4 June 2014

Kenya: Touching Tales of Coming Out Queer in Kenya

book review

In the style of intimate confession, Invisible, a collection of personal stories, swirls around themes of first kisses, plotting co-workers, family rejection and acceptance.

Like the first words of a confession rushing out unevenly as they break through the barrier of a long-held silence, Invisible: Stories from Kenya's Queer Community often reads like a series of breathlessly revealed secrets.

Through essays, poems and letters, contributors tell their stories of coming out in Kenya, and the light editing touch of Kevin Mwachiro, the Kenyan radio producer and journalist who brought the project together, leaves readers feeling like they are reading intimate diary entries or interview transcripts.

This style, somewhat voyeuristic in effect, may make readers who prefer their non-fiction remote and rhetorical feel a little uneasy, but it won't fail to move with those who recall the mortification of explaining their suspicious celibacy to family members themselves.

The poetry misfires a little in terms of craft - if the style of the book is that of breathless revelation, the poetry feels a bit like a laboured wheeze - but the prose rings clear and candid.

For example, in 'Darling!', Rena Otieno details her experience of coming out as a lesbian, starting with a matter-of-fact chronology of her sexual encounters. Other stories, such as one about the confusion of a rural Turkana man who abandons his wife, ring true and, just like in reality, offer no conventional resolutions.

Far from didactic, Invisible's stories swirl around themes of first kisses, plotting co-workers, family rejection and acceptance, with little analysis, which would be out of place here.

The narratives, told from the points of view of diverse characters, erase distinctions between young and old, secular and religious, and urban and rural, dispelling the fiction that homosexuality is an exclusively metropolitan predisposition. Invisible proves once and for all that Kenyans from all walks of life can be L, G, B, T or I, and that all stripes of people may sometimes like to engage in a bit of debauchery.


One of the most noteworthy aspects of Invisible is that it is part of Contact Zones, a book series that intends to stimulate artistic and literary production in Kenya and supersede the for-profit nature of its national publishing industry which mainly produces textbooks and NGO literature.

The self-professed agenda of Contact Zones is to decentralise the art world and intellectual discourse in favour of the Global South as well as to counter "patterns of exclusion, reception modes, blinded by exoticism, primitivist interpretations, paternalist agendas, and sensationalist paradigms."

In his memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place, the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina references this marginalisation of Kenyan artists, drawing on his own experience of the time the European Union Commission sent him to South Sudan to write a book.

The "European Union Humanitarian Something", he says, baulked at the copy he produced however, because it contained swearing and other graphic material deemed to be potentially offensive. Wainaina was asked to tone it down, but instead cancelled the contract and published the book himself.

Reflecting on the experience, the author suggested that many of Kenya's young writers are being sucked into this same NGO world, wasting their talent as they fastidiously produce well-meaning propaganda for a paycheque and reinforcing Western hegemony in the process.

On the one hand, Contact Zones is all about countering this global imbalance, but the paradox remains that Invisible was supported by foreign entities such as the Netherland's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Foundation, and Nairobi's German embassy, jointly with the Gay Kenya Trust and other NGOs.

This uneasy balancing act of having one foot in and one foot out of the development world manifests occasionally through the collection. In his preface, for example, Mwachiro explains that he chose to use the label "queer" rather than LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex) to avoid that NGO feel.

Yet other bits of international development terminology such as MSM (men who have sex with men), an acronym that belongs to the field of international public health, creeps quite naturally into the pages.

Additionally, while the contributors come from a variety of backgrounds, it is notable that some of them work in the field of LGBTI/queer activism and human rights anyway.

Whether or not you think Mwachiro and the publishers were successful in their attempts to divorce Invisible from the NGO world, a copy of the book ought to be on the bookshelf of every human rights, social justice or activist organisation and ally of the LGBTI community.

And, in fact, maybe asking if the book qualifies as development literature is asking the wrong question. A fairer question might be to ask if it tells stories, remarkable stories, about growing up different and living with supposedly conflicting identities. The answer to this question would be a resounding yes.

Valérie Bah is a Haitian-Canadian freelance journalist who focuses on marginalization and human rights with a particular interest in gender and LGBT equality. She works at the UN's refugee agency in Kinshasa and secretly plots a debut in creative non-fiction.

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