I have been having trouble thinking-feeling about Kwanda—acted by the beautiful Niza Jay Ncoyini. I am always undone by scenes of anti-queer violence, from the insults and bullying to the beatings and killings. I am undone when queerness is treated as a synonym for disposability. Undone because of the impossible demand that truncation not be the narrative arc and critical frame. And, with Inxeba, undone by the banality that Xonali’s survival depends on Kwanda’s disposability.
Grasping for a critical framing, I turn to Ngugi’s The River Between. Ngugi invents a fictional world populated by an ethnicity that claims purity because it lives apart from the corrupting world. It is an impossible myth, given that one of the principal figures in this fictional, sacred space is not only a Christian convert, but also a preacher. Fictions of purity fight against fictions of taint to produce militarized ethnicities, and Muthoni, Nyambura, and Waiyaki cannot survive these inter-ethnic fights.
Kwanda incarnates potential and impossibility. The ritual he undergoes grants him ritually legible masculinity: after the cutting ceremony, as he is healing, he becomes braver, more vocal, much more willing to trade barbs with the other initiates. Having undergone the same ritual ceremony, his fellow initiates are compelled to recognize him as one of them. Intimacy has been forged. Or, at the very least, mutual obligation: they are obligated to recognize him as legible. Yet this promise of legibility is a fiction that can only occupy the sacred space where ritual takes place. Xonali removes Kwanda from that sacred space and reintegration into the community, leading him, instead, across barren, deserted terrain, a physical landscape that mirrors Xonali’s life outside of the sacred space—I have no friends, he tells Vija, no intimate world outside of the stolen moments he shares with Vija within the sacred space.
Xonali cannot imagine a life for Kwanda, certainly not a life that allows Xonali and Vija to exist. And Kwanda, young Kwanda, cannot imagine that Xonali has a life that matters, no matter how dysfunctional it may appear.
Class is at work here, especially the cross-class contact Samuel Delany writes about. Cross-class contact that is pleasurable—pleasure need not be sexual—might make it possible to imagine each other. To imagine possibility for each other. Yet, Kwanda’s rainbow-infused dreams of smashing heteronormative patriarchy seem to have no space for imagining Xonali’s life.
How to think with/in this absence?
Kwanda’s father describes Kwanda as “soft.” I must confess I experienced Kwanda as brittle, rarely vulnerable when speaking or moving. I understood the carapace and I wished it were not necessary. I’m tired of hostile social worlds that break and destroy queer softness. I’m tired of what passes for wit and reading and shade, survival strategies that are now demanded as the tax for being queer. Where is the space for softness? For vulnerability?
How did we learn to despise our own vulnerability? To hate our softness? What has survival cost?
Kwanda is young, perhaps 16 or 17. It is because he is young that I miss vulnerability, that I wish the world he inhabited had space for him not to be brittle, not to be catty, not to seek destruction. Instead, I would wish his world enabled him to imagine and practice freedom rooted in care.
I have wondered about what is celebrated as gay culture and gay achievement and gay personality, about how little space there seems to be for tenderness. Though they will remain unnamed, three queer people have marked me through their generosity and tenderness: I have marveled that they exist and that I have been fortunate to encounter them.
For some of us, queerness proliferates possibilities for sociality and intimacy and sexual and gendered expression and life. Samuel Delany proffers enthusiastic consent as an ethic to guide queer practices. Audre Lorde demands the joy-making erotic as an ethic. Christina Sharpe points to freedom rooted in care as an ethic. The radical feminism of the Combahee River Collective is a foundation. Experiment and play embedded in enthusiastic consent, erotic joy-making, freedom rooted in care, and radical feminism, these are what I continue to find useful in queerness as idea and practice.
An attempt, perhaps, even a failed attempt, to de-link queerness from disposability, even as we are not yet at a point where that critical edge can be discarded.
I return, again, to the ongoing problem of transmission. If, in some parts of the world, increasingly younger people are self-identifying as queer, the models of practice and being to which they, their parents, their guardians, and their social circles draw from are precisely the models of identitarian regimes that queer critique works against.
I find this queerness without queer critique dangerously flat. I find this queerness without transmission incredibly vulnerable to repressive regimes of power. I find this queerness not embedded in feminism dangerous.
In truth, I expect too much from Kwanda, even knowing that the worlds he inhabits, the forms of queerness to which he is most exposed, provide little training in how to pursue freedom. The constant work of surviving hostile socialities frames pursuing freedom as a luxury.
Where would Kwanda have learned about the type of queerness I advocate? What does his truncated life tell us about the failures of transmission that accompany queer disposability?
What have we abandoned to survive?
And, perhaps, part of my trouble thinking-feeling about Kwanda and, more precisely, the relationship between Kwanda and Xonali has been my own experiences of the conflict they represent, the demand that only one kind of queer can survive any encounter between queers in Kenya. And, at times, between queers in Africa.
Mourning is not part of the story the film tells. Queer disposability has no space for mourning. Certainly, not the ritual acts of mourning so valued in Kenya and much of Africa. If grief is a repeated note when I juxtapose queer and Africa, it is because of the many disappeared.
How does one write about the banality of truncated queer life?
What is there to celebrate about representations of truncated queer life?
I have wondered what it means to accept wounding and truncation as our only possibilities for representation.
What are we to make of the many institutions—educational, religious, cultural, political—that truncate queer possibility?
And because such few occasions present themselves for queer speculation, the aesthetic object is burdened by expectation it should not bear.
As I conclude this writing about Inxeba—mostly speculative, definitely half-formed—I worry that the aesthetic object that occasioned the writing has already disappeared into other stories about censorship and ethnonationalism and court cases, that the contexts of the film’s screening and distribution have taken precedence over the aesthetic object. James Weldon Johnson taught me to think about the work of the shared aesthetic object: what it could generate as thought and feeling and conversation and scholarship and art while providing those engaged with the object with the psychic and ideological protection they needed to be present.
It is this element of the aesthetic object—what it enables to be co-imagined—that keeps me tethered to aesthetic objects as my primary ways of engaging the world.