Despite my best intentions, I am coding my conversations. In conversation with my brother’s friend, I avoid mentioning that the major life decision under discussion was driven by an intimate choice. (sufficiently vague, yes?)
Is this discretion or fear? And what are the obligations of attachment? Essex writes of being the benign, unreadable figure in the family portraits. (This is one reason why I refuse to be in family portraits—what is captured of me, my picture in the living room, shows an averted face with eyes being rubbed—there is no engagement with the camera.) It is, of course, that I believe I have made myself over-readable, that I am a too-obvious script, a caricature.
I teach interpretation. I should know better.
The distinction between what I can tell my brother’s friends and mine, what can come up in conversation and what must be avoided, and the expectations, the assumptions that I think I should challenge but then think again.
Here’s one context: I am preparing for a workshop during which I shall narrate one version of a coming out story. I will use the words “gay,” “homosexual,” and “queer” in quick succession to describe my life narrative—not that I moved from one to the other, but they describe, in some way, my relationship to the world, how I inhabit space, how I relate to men’s bodies, to women’s bodies, to structures of desire, to creating intimacy, to how I produce knowledge, to how I understand history, to how I theorize the quotidian.
I know, in some strange way, that it is always easier to come out to strangers, to activists, in some professional settings. In such places, the bonds formed and the distances created do some kind of work, be it to create a certain space for a discussion, to embed myself within prevalent discourses, or to rupture the assumptions others might have.
On a related side note: 13 years after the fact, I’m still trying to explain how a “Gikuyu man,” a “Kenyan,” and an “African” can be vegetarian.
Sara Ahmed writes about the obligations we have to make and keep others happy, that these obligations shape our worlds. Happiness is good to think with, as she claims. I think, also, about the narrative my brother’s friends have of him. I would term him a maverick, but the term has been destroyed. How would my narrative interrupt his, change, in some way, the narratives his friends have of him? It might not.
A wonderful poet tells me to live, simply live. Not to question as much.
How to think about the practice of discretion, the loopholes of retreat.
Today is family day—all the nieces and nephews are here, and it’s odd how 4 children seem like 400—and after playing with my littlest nephew, whom I adore, I am hiding in my mother’s room.
Hanging from her wall is a photograph of the Woman’s Guild, not Women, Woman, and this is very specific. All the women of the guild are pictured, or at least the ones who showed up that day, proudly dressed in their headscarves: proper church ladies, a credit to their home education teachers 40-50 years ago.
I am struck by their names: Initial. Husband’s Last Name. Initial. Husband’s last name.
In what might be termed a Barthesian moment, I wonder whether these women—Woman—stand in as proxies for their absent husbands, many of whom do not attend church.
It is not that their bodies in uniform (headscarf, etc.) are effaced by their appended names, written on an uneven sheet of paper that has been placed at the bottom of the photograph—uneven, pasted on, not part of the photograph, a supplement. Instead, it is how to read this naming of absent presence in its materiality.
This piece of appended paper sits uncomfortably in the frame, has been squeezed in, is not at home. Perhaps this is true of all captions. Yet, there’s also something forceful about it, writing paper full of names—a kipande system, what makes these women Woman. It engenders a narrative that is supported by the bodily positions, those who are seated cross their legs at the ankle, their hands folded on their laps, their faces responsible rather than happy.
At the center of the picture sits the church reverend: the only man, the center of the Woman’s guild, an anchor, perhaps. But his body, though spread comfortably, looks squeezed in—perhaps the effect of his grey vestments that darken the picture, draw in one’s eye: the darkness at the core of the group, the reason the group exists, to support patriarchy. After all, the Woman’s guild cooks and cleans and raises children and demonstrates that the civilizing domestic mission worked very well.
This reading of patriarchy does not exhaust the picture, for I know the guild, know the women turned Woman, know they lead courageous lives as pioneers and supports, know that this sorority is a foundation of the church.
But the piece of paper appended to the bottom of the portrait. Initial. Husband’s last name. Makes me question the foundation and aim of this sorority.
What is the work of portraiture? This seems to be my question. What does it mean to be in a picture? What narratives accompany pictures? What stories are told? What stories remain hidden?
One can only resist the picture for so long: as any number of red-faced folk have discovered, we no longer control what is recorded and disseminated, if we ever did.
In this land of a thousand stories, what is the picture?
Police are “cleaning up uchafu” in Starehe—arresting prostitutes. The reporter terms women uchafu, dirt, something out of place, not realizing or caring that Nairobi was built by black prostitutes, that they are the black mothers of this city, that they deserve a huge monument celebrating their achievements.
We watch police slapping women on tv. Because men beat women. Police beat uchafu.
The Waki Report has been released. We can now comfortably point fingers. We have identified the wrongdoers. According to a nation editorial by Mutahi Ngunyi, “Kenyans are Good People.” We have bad leaders.
What would it take for us to be honest with ourselves?