I remember the first time that I wrote a love letter. I was nine years old and it said something along these lines:
I like you very much because you are clever.
Sadly, our affections were not mutually shared. Parham reported me to his father, who worked at the same company as mine. Instead of a reply, I got a sit-down with my dad who explained that I should probably spend my time paying closer attention to my schoolwork.
Despite this disappointment, I continue to carry an attachment to the love letter.
The form of the love letter is a useful way for us to think about romantic love in Africa. Histories of letter writing reveal the ways that dense debates about the individual and collective, or tradition and modernity, have been mediated through both the form and content of the letter.
Romantic love critiqued
With friends, it’s easy to laugh about the ridiculous pink and red consumables that flood shopping aisles as soon as the December holidays end. It’s not surprising that we come to experience and understand romantic love quite cynically as a consumer rite, or practice.
Sara Ahmed explores some of these ideas in her 2010 book, The Promise of Happiness. She explains how the so-called “good life” that we are encouraged to aspire to is actually a package of conservative and exclusionary family forms and intimacies.
Romantic love is also the site or scene for various relations of power and violence.
Sexuality generally presents us with personal and private concerns that are also very political. When Stella Nyanzi writes of the mentality of African sexualities, she highlights that African sexualities inherit the baggage or assumption of the need to be controlled, improved, modernised, civilised or tamed. Established ideas of “good” and “bad” sex inform our ideas about romantic love – and who we might imagine to experience “true love” at all.
Of optimism and uprising
Lynda Gichanda Spencer writes about chick lit in a way that’s instructive. For many observers, the genre is cheap sentiment, selling the same story over and over again. These stories are also charged with being escapist – so women (considered the primary consumers of the genre) are accused of silliness and a lack of focus on more important matters like patriarchy (or their schoolwork).
Our accounts of relations of structural violence are often incomplete when we carve out the affective or emotional dimensions. This is why I remain attached to the love letter and other forms of unbearable risk. In part, because they are a resistance to the problematic ways that we continue to encounter images of African sexualities.
Perhaps we can think of the love letter and other gestures of romantic love, as forms, or techniques that mediate the violence of time, dispossession and exclusion; as well as the scene, form and technique of survival, wishing, longing, becoming and failing all at once.