being present

I have been trying to think about what it means to be present. About how one inhabits the present—how one is absorbed by it, how one absorbs it, how one is pressed by it, how one presses onto it, how one navigates it, how one is disoriented by it. I have yet to find the appropriate metaphors—I’m not sure I’d be able to recognize them.

The present cannot be written, for all writing is always in the past tense. An easy lesson. And one that causes despair. This thing slips away. Or turns away. The present turns its face against us.

(Who is this “us”?)
From here, the I wants to hide in the us:we, the we:us, because to be present must be to be in the we:us, the us:we.

There is no crowd to hide behind. The crowd gathers stones. The crowd is indifferent. The crowd kills with indifference.

To be present, to be here, in the midst of this violence. To say nothing. Because the rock-throwing crowd is hungry. And indifferent. And to claim this as a way of being here. Being now.
I gave away the secret—there is no secret.
How does the present become impossible to be in? And what does that mean? What can it mean? The impossibility of being present. Yet to be made present. One wakes up to discover one is present. Even if one cannot be.

“Let me be.”

An impossible demand. And, still, one tries to make it. “Let me be.”

Be what? Be where?
Yet, one’s silence is not absence. It, too, can be presence. A way of registering the weight of the silencing present. Silence has its demands.

This is not what I want to be writing. It is what I can write. The gap between the two might have a name. I have yet to discover it. And, if I did, I am not sure I’d have the courage to use it.

Being present does not mean being now-here, now:here, herenow. It can feel that way. Now(here). A form to say all that cannot be. All that cannot be let to be.

Let me be.
At times, I have mourned that I do not know how to fracture language. I have wanted to write more abrasively, to write words that scratch throats, that make eyes bleed. I don’t know how to. Too many years of learning to let words glide, feeding a lyricism that I wish I could discard. It comes easily now. Too easily.

The present does not lend itself to lyricism. Not even the lyricism that can be mourning.

How does one describe the familiar scabs of yet another depressive episode? The tedium of darkened rooms, unreturned emails, lost appetites, small obsessions, and what one learns to call little victories, reluctantly?
This, I think, is not a way of being “absent” or “detached” or “numb,” as the experts have it. I think the weight of the world is present in depressive episodes. I think one gets caught under the weight and loses the will or the ability to throw it off. And it accumulates. As unwashed clothes. Unwashed bodies. Clotted thoughts. Unspeaking. This is called “unhealth,” because health is predicated on doing, moving on, planning, seeing what matters and what must be discarded for one to live.

What does it mean to stay with? To refuse to move on? Freud called this pathological. I disagree.
The word “weight” takes on significance. The depressive so often feels exhausted. As though Atlas is distributing his weight to those who are psychically available, those recruited against their will. What is it to be psychically available to depression? (Flirting with unhealth. The books say that if untreated, depressive episodes get worse. Flirting with unhealth.)

But. Sociogeny.

What is psychic health to the disposable?

We call it the ability to struggle. The ability to survive. The ability to imagine. The ability to dream. The ability to forget one’s disposability until one is faced with it—inevitably. Inevitably. Inevitably.

Inevitability as a way of being here, being present in this now:here.

Sociogeny weds the social to the psychic. One cannot be psychically well when one is considered disposable. The archive of disposability—expanding, always expanding—impinges on the psychic.

The psychic life of the disposable: now-here, now(here), now:here
this is what I have been trying to write,
not like this,
not here


Rumuruti lands in the ear like Garba Tula, a place that once sounded so foreign I decided to name our Rex-looking dog Garba Tula. On the internet, one finds Garbatulla, Garba Tula, and Garba Tulla, a multi-named ungeography, lacking the exactness of Limuru or Lamu or Lodwar, those liquid sounds of place that glide in and out of imagination and possibility.

Rumuruti is harsh serrations, those cutting “r” sound that invoke labor and loss. One hears, in it, the relentless sound of grass-cutting pangas, food-harvesting blades, a language of edges and smiles, bean-soaked and potato-infused. Here, nostalgia prefers to image women balancing pots of water on their labor-reshaped foreheads. Piped water is an invasion.

Some places exist for memory to wrap around.

Liquids are easier to visit.

I get stuck at nasals—Ngong, Muranga, Ngandani, Ngandure, Ngeranyi. As though space refuses to stick to them. Ngomeni sounds like a dance, a wave of spirit movements fueled by life-loving spirits. A partnership of winding. Perhaps that’s what nasals do: they wind around one’s mouth. Always making one “speak through one’s nose.”

An accusation: “you speak through your nose.”

The peculiar way space winds itself around noses and mouths, as memory and forgetting, those nasal activities, fricatives resolving into nasals. (I had a love affair with plosives once, a symptom of a different kind of need. But I worry about the heaviness of d, the slicing of k, the sly civility of c.)

Rumuruti lands in the ear like the place that cannot exist in sophisticated conversation. You speak as though you’re from Rumuruti, someone says. And I have yet to check a google map to see where Rumuruti exists. It came to me from a manuscript I’m reading. Another place from a book. Another book place.

Places are book places or smell places. The sulfur fumes of school trips to elsewheres, the night stink of coffee plantations, the press of bodies in elsewhere-bound buses and planes. Book places are geography places: lists of neverwheres incarnated as classmates who embodied those impossibilities. Lists of impossibilities created by memory-makers fighting against history-makers.

(Shall I always return here?)

Nguna is in Central Province, a place that no longer exists.

What do we do with old maps of places that birth us and that no longer exist?

Ngwatawiro is not next to Ngwena, except on an outdated chart of alphabetically listed ungeographies.

Charts produce proximities.

how to grieve–an unguide

We putter and fiddle. Straighten furniture multiple times. Undo and re-do, re-do and undo. Talk too much. Laugh too loudly. Cry silently. Make unreasonable demands. Hurt each other. Offer banal platitudes. Accept the healing of banal platitudes. Seek faith. Run into voids. Grief hits us all in multiple ways.

We swing from one mood to another, one craving to another, one mode of acting to another.

There are no maps out of grief.

We who grieve change our minds frequently. Or we get stuck and cannot move on. Feeling accumulates and refuses to disperse. Occasionally, it explodes. We do not know when feeling bad ends. If it will end. We do not know if or whether thinking can remove us from feeling. We’re not sure if we want it to.

And we act. Frantically, desperately, convinced that we are right, that what we are doing must be done. The dishes must be washed at least three times. The house must be swept seven times a day. The funeral programs must be printed in Comic Sans.

And we who “think for a living” get frustrated that our thinking will not remove us from grief, will not make us more focused. We get stuck in trying to map how others should grieve. We draw odd maps. We feel useless.

We putter and fiddle.

Pick up this book and that article. Turn to this thinker and that one. This history and that one. This theory and that one. There is no tunneling under grief—no quick escape, no secret doorway through the wardrobe into another world.

And, yes, many of our reactions are predictable. Predictability offers some comfort: wake up, drink tea, go to the toilet, blame someone else, recycle words you’ve used a thousand times, drink tea, write a stern statement, have lunch, repeat statements, drink more tea.

Putter. Fiddle. Act.

And we judge. I judge. You’re not mourning correctly. You’re not thinking correctly about grieving. How dare you? Why don’t you? You must! You must not!

Grief multiplies fractures. It changes petty disagreements into lifelong enmity. It destroys fragile coalitions. Even as it forges new ones.

We know these things about grief—but still it disorganizes us. What we know rarely helps in those moments of disorganization.

Anne Cheng taught me that we rarely know how to stay with grief. Especially when we grieve for strangers. Perhaps grieving for intimates is easier, especially for those who have grieving rituals that help to shape grief.

How do we grieve for strangers? And how do we hold on to them as strangers as we grieve? Why might it be important to grieve for those we do not and cannot know?

I don’t know that grieving can be taught. I find the idea of “stages of grief” schematic, and often wrong. I keep coming back to disorganization, to all the frantic ways we try to manage disorganization.

I think we need to be tender with each other—to acknowledge the hurt we will cause each other as we grieve, the wounds that will be inflicted, the unhearing that will happen.

There will also be kindness, compassion, comfort.

Puttering. Fiddling. Acting. Map-Making. Grieving.

For Garissa University College

I imagine that some of the students killed and injured at Garissa University College hated school. They attended school because their parents wanted it, because they had no other plans, because their friends were there. I imagine that some of them loved exams. They loved the thrill of pitting their minds against tricksy questions. I imagine some were falling in love, others falling in lust, and that both met on fields of vulnerable hearts and hungry bodies. I imagine that some had learned to stay up all night, talking, studying, dreaming, worrying, praying.

I imagine some students never completed their homework. I imagine others had learned the best way to copy from their friends. I imagine others worked collaboratively: they imagined together, thought together, studied together, solved problems together, and got confused together.

I imagine many students imagined their futures. Some with dread, as they were their families’ “hopes.” Some with the hope that they would be able to travel, to move elsewhere in Africa or to the Middle East or to China or to anywhere but Kenya. Some imagined that Kenya’s new county structure would enable them to become public servants. Some imagined that the county structure would give them easy access to power.

I imagine some, perhaps many, were struggling to imagine futures.

I imagine some were struggling with depression. They didn’t know why but they couldn’t get out of bed. They had lost focus. They felt sad or angry or irritated. They felt suicidal. They had not yet found language to describe their symptoms.

I imagine some read GUC’s General Information with a mocking smile.

What to do in case of arrest. The University authorities shall not protect or cause any immunity from arrest and prosecution if a student breaks the law within or outside the University. Individual students(s) arrested will be responsible for their own defense, payment of fines, bails etc. However in case of arrest, students should notify the office of the Security Officer.

Fire Breakout

The University shall organize drills to make students be aware on what to do in case of fire. The following should however be noted in case of fire breakout:

  • Sound an alarm and shout Fire! Fire!
  • Evacuate the building quickly but calmly through the nearest exit. Do not stop for personal belongings.
  • Close the door behind you and move to a safe and open ground.
  • Shout fire! Fire! If other occupants of the building have not noticed the fire. Blare the siren if it is near.
  • If you have any burns, move to the dispensary for assistance.
  • Do not go back to the building until it has been declared safe.

I imagine that, like many typical college students, some felt invulnerable. I imagine others felt vulnerable. I imagine some were scared. I imagine others bluffed courage. I imagine some had found their niche. I imagine many others were still searching.

I imagine life-long friendships had been formed, or were being formed.

And while some might have imagined what they would do should the school be attacked, I imagine they thought the prospect was remote.

I do not know any of the students who have died—at least 70. Nor do I know any of the injured or still missing. I spent 15 years in university settings, as a student and teacher.

I join those mourning the dead.

possibility, deracination, sentimentality

By the time I had spent ten years in the U.S., I had stopped going to gay clubs. It wasn’t simply that I had grown older, though I had. It wasn’t that I no longer loved dancing. And it wasn’t that I had moved from more cosmopolitan cities—Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon—to a small, semi-rural college town. It was that I could no longer unsee the ways I was unseen.

After many years of dancing alone, I had opted to stop dancing.

Within gay history and mythology, urban spaces liberate those who move there from smaller, rural towns. Away from the scrutiny of family and friends, gay men can experiment, find themselves, be themselves. This narrative has been mapped neatly—too neatly—onto a world divided into homophilic and homophobic. Unsurprisingly, these terms follow older distinctions between civilized and primitive, advanced and regressive, global north and global south.
I understand, appreciate, and celebrate those who seek and find more livable lives, more ways to be possible. I am interested, however, in the versions of the world produced, in what I see as liberal sentimentality.

Sentimentality, as James Baldwin defines it, ossifies positions. Even and perhaps especially in its salvific guise, it cannot imagine complexity, incoherence, ambivalence. To invoke Fanon, it seals those it figures into easy binaries. It produces an unyielding, unchanging world. It affirms dominant world views.

And so, in publications dedicated to producing a liberal view of the world—liberal not as opposed to conservative, but as deeply invested in narratives of progress that maintain a strict division between the global north and the global south—the gay migrant from the global south to the global north will always find a better life, a more possible life, a life that he always knew he wanted but didn’t know was possible.
I learned how to dance in U.S. gay clubs.

Mining western and eastern Kenya, I borrowed from Luo, Luhya, and Kamba movements; I dug deep to find Central Africa in my hips, lingala shaping my arms; from black U.S. queens, I learned how to twirl, though I never gained their fluency. I learned how to love sweat—to feel my body pursuing freedom. And I was free.

Ntozake Shange gave me words:

we gotta dance to keep from cryin
we gotta dance to keep from dyin

Words that helped me remember why I danced, what I sought in dance.

For while I got my “gay on,” deracinated, hyperbolic, racially progressive which meant whitewashed, my body reached for other geographies, other geo-histories, and, finally, I had to listen.

I had to learn how to dance in gay clubs in the U.S. before I could dance in Nairobi. But I danced in Nairobi.
This is not about nativism.

It’s about the shape of stories that dare not map the relationship between gay liberation and deracination. What do gays from the global south give up or abandon to be gay in the global north? How else might these stories be told?
I’m re-reading Fanon—as usual, as always—and thinking of his failed attempts to restrict his geographies and geo-histories. The story of the Antillean black, he finds, is embedded in the story of the black in modernity. With whatever caveats that might be considered necessary, I would say the story of the global south gay who travels to the global north is generalizable.

The global north wants to pat itself on the back—unlike the intolerant global south, it welcomes gays. This myth does important ideological work.
Which is to say, I read Marlon James’s story in the New York Times and it did not sit well with me.

We who move are permitted to tell stories of success, if we succeed. We are permitted to tell stories of freedom and liberation, if we navigate awkward bureaucratic processes. We are asked to uphold the myth of the American dream: here, there is freedom. And we are asked not to think about loss. About deracination. About the price we pay to share in a myth.

Reading Marlon James in the NYT, one is surprised (or not) to discover no mention of #blacklivesmatter, no mention of any racial politics that would disturb the gay story the NYT wants to be told, needs to be told. It is a classic coming out story—deracinated in a deeply sentimental way.

It is powerful.

But sentimental work is always powerful.
Let me be careful.

Baldwin’s critique of Wright’s sentimentality created a sad fracture. I am not after something similar.

I understand why this story matters. I understand the importance of finding a possible life. I am glad that Marlon James can write that his life is now more possible.

Still, I am left uneasy by the shape of the world produced by his narrative, by the U.S. myth in which it participates, by the disembedded “I” held out as the promise of the U.S.

random gay stuff

Within the Kenyan imagination, gay men come in two flavors: elite and commercial. Elite gay men are wealthy and powerful. Or wealthy or powerful. Either way, they command enough capital—economic, cultural, social—to navigate Kenya. Their capital protects them from hostile crowds. They can pay blackmail, if required. They can travel outside the country to be gay, if they wish. They circulate within crowds liberal enough (albeit, liberal in a Kenyan conservative way) to tolerate, if not endorse, their gayness. And, often, in these liberal crowds, they are “the gay friend.” It is not that their lives are untouched by homophobia. Instead, they have the resources to navigate that homophobia.

Commercial gays—sometimes gay for pay—occupy several different spheres in the Kenyan imagination. Most traditionally, they are associated with sex work and tourism. For them, gay is not an “identity,” or is not perceived to be such. Instead, it is considered what they do “to survive.” Stories focusing on this group of gays routinely emphasize that they have wives or girlfriends. (Because bisexuality is really beyond Kenyan imaginations at this point. Gossip that will get me arrested suppressed.) A more recent variation of “gay for pay” targets human rights activists engaged in sexual minority organizing. They are gay, it goes, to receive donor money.

The idea that gayism, to use a very ugly Kenyan neologism, is economic might be dismissed as homophobic. Or, more precisely, as anti-gay. And often it is. However, it’s silly to dismiss all such arguments.

One of the founding essays of contemporary gay scholarship is John D’Emilio’s “Capitalism and Gay Identity.” D’Emilio argues, convincingly, that modern gay identity and community are bound to shifts in economic structures. In my bastardized version of his argument, the rise of capitalism and the concomitant growth of towns and cities provided new opportunities for the gay-inclined to move from their kin-based, rural homes—and, here, kinship is framed as genealogical and economic, as rural farms and businesses were run by families—to cities, where they could establish different kinds of communities, not bound by the dictates of hetero-kinship, hetero-marriage, and hetero-reproduction. Similar attention has been paid to economic shifts in African studies. The growth of mining towns in Southern Africa, the establishment of prisons across colonial-era Africa, and the creation towns and cities across the continent provided new opportunities for sexual communities to form and thrive.

In Kenya, the ongoing opposition between “professional” gays, who often have a lot of social and cultural capital, and poor(er) gays has been disheartening to watch.

Kenya is neoliberal. The much-praised Vision 2030, the country’s economic and social goal, is a neoliberal nightmare. Regrettably, many gay activists have framed their vision of a good life, a possible life, within the narrow parameters of “national development.” “Gays are good for development,” so the argument goes. Development is often praised as a neutral, public good. Yet, as envisioned in Kenya’s policy documents and as practiced in Kenya, development displaces vulnerable populations, destroys the environment, and makes any sense of ethical collectivity impossible to imagine and realize. I worry when gay activism is hinged to the development train.

During a recent forum, David Kuria emphasized that we—Kenyan queers and allies—should examine the economics of queerness. His (brief) discussion focused on the economic costs of passing homophobic or homophilic laws. What would Kenya gain or lose?

I think I have a different question: what are the economics of being queer in Kenya? How is queerness, following Cathy Cohen, always an economic state or, more precisely, an economic relationship to institutions that queer? What does it mean to take up queer as an economic position? What might it mean to queer Kenyan economics? What would it mean to queer Kenyan development?

I have no real sense that using “queer” displaces the hegemonic force of “gay”: queer does not circulate in Kenya with any real institutional force. Which, some might say, might give queer the fugitive, marronage force that it needs to imagine beyond/beside institutional frameworks.

Though the thickness of livability requires that we navigate institutional and non-institutional spaces and possibilities.

On marronage, I am reminded that it was a possibility before aerial bombing. The British bombed Kenyan resistance fighters out of dense forest ranges.

Which is to say: one might have to be gay-queer or queer-gay, to engage existing economies while fashioning others that make life (more) possible. It’s not yet clear to me that hitching “gay” to already existing economies or even the economies embedded within the development imaginary is useful or even good. While these economies might not be explicitly anti-gay, they are definitely queering economies subtended by discourses and practices of disposability. Put otherwise, I worry when institutional gayness in Kenya embraces development(al) logics that depend on hierarchizing difference and, more precisely, designating which lives are worth living. Put more crudely, the desire for state recognition—we must be practical, and in a Kenya where not having certain basic forms of state-issued ID makes much impossible, one cannot simply reject the state’s demands—should not require one to blindly endorse the state’s actions.

I continue to wonder how to think about Kenya’s gay economies, about Kenya’s gay-queer economies, about Kenya’s queer-gay economies, about Kenya’s queer economies.

Empire and Queer Mothering

Nobody puts Baby in the corner
Dirty Dancing

One of the most powerful scenes in Empire features a young Jamal slipping on his mother’s heels, wrapping a scarf around his head, and tottering into a gathering of family and friends, a young drag queen. When Lucious sees him, he loses it.

He strides toward Jamal, grabs him, carries him down the stairs and to the back alley, and stuffs him into a trash can. Cookie, the wonderful Cookie, runs after Lucious, removes the young Jamal from the trash can and berates her husband. It is a moment of fracture.

Queers fracture families.

It is a queer fantasy. A fantasy that our mothers will be there for us. A fantasy that in our moments of sexual and gender dissidence, when, as children, we begin to explore the multiple ways we can be, a parent will stand with us. Will stand for us.

No one stuffs baby queers in the trash.

At six or seven, I was experimenting with gender play. On one memorable occasion—captured by my father’s camera, I wore my sister’s plaid skirt, a floppy hat, and baby heels. My father—his birthday is on March 4—found it charming. He reached for his camera. And, as I vamped, striking whatever silly poses I considered fashionable, his camera snapped away. The pictures went into a family album. They became part of family history. Perhaps my father allowed my gender play—my love for music, my ridiculously long nails, my soprano voice that refused to break, my love for reading, my softness in so many things—because I was his last child. His baby. He already had my brother, the son who had to be a son.

When I was 12 or so, I confessed that I was worried about my voice: it was too high, and I didn’t sound like the other boys. In that transitional period, gender anxiety was everywhere. He said not to worry. At a moment when older boys and other men were busy taunting that I “spoke like a girl” or “walked like a girl” or “behaved like a girl,” my father’s love was unconditional.

Though miles away from Cookie, he was my Cookie.

Young queers are fragile. Often, we don’t have models. Still. And even as more adults around the world “come out” and embrace sexual and gender dissidence, young queers remain distant from that world. While some news stories celebrate children coming out—7, 8, and 9 year olds have been featured as “out and proud”–such celebrations are premature.

We live at a time when “coming out” has become a demand—“be who you are.” There is a demand here, a demand to embody something that is becoming fixed and knowable. A demand that refuses exploration and experimentation, that refuses indecision and confusion. I continue to hold on to the promise of queerness—not the sophomoric “don’t label or classify me,” but the openness of becoming, what José Muñoz theorized so beautifully as the queerness to come, the queerness that will be, an opening into futures we can imagine, futures we can make.

I miss the young Jamal—I miss the gender play. Or, rather, I worry that we see so little of it in the now cis-gay Jamal, the Jamal raised by cis-heterosexual men. I wonder about how much we lose when our Cookie-parents are not around.

We see traces of that early Jamal. In Jamal’s stunning coming out song, the profound moment of disidentification, when an ostensibly heterosexual song is transformed from “it’s the kind of song that makes a man love a woman” to “it’s the kind of song that makes a man love a man.” The adult Jamal twirls—it’s a little moment, but every queer who has ever been a queen, even for a second, knows that twirl. He dances queer.

And Cookie, beautiful, wonderful Cookie, screams: “GO MAL!”

Perhaps because I am so deeply wedded to psychoanalysis, I continue to think that so many queers, no matter our age, need a Cookie. We need a figure who affirms our choices. Who sees whatever difference we may have and, instead of trying to change us, screams, “GO MAL!” This affirmation is different from the quiet resignation with which so many of us are met—“you’re queer, okay.”

As my father’s birthday approaches, a date I tend to remember before and after it happens and forget on the day itself—perhaps grief is this need to forget—I hope, as I have for many years that had he lived, he might have been my cheerleader. In Empire’s vernacular, I wonder if he might have been my Cookie.

The child in me—the queer child in those gender play photographs—believes so. The callused adult prefers not to know.