abroadness: three geo-histories

The stuff of being abroad—whether as student, exile, worker, and other categories—is daily-making. In its most iconic form it has involved deaths and graduations and illness and weddings, all of which involve some form of emotional and financial contribution. It has been marked by a duty to care, a desire to affirm attachment through fulfilling obligations to feel and donate. In its more spectacular forms, it has involved receiving news that a Kenyan has committed suicide, been murdered, or has committed murder. Perhaps it’s simply that these three stick most in my head, though it does seem they circulate as the “thing” of abroadness with particular force and vigor: object lessons on vulnerability and failure.

In the last few years, abroadness has increasingly been represented by shiny pictures of well-groomed professionals, a parade of lawyers and doctors and computer engineers and entrepreneurs, all eager to devote their time and energy and money to “building” their home countries. This image circulates as what is possible, masking, in the process, the multiple and more invisible others who have disappeared into the dailyness of unsuccess: the ones who are not camera-ready. The ones who are talked about and remembered and forgotten, but never celebrated. The ones we talk about in terms of “papers”: “looking for papers,” “living without papers,” “barely living with papers,” and that most odd category, “with papers, but unsuccessful.”

We might term this a peculiarly Kenyan story.

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Germany is overseas.
The United States is overseas.
But England is another thing.
– Ama Ata Aidoo, Our Sister Killjoy

Who can forget the earnest abroaders in Ama Ata Aidoo’s Our Sister Killjoy, who invent many reasons to stay abroad.

Every man claimed that he was a student, and so did every woman. The men were studying engineering or medicine or law.

But Sissie was not surprised to learn too that most of them had been students since the beginning of time.

The women were taking courses in dressmaking and hairdressing, they said.

The litany of reasons to stay away:

Then I met another one of them the other day, when I went to the embassy to renew my passport. And between the two of us, he said that he can’t go home yet because he has to take care of an urgent personal problem. He is approaching thirty but he still can’t grow a beard. A family trait. He feels such shame. So he has decided to have a hair graft on his chin. It is a very expensive operation, he declared. He is therefore staying to work for a little more money to get it done. Then he would have to wait a year or two or so while the scars from the surgery healed and he also learnt to feel at ease with his new and permanent beard . . .

geohistory 2

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Preparing to “return,” I am practicing the art of the long preamble. For each speech, one must wander around for at least half an hour before finally delivering the 20-minute talk. I am not-not taking part in the Caine Prize blogathon, as I have not-not taken part over the past few years. There is an art to writing about the Caine stories, one that winds around craft and feeling, part review and part article, a dance between quality and winnability. I don’t quite know the steps to this dance, so let me say I make no claims about winnability. Instead, I’m interested in where the stories might lead.

And, so, “Miracle.”

“Miracle” is an abroadness story about the daily rituals of making home-spaces-elsewhere. Perhaps the church and other religious centers have always been crucial to such home-making, though, in been-to novels from the 60s and 70s, the school and the political rally were far more likely scenes for abroadness than the church. Partly, this has to do with numbers: who went abroad when and for what reason. Certainly, most writing on abroadness has focused on social worlds quite distinct from the church: Claude McKay’s Banjo spends most of its time in dive bars and clubs, Senghor’s poetry languishes in splendid, scholarly alienation and nostalgic sighs for home, Carol Polsgrove’s account of inter-war London focuses on political organizing and writing, and, in general, it is far more common to read about schools and cheap apartments and students and Marxist radicals than it is to read about churches and dance halls (also, see Samuel Selvon’s Lonely Londoners). Of course, if you are familiar with Selvon’s Lonely Londoners, it’s possible to read its lyrical flights of nonlinear prose—the much-loved stream of consciousness section—as a search for the ecstasy desired by the congregants in “Miracle.” A search for what, following Jane Bennett, might be termed the “enchantment” of abroadness.

“Miracle” might be read as a story about a failed conversion, about the failure of enchantment to hold: the blind preacher can retain his ability to enchant and to inspire ecstasy as he travels across the U.S. precisely because he is “blind”:

“I have been in the U.S. for two months now . . .” he begins rhythmically moving his head left and right, “I have been to New York, to Delaware, to Philadelphia, to Washington, to Florida, to Atlanta, to Minnesota, to Kansas, to Oklahoma, and now, finally, I have arrived here.”

This blend of cities and states produces a geography of travel as tourism, a series of short stays, a rhythm of possibility: the visitor never experiences need, can stay locked within wonder.

The preacher’s rhythm echoes an earlier litany in the story:

We have come from all over North Texas to see him. Some of us have come from Oklahoma, some of us from Arkansas, a few of us from Louisiana and a couple from New Mexico. We own his books, his tapes, his holy water, his anointing oil. We know that he is an instrument of God’s will, and we have come because we need miracles.

We need jobs. We need good grades. We need green cards. We need American passports. We need our parents to understand that we are Americans. We need our children to understand they are Nigerians. We need new kidneys, new lungs, new limbs, new hearts. We need to forget the harsh rigidity of our lives, to remember why we believe, to be beloved, and to hope.

We need miracles.

I am arrested by these paragraphs: by this ownership that cannot be ownership. Those abroad may have bought items from the preacher—books, tapes, holy water, anointing oil—but these items remain “his.” As though the condition of abroadness is always about owning-but-never-owning. What does it mean to “own” something marked as someone else’s? What would it mean to own something as one’s own? When does the abroad person finally “own” the right to stay? When does the person with papers stop being a foreigner?

More pressing: what does it mean to figure abroadness as constant need?

Stories of the “new” African diaspora do not speak of need. Newspapers “at home” focus on diaspora as a bank, an unceasing pipeline, never once considering that to be abroad might mean being “needy.” The “needy” foreigner  is, of course, the stuff of immigration nightmares: the people who come to “sponge” off “us.”

One could read “Miracle” as a story about remittance as exchange: money and faith sent to a home-based preacher who offers brief moments of ecstasy, who brings messages to those abroad that they have not been forgotten: “God has told me that you have been the most faithful of his flock in the U.S. You haven’t forgotten your people back home. You haven’t forgotten your parents and siblings who sent you here, who pray for you every day.”

But, see, see there? See what I did? The preacher tells those abroad they have not forgotten those at home. He does not say they have not been forgotten. This is a sermon built around silences: about the spaces filled by desire and ecstasy.

About the spaces the congregants need to fill with desire and ecstasy.

How do we read the young protagonist’s decision to participate in faith healing? The story tells us how to read it: “a community is made up of truths and lies. Both must be cultivated in order for the community to survive.” I remain stuck at an earlier moment in the story: after receiving his miracle, the young man is asked to demonstrate it has worked, that his vision has been repaired. When he does so, “mouths open again, to give birth to a new species of joy.” (Because I am wedded to truncated endings, I might have suggested the story end here, if only to foreground that abroadness is about the production of joy rather than ordinariness, which is where the story ends.)

“Miracle” might be read as a story about “joy.” Or, rather, it could be read as a story about the obligation to produce happiness. Those living abroad produce happiness for those who visit. They produce happiness when they visit home. They produce happiness as a promise that sustains belief in their decisions to stay abroad.

One cannot produce “need.” Need is not a product. Need is a demand.

And, perhaps, I am still in the long preamble: perhaps “Miracle” is a story interested in the relationship between “need” and “joy” in a space called abroad.

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