Stories of Our Lives: Memories

Image | Wambui Mwangi
Image | Wambui Mwangi

If history represents—in both senses of the term—

representation as "speaking for," as in politics, and representation as "re-presentation," as in art or philosophy (Gayatri Spivak, "Can the Subaltern Speak")
a dominant story, an official story, not simply how events happened but how events should be arranged so they can be remembered, memory is often taken as the counter to history. Memory is often unofficial, often unrecognized, often minoritized. Its archives are fragmented and fragmentary—borne on the body, carved into landscapes, floating on winds, buried in ocean beds. Sometimes it hides in plain sight, because history, like all dominant forces, appropriates and distorts. Sometimes it seeks fossil-making events, hoping that if it anchors itself in what will survive, it might be discovered, deciphered, used. Often, it lives as breaks and pauses, interruptions and amnesia. And here I mean the amnesia caused by repeated violence. Not a gentle forgetting, but a damaged imagination.

If history is not simply what is remembered, but how remembering organizes, the very possibility of narrative, or story, what is recognizable as story, as order, as life itself, then what and how does memory organize?

I’m working my way through Stories of Our Lives. Usually, I prefer not to write about a work until I’ve completed it—works shift as they proceed, as do our initial thoughts and feelings. However, the form of the work—multiple narratives, collected from over 200 people, presented in short sections ranging from a paragraph to ten pages each (I’ll have more to say about the form later in this series)—persuades me that it’s possible to write as I read. Perhaps recording a history of my reading experience might be more useful than trying to sum up a completed reading experience.

The first and longest section of the book is titled Memories. I’m slightly more than halfway through it, so I will be clumsy.
First Lines

I had a crisis of faith at some point.
I am a male-to-female transgender.
I am gay.
I realized I was bisexual when I was ten.
I’ve never really been the normal kid.
I identify as a queer Kikuyu woman.
I went out for a drink with my classmates one night at a local bar.
I’m a lesbian.
I identify as confused, in that phase of experimenting.
Growing up, I never liked playing with boys, I used to play with girls.
I’m twenty-two years old, and I’m bisexual.
I knew I was gay when I was very young, in Standard 4.
Sexually, I am a very, very, very, very, very, very closeted lesbian, because of my line of work.
The question of what I identify as has never been easy for me to answer.
I’m very, very gay.
I am an intersex person.
I’m a male sex worker, and I’m gay.
I’m a pure lesbian.
If someone asked me directly if I was gay, I’d say no.
I am a hustler.

Stories of Our Lives does not use chapter headings or titles to distinguish stories. Instead, a horizontal line across the page marks the end of each story, and an articulation of being—“identity” is a difficult word to use—marks the beginning of each new one. “I am,” in a range of forms, marks the distance between bodies and the connective tissue between them. In highlighting the first line of several narratives, I reveal, perhaps, an editorial decision to begin with an articulation of being. (I’m very tempted to riff on the biblical “I am that I am,” but that would be obnoxious.) However, in privileging the first lines, I also risk having them as final lines, as though they sum up the narratives that unfold.

Let me tread carefully.

A too-common anti-queer statement is that queers make too much of their sexual identities or sexual practices or sexuality. A good queer, one is told, is a discreet queer. From this terrain, from the Kenya I occupy, this statement is absurd. Much of Kenyan adult life, indeed, one might argue, the majority of Kenyan adult life is taken up with the question of sexuality. When will you get married? When will you have children? When will you cheat on your partner? Why did you cheat on your partner? Why have you only had one child? Don’t you know men are the rulers of the household? Why are women not getting married? Why are couples divorcing? One cannot escape the unrelenting heteronormativity of Kenya.

Heteronormativity, as Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner teach us, organizes life narratives.

By heteronormativity we mean the institutions, structures of understanding, and practical orientations that make heterosexuality seem not only coherent-that is, organized as a sexuality-but also privileged. Its coherence is always provisional, and its privilege can take several (sometimes contradictory) forms: unmarked, as the basic idiom of the personal and the social; or marked as a natural state; or projected as an ideal or moral accomplishment. It consists less of norms that could be summarized as a body of doctrine than of a sense of rightness produced in contradictory manifestations-often unconscious, immanent to practice or to institutions. Contexts that have little visible relation to sex practice, such as life narrative and generational identity, can be heteronormative in this sense, while in other contexts forms of sex between men and women might not be heteronormative. Heteronormativity is thus a concept distinct from heterosexuality. One of the most conspicuous differences is that it has no parallel, unlike heterosexuality, which organizes homosexuality as its opposite. Because homosexuality can never have the invisible, tacit, society-founding rightness that heterosexuality has, it would not be possible to speak of"homonormativity" in the same sense. (Michael Warner and Lauren Berlant, "Sex in Public")
It gives shape to what is considered a life, to what is considered a story.

These first lines struggle to inaugurate stories, to locate themselves within frames that don’t quite fit, abjecting frames. Although some of the stories feature older characters—at least one is thirty eight—many of the narrators are in their early twenties, and many others do not disclose their age. How do (mostly?) young narrators organize story, especially if we understand story, especially life story, as a culturally specific genre organized by heteronormativity?

Often, these first lines lead to a series of anecdotes: the first sexual experience, the first kiss, the first crush, the first relationship, the first job, the first heartbreak. If not the first, the most significant. Sometimes, the first lines—and, here, one wonders about their roles as framing devices—lead to wandering narratives, as narrators try to wrap their lives around those lines. More than one story takes off from the first line to cycle through a series of identifications and negations—I’m a lesbian, I’m bisexual, this is a phase, I want children. Points of departure, first lines don’t always make it till the end.
Shaping a Life

Several stories want to shape a life, a legible life, a recognizable life. Were we not in newly homonormative times, I’d attribute these desires to the force of heteronormativity, and, in fact, I do not dismiss such an interpretation. But these are newly homonormative times, and desires are being (re)arranged in particular ways.

I want to get married. I wish a man would come and ask me to marry him, and take me to Europe, I’m tired of Africa now. I want to go to Holland, I know all the crazy things happen there. I want to go and be a stripper there. I don’t want to be a housewife or whatever, I want to continue sex-working until I die. If the man who wants to marry me wants me to stop, I’ll pretend, but when I reach there, I’ll just continue.

I think I want to adopt two children, two of them. Two girls, not boys. Boys might grow up and say, “You’re a man, you’re not my mama,” then start beating me POW! POW! POW! after smoking marijuana.
I don’t want a wife, for sure. I just want a child, one of my own. That’s all. I’d want to raise the child with my partner or husband. I’d want the child to grow up knowing all they needed to know—where we don’t have to hide things, and we can discuss things and he or she can understand and be very mature. I want just one child, and I’d love a daughter. I’ll really raise her well. You feel good when you are raising your own baby, and you have the capacity to have your own child.
I am a Christian, a God-fearing Christian. Before I met my girlfriend, I prayed to God. I told Him, “ I have found out that I am a lesbian, and all I want is someone to settle down with, Someone good. Someone who I can get along with. Someone who will love me.”

And that’s what He did. I always pray about us; I pray about our relationship, even our arguments. I want to get married to her in the future. I want to have kids, too. She already has a child, and she is against artificial insemination. She thinks it’s not safe, so we have been going back and forth about it. Maybe I will settle for the more traditional method of getting pregnant. We have plans for our future, when I get a job we talked about getting kids and buying land together, where we will settle.
I want to have my own kids. Two of them. I want to raise them full of love. After all, what are we doing all this for—all the investing and things—if it’s not for our kids? I’ll probably hook up with a lesbian and have kids. I want both my children to be related on both sides; me as the father, and her being the mother, and then we can co-parent regardless of being queer, and just be there for our kids. If I found someone open-minded, it could really work. When you get kids, I think your way of thinking changes, because your interest is in your children. I’ve thought about finding a girl—I can shag a woman, anyway—and having kids, then the focus of my life would be them. I think I would be happy then, because I would love them unconditionally as their father, and I think that love would be enough for me. They would be my reason for living and maybe I could kill my queer side. But how long can you do that? You can’t do that for long.

I return to the force of Our in Stories of Our Lives, for the Our marks belonging not only to something that might be called “queer,” but also, and perhaps more importantly, to something called “Kenyan.” What is a Kenyan life? What gives it shape, meaning, story? Repeatedly, the narratives I’ve read try to navigate between the (emergent) sense of what a queer life might be—sex and crushes in high school and college, sexual experimentation, gender transgression in high school and college—and what a Kenyan life might be—a respectable job, responsibilities to family, a religious orientation, a desire for children and the stability they embody.

Again, homonormativity aligns (disciplines?) desire.
Overviews such as this one are necessarily blunt, crude instruments. They pick and choose. They tell the stories that interest them. I suspect I have yet to learn how to read this collection. I hope it will teach me how it ought to be read.