Two Hearts, “African” Art, Purple Rain: April/ May 2016.

AprilDearDiary“I want to be a writer who can give you the illusion that you have two hearts. My tales are tragic, rather than sad, meaning they have a catastrophic force. Some writers can give you two heartbeats—one for the beauty of the words, another for the event. I want to be a writer who can give you the illusion that you have two hearts.”

– Yvonne Vera

On Harare.

Kigali was beautiful and green and neat and “safe”, almost surgically so. Kampala was a daze of music and feminism. But Harare was something else and it’s hard to quite put my finger on it. It was sad and strange sometimes. It was frustrating. It was full of stories in a way that I cannot say Kigali (at least in my brief experience) was.

Someone said to me while I was there, that when it comes to literature and art, Zimbabwe is ahead of every other African nation. I’m not going to say whether I agree or disagree, but I will say that Tsitsi Dangaremgba’s Nervous Conditions was one of the earliest awakenings of a panAfrican identity within me. And I mean not in that cliche kind of way, by which I mean this idealized African identity that’s etched from the outside, but in finding echoes of myself in the very specific narrative of a woman from a different part of Africa. It wasn’t the only moment, and it wasn’t the only book, but it was one of the earliest.

On “Purple Rain”:

I’ve been wondering why I keep this journal, and I keep coming back to this idea that an experience doesn’t have to be made to be universal in order to be universal, you get? that one can write a story, or create a piece of performance, or of art that’s purely and completely about their own experience and it’s going to travel to someone whose story is totally different from them and have an impact. I had a creative writing professor who used to say that the more personal your story was, the more universal it could then be.

I believe in the universality of the personal experience. And Jacaranda flowers are a visual representation of that to me. I often get asked if my web title is in reference to the song by the late Prince, rather, it’s in reference to Jacarandas blooming in Nairobi, which is something that happens in other places too– and especially in Harare– but which always feels like a Nairobi-specific thing when it’s happening in Nairobi.

On “African” Art:

In the recent past, I’ve been asking people whether they identify as “African artists/writers/creators etc” and I get many responses but in my experience many people shrink away from the title. In part it’s because, if you’re a painter for instance, who was trained in modes of creation that are “European” and learnt of “European” art history, what does it then mean when you start creating? Are your works simply African by virtue of your identity? Other people have spoken to the volatility of borders. Were times different, were border restrictions nonexistent, were we not living in a present history of capitalism, who knows? Perhaps we would not even be in this part of the world. We have to consider that our being African is as much an accident as it is not an accident. By which I mean, it is as much an accident as a result of time and the migration patterns of our ancestors, and it is not an accident because borders and the modern day nation state keep us rooted in this part of the world. Besides, what even does it mean to identify as “African” when it is easier for American and European passports offer a greater deal of mobility  within the continent than many African passports?

I do think that “African” can be empowering for some people in certain situations, and I don’t think we’re quite past the time when we’d need to use it to define. But I also, very strongly, believe that there are ways in which it can be limiting and damaging, and can flatten the narrative.

On two hearts:

The Yvonne Vera quote– it just makes my heart (the one) do a little jump. I have nothing more to say about that, but just that she was such an inspiring woman and writer and wow.

Finally, on empowerment:

I’m thinking a lot about this, about the flaws of a doctrine of empowerment, but also the possibilities of it, about the way in which power infiltrates all of our existence in complex ways, about the ambivalent relationship I have to power. I’m still thinking about this, and maybe will write something longer in the future. But for now,

warmest,

Wanjiku.