The “Time” of Report Realism

Aaron’s thinking (and re-thinking) about the “when” of writing (routed through Adorno, in which case, one can add the “if” of writing) has prompted me to return to the problem of report realism and, more specifically, the problem of time, of “when,” in report realism. “Report realism” weds itself to the “verifiable,” and, by verifiable, I mean language and incidents that stay well within the lines of report structures (naming the problem or problem population, mapping out the problem and its implications, producing a strategy or work plan, implementing the work plan, evaluating the results). Reports provide the frames through which subjects and problems accrue “legibility” in Kenyan writing. This “accrue” matters, because it depends on a lag, on the “time” of the report.

A clarification: I am not claiming that writers wait for reports to be written so that they can write about events. Instead, the world of possible subjects, topics, characters, and events, the legible world of the imagination, is deeply saturated by a report imaginary and time lag, where time lag refers to the time it takes for a problem or subject or character or event to accrue enough “weight” to be represented. (I’m thinking about this because a character like Akai seems “impossible” in Kenyan fiction because she has not “accrued” enough “weight” to become “legible.”)

I’m also thinking of the “time lag” of the report-a phrase I’m using very imprecisely to suggest something about feeling and empathy, about the subjects and characters for whom one can feel (which is broader than Butler’s “mourn for”)—to consider what happens when a report is “obstructed” or “blocked,” not allowed to populate imaginations and ethical practices.
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I’m trying to figure out why Kenya’s creative spaces, the ones I belong to, have been mostly silent about the ongoing “security operation,” the daily harassment and profiling of Somalis, the creation of a “camp for detainees” in the heart of Nairobi, and the various violations of constitutionally-guaranteed rights. I’m trying to figure out why writers who could so easily, so readily, imagine deaths and killing and violation and destruction during the PEV, and who so quickly, with and without information, mobilized to write, to imagine, to publish, to work against disposability and killability, are now so silent.

Silence means many things: many of us are exhausted from fighting battles that we keep losing; many of us are in shock, as friends and colleagues we loved and treasured have thrown their lot in with a death-promoting, killing-defending state; many of us are traumatized, unable to find the words or forms to write or speak, unable to imagine ways of being present; many of us are in hiding, trying, desperately, to stay alive, to marshal energy to emerge with newer, and better strategies. Many of us are simply silent. And I do not know how to parse that silence. It is a frightening silence, especially in a country that has waged war against Somalis since its inception.
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Twitter chatter reflects discussions happening in Kenya’s legislatures, where distinctions between Kenya Somalis and Somali Somalis jostle with distinctions between Kenyans and Somalis. Often, the two bleed into each other, as Somalis in parliament keep being forced to say “not all Somalis,” often in ways that are anti-refugee and anti-human rights. In the discussions I have seen, Somalis are defined as “not”: “not all Somalis,” “not Kenyan Somalis,” “not legal Somalis,” “not good Somalis.” So much so that it becomes difficult to imagine any Somali who is not, in some way, defined in relation to a “not.” (One sees, here, the state’s investment in subjecting populations as it demands compliance and allegiance, neither of which are any guarantee against disposability.)
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This train of thought started because I thought of the now-withheld Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Report, which notes,

The Commission finds that Northern Kenya (comprising formerly of North Eastern Province, Upper Eastern and North Rift) has been the epicenter of gross violations of human rights by state security agencies. Almost without exception, security operations in Northern Kenya has been accompanied by massacres of largely innocent citizens, systematic and widespread torture, rape and sexual violence of girls and women, looting and burning of property and the killing and confiscation of cattle.

The Commission finds that state security agencies have as a matter of course in dealing with banditry and maintaining peace and order employed collective punishment against communities regardless of the guilt or innocence of individual members of such communities.

Volume 2A of the Report details (ambivalently, and in a pro-state way), the devastation of the so-called Shifta War, a four-year conflict between the Kenyan state and residents of Northern Kenya.

The Borana people of Isiolo . . . have a special name for the Shifta War years: Daaba. The simple translation of Daaba is “when time stopped.”

A government policy of forced villagisation created what were, in effect, detention camps. Over 2,000 people were killed in direct engagement with the state military in Isiolo, but many others “may have died from malnutrition, poor health and general illness visited upon them in the villages.”

General accounts indicate that dysentery, pneumonia and malaria frequently swept through the camps. Epidemics of highly contagious, tuberculosis presented particular problems and quarantine areas (“tuberculosis manhattans”) were created in the compounds. Starvation was a serious problem. The only food on offer in the camps was ugali; the stiff maize-based porridge that many Northerners found unpalatable and unfamiliar. As Hassan Liban plaintively explained it, “they gave us ugali and we could not eat it.”

Others recount,

Leader of Evidence: You did indicate that some people were given poisoned meat. Is what you wrote true? Do you know about this?
Hassan Kuno Ali: It is true. When they came, they injected the animal with poison. They then slaughtered the animals and gave the meat to the people. When people ate the meat, they slept and could not wake up. They died.
Leader of Evidence: Who poisoned the meat?
Hassan Kuno Ali: It was the police and the army personnel.

Archival material from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom suggests that the Government of Kenya was indeed poisoning water sources as a way of limiting the movement of people and their herds and enabling security forces to patrol smaller and more contained areas.

The TJRC Report does not have a public life. The only report to attempt to account for Northern Kenya has no public life. This absence has made Northern Kenya “unimaginable” and “unverifiable,” never part of the story that’s told about Kenyan.

One might argue that the state could not make public and keep alive a report that, at least in a few places, centers Northern Kenya and Somalis as particular targets of state oppression and ethnocide.
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In a sense, the “Shifta war,” and the Somalis implicated in it, have become part of Kenya’s unimaginable, available to ethnocidal and genocidal imaginations. They have become part of Kenya’s “unverifiable,” subject to report realism’s demands and obfuscations.

Because the “Shifta wars” never happened in Kenya’s imagining of itself, they do not need redress and, worse, as we are seeing, the series of discriminations they enabled lend themselves to the indiscriminate ethno-religious profiling of all Somalis, the “not” that interrupts Somali and Kenyan. (The “not” that declares “verifying documents” cannot verify. The “not” that makes Somalis killable and disposable.)

And because Somalis remain outside of Kenya’s imagining of itself, they remain unrepresented, badly represented, or unrepresentable within a large body of Kenyan writing and literature, rarely present with the same force or pull as those groups framed as embodying Kenya’s histories, struggles, victories, and futures.
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The “time-lag” of “report realism” is only one of the ethical problems of this frame (genre? practice? habit?). I extend the “frame” of “report realism” to suggest the labor of the imagination in cultivating ethical orientations (a formulation I take from Martha Nussbaum). And to suggest what is foreclosed, from ethics and the imagination, when report realism provides privileged access to legibility.

Reading Yvonne Owuor II

I needed Ajany so that I could “return” to Akai. This is, perhaps, appropriate, as Ajany is the one who “returns to” Akai (returns Odidi and, in a sense, returns Akai to “herself”).

Akai understands the exhaustion of bleeding life one love at a time, of trying to keep a step ahead of threat, dread, fear. Struggling not to need, not to crave more, trying to ignore the hunger to contain an other, always battling not to swallow her own.
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“I anger.”

Akai-Ma’s English, pockmarked, dragged through moonscapes, propped up by gesture and hacked into low-droned present-tense portions into which any number of languages were inserted.
. . .
Ajany had long understood that Akai rendered words as they were made to be—soldier verbs, constructed for action and war. Ajany cowered in front of them.
. . .
Akai Lokorijom dispossesses herself even of stories she had buried in the earth.

Akai is rarely “eloquent” or “articulate.” As a girl, she is “at the top of her class, excelling in all subjects”: “Her restless imagination thrived when it found fresh universes,” even as she refuses to imagine herself a tabula rasa. Against the model of the unknowing native, she demands,

Why is what you know more truthful than what I know?

And now I’m stuck. I’m stuck—in fact, “arrested”—because Akai’s question is not only about history and memory, nor it is about that ongoing contest between experience and theory. (To stage claims about what “it is not” and “possibly is” is already to miss the lesson of her question; one can only insist on the contingency of one’s claims, on the tentative nature of those claims, on their partiality, hoping that these gestures are not understood as “merely formulaic” or “token.”)

Akai lives in the Northern Frontier District (NFD), distanced, Dust tells us, from the heart of Kenyan politics. While her life intersects with the state in its various formations—through colonial-missionary education, through her affairs with Hugh Bolton and Ali Dida Hada, state agents at different moments, through her relationship to Nyipir, a “dead” state agent—she is, for the most part, removed from the Kenya imagined in “fiction about Kenya.” She is difficult to “fit into” the stories told about Kenya, the stories told about “what matters” in Kenya. Her desires (as a girl, to undergo initiation “into manhood,” to become a “teacher and a traveler,” to organize “”proper cattle raids,” to “own at least ten thousand large-horned cows”) fit oddly, if at all, within the narratives told about women’s desires in “project Kenya.” (One notes that for a certain “familiar” narrative to emerge about “project Kenya,” Akai must be “forgotten”; or, more precisely, the value of what she knows and how she knows must be “discounted”; and the fragments she lets slip fit too easily into a “project Kenya,” so much so that readers need never query what else she knows and how she knows it.)

As an aside, I should note that Akai reminds me of Rebecca Njau’s Ripples in the Pool, in that way that books “call to” books.
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It’s late.

Perhaps I’m struggling to say that few, if any, of the frames available to write on “African women” (as marginalized and marginal, as subaltern, as “spectral”) seem to work for the Akai who lives in the Northern Frontier District. None of these frames speak to and within this particular geo-history. Against these frames, Akai’s question returns,

Why is what you know more truthful than what I know?

As the novel ends, Akai “dispossesses herself of stories” that remain outside the scope of the narrative, unheard and, perhaps, unhearable. While it’s tempting to believe that Akai’s revelations (about Hugh, about Selena, about her dead twins) “end” her role in Dust, one imagines that the stories she tells waft in the air, linger to be caught by faint breezes, to slip into the unsettled sleep of those with restless dreams.

Reading Yvonne Owuor III

While I continue to gather my thoughts about Akai (the missing II of this series), let me turn to the difficulty of imagining Ajany.

Dust hinges on one sentence: “I’m . . . uh . . . looking for Odidi.”

By this point in the novel, Ajany has accompanied her father to Wuoth Ogik to deliver Odidi’s body to Akai (such an awkward formulation is needed). She then returns to Nairobi to “[look] for Odidi.” The gendered economies of quest narratives makes her search all but illegible. Writing in the Washington Post, Ron Charles claims Ajany travels to Nairobi to “investigate her brother’s murder.” This is not quite right—but then Ajany, despite being “the center” of the novel, as a few astute reviewers note, risks fading away, being displaced from the novel’s center by long-established critical habits that must center men. In reading review after review, I’m reminded that seeing women in books requires a lot of labor—affective, ideological, political.

In an odd way, the novel anticipates this “unseeing” of Ajany. The ellipses that mark her speech, her stutter, gesture, if obliquely, to the “already known” and “never known” with which patriarchy “always already” fills in the silences of women’s speech. That such gaps may be—should be, can be—left unfilled, that they have purpose, seems unthinkable. Women’s silence is not waiting for patriarchy’s prattle. And, in many ways, this is a novel about women’s silence.

This “silence” is central to Ajany’s artistic practice, with which the novel proper opens:

Here. She could paint this; hold the brush as a stabbing knife. There. Coloring in landscapes of loss. She could draw this for him, this longing to hear his particular voice, listening for echoes of bloodied footsteps, borrowing dead eyes to help her find him again. Here. Jagged precipices of wounding, and over cliffs, an immense waterfall of yearning, falling and falling into nothingness.

Note the repeated pull and insistence of “Here” (even when it hides in “There”). (It strikes me that “Here” is an important term in women’s cultural production.) I’m tempted to claim the “three” “Here/here” in this passage dissipate into “nothingness” at the end of the paragraph, but I think that is a strategic, too-easy misreading, one that, too easily, erases representational frames and practices.

“Here,” after all, refers as much to the space Ajany occupies as she paints as it does to the painting itself—an abstraction of “loss,” “longing,” “echoes,” and “yearning.” It refers to the time-space and geo-history of her remembering, to her body’s present. It refers, as well, to her struggle to materialize into a now:here that would register her as “present,” as “witness.” I’m stuck on this “Here” because so many reviews of the novel are too quick to gloss over Ajany’s present, too quick to make that present “matter” because it’s in a mortuary, in a heading-to-war 2007, in the future of a past colony, and so on. Ajany’s labor as an artist of “Here,” a painter of “Here,” becomes lost.

How does one represent a “Here” of “yearning” and “nothingness”? How does one represent a “Here” when one is never allowed to be present or to matter?
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A confession: Yvonne is a friend.
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Another confession: I am useless at “reviewing” books because I want to linger on, to obsess over, to stay stuck on, to hold on as long as I can. I lack the reviewer’s ability to map broadly, to evaluate casually, to read for markets and to market.
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“Here” occurs many places in Dust, as a particularly gendered insistence on women’s labor, women’s movements, women’s art:

Ajany cannot stop moving. When she dances, the dread dies. When she moves, she is not lost. When she moves, there is no absence. When the music moves her, there is such life she cries. The antics of a firefly caught in the memory of a once-perfect flame. Ajany dances.

If Dust is a restless book—and it is—how might that restlessness be embodied in Ajany’s dancing? In her multiple shifts across space—national and transnational? In the insistence on “Here”?

(One might argue that Ajany is present every time ellipses occur in the novel, for ellipses mark her speech, her stutter, her embodied speech. Every single time ellipses occur in the text, Ajany is made present, made “Here.”)

One more instance of “Here,” less because it fits into an emerging thesis, and more because it’s been nagging at me since I read the novel. Also, because it made me cry.

Ajany discovers where Odidi was shot:

She has found the place.

She scrapes fragments of her brother’s dried, rusted blood onto a small piece of paper. . . . She has just noticed the sullied petals of a crushed lily when the acrid loathing surges from her body, gushes out of her mouth, and mingles with the chaos on the ground.
. . .
She has poured water into the wound on the ground, and scrubbed with her fingers and hands. But before she poured the water she had bent over, rested her head on the warm tarmac, touched the memory blood with her face. Ears to the ground, listening and waiting.
. . .
She will keep vigil over a spot of road.

What is it to be “Here”?

We later discover that Justina also keeps vigil at this “spot of road,” that she brings lilies to remember Odidi, her lover, the man she helped to survive. Why is Odidi “Here,” at a “spot of road” watched over, now, by two women? And what is a woman’s “Here”? What is Ajany’s “Here”?

Later, we will learn that Justina also paints. Justina also produces “Here”: “Justina cradles Ajany’s face, paintbrush in hand. She touches her brush to Ajany’s tears.” In part, Dust “is about” how easy it is to forget how women remember, how women live, how women “Here.”

Simultaneously, it reminds us how women “Here,” how they occupy now:here, how they represent now:here, how they paint with scraped up blood and tears, with stabbing brushes.

“Here . . .”

Black Gay Livability

An encounter from Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. Shit and Eric meet Mr. Johnston, a white conservative who wants to shut down the porn movie theater they manage. Mr. Johnston, it turns out, once debated Robert Kyle, the black gay founder of the Dump. A brief exchange ensues between Eric and Mr. Johnston:

“Hey— are you Mr. Johnston?”

The man frowned back. “I ain’t met you— I don’t think.”

“I saw you back at a town meetin’, ’bout fifteen or twenty years ago, in the Dump. You was havin’ a debate with Robert Kyle.”

“Oh,” the man said. “Oh, yeah— starry-eyed coon with way, way too much money, who thinks there ain’t nothin’ more important than the lives of some crazy black faggots.” He grunted.

Though he was surprised, Eric laughed. “If you are one— a black faggot, I mean— that can seem pretty
important to you, actually.”

Perhaps what strikes me most—hence I repeat it—is that the Dump is a world in which Shit can live and even thrive.

Shit understands its rules and codes of conduct:

“If you end up inside one of them cabins [in the Dump] and you wanna mess with one of them black bastards—” back in the cab, Shit made fists near his shoulders and stretched—“ don’t be shy. Down here we figure any kind of suckin’s okay; kissin’, anything like that. But when it comes to fuckin’, you need your paper— or a rubber.”

As Dynamite elaborates,

“Ask to see it and make sure it’s less than four months old. It’s free, and it don’t cost ’em nothin’ to come over here and get it. That’s been keepin’ the guys in the Dump pretty healthy since eighty-five, eighty-six now.”

Permit a slight, necessary detour.

Douglas Crimp opens his 1987 “How to have Promiscuity in an Epidemic” thus:

The sloganeering of AIDS education campaigns suggests that knowledge about AIDS is readily available, easily acquired, and undisputed. Anyone who has sought to learn the “facts,” however, knows just how hard it is to get them.

He notes that in the mid-eighties, mainstream anti-HIV campaigns (to the extent they existed) were anti-sex and largely homophobic. In this environment, “gay people invented safe sex”:

We knew that the alternatives – monogamy and abstinence – were unsafe, unsafe in the latter case because people do not abstain from sex, and if you only tell them “just say no,” they will have unsafe sex. We were able to invent safe sex because we have always known that sex is not, in an epidemic or not, limited to penetrative sex. Our promiscuity taught us many things, not only about the pleasures of sex, but about the great multiplicity of those pleasures.

As always, the problem of that “we.” Those with better AIDS histories can trace, more aptly, the race and class splits that, increasingly, defined a “we” worth saving and worth mourning, and a “not-we” who could not be mourned, who never existed to be mourned.

This “not-we” is the “foundation” of the Dump. As Shit explains,

“Now the whole thing is Mr. Kyle’s. He lets all these gay niggers live over here. He got a’ office in Hemmings, where they interview you and everything. You just gotta be gay and homeless and not smoke. And black, pretty much mostly. But he kinda liked Dynamite. If you’re some serious alcoholic or drug addict, you gotta go into rehab for three months. They pay for that, too. It’s Mr. Kyle’s experiment.”

A little nap has provided me with the rude language I’ve been seeking.

Across many reviews the normative classed object of (the reviewer’s? culture’s?) desire displaces Shit’s importance in the text to install the more familiar (even comically so) Eric: the “crazy whiteboy” with the gym body who has “weird” fetishes. The idea that Eric lives in Shit’s world is inconceivable, so much so that the world—the Dump—becomes invisible, unimportant, in review after review that must rescue this novel through the loving couple form. (Note, for instance, that despite Through the Valley’s insistence on describing Shit—his hair, his smell, his eyes, his teeth [and their absence], his hands, his bitten-back nails—these descriptions are all but absent in many reviews of the book, many of which contain physical descriptions of Eric.)

The normative subjects-objects of desire insist on their presence with anecdotes and prejudices and tolerance (Jo Walton rides a bus and worries about offending the “Jamaican woman” sitting next to her; Josh Zaidman dismisses “the Dump” as a place where “garbage haulers and other blue-collar workers can live and practice sex acts of any kind without discrimination,” that is, a place that does not and can not occupy a place in a “proper” ethical imagination; Paul di Fillipo revels in his “open-mindedness,” insisting on the gem-like quality of the novel—the repetition of “Diamond Harbor” in the review is symptomatic of many things; Hedley Bontano emphasizes, along with many others, that this book is a “challenging read” “for us,” an unspecified “us” defined by “squeamishness,” though, of course, “love” conquers all—work through the icky bits to find redemptive love.) This is cherry-picking, polemically so. Only, I keep noting how irrelevant it is to many reviewers that this novel insists on valuing the lives of “crazy black faggots,” or poor and homeless black gay men. The force with which these figures are removed from reviews is as startling as it is predictable.

Very little exists that teaches “us” how to read a Shit, let alone how to value him. Very little teaches “us” how to read a world set up to enable and value Shit, set up, that is, to keep him free and safe and fed and working and retired. For, in the end, part of what is miraculous about this book is that Shit—who refuses to learn how to read, who does not know how to use an ATM machine, whose plays of public nudity would get him arrested in many elsewheres, whose manners even Eric describes as “crude,” who is in no way equipped to live in any bourgeois version of gayness—in the end: this Shit has a long, vibrant, and happy life.

“Benign Perversion”

I was convinced that Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders uses “benign perversion.” A quick search on kindle (e-books are good for this) reveals that I made this up. The closest the novel comes to this formulation is when it describes Eric and Shit’s shared snot-eating as “a lazy, even a gentle perversion.” The first appearance of the word “perversion” (using the kindle app) is about a third of the way into the book, and it appears in quotation marks, a nod to the psycho-social origins of the term and its social circulation—part of the novel’s “realism” stems from repeated assertions that certain sexualized acts are “disgusting.” Instead of “benign perversion,” Through the Valley insists, repeatedly, “different people liked different things.” (Those familiar with Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet might recall the difficult clarity of her first axiom: “People are different from each other.” Sedgwick also reminds me that “benign sexual variation” is Gayle Rubin’s phrasing.)

There is something comically Foucauldian about the many reviews of Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders: sexology’s taxonomies emerge in the repetition of “coprophagia,” remarked upon by so many, even as the “speaker’s benefit” also recurs in the many declarations of, “none of this bothers me.” It’s odd reading reviews that circle around whether or not one is “down” with reading about “mutual snot-eating” and “incest” and “bestiality” and racialized sex. (A too-delicate reviewer writes, “This occasion marks the first time this polite, white Canadian has ever written the word [nigger], and does so with some unease.”) At the same time, I’m not sure one can get away with disclaiming the “speaker’s benefit” when it comes to this novel, even as I think this is a “post-trangressive” novel.

In claiming this is a “post-transgressive” novel, I hope to extend—and depart from—the many readers who insist that Delany wants to “push buttons.” Perhaps he does. I’m still Barthesian enough to kill my authors. Three moments in the novel demonstrate what I’m trying to suggest by “post-transgressive.” In the first, a young Eric meets Jay at Turpens Truck Stop, and Jay invites Eric to join the sex sociality. The invitation includes an extended description of what Eric might experience:

“Yeah, we got a good reputation around here. Hey, they got a stainless steel pee trough where we can spring us a leak. Or, if you can find one that still flushes, you can climb up on the rim, squat on one of them shitters— none of ’em got doors no more— and drop a big ol’ turd. That what you mean?” Between beard and hair, both curly, he winked an amber eye. “My partner’s in there now. Probably that’s what he’s doin’… if he ain’t suckin’ off some nigger what come in to relieve hisself whatever way he can.
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But I got to warn you: ain’t me or Mex got the time— or the inclination— to be what you call clean dudes. When’s the last time you took you a shower?” “Uh… this… mornin’.” The man’s hand muffled Eric’s voice. “Yeah? Well, with me—” he moved closer. Without getting stronger, the odor became disorienting, as though, at Eric’s next breath, it penetrated another level—“ it’s more like a couple of weeks. And I wouldn’t waste time speculatin’ about Mex.” Then he was closer, hip, thigh, flank pressed into, and moving against, Eric. “Though we got one planned for tonight— if we get back to Gilead in time. I’ll wash him; he’ll wash me; probably piss all over each other. He likes that, and—” he squinted, looking friendly—“ I like it, too.”
***
“You know, spics and Injins and redneck guys from around here, we ain’t cut and skinned like you fellas up there in the city. We still got everything we come with, and inside that skin, boy, the fuckin’ cheese builds up sumpin’ terrible. Me, I don’t ever hardly remember to run a finger around in there and scrape that stuff out. Most of the time, I don’t have to, though, ’cause Mex’ll do it for me . . . with his tongue.”

It might not be wrong to read this “invitation” as a series of warnings: there will be shit and piss and dirt in embodied and affective and ideological ways. And, as we learn later in the novel, Turpens has a different, more sanitized sex scene. Eric is offered the chance to choose, to accept this particular sex sociality. (I might be romanticizing this, but Robert Reid-Pharr has made me think about choice.)

Choice is emphasized again when Dynamite tells Eric, “You gotta speak out and say what you want, boy. Nobody gonna read your mind,” a point emphasized by Jay after Eric spends a (surprising to him) sex-less night with Jay and Mex:

As nonchalantly as he could, Eric said, “I thought maybe me and you and Mex were gonna… you know, fuck around out here. The way me and Dynamite and Shit do in the Dump.” Even Eric could hear that he sounded petulant— the tone he’d wanted to avoid. Stepping down onto the scow’s deck under the light from the boat house ceiling, then looking back, Jay raised a hempen brow. “Yeah? You did? Now, what made you think that? Nobody said nothin’ about fuckin’— you sure didn’t.”
***
“Now, you ain’t eighteen yet. You’re still seventeen. What did you think? We was gonna jump on you, bring you down, and rape you in our own guest bed?”

“I don’t know…” Eric swallowed, looking around for something to do. If he could help, he knew he’d feel better. “It was a little… funny.” Eric didn’t shrug. He didn’t feel like shrugging. “Well, yeah,” Jay said. “A good fuck is nice sometimes— especially with your friends.”

“I guess… maybe you don’t think you should do nothin’ with kids under eighteen…?” It was more than petulant. It was plaintive.

“I didn’t say that. But I do think that if you’re under eighteen, you got to be able to ask for it, clear and direct— especially if you want it from older guys. You know, this sex business ain’t about mind readin’. It’s about sayin’ what you want, gettin’ an answer— yes, no— and acceptin’ it.”

(I realize, this is not quite what I had intended to focus on as “post-transgressive,” even as I think “choosing” is central to counter what feels like the coercive force of “transgression,” but this is a barely-formed thought.) I think what gets me here is precisely what is non-coercive about this framing of sex as sociality, or about grasping the particular intimacies and violations entailed in accepting sex as sociality.

A final example, and this from the famed “coprophagia” passages. Here is Shit discussing it:

“The thing about eatin’ shit is, it’s a group thing. You gotta get a bunch of guys together, see. And most of it’s gonna be all nasty talk, gettin’ up to it— a couple of yall lay some nice big ones there in the middle for everybody, and you can go around and around them things for forty minutes, pickin’ up and passin’ around and sniffin’ at it, and puttin’ down again. But by the end, two or three of yall got to get in there an’ eat some of it for real.”

(I should add a note here on citing Delany: the taxonomic impulse-urge in so many reviews is a “turn away,” a swerve, if you will, from the “funk” of citing Delany when he discusses sex. After all, to cite such a passage is to implicate oneself in an economy of sex acts that “polite people” should know only by their scientific names—I’m not sure I’m delicate enough to abide by this convention.) What grabs me about this description is the “group thing” aspect of it, the building and sustaining of togetherness around sex practices. Here, Shit is describing the so-called Breakfast Club, and while time is relatively difficult to map in the novel, it’s clear that the club existed for many years (if not decades). And this makes me think of what sexual cultures sustain. (Another half-thought.)
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It might seem odd—and even silly—to describe as “post-transgressive” a novel that is so clearly aware that it delves into “taboo.” When Eric first moves to the Dump, Dynamite and Jay spend a lot of time coaching him in discretion—no need to “announce” your business. This is not the confessional world of gay pride and coming out, even as it is a fully realized world saturated (even over-saturated) with desire and sex. And, of course, it might seem odd—and even silly—to describe as “post-transgressive” a novel that theorizes sex acts as “barriers”: “You know pleasure is a funny thing. It always comes on the other side of some barrier or other.” To live in a pleasure economy is always to be “aware” of the “barrier” one encounters—and it might be that pleasure is always this crossing of a barrier, that the “safety” promised by romance novels fails to reckon with self-shattering. (Shit would sneer at this description.)

And, certainly, this is not a careless novel. It “exists,” and the Dump “exists” because a black tycoon decided in 1986 or 1987 that black gay men should be tested for HIV; provided free healthcare to ensure this testing; and created a community whose rules are explicit about sexual health (no penetrative anal sex without appropriate documentation or rubbers). That is: the Dump “avoids” the “many thousands gone” who haunt black gay cultural production (and its absence). And it’s a curious novel because it “saves” the black gay homeless and poor. One is confronted with the question of whose lives are worth saving. And what it means to imagine that the black gay homeless and poor are worth saving.

It is a “post-transgressive” novel because it seems relatively uninterested in whether or not its bourgeois readers and critics will “conquer” their disgust. And, also, I think, because it is so invested in “fun” and “affection.” Whereas the “transgressive” novel is invested in a big “fuck you” to the world, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is interested in what a livable world might be, especially a world in which a Shit can thrive. (And, here, it’s striking how much easier it seems for reviewers to focus on Eric to the exclusion of Shit.)

This is a post-transgressive novel precisely because it imagines a world where Shit can thrive.

Rough Notes on Delany

There’s nothing “fabulous” about Samuel Delany’s Through the Nest of the Valley of Spiders. Its fictional rural setting removes it from the urban gloss celebrated in so much gay cultural production; its dirt-encrusted, dirt-loving, teeth-missing, semi-literate and illiterate characters remove it from a lot of gay body aesthetics, be they muscle clones, bears, twinks, or androgenes; its conversations around the mundanity of appetite, be it for sex or food, remove it from the witty repartee that, in a post-Wildean world, ostensibly defines gay speech; its slow unfolding and repetitions remove it from the worlds of coming-out-epiphanies and irrecoverable traumas that define much gay writing and queer imaginations. This list of what it is not can be continued. I start with it to suggest that Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is largely illegible within dominant gay and queer frames.

This illegibility hinges, I think, on two elements of the novel. First, the novel, as with the Robert Kyle Foundation that supports its imagination, is written from the perspective of “black gay men and of those of all races and creeds connected to them by elective and non-elective affinities.” These are not (to re-use a word) the upwardly mobile gay black men imagined by E. Lynn Harris and James Earl Hardy, nor are they the isolated trauma-bearing figures imagined by James Baldwin and Melvin Dixon. These are not men who “struggle to survive against the odds.” Rather, these are men whose possibilities for livability have been multiplied in materials ways: they have steady, if unglamorous, jobs; ready access to food—the repeated mentions of cooking and eating are central to this book; healthcare that is attentive to their “benign perversions”; practices and communities of sociality anchored in being “good” to one another; and a lot of “fun” and “affection” (one could write about the significance of hugs in this novel).

Works anchored in and tethered to black gay livability are so rare as to be unrecognizable—in fact, they remain largely invisible even in black queer scholarship. And, perhaps, what is so surprising (even difficult to comprehend) about Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is that it does not begin with or ever engage in the exceptionalism that would make black gay characters acceptable within mainstream white aesthetics. Black gay men, black men, are simply desirable in their variety and availability, in their willingness to “have fun” and “get off,” to seek pleasure and comfort. (Here, Delany avoids the too-common “he was so beautiful that it didn’t matter that he was black” track, even as he retains the roles of fetishism and objectification in desire—there’s a lot of shorthand here.)

I am insisting on black gay livability as a frame for the novel because too many of the online reviews I’ve seen completely overlook this element of the book or deem it irrelevant. It remains unthinkable that a book should construct a world—the Dump—centered around black gay male lives and desires. It is a world where, as Shit claims, he can walk into any house in the Dump and have sex with the resident (as long as the resident is not otherwise occupied). (Perhaps, one needs to have spent many hours online looking at ads that say “no blacks” or gone to many gay clubs that implicitly say “no blacks” to understand how radical it is to take desire for black bodies for granted.)

Along with black gay livability, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is also a black southern novel and, in this, it departs from Delany’s fiction and non-fiction works set primarily in urban spaces. This “turn” to the black south shifts the range of references through which the novel can be read. The tangled histories of incest suggest Pauline Hopkins’s Of One Blood, for instance (also Gayl Jones’s Corregidora); the notion of a “utopic” town invokes Zora Neale Hurston’s Eatonville; the desire that suffuses the novel gestures to Jean Toomer’s Cane. (I’m an expert on the Harlem Renaissance, so I hope those who are more expert in the history of black southern literature will fill in all the other books that can be drawn into conversation with Delany.) That the black southern novel has always been deeply invested in desire is undeniable. Most often—or, rather, with the books I know best—this desire is “impossible” or “killing.”

In a conversational aside, I once told a student that a lot of black writing could be considered “speculative,” as only “speculative” writing could make the “jump” from thinghood to personhood. In the same spirit, I would speculate that Through the Valley inhabits a speculative world where black gay livability is possible and prized. (To borrow from Fred Moten, I’d argue that much black writing “anarranges” genre classifications precisely because black life has so often been considered “impossible.”)

At best, these are very rough notes on the novel, in part because Lavelle Porter and Steven Shaviro have more detailed, more complex takes (which I’ve drawn on liberally). In emphasizing black gay livability and the black southern tradition, I hope to push against the deracination that would domesticate this novel, refusing it traveling companions and predecessors.

Finally: I have written nothing about the sex in the novel. There’s a lot of it. Also a lot of what the novel terms “benign perversion.” Perhaps I might write about “benign perversion” later—I’m not sure this novel is interested in “transgressiveness” or “shock.” Perhaps I’m simply tired of “transgression” as a frame through which to approach sex. Also, I’m really tired of the “speaker’s benefit” (see Foucault). So, like Shit, I want to think of sex in the novel as a form of pleasant sociality (“pleasantness” is one of Delany’s key words in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue). And, with Shit, I’m interested in amplifying pleasant sociality.

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.