No one has imagined us.
—Adrienne Rich, "Twenty-One Love Poems"
No. Can't write it out. Not now.
—Samuel Delany, "Tale of Plagues and Carnivals"
scene two: speculation
"No one has imagined us" seems simple if taken as no one has imagined me. No single individual can be imagined in all its singularity. The "us" makes all the difference.
How do the unimagined and the unimaginable occupy their ongoing devastation?
The writers who interest me the most—Samuel Delany, Ursula Le Guin, Audre Lorde, Octavia Butler, Christina Sharpe, Hortense Spillers, Fred Moten, M. NourbeSe Philip, Toni Morrison, Nalo Hopkinson, Bessie Head, Frantz Fanon, Dionne Brand, Margaret Atwood, Rinaldo Walcott, Marguerite Duras, Edmond Jabès, Amos Tutuola—linger with this problem.
For the unimagined and the unimaginable, speculation is a lifeline.
Speculation: might, may, perhaps, maybe, hap, chance—the ongoing subjunctive of our lives.
In the early 1980s, Samuel Delany forged a language to describe the gay plague that was decimating populations considered disposable. "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals, or: Some Informal Remarks Towards the Modular Calculus, Part Five" is the final section in Flight from Nevèrÿon, the third book in the Return to Nevèrÿon series. In it, Delany insists, "The Nevèrÿon Series is, from first tale to last, a document of our times" (8.5), refusing to distinguish between the aesthetic and the historico-political, and refusing to let his readers attempt such a distinction.
"The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals" is written in numbered sections, from 1-13, for a total of 106 sections, with each consisting of multiple paragraphs, sub-paragraphs, and sub-sub-paragraphs in ascending numbers (for instance, 8, 8.2, 8.21). This numbering invokes philosophical works that organize by paragraph and section as opposed to chapter or page, and I would certainly describe "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals" as one of the most important philosophical elaborations of the gay plague.
These ascending numbers (1-13) are formally repeated in the numbers of those with AIDS: "7.3: To date (March 1984) there are 19 cases under 20; 831 between 20 and 30; 1,762 between 30 and 40; 813 between 40 and 50; and 300 over 49; with another 19 cases where the age is unknown"; "8.53: about thirteen hundred cases of AIDS ago (when the total was just under three thousand)." In an appendix to the story, Delany notes the increasing numbers of AIDS cases: 1984—"In the last five years, over six and a half thousand cases of AIDS have been reported"; September 1987, "Since October '84 . . . the number of reported AIDS cases in the US has passed forty-two thousand"; "As I finish the proof corrections for the Grafton edition of Flight from Nevèrÿon (July 1988), there have been over seventy-five thousand cases of AIDS reported in the United States, about half of whom are dead. In Spring of '84 I could write that personally I knew no one with the disease. Today it is the single largest slayer among my friends and acquaintances." Within the world of the story, the mysterious plague also sickens and kills in increasing numbers: 5: six have died; 5.3: 137 people are sick; 6.2: more than 350 reported sick.
It's easy to get lost in these formal repetitions, to see them simply as an aesthetic strategy, and to miss the many individuals they attempt to represent, a problem Delany acknowledges: "To tell any tale in such a situation is to have press in on you the hundreds, the thousands . . . you aren't telling" (7.3).
In Pheron, a "thin, black-eyed, brown-skinned youth" (4.22) with a mysterious past ("Pheron? Where does he come from, with his nice, northern, innocuous name . . . ?" [4.3]), Delany found a figure to incarnate the unimaginable quotidian.
4.32 There is something incomplete about Pheron. (Since there is no Pheron, since he exists only as words, their sounds and associated meanings, be certain of it; I have left it out.) My job is, then, in the course of this experiment, to find this incompleteness, to fill it in, to make him whole.
But at this point, however, there's a real question where to look for the material: in the past? in the future? on the soaring shore where imagination swells and breaks? in the pale, hot sands of intellection? in the evanescent construct of the here and now—that reality always gone in a blink that is nevertheless forever marking history?
In "The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals," speculation supplemented truncation, always aware that such an effort would be subject to truncation's incompleteness.
scene two: truncation
In one (per)version of the story, enabled by the global circulation of legal and illegal streaming of Queer as Folk (U.K. and U.S. versions), The L Word, Glee, and Modern Family, we now live in a PrEP world: not only has sodomy been decriminalized, but gay marriage has been widely embraced. In a parallel version of the story, one so distant that it appears to take place in another universe, we inhabit the ongoing, multigenerational devastation of AIDS across worlds marked as black and poor and disposable.
This multigenerational devastation makes black gay memory, history, and futures speculative.
We plot gay desire in uncharted territories. More than 30 years after the gay plague appeared, we are still looking for ways to map its ongoing devastation.
Perhaps a year ago, a well-known Kenyan gay man died from AIDS-related complications. If you mentioned the word gay in the mid-to-late 1990s, he, along with a few other brave men, incarnated gay in a hostile Nairobi.
During his funeral, his family erased his gay commitments, his gay relationships, his self-professed gay identity, and his AIDS-related death.
Along such quotidian erasures, the more formal erasures of data gathering (what percentage of men who have sex with men—MSM—exist? what percentage of them use protection while having sex?) that efface life stories, the stories we tell of who we are and what we want and how we desire and how we are dying.
(no one has imagined us)
scene one: speculation
7.3 CMV, ASF, HTLV, Hepatitis-B modek, retro-viruses, LAV, the multiple agent theory, the "poppers" theory, the double-virus theory, the genetic disposition theory (the eternal Governments Plot theory!), the two-population theory.
. . .
No one will understand this period who does not gain some insight into these acronyms and retrieve some understanding of how they must obsess us today, as possible keys to life, the possibility of living humanely, and death.
. . .
To tell any tale in such a situation is to have press in on you the hundreds, the thousands . . . you aren't telling"
("Tale of Plagues and Carnivals")
scene one: truncation
Now we think
as we fuck
might kill us
—Essex Hemphill, "Now We Think"
scene two: speculation
What is the ethical burden of writing about the disposable now?
Ursula Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" stages this question. Omelas—a town? a city?—is idyllic. Le Guin encourages her readers to populate it as they will—"I fear that Omelas so far strikes some of you as goody-goody. Smiles, bells, parades, horses, bleh. If so, please add an orgy. If an orgy would help, don't hesitate." Readers of the story know that the first 7 paragraphs (in the version I'm looking at) are acts of co-construction: we populate the fantasy canvas Le Guin provides. But this fantasy turns on our learning, in the 8th paragraph, about what subtends (enables and stabilizes) this fantasy. I quote the 8th paragraph in its entirety:
In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads, stand near a rusty bucket. The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is. The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits haunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes—the child has no understanding of time or interval—sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked, the eyes disappear. The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother's voice, sometimes speaks. "I will be good," it says. "Please let me out. I will be good!" They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, "eh-haa, eh-haa," and it speaks less and less often. It is so thin there are no calves to its legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually.
Readers are presented with a choice: to hold on to the fantasy they have created, to its promise and pleasure, or to suspend its pleasure to see this figure whose disposability guarantees the fantasy.
It sounds silly to point out that much of what now circulates as global gay culture—the streamed and downloaded—depends on seeing and unseeing those (mostly black, mostly poor, all disposable) occupants of the closet.
But where Adrienne Rich's "No one has imagined us" offers an out—what kind of ethical demand can be made based on the unimagined and unimaginable?—Le Guin offers no such comfort. Omelas depends on the active knowing of those who live there, those who continue to live there, those who need the fantasy of living there. What do we do with what we know? For those of us who work with and around the imagination, what do we do with what we know, with what we suspect, with what we can imagine, and, just as importantly, with what we can't imagine?
Black gay writing—I name this piece as such—rarely ends satisfyingly. To his great credit, In Dark Reflections and Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, Samuel Delany has imagined what black gay life might look like across a lifetime, but this is a rare, speculative act. More often, black gay writing is truncated: short, incomplete, full of premature death or failed relationships. Sometimes, it gestures toward possible futures, but given the conditions of disposability that comprise black life, it's difficult to imagine how such futures might unfold.
Interruption formally enacts the conditions of much black gay life as it struggles to be imagined and imaginable, to find a method to be and speak from the ravages of ongoing devastation.
And, this, too, is interrupted.