Terrains of Intimacy (excerpt)

Terrains of Intimacy (excerpt)

Intimacy builds worlds. 

—Lauren Berlant, “Intimacy: A Special Issue” 

Now we think as we fuck this nut
might kill us. 

—Essex Hemphill, “Now we think”

I was invited by zethu Matebeni, Vasu Reddy, and their colleagues to participate in a gathering: Transnational Contact Zones: African and South Asian Sexualities and Genders, held at the University of Pretoria in June 2022. Below, I excerpt my remarks, though I’ve rearranged the order in which I presented them.

In this meditation, I wander through terrains of intimacy, gathering scenes of encounter. I am interested in what we want intimacy to be and do. I am interested in what we hope intimacy to impede and make possible. I am interested in what problems we want intimacy to make visible and solve. I am interested in what we describe as intimate, and in the terms and frames we seek to cluster around intimacy. To be less abstract, what does thinking about intimacy do to concepts and practices like solidarity and ubuntu and unity and hospitality and difference and revolution? What might thinking with intimacy supplement, interrupt, extend, undo, and create?

An Invitation: A Litany 

We are not strangers. 

We arrive with our histories and stories and anecdotes and fantasies of each other. We arrive with our myths about nationalist leaders—Jomo Kenyatta, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela. We arrive with stories of how the energies from liberation struggles were squandered, creating new fractures and distorting relation. We arrive at a moment when the freedom-seeking impulses of earlier activisms and nationalisms have been captured by xenophobic ethnonationalisms and depoliticizing neoliberalism and religious fundamentalisms. We arrive under the shadow of an ongoing global pandemic, a time when we have been reminded of our shared vulnerabilities to state neglect and to each other. We arrive with the hum of sorrow in our sounds, with mourning a persistent punctuation. 

We are not strangers. 

We arrive with memories of shared foods and flavours. Kenyan coffee, Indian tea, South African wine. Perhaps I name my own pantry. 

We are not strangers. 

We arrive bearing stories of harm. 

I arrive from an East Africa that is infamous because Idi Amin expelled Indians from Uganda. An East Africa in which Jomo Kenyatta and his cronies snatched businesses away from Indians. I arrive from a Kenya in which the children and grandchildren of those harmed by Amin and Kenyatta and successive regimes move to Europe and North America and Australia to secure less precarious futures. The poet Shailja Patel writes of women taught to keep their wealth as ornaments with which they can travel. Harm shadows relation. 

We are not strangers. 

Harm shadows relation. A few years ago, when I was in India with my mother, stories circulated of African students being attacked for being black in public and private. While my mother and I were treated with kindness, I suspect because we were older, and she was unwell, other Africans were subjected to physical violence. On the occasions when I ventured out alone, I spent too much money on taxi fare, wary of what might happen. 

We are not strangers. 

As I write this, a deadly heatwave moves through India and the rainy season in Kenya arrived too late to ward off starvation. Once affordable staple foods are increasingly luxuries, saved for special occasions. The now of our ecological catastrophes shrinks distances between us. I do not mean that we are all vulnerable in the same ways, only that we are more vulnerable than we have been in the past. 

We are not strangers. 

We meet across old and new diasporas, where the newer stories of intimacies forged away from the places we call home interrupt the failed and damaged intimacies of the places that claim us. 

We are not strangers.

a speculative history of chapati 

My friend Aleya Kassam has posed the question of how the Indian paratha was transformed into the Kenyan chapati. It is a story of how Indian workers brought to Kenya to work on a railway traveled with and spread their cuisine. It is a story about how flavors and techniques travel within and across the space of colonial modernity. Food travels are intimate travels. Postcolonial food scholar Anita Mannur writes that “food creates unexpected adjacencies and intimacies.” I am not a food historian, so I can only speculate about how the Indian paratha was transformed into the Kenyan chapati. 

In the most boring version of the story, a colonial administrator who had been stationed in India moved to Kenya along with his domestic staff, including an Indian cook. Nostalgic for home, that cook made paratha and shared with African workers. Let us add some spice to this story. 

One day, an Indian cook, let’s call him Ali, was making paratha. As he shaped the dough into ropes and coiled it into round buns, he sighed with loneliness. Somehow, making paratha intensified the loneliness. Before he left India and traveled to Kenya, he had always made paratha to share with other people. It was how he’d seduced the neighbor and the neighbor’s cousin and the shopkeeper. Soft, chewy, flaky paratha. Once they’d tasted his paratha, they always wanted more. Perhaps the story of how the Indian paratha turned into the Kenyan chapati is a story of seduction. 

Perhaps it is a story of how a lonely, horny cook from India hooked up with a lonely, horny cook from Kenya. Perhaps it is a story of the foods they made to seduce each other. And, once their affair was done, perhaps it is the story of how the horny cook from Kenya moved elsewhere with a recipe to seduce others. Perhaps the story of chapati in Kenya is always a story about seduction, a story about learning new textures and flavors and techniques. 

By placing seduction at the heart of how and why cuisines travel I learn from Gabeba Baderoon’s discussion of how Muslim food and flavors shaped South African cuisine. She writes, “During the colonial period, cooking was a way to marshal resources, presence, and creativity under conditions of peril and poverty. . . . Enslaved people created a new language of food out of dominant traditions that eventually also influenced the tastes of slaveowners.” Yet, as she points out, the traffic was not simply between the enslaved and their enslavers. Instead, “indigenous Khoi and San people shared their knowledge of indigenous food resources with Muslims, thus contributing crucially to the cuisine.”

Perhaps the task of an intimate methodology is to slow down and linger on how knowledges of indigenous food are shared. We might linger on how palms and fingers learn to press the flesh of a fruit to test for ripeness. We might notice the intimacy of teaching someone how to smell if a fruit is ripe. That gesture of holding a fruit to someone’s nose and instructing them, gently, to inhale. We might observe the hands that teach other hands about texture and variety. We might craft stories about lips stained from shared berries. We might imagine the small gestures that create shared, intimate worlds. 

I have offered speculation as method because the records to which we have access are rarely kind. Accounts of intimacy are hidden within the bureaucracy of marriage licenses or criminal records or mental health records or medical records or immigration records. Where can we find tenderness? Where can we imagine it might exist? And having imagined such tenderness, what are we to do with it? How might it flavour our present, our intellectual pursuits, and our social practices? 

Dare I confess that I feel uncomfortable posing such questions? 

It is far easier to invoke the history of emotions or affect studies than it is to say we should be nicer to each other. It is easier to survey legal statutes about marriage or conduct a study on men who have sex with men or theorize about nonbinary subjectivities than it is to insist that our lives are precious. And I am increasingly unconvinced that the size of our increasing bibliographies has any relation to making our lives more livable and shareable. Just as I am increasingly unconvinced that the sophistication of our analyses has any relation to how we live with each other. I am not dismissing the pleasures of intellectual sociality or claiming that our collective work does not shape some of our possibilities. Instead, I am interested in how we forge and practice ordinary relations. I want to linger on the ordinary, not the fabulous or the noteworthy.

Toward a Conclusion: An Opening

Let me attempt a conclusion by offering a few polemical remarks. First, learning from Lisa Lowe’s The Intimacy of Four Continents, we must think of the various places Africa and South Asia have met and touched and interacted, and that includes the Americas. In one direction, that would be Trinidad and Guyana, and in another, it would be in Europe and North America, where political exiles and radicals from South Asia and Africa have been building worlds and imagining freedom for over a century.

Africa and South Asia have touched and continue to touch in other elsewheres. 

Second, we might attempt to think beyond the taxonomic imagination that dominates research and writing on gender and sexuality. What figures and practices come into view if we do not begin from the sexological-taxonomic assumptions that sexualities and intimacies are best described by the terms gay and lesbian and heterosexual and trans and non-binary? In paying attention to the figure of the domestic worker, I have tried to ask what monstrous intimacies disrupt about taxonomic certainties. We might well imagine other scenes and situations of different kinds of intimacies not bound by taxonomic categories. It might be that if we start with different types of scenes, we might ask different types of questions. 

Third, in turning to speculation and fiction, I am interested in intimate methodologies. What might histories and theories of cultural and culinary production offer us? And, here, I am thinking about Elliot H. Powell’s book Sounds from the Other Side, which examines how African American musicians have engaged South Asian cultural production. What do such aesthetic experiments tell us about intimacy? What kinds of lifeworlds are imagined and made as flavours and sounds and scents and textures are shared? 

Fourth, how might we consider figures, perhaps I should use the word persons, who are implicitly and explicit excluded from legislation and policies focused on intimacy? Even as we pursue new contact zones, what already existing contact zones exist? How might the figure of the domestic worker suture geohistories and unsettle our intimate certainties and methodologies? 

Finally, what might thinking with intimacy unsettle and rearrange about structures and practices of collectivity. For those of us uncomfortable with terms such as community, kinship, and solidarity, might thinking with intimacy create networks of contingent relation through which we can make something that might endure and perhaps survive our catastrophic times? 

Thank you for your attention.

*I’ve left out a hefty portion on domestic workers and the law, as I’m still working on that section for something else

2 thoughts on “Terrains of Intimacy (excerpt)

  1. Oh Keguro! Asante Sana Sana for these ….Yes! I breath them all in, to savour, to ponder and per chance to differ…. Thank You! Precious Soul

    Deirdre Prins-Solani Education, Culture and Heritage specialistPoet/WriterSpiritual Ecologist http://deirdre-prins-solani.wixsite.com/home

    Advisory Board Member:International Centre for training in Intangible Cultural Heritage: Asia-PacificAdvisory Panel Member: Amazwi Voices of Women MuseumMember:7th RSA NATCOM UNESCO, Culture CommitteeCo-creator of ‘Creating Meaningful and Inclusive Museum Practices’, ICOM Launched-2021Contributor to UNESCO’s MOOC on intangible cultural heritage and sustainable development,Launched, 2022Reverence-Interconnectedness-Stewardship-Service

    1. Many thoughts formed with many others! I need a better citation practice! (If plans work out, see you at some point next year!)

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