Obdurate Ducts

I have not cried in many years. Perhaps, I think, since my too-tall boyfriend of 2 weeks dumped me because of my excessive libido. I was young. It was summer. I was listening to the blues.

Because of my obdurate ducts—to be clear, I still cry at the end of books and movies, never for “real-life” events—I have found myself struggling, over the years, to register the psychic weight of loss and pain, to understand how we might speak about pain without tears, loss without creased faces. How to attend funerals with decorative hankies.

In the sea of blog posts, newspaper and journal articles, and poems that have spoken about tears, those who can’t stop crying, those who have cried for the first time, those whose tears make palpable their grief, I have found myself wondering if it might be possible to speak without a catch in my throat, to attend virtual funerals with an unexpressive face, or a slight smile. Might this register as a form of betrayal of “national feeling” watered by tears.

Without my teary contributions, can I claim to water the tree of national unity?

At a moment when palpable demonstrations of grief and anger punctuate national discussions, can I still admit to ambivalence and detachment without being accused of betrayal due to my “geographical distance?”

Might feeling be irreducible to tears, frowns, and grimaces?

To ask such questions is to return to the uneasy encounter between blackness and psychoanalysis, between, in this case, Africanness and trauma. Those of us who study such ideas have not done very well in making a case for the inexpressible and the undemonstrative. We are, I think, much too bound to our histories of professional mourners, histories where we share grief in palpable ways: red eyes affirm belonging. We have histories of making culpable those who do not exhibit appropriate grief. Smile at a funeral and you are accused of ill-will toward the dead, of being a malicious witch.

I smile at funerals. I laughed during my father’s.

This is not to say I do not experience grief. And there’s a longer conversation to be had, at another time, about the role of masculinity in structuring grief. It is to ask, on one level, about the role of formal aesthetic practices in creating, reporting, and registering notions of loss and trauma. It is to note, as I have elsewhere, the function of repetition and hyperbole, the roles of fragmentation and dissolution, the precise use of legal and political language, the slippage from “reason” to “emotion” in “objective arguments. To ask about the role of “academic” writing, satire, humor, and expressive inexpressivity (the silence maintained on many blogs that, nonetheless, speaks volumes).

I am not trying, here, to foreground what and how I study, but, rather, to map, if only tentatively, the array of ways we have all been engaging with the limits of language and the boundaries of feeling—we might even say the way feeling unbinds.

On yet another level, I am trying to understand why, quite apart from practical reasons, it has been difficult to write and now it seems easier. Is it that the talks of mediation have removed a certain psychic barrier? Or, more troubling, that the reports of violence have become more banal, something that happens “elsewhere.” And here, I have to confess, I suffer from the Nairobian arrogance that Kenya is Nairobi.

I do not want what might register as a lack of expression to be understood as complicity in the banality of violence. That I do not cry or have red eyes should not be read as a symptom of my indifference. I think, traumatized though we might be, we are in a good place, insofar as we have begun (really have continued what smaller groups have been doing) to register that there is no such thing as banal violence. It spreads. It spills. It morphs. The economic violence (and it must be termed as such) visited on young people converted, much like energy does, into a different kind of violence, compelling us to recognize, if we dare, how the banal can too-quickly turn into the gory, the opening frame of a pastoral scene into the chaos of an Okri novel.

One more symptom: at my best, and for this kind of writing, I rarely make full arguments or bother to make transitions in thinking or writing. Here, and in the past few months, I have been both more and less structured, sometimes deliberately, often not so. This form of writing, issues of quality aside, can only have emerged now (readers of Williams and Jameson will recognize this formulation). To read this as a symptom of the present is not to make the leap that words can be tears, but that style and form themselves may register losses that my conscious mind may never be able to reconcile with a place I once lived and people I once knew.