rumuruti

Rumuruti lands in the ear like Garba Tula, a place that once sounded so foreign I decided to name our Rex-looking dog Garba Tula. On the internet, one finds Garbatulla, Garba Tula, and Garba Tulla, a multi-named ungeography, lacking the exactness of Limuru or Lamu or Lodwar, those liquid sounds of place that glide in and out of imagination and possibility.

Rumuruti is harsh serrations, those cutting “r” sound that invoke labor and loss. One hears, in it, the relentless sound of grass-cutting pangas, food-harvesting blades, a language of edges and smiles, bean-soaked and potato-infused. Here, nostalgia prefers to image women balancing pots of water on their labor-reshaped foreheads. Piped water is an invasion.

Some places exist for memory to wrap around.

Liquids are easier to visit.

I get stuck at nasals—Ngong, Muranga, Ngandani, Ngandure, Ngeranyi. As though space refuses to stick to them. Ngomeni sounds like a dance, a wave of spirit movements fueled by life-loving spirits. A partnership of winding. Perhaps that’s what nasals do: they wind around one’s mouth. Always making one “speak through one’s nose.”

An accusation: “you speak through your nose.”

The peculiar way space winds itself around noses and mouths, as memory and forgetting, those nasal activities, fricatives resolving into nasals. (I had a love affair with plosives once, a symptom of a different kind of need. But I worry about the heaviness of d, the slicing of k, the sly civility of c.)

Rumuruti lands in the ear like the place that cannot exist in sophisticated conversation. You speak as though you’re from Rumuruti, someone says. And I have yet to check a google map to see where Rumuruti exists. It came to me from a manuscript I’m reading. Another place from a book. Another book place.

Places are book places or smell places. The sulfur fumes of school trips to elsewheres, the night stink of coffee plantations, the press of bodies in elsewhere-bound buses and planes. Book places are geography places: lists of neverwheres incarnated as classmates who embodied those impossibilities. Lists of impossibilities created by memory-makers fighting against history-makers.

(Shall I always return here?)

Nguna is in Central Province, a place that no longer exists.

What do we do with old maps of places that birth us and that no longer exist?

Ngwatawiro is not next to Ngwena, except on an outdated chart of alphabetically listed ungeographies.

Charts produce proximities.

Going South

The South had always frightened me.
—James Baldwin

I first read James Baldwin while on a greyhound bus heading to the U.S. south. It was not my first trip to the south, only the first time I traveled there on my own. Something about the many-hour journey from Pittsburgh to the southmost corner of North Carolina lingers as a sense of horror, even as no single incident stains memory. Baldwin’s prose felt feverish, cloistered, horrifying, and unpleasant. The church cadences so many readers love felt killing, marking, perhaps, my own increasing distance from organized religion.

A loss amplified by every blink-its-gone town along the bus route.
Another journey intrudes, also on a bus, prisoners being picked up, deposited, working on the road.

In memory, cloistered Harlem transformed into a lynching south, a transformation so effective that when I finally re-encountered Go Tell it on the Mountain, it was utterly unfamiliar. And, despite my best efforts as a reader, a teacher, and an examiner, I simply cannot engage the final ecstatic section of the novel.

*
Perhaps that early journey set a pattern, for I now read Baldwin as I travel. I return over and over to Nobody Knows My Name, essays written from exile and of exile, the writer away from his country and the writer in his country. Here, as perhaps nowhere else, Baldwin wrestles with a sense of deracinating belonging, even as he insists on attachment. This is, I must confess, my favorite Baldwin prose collection.
*
I am in South Africa—a south once forbidden.

South Africa lives in the history of my legal documents, my legal possibilities, as the forbidden. My very first passport included a large stamp that forbade travel to South Africa. South Africa was impossible—the place where movement and imagination could not go, the land on which one could not step. I do not yet know how to think of this material history of South Africa’s presence in my life—that passport has been replaced; I am not sure where it is, even as the sense of “no” persists—I walk with the uneasy sense that lingers from that forbidding page in a long-expired passport.
*
Back in Nairobi, writing becomes difficult again, the words I imagined in South Africa dry up, as it rains, as Somalis remain locked up in Kasarani—a sports stadium, now officially termed a prison, functioning as a concentration camp. Catching up with South African news, I see homes are being destroyed, barbed wire used to control access. It happened while I was there—I did not know. The South Africa of my childhood—forbidden, dangerous, destructive.

Still alive.
*
In the late 90s, I traveled south to meet Baldwin’s ghosts. Now, I travel south to re-encounter differently familiar ghosts—the walking unspoken, the known-unknowing.

At the heart of Baldwin’s “A Fly in the Buttermilk” is a young man, “G.” Baldwin describes him as quiet. G.’s mother describes him as brilliant. Fifteen year old G. has an “unboyish laugh,” understands, if only partially, his role in an unfolding history of desegregation. Baldwin speaks with G.’s mother and, occasionally, G. answers a question, aware that his mother is in the room. The account is saturated with the silence of an unfolding present, a precarious present, a present that might not have a future.

one wonders, now, about
interview characters who
slide in and out of books and essays
an initial here, a brief description,
these fragments around which
so much swirls
and dissipates

Perhaps G. comes to mind because I was in what was described (in one way or another) as a de-segregating institution, an institution with more black students from other African countries than from its own. And while moments of Bennetton diversity flashed here and there, it was clear that it was Bennetton diversity. I could not shake the sense that I had gone south, a place of a familiar unfolding. I felt caught in a too-familiar mapping of the public, noting which intimacies were visible, possible, mentioned.

To read Baldwin is to enter a particular emotional landscape—not rage, for me, but longing. It is to become expectant, even vulnerable. To be open to encountering the world. Well-cultivated armor does not simply disappear, but chinks are allowed to linger, if only briefly.

Nairobi continues to dry up my words. To make chinks impossible. Already, I feel the armor re-arming itself, the suffocating embrace of what might make survival possible. Here, I return to Audre Lorde. To imagining survival.

hunger

He wanted to populate a world map of men who’d fucked him.
Kenya was already taken.
But I wanted to be on that map.
*
He was a librarian.
He had the strongest calves I’d ever seen.
*
I didn’t know what he wanted until several years after, a yielding I learned to take.
After.
*
He was a church deacon.
He still fuels fantasies.
*
Bashful.
As though this is always the first time.
We keep discovering our rhythms.
*
The married schoolteacher who snuck out to find chocolate.
*
The grad student who liked sandwiches as long as they had mayonnaise.
*
There is a hunger that feeds.
*
What are you into?
Hunger
*
And still I said no.
Not all hunger.
Some hunger feels less inviting.

One does not mind being a number. One minds being a particular kind of number.

The hunger of those who cannot remember, who will not remember, has never interested me.
*
The bus driver. The gym owner. The tight, the whisper, the groan, the pleading, the more, the traveling salesman, the trucker,

the one with the electric blue shorts from the 70s
*
The wet, the stretched, the used, the fragrant, the antiseptic, the belligerent, the hairy, the scratchy, the shaved, the never-again-but-scarcity, the available, the there, the now, the bent-over, the standing, the lying down, the un-faced, the too-faced, the daddy-caller, the wish-it-were-someone-else, the lights out, the tongue out, the

hungry

*
What do you like?
Who is hungry?

To the “B” Student Who Complained

You got a B
because

You pay money
to go here

I’ve been warned
students sue

You came to my office
and cried

I can’t fail
students for racism

You sent me
two hundred emails

I can’t fail
students for absenteeism

You threatened to
sabotage my evaluations

I was trying
to complete an article

You simply could
not keep up

I grew tired
of being exhausted

Incoherent Attachment

Romance novels taught me how to think about the incoherence of attachment. To see this incoherence, one needs to look at the range of failed and failing relationships that background romance novels: unhappy mothers, divorced friends, jaded bachelors, devious perverts, anxious children, disappointed spinsters, abusive marriages, terrified singles, an entire catalogue of unhappiness from which the privileged couple form emerges.

At a certain point, I noticed that more romance novels concluded with a leap forward of either several years or decades to prove that love lasted, that romantic love could sustain togetherness. I think I started to notice this trend in the mid-90s, though it could date to the early 90s (my archive of romance is too vast and disorganized for time to make much sense). This marked, I think, a certain anxiety over the divorce statistics that increasingly worked for and against romance narratives. Whether true or not, the idea that divorce rates in the U.S. have hovered around 50% over the past 25 years or so has been consistent. Romance novels succeed (and fail) because of this divorce rate; indeed, the faith in “rightness” and “fit” succeeds and fails to sustain an entire industry in which I would argue romance novels play a substantial part as they filter through various forms of cultural adaptation: you might not be reading Mills&Boon, but the logic of these books infuses almost all concepts of romantic love.
*
This post has mutated
*
When I started it a few days ago, I wanted to think about incoherent attachments and about attachment as inherently incoherent. It was a post about Kenya and love and relationships, about what keeps us tethered to certain imaginings of worlds that are “no good for us.” Perhaps it was also a post about country music, which, to my mind, registers so often the banal incoherence of attachment. (I keep repeating the phrase incoherence of attachment because I’m not sure what else to call it.)

I have been thinking about what it means to work with and against incoherent attachments: the attachments we find difficult to narrate, and the ones that can’t really be narrated for us. The ones we resist, even though they might name something that we are not sure how to think about.

A for-instance: I don’t like the term patriot. To me, it suggests an uncritical love of nation, a jingoistic, unthinking allegiance to exclusionary and masculinist and normative forms of nationalism. No doubt, much of this comes from my upbringing in a sycophantic country, where to be a patriot was to shut up and worship power. No doubt much of this has also been shaped by the past few years of living in a post-9/11 U.S., where patriotism has often meant shutting up and defending government actions, not to mention the violent xenophobia expressed against “aliens.” And, no doubt, this distaste for “patriotism” is even now being fed by the fawning sycophancy that seems to have swept Kenya, as people line up to worship the new regime.

I remain “attached” to Kenya: for better or worse, that is where my political and social and aesthetic inclinations lie. It is the place I have been writing “from” and “for” for many years, no matter the topic and method of writing. It is the place that I “wait for,” “watch for,” “lean toward.” It is also the place that keeps breaking my heart over and over and over.

And that I can’t quit.

Some might call this love, and perhaps it is. Others might call it duty, and perhaps it is. And maybe it is “patriotism” of a kind. Not one that revels in pride, but one that finds itself most at home in the cliché-ridden sentimentalism of romance novels and love songs: “I just can’t quit you.”
*
The “you’re no good for me” but “I stay” mode of attachment; this thing that’s about disappointment and hope. This thing that’s about promise. This thing that’s about “this thing between us.” This thing that’s also not like “Mean.” Because I keep returning to it.
*
There’s a moment in some romance novels when the banality of one’s attachment is named by someone else, a moment of clarity for the character willing to assume that banality: yes, I am in love. I am in love because someone else has named how I feel. Love might name this thing. This thing that’s about not knowing how not to be with someone or something else. This thing that’s about knowing how not to be with someone or something else.
*
Perhaps I’m writing about Rihanna and Chris Brown.
*
Perhaps the reason romance novels are considered such a debased genre—despite and because of their mass popularity—is that they register the messiness of attachment in ways that the ostensibly psychically rich worlds of literary fiction are unwilling to contemplate: feeling is not all detachment and irony and strategically deployed madness. Instead, it is red-faced-blotchy-messy. It refuses to be organized by beautiful sentences and philosophy. It spills over, interrupts, unmakes, disorganizes.

Romance novels have as a constant refrain, “I had not planned this” or “I wasn’t looking for this” or “this is not how I thought it would turn out.” If this is an ordering into normativity, as it undoubtedly it, is it also an indexing of disorganization, a rearranging of a plot. That is, if one critical reading of the marriage-love plot is that it is too genre-bound to suggest anything “significant” or “meaningful” about the world, I would suggest that it is precisely because it is genre-bound that it can tell us something about the world, for genre is a mode of organizing formal categories that never quite fit. The heterosexual romance plot may always include men and women and love, but even a cursory reading demonstrates the range between, say, a Barbara Cartland and an Amanda Quick. One notes, for instance, that women’s virginity is less fetishized now than it was in 70s and 80s romance, though it is still very fetishized.
*
One not-wrong reading of this writing would suggest that it asks how what I learned about incoherent attachment from romance novels has guided how I think about attachment to place, to Kenyan-ness. I do not have the distance to evaluate this particular interpretation.

I am interested in what acknowledging incoherent attachment, what refusing to name it as “love” or “patriotism” could enable, especially for those of us for whom “love” and “patriotism” carry too much baggage to be used in a casual way.

[censored]

ellipses:
Ellipses know too much, do not know what they know, know nothing, and produce knowingness. What is the knowledge economy of ellipses? What is the duration of the elliptical? What is knowledge after ellipses?

profiling:
Foucault teaches me that profiling is taxonomy: coding for threat. Perhaps all taxonomy has always been about coding for threat. What is most threatening? Who is most threatening? How can threat be managed?

visa:
My visa expires. It expires again. And again. I keep explaining that a visa is an entry and exit document. An expired visa is threatening. Few of those monitoring my visa dates know how visas work. I keep explaining to those who don’t need to know, to those who insist they know, to those who refuse to hear my knowing that I know what the law says. My visa is expired.

sayable:
To be in this now—this Kenya-U.S-now—is to navigate censorship. Things I cannot say as a holder of a visa. Things I cannot demand: equal protection under the law; a voice in how to read this moment; a claim to rights. Nothing has been said. Perhaps I misread the tea leaves. Things I cannot say as a particular kind of Kenyan: one who lives abroad, one privileged by ethnicity and education, one marked as dangerous. People with names “like mine” and backgrounds “like mine” are saying and doing terrible things. I do not know what to say, how to respond, how to forge alliances, how to undo the weight of privilege I did not earn, that my saying exercises, that my silence exercises.

U.S.A.:
I write U.S. or U.S.A., because I don’t want to cede “us.” To be here is to inhabit a strange provinciality where “we” and “us” is constantly invoked, as perhaps it is all over. Every time I hear “we” and “us” I shrivel a little. I have still not learned how not to flinch. How not to hear “nation” and “culture” and “not you” when I see US. That scream of unbelonging, the chant of patriotism. U.S.A.

accent:
U.S.A.: “where are you from”?
Kenya: “where are you from”?

attachment:
One is squeezed into place, adhesiveness produced by prolonged contact, sometimes not of one’s making. Attachment produced as habit, as refuge, as tropism. The crooked plant is seeking light. The stuck-in-place object is pressed on constantly. To be un-stuck, to be un-pressed, to be ripped from place. Even this causes pain. And might not be freedom.

now-here:
The imprecision of emergent forms, the vertigo of precarity, the fear of saying the wrong thing, the unwelcome thing, the dangerous thing.

habit:
To continue as before, to believe that repetition produces normalcy, to read the normative as the inevitable, to be habituated, to resist disruption, to pursue peace, to flee definition.

safe:
If you hide, stay silent, squeeze into a corner, stay in your house, refuse the endangering social, it might take them a little longer to find you, detain you, arrest you, monitor you, disappear you.

alien:
“where were you born”?
“when did you come here”?
“why did you come here”?
E.T. was a film about immigrants as tracked, trackable, monitored, and endangered. Discuss.

freedom:
How do the “unfree” discuss “the land of the free”?

In whispers and in silence.

Privacy: Disclosure

It’s possible to argue that the slogan “the personal is political” comes from a particular bourgeois version of personhood. However, if one starts from the moment of enslavement, then there is no personal and, indeed, no person, for the thingification of slavery takes away “the personal.” Things are not persons. But it is through the histories of slavery that the personal becomes political, as the quest for personhood requires disclosure, nakedness, revelation, confession. Slave narratives tell one horror after another: a beating, a rape, a mutilation, a catalogue of family separations, of things being disaggregated, of units collapsing and being re-joined. Of black male slaves used as studs to impregnate black women slaves.

How can language not collapse when things are gendered and compelled to reproduce themselves? (Thinking on “things” in philosophy, aesthetics, and political science fails to reckon with fungibility; the “unimaginable” “thingness” of those once human.)

The archives I know best tell me that certain bodies are minoritized through being “disclosed,” through being forced to “disclose” themselves. Show me your suffering, the injunction goes. Mark it on your body. Show it in your life. Those who live in Kenyan slums are routinely scrutinized: their sex habits, excretory habits, sanitation habits routinely broadcast on local, national, and international news outlets. Their homes invaded, photographed, described. Their sex lives narrated and re-narrated in whispers and shouts, in official reports and scandalous news stories. Privacy has unequal meanings.

In our disclosing now, it seems difficult to distinguish between the intrusive gaze that minoritizes and the intrusive gaze that demands reciprocity (and promises intimacy: “let’s share secrets”). Practically, of course, it’s not that difficult: one gaze emanates from the state and its agents while the other might be state-related, but is framed as the normative structuring of sociality. At a moment when the normative structuring of sociality blends so readily with the state’s gaze—the Kenyan government can monitor private phone communications without a warrant, it seems, and the newly passed CISPA in the U.S. takes away many privacy protections—it’s difficult to know what privacy is, who has it, who can demand it, who can be protected by it, who can never access it.

To be minoritized is always to have less or no access to privacy. My resistance to disclosure, my stubborn refusal to answer the most banal of questions as a condition of sociality stems from how I know the histories of disclosure. I disclose as a matter of strategy.

A certain bad reading of Foucault coupled with anti-feminist sentiment has dismissed “the personal is political” as a bad bourgeois strategy. It has claimed that “confession” and “disclosure” cannot be strategic. Nor can disclosure be considered “good” art or poetry. Rather, it is “lazy.” Lazy, I think, because all is “already known.” And nothing “new” can be discovered through such disclosures.

How did we come to know “all” about the minoritized? And might it not be useful to distinguish among sources? Might it not be useful to hear what the minoritized say about themselves? Might it not be useful to think of disclosure as a strategy? And, more: as a strategic risk.

For to disclose is always a risk. Especially when those already assumed to be fully known—or fully knowable—risk disclosure. One risks being dismissed as repetitive, boring, derivative, pandering, lazy. As though one’s risk has no particularity.

What does it mean to risk disclosure? And who gets to risk disclosure? And how is such disclosure a risk?

I might be talking about “coming out.” About what it means to “be” out, and what it means to keep coming out. About the worlds created by such disclosures and the worlds made impossible. About coming out as a strategy and a choice. About the desire to have a private life. About the desire to manage scrutiny, and to enable other lives.

Histories of blackness (and anti-blackness) and feminism (and anti-feminism) teach me to be wary of disclosure. Yet I could not be were it not for those who have risked disclosure. Those who understood—and sometimes didn’t understand—the risks they were taking to enable futures distinct from the pasts they had endured. Futures for strangers.

Perhaps I want to offer a simple claim: privacy and disclosure are unequal playing fields. Some risk more than others when they choose disclosure.

Here’s a simpler, more cryptic claim: A friend was interviewed. The published interview is heartbreaking in what it does not say. It’s even more heartbreaking in what it says.