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.