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 prince 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.

On Spock

I do not have a single Spock moment—an image or narrative that stays with me. Unlike those who know how to write about TV and movies, I cannot recall a single episode, at least not by name. When I was younger, when I first encountered Spock in Nairobi, in reruns from the 80s, I encountered him as gesture: as the arched eyebrow, as the grip that caused others to faint, as the Vulcan mind meld.

Spock became muscle memory. From him, I learned how to arch my eyebrow. I stood in front of the mirror and practiced, and so incorporated it, that, these days, my eyebrow arches involuntarily. While Spock’s was deliberate, measured, directed, mine moves erratically, wildly, telling too much, revealing too much.

The Vulcan mind meld—that fantasy of intersubjectivity that is more than psychic—shaped my imagination of intimacy, as possibility and violation. It provided me with a critical language. In graduate school, when I encountered Habermas’s communicative action, I described it as an impossible Vulcan mind meld. (Perhaps some clever Habermasian has written about Habermas as a Vulcan?)

If my young self encountered Spock as a repository of gestures from which I could learn, an older self encountered Spock as alien: as the child of two worlds, as the stranger trying to figure out how to honor heritages that were often at odds. Fragmented memories of Spock undergoing biological imperatives—of Spock contending with passionate Vulcan impulses. Spock not as the absence of passion, but as the management of passion.

I don’t yet know how to remember Spock—how does one remember muscle memory? How does one find a way to honor the body that gave one gesture, possibility, character?

I have yet to mention Leonard Nimoy, who reached across time—from the 60s to the 80s—and across space—from the U.S. to Nairobi—to give me vocabularies and gestures I did not know I needed.

Farewell.

And.

Thank you.

holding my father’s penis

It is small.

It happens during what the psycho-social industry calls “a formative phase,” a period when the person I am meant to become will be shaped. I am plasticine-adolescent, moulded by every man who speaks, pushes, touches, gazes. My father is dying, but he refuses to die, and when he dies, I refuse to let him die. His penis has already been chopped off, a void created in place of an absence.

Psychoanalysis teaches me that the phallus is not the penis. Frantz Fanon teaches me that the black is genitality. My fantasies teach me to crave daddies, men I will never call daddy, men who will submit, men who can enjoy pleasure.

Dying and Sex: how banal.

This writing is not about my father’s death, my psycho-social development, my being queer, my sex practices, the bestselling genres of emotional vulnerability. It is not about the death I missed, the funeral I wish I had missed, the memorial services I skip, the men I want to pursue who look nothing like my father, the men who pursue me who look nothing like my father, the twenty five years it has taken to write about my father, the person I am when I write about my father, the person I unbecome when I write about my father.

If I write “my father” enough times, something might be exorcised. Maybe the me who has never known how to move on. One returns to the scene of emotional devastation to discover pieces of a self that are unrecognizable, and, worse, unusable. To discover that the carapace sheltered by nostalgia can no longer be treasured. To confront the I who cannot be valued from here, from now. Shattering happens. Again.

From my father, I inherited a love for solitude, a desire to escape from the demands of sociality, a craving to indulge silliness.

Details, my editor tells me, provide real details. Stories that provide life, depth, texture.

1.
My Swahili has always been terrible. Classmates laughed at my pronunciation—a transformed Eliza Dolittle speaking Swahili. Teachers laughed at my attempts to shape Kikuyu into Swahili. Swahili was a school language, not one of the languages used frequently at home. Not a language I wanted to learn, not French or Italian or Arabic.

Perhaps I was 12 years old. I had failed a Swahili exam, so badly that my father sat in his green velvet chair and laughed. He decided that he would tutor me in Swahili. For a few months, he supervised my homework. I would sit in the dining room, complete an assignment, and walk to the living room, where he would check my answers.

Frustrated by this regime, one time I inscribed a little “fuck you” on the bottom left corner of my notebook. My father saw it. He told me to bring his belt. He made me lie down on the floor and he belted my buttocks a few times.

My loathing for Swahili increased.

Another time, I could not conjugate something in Swahili. It was late at night, well past nine p.m. This time, he was in his bedroom, with the door locked. Perhaps he was feeling sicker than usual. He insisted that I call a friend, a neighbor, to ask for the correct answer before I went to bed. I stood in the corridor, outside his locked room, frustrated, trying to escape the humiliation of calling a classmate late at night for one answer.

My father was implacable. I called.

Swahili became the language of late-night calls, experiences in humiliation, a barrier between my father who could not accept a son who failed and a son trying to escape a language that humiliated.

2.
One day, perhaps I am 12, my father buys a chess set. He has decided to teach me chess. He plays checkers—what’s the British English for this?—with my brother. Chess is for us. Patiently, he teaches me how to name pieces, how they move, how to read written chess moves. I will never become very good, always trusting instinct more than anything else. Because chess is our thing, I am unable to play it with anyone else.

3.
We will weekend together: pack food, bags, ourselves. We travel to my father’s retirement home, the home he built to retire to, away from the city, the home to which he will never retire, the home that will be his burial ground.

An hour and a half away from Nairobi, it is dry here. The house is usually locked and empty. Upon entering, we open curtains carefully, watching for the orange scorpions that hide in unexpected places. This is not a space I know how to enjoy, at least never during obligatory family visits during the holidays, when it feels as though we are exiled from Nairobi. There is no phone here. The internet does not yet exist. We are far from friends who speak English.

Yet, on weekends here with my father, this place becomes special. We talk. We play endless games of monopoly. We break rules. Make new ones. We bond.

These are our memories. Now, my memories.

4.
Perhaps I was 7 or 8. My father bought a set of battery operated toy cars that ran on tracks. He helped to assemble the tracks. We played with them.

5.
When I was in kindergarten—though I called it nursery school—and through Standard 2, my father would pick me up when school ended at lunch time. We would eat lunch together. And then we would nap.

This simple thing: my father napped after lunch. I napped as well.

I have learned how to nap these days, now that I’m back in the house he could not grow old in. I’m not sure it feels the same. I wouldn’t know if it did.
*
A devoted anglophile, my father hated the U.S. He feared, I think, that the U.S. would take something away from him. Maybe that it would take us away from him. England was more available, more manageable: church hymns, Handel’s Messiah, undemocracy. The U.S. was too big, too new, too. I don’t know. It’s difficult to read his mind.

He was right.

I left for the U.S. five years after his death.
*
Another predictable story about an African who travels to the U.S.

We are a tiresome genre.
*
Two things stay with me about that first trip, a whirlwind of landing at JFK, spending the night in a small apartment in New York City, driving to Hartford, Connecticut, stopping over in Amherst, Massachusetts, before finally arriving in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

JFK smelled bad. New York City smelled bad. It was summer New York City, and, trained by visual media that had no smell—television and film—I had not expected New York City to have a smell. Certainly not the smell of summer: hot, wet, sweaty, rotting. Even though I had traveled in Kenya, even though I could distinguish the smells of city and country, wet city and wet country, night city and night country, rich city and poor city, rain scented city and rain scented country, I had not anticipated that the U.S. might smell of anything more than television and movies, the liquid silk of celluloid.

Pittsburgh was sex. We drove through downtown Pittsburgh, Liberty Avenue, where the two extant sex shops blared “Sex.” Sex was on the streets. Sex was available to be thought with publicly, to be experienced in public. Liberty Avenue was home to Pegasus, a gay club with an under-21 night, a place what would be one of my homes. Over the next 5 years in Pittsburgh, I would wander down to Liberty Avenue late at night, look at the signs for sex, try to experience the shock of sex as something to be thought of, as an embodied way of being in the world.
*
Queer stories are always quest narratives. Over and over one is asked, “when did you first know?” Among the first gay men I spent time with, most of us in our late teens and early twenties, we’d always ask, “when’s the first time you had sex?” Sometimes, the former question had shades of, “when did you first know you were not normal?” Sometimes, it’s the bafflement of a heterosexuality that has always presumed it was the only thing that exists, “how can you not be heterosexual?” The curiosity is always invasive.

“When did you first know you were . . .?”

One becomes Kafka’s cockroach: which limb did you examine first? Did your movements feel strange to you? How did your feelings manifest themselves? Did you wake up with different hair? Did you get a sudden craving for Barbra Streisand? Or Diana Ross? Or Patty Lupone? Or—what’s the African equivalent?—Brenda Fassie? Did your erections take on a different aspect? How did your brain catch up with your body? Did desire jump out and shout, “surprise”?

Perhaps the last question.

Once one is past the breeze-erection period—the embarrassing adolescence when any tiny wind produces what must be called a “woody”—desire is often a surprise. One learns the difference between what is framed as attractive and what is experienced as desirable.

Should I have had a clue when, in high school, I turned away from the women termed desirable—light skinned plump girls who incarnated middle class femininity—and spent time with darker skinned slender women with stern miens and fierce minds? But a clue to what?

The forensics of desire are, inevitably, inconclusive.

After all, I relished watching Deep Throat, which I found buried under my elder brother’s mattress. I continue to return to Hans Billians’s brilliantly conceived explorations of group and public sex. My favorite orgasm—experienced at 13 or 14—was fueled by heterosexual pornography.

Psychoanalysis teaches me that all quest narratives are driven by a desire for something that can never be found. What we call desire must, inevitably, be frustrated. My encounters with psychoanalysis will make my hungers less frightening, if not more manageable. On and off, for about four years, I will immerse myself in Freud and Lacan, engage with thinkers immersed in their work: Jacqueline Rose, Leo Bersani, Joan Copjec, Tim Dean. I will learn to lose myself in their work—to plot life stories and body hungers along geometric shapes that I do not understand, to live outside my body, if only for a few hours.

Hunger pangs return at night. I will roam chatrooms, become excellent at cybersex; roam sex shops, become proficient in casual sex; roam sex clubs, become talented at having multiple sex partners; roam personals ads, become armored against the annihilating racism of a world that insists it was never invented for me.

At first, I sleep with older men because they want me. Or, to be more precise, they want to sleep with someone young. Early on, living in Pittsburgh, I learn that gay is white. Before I venture out of chatrooms, I learn to mask my race, to try to live out a fantasy that permits raceless cybersex. For some men, even the prospect of cybersex with a black body is too much. Later, as I venture out to meet men, waiting on cold winter street corners for cars that will never show up, I learn that the fantasy of planning to sleep with a black body is transgression enough. Still, the hunger pangs continue. And when I eventually start wandering into strange houses—never the same one twice—I learn that having a black body in a white space is transgression enough. White men will want to masturbate while I watch them. This is transgression enough.

From the seclusion of my majority white university, in a race-segregated Pittsburgh, I will not know how to desire black men, Asian men, Latino men, or Arab men. It will be many years before I learn to read bodies in the U.S.—how they speak desire, walk desire, dance desire, live desire. For too many of those years, my name will be Stephen. Or Ian. Or whatever will not produce the mangled pronunciations that kill my desire. Whatever will not return me to my past, my hungers, my father.
*
My father’s penis is small and grey and shriveled.

In 1988, he and my mother traveled to England for treatment. My sister and I were left alone, and an aunt checked in on us. Freed from parental control, we ate too much ice cream and watched too many movies. In retrospect, we were not wild enough. We didn’t have wild parties. I’m not sure we would have known how to. We were responsible. Even content.

Memory is always a battle of tenses: the past trying to make itself felt in the present, the present trying to insist on its nowness, the future of reading crowding out a present that is already past. I slip among tenses, fall down, stay down.

To write in the past tense is to occupy the scene of devastation, to wander among the ruins from which one might have constructed oneself. To marvel at the shoddy construction. To wonder how one is still possible given the random materials cobbled together to assemble a self.

When my father returned from England, he was smaller.

I was my father’s last child, the child of his prosperity. He was comfortably middle class, perhaps even wealthy, by the time I was old enough to want things: toys, books, attention. It showed. Pictures of him from the early 80s show a head swallowed by rolls of fat, a missing neck. His shirts strain to hold him in. By the mid-1980s, a regime of golf and farming had returned his neck, though he was still comfortably middle class, as his 40-inch waist proclaimed. He returned from England with a 28-inch waist.

I was the child of his prosperity. My waist was larger than his.

He continued to shrink. His doctor told my brother and me, “he will say hurtful things. He does not know what he is saying. Do not pay attention.” My brother, having learned to absent himself in that way elder brothers can, didn’t have to pay attention. I was there. I heard.

One does not stop listening to one’s idol because a doctor says so.

His voice became querulous. His stomach unable to process food. He lived on drugs and rehydrating fluids. He pissed drugs and rehydrating fluids.

I saw my father’s penis as I handed him a jug to piss in because he could not walk to the toilet. I saw my father’s penis as I helped him walk to the toilet to shit—he couldn’t shit, there was nothing to shit. I saw my father’s penis as he was dying. I saw my father’s dying penis.

A father’s dying penis must be handled carefully. Unlike those penises in castration fantasies, cut off from vibrant life, a dying penis announces its fragility. It is the disgusting object one wants to protect. The disgusting object that one can never not desire.

I hide behind one.
*
My father died when I was 14. By the time I was 24, I knew I preferred older men. At first, it was because they were available—I didn’t have to engage in the frustrating choreography demanded by my peers, that toxic blend of insecurity and arrogance that left so many of us damaged in spaces where we sought refuge, if not acceptance. Older men were more honest about their hungers.

Some were closeted. Some were lonely. Some wanted something younger. Some were experimental. Some were conservative. Some were conventionally attractive. Some were desirable. Some wanted sex. Some wanted me. Some wanted sex with me.

One man rode a motorcycle, smelled of hot leather and sex hunger, and wore red stockings under his chaps.

Others I met in dark rooms where the only thing that mattered was our hunger: we never had to meet again.

Two men linger.

One was a little shorter, perhaps 5’7”. His body was quiet intensity, his appetite fueled mine. We played and maybe even loved. Maybe. We met twice. I could not meet him after that. Pleasure with him offered a glimpse of a future I could not let myself imagine.

Loss truncates imagination.

Over the many years my father drove me to school, when my siblings had left home and I was the only passenger, we mapped out our future: where I’d go to school, what I’d specialize in, how we’d work together. Our dreams fused. The future belonged to us. It was impossible to imagine without him.

At 24, I finally wrote to him, about him, with him. I started trying to imagine a world without him.

At 24, I was hungry.

Extending Freud, Nicolas Abraham and Mária Török argue that death makes us horny. After a death, we want to fuck. A lot. Some people domesticate this idea by claiming fucking affirms life.

What does one call an accumulation of little deaths? A host? A multitude? A flock? A clutch? A pride? A pod?

Leo Bersani offered a more useful language: self-shattering. Sex was loss, dissolution, being undone, falling into pieces, forgetting. Not the mystical union promised by saccharine romances, where you dissolve into someone else in some grotesque parody of two becoming one. Nothing that safe. It was more frantic, more desperate, more difficult.

Each shattering produced a sliver of something I could use to build a post-mourning self. I needed many and more. Sometimes the pieces were difficult to find, even impossible. Sometimes the shattering didn’t happen fast enough or sharply enough. Sometimes there was a tear instead of a shattering.

How many pieces are enough to assemble a self one can inhabit?

At 24, I acquired what Samuel Delany calls a statistically significant number of sex experiences. I learned what I liked, how I liked it, when I liked it. I was surprised into pleasure. I took sex seriously. I accepted compliments from undersexed men. I don’t remember faces, names, living rooms, bedrooms, the geographies of sex lives. I remember some penises. The spongy texture of still-living flesh, the thrust of engorged flesh, the promise of pleasure-giving flesh.

Some penises stay with you.

Some penises you want to forget.
*
Over 20 years after my father dies, I return to Nairobi. I avoid his peers and friends. I avoid that inevitable moment:

“Bob?”
“Bob?”
“But you can’t be Bob!”
“Bob is dead!”
“You look like Bob!”

The pieces I have collected begin to shatter, become more fragile with each “Bob,” minor, earth-moving occurrences.

I haunt my mother’s house, my father’s ghost having taken on new flesh.
*
I no longer remember my father’s voice.

As you enter my mother’s house, past the red door, if you look to the upper-left hand corner, right before the three stairs that lead to the living room, a little bird hangs in a brass cage. That bird stole my father’s voice.

I imagine my father’s voice and hear that bird—an alarm installed so that he could beckon us. At first, us. And then, me. As he rejected the nurse my mother tried to provide. And my siblings ran away, because they could.

“Here,” my mother said, “this is how you turn on the oxygen tank.” Muscle memory: placing an oxygen mask over my father’s face, turning on the tank, fretting as it emptied, making frantic phone calls to have it replaced, calling ambulances in an era before cell phones, hoping-not-hoping that he would die. Turning on the oxygen. Hearing him gasp for oxygen. Understanding oxygen as something that could be gasped for.

Over and over, hearing that mechanical bird steal my father’s voice, my father’s mind, my father’s oxygen. Hating it. Still hating it.

Unable to ask my mother why she hangs on to it. The bird that stole my father.

How we learn to hold on to things.

Over the years of his sickness, my father, my father the doctor, a Fellow of the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynecology—how proud he was of this distinction, how little he managed to enjoy it—turned to anything that might work. Herbal remedies from suspect sources. Holy Water anointed by special priests. Anointed oil. His room became a collection of crucifixes and rosaries. Prayers filled our nominally secular house as never before. Hymns and more hymns sung in Kikuyu mode: lento tending toward shrill.

Light hurt his eyes. He could no longer climb onto the bed he had once shared with my mother. Their shared mattress was moved to the floor. My mother had a twin bed moved to the room. Her touch, I think, hurt his fragile, dying skin. How little he was touched by anyone in those dying years. Touched with love. Touched with care. Touched with intimacy. Different touches happened: clinical, but gentle. Necessary, but antiseptic. Bit of him flaked off in a bed that could no longer be shared.

Perhaps it is from his dying that I learned to shut the curtains in my room, to spend glorious summer days huddled under too-warm blankets, wanting the world to go away. Perhaps it is from his dying that I learned to distrust men in my bed. Perhaps it is from my mother that I learned to sleep in a twin bed, to refuse the tear that accompanies sharing and unsharing a bed.

At 24, 10 years after his death, I had not yet grown into my grief. I did not yet look like him. I was not yet the name that would remind and remember, the Bob-lookalike, the history that I now incarnate. At 24, I could haunt a new city of sex beaches and sex clubs, of hookups and STI clinics, of forgetting.

But then there was Bill.

Bill had all the eloquence the mechanical bird stole from my dying father. Perhaps he was in his 50s. Ravaged by AIDS-related complications. I recall his boots—black, thick-soled, orthopedic, because his feet were so badly damaged, he said. I never saw his feet. We met in Seattle. At first by chatting online, and then in person. He wanted touch—to be touched—to touch.

In a small café in Capital Hill, he told me about losing beauty. About the shock of moving from being one of the most desirable gym-built men in Seattle to inhabiting the AIDS-ravaged body from which everyone averted eyes. About what it meant not only to become undesirable, but unseeable. About finding the words to eulogize oneself, to hymn a dying self.

His voice was measured, gentle. His cheeks sunken. And while I could not give him what he wanted—the kind of touch he wanted—perhaps we gave each other a little of what we needed. I recovered a voice I needed to hear, a voice that expressed what it felt like to be dying. A voice that, in that moment, was louder than the mechanical bird in my mother’s house. Even then, I was selfish. I accepted the comfort he provided, not knowing how to extend comfort, turtling into libido-maddened grief.

A year after I left Seattle, I tried to write to Bill, to say something about the life I was now trying to build, a life I had begun to be able to envision. How awkwardly we write about such moments—how often I want to apologize for the ineloquence of grief.

He didn’t reply.

An online search told me he had died.

The gifts the dying provide.
*
There is no full-length mirror in the bathroom. What exists—put up by my sister for her daughter—slices me into pieces. My head is out of the frame, as is most of my torso.

I am a neck and a sawed-up torso, a botched guillotine job.

a note on empire

I do not know how to write about TV. And, frankly, I know too many people who write about TV so excellently that venturing into the territory makes me feel presumptuous and silly. It’s 2:30 in the morning, I can’t sleep, and I have thinkings. Call this a weak disclaimer. Also, Tavia wrote something that made me think. So, blame him.

Lee Daniels’s Empire highlights transformation: flashbacks to the past chart the distinction between the past and the present. Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), the drug runner, is now a music mogul; Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett) the cross-dressing son is now a firmly cis gay man; Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), once apprehensive and uncertain, now strides boldly across the world. In fact, as soon as Cookie returns home from jail, Jamal insists that she needs to acquire a new wardrobe and weave. On a more basic level, the young(er) people in the flashbacks have now grown older.

Perhaps the only character who remains unreconstructed, firmly tethered to the past, is Bunkie/Bunky Campbell (Antoine McKay) (both spellings are used on multiple websites), Cookie’s cousin, who Lucious kills in the very first episode. The Bunkie/Bunky of the past wore a heavy gold chain—the past being 17 years ago; the Bunky/Bunkie of the present wears the same gold chain. The Bunkie/Bunky of the past was heavyset, so is the Bunkie/Bunky of the present. The Bunky/Bunkie of the past wore sweats, so does the Bunkie/Bunky of the present.

(IMDB lists the name as Bunkie, but there’s something significant about a “minor” character, so “minor” that many websites are unwilling to verify the proper spelling of his name. This is one way minoritization happens.)

In a past we have not seen—and might not see—Bunky/Bunkie “raised” Cookie’s kids while she was in prison. The quotation marks are because I’m using his words, not because I doubt them.

Bunkie/Bunky must die.

He must die because he incarnates a masculinity that the show is not very interested in pursuing. After all, part of the show’s ongoing conceit is that every character “has balls.” The three sons must prove their masculinity to their father—they must plot and scheme, their faces must harden with resolution, they must insist, “I am a man.” Care work is absent from this definition of masculinity, at least the kind of care work associated with Bunky/Bunkie.

In fact, the character who most closely resembles Bunky/Bunkie is Lucious’s assistant, Becky (Gabourey Sidibe). So far (I’m only three episodes in), she’s the only one who knows about Lucious’s diagnosis, the only one who seems to care about his health; she is openly affectionate with Jamal, and keeps flashing him heart signs; in a show that sometimes runs brittle with cutting remarks, she incarnates a rare and welcome tenderness. Of all the characters in the show, she most closely resembles Bunkie/Bunky, in her physical appearance, her temperament, and, perhaps, whatever ethical compass might exist. I’m extrapolating, of course: we see so little of Bunkie/Bunky that it’s difficult to understand who he was. And while we know he “raised” the boys, their very truncated reactions to his death make him a disposable figure—a care worker whose work is done, who can be forgotten, whose death might be used to advance plot points based on scandal and vengeance, but whose death matters very little.

Of course the show focuses on power struggles, but something does not sit right with me about how easily Bunkie/Bunky is forgotten. Even though the incomparable Gladys Knight sings at his funeral, grief is not allowed to interrupt the show. And, so, because Tavia made me think in this way (I’m still blaming him), I’d think about how Bunkie/Bunky queers the show.

As the show opens, he is an uncomfortable reminder of a past Lucious would prefer to forget. As an unacknowledged care provider, he incarnates a gendered position that the cis-focused show shies away from. In fact, despite all the mentions of “sissy” and “faggot” in the show, very little about Smollet’s character is “sweet” in that way. Also, We know that Bunkie/Bunky embodies a failed masculinity because, to invoke Essex Hemphill, he does not know how to take what he wants. Lucious infantilizes him: “I can’t give you more money because you’ll gamble it all away.” The man who raised Lucious’s children cannot be acknowledged as an adult.

It’s not clear what effect, if any, Bunky/Bunkie had on any of the three sons. This might be because the show is still unfolding. Perhaps that aspect might be developed.

Because I’m from Kenya, I suspect the show might not be very interested in how care providers shape characters. In a country where the middle, upper-middle, and upper classes are routinely raised by ayahs and nannies, these women (almost always women) are rarely acknowledged as having a formative influence. Too often, they are supposed to provide care and to care, to feed, clothe, wash, play with, clean up after, and to love, protect, and cherish their charges. Simultaneously, their positions are often precarious and, too often, children learn from their parents that care workers are simply there to pick up after them. From their parents, children learn that one should demand care from care workers—I’ve seen way too many exhausted care providers cleaning after entitled children as parents berate the care providers for being “lazy” or “careless” or “stupid.”

I might be reacting to my own reactions to Bunkie/Bunky: he is supposed to be vestigial, out of place, out of time, and we learn too little about him to mourn him. That’s one reaction. The more I think about him, the more I wonder about the common feminist and queer rhetorics about ungrievable bodies, about disposable bodies, about unacknowledged and uncompensated care workers and care providers (worker and provider are related, but not the same). Thinking with Cathy Cohen, I’d ask about the kind of deviant body this gold chain wearing care provider incarnates, about the kind of lifeworld he inhabits and represents. I’d ask why he must die for this show to proceed.

ghosts

Listening for ghosts is dangerous. The angry dead crave a reckoning, an enfleshment that will or might return them to a different form of unbeing. What it is to desire a ghostly body. What it is to desire ghostliness.

I’ve been standing in grit-bearing wind
listening for traveling whispers

The angry dead are hungry. Not for the ghostliness of former enfleshments, but for something more than was available, something more than was promised, something more.

The hungry dead are writing,
feeding on your sleep,
borrowing your dreams

*
Place your ear on a termite hill—the hungry dead will speak to you. Place your hand in a mole hill—the angry dead will touch you. Put your fingers through the bars of a lion-bearing cage—the traveling dead will enflesh you.

Sit in a metal basin filled with green-dyed water, hold a pen filled with purple ink, learn to trace characters on green banana leaves. Smear ghee on your left hand, encase your right hand in cow dung, scratch the small of your back with charred bone you have stolen from a crematorium. Make a circle of dead, pink carnations—fill it with the blood from a thousand mosquitoes. And then swallow your rage. Swallow your rage until it forms a ball in your stomach. Swallow your rage until your bones dissolve. Swallow your rage until your flesh pulses like thick porridge. Swallow your rage until you fly apart.

*
hold a still-burning twig from a forest fire—whisper your dreams into its smoke
*
stand on the edge of a dying river—watch your myths die
*

lie down in the path of siafu—
stay

*
break your favorite earthenware pot, sprinkle the shards with crushed egg shells, spit on a snail’s slime five times, bless all bruised flower petals, stand under a defecating crow, capture an ibises cry

slice an unripe avocado, bury its stone in your sacred spaces

throw ash into the seven directions of the death-bearing wind

become diaphanous

harvest moth dust—do not harm moths, they are sacred

befriend a wood-eating ant, comb a maize cob’s hair
*
sell your dreams to the angry dead, give your visions to the hungry dead, lose your ability to forget

chant the names of the unnameable—do not sleep until they are all said

learn the flavor of mass graves, suck on blood-infused stones

tattoo the cries of those burned to death on your tongue

harvest dead flesh with a pumice stone, prepare a soup to guide your footsteps, follow a wandering red ant, grasp its pincers, bow to every scorpion you meet, leave offerings for slender spiders—do not ignore geckos

harvest leaves from every plant with a streak of red in its veins, squeeze aloe onto the wounded plants, build a tree of names, tie wind-harvested feathers on its slender branches—they will listen for the speaking dead, the crying dead, the unforgetting dead

listen
listen
listen
listen
listen