On Home and Exile

thoughts on storytelling

[image description: a close up portrait of Chinua Achebe from the tops of the shoulders up. The photograph is in black and white, with a stark black background. Achebe looks off to the left of the image away from the camera. His face looks stoic, thoughtful.}

I have begun and worked through this writing many times now. Always I return to a certain desire to layout the book that I am talking about, summarizing. Perhaps to cover up the fact that I really do not know what I am talking about, or just because it seems the right thing to do. 

Allow me to begin again.

Recently I have been thinking more about the impact of stories, especially those written down as opposed to acted out. It had been quite some time since I had made a concerted effort to read books which wouldn’t simply fall into the faulty categories of theory, art history, nonfiction, the essay. Most of the stories and fiction that I engaged with was found either in the form of graphic novels or television and movies. Stories that are accompanied by images. I’ve tried to move back again to reading more poetry and fiction. Although as Teju Cole points out in conversation with Aleksandar Hemon, the categories of fiction and nonfiction are really themselves quite problematic. And as Dream puts it to Lady Titania in Issue #19 A Midsummer Night’s Dream of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman run, “Things need not to have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.” In the interest of these shadow-truths I have been—using Teju Cole as a kind of guide—diving back into the realms of stories and dreams of the written variety. One author I came across was the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe. And funnily enough the book that sparked this writing you are reading was itself a transcribed series of lectures delivered at Harvard University on December 9th, 10th, and 11th 1998, not one of his novels. The book these are collected in is called Home and Exile

Beginning from his childhood experience of moving back to Ogidi when he was 5 and following his own life and career Achebe discusses the history and traumatic legacy of colonial writing on Africa and the importance of what he calls the balance of stories that comes when the people from a place start to write their own stories again. His own—I guess one could say moral—stance (and one which inspired this writing) can be best understood through a piece of Ogidi’s local lore that he tells during the first lecture. To set up the anecdote, before this retelling Achebe notes that while his father was a missionary and both his parents were Christians, much of his extended family were not and still worshipped the old gods. However, his parents were not fanatical and all were welcomed without the religious imperialism one would see from European Christianity.

I heard, for example, that one of Ogidi’s neighboring towns had migrated into its present location a long time ago and made a request to Ogidi to settle there. In those days there was plenty of land to go round and Ogidi people welcomed the newcomers, who then made a second and more surprising request—to be shown how to worship the gods of Ogidi. What had they done with their own gods? Ogidi people wondered at first but finally decided that a man who asked you for your god must have a terrible story one should not pry into. So they gave the new people two of Ogidi gods, Udo and Ogwugwu, with one proviso, that the newcomers should not call their newly acquired gods Udo but Udo’s son; and not Ogwugwu but Ogwugwu’s daughter. Just to avoid any confusion! (Home and Exile Chinua Achebe 11-12)

What’s important for Achebe about this anecdote is that even when it was asked as a favor the Ogidi people were reluctant to hoist their beliefs on another group. This was counter to the aforementioned fanatical religious imperialism that would later be visited upon the land that they lived. While it is a simplification for the sake of this writing, much of the content of the lectures can be understood through this lens of generosity. A kind of anti-imperialistic empathy which comes not just in the hesitancy of the Ogidi people to hoist their religion, but also their choice to not ask why it is that these newcomers would need new gods. This follows something that Édouard Glissant argues for in his essay For Opacity as the “right to opacity” meaning that oppressed peoples should have the right to be opaque and not fully understood.

This imperialist story-telling that Achebe is writing of, which constructs racial stereotypes and cliches around the continent of not just Africa, but of much of what would be considered the “Third World” operates within a kind of transparent sympathy. Through an imposition of ideas of a people onto another the majoritarian group can not only pretend to know the “other”, but also justify their own colonial tendencies, i.e. the White Man’s Burden. This is to say that as we consider the ways in which the world has continued from this history of colonialism, imperialism, and all that comes from certain supremacist and eugenic notions of progress, the ways we engage are paramount. Even certain kinds of empathy which purport to know another’s struggles even though one actually doesn’t continues—and participates in—this trajectory. Another way to put that is Martin Luther King Jr.s point that the greatest enemy to the Civil Rights Movement was and still is the white moderate. 

Achebe delivering this lecture at the end of the 20th century looked hopefully towards the 21st and the possibilities of change that could come from the balancing of stories that had begun and would continue into this new millennia, but he knew that it would be difficult. The dispossession that came from the imperialist story telling and the traumas these caused were, and are, not so easily removed and/or circumvented. Positivist notions of what amounts to pure representations and stories are not so simple as we see more diverse stories told in the format of television and movies all the while those who profit and often tell the stories are no different than the Joseph Conrad’s, Joyce Cary’s, and Elspeth Huxley’s of the world. And this extends beyond just the narratives around race. There are constant and expansive networks of representation that purport to work against gendered, sexual, class based and all manner of bodily stereotypes that are constructed for the express purpose of “understanding” and classifying different bodies and people. Speaking on gender and all of its intricacies, including how it intertwines with race, sexuality, class, and their “homes” in the body, Legacy Russel in her book Glitch Feminism writes,

While we continue to navigate towards a more vast and abstract concept of gender, it must be said that at times it really does feel, paradoxically, as if all we have are the bodies we are housed in, gendered or otherwise. Under the sun of capitalism, we truly own little else, and even so, we are often subject to a complicated choreography dictated by the complicated, bureaucratic, and rhizomatic systems of institutions. The brutality of this precarious state is particularly evident via the constant expectation that we as bodies reassert a gender performance that fits within a binary in order to comply with the prescriptions of the everyday. As political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott writes, “Legibility [becomes] a condition of manipulation.” (Glitch Feminism: a manifesto Legacy Russel 9-10)

While Achebe was hopeful in what could come from the proliferation of people telling their stories we must consider the ways in which those stories feed into desires for legibility and what these desires for legibility tell us about possession as an antidote to the dispossession and its traumas. One other thing we can learn from the story Achebe gives to us about the Ogidi people is their willingness to share their gods. It was not given wholesale and in its entirety, but it was given. And the shift of what was given was not rooted in a desire for possession, but against the possibility of imposition. 

The stories we tell and the narratives we can construct with those stories need not be in service of a master narrative or for the profits of those who have always profited. Thinking of stories as that which we give to others, not fully, but not possessively either, against legibility but in service of an opaque empathy can begin to steer us towards that balance Achebe believed in. 

Jack Whitten, First Testing Slab, 1972 © Jack Whitten Estate [image description: rectangular in shape First Testing Slab overall is a general kind of brown, like worker’s shoes, with hints of dull red, yellow, and green. The paint streaks across horizontally as if it’s an image in blur. This was achieved by squeegeeing the acrylic paint while it was still wet.]

Today I watched a conversation around and with the work of Jack Whitten between Russel and the writer and theorist Fred Moten. A phrase Fred Moten used stuck with me, and not because it was something I had never heard, but in the way that hearing something with intent can shift the meaning, or expose what it has always meant. Talking about the work of Whitten after his death Moten phrased it as “in the wake of his passing.” That turn of phrase did something because I thought about passing here in all of its meanings. Not just that of death. Although in the case of Whitten as well as Achebe the writing I do here is in the wake of his passing, it is also that he passed, that he moved through, that he operated in the way that he did. Passing also in the sense that to pass is to embed oneself in opacity. But even still we feel the effects. I need not know you in your entirety to empathize and listen. Accepting that stories are not for me to understand something fully but to engage with another’s story as it passes by, still active, is a beautiful engagement. 

And as often occurs when we engage these stories, use them, discuss them, write about them, we must be weary not to treat them as possessions. Part of engaging in the world around you is not treating it like fragile glass. The world is to be lived, loved, and understood in its tactility, in the experience of our embrace of it. When Russel and Moten discussed Whitten’s work they talked about how it invites you in. Moten remarked that if we could experience the show right now in person that we’d not just look at the works, but with them. Another example would be the work that Latoya Ruby Frazier does when she goes into communities to photograph them. It’s not a practice of voyeurism. She learns about them, about the place, considers what it is that the people there need and does that. It’s a shared and cohabiting sociality. People love to say don’t talk about the things that don’t affect you. This just allows plausible deniability. I say engage especially with that which doesn’t affect you and seems like something you “shouldn’t” care about. It’s about paying attention to the voices that know more and learning from them. 

Much of what we try and do to engage with each other ethically, carefully, and deliberately amounts to this desire to possess or stems from the traumas that come from dispossession. We often becomes spectators as opposed to witnesses. We challenge others biases and prejudices in public and let them be in the private. Sensational stories which create the very master narratives we fight against become the ultimate form of knowing. We know others are this or that. We assume intention wherever we go even as we know impact is more important, but we must still prove intention to tackle it. The narratives Achebe speaks against are still very much alive, and they guide the stories we tell ourselves one way or another. To assume that it is always our intent to be terrible allows us to let be those moments without it, and feel attacked when our impact is revealed. Let us allow those who have no power to tell their stories themselves. And remember to listen, with that empathy that doesn’t need to know all or possess all. I’ll end this writing with a quote from Moten in order to think it another way in another’s words, completely and entirely and to show my hand as always indebted in a beautifully indebted kind of way to him and to think again about how when we tell our stories we are never speaking in just our voice but in the voices of all those around us. An always shifting compounding enunciation, sonic and silent, that says I do not know, but they do, here’s what I know and can say. Let me be another speaking of the unowned claim and to speak it again as we always must do.

It is not just that absolutist formulations of a kind of being-fabricated are here understood themselves to be fabrications; it is also that renunciation will have ultimately only become intelligible as a general disruption of ownership and of the proper when the ontological totality that black people claim and preserve is understood to be given only in this more general giving. The emergence and preservation of blackness, as the ontological totality, the revolutionary consciousness that black people hold and pass, is possible only by way of the renunciation of actual being and the ongoing conferral of historical being – the gift of historicity as claimed, performed dispossession. Blackness, which is to say, black radicalism, is not the property of black people. All that we have (and are) is what we hold in our outstretched hands. This open collective being is blackness – (racial) difference mobilized against the racist determination it calls into existence in every moment of the ongoing endangerment of ‘actual being’, of subjects who are supposed to know and own. It makes a claim upon us even as it is that upon which we all can make a claim, precisely because it – and its origins – are not originary. That claim, which is not just one among others because it is always one + more among others, however much it is made under the most extreme modes of duress, in an enabling exhaustion that is, in Stanley Cavell’s word, unowned, takes the form, in Edouard Glissant’s word, of consent. ‘To consent not to be a single being’, which is the anoriginal, anoriginary constitution of blackness as radical force – as historical, paraontological totality – is, for Robinson, the existential and logical necessity that turns the history of racial capitalism, which is also to say the Marxist tradition, inside out. What cannot be understood within, or as a function of, the deprivation that is the context of its genesis, can only be understood as the ongoing present of a common refusal. This oldnew kind of transcendental aesthetic, off and out in its immanence as the scientific productivity of such immanence projects, is the unowned, differential, and differentiated thing itself that we hold out to one another, in the bottom, under our skin, for the general kin, at the rendezvous of victory. (text can be found here)