Frottage: Origin Stories

Origin stories are mostly rubbish. We select what sounds most appropriate, most acceptable, most scholarly, or most provocative. We sift and discard, create ourselves as creatures of archives and classes and conferences.

I was sitting at [prestigious archive] and came across [obscure document] and it led me down this path

This project started in [famous person’s] class

At [distinguished conference] I started pursuing this project

I was gazing at books by famous people and decided to put them into conversation

Rarely:

I was going down on my lover and I wondered how a book could describe how she tastes

After fucking 60 guys, I wondered what fucking the next guy would feel like

I had a bad bout of gonorrhea and it inspired this meditation

Every time I wrestle with yeast, I start asking questions about the world

It’s not that one set of origin stories is better than the other—perhaps more entertaining, yes. Instead, it’s probably true that origin stories are diverse strands—a yeast infection takes place in a famous archive, a famous speaker is guy no. 61, the excitement of a distinguished lecture leads to fantasies of going down on someone.

As an undergraduate, I learned that theoretical ideas started to make sense while I was clubbing. In between Whitney Houston and Deborah Cox, Spivak would begin to make sense. In between this dance track and that dance track, Foucault would speak to me. Ideas came to life as my body moved, and I said, at the time, that I was interested in body studies. I meant, I think, that my body taught me how to feel my way into ideas and worlds.

Here are a few origin stories.

I wanted to write about black people. Not about black people and the white gaze—and I haven’t gotten past that completely. I wanted to write about black people together. About ways black people found to imagine their worlds. And to imagine each other.

I wanted to think with and through the body, to have the body present as much as possible, even when it couldn’t be. Consider a running head a provocation.

I wanted to center the geohistories of blackness without having them arrive in one place. I hoped to keep diaspora on the move, without saying that it ended in the Americas or in Europe. I was not interested in endless motion; rather, I was captured by the fits and starts Paul Gilroy described as the black Atlantic. And interested in what it meant to imagine livability in contingent spaces.

To the extent that it was possible, I wanted to be true to the idea of living together. Sianne Ngai had written something wonderful on irritation, and I kept thinking about proximity. Here’s one version of what I had written:

While I am interested in forms of intimacy that demonstrate positive attachment and belonging, forms of intimacy associated with love and pleasure, for example, I also want to note that intimacy, especially what might be called enforced intimacy, might just as well produce disgust and revulsion. Consider, for instance, the range of ways we might react to riding in a crowded bus or train, the pleasurable, idiosyncratic moments when a scent or smell or touch brings delight and pleasure; and also consider, the, perhaps more common experiences of irritation, annoyance, and revulsion. Both of these moments might be taken to represent the affective potential of intimacy: intimacy has no particular or specific affect attached to it.

I wanted to think of blackness as enforced intimacy, and to see where that would lead me.

A long trail of thinking led me back to Hélène Cixous:

I write woman: woman must write woman. And man, man.
Men still have everything to say abut their sexuality, and everything to write. (“The Laugh of the Medusa”)

I first read this as an undergraduate. And while I’d dabbled in Masculinity Studies, I found its frames and terms and models mostly unusable for what I wanted to say. Here, a problem of the archive. So I wanted to write about the men “without whom.” In some ways—and here my Kenyan education shows—I wanted to wrestle with my angels. In the bible, Jacob wrestles all night with an angel (queer this), and as dawn approaches, the angel touches Jacob’s hip and leaves him limp.

Jomo Kenyatta and Frantz Fanon were my angels. I could not be or think without them. Yet, I paid a high price to think with them. And I had to find a way to think with them. The other two figures I thought with, Rene Maran and Claude McKay lubricated my way to think with Kenyatta and Fanon.

Was this enough? Should I have written on women? Especially as a feminist? I continue to wrestle with this. I have wanted to write about Pauline Hopkins and Angelina Weld Grimké and Georgia Douglas Johnson and Nella Larsen (at least I had an article out on her) and many other women poets of the Harlem Renaissance for a long time. But this, I thought, was not the right place.

A final thought (not really) on what it means to put close to ten years of thinking and writing on a blog instead of pursuing a book by a university press.

The manuscript-in-progress has been one of my final ties to the life I once thought I should desire. It lives on my CV as a promise to a self that I have found it difficult to let go. We can never fully abandon who we were. I could try to be more thoughtful and say that I’m not sure it makes sense to publish a book that few Kenyans will read—but that’s not really true. Partly, I put up these fragments to say goodbye to certain dreams. Partly, I put them up in an ephemeral way to engage the ephemerality of black queer life and black queer imaginations. Partly, to say, I once thought of these things.