Writing the Kenyan Diaspora

The latest, forthcoming issue of Kwani? focuses on diaspora. Billy Kahora’s editorial outlines the imaginaries and materialities of the term diaspora in Kenya, tracking its changing meanings and sites: as military service, as education, as globalized labor, as respite, as success, as failure. Conceding the difficulty of capturing all these facets, he writes that diaspora as “leaving and return” is legible in and as narrative: “It was in story, character and voice that real experience could be gleaned.” And goes on to argue,

We discovered when we started soliciting for material, that our wish list had myopically little to do with what the literary and creative community was doing or was interested in. We were talking a language that collapsed Diaspora Studies 101 into Writing 102. Some who heeded our mandate were clearly crippled by it. Its generalistic tones flattered no one but ourselves and we were surprised we didn’t receive the plethora of work we’d expected. After all, the writers in the Diaspora are numerous and, unlike those here, reliable. Having imbibed the western milk of structure, they are not as hampered by challenges of delivery. Ultimately, we had to reboot our thinking, to stop thinking of that term in capital D and think writing, think story, think narrative, think character. Our Diaspora Studies 101 briefs were old laundry that was wrung out. We resigned ourselves to trust those brilliant writers who, relying on the age old mantras of good writing – the use of the specific, in the concrete, in character and by walking up and down the ladder of abstraction – produced good writing.

I am intrigued by what it means to render diaspora as “narrative,” framed by “story” and “character.” Intrigued, and more than a little disturbed by how this urge to make legible risks losing the potential of thinking about diaspora as and through formal experiment.

These are my stakes: at the conjunction of black diaspora studies and queer studies, I think about figures who slip in and out of legibility through archives that are, at once, incredibly material and present (legal documents, policy, government and NGO reports) and, simultaneously, ephemeral and abstract. Terms such as “household,” for instance, propose a fuzzy relationship among individuals and between individuals and the state. Who or what comprises a household? What assumptions are made about intimate and economic structures?

I am interested in how the naming and un-naming of figures makes them visible and invisible, in the haunting that constitutes the unwriting of being and experience.

To offer another example, Kenya’s newest Marriage Bill, about to turn law, I believe, nowhere forbids gay marriage. Indeed, the terms gay and homosexual and their synonyms appear nowhere in the document. However, it repeats that the only marriage recognized in Kenya is between a man and a woman, regardless of where the marriage was performed. Homo-weddings haunt this document, provoking repetition as anxiety: I read for this haunting, this making (il)legible through symptom.

Because I am interested in tracking the illegible and the ephemeral, because I think through the impossible necessity of marking absence through and as form, I worry when diaspora is understood as “leaving and returning,” as “story” and “narrative,” as “the specific” and “the concrete,” albeit with a brief nod to “abstraction.” Let me confess, here, that Billy and I have an ongoing discussion about the role of “realism” and “fiction, forms that he claims, rightly, dominate our present and should, perhaps, dominate this moment. Because I enter the literary through traditional histories of canon-making and exclusion, through high modernist snobbery and the preciousness of the little magazine, and because I am interested in the potential of innovative writing routed specifically through poetry and generic blending, and because I find it very difficult to be “concrete” and “specific” and fetishize certain kinds of abstraction, I tend to resist Billy’s formulations. I want to think, more specifically, about rupture and fracture and unintelligibility and form, to resist the knowability of diaspora.

Here, then, is my attempt to think about the Kenyan diaspora. I understand this to be in dialogue with Billy’s editorial.

for the embattled
there is no place
that cannot be
nor is.
—Audre Lorde, “School Note”

It would appear that there are large questions asked about the direction and character of [Kenyan] culture and art if we take even temporary experiences of exile, relocation, and displacement into account.
—Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic

For the Dead.

The Missing.

The Invisible.

The Forgotten.

Many Thousands Gone.

Diaspora is memory-work. Excavation and recovery. Creating legibility from the unintelligible: the imagined cry, the faint echo, the dim shadows. Listening to ghosts and spirits. Listening for ghosts and spirits. Diaspora is haunting, being haunted, chasing haunting. Piecing together shadow fragments, hoping for a story, waiting for hope. Diaspora is imagination-work. Reaching for a past that must have happened. A present that evades capture. An impossible confluence of time and space, then and now, there and here. A necessary whisper.

Fragment. Gap. Space.

dia-sperein: to scatter across

Certainty pervades mainstream Kenyan discussions of diaspora. The diaspora is invoked in discussions of economics and politics. Diaspora as a known location, a locatable out there tethered to a known population: “the.” Politicians travel abroad to appeal to the diaspora. Investment companies set up deals for the diaspora. In casual conversation, the diaspora is invoked. These certainties mark diaspora as a knowable population defined predominantly through its economic relationship to Kenya. In mainstream Kenyan discussions, the diaspora designates legible bodies and lives and practices, those Kenyans abroad valued for their economic contributions. Those Kenyans abroad whose labor matters as it materializes as remittance. Because it materializes as remittance. The diaspora signals those who are “doing well.” Those legible enough to send back money, poems, stories, gifts. Those sane enough to narrate their lives and insanities. Those talented enough to write through incoherence, to translate rage into art, to mourn in beautiful poetry.

I want to suspend this certainty, if only for a moment. To posit diaspora as unintelligible, incoherent, missing, gapped, fragmented; to imagine diaspora as nagging sensation, phantom limbs, impossible translation. Suspending certainty might create a space to imagine diaspora’s invisible laborers. Not only those unrepresented in mainstream Kenyan discussions, but also those who might be unrepresentable, those whose histories and presents exist at the edge of intelligibility.

Memory-work and imagination-work meet in the figure of the unintelligible worker. This figure haunts Kenyan discussions of the diaspora, as the excluded and the unrepresented. Perhaps even the unrepresentable.

We have ways of discussing these figures: we call them “lost.” We don’t know how to imagine the lost. We know that many of them have traveled as workers. We know some of them reached their destinations. We know some of them didn’t. We know some of them survived, even thrived. We know some of them didn’t. We know some of them continue to survive. We know some of them don’t. We can only discuss the lost imprecisely: as mights, maybes, perhapses.

remember the lost

Let me detour from the aesthetics of what Toni Morrison calls re-memory and write as a scholar of the black diaspora. The black diaspora is a messy, inchoate construct that attempts to assemble multiple times and spaces of dispersal into a capacious frame. Assembling dispersals from the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, and the Atlantic, and ranging from at least 5 CE to the present, the black diaspora names less a single entity bound by race, even though it is shaped by racialization, and more an aspiration that shared dispersals might create grounds for ethical collectivity, an aspiration that as descendants of those diasporas, indeed, products of them, as kin to those who were sold and stolen and those who stole and sold, we might forge bonds, find shared ground. Co-create ways of living together.

Scholarship on the black diaspora often takes two routes. The first names Africa as “motherland”: the place of departure and (fictive) return, the source of identity and kinship. In this model, mother Africa secures belonging and identity: we are all family. This model seeks out and affirms collectivity as kinship, assuming that the language and emotion of kinship will lubricate the fractures of time and space, ethnicity and race, religion and caste, gender and sexuality.

Against the certainties of genealogical descent, the second route of diaspora scholarship privileges the oceanic dissolution and reformulation of bonds. Refusing the certainty offered by kinship, suspicious of the exclusionary demands of identity, it seeks strategies through which collectivity can be envisioned more capaciously, more ethically. If the first route lubricates and overlooks fracture, the second works through the problem and potential of dissolution. Identity claims and modes of belonging are suspended, works in progress, never presumed, always negotiated. Used this way, diaspora suggests not a certain community, but a set of strategies to forge ethical collectivities: aspirations toward togetherness.

Unmoored from the certainties of kinship—whether understood as ethnicity, race, or nationalism—a post-identitarian model of diaspora can be a powerful tool to re-envision practices and habits and feelings of Kenyan-ness.

Anecdotes matter here.

Those who travel abroad—or are taken abroad—struggle to be legible. Practices of identification that translate in Kenya—where one lives, where one went to school, where one worships, which music one likes, which politicans one embraces, where one is from—do not travel, or travel badly. We travel to discover we have “accents,” those things we attribute to strangers and foreigners. Depending on where we are, we struggle to describe the particular flavors and scents of “home.” We learn that we are “black” or “brown” or “white”; that our politics are “conservative” or “liberal”; that our food choices are “exotic” and “unusual”; that we are “African,” “foreign,” or, as my legal documents read, “aliens.”

Anecdotes matter here.

Faced with such disorientations, many of us re-discover ethno-national affiliations. Our dresses, our manner, our tastes, our company retreat into ethno-national cocoons, where we shelter from the risk of losing identity. We proclaim our ethno-national affiliations, declare home is always best, fight against the psycho-social dissolutions that might produce us as strangers to ourselves, all in the name of defending ossified notions of culture. Ethno-national, because many of us approach the national as the site of ethnicity: against the psycho-social dissolutions threatened by dispersal, the inexorable pull of the oceanic, we plant ourselves in ancestral grounds. Unmoving. Unyielding. Fixed.

In planting our feet, we attempt to avoid accusations that we have been compromised, tainted, polluted, deracinated.

Learning from Paul Gilroy, I am interested in diaspora as a practice of openness, learning to inhabit the fractures and possibilities of cultural mixing, embracing opportunities for “creolisation, métissage, mestizaje, and hybridity.” I am interested in how diaspora might help re-formulate Kenyan-ness, making it strange to itself, and newly possible. From Gilroy and diaspora scholarship, I have learned to ask about our always-already hybrid selves, to challenge the ethno-national myths of ethnic purity that subtend ethno-nationalisms. I am not interested in diaspora as an easy, too-casual cosmopolitanism available only to those who travel fluently across space and time. Instead, working from diaspora’s fractures, I am interested in the difficult labor of forging collectivities from scraps and fragments, shared stories and songs, partial memories and incomplete histories. Diaspora not as a re-consolidation of pre-formed, rigid identities and identifications, but as resilient vulnerability.

Remittance lies at the heart of the Kenyan diasporic imagination. Within mainstream Kenyan discussions, diaspora means remittance. Thus far, I have been trying to rupture this easy equation by privileging rupture, gap, silence, uncertainty, and dissolution as useful conceptual tools, as frames through which diaspora might be rendered strange, as a site of what anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli terms potentiation.

Instead of dismissing the diaspora-remittance suture, I want to suggest that it can be refigured by multiplying remittance economies, by complicating the too-easy meaning of remittance as financial return. Shailja Patels directs us to re-think remittance economies in Migritude:

The question asked of those who return, voiced or implicit, is always: what have you brought? What do you have to show for your years abroad? You’re expected to display wealth. Achievement, accomplishment, accumulation. And to come laden with gifts: German cars, iPods, and designer handbags are all good.

I brought Migritude. A tapestry of poetry, history, politics, packed into a suitcase, embedded in my body, rolled out into theatre. An accounting of empire enacted on the bodies of women.

Shailja reminds us that what we term Kenyan cultural production has long been a product of those moments of “even temporary experiences of exile, relocation, and displacement.” Jomo Kenyatta’s ethno-national Facing Mount Kenya is a product of his time in London; Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Weep Not Child and The River Between emerge from his time at Makerere; scholars of Kenyan guitar styles have traced its emergence and development to Central and Southern African, European, and U.S. influences; scholars of contemporary Kenyan religious and secular music have also tracked its reliance on, and incorporation of, global hip hop. This list could be multiplied endlessly to note how many products we term authentically or genuinely Kenyan, from the maize we eat (a product of our encounter with the Portuguese) to the Maasai blankets we sell (a product of Scottish textiles), index our mixed, hybrid, impure histories and selves. Seen from a long historical perspective, the story of remittance becomes one of cultural exchange and circulation, not of ethno-national consolidation.

In brief, we can ask how remittance as a particular demand placed on Kenyan-ness could render our self-definitions more vulnerable and capacious. Such a version of Kenyan-ness would trouble the militarized versions that now circulate: the Kenyan-ness intent on defending itself from Somali and Somali-ness; the Kenyan-nes intent on defending itself as blackness; the Kenyan-ness intent on defending itself as authentically indigenous and autochthonous; the Kenyan-ness intent on defending itself from “foreign influence,” whether that be demands couched in the language of human rights or demands placed by immigrant, multi-racial, multi-ethnic populations.

By placing “demand” at the center of diaspora cultural production, I hope to suggest the labor enacted by charting familiar and unfamiliar psychic, social, cultural, and political territory. By making us strange to ourselves, diaspora—as frame, as tool, as practice, as cultural product—can enable us to make ourselves anew. At the heart of diaspora, then, is an impossible ethical demand: in our newly militarized times, when Kenya and Kenyan-ness have become ethno-national, ethno-regional, and ethno-racial formations intent on defending themselves against invading others, other versions of ourselves might be possible.

What we share illuminates what we do not
the rest is a burden of history
we challenge.–Audre Lorde

5 thoughts on “Writing the Kenyan Diaspora

  1. Your writing is really top class and I completely identify with your view on people in diaspora. Wish you could make your writing a little bit simpler to read. I think you have great ideas but majority of Kenyan’s would not be able to follow this reading due to its high level of creative writing. But great writing in my opinion.

  2. I am very confused by the second portion of this comment. Are you suggesting that the “majority of Kenyans” are, somehow, too unintelligent to read “creative writing?” The very same Kenyans who the government presumes have the ability to read the legalese in the constitution? And the very same Kenyans who speak and think in richly metaphorical registers all the time across a range of languages?

    I am incredibly troubled by the sentiment that Kenyans need “simpler” language to engage with the world.

  3. I am honoured to be featured in this Kwani?. I suspect this particular one will be a big hit and may end up being the stand out Kwani? issue. According to me, this is what Kenyans like reading.

  4. I respect popular work–I read a lot of it; I think with it; I write about it. I am, in fact, right now reading David Maillu and will blog about him once I’ve had time to process his incredible work. To my mind, the too-common (and often destructive) distinction between popular and literary fiction that works in the U.S. (to what effect, I wonder) does not account for Kenyan literary production, where these two categories slide into each other all the time–think of Wahome Mutahi, for instance, understood as popular and literary. I’ve argued, before, that he is probably the leading Kenyan writer of the last 20 or so years. Or take Barbara Kimenye, another figure who straddles the literary-popular divide. The names can be multiplied.

    That said, I wonder what it means to hinge literary production on what any population “like[s] reading.”

    Kenyans like reading any number of things, from James Hadley Chase to Robert Ludlum to Danielle Steele to any number of Christian-themed books that feature spiritual warfare to Mills & Boon romance novels and so on. Indeed, if we track through the bookstores and street vendors, we discover that Kwani? is far removed from the realm of the popular. It is, as Binyavanga wrote in the very first issue, a “journal of ideas” that seeks to “say something new.” I take this formulation seriously In other editorials, Billy has written about Kwani?‘s dedication to nurturing voices beyond the mainstream.

    What continues to trouble me is this sense that “new” ideas and “good writing” happen predominantly through prose that veers between realist fiction and reportage. Poetry has never been anything more than an accessory in the journal and while a few early works tried to think with and beyond stable genres, Kwani? favors a kind of genre stability that I find incredibly conservative. Indeed, form does not seem to matter very much–despite occasional nods–Stephen Partington had a wonderful poem in Kwani? 5 and this issue features a fantastic poem by Ed Pavlic. Yet the very legibility of “good writing,” defined, in advance, through fictional categories renders other kinds of writings and imaginations illegible.

    What does it mean that “good writing” is understood through a particular fictional framework?

    As I’ve said repeatedly: Kwani? is one journal and we cannot expect it to bear the burden of Kenyan writing. We need more spaces, more journals, more formal/textual experiments–some of which exist online, true. But we need them to occupy the same space-time as Kwani? if we are to have a vibrant, multi-faceted literary culture.

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