I continue to wonder what it means to be queer here.

Everyone knows or knows of someone gay, and with some persistence, I might garner introductions, perhaps phone numbers, cultivate or at least be around some gay people.

This is a problem.

Theoretically, queer does not translate into homosexual, though the homosexual remains one of the key figures of queer modernity. Practically, the thought of having to ask for a password to join or be admitted into some secret-seven-like club, or at least to know where to knock on the door, troubles the private and public distinction that queer unsettles.

Yet, I am reminded that queer is also about secret places, corners in parks where men have sex, Thursday fetish nights of erotic vomiting, basements converted into dungeons, curtains, dark theaters, dimly lit clubs, private places where private acts become public, bodies open, pleasure available.

Queer is about the right for these peri-public places to exist. About the bathhouse that should or might even now sit on Kenyatta Avenue.

It is also about those tender moments of confession, those desire-suffused narratives of awakening, the first times, the second times, realizing that what can be imagined can also be experienced. Queer is about the pleasures of shame and disgust.

I’ve never been very good at disentangling thought from living.
* * *
No matter where I move, I carry Foucault’s History of Sexuality and Essex Hemphill’s Ceremonies. Ceremonies has been my black gay bible since I discovered it as a sophomore. I have the beautiful Plume edition—the first edition, I believe—which features Essex on the cover.

On this trip, I also have Melvin Dixon’s 1983 volume of poetry, Change of Territory (which I will be teaching in the spring).

I dislike funerals—and want my funeral sermon to be a recital of Hemphill’s “Heavy Breathing”:

I am looking
for signs of God
as I sodomize my prayers.
. . .
At the end of heavy breathing
the fire quickly diminishes.
Proof dries on my stomach.
I open my eyes, regret
I returned without my companion,
who moments ago held my nipple
bitten between his teeth,
as I thrashed about
on the mercy of his hand
whimpering in tongues.

At the end of heavy breathing
does it come to this?
Filtering language of necessity?
Stripping it of honesty?
Burning it with fissures
that have nothing to do with God?
The absolute evidence of place.
* * *
At the end of heavy breathing
I engage in arguments
with my ancestral memories.
I’m not content
with nationalist propaganda.
I’m not content
loving my Black life
without question.
The answers of Negritude
are not absolute.
The dream of King
is incomplete.
I probe beneath skin surface.
I argue with my nappy hair,
my thick lips so difficult
to assimilate.
Up and down the block we battle,
cussing, kicking, screaming,
threatening to kill
with bare hands

* * *
I continue to wrestle with the kinds of deracination that allow me to be queer, the forms of disembedding I must practice, insist on, cultivate.

My choice of Hemphill is strategic. Hemphill takes me out of Gikuyu-ness, out of Kenyan-ness, or, I should qualify, a very particular kind of Kenyan-ness that relies on the repressive silence of familiarity. Hemphill re-routes me through other histories.

If, following Sedgwick, being queer requires avowal, so does being black. And, here, I can be black. Blackness allows a certain kind of position, a certain kind of work, a certain kind of critique that Gikuyu-ness and Kenyan-ness foreclose.
* * *
Hemphill’s “Commitments” opens,

I will always be there.
When the silence is exhumed.
When the photographs are examined
I will be pictured smiling
among siblings, parents,
nieces and nephews.

It closes,

I am the invisible son.
In the family photos
nothing appears out of character.
I smile as I serve my duty.

How does one negotiate the necessary deracination of queerness and the embedding of attachment?
* * *
Dixon’s Change of Territory (which I will be teaching in the spring!!!) re-writes Alex Haley’s Roots (1976). Only, where Haley privileges hetero-genealogy, Dixon asks what kinds of histories are available for black queers.

In conversation with his grandmother, he wonders where to find

others like me: mute cousins
or your sons’ bachelor sons
stuttering in padded cells
their names to metal windows

In “Going to Africa,” he muses,

I may find that a change of place
is nothing safe, and no other masks or moods
can tie back the cord that first fed me blues.

In “Hemispheres,” he splits,

Gregarious of May and June.
I divide in half
at the body’s
My hemispheres
lift into orbit.

* * *
The difficult easy way to say this is that I have one life there and another life here, am one person there another person here, but I find this explanation inadequate, a convenient fiction that ignores the stretched body and restless mind that lives here and there at once, simultaneously, always.

So, how does embedding force one to negotiate attachment and deracination?

How does one understand that embedding is not a panacea for deracination: that there is no return home, only a change of territory. (One might invoke “transcendental homelessness,” but, really, I prefer miri ya mikongoe, on which I have an essay floating around somewhere in Wasafiri).
* * *
I live among a practical people who say that I should aka nyumba. This, I am told, is code for a host of hetero-responsibilities.

Foucault (this time around I have all three volumes of History of Sexuality), Foucault writes of creating oneself as gay. Not to say this is what “gay is” and don leather, but to work it out with fear and trembling. (Leaven Foucault with scripture!)

Embedding: how to be queer around the people I know and love, not strangers in a bar somewhere; how to be queer around people I meet, people I work with.
* * *
I have a stalled poetry project, one that I could not write there, one that I might return to here, though Nairobi makes me think in prose.

Here is the opening poem.

Kenda Mũiyũrũ

Kwĩragwo, nyũmba na rĩĩka itiumagwo

Kũmenya rĩĩka nĩ

Kwĩrorera gĩcicionĩ

But mirrors break

Once, playing a game, we got a series of sevens
The family portrait fell

Perhaps a sign

Kiũria kĩmwe kĩnene gĩtangĩhitũkia-rĩ, nĩ rĩrĩ
What happens when mirrors break

Ibuku rĩrĩ nĩ rĩgũkwĩra ũrĩa wee ũrĩ mũndũ-rũme kama ũrĩ mũndũ wa nja kũringana na ũrĩa angĩ makuonaga.

Eyes can be mirrors, like books

* * *
To insist on the queerness of this poem is to understand how mis-translation and missed translation, what I have chosen to transcribe and what I have erased by ignoring, how these queer embedding. How queer is both strategic and accidental misreading and overreading, that, to invoke Nietzsche, we create useful histories that allow us to function.
* * *
Ngwata ndai

One thought on “10.04.08

  1. Gukira, Ni ndakenio muno ni madiiko maku. Thii na mbere na gutukenia. And the juxtaposing with the english reading was out of this world!

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