Un-Memory

There is no “great” “Shifta War” novel, no “unforgettable” Wagalla Massacre film, no public memorial to the many Somalis murdered and erased by the Kenyan state. One might speculate that Somalis have been unmade as subjects and communities who have suffered harm, who suffer harm, and who can suffer harm. Framed, variously, as “anti-Kenyan,” “illegal,” “alien,” “terrorists,” Somalis are framed as unassimilable to a “project Kenya” that is, at base, devoted to keeping Somalis killable. In a very important way, Kenyan-ness is defined against Somali-ness, even as Kenyan-ness requires disposable Somali communities, lives, and bodies.

Consider, for instance, the ongoing “crackdown,” “lockdown,” “security operation” being carried out in Eastleigh. Mainstream reporting has claimed that Eastleigh is being reclaimed “by Kenya,” identifying Somali residents as “suspects,” “foreigners,” and “terror threats.” Xenophobia is one way to frame these accusations, but it fails to capture the ideological and affective labor of war on terror frames that deny suspects any recognition as right-bearing subjects. War on terror frames augment and intensify the Kenyan state’s ongoing war against Somalis, helping, as well, to legitimate this war within a global sphere dedicated to “fighting terror.” Note, for instance, that “foreign envoys” are cited as affirming their support “in eliminating terror threats in the country.” (The statement is so vague as to be meaningless, even as its very vagueness can be marshaled to support the government’s actions.)

To “support . . . eliminating terror threats” in this context requires unseeing, unhearing, and uncaring about those framed as creating or, in this case, bearing terror in their very identities, histories, cultures, and relationships. To be Somali in Kenya now is to be a terrorist, to be suspected of being a terrorist, or to be suspected of having ties to terrorism. Twitter chatter accuses Somalis in Eastleigh of “harboring” terrorists. Those speaking against the state’s actions—its violations of constitutionally-guaranteed rights and multiple human rights—are framed as “terrorist sympathizers.”

When it comes to Somalis in Kenya, what remains now is “muscle memory”: state-sanctioned physical movements and affective dispositions devoted to maintaining Somali disposability. It is an interpellative memory that trains non-Somali Kenyans how they should (un)feel about and act toward Somalis. This “muscle memory” is activated and sustained by the ongoing consolidation of identity politics—the belief and practice that one’s identity dictates and constrains one’s politics—that, again, understands Somalis as terror-bearing bodies and communities. It’s worth noting that in marking Somalis as terror-bearing, the state displaces its own violence while retroactively justifying historical violence against Somalis. In a future anterior sense, Somalis will always have been those with terror-bearing bodies, an ideological construction that sustains the “muscle memory” at work now.

Baskets of Words

I have been gathering baskets of words—livability, killability, disposability, intimate diversity, intimate surveillance, intimate heterogeneity, dissident embodiments, extinguishment, potentiality—to think with and around and about “being-here-now” or “being:here:now” or “being/here/now” or “beingherenow.” To engage the peculiar-particular “archive” that both floats and sediments as “the quotidian” or “a quotidian,” as I struggle not to mistake “a” for “the” or “the” for “a.”

Repetition, with variation, has become a method, a practice, a habit—a moment to catch a breath, lose all ground, dig deeper into life-saving trenches, only to discover the unhidden bodies, unconsumed by hyenas or quicklime. (One might add morbid embodiments, undead proximities, dead-dead vibrancies, and seeming-dead frequencies to this ever-expansive, very leaky basket of words.)

It has seemed necessary (and ethical) to leave the basket leaky as I travel from place to place, to let words leak out, bleed out, dry and desiccate, only to return where I have already been to re-collect the words—the words will not stay in the basket long enough to arrive at “the situation” or “the scene,” which might be my way of saying that I have yet to arrive at “the situation” or “the scene” where the words might “speak” or “work,” even as the leaky basket will not allow “hoarding.”

Words dry on the way from “source” to “destination,” but never into re-constitutable concentrate.

It has seemed urgent to keep returning to word-sources, to keep using “a/the” leaky basket, in an attempt to “localize,” to speak from and with the floating-sedimenting here-now. I have hoped, perhaps foolishly, that gathering enough words or too many words might allow some to remain as others leak away—I have hoped that “leaking away” is also a kind of work, a kind of necessary labor. Even as I contend with the inevitability of ephemerality.

(What, I wonder, is the relationship between “ephemera” and “stickiness”? Which words “stick” to which situations? How do they stick? What does “stickiness” do to ephemera? Do situations make words “sticky”? Do situations make words “ephemeral”? How might the resources of ephemerality frame [or re-frame] how words can be “sticky”?)

This is not about finding the “right” words: it is about trying to find words elastic enough (not the right description) to “do something” as they leak away, disappear from view, are re-gathered, and leak away again. Accepting that the basket must always remain leaky, cannot be other than leaky.

I want to think with leakiness and stickiness, with slipperiness and ephemerality, to push against the conceptual-political ossification that we now understand (and use) as “history,” as “strategy,” as “possibility.”

What are the possibilities of “slip-away” words?

But, also, what potential might “gathering words” have? Words that assemble people and places and times, practices and habits and procedures, words that collectivize the never-weres and cannot-bes alongside the here-nows? Words that might weave a being-together in a “possible.”

(to think of the “leaky” and the “sticky” is also to think of the “residue,” to imagine a “social” as this interaction with and through “residues,” to think of the relationship between the social-enabling residue and disposability, but also the residue that might never be vibrant matter)

Reading Yvonne Owuor I

Akai-ma “wards off ghouls and bad night entities, wrestles God, casts ancient devils into hell before their time, and kicks aside sea waves.” Akai-ma feeds hungers that cannot know themselves, “retrieves those who belong to her,” holds secrets in barely-there scars. And, here, a child died. And, here, a child could not learn how to linger.

She laughs in the
going there
wind

the secrets
women
keep

*
And what happened here?

Akai-ma is a laugh, a kick, a tear, a disavowal: “you are not, are not, are not my

sentences trail off
sounds uttered
into
voids
(how do we hear you in the in-
complete-
ness

(as though she will have told
everything)
*
She is always interrupting (a bath, a sentence, a mourning), always too present, if spectral (what is this unending mourning called madness): shall we call her touched: touching

(all the men wanting
her)

(Odidi: where is Odidi?)
*
There is something obscene to Akai’s feeling: it is too much, too there, too present, too pressing. It makes discomfort, goes beyond what should be borne.

Akai- ma will be mad. Flicker of
laughter. She was mad.
Akai- ma.

(Mad in this excessive feeling:knowing, feeling:thinking, feeling:being, feeling:hunger)

*
What if Dust is a novel about Akai’s hungers?

Akai Lokorijom.

She flows like magma, every movement considered, as if it has come from the root of the world. Tall, willowy, wasp- waisted, her breasts still large and firm, she is made of and colored by the earth itself. Something ferocious peers out of dark- brown eyes, so that even her most tender glance scalds. Her voice, a bassoon- sounding, gravel- colored afterthought. At unpredictable moments, for nameless reasons, she might erupt with molten- rock fury, belching fire that damaged everything it encountered. Akai was as dark, difficult, and dangerous as one of those few mountains where God shows up, and just as mystifying.

“Blood cakes her body in thin strips”

an AK-47, “the four- kilogram 1952 with a wooden butt stock and hand guard, is strapped to her body, cradled in a green kanga with an aphorism written on it: Udongo uwahi umaji, “Work with wet clay.”

(Khanga theorist, Dr. Mshai Mwangola, teaches me that there is a khanga for every occasion)

A cradled gun held by a grieving mother in a khanga: this image arrests me, undoes me, remakes sense-worlds, vision-possibilities.

(Dust is replete with such moments of arrest, moments of re-visioning, moments when we realize the incompleteness of narratives and images we had imagined stale:
*
Akai is always leaving, always restless, always unsettled and unsettling, and even when she tells, it is not all that can be told, and is, often, more than can be borne

To be undone by the compassion of her untelling

Akai’s

Yvonne’s

Poppers

I am losing interest.

Fucking: it’s afternoon, I don’t go to work until later, and I arranged my work schedule so I could fuck from 11 am to 3 pm and after I get off work at 11 pm.

Today it’s indoors. I skipped the park. The display of “you want me” I reject, “I’m so horny” I despise, and “I’m hungry” that I crave.

What are you attracted to?
Hunger.
*
He is hungry. Manbuilt. Soft mountains of welcome. The warmth of so much man. Hungry.

Fuck me.

Maybe he doesn’t say it. Maybe he simply strips. Lies open. Pushes back in invitation.

Fuck me.

Push in. Pull out. Don’t stop.
*
Hunger can be routine:
    I fuck men between 11 am and 3 pm
    And after 11 pm

Their names are
        the apartment at the corner
                the toilet in the park
        the third open door in the bathhouse
                a Cuban with menthol in his ass
        a daddy in the bathroom
                a hustler giving away freebies
         another new penetration.

Hungry.
*
He is, we are, hungry.

I am hungry on green screens and slick roads, erect at green signs and wet underwear, frantic at open doors and waiting asses, the first delicious moments of welcome.

I am losing interest.
*
Take a hit.

Take another one.

Yeah.

Fuck me.
*
The pornography of monosyllables.

          Fuck me.
Now.
*
Rush.

It’s called rush.

Here.

Have some.
*
He is every hunger in an instant. He is not here. He is every welcome. He is letting go. He is a green t-shirt and McDonald’s wrappers and an underground garage in a clothes-strewn room.

I am one inhale away from
losing interest

rush

1: Whose Kenya@50?

a. Kenya is multiple: developed, hyperdeveloped, underdeveloped, undeveloped, voided, erased, forgotten, unremembered. That is not quite right. Development cannot be the master term to map multiplicity. Let the statement stand as a symptom of how Kenya must be talked about.

b. Kenya is many: like a piece of food on an uneven grill, it is charred, undone, raw, overdone, tough, tender, flaking, bloody, chewy, rendered, and still waiting. One might write about “hot spots.” Sometimes, flames break out.

c. Kenya is time-fractured: the too-fast cuts across the not-yet, the rapid pace still trying to catch up with the always-had-been, and we splay across time zones, ancient-not-yets, impatient to be where we have already been and must already have forgotten because memory cannot sustain the undoing of the having been.

d. Sometimes, there is a pause.

e. Sometimes, there is a reckoning.

f. Don’t look now.

g. We are, even now, bits of fading insistence.

h. Some of us insist on phantom pains.

i. Telling the story, the clear-voiced narrator drops into a mumble, gazes into the flame, blushes at the fire’s insistence. Stutters.

j. Some of us are squatters in someone else’s dream. Some are still trying to be imagined into an us. Some imaginations strangle and steal. Some imaginations steal away.

k. We fossilize too rapidly. Fossils fear discovery. Fossils fear forgetting. We are sclerotic. We survive to never-have-been.

l. In the wind, a faint hint of maybe, a wisp of hiding. Voices haunt the fractures of subjunctive worlds.

two places

Kangemi and Westgate are roughly equidistant from my house, though Kangemi is a shade closer.

A few weeks ago, as the school term was starting, the Nairobi government arrived in Kangemi at 3 a.m., destroyed the local market, and, in the process, a bulldozer crushed a man to death. I do not know this man’s name. This man’s death was not pronounced a national or even local tragedy.

Around midday last Saturday, a number of people took Westgate Mall hostage. They shot many people, released some, and held the Mall hostage for 4 days, as Kenya’s elite forces, aided by other countries, attempted to regain control of the Mall and, by implication, the country. Thus far, approximately 90 million shillings has been raised to support recovery efforts.
*
Following the Kangemi demolitions, many Kangemi residents protested the government’s actions. They blocked roads, set tires on fire, raged and mourned. They mourned that their lives were so disposable; they raged that their livelihoods had no value. With very few exceptions, Kenya remained silent. These were not lives worth valuing. A death in Kangemi is not worth mourning.

Reports indicate that president Uhuru Kenyatta was personally affected by Westgate—a nephew and his fiancée were killed. Photographs from Westgate have traveled across the world. We know names and faces and occupations and relationships.
*
Who will grieve with the mourners?
*
For the past few months, I have been thinking about disposability, about its reach and grasp and ever-expanding power. And while I continue to learn from Judith Butler about whose lives are grievable, about who is deemed worth grieving, thinking about disposability leads me to ask about killability.

To be disposable is to be ungrievable. Not to merit grief or thought. We have other words for this: acceptable losses, collateral damage. Yet, disposability is not passive, not simply a category into which we place the ungrievable. Instead, it is a hungry logic and practice. It becomes ever-more voracious as it eats.
*
For years now, rumors have circulated that, like the Kangemi market, Westgate Mall is an illegitimate structure, that it should be torn down.
*
The question of whose lives are grievable is not about withholding grief, saving it for those usually deemed ungrievable. Instead, it is about the possibilities of radical vulnerability.
*
Radical vulnerability is debilitating. It saps energy and will. It is exhausting.
*
Kangemi is forgotten. Another eyesore destroyed.
*
To hold Kangemi and Westgate together.
To imagine Kangemi and Westgate together.

imagination.play.geo-history.encounters:

Imagination
One must imagine an image before, as, and after it comes into being. To imagine is to permit oneself to experience surprise. To say, “that is not what I had imagined; that is more.” To imagine is to learn and unlearn what images are, what they do, what they enable. It is to surrender to the image. To straddle image-making and image-surrender. The image-maker surrenders to an encounter with surprise, delight, disappointment, failure. One says, “this is not what I had intended.”

Image-making is a lesson in un-intending. The accident. The coincidence. The perhaps, the maybe, the if.

One slides in and along the imagination. One learns to anticipate surprise.

And, sometimes, the light changes.

Play
Sometimes the light changes and the image-maker changes with it. One searches for angles, shadows, the hidden-there, the unhiding possibility. This is image-making as play. As what has not yet been envisioned. One is taught how to move by light and shadow, by grasping and failing, by the life of objects one might have imagined to be inanimate. By vibrant matter.

To make images is to vibrate with matter, to resonate with the subtle and demanding frequencies of what is there, what is coming into being, what eludes grasp. One must surrender to these vibrations.

What we call failure, the blurry image, the shaky hand, might be considered the insistence of vibrant matter, when the image-maker surrenders to the image. Listens to the insistent demand: see me, see me, see me, see me, but never too well.

We might ask, with the image-makers, what it means to surrender to the playful image, the demanding image, the image that commands attention, the image that eludes our grasp.

Images can toy with us, play with our minds, our hearts, our bodies. Make us break into sweat. Make us long for food, sex, violence, quiet. And when we are quivering, desperate, in agony, images continue to toy with us.

Beware the image that plays with you.

One can’t not desire this play. One surrenders to the image’s play. This is not art as therapy or masochism. It is, properly speaking, the role of the gaze.

One might discuss the indifferent image. The image that does not disclose. The indifferent image, a mistress from Venus in Furs.

Images move on without us. Indifferent to us.

Geo-history
You come expecting a familiar story, a well-told tale, one that does not require attention or imagination. A roster of familiar concepts: resistance, writing back, emerging talent, realism, the politics of art and the art of politics. I am interested neither in ungrounded universalisms nor in ossified particularities. Instead, I want to ask how images tug at each other, how they make each other visible, possible, and impossible.

A more strictly political intervention would insist that image-making and images make collectivities possible, make a we and an us possible. We assemble here drawn by images. By now this is a familiar story, so well known that to repeat it is to ask for your yawn.

I am drawn to the image at the faultline of geo-histories, the one that straddles and multiplies places and times, the one that calls others to itself. This might be described as the image as repository. We cannot know in advance what is in that repository.

Images generate geo-histories: spaces where geographies emerge as histories, where histories emerge as geographies, where time and space fold in and on each other. To surrender to the image is to be caught in this folding, to risk where unfolding might lead.

To speak of Kenyan photography is to risk getting caught in multiple foldings and unfoldings, multiple geo-histories as they encounter each other. One loses one’s way.

Traveling across space and time, marking place and event, images disorient. Leave us here and not here, provincial and cosmopolitan, bored and titillated.

Encounters
To encounter an image is to re-encounter it. For to encounter an image is always to encounter the imagination. And to encounter the imagination is always to inhabit the ghosts of who we have been as we imagine.

To encounter—and inhabit—the people we have been as we have imagined is to risk the madness of becoming legion. Of learning to speak as the multiplicities we are always becoming. Because the work of imagining is ongoing, and so the ghosts we are multiply.

Do not mistake the space of encounter as benign or innocent or even welcoming. It always threatens to unmake. One stands in front of an image and begins to cry. One sits with an image and experiences terror. One feels disoriented. One smiles at friends to avoid the gaze of the threatening image, to avoid re-encountering the unmade “I.”

We are invited to be unmade.

To risk everything. And more.