Strategy, History, Fiction

Common sense can be a powerful tool. In the hands of minorities, it can be used to carve equipment for living and to create art for re-imagining sociality. As I learn from Kara Keeling, common sense can bind affective and libidinal communities: the queers in the crowd sense life-affirming queerness where heteronormative common sense relishes the privilege of unknowing. But this privilege need not truncate the pleasure of queer common sense. Possibility abounds. Keeling visited UMD yesterday and gave a wonderful talk on afrofuturism—on space and time and genre, with a generous nod to the great Nnedi Okorafor. I note this because the pleasure of the visit lingers, shapes my writing, directs the sound and tone of this post. And also because this post is about temporality: imagined pasts, projected futures, present presents—about the demands of nowness that pressure the experience of nowness.

To borrow from Keeling: Work with me.

For over a decade now, queer-friendly academics and activists have argued that colonialism brought homophobia, not homosexuality, to Africa. More nuanced accounts by Oyeronke Oyewumi and Ifi Amadiume argue that colonialism privileged biologically-based gender binaries, what Oyewumi terms “bio-logics,” erasing or at least attenuating richer, more nuanced gendering practices. As my work traverses history and anthropology, I am interested in local specificity, in practices situated in space and time, in the particular; as a literary critic trained via poststructuralism, I am interested in margins and marginalia, the small, the trite, the aside, the footnote, faint smells of past lives, stray drops of ink on desiccating manuscripts, the place where fact meets metaphor.

Because I believe in the power of fictionality, understand something about the power of ideology, and struggle to develop a method appropriate to the now—a now that requires fiction and fact, action and strategy—I am drawn, increasingly, to thinking about limits, as strange as that might sound. Following Anjali Arondekar, I am interested in asking about the limits of our archives, about the claims we can make, about the fictions we need to create, about acknowledging the fictionality of our fictions. Not because I want or need to distinguish between fact and fiction—Ashis Nandy wisely says that activists create the myths they need. I am interested in myth-making.

I note my defensiveness: excessive citationality registers uncertainty. But I also want to note the voices in my head. To mark the path I have followed to a line of thinking.

This post started when I encountered a familiar claim, too familiar: colonialism and, more broadly, western modernity introduced gender normativity and homophobia to Africa. I understand the strategy of this claim. I understand the labor it performs. I understand why believing in it is important.

I distance myself from it as much as possible.

The anthropologist-historian-literary critic in me wants nuance and, more broadly, remains interested in African modes of agency and collectivity, in thinking about African variety, about variegation and normativity.

If one accepts the simple premise that collectivities are founded on shared principles and that societies distinguish themselves from each other based on principles and practices, one can envision sociality as producing normativity and deviance across a range of African communities. From the histories I know best, those of Kenya, it makes sense to claim that gender practices, indeed, the very processes of becoming gendered, varied from community to community. Whereas a bio-logic would name two male-bodied figures as men, as, perhaps, even belonging to the same rank and age, it’s possible that the different communities to which these individuals belonged would not see the same thing: epistemologies and practices of gendering would come into play. A man in one community might be a boy in another or neuter or even a category of becoming that is not “woman.” That is, the gendered binary of man/woman is impossible to sustain if we account for gendering as a process, not as a bio-logic.

In very preliminary research, I have found accounts where members of what we’d now call the “same” ethnic group distinguish themselves from each other based on sexual practices. Members in x region practice sodomy, say members in y region. What do such statements accomplish for those who make them? How do they function? What is their strategic value? How do we make sense of strategies of aggregation and disaggregation? How do we make sense of variegated collectivities?

Although I understand the strategic importance of claims about Africa, I am more interested in thinking about the circulation of practices and sentiment, about the labor of discipline and normativity, about the production of gendered and sexualized legibilities, all the while attending to what I describe in forthcoming work as “spectral” embodiments: figures who inhabit gendered and sexual limbos because of colonial modernity, though a more complex story would track the spectrality created by migration and immigration, by acts of domination and resistance, capitulation and surrender.

I am not, here, arguing for the value of fact over fiction, of truth versus strategic truth. As always, I follow Nietzsche in understanding truth and history as “useful” rather than dogmatic. Because I am wary of normalizing strategies, of forgetting that, in Kwame Appiah’s terms, “Africa is various,” I am interested in proliferating narratives about African gender and sexuality, tracking multiple normativities as they emerge and circulate, demand compliance and encounter resistance, queer practices and feelings.

I want to be explicit about the fictionality of our fictions—to acknowledge the stories we need to thrive and survive must be contingent and strategic.

An in-process essay ends,

Given that homophobic legislation is being debated and passed in African-run parliaments, that homophobic violence is meted by Africans against Africans, and that homophobic sentiments are uttered by Africans against Africans, it is unreasonable to persist in the theory that Europeans imported homophobia into Africa, not homosexuality, as suggested by anti-homophobic scholars. Instead, we would be better served to trace genealogies of homophobic thought and feeling and to account for the intensification of violent utterances and actions across Africa, even as we mark significant anti-homophobic acts of resistance.

I understand the strategic uses of a homo-friendly Africa in some idealized past, but I’m wary that in looking toward that past, we lose variety and history and richness. I worry that in privileging our strategic fictions as truth, and ignoring their fictionality, we cannot realize the potential of future-oriented, life-affirming fictions and fictionality.