Being Otherwise: Between Starshine and Clay
- by Alexis Teyie -
In Kenya “Otherwise?” used to be a common way of acknowledging others, and you’d overhear it frequently, particularly in Nairobi. In lieu of hello, or hi, or any other equivalent really. I found it stung, it pricked, it wounded me somehow. I could never quite respond immediately whenever it was directed at me, this “Otherwise?” There was always a pause, a brief moment in which I was suddenly choked, suddenly too moved to speak. In many ways this was a symptom of my excessive romanticism, but in this simple “Otherwise?” I heard: aha, what more of you?; how else are you?; and if not this, here, what other way?
Unfortunately, the expected response was a variation of the usual banalities: ah it rained, the cows are fine, yes, the children are eating well, and so on. Still, all these years after it’s no longer fashionable, I haven’t been able to shake this “otherwise” business. That this one word can be a question, that its odd usage, its vague instability, retains its hold over me is—strangely—the first thing I thought of after learning about Trump’s win. I felt like some stray meteor had been trailing behind me—unbeknownst to me—and it had just slammed into my body.
These past few months have been an almost impossible time to be alive; as a black African queer woman I have felt this even more acutely. So much is being demanded of us, and yet, for weeks I kept turning over this little linguistic tic in my mind. “Otherwise,” and again in a different light, “Otherwise!” and over and over again, with varying emphases, “Otherwise?”
Through my obsessive forays into this word—primarily as a way to avoid the deluge of news and opinion pieces—I remembered, almost too vividly to be accurate, that as a child I first understood “wise” not as in “showing good judgement,” but to mean “the manner or extent of something.” This is an archaic use of the word so I can’t quite say how I learned it, but this meaning of “wise” has become extremely evocative to me as a writer now, given all my fraught identities. What many of us are being forced to do, in an increasingly divisive political climate, is to come to terms with our margin for manoeuvre. Marge de manoeuvre. The limits within which we are safe, valid. The extent to which we are valuable, mournable. The available room for growth, for difference. The spaces in which our varied selves are possible.
And so “otherwise” feels truly potent to me now, when my extent is truncated, my margin is narrowed, my thus-wise, my now-wise isn’t livable. What else—what next, or what before this? —is there, and what more can this world take from me, or, how much more can I extend myself? Otherwise as a state, as landscape, as an orientation, is evocative for me, and for the past few months has become a twisted source of consolation. The space of otherwise (of elsewhere) is precisely the space occupied by speculative fiction, and as a black queer woman this is in part the space I have been backed into, but also the space of my redemption, where a grammar of restitution can take shape. Otherwise, especially as a question, is open, sometimes merely a small gap, certainly, but it gives me some space to flex, to daydream, to fantasize of a self that’s fuller, a self that’s seen. I want to return to this seen-ness, but first, this otherwise seems idyllic, abstract, so I’ll bring it down to the particular.
A Time of Furnaces
Let’s go back to Trump winning (and of course not simply the US election). I was angry. I still am. I was also sad. Mostly, though, I was tired. There was so much uproar with many shocked and appalled. The outcome of the American election didn’t really surprise me. I was disappointed, hurt, dispirited, and so on, but not particularly stunned. If you are feeling masochistic, I might suggest going over the articles from that time and comparing the tone with the author’s identity, where available. Privilege (of an able body, whiteness, masculinity, heterosexuality) manifests and constitutes a sense of infallibility, an ineradicable confidence in one’s worth, as a matter of course; privilege is an arrogant faith in what one is “owed,” an incurable belief in one’s permanence.
The feeling of being neglected, insulted, and betrayed by the world that all those liberals were vocalizing, that’s not novel to me. If it’s not an internal attack, it’s the ever-present fear of being robbed, raped, rejected, negated, nullified simply for being. Frankly, I cannot remember a full day of my life in which I felt completely durable, secure, deep-rooted. My body breaks down without warning, and my mind is equally traitorous.
That feeling is certainly not new for folks who still bear the scars of colonialism, or for the generation that bore the brunt of neoliberalism in the Global South, or for queer folks forced into hiding, or for people required to constantly justify and apologize for their gender, or for entire communities whose lives are at the mercy of fickle foreign powers. Constantly under threat of violence, of disappearing. We have been living this wise. We have been dying this wise.
What should be surprising, however, is how we stand it all, how we stay connected to vitality, how we survive, how we regroup, and resist, and rebuild. I can’t overstate how much imaginative energy we expend to do so, to think otherwise, to will an otherwise into being in a world predicated upon profiting from our labour while simultaneously denying our value. Exhaustion, that’s the word which echoed in many of those online spaces, which at some point were the only places I could see myself. The effort required to endure, to speak your truth in a world designed to silence and punish is work. It’s exhausting, soul-shrinking work.
What you must understand, though, is the creative power that drives these efforts, the sheer will to be otherwise requires a capacity to flex in anxiety and desolation, to re-tool technologies of your oppression or formulate new ones to build a world in which you are possible. In a world where privilege authorizes our collective knowledge of the past, our understanding of the present, and our imagination of the future, daring to imagine and build a world that is otherwise, in which you can be otherwise, that work is revolutionary, divine even. What is more beatific than creating out of darkness, out of nothing? What is more celestial than building a world backwards into the past, upwards or downwards in the present, forward into the future?
This fact is why I have always found it odd that speculative fiction, in all its flavours, is considered the preserve of white men. Speculative fiction, to me, is about world-building, about curiosity, courage, and audacity; about daring to create universes back into history, superimposed on the present, and a long time into the future. What is more audacious than Mekatilili wa Menza, a Giriama[i] woman, leading one of the first anti-colonial movements in British East Africa[ii]; what is more powerful than her daring to believe that there must be another world possible, her choosing to give of herself, without remainder, to lay the foundation for that world? Isn’t it otherworldly, the work that we put in every day, as marginalized folks to sing, to dance, to shout, to fight, to laugh, in a world that denies our existence. The risks are great, and the rewards often uncertain, but as writer José Martí put it: “this is a time of furnaces, and only light should be seen.”[iii]
As an angsty Pan-Africanist teenager, I recited Thomas Sankara’s quote like a mantra to ward off all the -isms the world thrust upon me:
You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future . . . We must dare to invent the future.[iv]
We must dare to invent the future. The space that “otherwise” grants us access to, that elsewhere, is contiguous to daydream—that seemingly boundless geography. In the daydream, time and space as we know them collapse. The canvas is ours to fill, to mould, to dispose of entirely. The daydream and otherwise are in the language of vastness. It is only here that the possibilities we are denied in our current realities are made apparent; there we are offered a chance to apprehend the multitude that is ourselves; there, if we are determined, vigilant, we might begin to develop the audacity to transplant these visions into our day to day lives.
Over and over, in the past year, I have been thinking of a Margaret Atwood line:
Where is it coming from, this echo,
this huge No that surrounds you . . .[v]
Where is it coming from? Everywhere, even inside me. And my rebuttal is Otherwise! This is my revolt. My freedom. I say yes to myself. I say yes to my sisters, I say yes to the future we see in our daydreams. Light. Vastness. This is the world I want to speak into being. And what do I want? I want to loosen this world’s grip on my heart. I want to be pulled up to the surface of myself, to inhabit myself as I am, without shame. I would like to be invited into the naked presence of another self, to recognize and be recognized. I want to be encountered in the back rooms of my heart, and if not to be stilled, to be seen. And this is it, at the core of it, the need to be seen: respect, respicere, to look to, to look upon, to have regard for, concern—care that another should unfold as they are. What is more beautiful, more transformative, than souls in conversation? What is more affirming, more restorative, than being seen; and what greater privilege in life than to bear witness to another’s unadorned self in full bloom?
And so what is needed? What is the fuel for these connections? Where does the continued inspiration to declare “Otherwise!” come from? For me, it comes from the histories of all the queer postcolonials who have gone before, even if their stories must be sought out, pried open. Experiencing these histories and creating my own fragile infrastructures both allow me to re/build worlds in counterpoint—tender worlds in which more of me is allowed to be possible. That openness to the past, a sensitivity to the present, and an unflagging hope in the future—this is how we start to build up an arsenal of robust Otherwises to wield against all the violence, and ugliness we are forced to contend with.
Back to that lovely phrase, marge de manoeuvre. Another way I might translate this is leeway, or wiggle room. French is not my language, but I have been made to become fluent in silence. Each day I must remember to unlearn this fatal habit, so I pull from any and all vocabularies available to me. Let me try again, now from Kafka:
Time is short, my strength is limited . . . and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible, then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers.[vi]
And now, to give words to my hope, I turn to the magnificent Lucille Clifton:
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life?[vii]
What else can we be but ourselves? We survive, we wiggle through by subtle manoeuvres, we shape into a kind of life what we have been handed, and we dare to invent grander worlds. On this bridge between starshine and clay, I chant over and over, invoking all the revolutionaries that have gone before me: Come celebrate with me that everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed. The glowing shadows whisper in response: Be vigilant with your joy. Push margins. Extend yourself. Dream of an Otherwise.
[i] Wagiriama are an ethnic group primarily in the coastal region of present-day Kenya
[ii] British East Africa is present-day Kenya
[iii] Martí, José. From 1891 letter to José Dolores Poyo, quoted by Ernesto “Che” Guevara as an epigraph to his speech, “Message to the Peoples of the World through the Tricontinental.” Havana: The Executive Secretariat of the Organization of the Solidarity of the Peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. 1967.
[iv] Sankara, Thomas. From 1985 interview with Swiss Journalist Jean-Philippe Rapp, used in: Sankara, Thomas. Thomas Sankara Speaks: The Burkina Faso Revolution 1983-87. Trans. Samantha Anderson. New York: Pathfinder, 1988. pp. 141-144.
[v] Atwood, Margaret. “Up,” in Morning in the Burning House. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1995.
[vi] Kafka, Franz. From a 1912 letter to Felice Bauer. Included in The Basic Kafka. New York: Washington Square Press, 1979.
[vii] Clifton, Lucille. “won’t you celebrate with me,” in Book of Light. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon Press, 1993.
© 2017 by Alexis Teyie
Alexis Teyie is a Kenyan writer and feminist. Her poetry is included in the Jalada “Afrofuture(s)” and “Language” issues, and the Black Girl Seeks anthology. Her short fiction is published in Short Story Day Africa’s Water anthology. She has also featured in Omenana, Q-zine, This is Africa, Writivism, African Feminist Forum, and HOLAA’s Safe Sex Manual. Alexis has recently co-authored a children’s book, Shortcut, and is a poetry editor with Enkare Review. Upcoming work in the Queer Africa II anthology. Alexis currently works in the development space.