Fissures and Futures: Reflections on Hay

A strange thing happened on the way to the Storymoja Hay Festival. By some fate of planning, the sessions I participated in ran alongside those featuring queer issues. While I was chatting about poetry and fiction and literature and the task of the writer and cultural production more generally with Sitawa Namwalie, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Ben Okri, Kenyan queers were discussing human rights principles and the relationship between homosexuality and spirituality.

I am, of course, thrilled that Storymoja created such a generous space for these discussions and offered two prime spots to Kenyan queers in an incredibly prestigious festival—so much so that one less-than-thrilled twit termed the Hay festival the Gay festival: it was on twitter.

Yet, I wondered at the ostensible divide posited between the cultural and the political, or, perhaps, the cultural and the social. (This “divide,” I should note, was breached several times, especially during an adult-themed storytelling session that I could not attend. Twitter chatter suggests that queer themes were represented at the session.) As much as we discussed poetry and its relationship to difficulty—war, death, loss—the discussions felt disconnected from queer discussions of the same issues. Granted, I am sure some folks tried to negotiate sessions and probably attended the poetry and queer sessions—so this is probably my own sense of loss at not having been able to attend the queer sessions or even, I suspect, to queer my own sessions (though I’m not sure what that would have entailed, given my head was still cloudy from a persistent cold—I think the little bugger is back).

More broadly, I am curious about the place of innovative cultural production in Kenya’s queer scenes—or the roles given to such production. While there are now online publications, some print publications, and, most recently, a film festival, the focus has remained on social activism and advocacy—necessary, of course. But I worry what happens when the tag to every photo or book or film starts with “homosexuality is illegal in Kenya” or documents the immense difficulties of being gay in Kenya. These, I hasten to add, are necessary things. And there are, I am told, glorious queer parties and scenes all over Nairobi, if not Kenya.

I wonder how that joy in living, that exuberance, can have a life within the stories that are told, the poems that are written, the art that is created. Not only joy, of course.

I worry that many—perhaps most—of our queer cultural resources come from outside Africa. I grew up with many of these and can attest to their good work. But I can also attest to their dislocating power. It is a difficult thing to saturate oneself with a queerness founded in other geographies and histories, even as those other glimpses can provide other possibilities. (Essex Hemphill has saved me several times.) I worry about the minds and psyches taking shape to the soundtrack of policy debates and political debates and religious debates and social debates: the debate and fight soundtrack can enliven for a while, set the adrenaline flowing, but only for so long. I’m not sure the debate-then-party or debate-or-party options are rich enough. Perhaps they are. (Speaking more generally, Nairobi has yet to generate enough ways of being young and adult that are filled with cultural or artistic richness, not to mention silent spaces.)

Now, I find myself wondering about the kind of conversations we might have had with a Thomas Glave (who I get to see in a few weeks at a conference) or a Michelle Cliff, a Dionne Brand or a G. Winston James, a Randall Kenan or a Carl Phillips. What kinds of diasporic enactments would have taken place? What musings on the body and desire? What claims could have been made for queer aesthetics within the Kenyan space? What claims can queer aesthetics make within the Kenyan space? What claims are they making now?

I wonder about the different kinds of emotional intensities that occurred across different tents at Hay: those who left inspired and warmed and touched by Sitawa and Yusef and Ben, having been told to embrace more of the world’s possibilities and those who, like some friends, found themselves beating their way through too-familiar thickets, attempting to create and find space for habitation.

3 thoughts on “Fissures and Futures: Reflections on Hay

  1. Only you can write a line like “while I was chatting about poetry and fiction and literature and the task of the writer and cultural production more generally with Sitawa Namwalie, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Ben Okri…” and not put a huge smiley face at its end. I wish I was a fly on the wall on that conversation.

    This business about how every cultural production has that tag (“being gay in Kenya is hard/illegal) reminds me somewhat of Orwell’s 1984. Great political work, shaky novel stylistically. Horrendous, even, if I allow myself to be blunt. A testament to how overly focusing on the illegality and hardness of gay life in Kenya can affect the quality of queer cultural productions, maybe? Conversely, there is no way to be apolitical as a queer artists. What the fuck is “apolitical” anyway? To borrow a word from Hegel, there is a certain “thrownness” to being queer, but maybe there are ways to put down that thrownness sometimes (these positions we are thrown into, these spaces we are forced to inhabit).

    On a funnier note: there WAS a time when every music video opened with the caption “somewhere in Nairobi…” This is what I thought about when you wrote about how every cultural production from the Kenyan queer world starts by stating the illegality and hardness of homosexual life.

  2. I had finished writing this post and then started thinking about the work that had meant the most to me–Essex Hemphill, Melvin Dixon, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich–and I had to go back to Frank O’Hara and Richard Nugent (but not James Baldwin) to find the kind of work that I was thinking about. (A narrow canon, yes.) I always feel as though I’m on the edge of the political/aesthetics debate, even and especially when I think about “queer” art or the “queer” artist, labels I don’t necessarily use. And perhaps it is unfair to (I know it’s unfair) to think through Kenya taking mid-century US as an aesthetic model.

    The tourist economy, first, and then the NGO economy, more recently, have done bad things for our cultural economies–this is not forgetting state surveillance and other modes of censorship. It has produced a Caroline Nderitu, whose works are, well, they have to be read to be believed. And also many young(er) writers too intent on being “relevant” and “social” and “political,” and not intent enough on art and artistry. (How fogeyish I am becoming.)

    I think one works as best as one can given the history one inhabits, no matter the form of the work. One hopes that one’s forms of intervention might do some work, even knowing that interpretation lurks, as does ideology. But you know all this.

    I am still trying to process the Okri, Komunyakaa, Sitawa gift–still stunned it happened and I was there. It is a strange thing to un-learn how to be an academic. Or, rather, to step out of being the person introducing a text and become a person interacting with another person. Especially when I spend most of my time killing authors.

    There is, I am told, queer cultural production. Perhaps next year’s Hay will have space for it in a more definite way. (It would be wonderful to get Michelle Cliff or Thomas Glave, wonderful indeed.)

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