Desire & Discovery

I

You are reading a story that is written to you and you are in Nairobi giving a blowjob to a flabby white tourist who has “diplomatic immunity” and wears a “condom.” Head can be dangerous. He wants a 16 year old and so you lose 10 years. He wants transgression and so you blow him in public. And gag on his condom flavors. You are reading a story addressed to you and are implicated in its production, as its ostensible subject and its audience. You Wreck Her.

You are reading Parselelo Kantai’s “You Wreck Her” and learning that discovery is damage, that the African woman exists because “You Wreck Her,” make and unmake, discover and undiscover. This is as much of a plot summary as you will get. It is about a woman who was once made, then unmade, and is now making. And, maybe, she dies. Or has always already been dead. These are questions of interpretation, not plot.

You are reading a story about place and gender, place and agency, about a Europe that still craves authentic Africans in torn clothes. The clothes are on the bodies of women and not on the women, and this is a question of who wears what and where. Choice is at stake. And choosing will not be easy. Not choosing can make one famous.

“You Wreck Her” is about choosing and not choosing. About the women who choose and the women who are chosen for. About the structures that enable choosing and those that foreclose it. About the kinds of choosing that allow 26 year olds to masquerade as 16 year olds and the kind of choosing that might lead to no choosing. A gun goes off and the story ends.

Guns make loud silence.

Do not go gently.

In that soft soft silence, let us return to the beginning, to this gag-plastic-un-touch-touching. This pleasure as transgression and the transgression of pleasure. Let us ask the rude question about pleasure, about black women’s pleasure.

Listen:

An African girl begins as a prostitute and becomes a famous model in Brussels.

You were surprised when at the point of his crisis that first time you made love Goort called you my Sudanese girl. You told him you were not Sudanese but he said not to worry, that people can be whatever they want to be. He told you that Sudan was “hot” at the moment and that if you behaved yourself you could be the new Alek Wek. He laughed when you asked him what Alek Wek was.

“Not vaat darleenk, who. Alek Vek is very famous African model in Europe and America. You are beautiful like her.” Then he kissed you very gently at the exact moment that you understood that you were in love for the first time, he kissed you on the forehead and said: “You can be her.”

People can be whatever they want to be. How banal this promise. The promise of anonymity. Because everywhere in Africa is Africa and so can be anywhere else. You can be African and anonymous. This is easy, to read like this. But let us be rude: was the sex good? Did Goort know what he was doing? Does this question matter? Why does love come with the “gentle kiss?”

Again:

Then another night when you had exhausted each other in his bed and he was smoking a triumphant cigarette, he told you how he had discovered his life’s mission after his motorcycle accident in the streets of Brussels, how he would change himself and bring beauty to the world.

. . .

“So zat night when I see you in ze disco I say to myself, ‘You wreck her!’ Mais oui. I have found it.”

Abstracted into the meaning of beauty. This might be called the slide into metonymy. Part to whole. Partly whole.

We already have a rich framework for thinking this abstraction into beauty—objectification. Yet, yet, yet. We can dare to think otherwise. To understand the pleasures one takes in representing beauty. She stares at her new self as it is displayed on buses. There is a pleasure to the gaze she can turn on herself. And because there is pleasure in this gazing on the self, because life is not correct, I push against Parselelo’s language: “The world loved you, silent and sad with your African beauty.”

Or, I complicate it by asking who “the world is,” how “the world” also includes “you.” There is a fissured self. We might dwell, for a moment or more, on the pleasure of loving one’s silent and sad beauty. We might pause, here, refuse to move on to Parselelo’s demand that “you” want education, a way of being in the world that realizes the ephemerality of your position. We might resist your desire to “better” yourself. His desire for you.  Is that really your desire? Why and how must we read it as your desire?

I have asked, elsewhere, about how we desire African fiction. Here I ask how we desire African women. Strong. Practical. Practical. Strong. Hustling, always hustling. I wonder about their emotional crevices, the places where they are less marionette. In Europe, you are a marionette. Played on, yes, But you are in love and enjoy the play. This story wants to rush past your pleasure, get us to the strong parts, the parts where you strike back, become 16 when 26, sell transgression that un-diplomats.

Soft soft.

Tell me, soft soft, about the pleasures of the gaze.

Tell me, soft soft, about the joys of the caress.

Tell me, soft soft, about the radiance of being worshipped.

Soft soft. Shh. Even softer.

Soft soft. Writer to writer. Soft soft. Object to object. Soft soft. Fetish to fetish. Soft Soft.

Let us discover.

II

I am reading a story by Parselelo Kantai called “You Wreck Her.” It is about a prostitute turned model turned prostitute, about a Nairobi woman become European cosmopolite become Nairobi woman. It is about despair turned into hope and then into something else. It ends with a gun. There is silence.

In the first version of this writing, I trotted out my nice conventions: this story follows x trope and revisions while also extending.  And I was bored by it. So very bored. And I thought, why not write about this story the way I am reading it. As a writer, as a critic, as someone who has read some stuff before, as someone who is interested in shaping what we read and how we read. This might be called literary experimentation. Perhaps.

I wanted to be kimwili with this story. To inhabit its harsh places, its soft places, its abrasive places, its soothing places. Stories, as Tahar Ben Jelloun writes, come to inhabit us. We are termite mounds. And there is crawling and growing and itching and shedding and dying and more of the same, and the occasional fight with other aggressive cousins.

I am thinking about the kinds of psychic satisfactions the story grants, the ones that it withholds, the affective landing places, and the slippery slopes of uncomfortable feeling.

That “you” address, that second person is so devastating. Hey, you, it goes. And we are all interpellated. And it is strange to be told that you are a prostitute going down on a white john who has diplomatic immunity, and a condom. It makes me think about the taste of condoms, their texture, their use, about saliva and transgression. And sex. (I have been told that American gay men give the best head. I wonder if the surveyor tried African prostitutes. I am inclined to rudeness.)

There is a polite way to read this story. As a kind of revenge fantasy: the objectified used woman returns as a hustler, wise to the game, hip to reality, fucks over “the man.”

But there is a gun.

And silence.

And a black man dressed up as a cop looking at her going down on a white john. And it is not clear who the black man would prefer to shoot. The black prostitute, his partner in the hustle, or the white diplomat, who has diplomatic immunity, and is now flaccid, his condom sliding to the floor of his car.

This policeman is interesting. Because he watches and judges my attempts to become kimwili with this story. And while I enjoy exhibitionism, he has a gun. Is this Parselelo with a gun? Warning that this story should be read this way and not that? Who is this superego figure who wields the power over life and death, over knowledge about life and death.

A gun goes off.

There is silence.

There might be dying.

There might be survivors.

We do not know.

Anxiety is a cousin to fear.

Is this, I wonder, about scorpions and frogs. Critics and writers. Readers and writers. Writers and writers.

You tell me this: “They say that if you wish for something too much you should also worry about how you will receive it.”

Who is “they?” And why does this woman keep being bounced from man to man to man.

III

But there are the Congolese women. In Nairobi and in Brussels.

This is what they tell you, “Marabou, Kenyan girl, arret, arret, s’il vous plait! You kill os! You know notin’, notin’ at all!”

You are doing it wrong because you don’t know how to do it right. Caught in a trap. “[Y]ou learn how to move your waist and your inner-thigh muscles while holding your shoulders completely still, your face communicating that you are appalled at what your buttocks are doing.”

You dance for these women. Learn from them. Unlearn from them. Shame. Pride. Humor. You move for them. You move them. To tears, to laughter. You move them.

You move them so that when you are dying in Brussels, or think you are going to die, they buy you a ticker back to Kenya. Because it is sad to die away from home.

And these women represent a pedagogy, an induction into a community of women who love women, women who support women, women who are there for each other. And you die, or approach death, when you are away from these women, when you are being bounced from man to man.

Because it is not clear that your fake cop partner will ever be for you. In this story, a battle between men over the meanings of women’s bodies. But also, in brief, brief moments, the pleasure, the relief, the joy of being around other women, of learning about your body’s possibilities, it’s secret places, its ability to dance.

How, then, to think of those two moments: when you go down on some white john and when you dance in front of women. I want to pause, arret, on this ephemeral moment of dance, this performance of sisterhood, this moment when you are fully human—able to inhabit shame, disorientation, to experience pleasure, to shape yourself, among a community of women. I want to pause on this ephemeral moment because it provides respite, succor, a way to think about what Audre Lorde terms the possibilities of the erotic, a resource within women that enables them to ask for more from their lives, their loves, their work, their pleasure.

Lorde famously distinguishes between the resource of the erotic and the emptiness of pornography, where pornography is sensation without feeling. The flavor of condoms in mechanical, repeated motion. Or, put otherwise, pornography is about inhabiting numbness, the wrongness of feeling. This is a metaphor, and to be read as such. Lorde is writing in the late 1970s, and pornography then is not pornography now. We must read her historically.

As you dance for the Congolese women, you discover the strength to live, to venture, to experiment, to think outside your own space. They laugh at you, with you. Such a small moment. Life-giving moments are so small. So very small.

IV

You are reading a story called “You Wreck Her” by Parselelo Kantai, and it takes you a few days to translate the title. It is about discovery. About, we have wanted to think, genius. Male genius. About men who lie in tubs or sit under trees or peer through microscopes and discover, and change the world.

Her.

We have started, due to feminists, to think of the hers that subtend this labor, the hers that enable such moments of sacrifice, the hers whose labor, whose love, whose care, whose minds, whose brilliance, and whose tragedies have so often enabled those moments of discovery.

Let us return to Goort. He wants to “change himself” and “bring beauty to the world.” You are a means to an end, a means that can be changed, as rapidly as one changes a tire on a deserted road in Nairobi after dark. Or drives home on rims.

Goort.

The male artist-patron with his female muses and drudges, and the African woman, the muse-drudge waiting to be discovered and re-discovered.

But this is a depressing way to end, and I am torn between impulses.

Samuel Delaney says we must do violence to the concept of woman so that real women can have freedom in the world. This story performs that necessary violence. Its brutal ending refuses to grant us resolution or satisfaction. It solicits our revenge fantasies and leaves them wanting. It objectifies a nameless, unnamed, pseudonymed Marabou, and so it grates. It grates at those places that want African women to be proud, strong, independent, in control. It grates because we don’t know who wins the hustle. This is one ambivalent reading. It performs a necessary violence to a concept that is as damaging as the policies it demands we enact. I crave this violence.

Yet I worry about my desire for this violence. I worry about the forms of masculinity that become complicit in needing women’s bodies, stories, subjection, and humiliation, to tell our stories about ambivalence and objectification.  I worry, in writing this, about the kinds of policing I might enact on male writers. I worry about aesthetics and ethics, about the labor of fiction and the co-labor of criticism.

V

Scorpions and frogs.

Lichen on trees.

In my classes, I have asked my students to think about how Africa is to be desired, and how international awards speak to us about desires for, toward, and about Africa.

I remain stuck on the question of Marabou’s desire. What does she want? What does she really want? We know so much about what other people for her, from her, but not as much about what she wants. We remain Freudian, in this.

That her desires remain incidental, at least those desires that extend beyond the basic and the banal, that they cannot be named, cannot even be envisioned. And that, elsewhere, they are always already known and truncated: clitorises and underwear.

“You Wreck Her.”

What is it to be discovered, always, constantly?

Coda

On reading this writing, a friend expresses anxiety.  He wants Marabou’s world to “come alive,” for me to inhabit her imagination, her sensations, more closely, to give quiddity to her vagueness, craving to her desires.

I understand this desire. It drives the sotto-voce feminist reading I broach, but do not accomplish.

Marabou has a rich flatness that I want to inhabit, a kind of absent being in the world, driven, it appears, by scripts that she does not quite grasp. She is, at every moment, over-scripted. And there might be something valuable in tracing over this script, adding yet another layer, playing along with its demands, its desires, its rhythms and pulsations.