Inxeba: Readings

What is a black queer diasporic reading of Inxeba? What is an African queer reading of Inxeba? What is a South African queer reading of Inxeba? What is a Xhosa queer reading of Inxeba?

By reading, I mean at least two things. First, what does each position—black diasporic, African, South African, Xhosa—bring to the film? What histories, what experiences, what conversations, what memories, what politics? Second, what does each position want from Inxeba? What affirmations, what provocations, what bodies, what fantasies, what politics?

I am interested in the vernaculars generated and used across geo-histories, marking distance and proximity, desire and fantasy. In the pleasurable and irritating moments of rubbing along, rubbing together, rubbing against, rubbing toward that such encounters produce as a kind of sociality. If queer, as I have used it, is a kind of sticky substance, what kind of sticky substance is it? Does it remain moist? Does it dry and peel off in painless strips? Does it dry and flake off? Does it tear off hair and skin as it is stripped off? Does it fail to stick and simply remain wet and unusable?

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A black queer diasporic reader and an African queer reader might ask about opacity (Glissant) and décalage (Edwards). I mean not simply the use of subtitles, but also the use of color, the roles of water, the motions of bodies, the light and shadow of fire, the swing of machetes. A black queer diasporic reader and an African queer reader might ask about generational transmission and the fractures of afro-diaspora.

What stories survive as afro-diaspora? What forms of knowledge? What practices? What secrets?

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The first sex scene between Xonali and Vija takes place in an enclosed structure, a place with more than one room, unfurnished, presumably uninhabited. Xonali motions Vija away from the group, leads him toward the shelter. Speed is suggested. Neither man undresses fully. Trousers are pulled down. Spit is applied. Penetration is suggested. No kissing. No cuddling. A conversation is held, catching up. Nothing that suggests tenderness. Instead: hunger.

The second sex scene takes place at twilight, perhaps night. As with the first one, it takes place in dark and shadow. Two silhouettes. Xonali moves in for a kiss. Vija rejects it. Vija forces Xonali to his knees. Quick fellatio is suggested. No cuddling. No conversation. Nothing that suggests tenderness. Vija leaves. Frustration.

The third sex scene takes place in and by a waterfall, in daylight. It takes place after Vija defends Xonali from homophobic initiates. It is marked by sustained, feverish embraces. Xonali holds on to Vija fiercely. I will not let you go. I will not let this go. Both men are undressed. The sex is unhurried. Tender. Kisses. Holding. A body folds into another body. Xonali holds onto Vija as they sleep. Vija rests into Xonali. It is, to use one vernacular, edenic.

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I note these scenes because of their visual and bodily vernaculars, the absence of spoken language, the loss that is the subtitle. The implicit narrative that moves from shadowed enclosure—pen, hold, cruisy public bathroom, the rub between and among these geo-histories—to the silhouette-creating, secluded outside, to the daylight and waterfall and nakedness and tenderness.

Space-times of encounter and hunger multiply and layer.

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What would a playlist of these spaces and encounters contain? Which Nakhane Touré songs would be on it?

What collection of poems from Africa and the black diaspora would map these spaces and encounters?

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It is rare that (queer) Africa and the black diaspora share the same aesthetic object. It’s rare that we sit at the same tables—online or offline—to think and imagine with these objects. More often, minoritization disperses objects that rarely cross borders. They are ephemeral: small runs of chapbooks that go out of print or get lost—or are made to disappear—in online algorithms. Independent films and documentaries that rarely travel and almost never receive the types of distribution deals that might make them shared aesthetic objects across Africa and the black diaspora. Minoritization means that we celebrate that these objects can exist, but that we—the we being those in Africa and the black diaspora that might be gathered by these objects—are rarely gathered by them. Those of us lucky enough to have access to archives and research libraries might encounter these objects, but we often do so in isolation, rarely sharing our experiences of encounter and engagement. And the work of describing and theorizing these experiences of encounter and engagement makes these objects feel even more ephemeral.

Perhaps what I mean to say is that while we have terms such as opacity and décalage, the urgencies of trying to foster and sustain a “we” mean that when we do gather—when we are gathered—affirming our collective survival is more urgent than tracking the ways we remain strange to each other. And, often, the aesthetic objects that represent our gathering—our being gathered—participate in the necessary survival work of affirmation.

In the past, I have been too quick to dismiss the survival work of collective affirmation. I had not seen affirmation as survival work at scenes of gathering. I have yet to sit with this idea—every bit of my training fights against it—and I want to sit with the idea of affirmation as surival work.

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In an interview following Inxeba, Nakhane Touré said, “these things happen.” I paraphrase. He said he wanted the film to make people “feel less lonely.” Yet, unlike Moonlight, which offers the possibility of a coupled future, yet to be crafted, Inxeba refuses, or suspends, this possibility.

I think we are in the territory of what the shared aesthetic object permits and even generates, as opposed to taking the narrative trajectory of the shared aesthetic object as a model. Here, I am describing a shared archive of texts and images that acknowledge and depict queer desire, but rarely end with affirmative possibilities. From The Well of Loneliness to Giovanni’s Room, within the archives I know best.

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Silviano Santiago writes about “the wily homosexual,” a figure that does not take the dominant rhetorics and practices of gay liberation—from shame and secrecy and the closet to pride and publicness and outness—as the model to follow. This figure, the wily homosexual, a figure that is more ubiquitous than certain versions of thinking and activism would like, is focused on the work of survival.

Another word I like is “soft.” In another life, I had planned to write a book titled “Soft Men,” mapping a genealogy of vulnerable and, I think, truncated black masculinities. Truncated because I do not think soft men survive for long. Perhaps the chapters would have focused on blisters and scars and calluses and breakdowns and tenderness and keloids and suicide.

Soft. Xonali is figured as soft. Perhaps he is figured as overcoming that softness so he can survive. This is the territory of the scab and the scar. Kwanda, described by his father as soft, is brittle. And after ritual initiation, that brittleness turns into bitterness. The territory of the scab and the scar.

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Perhaps the conversation I have imagined—black diasporic, African, South African, Xhosa—is about softness and scars, calluses and blisters, vulnerability and brittleness, silence and subtitles.