure meant. Perhaps, I thought, it was about the politics of location. After all, I started blogging while in the U.S. and few, if any, of my posts on sexuality focus on Kenya. And, if they do, I route them through theory: they are dislocated from a kind of dailyness that is identifiably Kenyan—I defer the question of why a theoretical lens might be seen as less or un-Kenyan.

Simultaneously, I wondered about queer ephemera.

A few years back (how imprecisely I measure time), I was writing a little article about queer Kenyan blogging, and I went through my blogroll (remember those?) only to discover (I’m writing lazily now) that many of those on the blogroll had deleted their blogs or made them private. Very few Kenyan queer bloggers who were writing in the mid-to-late 2000s are still writing. Worse, few, if any, of their blogs still exist. Unless you already knew of these figures, unless you interacted with them in some way, it’s impossible to know they used to exist.

Here is a lesson on how history becomes unwritten.

I met a famous historian of African homosexuality, perhaps the most famous one at the moment. I told him that if he was not looking at digital spaces, his work was radically incomplete. He did not know how to hear me.
Away from the digital, I have been thinking about the long life of queer writing, about the stories we might tell if we account for (forgive these examples, I went to a boys’ high school) graffiti on bathroom walls, “John suks dik,” “kamau bends over,” “I wil suk ur dik”; the multiple drawings of “diks” on bathroom walls that are as much expressions of desire as they are of anything else—especially the ones obsessed with shooting cum; the cum stains on bathroom walls, dried globules of publicly expressed desire.

In addition to these bathroom scenes—and, really, I can imagine a wonderful project based on photographing dried cum stains on Nairobi’s bathroom walls—we can look to school drama, to the long tradition of cross-gender roles. To school certificates awarded to “Best Males” and “Best Females”—some of us were queer. To school plays written by queers that imagined gender play, even if some of us did not know what we were doing.

We can look to little notes slipped into books: “I think u r cute.”

At friends who liked to help oiling scalps, who insisted on holding hands, who used to lie down on our beds (I was in boarding school, remember) as they talked to us. At the range of intimacies some of us did not know how to express.

Some of us did.
Two quotations from David Kazanjian,

The most seemingly quotidian and apparently concrete historical moments can offer deeply theoretical and profoundly speculative reflections on freedom

fragments of history, like the Haitian fragments [Susan] Buck-Morss culls from surprisingly transatlantic texts like the German-language journal Minerva Hegel was fond of reading, are not simply the vulnerable, empirical bearers of raw, real, and actual struggles for universal freedom from which philosophers like Hegel cull bad speculative abstractions and in which we, as historians or critics, can see a good and secure universal humanity that need not slip into particularisms like “black power and black dignity.” Nor, as David Scott has argued, are such fragments solely populated by recognizably revolutionary heroes setting out to seize the state or even to reform political structures, until they tragically fail to live up to their heroic promise to redeem the universal and, consequently, bring about our disillusioned renunciations. Rather, what would it mean to read such fragments as speculative encounters with freedom in their own right? What if, in and through all their apparently descriptive detail, such fragments could be said to theorize? How would we read for such speculation, such theoretical work in and through what we are so adept at finding and knowing as the empirical, the raw, the concrete?

How might a cum stain on a bathroom wall theorize? How might it reach for freedom? More precisely, how might reading a cum stain on a boarding school bathroom wall reach for freedom? What might such fragments tell us about how and where queer desire lives and thrives and imagines and dreams?

How, in fact, might cum stains on bathroom walls teach us to re-think what we consider the “historical fragment,” returning (some of) us to consider what counts as writing, to that arbitrary line between writing and art, articulation and expression?
Beyond simply thinking about the evidence of bodily fluids—and there are many: lip prints on love letters; saliva on discreetly marked notes; tears on pillows; sweat from hot dreams—and how to think with such fluids as part of queer Kenyan histories, I am interested in the place of the ephemeral, even the idea of the ephemeral.

First, as a placeholder for the temporality granted to queer desire: “it’s just a phase.”

It’s just a phase means several things. In our homonormative times, it means that queer promiscuity is a thing young people do. Responsible queers are monogamous, house-buying, children-raising, retirement-planning. Only very immature queers run around having random sex in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond.

Relatedly, “it’s just a phase” considers that queer attachments are okay, as long as they don’t impede the labor of hetero-marriage and hetero-reproduction. These two are not necessarily connected. Have your side piece, but marry and reproduce or, at the very least, reproduce, especially if you’re a woman.

Within what seems to be a history-making imagination, digital work disappears from historical memory. Thus, while attending a book launch last year, I was stunned to discover that Kenyan queers had written nothing worth mentioning in the digital sphere. The book—the codex, to use that language—marked the “beginning” of queer Kenyan writing. I’m not sure why the codex gets to be “the first” or even the most interesting.

Granted, queer Kenyan digital writing is digital writing. It’s fragmentary, it disappears quickly, it flirts with truth, it’s provocative, it’s boring, it’s non-narrative:

“looking to suk dik now”
“top looking for submissive white bttm”
“looking for a secure girlfriend to show me good times”
“need love, more than sex”
“if you want sex, luk somewhere else, me I want a man with a job, a car, who can show me good times”
“looking for nice white man to show me good times”
“avoid this person—he’s a blackmailer”
“this person has disease”
“avoid this place—it has blackmailers”

Reading these fragments, it’s difficult to assemble a narrative. Certainly, not the kinds of narratives we term “history” or even “story.” Horny people are not really driven by narrative, though they enjoy happy endings.

To the extent that what counts as a “historical narrative” is supposed to demonstrate a striving toward freedom—here, I distort Kazanjian—these fragments refuse such a striving. Or, rather, as one peruses their class-aspiring, power-praising, orgasm-desiring dreams, it’s difficult to locate freedom dreams.

Indeed, what can a cum stain on a bathroom wall in a boys’ boarding school tell us about freedom?

How do erotic dreams and late night masturbation figure in queer Kenyan stories, if at all? What fragments do we assemble to create a legible “our”? What is the pull of “story”? What and how does “story” organize?

What might a focus on queer fantasy produce alongside queer narrative? If we focus not simply on what happened, but on what one might have wanted to happen, how do queer lives come into and lose focus? What might it mean to think with ephemera?
A final note.

Ephemera is not simply about sweat stains and cum stains, lost high school notes and stolen underwear. It is also about how queer lives exist and are erased. About those dismissed and treated as “demonic” and “sick,” about queers buried by religious ceremonies, about the thousands lost to HIV/AIDS and familial and community shame, about those told they do not and cannot matter. The fleeting quality of queer life, queer expression.

Part of the task of queer writing must be to re-think ephemera: to see our lives and actions as worth noting, worth recording, worth thinking with, even worth celebrating.

Stories of Our Lives provides an occasion for such work.